Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: indoctrination (page 1 of 2)

D&C Lesson 5 (Personal Revelation)

“This Is the Spirit of Revelation”

Reading assignment

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

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

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

Main points for this lesson

Revelation

Ask: How is revelation supposed to work?

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

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

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

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

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

From the manual:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal revelation in my life

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

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

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

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

What was Oliver’s gift?

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

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

Gift of Aaron?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sprout?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BoM Lesson 32 (Stripling Warriors)

“They Did Obey . . . Every Word of Command with Exactness”

Alma 53–63

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to throw off intellectual docility and employ critical thinking.

Reading

We’re finally to the end of Alma!

Gaston bom

For this reading, we continue with the Lamanite/Nephite wars. But now we get a new set of characters: 2,000 young men who were descended from the pacifist Ammonites, but who had never taken an oath of pacifism themselves. That’s right folks: it’s the Stripling Warriors!

Alma 53:22 And now it came to pass that Helaman did march at the head of his two thousand stripling soldiers, to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea.

“Stripling”? I don’t think I’ve ever strippled in my life.

But of course this is an old word.

stripling (n.)
“a youth,” late 14c., of uncertain origin, possibly from strip (n.1) “long, narrow piece,” on the notion of “one who is slender as a strip, whose figure is not yet filled out” + -ling.

Curiously, the phrase “stripling warrior” never occurs in the Book of Mormon. It’s only “stripling soldiers” (as in the above instance), and “stripling Ammonites”:

Alma 56:57 And as we had no place for our prisoners, that we could guard them to keep them from the armies of the Lamanites, therefore we sent them to the land of Zarahemla, and a part of those men who were not slain of Antipus, with them; and the remainder I took and joined them to my stripling Ammonites, and took our march back to the city of Judea.

No, not those Ammonites.

omanyte

Anyway, these young soldiers did very well, and how could they not, when they’re buffed up like this?

Mommas_Boys_Ash_-_Image_11-9-11__97317.1322931562.1280.1280

Nothing homoerotic about that.

There’s a lot of back and forth with taking cities and whatnot. I thought it was interesting that wine doesn’t seem to be a problem for the righteous Nephites. They’re happy to imbibe — as long as a Lamanite tests it first for poison.

Alma 55:28 And it came to pass that the Nephites began again to be victorious, and to reclaim their rights and their privileges.
55:29 Many time did the Lamanites attempt to encircle them about by night, but in these attempts they did lose many prisoners.
55:30 And many times did they attempt to administer of their wine to the Nephites, that they might destroy them with poison or with drunkenness.
55:31 But behold, the Nephites were not slow to remember the Lord their God in this their time of affliction. They could not be taken in their snares; yea, they would not partake of their wine, save they had first given to some of the Lamanite prisoners.
55:32 And they were thus cautious that no poison should be administered among them; for if their wine would poison a Lamanite it would also poison a Nephite; and thus they did try all their liquors.

There’s some pathetic Paulean plagiarism.

Alma 58:40 But behold, they have received many wounds; nevertheless they stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has made them free; and they are strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day; yea, they do observe to keep his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments continually; and their faith is strong in the prophecies concerning that which is to come.

 

Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

Hagoth

And then there’s this story about a curious man called Hagoth.

Alma 63:5 And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward.
63:6 And behold, there were many of the Nephites who did enter therein and did sail forth with much provisions, and also many women and children; and they took their course northward. And thus ended the thirty and seventh year.
63:7 And in the thirty and eighth year, this man built other ships. And the first ship did also return, and many more people did enter into it; and they also took much provisions, and set out again to the land northward.
63:8 And it came to pass that they were never heard of more. And we suppose that they were drowned in the depths of the sea. And it came to pass that one other ship also did sail forth; and whither she did go we know not.

Hagoth never appears in the narrative again, but Mormon tradition holds that he and his crew made it to the Pacific islands, and became the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The idea was taught by President Joseph F. Smith, who told a group of New Zealand Maoris:

“I would like to say to you brothers and sisters… you are some of Hagoth’s people, and there is NO PERHAPS about it!”

And also:

In the April General Conference of 1962, Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve said, “As Latter-day Saints, we have always believed that the Polynesians are descendants of Lehi and blood relatives of the American Indians, despite the contrary theories of other men.”

However, this view has been flatly contradicted by advances in genetics.

In an analysis of the DNA of 1,000 individuals from 41 Pacific populations, an international team of scientists found strong evidence showing that Polynesians and Micronesians in the central and eastern islands had almost no genetic relationship to Melanesians, in the western islands like Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomons archipelagos.

The researchers also concluded that the genetic data showed that the Polynesians and Micronesians were most closely related to Taiwan Aborigines and East Asians. They said this supported the view that these migrating seafarers originated in Taiwan and coastal China at least 3,500 years ago.

Simon Southerton’s been doing great work in this area.

Polynesians trace their molecular roots back to Asia. The first survey of Polynesian mitochondrial DNA found that most of the people they surveyed (90%) from the islands of Samoa, New Zealand, Niue, the Cook Islands, and Tonga had mitochondrial DNA belonging to the B lineage, which is common among Southeast Asians (Hertzberg et al. 1989).

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What does this mean for the average Mormon?

I remember how, on my mission, many Samoan and Maori missionaries told great stories of how Hagoth dovetailed into the origin stories of their people, and this proved the Book of Mormon was true.

I wonder how they feel upon learning that they’d been sold a bizarro-world alternative narrative about their heritage.

Probably not great.

As a Māori woman I’m called upon to carefully navigate the terrain of my religion, my intellectual pursuits, and my cultural identity and none of them are a neat fit. As I resist the popular representations of my religious tradition I risk rendering myself a ‘spiritual’ outsider by neglecting or even challenging what has become a sacred and beloved account of my origins. The hardest part of this is that the centre is oblivious to the tensions their historical pronouncements have created. Nobody can hold them to account for the pronouncements and they simply don’t have a ‘those guys were wrong’ or ‘perhaps they spoke hastily’ in their religious vernacular.

Main ideas for this lesson

Exactness

Mormonism is a very demanding religion. There’s a lot to do (especially as wards *ahem* empty out). And take a look at how the church uses the Book of Mormon to pile on. This one’s from the Gospel Doctrine manual.

• How did the young Ammonites respond to the commands they received? (See Alma 57:21. Write on the chalkboard Follow the prophet “with exactness.”) Why is it important to be exactly obedient to the teachings of the Lord’s prophet? (See the quotation on the next page.) What are some specific things we must do today to follow the prophet “with exactness”?

My heart sinks when I read something like this, because I remember the pressure of having to do everything “with exactness”. You can try your hardest to be exact, but you can always be exacter.

