Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: lying for the Lord (page 1 of 2)

D&C Lesson 11 (Missionary Work)

“The Field Is White Already to Harvest”

Reading assignment

Doctrine and Covenants 4; 1112; 14–18; 31; 33; 75;
Our Heritage, page 11.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

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

Overview

This lesson is about being a missionary. On an LDS mission, you’re taught that the work is hastening in the run-up to the last days, and people are somehow being “prepared” to accept the gospel.

D&C 4:4 For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul;

Which is the biggest crock of bull ever. Nobody out there cares about the church until it annoys them, and the conversion rate is tailing off.

And once more: here’s that pie chart of how the Lord’s missionary effort is going.

This is not a new idea for anyone in Outer Blogness, but missions aren’t for converting non-members into members. It’s to convert the missionary themself.

How do I know? No, it’s not because of the worsening convert baptism numbers. It’s because of the essays.

Yes, those essays — the ones that try to put a positive spin on difficult issues in the church’s history. Members get directed to them when the church’s dodgy relationship to truth or basic decency become apparent.

I’ve talked to many missionaries over the time that the essays have come out, and no missionary I’ve ever spoken to is aware of them.

Isn’t that a bit of a giveaway? They’re not given any notice about them. Then they run into me, and are ill-prepared to answer questions. If a mission were about convincing people of the church, the essays are something they should have at least heard of. Really, they should know them inside and out, if the church is really using them as a well-equipped, well-trained missionary force. But they’re not, because convert baptisms are not the point of a mission. The church can replenish itself well-enough from children of record. Here the stats have hardly changed.

Again, the purpose of a mission is to convert the missionary. The missionary is placed in a situation where they have to tell people the church is true, and face potential opposition from others. Under that kind of pressure, it would be impossible not to start coming up with rationales for why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Remember, the church get people to lie to themselves, saying that they know the church is true. Then, once you’ve said it, you’re more likely to believe it.

From Boyd Packer:

A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!

“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’

“Oh, if could teach you one principle:

A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that ‘leap of faith,’ as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. ‘The spirit of man,’ is as the scripture says, indeed ‘is the candle of the Lord.’ (Prov. 20:27)”

Dallin Oaks:

Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.

Brigham Young:

At your meetings you should begin at the top of the roll and call upon as many members as there is time for to bear their testimonies and at the next meeting begin where you left off and call upon others, so that all shall take part and get into the practice of standing up and saying something. Many may think they haven’t any testimony to bear, but get them to stand up and they will find the Lord will give them utterance to many truths they had not thought of before. More people have obtained a testimony while standing up trying to bear it than down on their knees praying for it.

More about gaining a testimony through lying.

That’s right — lie to yourself and say that you know it’s true when you don’t. Do you believe it now? You said you believed it, after all.

The LDS Church is built on a foundation of lies, and the most insidious of these is the lie you tell yourself.

It’s all psychology. This ties into something called cognitive dissonance. When there’s a split between what we believe and what we’re doing, it makes us uncomfortable, and we try to reduce the dissonance. That might mean that we change what we do, but if we’re stuck doing something — did I mention that the mission office took our passports off of us, first thing? — then we might try to change our belief, especially when we’re in a group of other people who also say they believe the same thing. This combination of conformity and commitment has a powerful effect on people’s minds, and can form the basis of an ideology for the rest of that missionary’s life.

For more on cognitive dissonance, check out this famous study by the legendary Leon Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith.

At the beginning of the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment, student volunteers were asked to perform a simple and boring task. Before the subjects left the experiment, the experimenter commented that his research assistant would be unavailable to help out the following day. Would the subject be willing to do a small favor for the experimenter? The favor was to take the place of the research assistant, who was supposed to prepare subjects for the experiment by giving them a positive attitude toward it. “Would you please tell the next subject in line that the experiment was fun and enjoyable?” Subjects who agreed to do this were paid either $1 or $20.

Keep in mind that $20 was a lot of money in the 1950s, equivalent to over $100 now. So one group was being paid a lot of money to lie to the next subject about the boring experiment. The other group was being paid much less. Subjects in both groups typically agreed to tell the next subject that the experiment was interesting.

