To dismantle the idea that pride causes societal destruction
Now we’re to one of the parts of the Book of Mormon when the Lamanites are more righteous than the Nephites. How strange! Those dark, filthy, and unenticing Lamanites are actually more righteous than the light-skinned Nephites. That’s certainly unexpected — if you see race as a reflection of righteousness.
Helaman 6:1 And it came to pass that when the sixty and second year of the reign of the judges had ended, all these things had happened and the Lamanites had become, the more part of them, a righteous people, insomuch that their righteousness did exceed that of the Nephites because of their firmness and their steadiness in the faith.
When I read this, I feel like I’m listening to Mormons describing non-Mormons as “good people…”. Is it my imagination, or do I hear an “…even though they don’t have the Gospel” in there somewhere?
The hero of this story is Nephi₃. He’s so righteous that God gives him the smiting power.
Helaman 10:6 Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God. Behold, I declare it unto thee in the presence of mine angels, that ye shall have power over this people, and shall smite the earth with famine, and with pestilence, and destruction, according to the wickedness of this people.
Wow, the power to kill people who do things that God doesn’t like!
Also teleportation, just like Jesus. You’ll remember that he was able to “convey” himself out of the clutches of his enemies. Well, Nephi₃ has this too.
Helaman 10:15 And it came to pass that when Nephi had declared unto them the word, behold, they did still harden their hearts and would not hearken unto his words; therefore they did revile against him, and did seek to lay their hands upon him that they might cast him into prison.
10:16 But behold, the power of God was with him, and they could not take him to cast him into prison, for he was taken by the Spirit and conveyed away out of the midst of them.
Apparently when you’re sufficiently Godlike, it’s a superpower you can unlock.
Nephi₃ sees the wickedness of the people, so rather than let them kill each other, he suggests a famine instead.
Helaman 11:3 And it came to pass that in this year Nephi did cry unto the Lord, saying:
11:4 O Lord, do not suffer that this people shall be destroyed by the sword; but O Lord, rather let there be a famine in the land, to stir them up in remembrance of the Lord their God, and perhaps they will repent and turn unto thee.
11:5 And so it was done, according to the words of Nephi. And there was a great famine upon the land, among all the people of Nephi. And thus in the seventy and fourth year the famine did continue, and the work of destruction did cease by the sword but became sore by famine.
You might think from this that Nephi₃ is some kind of ghoul. But really, he’s a bit of a softie. God would have taken things in hand himself, and put the big smite on people. But then, what do I know? I’m such a pushover, I probably wouldn’t have tried to kill anyone. I probably would have let them ignore that destructive “God” maniac, and let them get on with living their lives, free of the fear of such a being.
Main ideas for this lesson
This lesson identifies pride as one of the big no-nos for humanity. And a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon is known as the “pride cycle”. Here’s the graphic that appears in the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.
Latter-day Saints see this pride cycle as a real pattern.
The problem is that it isn’t. This is something that has never happened in the history of the world. Nations do not decline because they don’t adhere to religious principles. If they did, we would expect to see the least religious countries become cesspools of misery. Surprise — they’re actually doing quite well.
The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise, and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.
If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.
This dovetails into the other side of the pride cycle — not only do less-religious countries not fail, but religiously zealous countries don’t do better. It’s when the religious crazies take over that countries do the worst. This shouldn’t be surprising, when God himself shows so little concern for people around the globe. Something about yearning for an afterlife seems to be incompatible with improving this one.
If you want to see an example of someone advocating humility and repentance, think of this guy.
“Why do homosexuals murder homosexuals?” he asked. Because, according to Romans 1, “God gave them up to vile passions.” “Violence” and “murder,” he said, are deeply tied to homosexuality.
“What’s the bottom line as we view what’s happening in Orlando today?” he said. “I think it is, again, the Romans 1 scenario, it is that God gives them up.”
The Orlando massacre, Swanson added, shows what happens when God’s “restraints have been lifted entirely and when God doesn’t restrain, people go nuts in their sins.”
Believers think the Book of Mormon sounds entirely sensible, but just try listening to someone who takes these ideas seriously, and who says so. He sounds like a dangerous lunatic. At the very best, his way is unlikely to bring about the model of social cohesion that the Book of Mormon promises.
Enough about nations. Do individual people “dwindle” when they stop believing, as the Book of Mormon says?
Helaman 6:34 And thus we see that the Nephites did begin to dwindle in unbelief, and grow in wickedness and abominations, while the Lamanites began to grow exceedingly in the knowledge of their God; yea, they did begin to keep his statutes and commandments, and to walk in truth and uprightness before him.
My friend Tim on Facebook responds very eloquently. He said I could share this status:
Hey LDS friends and family. One of your leaders said things about me (and others like me) and I’d like an opportunity to set the record straight.
– I did not die spiritually. I feel joy, peace, happiness, and am quite alive.
– I did not lose my testimony. I did not lose anything except for that which I already did not have. I learned a new perspective which gave me new insight to what my religious experiences meant. I don’t value those experiences less, I interpret them in a way that is more consistent with reality.
– Sin / guilt did not cloud my mind as I decided to leave. I felt very enlightened as I decided to journey out of LDS activity. It was a matter of earnest prayer and heartfelt study. If there was anything that tried to cloud my mind, I think it would be church apologetics, something which I now find very deplorable and dishonest. I consistently found that the neutral resources were far more honest and direct than those of the apologetics.
– I don’t hate Mormonism, as a whole. I love aspects of it, and dislike others. I love the people, generally, and I think frequently about participating in some form or fashion, but the organization perpetually demonstrates that it is able to change, but on it’s own timeline, not mine. I’m not willing to wait nor do I care to participate in catalyzing the change from the inside. I see what the church does to those people. I find it deeply disappointing and dishonest.
– It is super frustrating that the LDS church tried to place blame on those who leave. “It’s not our fault you didn’t know this stuff before you committed two years of your life as a missionary / all of your resources to building up our definition of the Kingdom of God”. Huh? Maybe. You certainly made it a priority for me to learn the information that served you over that which may have served me to make a choice. The church tasked me with so many church things, and told me what was important to study; I could never fully complete it. I never had time for the “unimportant stuff”. How much time did you task me with Temple Prep? With Mission Prep? Couldn’t have fit it in, huh? “Oh by the way this painting of Joseph Smith using Gold Plates is a farce it was a rock in the hat”. Couldn’t squeeze it in? :/ The church stigmatized the unimportant stuff. The church excommunicated people for saying that which was true but “not uplifting”. And, the church endlessly invents ways to shift blame to me for any behavior the church finds undesirable. This is sickening and abusive. I reject this line of thought.
Advice to other Mormons: I’m observing the LDS church is continuing down a path which values membership retention above honesty. I don’t think it is looking out for your welfare as much as it is it’s own. This may seem fine, but geez, I implore you to gain the perspective to at least be able to see both sides. A perspective which keeps you in control of your faith.
I implore you, READ the “Mormon Challenge”, a document which helps show the “other perspective” on Mormonism using LDS church-approved sources only. It will only help you gain perspective, and you don’t lose anything by gaining perspective:
My only motive and desire for saying any of this is that minds can be free.
“Truth never damages a cause that is just.” – Mahatma Gandhi
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson
So why are prophets so down on prosperity? Probably because it puts no money in their own pocket.
President Ezra Taft Benson said: “The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich. The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them; otherwise, the prophet is just giving his opinion — speaking as a man. The rich may feel they have no need to take counsel of a lowly prophet” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson , 138).
As I’ve said before, religion doesn’t have much to offer someone who’s content, happy, and doing well. It has a lot to offer someone who’s desperate for a second chance in life.
The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual is quite set against contention.
• What was the first sign that the short-lived period of humility and righteousness was ending? (See Helaman 11:22.) How did Nephi, Lehi, and their brethren put an end to this contention? (See Helaman 11:23.) In what ways can teaching “true points of doctrine” help us put an end to contention?
Ask: Why would the LDS Church warn against contention?
Having a range of available opinions — with the contention that this sometimes engenders — is actually healthy for discussion and learning. It’s not great for managing a group though. If you’re a cult leader, you want a docile group where everyone listens only to you.
Warning against contention, then, is a way of shutting down discussions in which people might have to face unpleasant facts — like the fact that the religion is wrong.
Rather than avoid contention, we should be engaged in discussion with people we might disagree with. It can be a great way to find flaws in your argument. It might force you to examine and change your views.
To show the poor reasoning in the LDS response to atheism, and that LDS arguments are designed to invalidate the experience of non-believers
This is one lesson that I’ve been looking forward to. It’s one of the interesting lessons, and it’s all because of Korihor — a character Joseph Smith wrote into the Book of Mormon. Aren’t the villains always the most interesting characters?
Korihor is a character from 1st century BCE Mesoamerica, but who for some reason sounds like a 19th-century Enlightenment-era atheist intellectual — the kind that Joseph Smith might have run across. Funny that.
Let’s get to the reading.
Alma 30:5 And it came to pass that in the commencement of the seventeenth year of the reign of the judges, there was continual peace.
30:6 But it came to pass in the latter end of the seventeenth year, there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ.
30:7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.
30:8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.
30:9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.
In Zarahemla, there’s no law saying you have to believe in a God, much like — ahem — modern America. Sounds great to me. I’m anti-Christ myself. And you shouldn’t get special privileges or different laws based on the religion you choose.
Let’s take a look at Korihor’s ideas. Are they quite good, or a cartoony idea of what atheists think? Let’s take a look.
Alma 30:12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
30:13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
Not quite true. While there’s always some uncertainty about the future, there is something that allows us to make predictions: science.
Sometimes people challenge me on science — or as they’re fond of calling it, “scientism”. They have the idea that science is just one narrative, and it shouldn’t be privileged over other narratives. I’ve been asked: How do you know that science isn’t just one way of thinking that’s internally coherent, but which ultimately has nothing to do with the real world and relates only to itself?
My response: We know that science pertains to the real world because it allows us to predict the future. Or to use other words: by observing what we can of reality, we can make hypotheses that explain what we’re observing. Then we can use these hypotheses to predict future events. A good hypothesis is one that explains our observations, and which has predictive power.
Religions do not have a good track record when it comes to predicting the future. Here’s one of my favourite examples:
We will never get a man into space. This Earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it.
The moon is a superior planet to the Earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.
Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith at Stake Conference in Honolulu, May 14, 1961
Oh, but he was just an apostle at the time. Why would expect him to know anything about that? You might as well ask the cat.
Alma 30:14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
I think Mormon teachings are foolish traditions. I’m very grateful for the work of NewNameNoah, who has taken the LDS temple ceremonies, and exposed them to a wider audience. Mormons hate it — and I think that’s in part because they know that their ceremonies are ridiculous. They act like someone who feels silly because they’ve been caught doing something foolish.
I mean, who dresses like this?
One point for Korihor.
Alma 30:15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.
Can you know of things that you don’t see? This was a question posed to me by a well-meaning bishop who came for a visit.
It depends on your definition of “know”. If you’re an intuitive type who thinks knowing means “believing very strongly”, then you might say yes.
But if you’re an empiricist — and empiricism is the bedrock of science — then you’d say that evidence has to be observable. Feelings are evidence of how you’re feeling — your internal state — but not for anything external, or outside yourself.
Alma 30:16 Ye look forward and say that ye see a remission of your sins. But behold, it is the effect of a frenzied mind; and this derangement of your minds comes because of the traditions of your fathers, which lead you away into a belief of things which are not so.
Frenzy and derangement are strong words. I prefer the term delusion — a fixed belief, contrary to fact.
Alma 30:17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
Whoa — that’s not a good reflection of my views. I think whatsoever a man does is no sin. Crime is another matter.
I do think, however, that people should prosper according to their genius. Look at someone like Elon Musk, who’s using his intelligence and vision to change our system of transport and energy, taking us away from fossil fuels and into a future of renewable power. That’s a huge benefit to humankind.
