Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: end of the world

D&C Lesson 12 (Gathering of Israel)

“The Gathering of My People”

Reading assignment

Doctrine and Covenants 29:1–8; 33:3–7; 37; 38:24–41; 52:2–5, 4243; 57:1–3; 110:11;
Articles of Faith 1:10;
Our Heritage, pages 16–23, 37–39.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual


I’m approaching this lesson with a bit of nostalgia. Here’s the thing: Mormon doctrine used to be so weird and cool! But then they dumped a lot of the weird bits, once it became clear that they were embarrassing or unpalatable. This is why President Newsroom says you no longer get your own planet, even though prophets said that you do. (Blame that musical.)

And there used to be absolutely bonkers ideas about the gathering of Israel, and about how everyone would eventually have to go to Jackson County, Missouri. Well, these ideas came out of this time in church history.

But they’ve been deprecated. So now Mormon doctrine is still weird, but boring.


The gathering of Israel

Okay, so one of the core tenets of the church is that Israel will be gathered during the last days before Jesus comes again.

Article of Faith 10: We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.

It’s in this reading as well.

D&C 29:7 And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect; for mine elect hear my voice and harden not their hearts;
8 Wherefore the decree hath gone forth from the Father that they shall be gathered in unto one place upon the face of this land, to prepare their hearts and be prepared in all things against the day when tribulation and desolation are sent forth upon the wicked.

D&C 33:6 And even so will I gather mine elect from the four quarters of the earth, even as many as will believe in me, and hearken unto my voice.

Gather? How were they scattered? Well, as this lesson explains, the ten northern tribes of Israel were used as a punching bag by a succession of kings, until they were dispersed into the lands northward.

So where are the ten lost tribes of Israel now? Ah, well, that brings us to our first crackpot theory:

They’re all together on a planet somewhere.

This planet is actually a big hunk of the earth that God tore off, and threw into space. Hey, don’t look at me like that. There’s a precedent: the city of Enoch, which God took up to heaven.

D&C 38:4 I am the same which have taken the Zion of Enoch into mine own bosom

And this idea seems to have circulated among the members of the early church. This bit from Eliza R. Snow was once in the hymnal:

Thou, Earth, was once a glorious sphere
Of noble magnitude,
And didst with majesty appear
Among the worlds of God.

But thy dimensions have been torn
Asunder, piece by piece,
And each dismember’d fragment borne
Abroad to distant space.

When Enoch could no longer stay
Amid corruption here,
Part of thyself was borne away
To form another sphere.

That portion where his city stood
He gain’d by right approv’d;
And nearer to the throne of God
His planet upward moved.

And when the Lord saw fit to hide
The “ten lost tribes” away,
Thou, Earth, wast sever’d to provide
The orb on which they stay.

And thus, from time to time, thy size
Has been diminish’d still
Thou seemest the law of sacrifice
Created to fulfil.

Before you say, “That’s not how planets work,” remember that God can do anything.

They’re somewhere else

They’re all in one place, unobserved somewhere, waiting for the signal to come on down. After all, didn’t Jesus go and visit them? How could he do that — the logic goes — if they’re not all in one place?

3 Nephi 15:21 And verily I say unto you, that ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
3 Nephi 16:1 And verily, verily, I say unto you that I have other sheep which are not of this land, neither of the land of Jerusalem, neither in any parts of that land round about whither I have been to minister.
16:2 For they of whom I speak are they who have not as yet heard my voice; neither have I at any time manifested myself unto them.
16:3 But I have received a commandment of the Father that I shall go unto them, and that they shall hear my voice, and shall be numbered among my sheep, that there may be one fold and one shepherd; therefore I go to show myself unto them.

Okay, so if they’re all together waiting for the bat-signal, where are they?

Hollow Earth

For a while, Mormonism partook of a crackpot hypothesis that was going around in the 1820s: the earth is hollow and you can go inside. There’s a lot of stuff in there, including its own sun. (Some people have thought that we’re actually on the inside of it now, and we don’t know it.)

Joseph Smith allegedly taught this idea.

“I was then really ‘the bosom friend and companion of the Prophet Joseph.’ … Sometimes when at my house I asked him questions relating to the past, present and future; … one of which I will relate: I asked where the nine and a half tribes of Israel were. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘you remember the old caldron or potash kettle you used to boil maple sap in for sugar, don’t you?’ I said yes. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘they are in the north pole in a concave just the shape of that kettle. And John the Revelator is with them, preparing them for their return.”
– Benjamin Johnson, My Life’s Review, 1947, p. 93

“I heard Joseph Smith preach baptism for the dead…. I heard him say, ‘the Ten Tribes were not on this globe, but a portion of this earth had cleaved off with them and went flying into space, and when the time comes when the “earth reels to and from like a drunken man and the stars from heaven fall,” it would join on again.’”
– Bathsheba W. Smith, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith, The Juvenile Instructor, June 1, 1892, v. 27, p. 34

“The Prophet Joseph [Smith] once in my hearing advanced his opinion that the Ten Tribes were separated from the Earth; or a portion of the Earth was by a miracle broken off, and that the Ten Tribes were taken away with it, and that in the latter days it would be restored to the Earth or be let down in the Polar regions. Whether the Prophet founded his opinion upon revelation or whether it was a matter of mere speculation with him, I am not able to say.”
– Apostle Orson Pratt, Letter Box of Orson Pratt, LDS Church Historian’s Office, letter to John C. Hall, December 13, 1875; see Abanes, One Nation Under Gods, p. 529, footnote 101

This idea is fact-free lunacy, but it hasn’t stopped some Mormons from taking it seriously. Rodney Cluff has written generous amounts about it.

The Ten Tribes then continued north over the Caucasus Mountains and encamped north of the Black Sea, where many stayed. But a sizeable group continued their trek north into Russia, Mongolia and Siberia, where some of their remains have been found to this day. But they didn’t stay there either. Their trek took them even further north through the northern aperture of the earth led by a prophet of God where they live today in the “North Countries” of Our Hollow Earth.

Sadly, plans for an expedition to find the hole have hit some setbacks. Ripping stuff!

God’s way: the highway

So if the ten tribes of Israel are hidden away up in the frozen north, how will they get down here when it’s time to return? A highway. This idea appears in Isaiah (sing the Handel if you know it):

Isaiah 40:1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
40:2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

And then it appears in the D&C. This lesson has a lot of scriptures, but why is it that they don’t mention D&C 133? They’ve left it right out, and it’s enormously relevant for us Israel-watchers! Especially the part about the highway.

Mountains turn into valleys; valleys into mountains.

D&C 133:22 And it shall be a voice as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder, which shall break down the mountains, and the valleys shall not be found.

This would require a quake of about 7 billion on the Richter scale, but let’s keep going.

Then the ocean flows up the the north for some reason.

D&C 133:23 He shall command the great deep, and it shall be driven back into the north countries, and the islands shall become one land;

Before you say, “That’s not how water works,” remember that God can do anything.

Then for the finale: The reversal of continental drift! That’s right; Pangea and Gondwanaland together again like they’ve never been before!

D&C 133:24 And the land of Jerusalem and the land of Zion shall be turned back into their own place, and the earth shall be like as it was in the days before it was divided.

Before you say, “That’s not how plate tectonics works,” remember that God can do anything.

Finally after all that: a gigantic ice highway! (Sorry: an highway.) They’ve lived in the North for so long that they’ve absorbed its powers and become icebenders! So Frozone.

D&C 133:25 And the Lord, even the Savior, shall stand in the midst of his people, and shall reign over all flesh.
26 And they who are in the north countries shall come in remembrance before the Lord; and their prophets shall hear his voice, and shall no longer stay themselves; and they shall smite the rocks, and the ice shall flow down at their presence.
27 And an highway shall be cast up in the midst of the great deep.

Slippery, but effective.

Orson Pratt bought it.

To show that they come with power they come on a highway cast up for them; and ice feels the power of God and flows down, making room for them; and the barren deserts of the north, wherever they may go and need water, will yield forth pools of living water to quench their thirst. As they come to sing in the height of Zion, the everlasting hills, this great Rocky Mountain range, extending from the arctic regions south to the central portions of America, will tremble beneath the power of God at the approach of that people. . . . But where have this great company been, where has this mighty host come from? They have come from their hiding place in the north country; they have been led thence by the Prophets of the Most High God, the Lord going before their camp, talking with them out of the cloud, as he talked in ancient days with the camp of Israel, uttering his voice before his army, for his camp will be very great.”

Some Mormons have speculated about this.

The scriptures clearly teach that Israelites will someday return from the north countries. The Lord has revealed that they will do so on a highway that is cast up in the great deep. If that is interpreted literally, science has no explanation of where they might be located, much less for the sudden appearance of a land bridge across a deep ocean. Therefore, if the prophecy in D&C 133 of their return as a group along a highway is fulfilled literally, it would be a miracle. Such an event could cause many more to believe in the restoration, and others to vow to fight against it more vehemently. Time will tell just how literally the Lord meant this prophecy of a highway to be interpreted, but in any case it should be a marvelous event to witness.

Alas, the church nowadays doesn’t go for anything like that. The remnants of Israel aren’t in one place, but mixed. Says Bruce McConkie:

But, says one, are they not in a body somewhere in the land of the north? Answer: They are not; they are scattered in all nations. The north countries of their habitation are all the countries north of their Palestinian home, north of Assyria from whence they escaped, north of the prophets who attempted to describe their habitat. And for that matter, they shall also come from the south and the east and the west and the ends of the earth. Such is the prophetic word.

And instead of coming back en masse, the gathering of Israel has a much more mundane meaning. From the Gospel Doctrine manual:

• Read the tenth article of faith and D&C 45:71 with class members. What is the gathering of Israel? (Explain that the gathering of Israel has a spiritual meaning and a physical meaning, as outlined below.)

a. Spiritual gathering. The spiritual gathering of Israel occurs as people learn the gospel, come unto Christ, are baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and keep their covenants. In this way they are gathered from the world into the Church, or the kingdom of God on earth.
b. Physical gathering. The physical gathering of Israel occurs as Church members come together in a particular location or in the stakes of Zion throughout the world.

In other words, the gathering of Israel is basically “everyone going to church”. Boring! Not nearly as momentous as the scriptures would make it sound.

This is like when the scriptures talk about the gift of tongues, and over time, this has been watered down into “learning languages at the MTC”. How disappointingly ordinary.

Zion is in Jackson County, Missouri

One of the ideas that was going around in my LDS background was that one day the prophet would tell the Saints that it was finally time to move to Jackson County, Missouri. But not drive. Walk. With handcarts.

It was sometimes referred to jokingly — once when someone left the ward, someone else joked “See you in the handcart company!” — but the belief was definitely back there. This scripture explains the importance of Jackson County for the early saints.

D&C 57:1 Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints.
2 Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.

Sadly, the promise didn’t stick — Mormons had to flee Missouri, but the mythos surrounding Jackson County remained. So another narrative was built, in that Mormons thought they were going to have to make a trek to Missouri and reclaim Zion.

What did they think would happen once they got there? You don’t just own a place because you squat there. But before you say, “That’s not how real estate works,” remember that God can do anything.

Anyway, how did this belief work its way into Mormon lore? Might be a quote from Joseph F. Smith in 1882 (cited here, but also sadly hosed down):

“When God leads the people back to Jackson County, how will he do it? Let me picture to you how some of us may be gathered and led to Jackson County. I think I see two or three hundred thousand people wending their way across the great plain enduring the nameless hardships of the journey, herding and guarding their cattle by day and by night. … This is one way to look at it. It is certainly a practical view. Some might ask, what will become of the railroads? I fear that the sifting process would be insufficient were we to travel by railroads.” (Journal of Discourses, 24:156–57.)

And that’s how Brother Hickendorfer in a suburban ward in Idaho Falls thought he might need to get some cattle and a handcart.

You really get the picture that the leaders of the early church were just bursting with zany ideas, which people later had to get rid of when their crackpottery became clear. But it’s weird for an apologist to try and pull rank on a past prophet, like so: “Oh, don’t listen to that guy — he’s just an apostle who knew Joseph Smith. He didn’t know anything about the gospel; you might as well ask the cat. Listen to me — I’m some guy writing in the Ensign!”

United Order

Did you know that the United Order — in which members were expected to give the church all their stuff and then get some of it back — was floated as early as 1831?

D&C 42:30 And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.
31 And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.
32 And it shall come to pass, that after they are laid before the bishop of my church, and after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church, that they cannot be taken from the church, agreeable to my commandments, every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration, as much as is sufficient for himself and family.
33 And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those who have not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants.
34 Therefore, the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council of the church, and the bishop and his council;

This idea was deprecated when it turned out not to work. No doubt the idea strikes many politically conservative members as socialism.

So there you have it. Three big ideas in the early church — Israel’s literal return, the handcart trek to Missouri, and the United Order — that came to nothing. They were watered down or dropped entirely. And what we can conclude from this is that God is a bit of a loser who isn’t good at making things happen.

By the way, LDS Church: Evangelical Christians still can’t stand you, even though you’ve dropped some of the weird stuff. If someone makes you change your doctrines, they’re not your friend.

Other suggestions for teaching

Orson Hyde

Orson Hyde was tasked with the important calling of dedicating the so-called Holy Land for the return of Israel. Joseph Smith said it was super important.