Ask: What function might this have for the church?

I can think of two possible answers:

1. Being scrupulous in religious practice is very time-consuming! So demanding exactness from members can be a way of keeping them so busy that they don’t have time to think about what they’re doing.

2. With intense effort comes the expectation of some kind of benefit. But the promised blessings of the Mormon gospel are empty. So how could one explain the failure of promised blessings to eventuate? Simple: you weren’t exact enough.

The demand for exactness is actually an out-clause for failed promises of blessings. How many times has this conversation happened?

Member: Bishop, I’m just not getting anything in my spiritual life.
Bishop: Well, are you reading the scriptures? Paying tithing? Serving in your callings?
Member: Yes, all those things.
Bishop: Saying prayers? Having Family Home Evening?
Member: Yes.
Bishop: Home teaching?
Member: I could be doing better on home teaching.
Bishop: Well, there you have it.

And if it weren’t home teaching, it could be any other of a number of things one isn’t doing “with exactness”. This is especially difficult when doctrines are unclear or ambiguous.

Ask: What psychological effect does this demand for exactness have on members?

There are a lot of ex-Mormon boards that treat this topic, but we don’t even have to go that far. Check out the Amazon reviews for a horrendous little book called The Not Even Once Club.

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It actually gets worse. Here’s another quote from the Gospel Doctrine manual.

President Harold B. Lee taught:
“The power of Satan will increase; we see it in evidence on every hand. . . .
“Now the only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet, ‘as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; . . . as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.’ (D&C 21:4–5.) There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.’ (D&C 21:6.)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 152; or Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, 126).

Ask: According to President Lee, what should you do if there’s a conflict between your political or social views, and those held by elderly men in Salt Lake City?

Ask: Is it right for someone to tell us what to think? If someone claims this right over you, how should you respond?

Benign misogyny

Whenever there’s a discussion of the “stripling soldiers” in Alma, the topic of motherhood comes up. That’s because of this scripture:

Alma 56:47 Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
56:48 And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.

That’s right — these soldiers learned it from their mothers. And that means — according to elderly men in Utah — that mothers should be primarily responsible for the home, and not taking an equal role in the workplace or the church or anything.

To emphasize the influence that mothers can have on their children, you may want to read the following statement by President Spencer W. Kimball:
“To be a righteous woman during the winding-up scenes on this earth, before the Second Coming of our Savior, is an especially noble calling. The righteous woman’s strength and influence today can be tenfold what it might be in more tranquil times. She has been placed here to help to enrich, to protect, and to guard the home—which is society’s basic and most noble institution. Other institutions in society may falter and even fail, but the righteous woman can help to save the home, which may be the last and only sanctuary some mortals know in the midst of storm and strife” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 326–27).

Ask: If you were a female in the LDS Church, were you advised to stay in the home, and define yourselves mostly in relation to men? Did this factor into your life’s choices? How do you feel about this now? Please let us know in comments.

Again, from the lesson manual:

• The young soldiers did not doubt their mothers’ testimonies (Alma 56:48). Why is it important for children to know the strength and certainty of their parents’ testimonies? In what ways can parents share their testimonies with their children?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not encouraging my kids to simply believe anything I say! After all, I could be wrong. (And I tell them this.) Instead, I encourage them to find out new things, tell me about them, and then we can evaluate them together using principles of rationality.

Little death ray of truth

Ask: What traits are encouraged when we place value on belief without evidence?

Answers: Intellectual docility, subservience to authority, reliance on others.

Ask: Why is it important to doubt the testimony of others?

Answer: Testimonial evidence is among the worst kinds of evidence.

This also goes for anecdotal evidence.

anecdotal

But in reality…

NmYuyId

Executions

There’s something altogether dark going on in the Nephite world. There are two factions: the so-called “king-men” led by Pachus, and the so-called “free-men” led by Moroni.

In most political conflicts, no side is completely right or wrong. But we work together to achieve consensus through debate and negotiation.

War has a way of changing that, though. When there’s a crisis, clear thinking is the first thing to go. Here’s what happens in this instance.

Alma 62:7 And it came to pass that Moroni and Pahoran went down with their armies into the land of Zarahemla, and went forth against the city, and did meet the men of Pachus, insomuch that they did come to battle.
62:8 And behold, Pachus was slain and his men were taken prisoners, and Pahoran was restored to his judgment-seat.
62:9 And the men of Pachus received their trial, according to the law, and also those king-men who had been taken and cast into prison; and they were executed according to the law; yea, those men of Pachus and those king-men, whosoever would not take up arms in the defence of their country, but would fight against it, were put to death.
62:10 And thus it became expedient that this law should be strictly observed for the safety of their country; yea, and whosoever was found denying their freedom was speedily executed according to the law.
62:11 And thus ended the thirtieth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi; Moroni and Pahoran having restored peace to the land of Zarahemla, among their own people, having inflicted death upon all those who were not true to the cause of freedom.

This may have been a case of sedition — or it could have been an opportunity for Moroni to murder his political opponents.

What’s really worrying is that this episode of state-sanctioned murder comes from a character who, for Mormons, is a spiritual hero. How are Latter-day Saints to hold the political ideas of others in any regard, when political discourse is reduced to such black-and-white terms?

Additional lesson ideas

Pronouns in the Book of Mormon

Latter-day Saints say that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book” of any. In fact, it is not even a correct book. It gets so many things wrong. This is very clear in its use of language.

Joseph Smith (or whoever wrote the Book of Mormon) opted for an archaic way of speaking that hadn’t been in common use for over a hundred years. This means that Smith (or whoever) was writing pronouns that he wasn’t familiar with.

Pronouns are a shorter way to refer to people or things. I don’t have to say Daniel every time Daniel wants to refer to Daniel. I can just say I or me.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Or rather, thou.

Thou is a pronoun that’s changed a lot. In Old English days, before 1066, there were two ways of referring to you: you could use thou for one person, and you for more than one.

However, from about 1450 to 1650, thou was reanalysed as a familiar pronoun. You was formal and polite.

Then by about 1650, people simply stopped saying thou. Its use seemed antiquated, and people came to think of it as formal, as we do today.

So what about you and ye?

In Shakespeare’s time, in the early 1600s, ye was for the subjects of sentences and you was for objects. So it was correct to say:

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

But this usage evaporated at about the same time that thou didst. Er… did.

Just to make things even more confusing, ye has at times been plural for you, but let’s keep it simple for now.

All of this would have been lost on someone from Joseph Smith’s time, where thou had mostly disappeared, and the you/ye distinction was no longer a thing. And that means that whoever wrote the Book of Mormon made a terrible hash of the pronouns. Let’s take a look at scriptures from this lesson. I’ll put a or a after each on to show the correct or incorrect usage.