Alma 30:18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms —
LOL — men too? That really is whoredoms.
Alma 30:18 …telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.
Does anyone have any evidence of a life after death? Not near-death experiences — they can be induced in people who aren’t near death.
Seriously, which story seems more straightforward to you?
To say nothing of the secret passwords and handshakes.
And how was Korihor’s teaching received? Not very well.
Alma 30:19 Now this man went over to the land of Jershon also, to preach these things among the people of Ammon, who were once the people of the Lamanites.
30:20 But behold they were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people.
30:21 And it came to pass that he caused that he should be carried out of the land. And he came over into the land of Gideon, and began to preach unto them also; and here he did not have much success, for he was taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land.
WTF? Even though the writer (presumably Alma) made a big deal out of saying that there was no law against a person’s belief, the minute someone says something contrary, they get tied up and ejected. Twice! And Alma comments on how wise this was, so he evidently approves.
Alma 30:22 And it came to pass that the high priest said unto him: Why do ye go about perverting the ways of the Lord? Why do ye teach this people that there shall be no Christ, to interrupt their rejoicings? Why do ye speak against all the prophecies of the holy prophets?
Here’s something that people say to skeptics: Why are you bothering us?
One night recently, I was outside a psychic event handing out bingo flyers.
You wouldn’t believe how easy this is. All you have to do is identify people who are attending the event, hand them a flyer, and say, “I hope you enjoy the show.” And they just take the flyers!
I know this sounds terrible, but there are two kinds of people at these events:
groups of women aged 40–65, and
isolated men who are being dragged along.
Men as a rule simply do not seem to go for the psychic mediums. If I ever tried to hand a bingo card to men, they’d say “Oh, I’m not actually going to that.” (Perhaps they were just embarrassed.)
Anyway, on this particular evening, a women saw what I was handing out, and we had this conversation:
Her: The thing is — Why do you care?
Me: Because I think people need to have good information when they’re making choices.
Her: It’s entertainment! It’s in a theatre.
Me: Well, if someone is just here for a bit of a laugh, then there’s probably no harm done. But if they’ve lost someone, and they’re hurting, and someone takes their money — they’re playing with something they shouldn’t.
Her: But we tell kids about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It’s fun!
Me: I think people deserve informed consent.
Why do I care? I care about people having good information, and so should everyone.
Alma 30:23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah. And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.
Good for him — what else can we call it when humans claim authority over other humans because of some imaginary power?
Alma 30:24 Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.
In an earlier lesson, I mentioned a time when someone asked me: what if I was wrong, and the church was true? What I didn’t say at the time was this: If somehow in a complete evidentiary vacuum, the church turned out to be true, God existed, and Jesus and everything was just as they say — even if despite all probability they guessed everything right — then Mormons do not know they’re right.
They don’t know they’re right. The only way you can be sure you’re right is by observation of publicly available reality and evidence. And it’s darn hard to know something even then! So if you’re not even doing that, what chance do you have of getting it right? As I’ve said before, there is no other way of knowing. And if you know another way, please tell me about it. (Mathematics might be a good answer. But even that needs some empirical backup to make sure the results apply to our universe.)
Alma 30:25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.
Point goes to Korihor again. God unjustly punished Adam and Eve (so the story goes) because they committed an action before they knew right from wrong. Now we’re living in a world affected by their actions. The chapter never returns to this idea to answer Korihor’s criticism.
Alma 30:26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world —
30:27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.
30:28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God — a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.
With a few exceptions, this depiction of rational atheism / skepticism is pretty good.
But Korihor gets hauled up before the authorities — for the third time! — for teaching his brand of hedonistic anti-clerical atheism.
Alma 30:29 Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land.
Alma 30:37 And then Alma said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
30:38 And he answered, Nay.
30:39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.
No, you don’t. See above.
Alma 30:40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.
Alma is trying to turn the tables here. He’s saying “I say there’s a god, you say there’s no god; so it’s all a wash because all beliefs are equivalent.”
But it doesn’t work like that. Alma is shifting the burden of evidence. The burden of evidence rests with the claimant. Alma is the one claiming that a god exists, so it’s up to him to provide evidence for that claim. Watch out when people try to shift the burden of evidence. By asking Korihor for evidence that something doesn’t exist, Alma is asking him to prove a negative. It may not be possible to prove that gods (or leprechauns, or unicorns) don’t exist — when the concept of a god is not well-defined.
On the other hand, if the god in question is well-defined, and we fail to see the kinds of things we should be able to see if such a god exists, then we can say that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Neil deGrasse Tyson explains.
That doesn’t mean that believers aren’t creative when it comes to shifting the goalposts, as James Randi points out.
Alma 30:41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
30:42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.
This is one of the really annoying things believers say: I think you really do believe, even though you claim not to.
My response is: How about I tell you what I believe.
Now Korihor makes a perfectly reasonable request: Show me the evidence.
Alma 30:43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
30:44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.
Here, Alma shows that he does not understand the kind of evidence that is required to support a claim. He does this in two ways:
He claims that words written by prophets in holy books counts as evidence. It does not. The people who wrote those books could have been mistaken, dishonest, or insane. And if we do allow scriptures as evidence, then whose? The Bible? The Quran? The Bhagavad-Gita? They’re all mutually contradictory. Picking one and not another is just special pleading — claiming that one set of scriptures is “different” somehow, but not saying why. Finally, you can’t use scriptures as evidence for a claim. They’re not evidence — they’re the claim. They need their own evidence.
He claims that the earth and the planets are evidence. (This is what I call the “look around” defence, because a young missionary once told me exactly that when I asked him for evidence: Look around!) The earth and the planets are only evidence if we presuppose that a god made them. But there are other explanations that don’t require us to believe in a magical being. This is a big problem for believers: there are better explanations for the kinds of things people cite as evidence.
Korihor pivots a little bit. Perhaps he realises that it’s difficult to prove a negative, so he says:
Alma 30:48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.
At this, Alma has had enough.
Alma 30:49 Now Alma said unto him: This will I give unto thee for a sign, that thou shalt be struck dumb, according to my words; and I say, that in the name of God, ye shall be struck dumb, that ye shall no more have utterance.
30:50 Now when Alma had said these words, Korihor was struck dumb, that he could not have utterance, according to the words of Alma.
At this point, it looks like God is frustrated enough to harm Korihor. He doesn’t take call-outs well. On the other hand, while Korihor’s sudden muteness could be taken as evidence of God’s existence (and peevishness), there are other explanations. He could have gotten sudden laryngitis or had a stroke. An evil god could have taken his voice. When it comes to supernatural explanations, one is as untestable as another.
Alma 30:51And now when the chief judge saw this, he put forth his hand and wrote unto Korihor, saying: Art thou convinced of the power of God? In whom did ye desire that Alma should show forth his sign? Would ye that he should afflict others, to show unto thee a sign? Behold, he has showed unto you a sign; and now will ye dispute more?
The chief judge is a bit of a dope; why is he writing? He can speak.
Having forfeited its believability, the story now descends into farce.
Alma 30:52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
30:53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.
That’s right, folks; Korihor believed in God the whole time. And this is what believers need to think: that critics are secret believers, really. We’re just lying when we say we don’t believe. And we’re literally influenced by the devil.
What a disservice. For believers, not only is there no legitimate reason not to believe, non-believers shouldn’t be trusted when they say they don’t. Maybe believers need to think this because the prospect of a real honest-to-goodness unbeliever with real honest-to-goodness reasons is way too threatening. If there are reasons, then maybe they should stop believing too — and that would mean loss of social group, loss of family, loss of identity, and loss of investment. That would take change, work, and self-analysis. Who wants to do that? And so believers take the lazy way out.
They don’t seem to notice that unbelievers never suddenly go mute. Instead, our voices are growing.
Well, that’s the end for old Korihor, except for his untimely end. Unable to answer his claims, God simply dispenses with him.
Alma 30:58 And it came to pass that they were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord; and this put an end to the iniquity after the manner of Korihor. And Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food for his support.
30:59 And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, yea, among a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram — and as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead.
30:60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.
That’s confirmation bias there. Some of us do quite well, post-deconversion. But if anything ever did happen to me, I’m sure the dear old ward members would think of this chapter of Alma and infer some kind of judgment.
And then there’s a pretty humourous description of the Zoramites and their Rameumptom. Doesn’t that name sound like something Roald Dahl might have made up?
Alma 31:12 Now, when they had come into the land, behold, to their astonishment they found that the Zoramites had built synagogues, and that they did gather themselves together on one day of the week, which day they did call the day of the Lord; and they did worship after a manner which Alma and his brethren had never beheld;
31:13 For they had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head, and the top thereof would only admit one person.
31:14 Therefore, whosoever desired to worship must go forth and stand upon the top thereof, and stretch forth his hands towards heaven, and cry with a loud voice, saying:
31:15 Holy, holy God; we believe that thou art God, and we believe that thou art holy, and that thou wast a spirit, and that thou art a spirit, and that thou wilt be a spirit forever.
31:16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
31:17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
31:18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
31:19 Now it came to pass that after Alma and his brethren and his sons had heard these prayers, they were astonished beyond all measure.
31:20 For behold, every man did go forth and offer up these same prayers.
31:21 Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand.
31:22 Now, from this stand they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about.
31:23 Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand, to offer up thanks after their manner.
The first time I saw it was in the venerable Student Review which operated out of BYU in the early 90s. Any information about the author would be welcome.
Cast: A father and his daughter.
“What’s a Rameumptom, Daddy?”
“Well, the Book of Mormon says it was a place where the Zoramites stood to worship and pray.”
“But my Primary teacher said it was a tower that evil people used.”
“I can see how someone could think that. The Book of Mormon says it was a place for standing which was high above the head’ and only one person at atime could go up there.”
“Was it like the speaker’s stand in the church?”
“A speaker’s stand? You mean a pulpit? Yes, I suppose it was. In fact, the word ‘Rameumptom’ means ‘the holy stand.'”
“What’s so evil about a holy stand, Daddy?”
“Well, it wasn’t the stand that was evil. It was how it was used. The people gathered there in their synagogue. . .”
“What’s a synagogue?”
“Just a different word for chapel or church, honey.”
“They’d gather in their synagogue one day a week.”
“Which day, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, honey. It just says ‘one day,’ and they called it ‘the day of the Lord.'”
“It must have been Sunday.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Sunday is the Lord’s day.”
“Well, maybe it was. . . Anyway, they’d gather there and whoever wanted to worship would go and stand on the top of the Rameumptom.”
“Could anyone go up there?”
“Well, no, that was part of the problem. Apparently, they had to wear the right clothes. . . ”
“You mean like us when we wear Sunday clothes, Daddy?”
“Well, not exactly, but in a way, yes, I suppose. Some of us might have a hard time accepting certain kinds of clothes or people in sacrament meeting. But we wear our Sunday clothes to help us be reverent, don’t we?”
“So anyway, where was I?”
“They went to the top of the Rameumptom. . .”
“Yes, they would go up and worship God by thanking him for making them so special.”
“Were they bearing their testimonies?”
“Well, uh, I guess maybe they were in a way, but they weren’t true testimonies.”
“Because they were too proud.”
“What do you mean ‘proud,’ Daddy?”
“Well, they would talk about how they were ‘a chosen and holy people.'”
“My Primary teacher said Mormons are the chosen people and we’re a special generation.”
“Yes, honey, but that’s different.”
“Because we are.”
“Besides they were very, very proud about how much better they were than everyone else, because they didn’t believe the ‘foolish traditions’ of their neighbors.”
“What does that mean, Daddy?”
“It means that they believed everyone else was wrong and they alone were right.”
“Isn’t that what we believe?”
“But it’s different.”
“Because we are right, honey.”
“Everyone would stand and say the same thing. . .”