From the Gospel Doctrine manual:

Orson Hyde recalled that when he joined the Church, Joseph Smith prophesied, “In due time thou shalt go to Jerusalem … ; and by thy hands shall the Most High do a great work, which shall prepare the way and greatly facilitate the gathering together of that people” (History of the Church, 4:375). In the April 1840 general conference, Elder Hyde, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, was called on a mission to Palestine (History of the Church, 4:106). About 18 months later he arrived at his destination.

Early on Sunday morning, 24 October 1841, Elder Hyde ascended the Mount of Olives and offered a prayer. In his prayer he dedicated and consecrated the land “for the gathering together of Judah’s scattered remnants, according to the predictions of the holy Prophets—for the building up of Jerusalem again … and for rearing a Temple in honor of [the Lord’s] name.” He also prayed that the Lord would remember the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob forever and “give them this land for an everlasting inheritance” (History of the Church, 4:456).

As a witness of the deed, Elder Hyde erected a pile of stones on the top of the Mount of Olives. He also erected a pile of stones “on what was anciently called Mount Zion [possibly Mount Moriah], where the Temple stood” (History of the Church, 4:459).

Very inspiring! Yet another group lays claim to the land. Wonderful.

What was going on with his wife Marinda, while Orson was away? For some reason, the lesson manual doesn’t mention that Joseph Smith married her.

In the Spring of 1842 she married Joseph. In Joseph’s diary is a list of his marriages. It includes the entry: “Apr 42 Marinda Johnson to Joseph Smith.”. Eight months later, in December, Orson returned from his mission. It is not clear when, or if, Orson learned about his wife’s marriage to Joseph. However, by March, Orson had learned about plural marriage himself and married two additional wives.

This was kind of a pattern for Joseph Smith.

A second method Smith used to get females to say yes to his proposals was to send family males on a mission that might or did object to his advances. For example, unlike his approach of obtaining parental permission of the Whitney’s, Kimball’s, and the Woodworth’s, before asking for their young daughters hand in marriage, Smith directly approached young Lucy Walker only after sending her father, John Walker, on a mission. He also sent Horace Whitney on a mission because he felt that Horace was too close to his sister Sarah Ann, and would oppose the marriage. Smith married Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, a year before her husband Orson, an Apostle, returned from his mission. He also approached Sarah Pratt while her husband Orson, an Apostle, was on a mission.

We don’t know if this marriage was one of the sexual ones. Maybe he just had a thing for the wives of guys named Orson.

Not to be taught, but to teach

What attitude should missionaries have?

D&C 43:15 Again I say, hearken ye elders of my church, whom I have appointed: Ye are not sent forth to be taught, but to teach the children of men the things which I have put into your hands by the power of my Spirit;

Good job, LDS Church. You’ve already taken a pile of Mormon teenagers, given them fake authority, and made them think they were doing the right thing by hectoring normal people into joining their religion. That made them unbearable enough. But with this scripture, you’ve compounded the problem by telling them that they’re not supposed to learn anything from the people they encounter. True, they won’t be able to help learning from people. But this takes an existing superiority complex (it’s our job to save the nations) and combines it with an attitude of unteachable lack of humility (I’m not here to learn from these people) to turn a douchy, arrogant teenager into a truly insufferable know-it-all.

I, um, know this from experience. Sorry to everyone I encountered.

NT Lesson 40 (Slavery)

“I Can Do All Things through Christ”

Philippians; Colossians; Philemon

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to emancipate themselves from spiritual slavery


This lesson deals with three Pauline epistles — Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon — only two of which were written by Paul.

That’s right, Paul didn’t write one of them: Colossians. But how do we know?

The words we use are unique to us, like a fingerprint. We can’t really change our style. That means our word patterns can identify us. So for instance, we could arrange someone’s words into a kind of “top ten most common” list, and see if a new text’s top ten word list matches up.

Or, as Bart Ehrman points out, we could look at unusual words and phrases.

As with every instance of forgery, the case of Colossians is cumulative, involving multiple factors. None has proved more decisive over the past thirty years than the question of writing style. The case was made most effectively in 1973 by Walter Bujard, in a study both exhaustive and exhausting, widely thought to be unanswerable.

Bujard compares the writing style of Colossians to the other Pauline letters, focusing especially on those of comparable length (Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians), and looking at an inordinately wide range of stylistic features: the use of conjunctions (of all kinds); infinitives; participles, relative clauses; repetitions of words and word groups; use of antithetical statements; parallel constructions; the use of preposition ἐν; the piling up of genitives; and on and on. In case after case, Colossians stands apart from Paul’s letters.

Sorry, Not-Paul. You were a good Paul impersonator, but you were detected by science.

My theme for this lesson is slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, even today. I don’t mean to trivialise the really awful kinds. But belonging to the church is a kind of voluntary slavery — and in some cases, it’s not even voluntary. Not only should we not put up with slavery advocates like Paul, we should free ourselves when possible.

Main ideas for this lesson

Real soon!

As we’ve mentioned, Jesus taught that he’d come back within the lifetimes of those living, and Paul appears to have believed this as well. Here he is, telling the members to hang tight until Jesus comes again

Phillipians 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment;
1:10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.

That’s right, folks… any day now. And again:

Phillipians 4:5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Paul devalues our lives and our bodies

The LDS Church is a religion that demands of its members their time, talents, and everything they possess. And so, not surprisingly, the LDS manual phrases things in terms of sacrifices.

• Paul told the Philippians that he had sacrificed all things for Christ (Philippians 3:7–8). What had Paul sacrificed? Why is it important that we make sacrifices for Christ? (See Philippians 3:9–12.)

Ask: Why does the LDS Church demand so much from its members?
Answer: There are low-commitment religions and high-commitment religions. You might think that the low-commitment religions would have an edge, since one can belong to them, and barely have to do anything — or indeed believe anything. And in fact, these religions make up the bulk of Christianity.

But there’s a hidden tool that the high-commitment religions have: investment bias (which we’ve mentioned before in terms of the sunk-cost fallacy). It’s hard to get someone to devote their lives to a cause, but if you can get them started on an ever-escalating treadmill of obligations — come to church, stop drinking coffee, pay tithing, home and visiting teaching, and so on — then it becomes more likely that they’ll continue. After all, stopping the commitments would mean admitting that you wasted your time and money, and no one wants to do that after investing so much.

Joseph Smith was well aware of this. From the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual:

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things” (Lectures on Faith [1985], 69).

In other words, demand everything from them, and you’ve got them.

There are only a few things that we can say that we truly own. One is our body. Another is our life. If you’re going to own someone — in slavelike fashion — you have to attack their autonomy in both of these areas. In this lesson, Paul does just that.

First, he argues that life isn’t much, really. He’s only sticking around for his fans.

Phillipians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
1:22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.
1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
1:24 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.

And Not-Paul points out that believers are dead anyway.

Colossians 3:1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
3:2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3:3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Death cults are so creepy!

Then, as he does from time to time, Paul talks about how terrible and debased our bodies are. Bodies always want what’s wrong, and they’re kind of vile.

Phillipians 3:20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
3:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

(Don’t forget that in 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that even our body isn’t our own.)

There’s a purpose behind this kind of talk. To get someone to hand their bodies and their lives over to you, you have to lower the cost of forfeiture — to convince them that it isn’t anything really very much.

This is dangerous territory. As I write this, religiously-motivated terrorists around the world have murdered people in Beirut and Paris, blowing themselves up in the process. Who would do this, unless they were certain that they were doing it for a higher purpose, just like the one Paul is offering? Other things contribute — military aggression, a persecution narrative, socio-economic inequality — but religion, with its promise of an afterlife, is a uniquely enabling contributor. Many things may be the fuel, but religion is the fuse.

More misogyny

Christians aren’t just slaves to God — Not-Paul thinks women should be slaves to men.

Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
3:19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.

Note that husbands are not under any obligation to submit to their wives. Christian marriage comes with a built-in power imbalance.

Every knee shall bow

Not only does Christianity encourage a kind of slavery, but it looks forward to the day when everyone will be subservient to it.

Phillipians 2:10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
2:11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


So it’s no wonder that Paul didn’t think actual slavery was any big deal. Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian. Paul sent him back.

Philemon 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

But why? Not-Paul explains that servants should be obedient.

Colossians 3:22 Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God

There aren’t many moral decisions easier than whether it’s all right to own people, and Bible whiffs it. Dan Savage points this out.


There’s hope for those in spiritual slavery. This weekend was the scene of yet another Mass Resignation in Temple Square.

Being in Australia, I wasn’t there, but those who were say that there was a great vibe there. Over 2,000 people submitted their resignations over the Church’s surprisingly punitive and harsh policy banning the children of LGBT members from joining the church without denouncing their gay parents.

Getting slightly less press: the LDS Church also defined LGBT people as ‘apostates’. Which led to an interesting observation:

Etymologically, the word comes from Greek: apo– “away from” + stenai “to stand.” But Oxford Dictionaries and Vocabulary.com both point out the “runaway slave” connection.

I think it’s fitting, don’t you? In a sense, those of us who have stopped supporting the church have escaped the slavery we were in. We have emancipated ourselves from a church that used our time, talents, money, and lives for its own benefit and survival. Well done, everyone.

NT Lesson 31 (Thessalonians)

“And So Were the Churches Established in the Faith”

Acts 15:36–18:22; 1 and 2 Thessalonians

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to question fearlessly.


We’re starting to get into Paul’s epistles in this lesson. And there’s some overlap with Paul’s missionary journeys. Those must have been a hoot!

Here’s one where Paul and Barnabas can’t agree on who to take along with them, and — Oh, no! — Barnabas breaks Rule 72!

Acts 15:36 And some days after Paul said unto Barnabas, Let us go again and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the LORD, and see how they do.
15:37 And Barnabas determined to take with them John, whose surname was Mark.
15:38 But Paul thought not good to take him with them, who departed from them from Pamphylia, and went not with them to the work.
15:39 And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus;

In LDS missions, this is referred to as the first “companionship inventory”.

Then Paul performed an operation on another companion, Timotheus.

Acts 16:1 Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek:
16:2 Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.
16:3 Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

This raises all kinds of questions for me.

  • Was it kind of awkward for Paul to circumcise his companion?
  • Why did Paul feel the need to do that, when the circumcision question had already been settled in the last lesson?
  • This is just an idea here, but couldn’t Paul have simply claimed that Timotheus had been circumcised? Would anyone have tried to check?

I love this next bit. Paul got invited to preach to some Greeks.

Does anyone remember Gene Ray, the Time Cube guy? His website was an especially aggressive brand of crazypants. (Poor guy.) Alas, the Time Cube site is no longer operative, but there was a time where students at MIT invited Gene Ray to a debate. I imagine that was kind of what the Greeks had in mind when they invited Paul.

Acts 17:18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
17:19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
17:20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
17:21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
17:22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

Seriously? Says the purveyor of Christianity? Maybe he should have been better versed in thinking things through.

Main ideas for this lesson

Christians and the law

Christians, believing as they do in a divine lawgiver, have always had a troubled relationship with human law. In recent weeks, we’ve all become aware of one Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to do her job. The US Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal in all fifty states, and yet Davis refused to marry gay couples because of her “sincerely-held religious belief” that she knew what God wanted. As a result, she went to jail, but has since been released (to much fanfare from other Christians).

Ask: To what extent is it justifiable for someone to disobey laws they disagree with?

Civil disobedience — in which someone publicly disobeys laws, and then accepts the consequences — can be a dynamic way to protest unjust laws. Davis’s case is quite the reverse, however; she was protesting equal treatment under the law. She (along with the Christian Right) would like to cast her actions as obeying her conscience, but she was really attempting to force others to obey her religious rules. In a secular society where everyone’s religious belief gets treated on equal terms, that’s not okay. She’s trying to keep her job, and refuse to do it, too. This is playing it both ways.

I’m pretty sure that Davis was delighted to go to jail. It plays into a “poor persecuted Christians” narrative that they just love. Christians are a majority, but feeling like the number two dog pumps a bit of adrenaline into Christianity. Keeps it from getting flabby.

And scriptures like this are where they get it from.

Acts 16:22 And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.
16:23 And when they had laid many stripes upon them, they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely:
16:24 Who, having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.
16:25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
16:26 And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.

I suspect that from her cell, Davis must have been thinking about Paul, and waiting for the jail walls to tumble. But they never do, almost like God is imaginary or something.

The Second Coming: Coming soon!

At this point, Christians were getting a bit antsy for the Second Coming. Possibly they’d heard the stories of how Jesus said it was going to happen within the lifetimes of those who were still alive. But now in 52–3 CE, the Christian population was seriously ageing, and no doubt they were starting to wonder what was going on. Quick, Paul! Invent a way of explaining the delay!

Here’s how he hoses down the panic among the Thessalonians.

Idea 1: We already told you that you were going to have to wait.

1 Thessalonians 1:9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;
1:10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

Idea 2: Keep telling each other how great it’s going to be! You’re gonna float up to heaven!

1 Thessalonians 4:16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
4:17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
4:18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words.

Idea 3: I can’t tell you exactly when it’s going to be, but it’s going to be when you don’t expect.

1 Thessalonians 5:1 But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you.
5:2 For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

Idea 4: Everyone else who didn’t believe is going to be so screwed, but you’re going to get a special VIP meeting with Jesus!

2 Thessalonians 1:7 And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,
1:8 In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:
1:9 Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;
1:10 When he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.

Idea 5: Don’t worry; be happy.
Here’s a bit from the real lesson manual:

If you are using the video presentation “The Second Coming,” show it now. Briefly discuss Elder Packer’s and Elder Maxwell’s counsel about preparing for the Second Coming but not worrying about when it will happen.