Alma 54:5 Behold, Ammoron, I have written unto you ✔ somewhat concerning this war which ye ✔ have waged against my people, or rather which thy ? brother hath waged against them, and which ye ✔ are still determined to carry on after his death.

Here, ye and you are in place, but why did Moroni switch from you to thou? Did he think your brother didn’t sound as good as thy brother?

Alma 54:8 But as ye ✔ have once rejected these things, and have fought against the people of the Lord, even so I may expect you ✘ will do it again.

Whoops — wrong you!

Alma 54:10 But, as the Lord liveth, our armies shall come upon you except ye ✔ withdraw, and ye ✔ shall soon be visited with death, for we will retain our cities and our lands; yea, and we will maintain our religion and the cause of our God.
54:11 But behold, it supposeth me that I talk to you ✔ concerning these things in vain; or it supposeth me that thou ? art a child of hell; therefore I will close my epistle by telling you ✔ that I will not exchange prisoners, save it be on conditions that ye ✔ will deliver up a man and his wife and his children, for one prisoner; if this be the case that ye ✔ will do it, I will exchange.

Again, why the switch to thou?

Alma 56:4 Now I need not rehearse unto you ✔ concerning their traditions or their unbelief, for thou ? knowest concerning all these things —

Another inexplicable switch to thou.

There’s a lot more here in this Reddit thread.

All of this is understandable if the Book of Mormon was simply written in the 1800s. However, if someone believes that the words in the Book of Mormon were dictated word for word by reading off of a stone in a hat, they have some explaining to do.

There are other examples of inaccurate grammar elsewhere in the Book of Mormon.

Jacobean English in Book of Mormon

And that’s not even mentioning the odd grammar for our time.

Jacobean English 2

The scriptures tell us that the Lord speaks after the manner of our understanding. Unfortunately, even his understanding of our language is wonky. He doesn’t speak after the manner of our language; he speaks in a stilted and inaccurate form of Jacobean English.

period_speech

And what’s more absurd, he expects US to use it back. Dallin Oaks made a big deal about using the “special language of prayer”.

Modern English has no special verbs or pronouns that are intimate, familiar, or honorific. When we address prayers to our Heavenly Father in English, our only available alternatives are the common words of speech like you and your or the dignified but uncommon words like thee, thou, and thy which were used in the King James Version of the Bible almost five hundred years ago. Latter-day Saints, of course, prefer the latter. In our prayers we use language that is dignified and different, even archaic.

Brothers and sisters, the special language of prayer is much more than an artifact of the translation of the scriptures into English. Its use serves an important, current purpose. We know this because of modern revelations and because of the teachings and examples of modern prophets. The way we pray is important.

Surely if there is a god who’s concerned with humanity, he has better things to do than expect us to speak to him in English archaisms.

BoM Lesson 28 (Faith as a seed)

“The Word Is in Christ unto Salvation”

Alma 32–35

LDS manual: here

Purpose

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

Reading

What is faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main ideas for this lesson

Preying upon the poor

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

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

Humility

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

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

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

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

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

Ask: Why does the church promote humility?

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

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

Arrogance of Faith

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

atheist arrogance

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is faith?

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

Faith is belief without evidence.

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Aron Ra elaborates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's called faith because it's not knowledge

Alma reiterates.

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

Well, you hope they’re true, right?

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

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

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

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

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

The seed, or: the experiment that wasn’t

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

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

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

  • A good experiment attempts to be unbiased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional lesson ideas

Vicarious sacrifice for sin is immoral

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

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

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

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

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

…then why would getting his son killed help matters?

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

BoM Lesson 20 (Alma the Younger)

“My Soul Is Pained No More”

Mosiah 25–28; Alma 36

LDS manual: here

Purpose

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

Reading

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

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

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

Main points of this lesson

How the Book of Mormon recommends dealing with non-believers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask: Have you been described this way by believers?

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

Answers:

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

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Note that the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual grimly asserts:

Many Church members are led into sin by unbelievers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laws about religious persecution

King Mosiah lays down some laws preventing persecution.

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

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

The LDS manual says this:

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

Well, not from the text!

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

These verses state that

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

Guess what’s missing.

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

Destroy the church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

psychic bingo

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

I guess she’s tired of skeptics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From then on, they begin preaching. And why?

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

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

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

Additional lesson ideas

Chiasmus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clearly evidence of God’s inspiration!

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

 

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

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BoM Lesson 7 (Lehi dies)

“I Know in Whom I Have Trusted”

2 Nephi 3–5

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers not to use authoritarian parenting tactics, or racism.

Reading

I’ve just realised these readings are really short. Back in the Old Testament lessons, the readings were huge! We had to cover so much ground that we would sometimes leave out entire books *cough Leviticus*. But the Book of Mormon is so short that a typical reading is two or three chapters.

And even for its small size, the Book of Mormon still feels padded out. As Mark Twain said:

Mark_Twain_pamphlet

The main events in this lesson:

  • Lehi gives everyone interminable sermons, dies
  • Nephi agonises about how terrible he is
  • Team Nephi flees Team Laman
  • Lamanites are cursed with dark skin

Main ideas for this lesson

Joseph Smith writes himself into the BoM

There are a lot of Josephs in this story. Here, Lehi speaks to his son Joseph… about another Joseph, the one in Egypt.

2 Nephi 3:3 And now, Joseph, my last-born, whom I have brought out of the wilderness of mine afflictions, may the Lord bless thee forever, for thy seed shall not utterly be destroyed.
3:4 For behold, thou art the fruit of my loins; and I am a descendant of Joseph who was carried captive into Egypt. And great were the covenants of the Lord which he made unto Joseph.
3:5 Wherefore, Joseph truly saw our day. And he obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of his loins the Lord God would raise up a righteous branch unto the house of Israel; not the Messiah, but a branch which was to be broken off, nevertheless, to be remembered in the covenants of the Lord that the Messiah should be made manifest unto them in the latter days, in the spirit of power, unto the bringing of them out of darkness unto light — yea, out of hidden darkness and out of captivity unto freedom.

Not sure what Lehi’s talking about here, since all we have from Joseph-in-Egypt is this:

Genesis 50:24 And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
50:25 And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.
50:26 So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.

Oh, wait, Joseph Smith made a creative rewriting of this passage that underwent — ahem — considerable expansion.