“That sounds like testimony meeting to me.”
“Don’t be irreverent.”
“Then after it was all over, they would go home and never speak about God until the next day of the Lord when they’d gather at the holy stand again.”
To show that religious discourse slanders Jewish people and unbelievers alike.
My relationship with olives is complicated.
The first time I tried olives, it was at a family gathering. All the other kids had stuck pitted olives on all of their fingers. It looked like fun, so I got two handfuls. Then I ate one of the olives. It did not agree with my young taste buds. So now I had olives on all my fingers (but one), and no desire to eat any of them. What to do? Flicking them at family members was, in retrospect, not a great idea, and brought swift remonstration. History does not record what happened to the olives.
I once lived at a place that had an olive tree. It was a fairly spindly affair, but it made olives with annual regularity. I didn’t know what to do with them. I heard that you could pick them and soak them in brine for a long time, and they would become edible. But if even one of the olives had a bad spot, you’d have a whole jar of bad olives. It seemed like an awful lot of work for something that, as I say, you wouldn’t want on your fingers. The boys used them for olive fights. Olives can sting.
Anyway, this one time I got home, and there was a rotund Italian lady up in the tree, picking olives. Wearing an apron, a house dress, the whole bit. I don’t know how she got up there because it really wasn’t a big tree, and it didn’t look like it could support her considerable bulk. She must have been really keen to get at those olives. Apparently she’d asked my housemate if she could harvest them, and my housemate said yes. The same house had a grape arbor, and the grapes were nice sometimes, but mostly the rats would eat them. So I had rats scrambling around in the arbor and old Italian women up in the olive trees. I didn’t know what to do about it all. I mean, the rats you could poison.
I always pick olives off of pizzas.
I was going somewhere with this. Oh, yeah.
I hate olives. Olives are bullshit.
And so is this reading. The centrepiece of this lesson is an allegory by a prophet named (as the LDS manual says) “Zenos, a Hebrew prophet mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon”.
Ask: If you had to make up some kind of name for a fictional prophet, and you weren’t very good at it, doesn’t “Zenos” totally sound like something you would make up? No wonder Joseph Smith eventually grabbed a map in exasperation, and starting pulling names from it. But more on this in another lesson.
Main ideas for this lesson
God grows, scatters Israel
So here’s the allegory. Israel is an olive tree.
Jacob 5:3 For behold, thus saith the Lord, I will liken thee, O house of Israel, like unto a tame olive-tree, which a man took and nourished in his vineyard; and it grew, and waxed old, and began to decay.
Can I just stop here and pose a question. This is about olives. But it keeps saying that this takes place in a vineyard.
I’m no viticulturalist, but I had the idea that a vineyard is where you grow grapes, not olives. Isn’t that right? I don’t want to make a big deal out of this if it’s nothing, but I would have said you grow olives in a grove.
“olive grove”: About 618,000 raw Google hits
“olive vineyard”: About 7,520 raw Google hits
I could be wrong, and this usage could have changed from Joseph Smith’s time, but this sounds like a slip-up you’d make if you’d never had anything to do with olives or grapes in your life.
Anyway, the master of the “vineyard” has a severely misbehaving olive tree (symbolic of Israel). By “misbehaving”, I don’t mean that it started growing grapes, although that would be understandable if you’re in a vineyard, FFS. No, this tree is rotting away, symbolic of Jewish people who didn’t install the upgrade to Judaism 2.0: Christianity.
Ask: If you have broken free of religion, would you describe your current state as “decay”?
Why do believers characterise unbelievers in terms of dwindling, perishing, or decaying?
Good thing Jacob didn’t say it wasn’t an orchard; his olive tree would start growing peaches or something.
Great post although I will give the answer I always heard for the “orchard/vineyard” mix up. The Hebrew word for vineyard (kerem) is the same as the word for orchard. The word karmel means both as well. Hugh Nibley suggested this justifies Joseph’s mishap, which I agree is a clever point. Although I also think it’s just a coincidence. A good answer for one error out of thousands is not only possible, but very probable. Still doesn’t mean it’s true.
That is interesting, and I agree — a clever explanation. Then the problem is this: God is a bad translator who picks the wrong words.
<eyes the clock> I want to get into a discussion of loose v. tight translation, but I think I’m going to have to do that in a future lesson. Coming up soon!
Jacob 5:4 And it came to pass that the master of the vineyard went forth, and he saw that his olive-tree began to decay; and he said: I will prune it, and dig about it, and nourish it, that perhaps it may shoot forth young and tender branches, and it perish not.
5:5 And it came to pass that he pruned it, and digged about it, and nourished it according to his word.
5:6 And it came to pass that after many days it began to put forth somewhat a little, young and tender branches; but behold, the main top thereof began to perish.
5:7 And it came to pass that the master of the vineyard saw it, and he said unto his servant: It grieveth me that I should lose this tree; wherefore, go and pluck the branches from a wild olive-tree, and bring them hither unto me; and we will pluck off those main branches which are beginning to wither away, and we will cast them into the fire that they may be burned.
5:8 And behold, saith the Lord of the vineyard, I take away many of these young and tender branches, and I will graft them whithersoever I will; and it mattereth not that if it so be that the root of this tree will perish, I may preserve the fruit thereof unto myself; wherefore, I will take these young and tender branches, and I will graft them whithersoever I will.
Summary: The man with the olive vineyard doesn’t like the fact that his olives don’t believe in him, so he plans to burn the bad branches, and bring in other branches instead. Much digging, dunging, and cumbering ensues.
Stage 1: The olive tree (Israel) is decaying, so the Vineyard Master scatters its branches everywhere (which as we know, is the best way to fix a sick tree). This is a metaphor for how the Jewish people were driven and scattered for centuries. The Master also grafts in wild olive branches (lets Gentiles join the church).
Stage 2: Results are mixed. The tree is doing well, but some of the remote branches are not.
Stage 3: Now every tree is doing terribly. The fruit is still corrupt, and God is going to burn the whole plantation down and give it up as a bad job.
Jacob 5:49 And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard said unto the servant: Let us go to and hew down the trees of the vineyard and cast them into the fire, that they shall not cumber the ground of my vineyard, for I have done all. What could I have done more for my vineyard?
5:50 But, behold, the servant said unto the Lord of the vineyard: Spare it a little longer.
5:51 And the Lord said: Yea, I will spare it a little longer, for it grieveth me that I should lose the trees of my vineyard.
According to the LDS lesson manual,
What do the many kinds of corrupt fruit symbolize? (Universal apostasy.)
Let’s make a note of that.
Stage 4: Finally, many verses later, the master of the vineyard manages to get some decent olives — like he had at the beginning of the story.
Jacob 5:75 And it came to pass that when the Lord of the vineyard saw that his fruit was good, and that his vineyard was no more corrupt, he called up his servants, and said unto them: Behold, for this last time have we nourished my vineyard; and thou beholdest that I have done according to my will; and I have preserved the natural fruit, that it is good, even like as it was in the beginning. And blessed art thou; for because ye have been diligent in laboring with me in my vineyard, and have kept my commandments, and have brought unto me again the natural fruit, that my vineyard is no more corrupted, and the bad is cast away, behold ye shall have joy with me because of the fruit of my vineyard.
Let’s say this allegory is all true, and this is God’s big chance to get his message out there, and establish his church for the salvation of all humankind. So he starts with a group of chosen people (who need to kill everyone else in their area), but he explains his plan to them so poorly that they completely fail to recognise Part Two of the plan when it comes along, in the form of Jesus.
Jesus, for his part, appears to a small group of humans, but pretty much allows them to write down whatever they want about him decades later, contradictions and all. He never says, “Mark, Luke, write this down, because I need you to get this absolutely right.”
Then, hundreds of years later, God allows his organisation to fall into ruin and apostasy. He restores it through a tiny idiosyncratic organisation headed by a pedophile with a criminal record. This organisation forms a tiny — and currently shrinking — percentage of the population.
What does it say about God that he has to go through all this rigamarole for so little good, and can’t seem to think of a way to overcome his own problems in a way that doesn’t involve the loss of generations of people?
Ask: What can we take from Zenos’s allegory?
If you are a Mormon, you must believe that the Jewish diaspora, including the persecutions endured by the Jewish people
are ordained by the Abrahamic god, and are therefore just
happened because the Jewish people didn’t believe in Jesus
which is especially unjust when the scriptural accounts for Jesus’ actions are ambiguous and contradictory, and the evidence for Jesus’ divinity is non-existent.
As a parent, one of the most immoral acts I can think of is saving one child over another based on their obedience to me.
Jacob isn’t done. He continues his old-school threats against unbelievers.
Jacob 6:7 For behold, after ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire?
Jacob 6:10 And according to the power of justice, for justice cannot be denied, ye must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever, which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment.
Ask: Is it just for someone to be tormented/punished/isolated for eternity, for sins of finite duration?
My response to people like Jacob is: I don’t like being threatened.
And their answer is always the same: I’m not threatening you; I’m just telling you what my invisible friend is going to do to you if you don’t admit I’m right and worship him.
One of the evidences that the Book of Mormon is a recent — not an ancient — document is its views on atheists.
You never see any atheist characters in the Bible. Back then, they were kind of hard to find. Yet in the Book of Mormon, we have three atheists/agnostics. It’s as though when the book was being written, people were starting to take a skeptical view of religious horse crap. And so whoever wrote the Book of Mormon felt the need to address this by staging confrontations with them. But the BoM doesn’t do this honestly. It turns its atheist characters into straw men — either stupid or dishonest — who don’t say the things that atheists say,and who are pretty much unlike actual atheists. And then it gets God to end the argument by doing violence to them, which is also something that never happens in real life.
We’re going to take a look at the debating tactics encouraged by the Book of Mormon.
Jacob 7:1 And now it came to pass after some years had passed away, there came a man among the people of Nephi, whose name was Sherem.
This seems odd. A guy just appears out of nowhere? This is only one generation removed from Nephi, but Jacob doesn’t mention where Sherem comes from, or who he’s related to. Wouldn’t everybody in the group still be known to everyone? Why doesn’t anyone say, “Hey, aren’t you Joseph’s kid?”
Apologists cover this by surmising that Lehi’s family quickly ran into other people on the American continent — Jaredite or otherwise — and joined up with them. But no Book-of-Mormon writer ever mentions the existence of other people. It would have been simple for Jacob to have written one verse, saying, “And it came to pass that we did discover an exceeding multitude of people, and we did unite ourselves unto them.” One verse! That’s all it would have taken. But this never happens.
Jacob 7:2 And it came to pass that he began to preach among the people, and to declare unto them that there should be no Christ. And he preached many things which were flattering unto the people; and this he did that he might overthrow the doctrine of Christ.
7:3 And he labored diligently that he might lead away the hearts of the people, insomuch that he did lead away many hearts; and he knowing that I, Jacob, had faith in Christ who should come, he sought much opportunity that he might come unto me.
Hey, that’s great — he’s engaging with someone who disagrees with him. That’s a good thing to do.
Jacob 7:4 And he was learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery, and much power of speech, according to the power of the devil.
Ask: In what way does the LDS Church flatter people, or appeal to their sense of importance?
Have you ever heard any of the following?
You have been held in reserve as a chosen generation
The creator of the universe knows your name
You are a child of God
You can become a god and have your own planet(s)
The work and the glory of God is to bring to pass your own personal immortality and eternal life
Your moral system was given to you by the creator of the universe
The entire “plan of salvation” is one gigantic ego stroke.
So much so, that they have to bring you down by telling you you’re less than the dust of the earth. But more on that later.
Jacob 7:5 And he had hope to shake me from the faith, notwithstanding the many revelations and the many things which I had seen concerning these things; for I truly had seen angels, and they had ministered unto me. And also, I had heard the voice of the Lord speaking unto me in very word, from time to time; wherefore, I could not be shaken.