Not worrying about when it will happen‽

I don’t know if they’ve actually read what happens in the book of Revelation, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d really want to be all sanguine about. God is going to kill billions of people with fire and hail. And yet, they’re like, eh, don’t worry too much.

How could they take that view? Is it because they teach that “if you are prepared, ye need not fear”? As long as you’re paying, praying, and obeying, you’ll be fine — too bad about those other bastards. You’ll be fine. This — along with the idea of getting to watch poor wretched sinners enduring an eternity of isolation from your own comfy spot in heaven — is just another example of how the capacity for compassion among gospel believers is profoundly and frighteningly depleted.

A couple of years after his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul is still having to hose the idea down.

2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
2:2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

Translation: “Calm down, you guys! Don’t even listen if you get a letter from us.” Which is a bit tricky, because this is a letter from us. Nobody said this stuff had to make sense.

The whole last-days idea is especially relevant today, when a whole heap of Mormons are listening to someone named Julie Rowe. She and her acolytes are teaching that the End is coming in September 2015.

Sales of emergency supplies increase in Utah as some speculate end of September brings ‘Doomsday’
SALT LAKE CITY — Catastrophe could strike by the end of this month. Yes, that’s right. Doomsday is scheduled for approximately September 28th, at least according to some in Utah.
A combination of a Blood Moon, the Hebrew calendar and a few other beliefs make the month of September look pretty bleak for state residents and unusually profitable for some businesses.

Well, they’re going to have to walk that back before long.

How dumb do you have to be before you fall for this stuff? I’m not that old, but I’ve lived through something like 42 apocalypses already. How could people not have heard of at least a few of these? Are their skeptical skills entirely void?

I think I know the answer.

Activity for those who are browsing their phone during church: Check this site — it tells you how many apocalypses you’ve lived through.

Fifty-seven! I must be more durable than I’d thought.

Without deceit or trickery

From the real lesson manual

Have class members read 1 Thessalonians 2:2–3. Point out that Paul said the gospel should be taught with boldness and without deceit or trickery. Elder James E. Talmage added that we should boldly teach the truth without criticizing or attacking other people’s beliefs.

These are noble ideas. Does the church follow them?

Ask: Does the church teach without deceit or trickery?

  • When someone taks the missionary lessons, they are taught a bit of what they’re in for. But much is left out. Are investigators taught about
  • temple garments?
  • polygamy (including its expected return in the last days)?
  • the full story of Joseph Smith’s sexual abuse of minors?
  • the full story of Joseph Smith’s history of treasure-seeking?

Are missionaries encouraged to teach the full story? With rare exceptions, missionaries themselves do not even know the full story. Which is why we’ll never see door approaches like this:

Without all the information, investigators can’t make an informed decision. They’re encouraged to join anyway. Church members justify these lies of omission by saying “milk before meat”, baptising them anyway, and then hoping that the investment fallacy kicks in by the time they find out the whole story. This is deception.

But then the question of honesty in evangelism is kind of moot anyway. Paul notes that God himself causes people to believe lies. So that they can be damned.

2 Thessalonians 2:7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way.
2:8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming:
2:9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,
2:10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
2:11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
2:12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
2:13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:

Thanks, God!

Ask: Does the church criticise or attack other beliefs?

Not only did Joseph Smith teach that God told him all other religions were corrupt, but later leaders continued this teaching.

John Taylor said . . .
We talk about Christianity, but it is a perfect pack of nonsens . . . Myself and hundreds of the Elders around me have seen its pomp, parade, and glory; and what is it? It is a sounding brass and a tinkling symbol; it is as corrupt as hell; and the Devil could not invent a better engine to spread his work than the Christianity of the nineteenth century,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, 1858, p. 167).

Not only that, but theres also been a heap of confused teaching about “the great and abominable church”.

1 Nephi 14:10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.

The church has always been less than forthcoming in teaching its history, and it is critical of other faiths. It does not obey its own teaching on this issue.

Additional lesson ideas

There are a few other things we get from Thessalonians.


I’m glad that Mormons don’t ostracise their ex-members — as a matter of policy, that is. (In practice, I never see my LDS friends anymore.)

If Mormons wanted to practice ostracism as a method of information control, they would have to look no farther than these scriptures:

2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
2 Thessalonians 3:14 If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.

Wow, that started early! It seems ex-members have always been trouble. And it makes sense that we’re dangerous; we know about the organisation, and we’re not afraid to say what we know.


Our world is facing a difficult situation. Technology helps us do more, but it also renders a lot of jobs redundant. As robots learn to do more in the way of manufacturing, building, and even driving, there will be fewer and fewer jobs for people. That might be all right in some ways — it’s no longer necessary for absolutely everyone to hold down a job for the system to function — but it does mean that a lot of people will be displaced and living in poverty.

Accordingly, the time will come when we need to figure out a new relationship with work. I like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income. Everyone gets enough money to live on, even if they do nothing. If they do choose to work, then they’ll make more. Parenting? Caring for someone who’s sick? Between jobs? You won’t be destitute. You won’t have to take a job you hate, just to live. And if we need teachers, nurses, and servers, we’re going to have to pay them properly, or else they won’t bother. (And people who take jobs as marketers, advertisers, and multi-level marketers when they don’t have to will be exposed for the soulless creeps that they are.)

That’s my idea, anyway, and there’s some evidence that it works.

Between 1974 and 1979, the Canadian government tested the idea of a basic income guarantee (BIG) across an entire town, giving people enough money to survive in a way that no other place in North America has before or since. For those four years—until the project was cancelled and its findings packed away—the town’s poorest residents were given monthly checks that supplemented what modest earnings they had and rewarded them for working more. And for that time, it seemed that the effects of poverty began to melt away. Doctor and hospital visits declined, mental health appeared to improve, and more teenagers completed high school.

But if this idea ever does get traction, we can expect some pushback from Christians, who will cite this scripture:

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

In general, it’s good to work and not be lazy. In practice, there are some good reasons to change the way we think about work, and we need to realise that the idea of a job for everyone is no longer necessary, or indeed even possible.

Best Bible verse

And now I’d like to come to one of my favourite Bible verses.

1 Thessalonians 5:21 Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

The sense of prove here is to try. Try all the ideas out without fear, and if something is good — by which I would mean ‘verified by evidence’ — then hold onto it.

It was a major turning point for me when I realised that, if there were a god, and it were the god of truth, then he wouldn’t be concerned with me simply defending my preconceived ideas. He’d want me to know what was true and well-supported by evidence. I wouldn’t have to be afraid of running across some factual information that destroyed my belief. If a fact destroyed my belief, then that belief ought to be destroyed. I held to this thought by J. Reuben Clark:

Well, that was the beginning of the end for the church. Having lost the desire to defend the church, and having gained the desire to see it for what it was, I soon saw it for what it was: a vacuous, counterfactual system that lied to people and billed them for the pleasure. It damaged those who believed in it most.

No wonder the view of Boyd K. Packer came to prevail:

I’d like to encourage readers to learn about our world by fearless inquiry. Examine ideas ruthlessly, and keep the good ones. That’s a pretty compact summary of the scientific method.

NT Lesson 21 (Second Coming)

“What Is the Sign of Thy Coming?”

Joseph Smith—Matthew [Matthew 24]

LDS manual: here


To explain why Jesus’ return is a failed prophecy, and to show the foolishness of waiting and hoping for the end of the world


This lesson is about the end of the world. As we all know, Jesus is coming back to kill billions of people (but more of this in the lesson on the Revelation) and usher in his earthly kingdom. Everyone’s been waiting for it for quite a while.

Of course, as we’ve already seen, Jesus taught that he was coming back during the lifetimes of people who were still alive then. And later on, we’ll see how Paul had to hose down the end-of-the-world stuff. “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!” they said. Two thousand years later, and they’re still saying “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!”

Still, people wait for the end of the world — in some cases, with an eagerness that any normal person would find unseemly. I guess a lot of people are waiting for Jesus to come back and tell everybody that they had the right religion and everyone else was wrong. Kind of like in this South Park clip.

As for me and my generation, we got told that we were the final generation, held in reserve for the end times, and how valiant we must have been!

Little did we know, we were actually a group of mammals who were born like groups of mammals before us. Which is still pretty great, you know, because mammals.

Still, we thought the end was going to come any day! When you don’t expect it! (Surely someone is expecting it every day.) If God was saying back in Joseph Smith’s time that the day was at the doors, then surely by now we must be in the latter days! It’s even in the name of the church, right? Latter-day Saints?

Then Boyd Packer came and said, “Actually…”

The end is not near, senior LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer said Saturday.

Today’s youths can look forward to “getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren,” Packer told more than 20,000 Mormons gathered in the giant LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Well, now what do I do with all this food storage?

On the other hand, maybe Jesus has already returned.

Teaching tip of the day

A helpful tip from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual: Don’t just make up a crap answer when you get a question about the made-up crap in the Bible!

Suggestion for teaching: A call to teach does not require that you know everything about the gospel, so you should not feel embarrassed if a class member asks a question that you cannot answer. Instead of making up an answer, admit that you do not know and offer to try to find an answer.

…that someone else has made up. But it will be a correlated someone. Leave it to the professional apologists, kid.

Try to find an answer? There isn’t just one answer to lots of gospel questions because the whole thing is made up from top to bottom.

Why shouldn’t you make up an answer? When has that not been what everyone does? That’s all Joseph Smith did. That’s all any prophet or apologist does — come up with some kind of answer that will satisfy the believing and save the story.

Seriously, when you bring up a discrepancy with a believer, what’s the first thing they try to do? Quick, come up with an answer — whether it’s scriptural or not! Anything that comes to hand will do, and if it sounds right, then it must be right, because the gospel is right. Right?

Look, it’s all very well that the Church try to rein in the impulse to conduct on-the-spot apologetics, but they’re fighting a very strong and well-trained urge — and one that for many people is the quickest way they have of resolving the conflict and putting cognitive dissonance back to sleep.

Main ideas for this lesson

Are the number of earthquakes increasing?

For signs of the end times, Jesus names things that are going on more or less constantly. Smart move, Jesus.

Matthew 24:7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.

In church, I sometimes heard about how earthquakes were increasing exponentially as we approached the Last Days. Are they? Not really.

No, the number of earthquakes is not increasing compared with the recorded history, according to data from the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center.
The USGS estimates that several million earthquakes occur in the world each year. Many go undetected because they hit remote areas or have very small magnitudes. There are more seismographs installed worldwide every year, so more earthquakes can be detected. However, the number of large earthquakes (magnitude 6.0 and greater) has stayed relatively constant.

Cecil Adams, in this Straight Dope column, points out that natural disasters — earthquakes aside — may be increasing because of climate change, and because we count the ones that affect humans. Urbanisation means more of those.

You see where it gets tricky — the definition of natural disaster is unavoidably tied to the number of people affected and/or the value of the damage done, both of which will naturally increase as the earth’s population and wealth do, and of course wealth and population aren’t evenly distributed worldwide. And that brings us to the other big part of our growing vulnerability to disasters: urban migration in developing countries means denser populations, which often goes hand in hand with quickly-assembled, not overly sturdy housing. The parts of the world where this is most common tend to have largely informal economies, in which the enforcement of building-code regulations may not be a top priority. All this makes it much more likely that a serious meteorological or seismic event will meet the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s criteria for a disaster: ten or more people killed and at least 100 injured, evacuated, displaced, or left homeless. By that organization’s count we now have twice the number of disasters per year that we did 20 years ago.

False prophets

Matthew 24:11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.

Well, just don’t believe any prophets. That was easy.

Stars falling from heaven?

Matthew 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:

Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson points out the obvious flaw in this prophecy.

You know, one of the signs that the second coming, is that the stars will fall out of the sky and land on Earth. To even write that means you don’t know what those things are. You have no concept of what the actual universe is. So everybody who tried to make proclamations about the physical universe based on Bible passages got the wrong answer.

This generation

Again, Jesus says that the end of the world is coming within his generation.

Matthew 24:34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

I’ve had Christians tell me that this statement is only meant to apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 CE. Could that explanation work?

No, not really. It’s true that Jesus talks a lot about the destruction of the temple — and I take this as evidence that it had already happened by the time this was written. But let’s go back a few verses.

Matthew 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
24:31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
24:32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
24:33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.

Jesus talks about a lot of amazing public events: everyone seeing him in the clouds, angels and trumpets — things that haven’t happened. Then note that he says that “all these things” will be fulfilled in this generation — not just the one thing. Good try, Christians, but I don’t see any reason to limit the scope like that.

Function of this belief

From time to time, it’s good to ask: What’s the function of a belief like this one?

Matthew 24:21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

I can see a couple of reasons why this works for Christianity.

  • When things go wrong, it provides a handy reason: the world is getting worse!
  • It provides a “scary external world” narrative that keeps people frightened. Frightened people aren’t good critical thinkers. So this meme keeps them in the group, for the perceived safety it gives.

But this “hell in a handbasket” meme is unhelpful. People with the attitude that the world is in an irretrievable and divinely-predicted decline aren’t good at trying to find solutions to the world’s problems. They ooze a kind of cynicism and contempt regarding the “world”. This is what I’ve found when I’ve run across them.

But as I explain to these Jehovah’s Witnesses — who have been wrong many times on this issue — things aren’t actually getting worse. They’re getting better. Steven Pinker explains.

More reading:

On the day this article appears, you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It’s impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, “What is the world coming to?”

But a better question may be, “How bad was the world in the past?”

Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

This is very difficult for people to get their head around when they’re been hearing the “hell in a handbasket” narrative for the whole of their lives. I try to bring up this theme whenever possible with a certain believer — we’re at the lowest point in violent crime for forty years, etc. — and every time I do, it’s like it’s the first time she’s heard it. It just bounces off. How could reality compete, when all they have to do — they suppose — is watch the news?

Failed prophecy — and thank goodness

After all these years, one thing should be clear: Jesus is not coming back. This is a failed prophecy, but people don’t realise it’s a failed prophecy because of the rolling deadline.

All those Adventists were wasting their time. So was Bill Maupin, an evangelist who was really the first one to freak me out.

So was Harold Camping.

Harold Camping told us the date on which the world would end. Of course, the date passed without incident. Camping was wrong. According to the Christian bible, the Jesus character told his contemporaries that the world would end during their lifetimes. Jesus was wrong too. Like Camping, the Jesus character was a failed prophet.

So were all these people who made failed end-of-the-world predictions, dating from 2800 BCE to today.

So is everybody in the Church of John Frum. Some Pacific Islanders tell stories of the legendary John Frum, probably a US serviceman who promised to return.

Anthropologists who study the Melanesian tribes speculate that Frum might have actually been a real person – most likely a generous sentry, engineer or aircraft mechanic who handed out goods, Hershey bars or medicine to the locals during the occupation. Perhaps he even identified himself as “John, from America”. Others speculate that Frum may instead be a composite of several personnel from the airbase or even a hodge-podge of American icons and archetypes including Uncle Sam, Popeye and Santa Claus. Some suggest that the Melanesian veneration of John Frum actually pre-dates the Second World War and may be based on some unknown charitable westerner that visited the island by ship in the decades before World War Two.

Regardless, Frum-worshipers still herald their god as the almighty “King of America”. Each year on Feb. 15, devotees mark their bodies with the letters U.S.A. and march in hopes that Frum will return. The entire religion, which is now more of a kitschy tourist attraction than anything else, also formed the basis of a homegrown nationalist political party that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007.

At this point, it begins to look like the “hero’s return” is a bit of a theme in human belief.

Here’s a really sad story: These parents were so freaked out by the End of Days that they killed themselves and their kids.

Springville • In the Springville home where Benjamin and Kristi Strack and three of their children were found dead on Sept. 27, no note was found to explain the murder-suicide.

In a notebook, a “to-do list” had been scribbled on the pages, Springville police revealed at a press conference Tuesday. The list looked as if the parents were readying to go on vacation — items such as “feed the pets” and “find someone to watch after the house” were written.

But there was no clear explanation for why on that September day, the five family members ingested a fatal mixture of drugs.

In the weeks and months after the family’s deaths, Police Chief J. Scott Finlayson said investigators talked with their family and friends, who told them that Benjamin and Kristi Strack spoke frequently of “leaving this world.” Friends said the couple believed there was a looming apocalypse and that they desired to escape from the evil in the world.

We can see that this is a tragic waste of life, but it’s just as true that putting your life on hold for an imaginary saviour’s return is a waste of your life.

People who work in science already have a pretty good idea of how the world will end. Richard Dawkins tells more.

In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.

In our case, as the distinguished astronomer and former president of the Royal Society Martin Rees has conjectured, extinction is likely to be self-inflicted. Destructive technology becomes more powerful by the decade, and there is an ever-increasing danger that it will fall into the hands of some holy fool (Ian McEwan’s memorable phrase) whose ‘tradition’ glorifies death and longs for the hereafter: a ‘tradition’ which, not content with forecasting the end of the world, actively seeks to bring it about.

On that theme, Christopher Hitchens explains more ably than most — and off-the-cuff, as well — how this hope for an apocalypse really evinces a kind of contempt for life.

I think maybe I will take a few moments to say something I find repulsive about especially Monotheistic, Messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die, it wants this world to come to an end you can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts, or listen to any of its real authentic spokesman, not the pathetic apologists who sometimes masquerade for it. Those who talk, there was a famous spokesman for this in Virginia until recently, about the Rapture, saying that those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus, leaving all of the rest of you behind: if we’re in a car it’s your lookout, that car won’t have a driver anymore; if we’re a pilot that’s your lookout, that plane will crash; we will be with Jesus and the rest of you can go straight to Hell.

The eschatological element that is inseparable from Christianity, if you don’t believe that there is going to be an Apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats, a condemnation, a final one, then you’re not really a Believer and the contempt for the things of this world shows through all of them. It’s well put in an old rhyme from an English exclusive Brethren sect: “We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you, we don’t want Heaven crammed!” You can tell it when you see the extreme Muslims talk, they cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake and overwhelm the World, they can’t wait for what I would call without ambiguity a Final Solution. When you look at the Israeli settlers — paid for often by American tax dollars — deciding if they can steal enough land from other people and get all the Jews into the promised land and all the non-Jews out of it then finally the Jewish people will be worthy of the return of the Messiah, and there are Christians in this country who consider it their job to help this happen so that Armageddon can occur, so that the painful business of living as humans, and studying civilization, and trying to acquire learning, and knowledge, and health, and medicine, and to push back the frontiers can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.

That to me is a hideous thing in eschatological terms, in End Times terms. On its own a hateful idea, a hateful practice, and a hateful theory but very much to be opposed in our daily lives where there are people who sincerely mean it, who want to ruin the good relations that could exist between different peoples, nations, races, countries, tribes, ethnicities; who openly say they love death more than we love life and who are betting that with God on their side that they’re right about that.

So when I say as a subtitle of my book that “Religion poisons everything”, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity, it says we can’t be moral without Big Brother, without a totalitarian permission, it means we can’t be good to one other, it means we can’t think without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone who we fear – the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship – and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that this is evil.

So what do we do with our lives, if things will continue as they are until the Big Blast?

Enjoy it. We are born without asking. We are helplessly alive. And we are doomed to die.

Even so, it seems to me that doing something is a higher-quality decision than doing nothing. Here are some ideas.

  • Enjoy life responsibly. You only get one.
  • Help make things better for others. They only get one life, too
  • Learn as much as you can about the world and the universe, since the sharing of knowledge is a very good way to help make things better for everyone.
  • Try to leave something good for the next generation.

And I might add: Interplanetary travel seems like a good idea, if we want to get off this rock.

Now for a closing hymn.

NT Lesson 18 (Lost)

“He Was Lost, and Is Found”

Luke 15; 17

LDS manual: here


To show how Christianity demeans people who believe differently as “lost”, and how it demeans its own members as “unprofitable”.


For this lesson, Jesus has a few parables about how to treat those who are “lost”.

Right off the bat, I have a problem. As an ex-Mormon and ex-Christian, I don’t think of myself as lost, and I find it insulting that Christians learn to portray me that way. I could think of Christians as “lost” — what else am I to call someone who ignores and denies the good in this life because they’re busy working for the next — but I don’t really think that. I think we’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. Isn’t that a more respectful way of working through our differences?

Anyway, what advice does Jesus give on how to treat the “lost”? According to these parables:

  • Parable of the lost coin
  • Parable of the lost sheep
  • Parable of the prodigal son

we’re supposed to be happy for them… when they come back to church. But that’s about it. Until they do, Jesus doesn’t have too many ideas. Could this be why Mormons are usually so bad at relating to former members?

Main ideas for this lesson

Lost sheep

Let’s start with the Parable of the Lost Sheep.

Luke 15:4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?15:5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
15:6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
15:7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Ask: Why would members esteem one person who comes back over ninety-nine who never leave in the first place?
Answer: When someone leaves, it places members in an awkward situation. They either have to think that the person was wrong to leave, or perhaps — gasp — acknowledge that they had a point. But if that person comes back, the conflict is resolved. Of course that person was wrong to leave — by coming back, they’ve admitted it themsleves! It must be tremendously validating when someone returns.

The LDS lesson manual continues this theme.

• In what ways might a person be “lost”? What is our responsibility toward those who are lost? (See Luke 15:4–5, 8; Alma 31:34–35.)

Possible answer: Someone might be lost when they masturbate to porn, and our responsibility is to rat them out to the bishop! That’s according to the LDS video “Wounded on the Battlefield”, here hilariously sent up by Dusty. (Language warning, of course.)

Ask: What do we call a religion in which members monitor and report each other for trivial infractions?


This next part concerns child abuse. It’s not something I’ve been through, but many people have, and worse, the abuse has happened in a religious setting. I’m going to try to be as sensitive as I can about this, but please be aware if this is a triggering issue for you, and I’d appreciate seeing your thoughts in comments.

Jesus speaks of offenses against children, saying that they’re inevitable. He’s only an omnipotent being — what can you do?

Luke 17:1 Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!
17:2 It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.

Nice try, Jesus, but these are just words, not deeds.

Ask: If you were an all-powerful being, and you saw that this was happening to a child, what would you do?
Possible answers: Drop the offender with a non-suspicious heart attack, cause amnesia, change the offender’s mind like God did to Pharaoh.

Ask: What does God do instead?
Answer: Sits and watches, and threatens the offender with punishment later.

Tracie Harris from the Atheist Experience expressed it rather tersely:

When I bring this up to believers, their answer usually revolves around agency. It’s regrettable that this happens, says the believer, but God refuses to abridge the agency of the offender.

My question then becomes: What about the child’s agency? What about their agency not to be abused? Why is the offender’s agency the only one’s that gets respected here?

If this isn’t good evidence that no god exists, then it’s definitely good evidence that this god isn’t worth worshipping.

While I’m on this topic, could I put a word in about bishop’s interviews. LDS bishops — generally men from the community with no training in counselling — routinely interview adolescents in closed-door sessions, in which the young people are quizzed about their sexual behaviour, including masturbation. This needs to end.

We could also argue that religion itself is a form of child abuse. Taking the mind of a child, and diverting it toward supernaturalism is a terrible path that can take years to undo. That’s not to equate sexual abuse and spiritual or intellectual abuse — given the choice, I’d take the spiritual / intellectual abuse I got, instead of the sexual abuse I didn’t get. But it’s worth pointing out that there are different forms of abuse, and even the non-sexual kinds can be damaging.

Unprofitable servants

So it appears that Jesus has no trouble disparaging people who believe differently as “lost”. But he also doesn’t have very much encouragement for those who do believe.

Luke 17:7 But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?
17:8 And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?
17:9 Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.
17:10 So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

In other words, don’t think you’re good just because you did what you were commanded. You’re still unprofitable.

This idea has a function. After all, we want people in church to feel good, but not too good. That why we hear so much about avoiding ‘pride’. So Latter-day Saints are hearing this in church this week, and thinking, yep, I sure am unworthy.

Keep them down. That’s how you keep them coming back. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen. This is classic abuser behaviour.

I’d like to offer some good news to my Christian friends. You don’t merit the abuse that Jesus and your religion dish out. You’re better than this.

Additional lesson ideas

The kingdom of God is within you

This scripture was left out of the lesson:

Luke 17:20 And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

This scripture seems to imply that one can find spiritual answers inside oneself. That’s very dangerous to a hierarchical top-down model of spirituality, which is why Bruce McConkie fought it so hard. Watch as he turns it into an affirmation of the church system.

“One of the heresies which prevails in a large part of modern Christendom is the concept that Jesus did not organize a Church or set up a formal kingdom through which salvation might be offered to men. This poorly translated verse is one of those used to support the erroneous concept that the kingdom of God is wholly spiritual; that it is made up of those who confess Jesus with their lips, regardless of what church affiliation they may have; that the kingdom of God is within every person in the sense that all have the potential of attaining the highest spiritual goals; and that baptism, the laying on of hands, celestial marriage, and other ordinances and laws are not essential to the attainment of salvation.

“It is true that men have the inherent capacity to gain salvation in the celestial world; in a sense this power is within them; and so it might be said that the kingdom of God is within a person, if it is understood that such expression means that a person can gain that eternal world by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. But it is also true that Jesus did organize his Church and did give the keys of such kingdom to legal administrators on earth. (Matt. 16:13–19.)

“Even the marginal reading in the King James Version changes the language here involved to read, ‘The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,’ meaning ‘The Church is now organized in the midst of your society.’ The Prophet’s rendering of Jesus’ thought, as such is recorded in the Inspired Version, is of course the best of all. Its essential meaning is: ‘The Church and kingdom has already been organized; it is here; it has come unto you; now enter the kingdom, obey its laws and be saved.’” (McConkie, DNTC, 1:540.)

Oh, Bruce. Is there anything you can’t turn into a reification of your authority?

Old Testament stories and the end of the world

Rather threateningly, Jesus refers to the Flood and Lot’s wife as though they were real events — thus reaffirming that he still intends to kill a lot of people at his return.

Luke 17:26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.
17:27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
17:28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
17:29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
17:30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
17:31 In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
17:32 Remember Lot’s wife.


And that leads us to one of the first scriptures that will eventually be wound into a doctrine known as the Rapture.

Luke 17:34 I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
17:35 Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
17:36 Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

Two men in a bed? Two women grinding? Thunderf00t once had the opportunity to interview two members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and when the interview inevitably went south, he threw this in as a last chance to offend them.

I’m posting this video, not because I’m a fan of Thunderf00t, because I found it amusing and relevant to the scripture. I actually find his anti-feminism off-putting and misguided. But here’s the clip. The relevant part starts at 15:52.

Well, that interview went down the tubes, so now let’s have a closing hymn. As so often is the case, this one’s from Morrissey, and it’s “Lost”. The relevant lyric: “Everybody’s lost. But they’re pretending they’re not.”

See you next week.