Festinger and Carlsmith were curious about whether the subjects would change their own attitudes, making them more like the attitudes they were expressing (as a lie) to the next subject. The results were surprising. People who were paid $20 to lie showed less change in their own attitudes. When the experimenters asked them later for the truth, the highly paid subjects said the experiment was actually boring. On the other hand, people who were paid only $1 were more likely to say, when asked later, that the experiment was “not bad” or that it was “interesting.”

How do we explain this? Festinger observed that the subjects were put in a psychologically uncomfortable position. They had not enjoyed the experiment, but now they were asked to lie and say they had enjoyed it. How could they explain their own behavior to themselves? Subjects who received $20 had no problem explaining their behavior to themselves. They were paid a lot of money to lie, and that explained why they lied. So they did not have to change their true attitudes.

However, the subjects who received $1 did not really have a good reason to lie. To reduce the feeling of discomfort they might have felt about lying, they had to persuade themselves they actually enjoyed the experiment. Their attitudes changed to fit their behavior, reducing the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance.

As Festinger put it in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957):

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. (p.3)

And if you’d like to see more about conformity and social pressure, check out this video of the Asch Conformity Experiment.

People call the LDS Church a cult. I don’t, because I don’t think that term is well-defined. But I will say this: Mormon missions are as culty as anything I’ve ever heard of. You’re taken away from your family and social group, your name is changed, other people control who you’re with, what you wear (right down to your underwear), what you do, and what information you have access to. That’s a cult by any definition.

Ask: Read this account of Steve Hassan’s BITE model of cults. How many of these criteria are matched by LDS missions?

Reading

Requirements for being a missionary

To be a missionary, you have to have a knowledge of the gospel

D&C 11:21 Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men.

but do not read anti-Mormon materials, including the church’s own essays. Keep it simple!

You also have to be humble and full of love,

D&C 12:8 And no one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope, and charity, being temperate in all things, whatsoever shall be entrusted to his care.

which you’ll need a lot of when you’re telling people that their way of life is wrong, and they’ll need to join yours.

Along those lines, don’t mention Section 33:

D&C 33:3 For behold, the field is white already to harvest; and it is the eleventh hour, and the last time that I shall call laborers into my vineyard.
4 And my vineyard has become corrupted every whit; and there is none which doeth good save it be a few; and they err in many instances because of priestcrafts, all having corrupt minds.

Feel the lerrrrrrve.

Which no man knoweth

Someting amazing happens in this reading. Joseph Smith, channeling the ghost of Jesus Christ, tells John Whitmer something that he couldn’t possibly have known.

D&C 15:1 Hearken, my servant John, and listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer.
2 For behold, I speak unto you with sharpness and with power, for mine arm is over all the earth.
3 And I will tell you that which no man knoweth save me and thee alone
4 For many times you have desired of me to know that which would be of the most worth unto you.
5 Behold, blessed are you for this thing, and for speaking my words which I have given you according to my commandments.
6 And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father. Amen.

WOW! That is some next-level psychic phenomena going on there, I can tell you.

Then in the next section, he does it again for Peter Whitmer, Jr.

What does he say this time? Same fucking thing.

D&C 16:1 Hearken, my servant Peter, and listen to the words of Jesus Christ, your Lord and your Redeemer.
2 For behold, I speak unto you with sharpness and with power, for mine arm is over all the earth.
3 And I will tell you that which no man knoweth save me and thee alone
4 For many times you have desired of me to know that which would be of the most worth unto you.
5 Behold, blessed are you for this thing, and for speaking my words which I have given you according to my commandments.
6 And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father. Amen.

It reminds me of the time me and a couple of friends went to a naturopath, and he considered my symptoms and gave me the Zinc Drink.

“The Zinc Drink?” I asked.

“The Zinc Drink,” he said. “Many people are deficient in zinc.”

Afterwards, I asked my friends what he recommended for them. Guess what it was. Sure enough: Zanc Drank.

Fucking psychics.

Church of the Devil

I was never sure what the Church of the Devil was. An angel told Nephi:

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

That’s a pretty expansive categorisation, but okay Nephi! Only two churches. But now we see this:

D&C 18:20 Contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.

which makes it seem like there’s at least three: the Lord’s church, the church of the devil, and then some other churches that you’re not supposed to contend with. So what were they?