Oh, good for him.
Isn’t it funny how angels only appear to people who already believe in them? You know, if angels were appearing to people — even disbelievers — routinely, it would shake up this whole atheist thing, and make it a lot less plausible. I’m just saying.
Jacob 7:6 And it came to pass that he came unto me, and on this wise did he speak unto me, saying: Brother Jacob, I have sought much opportunity that I might speak unto you; for I have heard and also know that thou goest about much, preaching that which ye call the gospel, or the doctrine of Christ.
7:7 And ye have led away much of this people that they pervert the right way of God, and keep not the law of Moses which is the right way; and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence. And now behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy; for no man knoweth of such things; for he cannot tell of things to come. And after this manner did Sherem contend against me.
It’s hard to know what’s going to happen. As Niels Bohr said,
But I do know a good way to predict the future: use the scientific method. By observing what’s happened in the past, we can make testable hypotheses that do predict what’s going to happen in the future.
Jacob 7:8 But behold, the Lord God poured in his Spirit into my soul, insomuch that I did confound him in all his words.
Care to elaborate?
Jacob: “I totally put him in his place with all my great arguments. Yep. Shut him down, I can tell you.”
It’s like that scene in a movie where someone gives a great speech, but the script writers don’t actually write the speech; they just do a montage of the audience nodding thoughtfully.
If Jacob really burned Sherem with so many zingers, why didn’t he write them down? I would have! In fact, I already do that in Facebook posts, and then I read them all to my wife!
Come on, Jacob, you owe us something.
Jacob 7:9 And I said unto him: Deniest thou the Christ who shall come? And he said: If there should be a Christ, I would not deny him; but I know that there is no Christ, neither has been, nor ever will be.
This is an oversimplification; I think most atheists today wouldn’t say they could know that.
Jacob 7:10 And I said unto him: Believest thou the scriptures? And he said, Yea.
7:11 And I said unto him: Then ye do not understand them; for they truly testify of Christ. Behold, I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ.
This is revisionism. Certainly Christians have been good at plowing through the Old Testament looking for anything that might possibly apply to Jesus, but this could be done retroactively for Elvis (Presley or Costello, take your pick).
When you have a text in front of you, it’s easy to draw imaginary connections that match nothing but what’s in your head.
Jacob 7:12 And this is not all — it has been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen; and it also has been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, I know if there should be no atonement made all mankind must be lost.
And here, Jacob falls back on testimony. Sherem should believe it’s true because the Holy Ghost told Jacob. Sorry, Jacob, but your special feels are not publicly verifiable evidence. Bearing testimony is a tactic for shutting down the conversation. Can’t argue with that, as they say.
Jacob 7:13 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Show me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much.
Okay, so now Sherem has touched the third rail. He’s asked Jacob for evidence for his claims.
Apparently you are never supposed to do this, even though this is how we establish facts in literally every other area of epistemology.
So then God puts the Big Hurt on Sherem. Seem like a bit of overkill, doesn’t it? Really, all that was needed was some kind of evidence, or a convincing explanation. Not to kill him, which after all is not really evidence of anything. People die all the time. Anyway.
Jacob 7:14 And I said unto him: What am I that I should tempt God to show unto thee a sign in the thing which thou knowest to be true? Yet thou wilt deny it, because thou art of the devil. Nevertheless, not my will be done; but if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he has power, both in heaven and in earth; and also, that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine.
7:15 And it came to pass that when I, Jacob, had spoken these words, the power of the Lord came upon him, insomuch that he fell to the earth. And it came to pass that he was nourished for the space of many days.
7:16 And it came to pass that he said unto the people: Gather together on the morrow, for I shall die; wherefore, I desire to speak unto the people before I shall die.
7:17 And it came to pass that on the morrow the multitude were gathered together; and he spake plainly unto them and denied the things which he had taught them, and confessed the Christ, and the power of the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels.
7:18 And he spake plainly unto them, that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell, and of eternity, and of eternal punishment.
7:19 And he said: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God; for I denied the Christ, and said that I believed the scriptures; and they truly testify of him. And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.
7:20 And it came to pass that when he had said these words he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost.
Ever notice how all the really interesting things happened in the distant past? I deny the Christ all the time, and I’m still walking around like God’s imaginary or something.
Ask: What do we learn from the story of Sherem?
1. Believers should just bear their testimonies to critics, and pray for God to strike them down.
2. Doubters secretly do know it’s all true, but they’re being deceived by Satan.
Whoops, there’s a flag down on the play.
Well, I’m going to be sad to see Sherem go, even though he was a bit of a Judaism apologist. It’s just that the Book of Mormon villains are the most fun. We’ll see the same pattern in our other two villains (Nehor and Korihor): the Book of Mormon writer can’t deal with the arguments of unbelievers honestly; he has to present outrageous caricatures of their views, and subject them to dismal ends.
Additional lesson ideas
Jacob signs off with these words:
Jacob 7:27 And I, Jacob, saw that I must soon go down to my grave; wherefore, I said unto my son Enos: Take these plates. And I told him the things which my brother Nephi had commanded me, and he promised obedience unto the commands. And I make an end of my writing upon these plates, which writing has been small; and to the reader I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren, adieu.
People have made much of the word adieu here, but is it really a big deal? Yes, the word is French, which didn’t exist in this time period — and all the other words are in English, which also didn’t exist in this time period.
Even though the French word adieu seems odd in this context, I’m putting this one down as “not a big deal”. Although it does mean God’s a bit of a crap translator, along with everything else he’s not great at.
To encourage intellectual independence, and discourage the intellectual docility and immorality that results from a focus on obedience to “what God wants”
Here we go, into the Book of Mormon, starting with 1 Nephi 1.
This first part is the best part of the whole book. It’s a rollicking adventure tale that really moves. I think the reason that it works so well is that the author (let’s say it was Joseph Smith) had two goes at it. The first draft was probably burnt by Lucy Harris (Martin’s wife), and — mechanical reproduction not being an option in this age — Joseph had to write the whole thing again. The second draft is always better, isn’t it?
• Lehi has a vision that Jerusalem is to be destroyed and he has to leave.
1 Nephi 1:13 And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem — that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon.
• He tries to warn the people, but they try to kill him, because Jews. Nice to see some consistency between the anti-Semitism of the New Testament and the anti-Semitism of the Book of Mormon.
1 Nephi 1:19 And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of the Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.
1:20 And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away. But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.
1 Nephi 2:4 And it came to pass that he departed into the wilderness. And he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness.
2:5 And he came down by the borders near the shore of the Red Sea; and he traveled in the wilderness in the borders which are nearer the Red Sea; and he did travel in the wilderness with his family, which consisted of my mother, Sariah, and my elder brothers, who were Laman, Lemuel, and Sam.
• Lehi sends Nephi and his rebellious brothers back to Jerusalem, to get some brass plates containing their scriptures and history.
1 Nephi 3:2 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, saying: Behold I have dreamed a dream, in the which the Lord hath commanded me that thou and thy brethren shall return to Jerusalem.
3:3 For behold, Laban hath the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of my forefathers, and they are engraven upon plates of brass.
• After making some long boring speeches to his brothers, Nephi kills Laban and steals the plates. Zoram, a servant, joins the party.
1 Nephi 4:18 Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword.
4:38 And it came to pass that we took the plates of brass and the servant of Laban, and departed into the wilderness, and journeyed unto the tent of our father.
• Lehi tells Nephi to return to Jerusalem for a third time, and bring Ishmael, and his daughters for breeding. Whether the daughters had any say in the matter is unknown. Already it’s not looking great for women in this book.
1 Nephi 7:2 And it came to pass that the Lord commanded him that I, Nephi, and my brethren, should again return unto the land of Jerusalem, and bring down Ishmael and his family into the wilderness.
Main ideas for this lesson
Mormon role models
Nephi is probably the Book of Mormon’s greatest hero and spiritual role model.
And he’s a pain in the ass.
It’s hard to say this without sounding like Laman or Lemuel — which I suppose is the point of having these two characters in the story — but it’s true. Nephi goes on at length about his own righteousness, and responds to any opposition with sanctimonious hectoring and long religious speeches.
Ask: What unpleasant effects could Nephi-as-role-model have on Mormons? Answers: Poor boundaries, calls to repentance, lack of respect for other people’s life choices, insufferability
It looks like dad is serious about this leaving thing. He says that he had “a dream in which God told him to leave Jerusalem. I guess it couldn’t have had anything to do with the mostaccioli he ate before he went to bed. I always have dreams like that if I eat pizza before I sleep.
Laman and I are resisting, but it looks like we’re going too. We don’t really have to, I guess, but if we don’t, how will we eat? Despair. I have a girlfriend and my own horse. Dad is loaded with gold, which we can’t take into the wilderness because it’s too heavy. of course, that momma’s boy Nephi is eager to go. He makes me sick I think I’ll hurl my lunch if I see him again today.
Nephi kills Laban
I want to focus on the most morally problematic action in this reading: the killing of Laban. That’s because I find it especially revealing of a lot of things I find troubling about the intellectual and moral climate of Mormonism, and theism in general.
As a young missionary, I handed out a lot of copies of the Book of Mormon. Sometimes investigators would actually read the damn thing. And sometimes the conversion process would come to screeching halt when they got to the part where Nephi kills Laban and takes the brass plates.
I’m embarrassed about this now, but at the time I never understood the objection! If God commands something, then you do it, right?
This is what I grew up with. My bishop used to say, “If the Prophet told me to go up to the top of a mountain, stand on my head and peel grapes with my toes, I would do it.” And he was supposed to be some kind of spiritual role model.
Like this guy.
And that’s part of the problem. When “doing what God says” is the most important thing, we have to ask, “How do we know what God says”?
There are two answers. One is “Leaders will tell you”.
But when LDS leaders tell members to obey God, and that they speak for God, they’re really just telling people to obey them.
This sets up a system ripe for abuse and exploitation.
The other answer is even more problematic. According to LDS theology, revelations from God can come in the form of “promptings” — thoughts or impressions.
Ask: How does Nephi know that God wants him to cut off Laban’s head? Answer: He hears a voice in his head.
1 Nephi 4:10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.
4:11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.
4:12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;
So with this lesson, the LDS Church is essentially teaching millions of people that if you have an spiritual impression to do something (like cut off someone’s head), and you feel okay about this, and it seems like there are some good reasons for doing so, you should go ahead and behead.
(Or not. Church leaders sometimes give contradictory advice about this.)
The whole idea that “doing God’s will” comes first seems calculated to engender a kind of intellectual docility, at best.
At worst, it can give believers a motivation to do any atrocity with divine sanction.
The really frightening thing is that Mormons are being taught this kind of fake morality, and then are released into the public, among the rest of us! Why aren’t there more problems?
Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die.
It therefore has no reality check.
And it is therefore uniquely armored against criticism, questioning, and self-correction. It is uniquely armored against anything that might stop it from spinning into extreme absurdity, extreme denial of reality… and extreme, grotesque immorality.
There’s no reality check saying that their actions are having a terrible effect in the world around them. The world around them is, quite literally, irrelevant. The next world is what matters. And since there’s no way to conclusively demonstrate what will and won’t get you a good place in that world, or whether that world even exists… the sky’s the limit. There’s no way to test the assertion that God wants women to wear burqas and have clitoridectomies… or that God wants us to ban same-sex marriage and teach children dangerous lies about sex. The reality check is absent. The brake lines of morality have been cut.
In light of all this, take another look at the title of this lesson: “All Things According to His Will”.
It has sinister overtones, doesn’t it?
1. Wasn’t there some other way that this could have been accomplished?
2. After the murder, Nephi puts on Laban’s clothes. How much blood would there be in a routine beheading? I imagine Nephi appearing to his brothers in Laban’s gory clothes.