NT Lesson 17 (Hell)

“What Shall I Do That I May Inherit Eternal Life?”

Mark 10:17–30; 12:41–44; Luke 12:13–21; 14; 16

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to reject bad advice given by Jesus, along with the immoral doctrine of Hell.


Here are the main themes for this lesson:

  • It’s bad to be rich
  • Don’t plan for the future
  • You will be tortured with fire forever if you are bad (or rich).

The first one is maybe a bit iffy, the second is just plain terrible advice, and the third one is the most immoral doctrine in all of Christianity.

In other words, the scriptures in this lesson are the blurst. Let’s take them by course.

Main ideas for this lesson

The rich young man

We start with a rich young man who wants to follow Jesus.

Mark 10:17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?
10:18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.


Mark 10:19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.
10:20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth.
10:21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.
10:22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.
10:23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

Christians tend to gloss over this scripture, and they’re certainly not keen to give all their money away, as nonstampcollector has pointed out.

The creator of Russell’s Teapot has also lampooned the Christian tendency to take everything literally, except that one scripture.

And even though I have my views on income inequality and how bad it is for society as a whole, I still have a hard time condemning all wealth as evil. I think of Elon Musk, who’s doing a lot to help humanity in the areas of energy, transport, and space travel, and not coincidentally making a pile of dough off of it. I suppose most rich people aren’t Elon Musk.

But what I really want to point out here — once again — is that this scripture is evidence that Christianity was an end-of-the-world cult. Believers were taught that the end was coming very soon, within the lifetimes of people who were alive then. It makes no sense to say, “Sell everything, give it away, and follow me” if you have to then go on to live a normal life. But it makes a lot of sense if you think the world is going to end in a few years.

The end-of-the-world theme continues in Jesus’ next discourse.

Don’t care for your life, and don’t work

Luke 12:22 And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.
12:23 The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment.
12:24 Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?
12:25 And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?
12:26 If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest?
12:27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
12:28 If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Again, this advice makes no sense in a normal life plan. It’s terrible advice! But if the world is going to end, it makes a lot of sense.

The good news is that the world isn’t going to end, as least not in ways that doomsday prophets have anticipated. Many have predicted the end of the world (with an unsavoury amount of anticipation), and they’ve always been wrong.

So what are believers supposed to do about this? Again: sell errything.

Luke 12:33 Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth.

Cough it up, Christians.

Jesus is come to divide families

Jesus explains that he’s more important than family. This is SMO for a cult leader.

Luke 12:51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:
12:52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.
12:53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

We’re even supposed to hate our family — and our own lives.

Luke 14:26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Is it any wonder that members treat unbelieving family so awfully sometimes?

This is why it’s wrong to say that the church supports the family. As I’ve said before, its aim is to supplant the family. And this goes back to Jesus.

Rich man and Lazarus

But even that’s not as immoral as his teachings about hell. As in many other scriptures, Jesus teaches about torture in hell with actual fire.

Luke 16:19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
16:20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
16:21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
16:22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
16:23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
16:24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
16:25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

Mormons, like many other denominations who have found the idea of eternal torture distasteful, tend to soft-pedal the doctrine of hell — and ignore the words of Jesus in the process. They say it’s something nebulous like “separation from God”. (Can I just say that separation from God is amazing, and everyone should try it.)

On the other hand, you’d be amazed at how many Christians I’ve talked to who, in confidence, have admitted that they do believe in the reality of hell with fire and torture and ouches. Think of that. They believe that the punishment for lack of belief — not misbehaviour, but misbelief — should be eternal torture. They think I deserve pain for the rest of eternity, because I don’t believe the same as their god does. How moral is that?

And let’s not pretend that the doctrine of hell is entirely absent from Mormonism. It’s still there.

It doesn’t matter for this discussion whether hell is literal fire or just solitary confinement. Both are cruel. Both are immoral forms of punishment. A punishment of infinite duration for crimes of finite duration is not moral.

When I mention this, Christians and Mormons tell me, “No, but you see, you’re missing the point. God provided Jesus as a way of avoiding hell. He doesn’t want you to go there!”

Which doesn’t help. Who created the punishment in the first place? It’s like an arsonist who starts fires, puts them out, and expects a great reward for rescuing people from the fire. God is only trying to save people from a punishment he created.

Here’s another angle. Who is the doctrine of hell designed to work on? Not unbelievers — threatening someone with hell who doesn’t believe in it is quite ineffective.

No, this idea is designed to frighten the people who are already on board. I could understand if Jesus were threatening those who oppose him. But it’s a singularly despicable move for Jesus to threaten the people who believe in him.

And here’s the kicker: This being — who tortures people for eternity — isn’t reviled as evil. No, he’s hailed as the ultimate good guy.

No only that — he’s meant to be worshipped. Not just tolerated and welcomed into polite society, but actually worshipped for this.

If anyone else did the things that the Christian god is going to do, you’d lock him up. But since it’s capital G God, he gets a pass.

Imagine also: You’re supposed to be happy in heaven, while those you love are [ broasting in hell | sentenced to isolation | relegated to servitude ] for eternity. How would one be able to enjoy eternity knowing this?

Russel’s Teapot again:

The concept of hell is damaging to children. It is a form of mental abuse — different from sexual abuse, but still damaging. Richard Dawkins writes:

I received a letter from an American woman in her forties who had been brought up Roman Catholic. At the age of seven, she told me, two unpleasant things had happened to her. She was sexually abused by her parish priest in his car. And, around the same time, a little schoolfriend of hers, who had tragically died, went to hell because she was a Protestant. Or so my correspondent had been led to believe by the then official doctrine of her parents’ church. Her view as a mature adult was that, of these two examples of Roman Catholic child abuse, the one physical and the other mental, the second was by far the worst. She wrote
“Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest – but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.”

Fortunately, the concept of hell is recognised by many people for the immoral doctrine it is. Robert Ingersoll, a pioneering atheist in the late 1800s, wrote:

THE idea of a hell was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other. In my judgment the American people are too brave, too charitable, too generous, too magnanimous, to believe in the infamous dogma of an eternal hell. I have no respect for any human being who believes in it. I have no respect for any man who preaches it. I have no respect for the man who will pollute the imagination of childhood with that infamous lie. I have no respect for the man who will add to the sorrows of this world with the frightful dogma. I have no respect for any man who endeavours to put that infinite cloud, that infinite shadow, over the heart of humanity.

If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant.
— Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Liberty Of All” (1877)

And Christopher Hitchens pointed out that this was an innovation that starts with Jesus.

Not until gentle Jesus, meek and mild, are you told if you don’t make the right propitiations you can depart into everlasting fire. One of the most wicked ideas ever preached and one that has ruined the lives and peace of mind of many, many children…preached to them by vicious, child-hating old men and women in the name of this ghasty cult.

Transcript for people who can’t watch videos

Well, it’s here that we find something very sinister about monotheism and about religious practice in general: It is incipiently at least — and I think often explicitly — totalitarian. I have no say in this. I am born under a celestial dictatorship which I could not have had any hand in choosing. I don’t put myself under its government. I am told that it can watch me while I sleep. I’m told that it can convict me of — here’s the definition of totalitarianism — thought crime, for what I think I may be convicted and condemned. And that if I commit a right action, it’s only to evade this punishment and if I commit a wrong action, I’m going to be caught up not just with punishment in life for what I’ve done which often follows axiomatically, but, no, even after I’m dead. In the Old Testament, gruesome as it is, recommending as it is of genocide, racism, tribalism, slavery, genital mutilation, in the displacement and destruction of others, terrible as the Old Testament gods are, they don’t promise to punish the dead. There’s no talk of torturing you after the earth has closed over the Amalekites. Only toward when gentle Jesus, meek and mild, makes his appearance are those who won’t accept the message told they must depart into everlasting fire. Is this morality, is this ethics? I submit not only is it not, not only does it come with the false promise of vicarious redemption, but it is the origin of the totalitarian principle which has been such a burden and shame to our species for so long.

I do not like being threatened. And while you may be able to threaten someone into behaving, you can’t threaten them into being good.

Any moral behaviour that results from threats and coercion is not real morality.

Additional lesson ideas

Camels and needles

LDS culture doesn’t seem to mind prosperity, and yet Jesus was rather unambiguous about how rich people will fare in the next life.

Mark 10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Does that mean it’s bad to be rich? Usually in Gospel Doctrine, there are some noises about how people need to help the poor, but there’s nothing wrong with being rich per se. And that’s where it gets left.

But this scripture reminds me of a formative experience on my mission.

As a missionary, I read the Ensign magazine a lot. I really liked “I Have a Question” because it was kind of myth-busty sometimes. So I liked this article:

Jesus once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24.) Can you give me some background on this statement?

John A. Tvedtnes, specialist in ancient Near Eastern studies and instructor at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. Over the years, biblical commentators have taken three approaches in exploring the meaning of this scripture. The first of these has found wide acceptance among Christians because of the beauty of its teachings. It holds that in ancient times there was a small gate cut inside the larger gate of the city through which one might enter after nightfall, when the city was closed. Although this small gate—termed the “eye of the needle”—could readily admit a man, a camel could enter only by first being relieved of its burden and then by walking through on its knees. The imagery here is that of the sinner casting away his faults (or the rich man his worldly possessions) and kneeling in prayer.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this beautiful explanation. One is that the camel’s anatomy does not permit it to crawl on its knees. More serious, however, is the fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of the use of such small inset gates in the time of Christ. One may see them today in Jerusalem and Damascus, where the local tour guides will call them by the term “eye of the needle,” but there are no such gates dating prior to the twelfth century A.D. Moreover, the guides have taken the term “eye of the needle” from modern commentators of the Matthew passage and not from an authentic ancient tradition.

Soon after reading this, the bishop gave a lesson in Elders’ Quorum, and what do you know, this scripture came up. However, the bishop seemed unaware of the above Ensign article, which I and a few other elders had read. So he spoke of a book by Spencer W. Kimball, in which he supposedly told the whole camel story, complete with the camel hobbling through the gate on its knees. He was so impressed with the symbolism.

You can imagine what I did, as the smart-alec punk kid that I was. I raised my hand and said, “Um, actually, I read that that wasn’t true,” and then I explained what was said in the foregoing article. A few other missionaries hesitantly nodded along.

The bishop didn’t seem to taken aback, though. Instead he just said, “Well, I still believe it, because Spencer W. Kimball wrote it in his book, and he was the prophet when he wrote it.” And the lesson moved on, and that was that.

Now I don’t know if Kimball really did write any such thing in one of his books. Perhaps he didn’t, and the bishop had the whole thing wrong. But that’s not the important part.

The important part was that I watched how a man could have a mistake explained to him, and then choose to persist in his mistake. It was a classic Appeal to Authority. And I realised, “Here is a man who does not want to know what is true. He would rather be wrong and believe in his leaders.”

Leaders could be wrong, and people would defend them and go right on believing. I never forgot this. How could I, when I was confronted with this attitude in church so many times in the decades to come?

Just to be clear on the fallacy of Appeal to Authority: it’s good to listen to people who have expertise in their field. I’ve even seen some people call the fallacy the Irrelevant Appeal to Authority, implying that not all appeal to authority is fallacious. Listening to people who know more about an area is how we learn. But there are a few caveats:

  1. Someone with authority can be wrong, even in their area. What matters is the evidence for the idea, not the status of the person.
  2. Expertise in one area does not guarantee expertise in another. Smart people can be smart, but still be prone to naive ideas outside their area of expertise. There’s at least one Nobel prize winner who’s a climate denialist, and needless to say, they didn’t win the Nobel for their work in climatology.

And of course, we need to update when we find out we’re wrong, even if it’s some know-it-all punk kid who tells us.

Everything shall be revealed

There’s a Mormon joke:

Q: Why do you always bring two Mormons with you fishing?
A: If you only bring one, they’ll drink all your beer.

The joke works because of the well-known tendency on the part of Mormons to police each other’s behaviour.

Well, here’s one scripture that works toward this.

Luke 12:2 For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.
12:3 Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.

Many times when this scripture would come up in church, people would flutter. Imagine all your secrets being broadcast from the housetops! How awful!

I always wondered how this would work. Would it be one person reading out everyone’s misdeeds? Or would there be multiple houses? Maybe it would be like a music festival with different stages. You might hear someone say, “They’re reading out Brother Midgley’s sins over on 5th Street pretty soon. Shall we wander over?”

I suppose the idea might hold some appeal for people who are obsessed with other people’s peccadillos (and perhaps their sexual adventures?). But in the end, this is a way for a community to get its members to police each other’s behaviour. The housetop scenario is a fiction. There are secrets we take to the grave, for better or worse.


Jesus reiterates his comments on blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.

Luke 12:10 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.

With all the immoral and harmful ideas we’ve seen in this lesson, I have no trouble saying:

Fuck the Holy Ghost.

Even if the god of the Bible were real, and you were to prove his existence to me, I would still fight him for being a sadistic asshole.

I am more moral than God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost put together. (Trinity joke.) And so are you. Never let someone treat you as less than you are because you refuse to accept this immoral system.

NT Lesson 13

“I Will Give unto Thee the Keys of the Kingdom”

Matthew 15:21–17:9

LDS manual: here


To show how religious people try to shift the burden of evidence through character assassination and attacks.


I sometimes say that Jesus acts like kind of a jerk during his ministry — although “kind of a jerk” is an upgrade from the complete psycho that he was in the Old Testament. But during this lesson, Jesus really goes for it, abusing people who don’t believe in him, and even those who do.