It would have saved me a lot of time if someone had just pulled me aside and said, “Look, this is all made up, and this term is not well-defined. They just use whatever term to mean anything they want, whenever it suits them. Don’t expect any consistency here.”

I wish someone had told me this! So now I’m telling you.

BoM Lesson 29 (Alma’s fatherly advice)

“Give Ear to My Words”

Alma 36–39

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage parents to give better parental advice than Alma does

Reading

There’s a bit of a lull in the action for this reading. Time for Alma to give one of his trademark fatherly chats! He speaks to his three sons — Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton — and gives really terrible advice. Let’s see how bad it gets.

Main ideas for this lesson

Helaman

In his chat with Helaman, Alma explains that God’s love is unconditional… but with conditions.

Alma 37:13 O remember, remember, my son Helaman, how strict are the commandments of God. And he said: If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land — but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence.

Ask: Would a good parent cast off children for not doing everything they say?

Musical number: Sing this song with the class. (CW: language, possible casual misogyny)

Free will and divine hiddenness

When you ask a theist why God doesn’t resolve his apparent lack of existence by just appearing to everyone, a common answer is that God wants people to believe in him in faith, without needing evidence. If God were to prove his existence, it would essentially force us to believe in him and remove the need for faith.

But what about Alma and his friends? They saw an angel, and that didn’t remove their free will.

Alma 36:5 Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things; but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself.
36:6 For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.
36:7 And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

But Alma’s certain that God will resurrect him. He’s just as certain as he is about the Exodus, and the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea… which also didn’t happen.

Alma 36:28 And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time.

Whoops.

And if you say that Alma is dumb for believing in fairy tales, then he has an answer for you. His belief makes him smarter than wise people.

Alma 37:6 Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise.
37:7 And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.

So what does all this mean for Helaman? It means that when he writes about how wicked everyone is, he’s supposed to hold back on information.

Alma 37:29 Therefore ye shall keep these secret plans of their oaths and their covenants from this people, and only their wickedness and their murders and their abominations shall ye make known unto them; and ye shall teach them to abhor such wickedness and abominations and murders; and ye shall also teach them that these people were destroyed on account of their wickedness and abominations and their murders.

In the LDS Church, there’s a pattern of incomplete disclosure. The church is cagey about its finances. It tells only one side of its history. Its higher-level ordinances (like the endowment) are not explained to people who have not already accepted a series of commitments — and who are therefore less likely to disengage from their investment.

Ask: What kind of organisation relies on incomplete informational disclosure to “protect” its membership from facts?
Answer: Check out Steve Hassan’s BITE model, under “Information Control”. While this model is not well-accepted by psychologists, it is interesting to see how many of the LDS Church’s practices it describes.

1. Deception:

a. Deliberately withhold information
b. Distort information to make it more acceptable
c. Systematically lie to the cult member

2. Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:

a. Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, other media
b.Critical information
c. Former members
d. Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
e. Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking

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

4. Encourage spying on other members

a. Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
b.Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
c. Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group

5. Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:

a. Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
b.Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources

6. Unethical use of confession

a. Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
b. Withholding forgiveness or absolution
c. Manipulation of memory, possible false memories

Ask: If the church is true, why would it need to roll out unpalatable information carefully?

There’s a scene from the Australian TV show Offspring that describes this situation.

***SPOILERS AHEAD for season 5***

Also don’t mock me for watching Offspring, I have a wife.

Here’s the short version:

In Wednesday night’s explosive episode of the popular Network Ten series Nina, played by Gold Logie-winner Asher Keddie, is confronted with the fact her new lover Thomas (Ben Barrington) is not only married, but had been cheating on his heavily pregnant wife.

His secret came out when a birth complication forced Thomas and his unknowing wife to Nina’s hospital instead of the maternity ward they had planned.

Quite a scene: Nina attends what she thinks is a routine delivery, and finds… her new boyfriend acting as birth coach to his wife.

When Thomas speaks to Nina later, he claims that his wife was actually his ex, and defends his lack of disclosure, saying:

Would you have started something with me if you knew my ex was pregnant?