1 Nephi 4:28 And it came to pass that when Laman saw me he was exceedingly frightened, and also Lemuel and Sam. And they fled from before my presence; for they supposed it was Laban, and that he had slain me and had sought to take away their lives also.
Yeah, I’ll bet they fled. “Look, it’s our psychotic delusional brother! What the fuck has he done now?”
3. (And this is the big one.)
Why did Nephi need the plates at all? Couldn’t the Lord just reveal the information again?
I’m not a historian, but others have pointed out that the Book of Mormon events wouldn’t have happened as written. The king that Nephi says was a king wouldn’t have been king.
As per 1 Nephi 1:4 which states:
For it came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, (my father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days); and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.
Zedekiah was set up as ruler over Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II after Babylonian capture. Jeconiah should have been the king of Judah in the Book of Mormon.
Whoops. Guess that’s what happens when you’re fictional.
To show that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and that God will kill you if you don’t gibe moni plox.
Have you ever noticed that the fame of a religion’s founder often grows after they’re dead? Joseph Smith, Sai Baba, Osho, and so on. By then, it’s too late for the leader to tarnish their image, and after a brief period of confusion, the followers flip into hagiography mode. They also start aggressively proselytising.
And so it is with early Christianity. We’re going to see how the spread began.
The LDS Church makes a big deal out of having witnesses to events — the witnesses for the gold plates, the witnesses to Brigham Young doing a really good Joseph Smith impersonation, and the Book of Mormon as a witness (of sorts) for the Bible.
Christians also make a big deal of having eyewitnesses; that’s why they think the New Testament is so special. It’s supposed to be the evidence for Jesus. Imagine: all these miraculous events are described, and there are eyewitnesses! The Bible says there are, and how is that not convincing.
Acts 1:1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,
1:2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:
1:3 To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:
Acts 5:32 And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.
I don’t know why Christians think this is supposed to be some kind of knock-out evidence. A lot of things are written in books, and we don’t always count them as evidence. If that were the case, then this
would be evidence for the Yellow Brick Road.
There are a few things wrong with the ‘eyewitnesses’ idea.
As we’ve seen in previous lessons, the gospels were written down decades after the events were supposed to have happened. A lot can happen to change your memory of events in that time.
Even worse, the gospels are full of anachronisms, which means they couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses in the first place.
And the earliest versions we have are copies of copies — again, not written by eyewitnesses either. At various points, verses and stories have been inserted — stories that have been believed for centuries, until scholars have come along and said, “Um, actually…”
So the whole idea of the Bible being an eyewitness account starts to look really flimsy.
Eyewitness accounts are unreliable
But let’s say that the gospels were written thirty or forty years later by eyewitnesses to the events (instead of being, as seems more likely, versions of stories that were circulating around the Christian community at the time). Even if we had that level of confidence — and we don’t — eyewitness accounts are unreliable.
Watch this TED talk with Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who has studied memory.
Ask: According to Dr Loftus, why are our memories of events unreliable, even for events we’ve witnessed? Answers:
The wording of questions can influence our memory.
Talking to other people can influence our memory.
False memories can be implanted.
This is something that believers, in my experience, do not really have a way of explaining. Yet this doesn’t seem to dent their confidence in the veracity of the Bible with its emphasis on eyewitness accounts that aren’t really eyewitness accounts at all.
But this confidence is selective. Are they willing to accept the eyewitness evidence of people who claim to have seen Mary? You can find information about her apparition to some imaginative children in Medjugorje. Apparently their tours are very popular. Are they willing to believe the eyewitnesses who report supernatural phenomena?
Many phenomena have been reported at Medjugorje, such as the sun spinning, dancing in the sky, turning colours, or being surrounded by objects such as hearts or crosses. Many have reported that they have been able to look at the sun during those times without any damage to their eyes.
The reports are clearly imaginary — wouldn’t anyone else have noticed the sun dancing in the sky? or suddenly looked like a big bowl of Lucky Charms? — and yet there are eyewitnesses willing to testify.
Are they willing to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw Muhammad split the moon with his fingers? Of course not. So why would they be willing to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive again? Their dependence on eyewitness accounts is clearly selective.
Eyewitness accounts are not really credible without independent verification from multiple sources, which is absent from these stories.
Main ideas for this lesson
Jesus jetpacks up to heaven, but thank goodness there are some angels to explain it.
Acts 1:10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
1:11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
And so began a legend that Jesus would return. Two thousand years later they’re still waiting.
Is glossolalia a real language?
This reading contains the first instance of glossolalia, or ‘speaking in tongues’.
Acts 2:1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
2:2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
2:3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
So what is ‘speaking in tongues’? Is it a real language? Well, if it were a real language — maybe, the language of angels — we might expect it to have an inventory of sounds that was the same, no matter who on earth was speaking it. We might also expect it to have sounds that differ from those of, say, English or Spanish or whatever language the speaker was used to.
Do we find those things? Well, according to Dawn Heverley in her paper Phonological Aspects of Glossolalia, it seems that the glossolalia of English speakers only uses the sounds of English. The glossolalia of Dutch speakers has the same sounds as Dutch. Same for Spanish, and so on. This makes it sort of unlikely that people are speaking some other language, and they’re probably just babbling away in sounds they’re familiar with.
Mormons aren’t big on speaking in tongues, and they tend to interpret the events in Acts as communicating in other languages for the purpose of teaching the gospel. This seems reasonable, given these verses.
Acts 2:5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
2:6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
2:7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?
2:8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
And the way they think this manifests is that missionaries are good at learning languages in the Mission Training Center. From Mormonwiki:
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the gift of tongues is manifested every day among the thousands of missionaries serving around the world. Missionaries learn foreign languages and the interpretation thereof with astonishing ease, and words come to them that they have not mastered.
I’ve heard stories like this: LDS missionaries learn languages incredibly fast, and the FBI, the CIA, and the KGB are all trying to duplicate their methods, and they’ve all failed.
Okay, so how well do missionaries learn languages while on a mission? According to the research, not all that well. Redditor hoserb2k notes a few conclusions from the literature:
Conclusion 1) On average, returned missionaries are not proficient, much less fluent [in] their mission language.
Using the FSI test (the test used by the US government to ascertain the language ability of its diplomats), the average returned missionary ranks 2+ out of five.
[They] can handle with confidence but not with facility most social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, as well as work, family, and autobiographical information; [they] can [also] handle limited work requirements
Conclusion 2) Returned missionaries speak on a level only slightly better than a comparable two-year university study, the same reading and significantly worse writing skills
Conclusion 3) Compared to a US University, a mission is incredibly ineffective as a method of foreign language acquisition.
They were largely lacking in their ability to support opinions, speculate and produce speech without errors that disturb or distract.…
Missionaries typically have well rehearsed experiences and monologues they are able to present with great smoothness and fluency.
Conclusion 4) Cultural understanding
Schwartz (2001, 234) writes [of returned missionaries] that they have a “superficial understanding and sensitivity to the target culture”
In short, missionaries are able to use language in a manner consistent with the limited domain within which they operate. They don’t experience a Day-of-Pentecost outpouring of language skill.
When I find stuff like this, it makes me think that the church was wrong about everything. I mean, of course it was, but it’s amazing how every once in a while you stumble over something you had never questioned, and — oh, that was wrong, too? Damn.
“Was nothing real?”
Are believers justified in disobeying laws?
There’s a bit of conflict in LDS doctrine on the topic of obedience to secular authority. On the one hand, you’ve got the twelfth Article of Faith.
A of F 12 We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
On the other hand, there are scriptures like these from Acts, in which the apostles refuse to obey authorities over their conscience.
Acts 4:18 And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.
4:19 But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.
Acts 5:28 Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.
5:29 Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
I would like to say that this is the church trying to have it both ways, but it would probably be more accurate to say that this is a complex issue with good points on both sides! It is important to have a functioning and lawful social order. And if there’s a conflict between the law and one’s conscience, civil disobedience can be a justified and positive way of bringing problems to the fore.
On the other hand, it’s a worry when people try to use their religious belief as a way of picking and choosing which laws they get to obey. Mormons are very big on this now because gay marriage, but I wonder how much they’d like it if it were used against them.
Thing is, I taught a whole Sunday School lesson about this once, bringing up the scriptures on both sides. It generated a lot of good discussion, and got class members thinking. (I probably finished with some rubbish like “Take it to the Lord in prayer” or some such rubbish.) But it was good to finally have a nice meaty topic in church! It was a nice break from the vapidity and torpor that (I was beginning to notice) otherwise typified the Gospel Doctrine curriculum.
Then in April 2003, at the beginning of the second Iraq War, Gordon Hinckley gave a General Conference talk that touched on this. At last! I thought, a prophet who is in touch with the Lord, and can explain more about this.
I don’t know what I was expecting for a general LDS audience. But I was crushingly disappointed by what we got. He basically ignored any complexity and threw it over to authority.
The question arises, “Where does the Church stand in all of this?”
First, let it be understood that we have no quarrel with the Muslim people or with those of any other faith. We recognize and teach that all the people of the earth are of the family of God. And as He is our Father, so are we brothers and sisters with family obligations one to another.
But as citizens we are all under the direction of our respective national leaders. They have access to greater political and military intelligence than do the people generally. Those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign. When they joined the military service, they entered into a contract by which they are presently bound and to which they have dutifully responded.
When all is said and done, we of this Church are people of peace. We are followers of our Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was the Prince of Peace. But even He said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).
Again, I don’t know what I was expecting. But Hinckley-as-prophet didn’t seem to show any of the moral sophistication — or indeed, scriptural knowledge — that I had as a simple Gospel Doctrine teacher. It was a return to vapidity. If I was looking for a way to explore gospel issues, it wasn’t going to happen here. Even the leaders at the highest level weren’t going to help me out. It was a real load on my shelf, and I think I regarded him differently after that.
Ananias and Sapphira
In the early days, Christianity (as did Mormonism) flirted with living in a socialistic commune.
Acts 2:44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
I think I made class members nervous when I’d talk about socialism.
But what should have made me nervous was that God would sometimes kill people who didn’t pay up.
Acts 5:1But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,
5:2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
5:3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
5:4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.
5:5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.
5:6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
5:7 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.
5:8 And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.
5:9 Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.
5:10 Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.
5:11 And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.
God killed a lot of believers in the Old Testament, but this is the first instance of God killing believers in the New (besides Jesus, of course). And what issue was so important for God to step in? It’s the money. Money money money. Because God has all power in the universe, but if people don’t pay up, then it starts to affect the bottom line, and that’s bad for business.
Seriously, what was this story but an attempt to frighten the early Christians into forking over everything they had to the apostles? (Laying it at their fucking feet, no less!) God is a mafia boss who shakes people down, and whacks them when they don’t comply.
Now here’s a fun idea. Have a Primary class, and you want to teach this lesson? Why not have them act it out? They’ll never shortchange the Lord again!
There are printables.
Here are some tombstones you can make. “Aren’t you glad that God doesn’t strike us down instantly now?”
Religion is just so much fucking child abuse. All of it, from start to finish.
God can take care of himself.
Let’s finish this lesson with a good story. Lawmakers are concerned about this group of Christians — and no wonder, since they’re using their religion as an excuse to write their own laws.
Acts 5:34Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space;
5:35 And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men.
5:36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
5:37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.
5:38 And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought:
5:39 But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.
Now from what we’ve read in our lessons, I’m very pleased to fight against the god of the Bible. He’s a petty, vicious, megalomaniacal, self-aggrandising jerk who routinely kills his way out of problems that he created. He’s homophobic, misogynistic, and racist, and I’m happy to fight against that kind of person.
But Gamaliel has a good point: If this God person has got such a big dick, then he can fight his own battles. Around the world, Muslims, Christians, and others are eager to take up the sword of divine vengeance and cut others down. Or to defend their God with death threats — when, as we’ve seen in this lesson, God can do his own killing, thank you very much.