Here are the stories we’ll be tackling in today’s lesson.

  • Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a “dog”
  • Jesus criticises people who ask for evidence
  • Jesus says he will build his kingdom on a “rock” which is either Peter, or revelation, or something or other
  • Jesus says he will come back within the lifetime of people who were alive then

Main ideas for this lesson

Jesus the racist

In our first story, Jesus calls a gentile woman a dog. Imagine: A woman’s daughter has a mental illness. She hears that there’s a guy, Jesus, who’s good at this kind of thing. Desperate, she goes to him and asks for help.

Matthew 15:22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

Ask: What might you say to her?
Answer: I’d tell her that mental illness isn’t caused by demons, and she should consult a psychiatrist.

But Jesus doesn’t even say that; he just ignores her. Finally, she annoys the disciples.

Matthew 15:23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
15:24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

This is a really important point: Jesus only ever intended to teach Jewish people. He never meant for his message to go to Gentiles, and he would have been horrified to see modern-day goyim worshipping him. Bob the WASP out in North Dakota? Pfeh. Ignore him.

Apparently Jesus didn’t realise that this was going to be a block to future growth, and it would take people with more vision than he had to realise that gentiles would be an important growth market. Diversifying your portfolio and all that. But at the time, Jesus didn’t get it.

Matthew 15:25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
15:26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.

Ouch! Not cool, Jesus. “Sorry, lady. Jews only. They’re the children, you’re the dog.”

Matthew 15:27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
15:28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

There’s a saviour for you: the only reason Jesus helped her is because she was able to come up with a witty riposte. What a douche.

The bread trick again

In the last lesson, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people on some bread and fish. Now he does it again, feeding 4,000 people.

Remember how in previous lessons, there would be composite stories — two versions of the same story, side by side?

  • The creation
  • Animals aboard the Ark
  • Abraham tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister

Well, now we have another example. This happens when people invent two versions of a story, and the compiler basically just leaves them both in.

Asking for evidence

There’s a well-agreed-upon rule of argumentation, and it’s called the burden of evidence (or burden of proof): If someone makes a claim, the onus is upon them to provide evidence for that claim.

Religious people — as with people with extraordinary but unsupported claims — don’t try very hard to support their claim, but they expend a great deal of energy trying to dodge the burden of evidence, and shifting this burden to others.

Here’s how Jesus responds to the burden of evidence:

Matthew 16:1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.
16:2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
16:3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
16:4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.

Ask: How does Jesus respond to people who ask for evidence?
Answer: He calls them adulterers.

Okay, so the Pharisees and Sadducees are asking for the wrong kind of evidence. They want a sign from heaven, some miraculous display. Asking for this is asking to be fooled by conjuring tricks. But asking for some kind of evidence is a normal response to a grandiose claim, and if a claimant tries to dodge this most basic responsibility, then this should serve as a warning. That Jesus responds to this perfectly reasonable request with charges of adultery tells me that he knew he didn’t have the goods.

Ask: What logical fallacy is someone committing if they say that anyone who challenges them must be committing adultery?
Answer: Click here to see the answer.

Joseph Smith used this dodge as well.

When I was preaching in Philadelphia, a Quaker called out for a sign. I told him to be still. After the sermon, he again asked for a sign. I told the congregation the man was an adulterer; that a wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and that the Lord had said to me in a revelation, that any man who wanted a sign was an adulterous person. “It is true,” cried one, “for I caught him in the very act,” which the man afterwards confessed when he was baptized. (Feb. 9, 1843.) DHC 5:268. (Teachings, p. 278)

I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn other, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives. The principle is as correct as the one that Jesus put forth in saying that he who seeketh a sign is an adulterous person; and that principle is eternal, undeviating, and firm as the pillars of heaven; for whenever you see a man seeking after a sign, you may set it down that he is an adulterous man. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 156-157)

It is, of course, outrageously ironic for Joseph Smith to have accused anyone of adultery. He was making hay with women before the so-called “sealing power” had been restored, before any “revelation” on the subject, and then lying to Emma and everyone else about it.

Joseph F. Smith continued this dodge.

What is sign seeking?
“It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign. Show me Latter-day Saints who have to feed upon miracles, signs and visions in order to keep them steadfast in the Church, and I will show you members of the Church who are not in good standing before God, and who are walking in slippery paths. It is not by marvelous manifestations unto us that we shall be established in the truth, but it is by humility and faithful obedience to the commandments and laws of God.
Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine

This is a strange claim. In reality, no member could ever be sustained by “miracles, signs and visions” because these things don’t happen. If they did, it wouldn’t be possible to keep people out of the church, and there would be no need for missionaries. The church strings its members along by encouraging them to interpret ordinary events as miracles.

One related point before we move on. Many Latter-day Saints say that people shouldn’t expect to see miracles because the real convincing power comes by the Spirit / feels / emotional reasoning. This quote from the D&C Student Manual ties it all together:

When we understand this process, we can see why sign seeking is condemned. Someone who demands outward evidence of the power of God as a condition for believing is seeking to circumvent the process by which faith is developed. He wants proof without price. As with the adulterer, he seeks the results without accepting the responsibility. Thus it is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeks signs.

This is shifting the “burden of proof” all over again. Why should someone pay a “price” to come up with evidence that the claimant should be providing? Why doesn’t the claimant simply produce the evidence, instead of demanding that the listener do the work for them? Would the claimant be happy to undergo “the process by which faith is developed” for any dumb claim that anyone else chooses to bring, like Muhammad or Reiki?

This is a failure to provide publicly-available evidence, directing the listener instead to unreliable evidence and emotional manipulation. It’s the same as saying, “You have to believe it first, and then you’ll believe it,” which is a tautology. It’s very commonly engaged in by believers, and it’s no surprise that they get the idea from Jesus himself. But it’s a nasty slur, and it’s poor reasoning.

“Upon this rock”

Oh, how Mormons tap-dance around this scripture. It’s like the only time they bust out the Greek.

Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
16:14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
16:15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16:16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
16:19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

It’s tricky because Catholics use this to show that Peter was the first pope. Jesus built the church on Peter (πέτρος, petros, “rock”), you see.

How do Mormons respond? By ignoring the whole thing about Peter, and going back to the previous sentence about “revelation”. Here’s the real Gospel Doctrine manual:

Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the rock Jesus referred to is revelation (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 274).

Protip: If your argument involves ignoring a chunk of the text, it’s probably not very good.

I don’t have a point with this because I think it’s all silly. But, if you’re an ex-Mormon, isn’t it nice not to have to take this stuff so seriously anymore?

When was Jesus to return?

I always thought of the Second Coming as something that was always meant to happen 2,000 years after Jesus. (Coincidentally, that just happens to be the time I’m alive.) But imagine my surprise: early Christian belief held that Jesus would come back during the lifetimes of people who were living then.

Matthew 16:27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

This scripture has caused all kinds of gymnastics, creating the myth that John the beloved is still alive somewhere, Highlander style.

But if you think Mormons have it bad, spare a thought for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who pegged the time of “some standing here” to 1914. They expected Jesus to return before the last person in that generation died. Well, Jesus had better hurry, because that was 101 years ago, and counting. (The JWs would appear to have abandoned this line of thinking.)

Additional lesson ideas

What did they leave out of this lesson?

For some reason, the lesson manual skipped this part:

Matthew 15:11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

15:17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?
15:18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

Ask: Why might the LDS Church wish to downplay this scripture?
Answer: Now that the Word of Wisdom has been elevated to non-negotiable doctrine status (much worse than other sins), the idea that what you eat or drink is not that big a deal would upset the order of things.

Whatever you’re eating, drinking, or smoking, I hope you’re enjoying it. Until next week, cheers!

NT Lesson 11 (Parables)

“He Spake Many Things unto Them in Parables”

Matthew 13

LDS manual: here


To show that the church encourages lying by omission, and to encourage readers to be more honest in their personal lives


This week’s reading is one of the shortest — just one chapter long. It’s all about parables. Parables are stories where things stand for other things, and they lend themselves to more than one interpretation. That means they can mean anything you want them to mean. So it’s perfect for religion.

Main ideas for this lesson

The reason for parables

Let’s start off with a quiz.

Ask: Why did Jesus speak in parables?

  1. To make divine principles clearer by using common everyday objects people would have known about
  2. To keep his teaching at the front of hearers’ minds by using things they would have had daily interaction with
  3. To purposely confuse people so that they wouldn’t understand him, and they wouldn’t be saved.

The surprising answer:

Mark 4:11-12: And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Isn’t this odd? Presumably God wants as many people as possible to be saved, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Instead, Jesus is setting up an in-group and an out-group, with different levels of knowledge for those who are in and who are out. (It’s why I say that Jesus was the first modern cult leader.) Seen this way, Christianity begins to look like some exclusive club for those who have already made up their minds to believe. And what do you know: it is! Who else would believe on such poor evidence except those who, for social or aspirational reasons, have already given themselves and their thinking over to the narrative?

But this is a terrible way for a god to run things. Jehovah / Jesus is hiding the (allegedly) saving truths of the gospel from people, and they will (one presumes) be languishing in hell / isolation / separation from god for eternity. Why would he hide the truth from them?

When salvation is on the line, God should speak clearly, not in riddles and double meanings.

Is Mormonism ‘occult’?

One of the insults people sometimes hurl at the LDS Church is that it’s occult. They usually meant satanic, evil, and so forth.

A typical LDS sacrament meeting. Awkward the week it’s your mom.

I don’t think the Mormon Church qualifies as occult in the sense that people mean it today. However, there’s an older sense of occult, which is a bit more like hidden:

Oxford: Communicated only to the initiated; esoteric.

In this earlier meaning of occult, the LDS Church definitely qualifies. For investigators, there’s a gradual rolling-out of doctrine, with multiple levels; one for people who have been “initiated into the mysteries”, and another for those who haven’t.  Temple worship is occult in that you’re only allowed to have teh sercet nollij once you’ve been initiated into the mysteries. “Milk before meat”, as they say.

Think about how this plays out in the modern church. I’m not a believer, but I’m an easy guy to convince; all you have to do is lay out the facts, and I’ll change my mind. Yet in my interactions with believers and missionaries, I’ve heard many of the following things:

  • I could sit here and explain everything to you, but because you don’t believe, it won’t do any good.
  • There are experiences that are too sacred to talk about (except with people who believe).
  • I’m not going to show you a sign through your disbelief.
  • You have to believe first, and then the truth will be obvious.
  • Faith precedes the miracle.

This is all part of the same idea: only share certain information with people who believe, and withhold information from those who don’t. And if you think this secretive jazz is weird or unique to Mormonism, remember: it was encouraged by Jesus himself.

Read Steve Hassan’s BITE model of cult mind control. (As far as I’m aware, this model is not well-accepted by psychologists, but many of the items ring a few bells for me.)

Ask: How have you noticed that the LDS Church uses information control, as below?

Information Control
1. Deception:
a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member

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

For ex-Mos and psychologists, it’s easy to see why the church would roll out the weird stuff slowly: people would freak out and bolt if they were confronted with it all at once. Shoot, I might have bolted  at my own endowment myself, were it not for a lifetime of religious training, and everyone in my family right there, dressed in weird robes, in my first endowment session.

The hope is that by the time the member is introduced into the mysteries, they will have invested so much that leaving is unlikely.

I think the Mormon practice of concealing information — and even “lying for the Lord” — is harmful to its members. It gives members a licence for dishonesty. It’s acceptable to hide or shade unpalatable facts. After all, you know it’s true, so whatever you do in the service of the truth is okay.

Watch this video of Gordon Hinckley on the Larry King Show. How many false statements does he make about polygamy?

Quoted in Time Magazine, Aug 4, 1997: “On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, [Hinckley] sounded uncertain, `I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it… I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.'”
Hinckley claimed he was misquoted:
“I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church. (1997 October General Conference)”

This attitude shows up for other church leaders:

Boyd K. Packer“There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.
“Some things that are true are not very useful.

“The scriptures teach emphatically that we must give milk before meat. The Lord made it very clear that some things are to be taught selectively, and some things are to be given only to those who are worthy.
“It matters very much not only what we are told but when we are told it. Be careful that you build faith rather than destroy it.”

This next part is probably not true for everyone, but it was for me, and I’d be interested to hear your comments on this. As a missionary, I willingly took on this tendency to very carefully control how I presented what I believed to be true, and held back information from investigators because they “weren’t ready” for it, or they “wouldn’t accept” it. Well, maybe they wouldn’t, but that was for them to decide, wasn’t it?

And in the rest of my life, I followed this pattern of hiding or shading things about myself or my behaviour — presenting them in the best possible light and omitting uncomfortable details — because I was afraid I wouldn’t be accepted as I was. And why wouldn’t I have? It was acceptable in the service of the church. This tendency was very damaging, and did not serve me well. Again, maybe I’m alone on this, but I really do feel like I got mixed messages about honesty in church. On the one hand, it teaches honesty. On the other, it only reveals the good parts of the church’s history, teachings, and practices. Anything uncomplimentary is written off as anti-Mormon lies.

It’s taken me a lot of effort to become a more honest person; to say it (and see it) like it is. What did it for me was science. Let me explain.

When I was a church member, I thought the church was the standard for what it meant for something to be true. That meant that I could make up explanations and complicated apologetics in defence of church doctrine, and as long as it sounded plausible, I could defend it as ‘probably true’.