JST Genesis 50:24 And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die, and go unto my fathers; and I go down to my grave with joy. The God of my father Jacob be with you, to deliver you out of affliction in the days of your bondage; for the Lord hath visited me, and I have obtained a promise of the Lord, that out of the fruit of my loins, the Lord God will raise up a righteous branch out of my loins; and unto thee, whom my father Jacob hath named Israel, a prophet; (not the Messiah who is called Shilo;) and this prophet shall deliver my people out of Egypt in the days of thy bondage.

And on and on and on, for pages. Man, nobody ever dies in SmithWorld without giving a long speech!

But Smith couldn’t resist the urge to write himself into the narrative:

JST Genesis 50:33 And that seer will I bless, and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise I give unto you; for I will remember you from generation to generation; and his name shall be called Joseph, and it shall be after the name of his father; and he shall be like unto you; for the thing which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand shall bring my people unto salvation.

Yes, Joseph Smith Jr’s father was also named Joseph.

Holy crap — that’s a lot of hubris! What kind of chutzpah does it take to insert yourself into the Bible? “You know Joseph from Egypt? Yeah, well, he was really talking about me.” On the one hand, yes, Smith was willing to go all out. On the other, what a bullshitter. It’s embarrassing.

Oh, but he’s not done. Not content to write himself into Genesis, Smith now heads back to 2 Nephi to talk himself up some more.

2 Nephi 3:6 For Joseph truly testified, saying: A seer shall the Lord my God raise up, who shall be a choice seer unto the fruit of my loins.
3:7 Yea, Joseph truly said: Thus saith the Lord unto me: A choice seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers.
3:8 And I will give unto him a commandment that he shall do none other work, save the work which I shall command him. And I will make him great in mine eyes; for he shall do my work.
3:9 And he shall be great like unto Moses, whom I have said I would raise up unto you, to deliver my people, O house of Israel.

He name-checks his father again, as in the Genesis rewrite:

2 Nephi 3:14 And thus prophesied Joseph, saying: Behold, that seer will the Lord bless; and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded; for this promise, which I have obtained of the Lord, of the fruit of my loins, shall be fulfilled. Behold, I am sure of the fulfilling of this promise;
3:15 And his name shall be called after me; and it shall be after the name of his father. And he shall be like unto me; for the thing, which the Lord shall bring forth by his hand, by the power of the Lord shall bring my people unto salvation.

And then more about how awesome he is.

2 Nephi 3:24 And there shall rise up one mighty among them, who shall do much good, both in word and in deed, being an instrument in the hands of God, with exceeding faith, to work mighty wonders, and do that thing which is great in the sight of God, unto the bringing to pass much restoration unto the house of Israel, and unto the seed of thy brethren.

Can anyone — even a believer — read this, and not feel just a twinge of incredulity? What’s more likely: that an Old Testament patriarch had a prophecy about someone, and no one noticed — or Joseph Smith simply wrote himself in?

Parental responsibility

Parenting is tough. You worry about your kids, and you do everything you can to give them a good start in life.

When my boys were small, I told them,”When you become a grown-up, you’ll be making all the decisions for yourself. My job is to help you learn to make good choices.” That’s why I’ve always tried to give them age-appropriate choices. In the early days, it was about what to wear — the blue shirt, or the red shirt? Then they had pocket money, which they could spend on what they liked. (Except when Oldest Boy threw a rock through the window of a neighbouring house. He thought it was abandoned, when it was simply untenanted. Then he had to use a good chunk of his pocket money on that. His interest in rock-throwing quickly waned.)

Every parent is going to parent differently, and this includes LDS parents. Some are responsible, great parents. Some are terrible authoritarians. And the Book of Mormon gives LDS parents the ammunition to parent terribly.

Here’s the scripture.

2 Nephi 4:5 But behold, my sons and my daughters, I cannot go down to my grave save I should leave a blessing upon you; for behold, I know that if ye are brought up in the way ye should go ye will not depart from it.
4:6 Wherefore, if ye are cursed, behold, I leave my blessing upon you, that the cursing may be taken from you and be answered upon the heads of your parents.

This, along with other verses, gives the message that parents will be held responsible for the actions of their children.

A bishop I knew took this very seriously. Of course, he didn’t want to be punished if his children left the church. After all, “No success can compensate for failure in the home,” and for him apostasy was the ultimate failure. So his approach was to take over the job of making choices for his children — perfectly acceptable for a patriarchal authoritarian to do — and make all the choices for them until they were 18.

An example from their own retelling:

Him: You have a choice. You can do the school play, or you can do church baseball.
Kid: I think I’d like to be in the play.
Him: That was the wrong choice. Now I will choose for you. You’re going to do church baseball.

And then his conscience was clear. He had done the right thing, and he wouldn’t be punished for the actions of his children.

What reader of the Book of Mormon could tell him he was wrong? Certainly not someone who believed in penal substitution, that guilt could be shuttled from person to person.

But this is an awful way to treat an apprentice choice-maker. Practiced consistently, this will take a whole bunch of kids with no decision-making experience, and unleash them into adulthood unprepared.

Or you’ll get a bunch of little sneaks who make their own choices behind your back. Either way, not good.

Arm of flesh

Here’s an idea that pops up in Mormon scripture and thought.

2 Nephi 4:34 O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.

What’s behind this?

Well, what kind of ideas have been made by people? Humanism, for one. Science, for another. And I think what these two things have in common is

a: they work pretty well
b: in principle, they’re not very authoritarian.

As such, they stand in marked contrast to the Mormon religion which a) is very authoritarian, and b) doesn’t work.

It’s a bit silly for a religion to say “Don’t trust people, trust God.” It’s people all the way down. You’re trusting a prophet who claims to speak for God, but who makes mistakes anyway. I’d rather listen to someone who can own their mistakes, and can update accordingly.

Additional lesson ideas

Nephite swords and temples

This lesson contains two things that have never been found. One is swords.

2 Nephi 5:14 And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us; for I knew their hatred towards me and my children and those who were called my people.

And the other is an entire temple. Blimey, you’d think that’d be hard to lose.

2 Nephi 5:16 And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.

He what? With how many people?

Remember, the temple of Solomon took seven years to build.

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But hey, it’s Nephi. If he can knock up an intercontinental ocean liner in a couple of verses, then surely an enormous building with exceeding fine workmanship must have been a piece of cake.

Solomon’s temple and Nephi’s temple do have one thing in common, though. There’s no archaeological evidence for either one.

What evidence is there that the Temple of Solomon existed?

The only evidence is the Bible. There are no other records describing it, and to date there has been no archaeological evidence of the Temple at all. What’s more, other archaeological sites associated with King Solomon – palaces, fortresses and walled cities that seemed to match places and cities from the Bible – are also now in doubt.