Nina responds:

Well, shouldn’t that have been up to me?

And there it is. Maybe members would bail if everything were public. Maybe investigators wouldn’t like it if they knew that Joseph Smith had 30 wives, some as young as 14. But isn’t that up to them? How are we supposed to make good choices if the facts aren’t available?

Shiblon

Shiblon’s the middle child, so nothing interesting happens in his chapter. Alma tells the same conversion story that he just told Helaman, tells him to keep being good, yada yada yada.

Next!

Corianton

We all know Coriander because he’s the only character in the Book of Mormon who got any sex. This was, of course, with the legendary harlot Isabel™, who is one of only six women mentioned by name in the Book of Mormon, and the only one with an occupation.

Alma 39:2 For thou didst not give so much heed unto my words as did thy brother, among the people of the Zoramites. Now this is what I have against thee; thou didst go on unto boasting in thy strength and thy wisdom.
39:3 And this is not all, my son. Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron, among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Trivia: Who were the other five women? Answers are at the bottom of this post.

FB-Corianton-is-in-a-Relationship-with-Isabel

Observation about two names in the Book of Mormon: Corianton. Morianton. Discuss.

Alma’s parental counsel is terrible on so many levels. Let’s list them.

Alma blames Isabel.

Alma 39:4 Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

Why, that scheming hussy!

Alma wigs out, blowing sex all out of proportion

Alma 39:5 Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

Mormons say that sex is “the sin next to murder”, and this verse is why.

Fancy that: a bit of casual boinking — even when pursued responsibly and consensually — is almost as bad as murdering someone. This is a kind of — excuse the gendered term — hysterical anti-sex attitude that turns the concept of morality upside-down. Sex harms no one when it’s done well, but it can be awful when done badly. Ironically, it’s this kind of attitude that causes it to be done badly. You cannot have a normal sexual life with priorities as screwed up as this.

A lot has been said on the futility of teaching abstinence. It does not prevent kids from having sex, but that’s only part of the problem. It also promotes rape culture.

Purity culture and rape culture are two sides of the same coin. Prior to marriage, women are instructed that they must say no to sex at every turn, and if they do not they are responsible for the consequences. This method of approach—“always no”—creates situations in which women are not equipped to fully understand what consent looks like or what a healthy sexual encounter is. When the only tool you’re given is a “no,” shame over rape or assault becomes compounded—because you don’t necessarily understand or grasp that “giving in” to coercion or “not saying no” isn’t a “yes.”

That’s from the girl’s perspective. From the boy’s side, you never learn what’s okay and what’s not okay because nothing is okay. Consent is a subtlety that doesn’t make the curriculum. This is not to excuse failure to obtain informed consent — you might have your own ideas about what’s twisted and what’s not, but they’ll have to be your own ideas; you won’t get them from the wider culture. Or you will, but it will be mixed up with a lot of other stuff.

This unrelenting sex-negativity is one of the most harmful things about the church. It fills people up with shame for their innermost desires. It tampers with who they are on a basic level.

For a better way, check out what I teach my kids about sex. I wrote this lesson a couple of years ago, and in the meantime, my youngest boy started dating. So I told him, “That means I have to tell you the things.”

“No,” he said, “you don’t have to tell me the things!”

“I do have to tell you the things, because it’s my job to tell you the things.”

So I told him the things, and afterward he said, “That wasn’t too bad.”

That’s how I broke the curse.

Alma blames Coriander for his own lack of success

Alma 39:11 Suffer not yourself to be led away by any vain or foolish thing; suffer not the devil to lead away your heart again after those wicked harlots. Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

Oh sure, it’s not because Alma’s selling a shit product. It’s Coriander.

Why would Coriander’s actions have this effect on the Lamanites? They weren’t even Christians yet, and therefore unlikely to be puritanical ninnies.

Testimonies are not good evidence

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Alma 36 contains Alma’s testimony as expressed to his son Helaman (see especially verses 3–5 and 26–28). Why is it important for children to hear their parents bear their testimonies? In what ways have your parents’ testimonies influenced your life?