But when I used science, the standard was the real world. If I wanted to come up with a hypothesis for why something was so, it had to be grounded in real observations, not wishful stories. And that meant I couldn’t just see things the way I wanted. If I tried that, I knew someone would come around with the facts, and smack me down. Nobody wants another scientist to come around and eat their lunch, so this is a great incentiviser. I had to make sure I was getting it right and not deceiving myself. It’s been a great lesson, and one that has served me well in work and in life. Ironically, I had to leave the church before I could learn it.

Additional lesson ideas

Without honour… in his own country

People didn’t seem to buy the whole Jesus thing in his own country.

Matthew 13:54 And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works?
13:55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?
13:56 And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?
13:57 And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.

Ask: Why didn’t people believe Jesus in his hometown?
Answer: People know you in your hometown. It’s harder to fool people who know you.

Wheat and tares

Why does God allow all the terrible non-Christians to exist? Jesus explains:

Matthew 13:24 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field:
13:25 But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
13:26 But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.
13:27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
13:28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
13:29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
13:30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

If the tares are the bad people, and the wheat is the good people, I guess this explains why God is leaving everyone alone, in a good impersonation of someone who doesn’t exist. On the other hand, does this mean God is going to burn people? If so, this would be right in line with Jesus’ other teachings on hell. But more about those later.

Okay, I admit I could be misunderstanding this parable, but that’s probably Jesus hiding the truth from me because I haven’t chosen to accept all this Christian bullshit uncritically, right? So score one for Jesus. Well done.

Faith as a mustard seed

Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.

Matthew 13:31 Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
13:32 Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.

There may be some dodgy science here. Mustard seeds aren’t the smallest, and it’s not clear that mustard trees are big enough for birds to sit in.

But let’s take it parabolically.

Last year, a good friend of mine converted to Christianity. When we were housemates, she always seemed like a secular agnostic, but then she moved away, started hanging out with Christians, and now here she was on social media babbling away about how wonderful God and Jesus were. In particular, she cited this scripture, and said that her faith, even as small as a mustard seed, finally grew.

There’s always a self-blaming moment for me when that happens, though it hasn’t happened often. For a moment, I did think, “What could I have done? Could I have been there for her?” but I shook it off. I can’t be everywhere for everyone, and I’m being as public and available as I can with this blog and everything else. Some people will just be susceptible to the beliefs of whoever they’re near, and some people will just believe things for bad reasons. And trying to keep your fingers in someone else’s brain so they won’t believe bad things — that’s for Christians, not me.

But I take the mustard seed parable the opposite way: Even a small germ of belief can grow and metastasise. It speaks to the importance of being rational, knowing how to spot bad arguments, and demanding evidence for claims. Even just a tiny lapse in critical thinking can have severe consequences and lead to bad decisions.

Bad decisions like this book cover.

Admit it, you saw ass.

Egad. That’s the worst haemorrhoid I’ve ever seen. Looks like it’s totes thrombosed. It’s almost blue.

But wait: there’s more. Here’s the original image.

LOL non-proportional scaling.

I tried to find that first image by searching ‘mustard butt fingers’, and then wished I hadn’t. I think that means it’s time to put down the computer. See you next week.

NT Lesson 9 (Sermon on the Mount 2)

“Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God”

Matthew 6–7

LDS manual: here


To show that Christians and Mormons ignore the good advice in the Sermon of the Mount, and that it was assembled long after Jesus would have existed.


For this lesson, we continue our discussion of Jesus’ signature teaching: the Sermon on the Mount.

Before we do, though, here’s a helpful suggestion from the LDS New Testament Lesson Manual:

Suggestion for teaching: Stories can illustrate gospel principles and keep class members’ attention as few other teaching methods can…. When you tell a story, be sure class members understand whether it is a true account or a fictional story you have created to make a point.

That’s ironic, considering that the entire Sermon on the Mount was probably entirely made up decades later, but passed off as a true account. We’ll see some evidence for that in this lesson.

Main ideas for this lesson

Giving alms

Jesus had some pretty good advice about how to go about doing good works.

Matthew 6:1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
6:2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Here are some Latter-day Saints ignoring Jesus’ advice and turning their humanitarian aid into a PR opportunity.

Not to carp too much; I’d rather they do good stuff than not. But according to Jesus, they have their reward, and it’s a yellow t-shirt. No one looks good in yellow.

Pray in closets

Back in my Utah days, my ward had a Gospel Doctrine teacher who thought that school prayer was the number one issue to help lift America out of its spiritual malaise. Young people aren’t praying to the Christian god? Give them a little inducement. Train up a child, etc.

Wonder how he thought that, given this scripture:

Matthew 6:5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Whoops — this text is evidence that the Sermon on the Mount was written much later. People wouldn’t have been praying in the synagogues, because they weren’t used as houses of prayer until after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

And there’s another angle here: In the US Constitution, the Establishment Clause says that the government isn’t allowed to promote one religion over another. And that means that if Christians get to pray to their god in a government forum, then so does everybody else. Ceremonial deism cuts both ways.

But Christians haven’t been good at passing the mic. They’ve interrupted a Hindu priest,

a Muslim speaker,

and even an atheist invocation.

If only they’d believed their own Bible, they wouldn’t have opened this can of worms.

My favourite group, though, is the Satanic Temple. When Christians handed out Bibles in Florida high schools, they handed out the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities. (PDF)

I can’t put it better than this:

According to Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves, the organization “would never seek to establish a precedent of disseminating our religious materials in public schools because we believe our constitutional values are better served by respecting a strong separation of Church and State.”
That being said, “if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students—as is the case in Orange County, Florida—we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth,” he added.

And when there are Ten Commandments monuments on public land, they’re there to erect a statue to the god Baphomet. Won’t this look grand?

What I love about this is that it’s surgical. The only people who will be freaked out by this are those who are the intended target; everyone else will laugh up their sleeve. I don’t care much for Satanism, but I’m happy to throw them some dough if they’ll keep up their antics. Why don’t you? The membership cards are very becoming.

I’m not holding the card in this photo because IT BURNZ

Lord’s Prayer

One of my favourite callings was conducting the Stake Choir. Once we did Duruflé’s Notre Père. (We may not have sounded as good as this choir.)

But some members were surprised that the text stopped here:

Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre-nous du mal.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

One member asked, “What happened to ‘for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory’?”

“Well,” I had to explain, “it appears that that part wasn’t in the original. It was added later.” Many members of the choir adopted grave looks, while a couple of others nodded reluctantly.

For so it would appear. The part of the Lord’s Prayer known as the Doxology does not appear in the earliest copies of the text. In fact, it’s the view of some writers that the entire Sermon was cobbled together from Jewish wisdom after the fact.

Consider the lilies

Here’s some really terrible advice: Don’t worry about your life.

Matthew 6:25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
6:26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
6:27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
6:28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
6:29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
6:30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
6:31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
6:32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

He’s having a go at the flowers now!

This scripture explains why Christians weren’t very popular in the early days; they were a bunch of starving nudists. Nobody likes it when a naked guy is hanging over your shoulder asking, “Hey, are you going to eat that?”

This scripture makes absolutely no sense in terms of how people should live their lives…

…but it makes a lot of sense if Jesus was a cult leader who taught that the world was going to end within the lifetimes of the people listening to him, which appears to be the case. We’ll be highlighting more examples throughout the New Testament.

And of course, this scripture contains another iteration of the worst advice in religion:

Matthew 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Here again, religion claims its right to place itself first over family, over your life plans and goals, over your own thoughts, over everything. It’s obscene that some people accept this dominance.

The strait and narrow

Jesus admits that his mission is going to be a failure in numerical terms.

Matthew 7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Every unpopular movement needs to explain its unpopularity. (Think conspiracy theorists or 21st century Marxists.) If what they’re doing is so obviously true, then why isn’t it obvious to everyone? The typical strategy is to blame people — or is that sheeple?

This ‘broad and narrow gates’ explanation is Christianity’s way of explaining its (then) unpopularity. That changed a bit when Christianity really took off, but the scripture is still there, and can now be used by unpopular Christian fringe movements (like Mormonism) as a way of making theselves feel better.

Ask: If God knew that most people would find destruction, and that all but a few people wouldn’t find life eternal, why did he create them?
Ask: Could he have created only the people that he knew in advance would make it, so that the rest wouldn’t be condemned to eternal isolation and/or torment? If so, why didn’t he?

Additional lesson ideas

The Lord’s Prayer as a linguistic tool

The Lord’s Prayer is fantastically useful to linguists. Because it’s been copied and translated so many times, it’s often used to compare languages, and track how they change over time. Here are some examples from English. And here’s how it probably sounded in Old English in the 11th century.

Ask: Can you recognise any of this text?

Even though it’s from over 1,000 years ago, there are times when you can still understand it, particularly if you know the text well in Modern English. Notice also how “give us this day” becomes “syle us to dæg”. The word syle would eventually become sell, but its meaning would change.

Vain repetition

This scripture concerns the language of prayer.

Matthew 6:7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Ask: What phrases are you aware of that get repeated endlessly in LDS prayers?
Possible answers:

  • Our dear Heavenly Father — specifically “dear”
  • That food may “nourish and strengthen our bodies” and “do us the good that we need”
  • “Moisture”

Even Mormons are aware of these patterns. They’re not really a problem; they’re just cultural buildup that happens naturally as communities of humans share verbal behaviour.

The special language of prayer

The LDS Lesson Manual refers to a talk in which Dallin Oaks goes full linguistic prescriptivist.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks commented on the kind of language we should use when we pray: “The special language of prayer follows different forms in different languages, but the principle is always the same. We should address prayers to our Heavenly Father in words which speakers of that language associate with love and respect and reverence and closeness. . . . Men and women who wish to show respect will take the time to learn the special language of prayer”
(in Conference Report, Apr. 1993, 17, 20; or Ensign, May 1993, 16, 18).

Okay, so what kind of language is he recommending? Following the link to the conference talk, we see that God wants us to mimic obsolete 17th century Jacobean English, complete with thee, thou, thy, and thine.

Modern English has no special verbs or pronouns that are intimate, familiar, or honorific. When we address prayers to our Heavenly Father in English, our only available alternatives are the common words of speech like you and your or the dignified but uncommon words like thee, thou, and thy which were used in the King James Version of the Bible almost five hundred years ago. Latter-day Saints, of course, prefer the latter. In our prayers we use language that is dignified and different, even archaic.
The men whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators have consistently taught and urged English-speaking members of our Church to phrase their petitions to the Almighty in the special language of prayer.

Wait; is Oaks unaware that the thee and thou forms weren’t historically formal — that they used to be informal, and they’ve only recently been reanalysed as formal? No, he’s aware.

The special language of prayer that Latter-day Saints use in English has sometimes been explained by reference to the history of the English language. It has been suggested that thee, thou, thy, and thine are simply holdovers from forms of address once used to signify respect for persons of higher rank. But more careful scholarship shows that the words we now use in the language of prayer were once commonly used by persons of rank in addressing persons of inferior position. These same English words were also used in communications between persons in an intimate relationship. There are many instances where usages of English words have changed over the centuries. But the history of English usage is not the point.
Scholarship can contradict mortal explanations, but it cannot rescind divine commands or inspired counsel.
In our day the English words thee, thou, thy, and thine are suitable for the language of prayer, not because of how they were used anciently but because they are currently obsolete in common English discourse.

See there? Fancy-pants linguists can’t tell Oaks anything.

I watched this talk at the time, and I’d even done some linguistics. I watched open-mouthed as this guy made such a big deal about pronouns, and I thought: God has got to be bigger than this.

Ask: What issues might be more pressing in the church and in the world than the pronouns people use?

Consider: Latter-day Saints went to conference that day to listen to men who were uniquely in contact with a god. This god has all knowledge, and would be uniquely qualified to give insight on, and solutions to, pressing world problems. And when Mormons went to these oracles, what did they learn? The pronouns God wants people to use for him. How much more trivial could this be?

Consider also: This is a god who seems unconcerned when viruses mutate and flourish; when tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes kill thousands; when fundamentalists use his name to murder entire communities; when children are struck down with cancers — but you’d better mind your pronouns around him because that’s the kind of thing he really gives a shit about.

Ask: What function might this use of language serve?
Answer: Communities can mark themselves off as different by adopting idiosyncratic norms in dress, diet, and language. You can’t form a sense of difference by doing normal things — reality is equally available to everyone — so this is how they forge a common identity. Mormons’ insistence on antiquated language is the linguistic equivalent of everyone wearing old-style clothing or hats, and is one more example of religion’s typical conservatism.

It should also be noted that the moral sense of a religion is also antiquated, behind the times, and just generally stuck. Religions are not at the forefront of progress, whether ethical, linguistic, or sartorial. They trail, and must be dragged painfully along to be viable.

OT Lesson 46 (Daniel 2)

“A Kingdom, Which Shall Never Be Destroyed”

Daniel 2

LDS manual: here


We’re finishing the book of Daniel today. Actually, no, we’re looking at one part of Daniel 2, the one that says, Gee, isn’t the church growing and isn’t that awesome?

There’s a whole other section that the official lesson manual isn’t going to touch. It’s Daniel’s vision of the end times. Other millennial religions love this part. Seventh-Day Adventists really go to town on it. Mormons, not so much.

The latter half of Daniel can be summed up like this:

  • Angels show Daniel cryptic symbolism about the end of the world
  • Daniel asks for an explanation
  • The angel gives him more cryptic gobbledegook
  • Daniel asks for an explanation again
  • The angel tells Daniel to piss off

12:6 And one said to the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?
12:7 And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished.
12:8 And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?
12:9 And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.