There is a growing sense among scholars that most of these archaeological sites are actually later than previously believed. Some now believe there may be little or no archaeological evidence of King Solomon’s time at all, and doubt that he ruled the vast empire which is described in the Bible.

And there’s something else to notice here. It appears that whoever was dictating the Book of Mormon lost track of what he was saying from one verse to the next.

2 Nephi 5:15 And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.
5:16 And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.

Everyone built buildings because there was so much gold and silver and precious ores around — in great abundance. But Nephi couldn’t build a temple out of those things, because they weren’t around in great abundance. Whoops — that’s a clanger.

People with dark skin are loathsome

Ask: Is dark skin loathsome and unenticing?

2 Nephi 5:21 And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.
5:22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.
5:23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.
5:24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.

While the LDS Church has tried to disavow its institutional racism by publishing an uncredited essay, scriptures like this are the reason that it will never be able to do so convincingly. The idea that dark skin can sometimes be a punishment for sin, or that it’s loathsome, is woven into the very plot of the Book of Mormon. It can’t be disavowed. The only way to get around it is not to think about it.

BoM Lesson 6 (Free to choose)

“Free to Choose Liberty and Eternal Life”

2 Nephi 1–2

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to use agency

Reading

This reading is an exploration into Lehi’s discourse on agency. Agency — the ability to think and act — is a complex topic… that gets completely subverted by Lehi and the lesson manual. And that makes sense for the LDS Church.

It wants people who will work tirelessly… in ways that benefit the organisation.

It declares obedience “the first law of heaven”, but still wants you to be an agent… as long as you only use your agency to obey.

It wants you to investigate the truthfulness of the Church… as long as you decide that it’s true.

As my uncle Richard used to say in the BYU religion classes he taught, “God gave us agency to see if we’d give it right back.” Which is terribly Mormon, isn’t it?

And that’s why the centrepiece of the lesson — and its title — is a very one-sided view of agency.

2 Nephi 2:27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

Got that? You can choose

  • liberty and eternal life, or
  • captivity and death.

Wow, when you put it that way, that really makes the choice clear! It’s almost like you’re asking me to choose between cake, or death.

Whoops, there’s a flag down on the play.

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Yep, it’s a false dichotomy. The church would love to paint itself as the bringer of life and liberty — so that leaving the church is death — but in reality there are a lot of other choices. Life outside the church can be messy sometimes; choosing your own course can be messy sometimes. But it can also be good, moral, and fulfilling.

This is news to many of us who grew up in the church. We told each other over and over again that we didn’t know what we’d do without the church; we’d probably be in jail or dead. Many of us weren’t free. We were indoctrinated as children.

We were carefully led from program to program, from age bracket to age bracket, from Primary to Young Men/Women’s. Then to a mission — too many of us were getting away, so they lowered the age limit to prevent that first year of uni. Then we were encouraged to get married young, to someone we scarcely knew.

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That’s because married people with kids are easy to control.

There we went, from bubble to bubble, from investment to investment, until the years of indoctrination had taken effect.

012-indoctrination

I want to say: They wanted to make us miserable like they were. But maybe that’s unfair. Were they unhappy? Some were. Some thought the church was just great. That was the thing: the church didn’t care if we were miserable or not, as long as we stayed in.

So are you free in the church? Yes, you’re free, but it’s the kind of free where you’re in the temple for the first time. There’s a bit where they tell you that if you want to go, you’re free to go without taking on all the promises and covenants. But they don’t tell you what the they are. There you are, ready to make an eternal commitment, but you don’t know what it is yet. The transparency and informed consent are severely lacking.

Thankfully, more and more of us are breaking free and learning to use our own agency for real.

R_Evolution-761x580

There’s another idea introduced in this reading.

2 Nephi 1:20 And he hath said that: Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.

Ask: What kind of parent abandons their children if they are disobedient?
Answer: A parent with conditional love.

Main ideas for this lesson

Empty continent

The Book of Mormon has a major problem, which I call “The Incredible Vanishing Lehites”. Lehi and his family are supposed to have come to the New World, proliferated to truly exponential levels, and built a huge civilisaton. Surely a group of this size would have left some evidence of their existence, either from archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, genetics, or any other way. Yet we never find anything.

The apologists’ answer is that the Lehite group was quickly subsumed into a large local population… that Nephi never mentions.

The reason Nephi never mentions running into anyone else is that the Book of Mormon holds that no one else was there on the continent. We’ll be coming back to this idea a few times during our study, but here’s the first indication.

2 Nephi 1:6 Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.
1:7 Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.
1:8 And behold, it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance.
1:9 Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.

This passage says:

  • No one would come into the land unless God brought them
  • Knowledge of the land was being withheld from others
  • If people from Jerusalem who moved there were good, they’d prosper
  • These people (from Jerusalem) would have the land all to themselves.

That’s really kind of it, isn’t it? No one else was there.

There may be some wiggle-room in the wording, language being what it is. I don’t think any passage in the Book of Mormon (or anywhere else) is so airtight that someone couldn’t wedge in a semantic crowbar and open a crack of ambiguity. But I think this passage makes it clear that whoever wrote the Book of Mormon wrote the American continent as a wilderness. I don’t think anyone could make the opposite case — that the place had a pre-existing population — because the Book of Mormon just never says anything to that effect.

Again, this is a huge problem for the Book of Mormon because there’s just no trace of these people.

Opposition in all things

Lehi offers this tidbit of wisdom:

2 Nephi 2:11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Well, I guess that makes sense, kind of. Salty and sweet and all that.

But that’s not the intersting bit. What’s interesting is how the author ties it into a discussion about the existence of God.

2 Nephi 2:10 And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement
2:11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
2:12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
2:13 And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.

I just want to focus on this last verse, because it’s a really terrible justification for theism.

Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement —

God has to punish people in order for justice to happen? Why did God have to create people if he knew in advance that he was going to punish them for eternity? That’s not just.

And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin.

I do say there’s no sin, if by “sin” you mean “actions that God doesn’t like”. God doesn’t exist, and sin is a made-up concept.

sin-comes-from-the-bible

If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness.

Wrong again! Many people do good actions, without believing in sin.

And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness.

Lehi’s really getting into ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’. Arrr.

And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God.

God can’t exist without misery or punishment. Got it.

And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.

Whoops! That might have been valid in the 1830s, but now we have a much better idea of how our universe was formed. No god was involved in the making of this video.

People tell me science and religion are compatible, but this scripture tells me the opposite. As Jerry Coyne points out in his book Faith Versus Fact,

Science and religion… are competitors in the business of finding out what is true about our universe. In this goal, religion has failed miserably, for its tools for discerning “truth” are useless. These ideas are incompatible in the same way, and in the same sense, that rationality is incompatible with irrationality. (p. xvi)

Adam

Lehi continues:

2 Nephi 2:22 And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
2:23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
2:24 But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
2:25 Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
2:26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.