I can tell you. My father told me lots of good things, but probably the worst information I got in life was given to me by him. It was when he sat me down, and very earnestly told me that if I had a question about anything, I could ask my Heavenly Father in prayer, and get an answer. And I believed him.

That was the worst thing anyone ever told me.

Rather than understanding that knowledge comes through careful, controlled observation, he taught me that knowing something was simply asking a deity and then sorting through your feels.

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Knowledge doesn’t come from feels. Basically he turned me into an an amateur intuitive. And that leaves people vulnerable to scammers and charlatans. Goodbye, critical thinking; hello, mysticism.

What parent tries to disable their child’s brain? Who tries to defeat their kid’s truth-finding mechanism? That’s not normal, but on religion it is.

I’m raising my kids with the Latin phrase nullius in verba. I’m telling them, “Don’t believe anything just because someone says it’s so — including me, because I could be wrong. Don’t believe anyone’s testimony.”

Additional lesson ideas

How to share?

The Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

• Alma counseled Shiblon to continue teaching the word of God, being “diligent and temperate,” using “boldness, but not overbearance” (Alma 38:10, 12.) How can we follow this counsel as we share our beliefs with others?

In fact, overbearance isn’t such a big problem, but backfire effect is. Telling someone correct information they don’t like can make them believe incorrect information more.

To avoid this, check out the Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky. It’s a must for anyone who needs to communicate ideas.

Answer: Mary, Eve, Sarah, Sariah, Abish, Beyoncé.

NT Lesson 37 (Hebrews)

Jesus Christ: “The Author and Finisher of Our Faith”

Hebrews

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To point out the lies and selective omissions of the LDS Church, and to show the danger of faith.

Reading

Today’s lesson comes from the Book of Hebrews, which the LDS lesson manual says was written by Paul…

Point out that Paul’s letter to the Hebrews contains scriptures that could be useful in each of the three situations.

Explain that throughout his missionary journeys, Paul sought to convince the members of the Church that they should no longer practice the law of Moses.

Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews to reemphasize that the law of Moses had been fulfilled in Christ.

… and which everyone else pretty much agrees was written by not-Paul.

The Epistle to the Hebrews of the Christian Bible is one of the New Testament books whose canonicity was disputed. Traditionally, Paul the Apostle was thought to be the author. However, since the third century this has been questioned, and the consensus among most modern scholars is that the author is unknown.

Seriously, no one has believed that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews for about 1700 years. Even at the time of the Bible’s compilation, people were saying, “Hm, this one’s a bit dodgy.” That’s why it’s in the place that it is.

Ask: Why are the Pauline epistles placed in the order that they are?
Answer: The Pauline epistles are arranged, not in chronological order as you’d expect, but in order of length. Except for Hebrews. It was placed last, just in case it wasn’t from Paul.

It’s weird that, in the church’s official materials, the scholarship is so far out of date. This should tell us a couple of things:

  • Mormons say they care about the Bible, but not enough to actually find out or teach about it
  • The LDS Church has a very low tolerance for any story but the simple, official story. There’s no room for any nuance or complexity.

The epistle to the Hebrews is one of the less offensive books of the Bible. It’s largely taken up by stories of how wonderful faith is — faith is actually a pernicious form of fact avoidance — and how the new Christian covenant is much better than the old Jewish covenant.

Main ideas for this lesson

Milk before meat

When I was a young missionary, one of my fellow elders told a group of us about a baptism he was participating in. He and the convert were seated in the chapel before the baptism, wearing white. The convert glanced at the missionary’s leg, and noticed the outline of his garment bottom, visible through his semi-transparent white pants. “What’s that?” he asked.

“Oh, just a lining,” replied the missionary. Everyone thought that was pretty funny. No one seemed to ponder the wisdom of withholding the information about garments to someone who, all going well, would find out about them himself within the year.

But that was the way it was as a missionary. We commonly withheld information about the church from investigators if it was uncomfortable or embarrassing. And why wouldn’t we? We had information withheld from us about the temple endowment, about church history, and so on. One of the hallmarks of the LDS Church is its ability to dispense information at the levels that it chooses.

And the justification for withholding this information comes from Hebrews, which is where we find this passage about “milk before meat”.