That’s all for now. Next time, we’ll meet a young upstart named Paul, who would form the basis of much Christian doctrine — and he never even met Jesus. Until then.
To show contradictions in the resurrection story, and to encourage readers to seek evidence for extraordinary claims.
This lesson is about the pivotal event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. I say it’s pivotal because if it didn’t happen, then there’s no point to Christianity at all. And Paul says as much.
1 Corinthians 15:14And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
This really came home to me when my father passed on. I realised that I was the grown-up now, and I had to decide how I was going to live. And if there was a life after this, or no life after this, I wanted to know it. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you don’t care about defending the story you’ve always lived by, and you just want to know if you’re right or wrong. Well, at this point, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.
So for me, the crucial question became: Did the resurrection of Jesus happen?
And my answer: Of course not. Why would it? Don’t be a credulous nincompoop. People don’t just get up from being totally dead. When has that ever happened in all of human experience? Never. So if someone wants to convince me that it really happened, thry’re going to need better evidence than copies of documents. And as Sam Harris points out, that’s all we got.
Bible scholars agree that the first gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus. Decades.
And of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts which have thousands — literally thousands — of descrepancies between them, many of which show signs of later interpolation, which is to say that people added passages that then became part of the canon. There are whole books of the canon, like the book of Revelation, which for hundreds of years were not included because they were deemed false gospel. There are other whole books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which you probably haven’t heard of, but for centuries it was considered part of the canon, and then was later jettisoned as false gospel.
Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken. Think about that. This process, this all too human process of cobbling together the supposed authoritative word of god is a very precarious basis to assert the claims of Christianity. But the truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneaus claims of the miracles of Jesus this would not be good enough. Because miracle stories abound even in the 21st century. The devotees of the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba ascribe all of the miracles of Jesus to him. He reads minds, he fortells the future, he heals, he raises the dead, he was born of a virgin. Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. You may not have heard of him, but they had a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are vast numbers of people that think he is a living god.
So Christianity is predicated on the claim that miracle stories — exactly of the kind that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba — become especially credible when you place them in a pre-scientific religious context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurance, as attested to by copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek and largely discrepant manuscripts. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses and they don’t even merit an hour on cable television. And, yet, you put a few miracle stories in an ancient book and half the people on Earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around. Does anyone else see a problem with that?
Actually, yes, I do.
Speaking of “largely discrepant manuscripts”, we’re going to see how the stories in the gospels are hopelessly confused as to the details of the resurrection. Here’s a helpful infographic.
This was God’s opportunity to report the facts of the case, and it resembles nothing more than a mishmash of human fabrication.
So how does Christianity paper over this? The surprising answer: By expecting you not to demand any evidence for its claims, and by telling you that you’ll be blessed if you believe without evidence. How about that?
Main ideas for this lesson
Rolling away the stone?
Let’s start at the beginning: In the morning, two Marys (and a Salome, if you believe Mark) were heading to the tomb.
Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
Other Mary: Why do I have to be ‘other Mary’?
Mary: You’re not married to Jesus.
Other Mary: Well, you’re not married to Jesus!
I don’t know what they thought they were going to do; there was supposed to be a huge stone there. But then Matthew reports a second huge earthquake that no one else noticed, and an angel rolls away the stone.
Matthew 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
Already we have a fail. Round tomb stones weren’t really a thing at the time. They wouldn’t be popular until about 70 CE, which supports the idea that this was a later addition. Richard Carrier notes:
There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).
Jesus then appears to different people in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. Rather than recount it, I refer to this portion of our infographic.
If that’s not enough for you, I have this PDF file from my good friend David Austin. (He should get a blog.) Click the image to download a copy for yourself.
Thomas and doubt
Jesus appears to the rest of the apostles. And since it’s John, notice the “fear of teh Jooz”. He’s always on about the Jews.
John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
Good so far, except Thomas wasn’t there. And he won’t believe it until he sees it.
John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
Good on him. He’s demanding the kind of evidence that’s required to support a claim. That’s what a person should do.
John 20:26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
20:27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.
Thomas believes, but at least he’s doing it right. He wants evidence, he gets it, and he changes his mind.
But now here’s Jesus with the kicker.
John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
Here we have it, folks. This is the one that I count as the worst verse in scripture. Jesus is saying that evidence is fine, but no evidence is just as good. Maybe even better.
By insisting that believing without evidence is somehow on a par with believing with evidence, Jesus takes the metric that rational people use to evaluate claims, and turns it on its head. If we all did this, there’s no limit to the mutually exclusive and contradictory claims we could believe. To accept this way of thinking is to abandon reason.
Imagine how irresponsible it is for a god to demand this. Here we are in our short lives, having to choose the right religion or philosophy or story among tens of thousands, and if you get it wrong, it’s no salvation for you. Those are serious consequences (which God has set out). A responsible parent would spell out the evidence for his gospel fairly clearly. God doesn’t do that. Instead, he expects you to pick one without adequate reasons, and hope you got it right. To be fair, he also is supposed to give out feelings, the nature of which can easily be misunderstood, and which are experienced by followers of all religions. Otherwise, good luck.
This theme of not needing evidence is often taken up by believers I’ve met. When I ask for evidence, they never provide it. Instead, they make excuses for why I shouldn’t expect evidence, or they tell me why I should accept substitutes for evidence (like feelings). Strangely, they don’t seem to see how this is an evasion of the responsibility to back up what they say.
To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
Ask: How does the LDS Church encourage people to “avoid the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss” church doctrines? Answers: By avoiding material that is not “inspiring”, and by labelling books and people who tell the truth about the church as “anti-Mormon”.
Ask: How is the refusing to confront doubts “one long sin against mankind”? Answer: One of the most important things we can do in life is to advance our collective knowledge. Doing this helps create technologies that can cure illness, sustain life, and improve the quality of living. But this only works if we make reality the metric against which we compare other ideas. Accepting false beliefs means that we stop advancing, and start retreating, and this helps humankind not at all.
I’d like to take a moment and bear my testimony of doubt. Doubt is amazing! Doubt has helped me figure out what’s true and what’s false far better than faith can. Having faith just confirms what you believe, whether it’s right or not. It’s like a compass that always points in the way you’re going. What good is that? It might be okay if you’re trying to feel good about your beliefs, but if you’re trying to find out what’s true, it’s no use at all.
By contrast, doubt won’t hurt true claims (as long as you understand the kind of evidence required to establish a claim). However, it’s lethal to false ones.
Why’s it have to be snakes?
Jesus eventually jet-packed back up to heaven, but before he did, he left this instruction:
Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.
Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church. The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.
At first, “All I could think about — am I going to make it?” Coots said.
Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.
His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured “Sweet Jesus,” said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.
People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.
A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.
This raises all kinds of questions for me.
When someone dies from a snake bite in these churches, why don’t they take it as a sign of the victim’s lack of faith?
Why do they pray for the person to get better? Is that supposed to be some kind of Plan B, in case of lack of faith?
And where are all the poison-drinking churches? Did they used to exist, but poison worked more reliably than snakes?
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?
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.
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:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To show that indoctrination, ostracism, and magical cursings are not good ways to treat people.
The purpose for this lesson, according to the LDS lesson manual, is:
To help class members humble themselves, forgive others, and show charity for one another.
That’s all very well, but it’s only a part of the story. Believers like to cherry-pick the good bits of the Bible, and that gives people the impression that it’s all nice and good, with love, puppy dogs, and rainbows for everyone. And while there’s lots of good stuff in these two chapters about forgiveness and service, there are also some really bad examples of how to treat people. So this lesson’s here for some balance.
Main ideas for this lesson
Jesus teaches that you have to be like a child to get into heaven.
Matthew 18:1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
18:2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
18:3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Ask: Why would it be beneficial to a religious leader that his followers be like children?
Children are great. They have a playfulness, an openness to experience, and in lots of ways a lack of bias that’s quite enviable. They haven’t yet taken on political or social baggage that makes it hard for us adults to change our minds sometimes. There’s a lot to recommend about having a childlike outlook.
Children are also not great at critical thinking. With their scarcity of real-world experience, they believe everything you tell them, which works to the advantage of religious leaders. This is why religions focus on the indoctrination of children, before they’re able to challenge dogma.
Ask: Is there a positive function for the uncritical acceptance that children are prone to? Answer: Richard Dawkins thinks so. In this video, he points out that children usually benefit when they uncritically accept information from parents and carers.
He likens it to the navigation system of a moth. When the only light source is the moon, moths are able to navigate smoothly. But artificial light sidetracks their systems and makes them fly in crazy loops around streetlights.
By the same token, there’s a positive function to children believing what adults say. But when those adults are affected by religion, the bad is accepted along with the good, and the religion spreads. It’s a case of something bad hijacking something good.
Partial transcript if you can’t watch video:
These moths are not committing suicide. They’re doing a piece of behaviour which would be sensible for all the millions of years that were there when the only lights you ever saw at night were celestial objects at optical infinity. Now I think that that’s what religion is like. I think that religion is a byproduct of probably several psychological predispositions which in themselves have Darwinian survival value, but which have consequences parallel to the consequence of the moth flying to the candle flames — have consequences which probably don’t have survival value. But just as the moth doesn’t know that the candle flame is not at infinity but is close by, so those of us who have these psychological predispositions which would have been a good thing in our ancestral past — may still be a good thing — the consequence of leading to religious behavior which may not be a good thing doesn’t occur to us. I mean, the kind of thing I’m thinking about is a tendency to obey authority in a child. It’s probably a good thing for child to obey its parents — to believe its parents, indeed — when its parents tell it things about the world, because the child is too young to know a lot of important things about the world, and would die if it ignored its parents’ beliefs; its parents advice. So good advice like “Don’t jump in the fire” has survival value. But the child brain, just like the moth brain, has no way of distinguishing the good advice like “Don’t jump in the fire” from the stupid advice like “Sacrifice a mongoose’s kidneys at the time of the full moon, or the crops will fail.” So I suspect that religion may be a complicated set of byproducts of psychological predispositions, each one of which itself has an advantage, but the religious byproduct is either neutral or — well, we don’t even need to say whether it has an advantage, it doesn’t matter; the Darwinian explanation is sufficient if we postulate that the original psychological predispositions had Darwinian survival value.
Another take on this topic: Think of your role models. Who are the people you look up to?
As for me, I look up to smart people. My heroes are the people who are doing science. These are people who have worked to understand the world, and to build their intellectual character so as to have humility and avoid bias and self-deception. Those are the people I want to be like.
Ask: What intellectual climate is a group trying to encourage if its role models are the most cognitively immature and intellectually docile people in all of humankind?
What benefit would that be to such a group’s leaders?
Early Christians must have noticed that, just as in the church today, the people they were attracting weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed. And so they wrote a rationale into the Bible.
Luke 10:21 In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.
Yeah, they knew.
Hell, with fire, again
Jesus repeats his advice to cut off your hands and feet, and put out your eyes.
Matthew 18:8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire.
18:9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
This is the third time Jesus has mentioned hell, with actual fire. We’re going to cover Hell in more detail in lesson 17.
For now, though, let’s talk about an extra angle on this scripture from the Joseph Smith Translation.
From the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:
Discuss Matthew 18:8–9 and Mark 9:43–48 (see also Matthew 5:29–30).
JST Matthew 18:9And a man’s hand is his friend, and his foot, also; and a man’s eye, are they of his own household.
What do these verses mean? (See Matthew 18:9, footnote 9a, which indicates that the Joseph Smith Translation identifies these offending elements as people who lead us astray. It is better to end our association with people than to allow them to lead us into sin. See also Joseph Smith Translation, Mark 9:40–48.)
Mormons, by and large, do not ostracise family members, and that’s a good thing. At least, they don’t do it officially. (I note, however, that I never see my old Mormon friends anymore. Maybe we never had much in common, besides church.)