I’ve mentioned before that I like to debate evangelists. When I ask them why God had to get his son killed to forgive us, you know what thy do? They invariably take it back to Adam and Eve. And there’s a reason why they do this. Without a literal Adam and Eve, the gospel story falls apart.

So I tell them: There was never an Adam or Eve. They are fictional characters.

  • And if there was no Adam or Eve, there was no Fall.
  • And if there was no Fall, there is no sin.
  • And if there is no sin, then there is no redemption necessary.
  • And if there is no redemption necessary, there is no need for a saviour.

Sorry, Jesus.

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Additional lesson ideas

Hamlet plagiarism?

People sometimes say that this verse…

2 Nephi 1:14 Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth.

…looks a lot like Hamlet.

“That undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

It’s a well-known quote, which I suppose the author of the Book of Mormon would have been familiar with. But it’s also the kind of turn of phrase that a writer might indulge in.

Do I think this rises to the level of plagiarism? Nnnah. But it does tell me that the Book of Mormon is a remix, and whoever wrote it had a lot of modern influences going on undr the hood.

I’m rating this one as “not a very serious criticism”. Change my view in comments!

BoM Lesson 3 (Tree of Life)

The Vision of the Tree of Life

1 Nephi 8–11; 12:16–18; 15

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage a more helpful view of the world than Mormon theology allows

Reading

For this lesson, we’re getting into Nephi’s analogy of the Tree of Life — a big white tree that makes you happy when you eat its fruit. (It’s not drugs, apparently.)

But the real message of the tree is that there’s only one place to be, and only one way to get there. This fits in well with the current message of the church, which pretty much amounts to “stay in the church”. And when your organisation just says “stay in the organisation”, that means the organisation is entirely superfluous.

I'm happier off the boat

Main ideas for this lesson

Origins of the Tree of Life story

Members of the church make a big deal about how Joseph Smith couldn’t have cranked out the Book of Mormon himself in such a short time. Well, he didn’t have a short time. You know what they say: You have your whole life to write your first book.

And so it is here. It seems that Smith borrowed the Tree of Life analogy from a story his dad used to tell. Here’s the story as his mother told it in her book History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.

In 1811, we moved from Royalton, Vermont, to the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Soon after arriving here, my husband received another very singular vision, which I will relate:

“I thought,” said he, “I was traveling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing, before I went any further. So I asked myself, ‘What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?’ My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, ‘This is the desolate world; but travel on.’ The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it; for, said I to myself, ‘Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and straight is the gate that leads to everlasting’ life, and few there be that go in thereat.’

Traveling a short distance farther, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the termination; but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I can not eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.

While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.

I presently turned to my guide, and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.’ Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children, standing some distance off. I immediately went to them, and brought them to the tree; upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees, and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.

After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building which I saw. He replied, ‘It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.’

I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy.”

Anyone familiar with the contents of this Book of Mormon reading will recognise all the salient elements of the Tree of Life story, which Joseph absorbed and repackaged into his own narrative. It seems that Joseph Smith wasn’t the only creative one in the family.

Elements of the story

I’m going to pull the important bits of the story out, and maybe give some ideas about how they contribute to Mormon thinking.

The dark and dreary waste

Lehi starts the story.

1 Nephi 8:5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
8:6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
8:7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.

No clue from the manual as to what this is supposed to be, but I suppose it’s the world. Believers need everyone to think the world is an awful and unfulfilling place without their bullshit.

The tree of life and its fruit

1 Nephi 8:10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
8:11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.

Notice that, in this story, there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: near the tree. In the same way, Latter-day Saints seem to think there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: stuck in boring meetings for three hours on a Sunday.

The rod of iron

1 Nephi 8:19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.

Not only is there only one place to be, there’s only one way to get there: a cold, hard iron bar. You have to hold onto the bar and never let go, if you want to get to the tree.

Ask: What’s wrong with this picture?
Answer: We live in an amazing world, with many options open to us. There are many ways to live and be happy, and they don’t all involve undeviating obedience.

In fact, undeviating obedience is way more likely to lead to committing atrocities than thinking for yourself is.

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So why do Mormons stress that “obedience is the first law of heaven“?

I’ll just leave this video of the Milgram experiment here.

The river of filthy water, the mist of darkness, and the great and spacious building

The story continues:

1 Nephi 8:21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
8:22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
8:23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
8:24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
8:25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
8:26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
8:27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
8:28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.

8:31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
8:32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
8:33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.

Boy, the world sure seems like a dangerous place, doesn’t it? And if you let go of that rod for a split second, you could get drowned in a fountain.

This part of the story contributes to a “scary external world” narrative, which keeps many believers from venturing very far outside the confines of the faith.

Notice also that in this lesson, the church is attempting to inoculate its members against criticism and scorn.

I admit it’s not very nice to make fun of people. On the other hand, I think making fun of beliefs and ideas is perfectly acceptable. Ridicule doesn’t harm true ideas, but it’s lethal to false ones, which is why people with false beliefs are incredibly touchy about mockery and ridicule.

Ask: If you’ve been in a science class, did the lecturer warn you that people would mock and ridicule you for accepting a certain scientific idea?
Answer: Such a warning is unnecessary for factual ideas that are demonstrably true. If someone did try to ridicule you for accepting a fact, it would be sufficient to display the evidence for that fact, and then let that person do what they want with that information. But for beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, this is impossible, which is why believers typically resort to an appeal to faith as a fallback position.

Don't have funny beliefs

People in the story

So the LDS lesson manual mentions four kinds of people in the story:

a. 1 Nephi 8:21–23. (Those who start on the path but then become lost in the mist of darkness.)

Not very high achievers, are they? All they had to do was keep hold of that rod, and they couldn’t. Sheesh.

b. 1 Nephi 8:24–28. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, but then become ashamed and fall away.)

Ah — they succumbed to peer pressure. Losers.

c. 1 Nephi 8:30. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, and who then remain faithful.)

Those brave and stalwart individuals who stayed in the boat. And how did they manage it? By ignoring people with contrary opinions.

d. 1 Nephi 8:31–33. (Those who never start on the path but instead go directly toward the great and spacious building.)

So one group ends up believing, and three don’t. There’s something I want to point out about the three groups: They’re all people who succumbed to less-than-worthy motivators, whether apathy, or insufficient stamina, or social pressure. No one ever lets go for a worthwhile reason, like the fact that the iron rod isn’t really going anywhere, or the fruit of the Tree of Life is kind of meh. And what with all the scriptural editing, uncredited essays, and apologetic double-talk in the church today, the iron rod isn’t as firm as it used to be. It’s more like a steel slinky.