Hebrews 5:12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.
5:13 For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe.
5:14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

In the LDS Church, the phrase “milk before meat” is used as a way of justifying information control and incomplete disclosure. This is a form of lying by omission. I suppose that — just as my missionary friend hoped that by the time his convert learned about garments, he’d be too invested to quit — the church is hoping that we won’t mind the deliberate withholding of information.

Of course, in our Internet age of copious information, any organisation that maintains its control by limiting information to its members will die a very messy and public death.

Predictably, LDS leaders tell members to avoid looking at the Internet.

His actual quote:

After a recent medical procedure, my very capable doctors explained what I needed to do to heal properly. But first I had to relearn something about myself I should have known for a long time: as a patient, I’m not very patient.

Consequently I decided to expedite the healing process by undertaking my own Internet search. I suppose I expected to discover truth of which my doctors were unaware or had tried to keep from me.

It took me a little while before I realized the irony of what I was doing. Of course, researching things for ourselves is not a bad idea. But I was disregarding truth I could rely on and instead found myself being drawn to the often-outlandish claims of Internet lore.

This “avoid the Internet” strategy is not unique to Mormons. Here’s a clip of Anthony Morris III, a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

… and be careful on the Internet. We were talking about that this weekend with friends. Oh my word, how many times do we have to tell you, be careful? You know, going here, going there, they’ll suck you in. Some of the stuff, it can seem so innocent. We’re just warning you. That’s all we can do — is admonish. Stick with what we have authorized. You’ll be safe. You wanna go out there? It’s at your spiritual risk.

Here’s an astute comment about this video:

People who are telling the truth don’t have to fear outside information.
But these leaders are doing everything they can to keep followers inside of a bubble.
It’s just rare to hear them admit it so bluntly.

Another small point: Having taught Sunday School lessons over and over, I confess that I began to wonder where the ‘meat’ was. The church curriculum seems to be all milk.

Unpardonable sin

If converts don’t stay in the church because of lack of information, they can always count on threats. Here not-Paul mentions the very vague ‘unpardonable sin’, and ties it pretty unambiguously to apostasy.

He starts with guilt…

Hebrews 6:4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,
6:5 And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come,
6:6 If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.

… and moves on to fear.

Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
10:27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
10:28 He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:
10:29 Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
10:30 For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.
10:31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Ask: What does not-Paul threaten us with if we stop believing?
Answer: Fire and devourment.

This tactic is known as the argumentum ad baculum, or “argument from the cudgel“. The church uses it in a slightly more subtle manner than not-Paul. Here’s a copy of the first letter you get when you try to resign from the church:

This is a threat. The church is threatening you with eternal consequences if you leave. Myself, I do not like being threatened.

One member tried to explain to me (rather unconvincingly) that it wasn’t a threat — it was just a simple statement of a fact… about what his invisible pal was going to do to me if I didn’t get my ass in line. Yeah, no, still a threat.

Faith and evidence

When I ask religious people for evidence of their god’s existence, they sometimes bust out this scripture:

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

…Yeeees, I suppose that scripture has the word ‘evidence’ in it, but this doesn’t mean that faith is a kind of evidence. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Check out this quote from Matt Dillahunty (at 24:17).

“Faith is the excuse people give for believing something when they don’t have a good reason. ‘Cause if you have a good reason, you don’t need faith.”

So faith is the “evidence of things not seen”? Of course! Because once you’ve seen, you’ve got evidence.

It gets even better: check out this list of murders that were made possible by faith. By faith, children were (allegedly) killed…

Hebrews 11:27 By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.
11:28 Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them.

…Egyptians were (allegedly) drowned

11:29 By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.

…cities slain…

11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days.
11:31 By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
11:32 And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
11:33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.

Remember Jephthah? Killed his daughter as a sacrifice to Jehovah / Jesus. You’d think not-Paul would be embarrassed about this, but here he specifically name-checks Jephthah as a righteous man who did mighty deeds by his faith.

All of which should be enough to tell us that faith is a terrible thing. It’s a broken compass that points any which way you want it to. You can believe anything — and perform any atrocity — with faith.