This scripture, however, encourages people to disconnect from their unbelieving friends. Christianity, like a lot of ideologies, makes it difficult for believers to interact with non-believers. Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about this, which centres on a video from the Atheist Experience, in which Jeff and Matt discuss the divisive tendency of Christianity.
People who actually understand what love is; people who actually understand what morality is; people who actually understand reality; it is almost unbearable to watch the people that you love be so absolutely duped into a divisive, hateful religion that they think is not divisive; they think it’s inclusive, and they think it’s positive.
… The division is entirely one-sided. I didn’t end relationships when I became an atheist. Christians ended those relationships, and it was because their particular religion cannot tolerate.
Jesus again condemns divorce — advice which many Christians happily dismiss, and good for them.
From the manual, again:
Explain that Matthew 19:1–12 describes a situation in which the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him about the lawfulness of divorce (see also Mark 10:1–12).
Explain that in ancient Israel, a man could put away, or divorce, his wife for insignificant reasons. Jesus taught that in a perfect world, such as the celestial kingdom, divorce does not exist. Because the earth is not yet perfect, divorce is allowed but should not happen except for the most serious reasons. Matthew 19:9 indicates that a man who put away his wife for a frivolous reason was still married to her in the eyes of God, and he thus committed adultery if he married another woman. (See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. , 473–75, 484; see also Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols. [1979–81], 2:138–39.)
I just want to add that when someone disapproves of something, it’s very common for them to claim that people do it for frivolous reasons.
Divorce: They get married, and figure that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll just get divorced and try someone else!
Abortion: Why, it’s just a form of birth control for some people!
Leaving the church: They were offended and wanted to sin. Something something milk strippings.
This way of thinking sees people trivialising the life choices of other people when those choices don’t accord with theirs. I don’t know anyone who takes any of these decisions lightly — in most cases, it’s one of the most difficult and well-thought-through choices in that person’s life — but for someone with this view, it makes it difficult for them to understand why anyone would make that choice. Or should I say “sin that sin”. So much for empathy.
Dusting off feet
Jesus tells missionaries to dust off their feel if people don’t believe them, as a kind of curse.
Luke 10:10 But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say,
10:11 Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.
10:12 But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city.
This has led to some pretty wild stories about modern foot-dusting. Here’s one about Samuel Smith, brother of Joseph Smith.
“Samuel was sick at heart, for this was the 5th time he had been turned out of doors that day. He left the house and traveled a short distance and washed his feet in a small brook, as a testimony against [the tavern owner who had rejected him]. He then proceeded five miles further on his journey, and seeing an apple tree a short distance from the road, he concluded to pass the night under it; and here he lay all night upon the cold, damp ground. In the morning, he arose from his comfortless bed, and observing a small cottage at no great distance, he drew near, hoping to get a little refreshment…. He…proceeded to Bloomington, which was 8 miles further.
“Here he stopped at the house of John P. Greene, who was a Methodist preacher and was at that time about starting on a preaching mission. He, like the others, did not wish to make a purchase of what he considered at that time to be a nonsensical fable; however, he said that he would take a subscription paper, and if he found anyone on his route who was disposed to purchase, he would take his name, and in two weeks Samuel might call again and he would let him know what the prospect was of selling. After making this arrangement, Samuel left one of his books with him, and returned home. At the time appointed, Samuel started again for the Reverend John P. Greene’s, in order to learn the success which this gentleman had met with in finding sale for the Book of Mormon. This time, Mr. Smith and myself accompanied him, and it was our intention to have passed near the tavern where Samuel was so abusively treated a fortnight previous, but just before we came to the house, a sign of smallpox intercepted us. We turned aside, and meeting a citizen of the place, we inquired of him, to what extent this disease prevailed. He answered that the tavern keeper and two of his family had died with it not long since, but he did not know that anyone else had caught the disease, and that it was brought into the neighborhood by a traveler who stopped at the tavern overnight” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, pp.225-226)
Yep — he dusted off his feet, and gave someone smallpox. Because that’s how smallpox works. Kind of a dick move, isn’t it?
This scripture stands as a bit of a contrast to the previous chapter, where Jesus refuses to curse some Samaritans.
Luke 9:51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,
9:52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.
9:53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.
9:54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?9:55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.9:56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
Consistency wasn’t Jesus’s big thing.
On my mission, foot-dusting-off was the subject of some discussion. Some missionaries were like, “Well, the scripture tells us to do it,” and other elders were like, “OMG, don’t do it, you’ll kill someone and destroy entire cities.” Never did it occur to me that I was worshipping and serving an abusive asshole.
The silly things we used to think.
Satan falling from heaven
A throw-away quote from Jesus gives us one of the world’s great pick-up lines.
Luke 10:17 And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name.
10:18 And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.
The good Samaritan
We’re getting to the end of this lesson, and we’ve seen so much bad behaviour so far. Let’s hear a good story.
Luke 10:25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
10:26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
10:27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
10:28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
10:29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
10:30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
10:31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
10:32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
10:33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
10:34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
10:35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
10:36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
10:37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
It’s great to do good where you see it — and it’s sometimes hard to recognise such a situation in the moment. In a famous study, psychologists found that our willingness to help was more a function of the situation, and not our personality.
We are all too quick to apply dispositional labels on people for their actions or lack of actions, while ignoring the situational factors that are so influential in behavior. We need to stop and think before being too hard on ourselves or on others for actions and behaviors.
Even so, one does get the impression that Jesus didn’t find Samaritans entirely positive.
If I could give some secular homework for this lesson, maybe it would be to look for opportunities to help. Some causes present themselves to us online, while others appear in real life. Maybe taking time to notice them would help us to step up and make a difference. Let’s all take a cue from the slogan of the Sunday Assembly, and “help often”.
Thank goodness we’re done with Isaiah. But no sooner do we get done with him then — oh, no — it’s Jeremiah. Jeremiah is just like Isaiah, except more depressing. This could be because, whereas Isaiah got to walk around naked a lot — some people find naturist culture very relaxing — Jeremiah spent a lot more time in dungeons. And little wonder: he scolds and harangues people, and then wonders why they can’t stand him. Jeremiah spent so much time haranguing people that he inspired a word for a long and tedious harangue against people: it’s a jeremiad.
And predictably, Jeremiah’s screed is full of blood and fire. There’s one thing we can say about the god of the Bible: he’s consistent. He tells people about the atrocious acts of murder he’s going to wage against them. For instance:
Jeremiah says that God is tired of holding back his fury, and wants to kill everyone.
6:11 Therefore I am full of the fury of the LORD; I am weary with holding in: I will pour it out upon the children abroad, and upon the assembly of young men together: for even the husband with the wife shall be taken, the aged with him that is full of days.
6:12 And their houses shall be turned unto others, with their fields and wives together: for I will stretch out my hand upon the inhabitants of the land, saith the LORD.
Their dead bodies will be eaten by birds and beasts.
7:33 And the carcases of this people shall be meat for the fowls of the heaven, and for the beasts of the earth; and none shall fray them away.
God will punish them by killing their sons and daughters.
11:22 Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, Behold, I will punish them: the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine:
And God will lift their skirts, non-consensually.
13:26Therefore will I discover thy skirts upon thy face, that thy shame may appear.
But why is God going to kill everyone? Because their fathers didn’t believe in him enough.
16:10 And it shall come to pass, when thou shalt shew this people all these words, and they shall say unto thee, Wherefore hath the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?
16:11 Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the LORD, and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, and have forsaken me, and have not kept my law;
Walked after other gods? Could you put this into a sexual metaphor for me?
3:1 They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD.
3:2 Lift up thine eyes unto the high places, and see where thou hast not been lien with. In the ways hast thou sat for them, as the Arabian in the wilderness; and thou hast polluted the land with thy whoredoms and with thy wickedness.
3:3 Therefore the showers have been withholden, and there hath been no latter rain; and thou hadst a whore’s forehead, thou refusedst to be ashamed.
Keep going, but now incorporate primitive sex toys.
3:9 And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stocks (trees).
I actually enjoy this imagery:
5:7 How shall I pardon thee for this? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by them that are no gods: when I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses.
5:8 They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour’s wife.
But remember: God is warning people about all the evil he’s going to do, so that maybe he won’t have to do all the evil to them. So that’s good.
36:3 It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.
But “Obey me, or I will have you killed” is not much of a choice, is it? Many times in church, I would hear speakers or teachers say something like the following: “God gives us commandments, and invites us to obey. If we obey, we get blessings, and if we don’t, then there will be consequences to our actions.” Which is all very well, but the picture that emerges from our reading of the Old Testament is that God gives commandments, and then threatens us with death if we don’t obey them (or if our fathers don’t).
At least at this stage in the OT, the threats only extend to death. Jesus will update that to include eternal punishment in hell.
Main points from this lesson
Is it good to be ‘an iron pillar’?
Jeremiah says God told him this:
1:18 For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land.
In case the class hasn’t seen anything made of iron before, the real lesson manual helpfully suggests:
Display a metal bar and invite a class member to try to break it. Then ask the following questions:
• If this object represented a person’s characteristics, what would it suggest about him or her?
I imagine they’re shooting for ‘strong’, which is very positive. But take a guess: is it positive in the following scripture?
Isaiah 48:4 …thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass;
Answer: Not here. Here, it’s symbolic of an inflexible nature. For Jehovah, it’s bad to be inflexible by not believing in him, but good to be inflexible in his service — just like with murder, genocide, and a lot of other nasty things.
One of the things I’ve been learning (post-religion) is the importance of being able to change my mind when the facts require. It’s one of science’s great strengths that it can update to accommodate new facts. And it’s good to be able to change one’s mind on an individual level, as everything we think is probably at least a little bit wrong.
I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said–with passion–“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal–unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.
I respect Dawkins most when he admits his lack of knowledge in some area, as in this clip (question starts at 38:04, Dawkins’ comment at 47:50)
Chairman: I just want to hear from Richard Dawkins. The same debate essentially has been going on in the U.K. and in fact right across Europe. Your thoughts on hearing it repeated here?
Richard: I’ve been rather moved to hear the very humane statements that have been made. I don’t feel I should contribute to this debate. I know nothing about the Australian situation, but I was moved especially by what the Rabbi was saying.
And I respect him least when he’s dismissive of others, as in his recent Twitter squabbles.
As for me, I love being wrong. Well, not really — does anyone? But once I was talking to a listener of my podcast (Talk the Talk), and she said, “Have you ever gotten something wrong?” I thought for a second, and had to say, “No, I haven’t.” But then I realised, with some horror: I have gotten it wrong, and I just don’t know it!
Then on a later episode, someone pointed out that I’d made a mistake. And I thought, thank goodness! What a relief! For one thing, I didn’t have to think that wrong thing anymore, so I knew more than before. And for another, someone’s noticing my mistakes, so I’ve probably gotten most of the other things right, otherwise someone would have said something.
This willingness to change my mind is part of why I do this blog, and why I engage with believers. If I’m wrong about this religion thing, someone will tell me, and if they have the facts, I can be convinced. Based on the last million interactions, it’s not looking good, and I’m not holding my breath. It would take an awful lot to convince me that all the immoral things we’ve read are moral. If someone were able to convince me, it might have more to do with my moral failure than with their having a good argument. After all, what could make this god’s actions moral? But I have to, at least in theory, keep the door open, keep talking, and keep engaging. Not be iron.
“Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee”
Mormons use this scripture to support the notion of a pre-mortal life.
1:5 Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
I’ve mentioned before that the pre-mortal life was one of my favourite Mormon doctrines, mostly because of an epiphany I used to have when seeing tons of people at once in a public place. Oh, look, I’d think, all my brothers and sisters from the realms of glory, etc. It was a lovely thought, and after deconversion, one that I hated to lose. I didn’t think I’d ever have access to that again.