Which leads me to a conclusion. All the church knows how to do is devalue the life choices of people who don’t stay in the church. You can blame them or feel pity for them, but in this story, there’s no way to see their choices as valid.

How is a Mormon supposed to respect non-members or ex-members? How is a believer supposed to regard an ex-Mormon partner? How does this story help to build relationships? Or really, to do anything besides keep Mormons in their seats every Sunday?

There is one good thing in the manual, however.

Encourage class members to strengthen each other and to never mock or belittle others.

Hey, that’s fair. If we’re doing that, we need to knock it off. Ideas are fair game, but people deserve respect. That also goes for people who stay Mormon. We may not think it’s a good decision, but we don’t always know their motivations or their situation. Who knows — maybe something could have been different for me, and then I’d still be there.

A better story

Here’s my try at writing a better analogy. It’s more reflective of reality as I see it. From the Book of Daniel (Midgley), chapter 1.

  1. And it came to pass that I saw a world, and this world had treasures wondrous to behold.
  2. There was knowledge to gain, and work to be done.
  3. There were books to read and stories to tell.
  4. There was treasure.
  5. What’s that game where you slash around in the grass and find gems? Is it Zelda?
  6. It was like Zelda.
  7. There was food and people and music and art and love.
  8. There were a lot of dangerous animals and there was disease.
  9. For a lot of people, things sucked pretty much all the time.
  10. But fixing that was part of the work to be done.
  11. Oh, yeah, and there was coffee, too.
  12. And it came to pass that into this land there came a group, all huddled together, with a huge muslin sheet over them.
  13. The Sheet kept them together in a group, like a great amoeba or something.
  14. The Sheet blocked out the light, and kept them from seeing the things in their world as well as they might.
  15. For those closest to the centre, it obstructed their view entirely.
  16. God, were they sensitive about the unkind comments people made about the Sheet; but in fairness, they looked frigging ridiculous under that thing.
  17. And it looked hot and uncomfortable.
  18. But they did not mind being under the Sheet because they felt it was safer then being outside.
  19. Their leaders told them what life was like outside, and their descriptions of the dangers was enough to keep them under the Sheet.
  20. Being under the Sheet made them feel special, like a community.
  21. And some said that they could not imagine life without the Sheet.
  22. And some were not sure about the this whole Sheet thing, but that the Sheet was a part of their identity, and they’d been under the Sheet for this long, so.
  23. And it came to pass that some of them would venture out in pairs to convince others to join them under the enormous Sheet, and some would join them.
  24. And it came to pass that in the course of time, I saw more and more people venture out from underneath the Sheet.
  25. They had seen that the world outside the Sheet had more treasures than they’d been able to imagine, and that life under that Sheet involved a lot of unnecessary crap.
  26. Especially not having coffee.
  27. But when they returned to tell others about life without the Sheet, they found themselves ignored by their erstwhile fellow Sheet-mates.
  28. And it came to pass that Sheet-mates was not intended as some kind of sexual euphemism.
  29. And sometimes they were cut off from their families and partners (who really had been Sheet-mates) and these were the saddest of all.
  30. And it came to pass that some of the People of the Sheet were happy, and some were miserable.
  31. And some of the people outside the Sheet were happy.
  32. And some were miserable.
  33. A fact which the People of the Sheet harped on endlessly.
  34. But sometimes not being under a Sheet is like that.
  35. And the people outside the Sheet ended up, not in one place, but across the whole face of the land, since that was where the action is.
  36. And as the people discovered things about their world, they called unto each other, and shared their discoveries, and used their knowledge to discover more.
  37. And there were many ways to live, and many places to be, and all chose their way as best they could.

Additional lesson ideas

Is Jesus the Father?

The first edition of the Book of Mormon contained these verses:

1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.

11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

In current editions, the text of these verses has been changed to read:

1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.

It’s a change that goes quite a bit beyond a simple textual edit, and shows that the Book of Mormon was Mormonism v1. Even so, sometimes Mormons double down on this, insisting that Jesus is the Father, if you redefine ‘father’. (Redefining words is the last refuge of a scoundrel.)

• Christ is sometimes called Father because of his role as Creator from the beginning
• Jesus Christ is also known as Father through the spiritual rebirth of mankind (see Born of God). As the foreordained Redeemer, he became the “author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him”
• Furthermore, Jesus is called Father because of the authority God gave him to act for the Father.

So Jesus is the Father, but only when he’s acting as the Father. Unless he’s also the Creator or the Saviour, which is all the time. Totally not confusing.

Sometimes the Savior has spoken both as the Father (Elohim) and as the Son (Jesus) in the same revelation

Because the writer got confused.

At this point, I tap out. It’s like arguing about the Force v Midichlorians with Star Wars nerds. Mormons are basically making their Godhead indistinguishable from the Trinity, so I hope they have fun with that.

NT Lesson 15

“I Am the Light of the World”

John 7–8

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To discuss how to find out what’s true.

Reading

We’re now in Jesus’ later Judean ministry. He’s gotten people to believe in his miracles. His followers think he’s the Messiah. And now in this reading, in one of the most protracted arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, he proclaims that he’s actually Jehovah.

If Jesus was a real person who said these things, he seems to have suffered from Joseph Smith Syndrome: having started on this hero-saviour trip, it’s very difficult to stop.

This theological argument takes up most of our reading, and while in some ways there’s some interesting rhetorical jiu-jitsu going on, in the end it’s all just so much pointless sectarian wrangling. From an atheist’s perspective, I just see people tossing around religious insults. Jesus and the Pharisees call each other devils.

John 8:48 Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?
8:49 Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me.

Jesus threatens them like a pissed-off street preacher.

John 8:23 And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.
8:24 I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.

Now that I’m out of religion, and understanding that nothing based on supernaturalism can be right, I think I can see this chapter for what it is. I’m so glad that I can check out, and I don’t have to concern myself with it. What a relief.

This is an old, old fight, of course. Unfortunately, it’s been playing out over and over again among the world’s religious believers for millennia. The only difference is that, in this discussion, no one got killed.

Main ideas for this lesson

Heading

John really didn’t like Jews.

John 7:1 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.

Oh, John. You can tell that you wrote this last — somewhere between 70–120 CE. That’s when the conflicts between the Christian Jews and the Jewish Christians came bubbling up. It couldn’t have been written earlier.

How do we know what’s true?

Jesus gives a strange way of telling whether something’s true.

John 7:17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.