Additional lesson ideas

“Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth”

You might think that, if you do good things, you get good things. But this doesn’t always work out, mostly because God is imaginary. But this explanation isn’t available to not-Paul, so what does he come up with?

Hebrews 12:6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
12:7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?

That’s right — God will “chasten” you, because he loves you so much. I suppose it’s a plausible explanation, but it does make God into kind of an abusive psychopath. Ah, well — this is a common theme in our lessons.

Until next week.

NT Lesson 16 (The blind man)

“I Was Blind, Now I See”

John 9–10

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage independent thinking, and to question the goodness of a god who allows suffering.

Reading

This lesson covers two stories
  • Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath
  • Discourse on sheep

Main ideas for this lesson

Why God allows affliction

It’s a classic question that religious people ponder: Why does God allow suffering?

Nice try, Jesus, but I’m not the omnipotent one here.

Ask: What answers have you given to the question of suffering?

One answer is the “Calvin’s Dad” answer: that adversity builds character.

For some kinds of suffering, this is true. I’m heading to the gym today, where I will suffer some discomfort, with the expectation that I will get swol. But this suffering is rather mild. For the suffering of, say, a parent whose child is swept from their very own arms during a tsunami (true second hand story), it’s arguable that there are better ways to build character, if that’s what god is trying to do.

Another answer is that there are consequences for our actions, and we should experience those consequences and learn from them. Again, very true if we’re talking about actions that I chose to do.

But what about suffering that arises not from our actions — or indeed, anyone’s actions? What about natural disasters (like our tsunami), which God could of course avert? What about diseases that arise? What about (say) polio, where people needed to be placed in devices so they could breathe? This isn’t a consequence of anyone’s actions, and it’s difficult to see how this debilitating condition has helped anyone to be stronger, in character or otherwise. Why does a god whose followers claim him to be loving and good allow this kind of suffering?

Stephen Fry elaborated on this theme, rather impressively off the cuff, I’d say.

Jesus has a rather surprising answer.

John 9:1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
9:2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

The disciples think that this misfortune is God’s retribution for sin. Well, thank goodness Jesus is going to put that notion out of their heads, right?

9:3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

WHAT

Think about that. For his entire life, this man has lived without sight, and for what? So he can sit there when Jesus comes along, get healed, and show everyone how great God is.

In other words, God apparently made him blind to prove a point. And in so doing, God creates entirely unnecessary suffering.

Is it really surprising that the people who best understood the Hebrew Bible found this unpersuasive?

Moreover, let’s us imagine that all of this is true. Is awe the most appropriate response to this kind of deity? Do you even feel safe in a universe run by such a being?

This is a universe in which the supreme being can withhold valuable information for centuries, and cause illnesses so that he can use them in order to reveal that which he could have revealed all along without using sentient beings as pawns.

The father and Jesus are like an arsonist and firefighter tag team. One sets the fire and the other takes it out. And we are all supposed to be impressed that someone can set fires and another can take it out.

Ask: How does Jesus heal the man?
Answer: He has magical saliva.

John 9:6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,
9:7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.

This must have been a really miraculous event, because not only did it restore the man’s sight, it also somehow gave him the neural training that babies typically get in their first year or so to be able to process vision at all. Wow!

Except this is pretty bogus. If someone hasn’t trained their occipital lobe to interpret visual stimuli, then simply turning their eyes back on doesn’t help them see. It takes months. One man who had this happen was Shirl Jennings. Actually, Jennings had had his sight until age 3, at which time he went blind. Science restored his sight years later, but the resulting visual input was confusing for him. He didn’t mind when he went blind again soon after, mostly because then he didn’t have to watch the terrible movie based on his life starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino. #tendermercies

Ew.

The Gospel Doctrine teacher trapped inside me is telling me that the point of the story is that Jesus makes blind people see, both temporally and spiritually. But even Jesus quashes that notion. According to Jesus, he came to cause both sight and blindness.

John 9:39 And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.