Of course, there are some aspects of the pre-mortal life that aren’t so lovely. It means that God made a whole lot of people, knowing in advance that they wouldn’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom, and that they’d therefore face eternal separation from their families / God / Ed McMahon and so forth. Why would his perfect system involve exclusion and isolation for so many? Not too cool, God. Why didn’t he use his all-knowingness to know who would make it back to his presence, and only create those people? Why wouldn’t he make a bar that everyone could clear? And the answer is that the system doesn’t have a way of controlling you if you don’t have something to lose.
A bit of an update: One bright, sunny day at the university where I teach, I was walking to my office, and noticing all the terrific students around the place. So many smart people! All a little different from each other; all carrying different DNA. And I started thinking about evolution, and how the genes of everyone that I was seeing had combined in partly random ways from parents to make gazillions of different people, walking around here on earth. I realised that was we call ‘humankind’ was nothing less than the sum total of all the humans who were alive today, and here we were, and it was all happening now! And we were all related! Wow!
It was the pre-mortal epiphany again. I was very pleased to find that, despite my lack of belief, I hadn’t lost access to it. But this time it was based in something real, and no less inspiring.
Additional lesson ideas
Of leopards and spots
You’ve probably heard people say “A leopard can’t change its spots” as a way of referring to the immutability of personality or motivation. Well, that saying comes from Jeremiah, except with a slight twist:
13:23Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.
It’s probably good that we don’t say the first part anymore. Totally not cool, Bible.
Don’t have Christmas trees
Jeremiah appears to condemn Christmas trees.
10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
Of course, Jeremiah — having no actual prophetic powers — wasn’t referring specifically to Christmas trees. People don’t nail Christmas trees to the floor, anyway, but that’s easy to overlook when you read this passage and think “Christmas tree”. But it’s fun to float this scripture in a real Gospel Doctrine class, and watch the gymnastics that follow.
What’s with deck, anyhow? When we talk about decorating things, there’s nothing we would say that we deck. The usefulness of this word would appear to have shrunk to halls and trees.
Here’s the story. The word comes from Middle Dutch dekken, “to cover”, so you deck a tree when you cover it. For that matter, the deck of a boat is the part that covers the boat, so that’s related, too. And when you deck someone, you lay them out on the deck. (Those sailors; always fighting.) It’s fun to see how the meaning of words coincide.
Here’s one of the more desolate passages from Jeremiah.
8:15 We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!
8:16 The snorting of his horses was heard from Dan: the whole land trembled at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones; for they are come, and have devoured the land, and all that is in it; the city, and those that dwell therein.
8:20 The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
8:22 Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?
That sounded pretty good, but it would sound better if it were set to music by… oh, say… Ralph Vaughan Williams. And look! it is. Here’s his Dona Nobis Pacem.
The whole thing is good, mostly thanks to the poetry of Walt Whitman, but for this lyric, start at 28:11.
Finally, we’re into the third of our three Isaiahs. Trito-Isaiah (as he’s known) likes writing about the destruction and death that will characterise the end times, but along the way, he writes some scriptures that Mormons like because they’re about church and stuff.
First up: Why did God abandon his people? Because he got a little bit angry for a while. But don’t worry, Israel; he’ll totally make it up to you.
54:7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
54:8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer.
There’s going to be a thousand years of peace on earth. The hills will be alive with the sound of music — they’ll be singing, of course — and handclaps will be provided by trees.
55:12 For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Trees got hands?
Death to pagans and nature-worshippers, though.
57:3 But draw near hither, ye sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer and the whore.
57:4 Against whom do ye sport yourselves? against whom make ye a wide mouth, and draw out the tongue? are ye not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood.
As kids, we used to joke that this was about French kissing. But this is no joking matter; it’s death for anyone who doesn’t serve Jehovah / Jesus.
60:12 For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.
There’s currently a debate about whether Christianity or Islam is more violent, and I’d just like to toss these scriptures onto the bad pile for Christianity.
There are some nice ideas promoted along with fasting, though.
58:6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
58:7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Main points for this lesson
The Second Coming?
Through cherry-picking and tormented interpretation, Mormons (and Christians in general) have taken these Jewish scriptures — originally about Jehovah coming to save his people — and have somehow retooled them into a story about the Second Coming of Jesus. From the real lesson manual:
The closing chapters of Isaiah’s record present a beautiful picture of the Millennium, the thousand-year period of peace that will be ushered in by the Savior’s Second Coming.
Which I doubt was on Isaiah’s mind; if anything, he would have been focused on the First Coming.
Here’s a particularly egregious example from the manual:
3. Christ’s Second Coming (Isaiah 63:1–6)
• The Second Coming of the Savior is described in Isaiah 63:1–6. What color will the Savior’s robe be when he comes in his glory? (See Isaiah 63:2; Revelation 19:11–13; D&C 133:46–48.)
Oooh! I know this one from one of those Mormon trivia games. The answer is “red”.
63:2Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?
Yay, ten points. Then the manual asks:
What does the red color symbolize? (The blood that he shed when he suffered for our sins in Gethsemane and on the cross.)
No, no, no. You don’t have to read very far to see that it’s not his own blood. In the very next verses, he says it’s the blood of everyone else that he treads on in his fury. That’s right; at the last day he’s going to kill everyone, and he’s going to get their blood all over his clothes!
63:3 I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.
63:4 For the day of vengeance is in mine heart, and the year of my redeemed is come.
63:5 And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me.
63:6 And I will tread down the people in mine anger, and make them drunk in my fury, and I will bring down their strength to the earth.
It’s this kind of clueless and dishonest reading that typefies Christian attempts to retcon Jewish scriptures into Christian doctrine. However, it does put a new spin on this Minerva Teichert painting.
Look out; it’s Jesus coming to trample us! HELP! auuugghhhhhhh… crunch
God’s ways are not your ways, and your ways suck
Here’s a scripture about the sabbath that’s definitely in the Mormon Top 40.
58:13If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
58:14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
It seems that on the Sabbath, you’re supposed to do the things God wants. Fine and dandy. But there’s something troubling here. According to Isaiah, you’re not supposed to find your own pleasure, do your own ways, or even say your own words. Isn’t this kind of odd? There’s an assumption here that doing things your way is wrong. If you want something, it’s either wrong or inconsequential.
And this is something that I was constantly told: “You want the wrong thing, but God wants the right thing for you. Don’t do your thing; do his thing.” You are wrong, and your desires are wrong. And in this way, you’re taught to mistrust your own instincts about what is right, to second-guess your innate human sense of right and wrong, and replace it with whatever the church says.
I don’t think this is so. I think I want good things. More so than God, in fact; I want people to be kind, have a nice life, get enough to eat, and God wants to bespatter his clothes in the blood of heathens.
Just to continue this theme, here’s what I think is #3 on the list of Worst Scriptures of All Time:
55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
55:9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
I’m counting this scripture as one of the worst for a couple of reasons. First, it has the aforementioned “God is good, you suck” meme. But second, it’s so often used as a thought-blocker. If God’s ways are not our ways, then we can’t rely on our own intuitions for how a god would do things. And that means that if something in church history or church doctrine is absurd, contradictory, or just morally repugnant, it doesn’t matter — God does things different! It excuses everything, and there’s nothing more to say about the matter.
But, the Christian says, what’s wrong with the idea that God knows more about morality than we do? Aren’t we really just demanding that he conform to our way of morality?
Well, let me respond this way: I’m just a regular human, with regular human morality, and even I can see that God’s way of doing things is fucked up.
If these are his ways, then I want no part of them. I am more moral than the being that’s described in the Bible.
The big news at the time of this writing is that the church has released an anonymous essay about polygamy in Nauvoo and Kirtland. This is the most overt admission from the Church that Joseph Smith married 14-year-old girls, and other men’s wives.
I love this bit:
Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment.
Isn’t that just like Jehovah? It’s important enough for him to send an angel with a flaming sword to force Joseph to fuck a teen, but when it comes to details of implementation, he’s like, “Eh, do whatever.” What a colossal doofus!
(“Mental note to Myself: Do a better job when explaining who’s supposed to be president of the church after Joseph.”)
I discussed this essay with a Latter-day Saint, and they gave the expected rationales:
This isn’t new information.
It happened a long time ago.
The important thing is that they stopped polygamy.
But the ultimate thought-blocker was:
I don’t understand why Heavenly Father would do that, but I’m sure I will when I get up there.
And that was really the end of the discussion. You’re dealing with a hyper-intelligent being who you can’t possibly comprehend. So don’t try. Essentially, it’s like saying “A wizard did it. Don’t think about it. A wizard did it.”
Out of all the people God could have chosen to found his church, why did he pick a known swindler and story-teller like Joseph Smith? Someone who he knew in advance would bed 14-year-olds, mother-daughter pairs, and other men’s wives — in short, someone who he knew would act like, to all appearances, a 19th century sex guru? Why would he go to all the trouble of making his church look dodgy? Well, God’s ways are higher than your ways. There’s no inconsistency or flat-out con job that you can’t excuse with this idea.
The irony here is that it’s this claim that God is super-human that is meant to distract us from noticing that his church and his modus operandi are actually very human. Everything we see about the Morg is exactly what we should expect to see if humans were running it. The problem is not that God’s ways are higher than our ways, but that his ways mirror ours too closely. We should expect more.
Everything you do is terrible
This one is a favourite scripture for the Pentecostals I’ve met:
64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
Again, same old story. No matter what you could ever do, it would still be awful. If you’re going to be worth anything, it won’t be because of anything you do. It’ll be because you attached yourself to someone else.
Have a look at these graphics that Christians use to illustrate this point.
Ask: How do they make you feel about your efforts? Do they encourage you to do your best? Or do they encourage you to shrink into reliance on someone besides yourself? What effect might this have on your self-esteem? Why would it be beneficial to a church for its members to feel helpless in their own efforts? Possible answer: The helplessness engendered by this idea keeps you coming back for more.
This is not an idea that builds self-reliant people. It creates broken people.
On reflection, I should point out that Mormons aren’t that big on this scripture, probably because it rubs up against their ideas on the importance of personal righteousness. I actually never heard this scripture until I got into the mission field. So this criticism belongs more to other sorts of Christian folk.
Additional teaching ideas
The lesson is big on stakes. The manual even helpfully says:
If you use the attention activity, bring a tent stake.
This is if no one has seen a tent stake before, or in case a vampire shows up to Sunday School.
For the lesson manual, Isaiah’s exhortation to “enlarge the place of thy tent” means: missionary work!
Stretch the tent curtains and lengthen the cords.
Strengthen the tent stakes.
What We Can Do
Serve as full-time missionaries; share the gospel with friends and neighbors.
Strengthen our local stakes.
I’m having a bit of a beef with missionary work these days. The old slogan is “Every member a missionary”, but in my experience, very few missionaries or members are familiar with the more uncomfortable areas of church history. That Joseph Smith used a magical rock in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, or even that he had multiple wives, isn’t on their radar. The new essays, anonymous and unannounced, haven’t penetrated into the awareness of the membership.
What that means is that people are serving missions — sacrificing time, money, energy, and opportunity — for a church they scarcely know, and without full knowledge of what they’re representing. Full, informed consent is still lacking.
I noticed two phrases in this reading that have worked their way into our lexicon.
Game. Which phrase actually appears in the Bible?
There is no rest for the wicked.
There is no rest for the weary.
There is no peace for the wicked.
Answer: None of them! Here’s the actual scripture.
57:21There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.
Yes, it’s always the prepositions that trip people up. This is a bit of evidence to show how prepositions have changed since the King James Translation of 1611.
The phrase “holier than thou” also appears in this reading. Jehovah / Jesus is talking about the kind of people that really piss him off.
65:5 Which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou. These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.
I hear ya, Jehovah.
Finally, a look at what Israel’s diet will consist of in the Millennium.
60:16 Thou shalt also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shalt suck the breast of kings: and thou shalt know that I the LORD am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Jacob.