Jesus seems to be saying that experimentation is the way to find out if he’s the real deal. While a good controlled experiment is an important part of the complete scientific method, that’s not what Jesus is describing here. There’s a phrase for it: “Suck it and see.” That’s not the best way of evaluating claims.

But what’s wrong with trying something out? Well, evidence from our own personal experiences may seem convincing to us. But these kinds of anecdotes are actually the least credible form of evidence because of the way our brains put together our own personal story. If I believe that I have a lucky rock that keeps me from harm, then that belief gets in the way of examining the idea as impartially as I could. I might engage in confirmation bias, ignoring the times when the rock doesn’t work. Other forms of evidence would be better.

It’s telling, then, that missionaries use the least effective kinds of evidence on investigators. Missionaries invite investigators to take on an ever-increasing set of commitments, in the hopes that the investment fallacy will take hold. When you’ve started doing something, it’s hard to stop. Stopping would imply that what you did was pointless, and who likes to admit that?

I’m enjoying this post about the investment fallacy from You Are Not So Smart.

Imagine you go see a movie which costs $10 for a ticket. When you open your wallet or purse you realize you’ve lost a $10 bill. Would you still buy a ticket? You probably would. Only 12 percent of subjects said they wouldn’t. Now, imagine you go to see the movie and pay $10 for a ticket, but right before you hand it over to get inside you realize you’ve lost it. Would you go back and buy another ticket? Maybe, but it would hurt a lot more. In the experiment, 54 percent of people said they would not. The situation is the exact same. You lose $10 and then must pay $10 to see the movie, but the second scenario feels different. It seems as if the money was assigned to a specific purpose and then lost, and loss sucks.

Believers seem okay with this experimentation method that Jesus is advocating, but are they okay with it in other areas? Would they agree that the same is true for Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam? The same people who encourage religious experimentation (for their religion only) also discourage experimenting with recreational chemicals and alternative sexual practices. Clearly, they don’t believe that the method is so great; only insofar as it ensnares people into their system.

Ask: If “suck it and see” isn’t a good way to find out what’s true, then what is? How do you know if something’s true?

I use a way that is partial and incomplete, it’s difficult, and it takes a long time. Sometimes the results get overturned later. But it’s the best thing humans have ever made for finding out what’s true. It’s the scientific method.

My favourite formulation of the scientific method is on this terrible Geocities webpage. It uses the mnemonic O HECK.

“O.H.E.C.K.” is a memory aid developed by your instructor to help you remember the order of events in what is sometimes called the scientific method. It is an acronym, with each letter standing for a word.
Observation: someone (maybe you!) notices some event in the natural world (Phenomena) that makes them wonder about the event’s cause.
Hypothesis: this is a possible explanation developed by somebody (maybe you!) as to the cause of some mysterious phenomena that has been Observed.
Experiment: the Hypothesis is tested in some way. If a hypothesis can’t be tested, it really isn’t scientific.
Conclusion: at the end of the Experiment, either the Hypothesis has been proven false or it hasn’t been proven false. It is never “proven” true!
Knowledge-Sharing: the Conclusion of the Experiment must be shared with other researchers, who will either develop a better test for the Hypothesis or (often) develop a better Hypothesis !

I think this last step is the most important. Knowledge must be peer-reviewed. One person can get it wrong, but it’s less likely (in the very long term!) that everyone will get it wrong. As we share knowledge, the good stuff floats to the top. This is why we need a variety of inputs in our knowledge. If someone tells you that certain sources of information are off-limits, or that some points of view are forbidden — not just worthless (like some are), but are wrong even to consider — that’s a warning sign.

Truth makes you free.

One verse in this reading has some merit:

John 8:32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Testimonials are worthless, as in the chart above. With that established, I would just like to share my own experience. As I’ve learned more about how to find out what’s true, and as my ability to think critically has improved, I’ve been better able to spot poor reasoning and be fooled less often. It’s an on-going process. I try to stay plugged into skeptical topics, keep up with what scientific-minded people are thinking and writing about, and stay open to changing my mind when necessary.

Having a better idea of what’s true means that I have better information that I can use to base decisions on. This has helped me to be freer than I could have been in the church.

Woman in adultery story was added later

I always liked the story of the woman taken in adultery.

John 8:1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
8:2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
8:3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
8:4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
8:5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
8:6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
8:7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8:8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
8:9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
8:10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
8:11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Jesus is so casual, writing on the ground like that.

So I’m totes devs to learn that it’s probably a fabrication.

Unfortunately, John didn’t write it. Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages. It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John. Even if the Gospel of John is an infallible telling of the history of Jesus’s ministry, the event simply never happened.

Most Bible scholars agree.

“The most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful. Scholars generally agree that this story was not originally part of the Gospel of John.”

Here’s another page of references.

And Nonstampcollector sees a problem that Christians don’t: Jesus is only enlightened insofar as he ignores the law he gave when he was Jehovah the murderous psychopath.

Additional lesson ideas

What didn’t they include in this reading?

One thing they decided not to treat was this story, in which Jesus tells someone not to bury his dead father.

Matthew 8:21 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
8:22 But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

Luke 9:59 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
9:60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.

Seems a bit heartless, but again, this is right in line with Jesus’ idea that he had to come before everything else, including family obligations. Typical for a cult leader.

Next week: more doubtful miracles. See you then.

NT Lesson 14 (The Good Samaritan)

“Who Is My Neighbour?”

Matthew 18; Luke 10

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show that indoctrination, ostracism, and magical cursings are not good ways to treat people.

Reading

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

Little children

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.

Again, religion poisons everything.

While I’m talking about moths, has everyone seen Norm MacDonald’s moth joke?

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.

Ostracism

From the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual:

Discuss Matthew 18:8–9 and Mark 9:43–48 (see also Matthew 5:29–30).

JST Matthew 18:9 And 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.

Partial transcript:

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.

Divorce

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. [1916], 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”.

See what you can do by next week.

NT Lesson 11 (Parables)

“He Spake Many Things unto Them in Parables”

Matthew 13

LDS manual: here

Purpose

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

Reading

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

Main ideas for this lesson

The reason for parables

Let’s start off with a quiz.

Ask: Why did Jesus speak in parables?

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

The surprising answer:

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

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

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

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

Is Mormonism ‘occult’?

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

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

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

Oxford: Communicated only to the initiated; esoteric.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This attitude shows up for other church leaders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional lesson ideas

Without honour… in his own country

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

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

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

Wheat and tares

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

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

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

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

Faith as a mustard seed

Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.

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

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

But let’s take it parabolically.

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

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

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

Bad decisions like this book cover.

Admit it, you saw ass.

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

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

LOL non-proportional scaling.

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

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