Daniel must have been easily impressed; I’m not. Why would a god speak in riddles like this, if his goal is to communicate his message to mankind? A god wouldn’t need to, but people who are just making stuff up would.

I used to take the end-of-the-world stuff very seriously, and wonder over what it meant. That was before I met people on my mission who took it even more seriously, and I thought they were crazy. Now, all I can think is: Isn’t it nice not to have to wonder about that silly nonsense any more? What a relief.

Main points from this lesson

How’s that stone going?

This lesson hinges on a reading of Daniel 2. King Nebuchadnezzar has had a dream. He can’t remember it, but he wants the court magicians to tell him the interpretation. They’re like, “Tell us the dream, and we’ll tell you the interpretation.” But the king’s like “Eh, if I tell you the dream, I know you’ll just make up some crap. You read my mind and tell me the dream.” He’s not so dumb.

Of course, they freak. “No one’s ever expected us to do anything like that before!” They backpedal faster than an embarrassed psychic.

Daniel, however, is able to tell the king about the dream. The king saw a big statue, representing major world kingdoms.

2:32 This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
2:33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.

There seems to be broad agreement about the kingdoms represented by the parts of the statue, except for the ten toes. People used to say it was the ten countries of the EU, but they stopped saying that when it got more than ten member nations. The lesson manual fudges it and says, “Eh. It’s Europe.”

What about before the EU? The Adventists thought it was earlier empires: the Ostrogoths, the Huns, and so forth. Check out this old chart, where it says “The Ten Kingdoms” at lower left. And look at all the Very Serious Calculations! You can tell this is the distillation of a thousand deranged notebooks.

What a farce. Interpreting prophecy is just the process of grabbing any explanation in your immediate vicinity.

Anyway, then a big stone rolls out of a mountain and knocks the image down.

2:34 Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.

So what’s the stone?

President Kimball taught: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was restored in 1830. . . . This is the kingdom, set up by the God of heaven, that would never be destroyed nor superseded, and the stone cut out of the mountain without hands that would become a great mountain and would fill the whole earth” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1976, 10; or Ensign, May 1976, 8–9).

And this is the part where Mormons trot out the fantastic stats. Here’s the chart that Mormons are seeing in Sunday School this week:

That seems impressive. And the church loves to say that it’s the fastest-growing religion.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported an increase from 4,224,026 U.S. members in 2000 to 6,144,582 members in 2010, a 45.5 percent jump.
That is “far and away the largest gain reported by any [Christian] group,” the report noted, not just in percentage but also in actual numbers.

But don’t all religions say that?

So what’s the story here? Well, yes, the church is growing in absolute numerical terms. But there are a few things to remember.

• LDS Church population numbers, as stated, are underwhelming
Here’s a graphic that shows the percentage of Mormons v the rest of the world. Those two minuscule slivers up the top are Mormons, inactive and active ones respectively.

Not much of a stone. More like an intrusive formation. And that graph hasn’t really moved in the last 20 years.

• The church is only just keeping up
Church membership is growing, but so is the population as a whole, so the church is really just keeping pace with population.

• The church inflates its numbers
If someone simply stops going to church, it appears that they are counted as members until they’re 110 years old. Missing, presumed faithful.

• Not everyone who is counted is active.
A whoopsie moment happened this year when a church statistician let a cat out of the bag: Only 36% of members are in the pews on a given week.

“…36 attend sacrament meeting on a weekly basis”

The item was quickly redacted from the Deseret News article it appeared in, but it was saved by sharp-eyed Netizens and can be found in various locations.

Butts in seats isn’t the same as activity rates, but to the extent that they match up, thirty-six percent of 15 million equates to about 5.4 million active members worldwide.

Another way of looking at the activity issue is census records and polls. We can ask people what religion they identify as. For example, the church claims 2% of the US population, but according to a 2008 ARIS poll (PDF), only 1.4 percent of the US adult population will say they’re LDS, and that’s been holding steady for decades.

There’s an interesting angle to the ARIS numbers. Sometimes political pollsters will ask some pretty crazy questions, and we can use these to see what baseline crazy looks like.

Here are some results from Public Policy Polling. I’ve put some of these in descending order, so the beliefs get zanier the further down you go.

  • 51% of voters say a larger conspiracy was at work in the JFK assassination, just 25% say Oswald acted alone
  • 29% of voters believe aliens exist
  • 21% of voters say a UFO crashed in Roswell, NM in 1947 and the US government covered it up. More Romney voters (27%) than Obama voters (16%) believe in a UFO coverup
  • 20% of voters believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, 51% do not
  • 15% of voters think the medical industry and the pharmaceutical industry “invent” new diseases to make money
  • 14% of voters believe in Bigfoot
  • 13% of voters think Barack Obama is the anti-Christ, including 22% of Romney voters
  • 9% of voters think the government adds fluoride to our water supply for sinister reasons (not just dental health)
  • 7% of voters think the moon landing was faked
  • 5% believe exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons
  • 4% of voters say they believe “lizard people” control our societies by gaining political power

You can watch the beliefs get nuttier and nuttier as you go down this list. Pretty soon, we get to moon hoaxers, chemtrail believers, and finally it’s the Reptilians at 4 percent. Four percent is sort of baseline cray; it’s really difficult to crack that barrier and find a question that fewer than four percent will agree to. That could be because four percent of people will drink paint if you tell them to, or perhaps four percent of people will say yes to any question — possibly because they’re really suggestible, or they really like messing with pollsters.

But I think it’s very telling that, despite all this, you can’t get four percent of the population to admit to being a Mormon. For that question, you get a paltry 1.4 percent; less than half of what you get for Reptilians. Some people will say they believe in the Lizard People, but being a Mormon? Whoa — that’s too crazy. Isn’t that something.

Convert baptisms slowing
There are more missionaries than ever before due to the lowering of the mission age, although this is ending as those missionaries are digested through the system. However, the church’s gains haven’t come through convert baptisms.

In the year and a half since the LDS Church lowered the minimum age for full-time missionary service, the Utah-based faith has seen its proselytizing force swell from 58,500 to more than 83,000. That’s a 42 percent leap.

The number of convert baptisms last year grew to 282,945, up from 272,330 in 2012. That’s an increase of — less than 4 percent.

Instead of converts, the church is getting its growth from the children of members. But even this is looking grim, as — like with all religions — youth are decidedly unenthusiastic about religon.

Steve Benson heard it from a friend that youth inactivity is up to 75%. (Don’t take this too seriously, even though I do take Benson seriously.)

She said that when she was a Young Women’s president, she attended a Salt Lake City-wide conference for area youth leaders. There they were shown pie charts displaying an alarming rate of youth inactivity throughout the LDS Church. She said that at the time, among the 850,000 Mormon youth in the United States, there was a whopping 75% inactivity rate, with inactivity defined as three months of non-attendance at sacrament meeting.


There’s your stone, rolling forth and filling the whole earth. Not very impressive. When you realise that everyone now has access to information about the church, and the church is approaching saturation — its growth peaking, baptismal rates falling — it’s looking even worse.

The Lord’s great latter-day work is a fizzle. A damp squib. The LDS Church is an insignificant sect that most people don’t care about.

Resignations up

Meanwhile, more and more of us are resigning. This Pew Forum poll from 2008 (PDF) shows that (as with many religions) more people are leaving the LDS Church than are joining it. There’s every indication that the exodus has only increased since then.

Here’s what someone asked Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy at an LDS meeting:

A questioner asked, “Has the church seen the effects of Google on membership? It seems like the people who I talk to about church history are people who find out and leave quickly. Is the church aware of that problem? What about the people who are already leaving in droves?”
Jensen’s response:
“The fifteen men really do know, and they really care. And they realize that maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now; largely over these issues.”

But how many are resigning? Since all we have is anecdote and hearsay, we shouldn’t take this too seriously, but Richard Packham knows someone who had the “inside scoop” on resignations. These numbers are old, but here they are.

1995:………. 35,420
1996:………. 50,177
1997:………. 55,200
1998:………. 78,750
1999:………. 81,200
2000:………. 87,500

If this trend kept going in logarithmic fashion until today (but surely hasn’t), we’d be seeing something like 120,000 people leaving a year.

It’s a good idea not to be too optimistic about resignation numbers. Obviously, the church is not going to report them. And it’s tempting for ex-Mormons to overestimate the extent of the attrition. There’s a psychological reason for this: When you leave the church, suddenly apostates seem like they’re everywhere. This could be because there really are more of us, or it could just be the availability heuristic: a thing seems more common if you can think of lots of examples of the thing, like people who have left. So a healthy sense of restraint is appropriate when approaching numbers like these.

Should you resign?

Many people I’ve talked to have no desire to write an exit letter and have their name formally removed from the records of the church. They see it as yet another hoop that the church is making them jump through, and they prefer to have nothing more to do with it. They want to leave the church on their own terms.

As for me, I decided to write my exit letter and formally resign. My reasoning: if you’re still on their records, they’re counting you, and they can use the number you represent as support for their actions, like fighting marriage equality or promoting superstition. My resignation meant I’d told them (in detail!) why I was out. They knew it. My status on the outside was the same as on the inside. For me, that meant consistency and integrity.

But there might be something eating into my small victory…

Do they still count you if you resign?

There is some debate on this, and I’ve never seen a conclusive answer. But David from Mormon Disclosures thinks they keep counting you.

Apparently, the LDS church does not appear to be subtracting resigned and excommunicated members. Also it would seem only the deaths of active members are reported to church headquarters and accounted, making its death loss much lower (3.6 in 1,000) than the actual death rate.
Thus, the additions made each year are overstated, and the subtractions are understated. This goes on year after year and the official number of members gets farther and farther from the truth.

Richard Packham has more numbers.

Official membership increased from 10,752,986 to 11,068,861 during 2000. This consists of 273,973 convert baptisms and 81,450 increase in children of record. The loss of 39,548 is due primarily to deaths, and various adjustments. The First Presidency is aware of the problem of the “name removed file” growing to hundreds of thousands of names, all still included in the 11 million. It appears that they are reluctant to change the policy, and therefore they still count those people as part of the total membership.

Others who have resigned report that church leaders somehow know about them on a ward and stake level, which would mean that some trace of their former membership is retained.

It’s hard to say what’s going on when the church is not forthcoming about its practices on stats. That’s been one of the most frustrating things about putting this lesson together — the lack of transparency means that everything is speculation. Other churches don’t operate this way. A friend of mine who was a Seventh-Day Adventist told me that they approached him and asked if he still wanted to be on the rolls. He said no, and was duly subtracted. They don’t seem too concerned about the numbers. Mormons do.

Even with all the above, I’m still an advocate for resignation. If nothing else, it’s a way to send a message to Church Headquarters, even if it goes unread and uncounted.

Additional lesson ideas

Prophecy after the fact

I only know one way to tell the future: look at the past, find patterns, and apply them to new data. If you’re using something silly, like revelation, you’ve got no better than random chance.

So how do prophets get it right sometimes? Simple — they watch what happens, and then write it down after the fact. 100% success rate!

This was a bit of a mind-blower for me as a true believing Mormon (TBM), but I got a hold of the Oxford Companion to the Bible (page 151), and found this discussion of “prophecy after the fact”.

TL;DR: The Book of Daniel predicts “the future” until a certain point, and then gets it wrong, probably because the writer was really writing about the past the whole time. Things later happened that the prophet would probably have wanted to include, but mysteriously he didn’t. Why not? Because it was in the future. He couldn’t have known; he wasn’t a prophet. No one is.

The book of Daniel is one of the few books of the Bible that can be dated with precision…. The lengthy apocalypse of Daniel 10-12 provides the best evidence for date and authorship. This great review of the political maelstrom of ancient Near Eastern politics swirling around the tiny Judean community accurately portrays history from the rise of the Persian empire down to a time somewhat after the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple and the erection there of the “abomination that makes desolate” (Dan. 11:31)…. The portrayal is expressed as prophecy about the future course of events, given by a seer in Babylonian captivity; however, the prevailing scholarly opinion is that this is mostly prophecy after the fact. Only from 11.39 onward does the historical survey cease accurately to reproduce the events known to have taken place in the latter years of the reign of Antiochus IV. The most obvious explanation for this shift is that the point of the writer’s own lifetime had been reached. Had the writer known, for example, about the success of the Jewish freedom fighters led by Judas Maccabeus in driving the garrison of the hated Antiochus from the temple precincts (an event that occurred on 25 Kislev, 164 BCE, according to 1 Macc. 4:34-31), the fact would surely have been mentioned. But evidently it had not yet happened!

Setting it to music

Here’s a bit I like because it’s connected to music.

10:18 Then there came again and touched me one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me,
10:19 And said, O man greatly beloved, fear not: peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong.

Ralph Vaughan Williams used this bit of text from verse 19 in his Dona Nobis Pacem, first performed in the uncertainty of the inter-war years. The relevant part begins at 30:12.

I love the music on this. Daniel — or war-ravaged Europe, what have you — feels discouraged, and when the angel tells him “Be strong”, the music takes an inspiring change of key. But then it sinks back to the original key, almost as though Daniel, still despondent, is thinking “I can’t.” Then the music does the key change again: “Yea, be strong!” This is wonderful writing.

Surprisingly, the angel that spoke to Daniel had a moonlighting job as a video game minion.

10:20 Then said he, Knowest thou wherefore I come unto thee? and now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia: and when I am gone forth, lo, the prince of Grecia shall come.

Times are tough, even for angels. That does explain why minions are able to respawn round after round, though. Nice to have that mystery solved.