As we’ve seen before, Jesus wants to conceal truth from some people — usually the unprepared or antagonistic. Wait, aren’t those the people who reject him? This is actually a rationale constructed to answer the question, “If Jesus is so true, why doesn’t everyone accept him?” Which I think is a great question, but Jesus’ answer is that they’re blind. Not because they’ve engaged in rational thought and decided to only accept ideas with evidentiary support. They’re just blind. To a Christian, there’s never a good reason to come to a different conclusion. If you don’t buy this jazz, it’s you who has the problem.

If I were to engage in some textual analysis, I’d suppose the latter blind group is the smarty-pantses of the world who think they know stuff, but don’t accept Jesus. I think we’re talking about Kevin Sorbo’s sneering professor character in God’s Not Dead.

Because the best way to stimulate students’ critical thinking is to browbeat them with your atheism. Works every time.

This could be seen as one more manifestation of the kind of anti-intellectualism that’s typical of Christianity.

Well, that’s enough bad movies for one lesson, but the rest of the story about the blind man is actually quite interesting in places, so have a read.

Sheep

Chapter 10 takes us to a discourse on sheep.

John 10:1 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.
10:2 But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

And so on.

I have never liked the sheep metaphor. It’s supposed to be about caring for others, the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep. But sheep do not represent the best in us. Sheep are docile and stupid.

If those are the kinds of followers Jesus was after, then there are a lot of people like that, but I aspire to something a little smarter, a little more independent. Less ovine, is what I’m saying.

And then there’s the “other sheep” comment, which has spurred loads of speculation.

John 10:16 And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

LDS doctrine says it’s ancient Americans, and Book of Mormon Jesus repeats this verse to them. Including the part about sheep, which in the absence of any actual sheep, would have made no sense to them. But more on that when we get to the Book of Mormon next year.

Additional lesson ideas

Testimony

The LDS manual encourages readers to share their testimony, using the formerly blind man as an example.

How did this man’s testimony grow as he continued to share it? (Compare verses 11, 17, 33, and 38.) How has your testimony grown as you have shared it?

There’s something sinister here. LDS leaders encourage people to “share their testimony” as a way of gaining a testimony.

Boyd Packer
It is not unusual to have a missionary say, “How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?”
Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!

Mormons enthusiastically promote this bad advice.

Dallin Oaks
Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.

In other words, saying you believe something has a curious tendency to make you believe that thing, since why would you say it unless you believe it? In other other words, Latter-day Saints are encouraged to lie to themselves and others, until they believe it. The message here is: Let the power of cognitive dissonance and peer pressure work for you! But it’s dishonest, and has no place in a thinking person’s toolkit for finding truth. What blamed fool thing couldn’t you convince yourself of using this method, if you tried hard enough?

One more time for this Dan Barker quote.

I have not really thought about evolution for a long time, and I still think it’s true. When something’s true, it doesn’t need to be continually pumped up like a leaky bike tyre.

Blasphemy review

Is anyone alarmed at the ease with which people pick up rocks to stone Jesus?

John 10:30 I and my Father are one.
10:31 Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.

Stoning and summary execution is the kind of thing religious people do when they can get away with it. There’s a bit on blasphemy in this lesson (just search for blasphemy on the page, and I talk about it on the radio in this lesson.

Let’s finish with a closing hymn. This one seems appropriate: Morrissey, with “Yes, I Am Blind”. It’s even got sheep in it.

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.

OT Lesson 46 (Daniel 2)

“A Kingdom, Which Shall Never Be Destroyed”

Daniel 2

LDS manual: here

Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main points from this lesson

How’s that stone going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the stone?

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

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

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

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

But don’t all religions say that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…36 attend sacrament meeting on a weekly basis”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Resignations up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should you resign?

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

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

But there might be something eating into my small victory…

Do they still count you if you resign?

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

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

Richard Packham has more numbers.

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

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

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

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

Additional lesson ideas

Prophecy after the fact

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

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

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

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

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

Setting it to music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OT Lesson 28 (Elijah)

“After the Fire a Still Small Voice”

1 Kings 17–19

LDS manual: here

Reading

Elijah and Jezebel

This reading is probably best understood as a conflict between Jezebel and Elijah, representatives of their respective gods. Yes, you’ve heard of Jezebel, the bad girl of the Old Testament, but was she all that bad? Who was she?

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess who married Ahab, king of Israel to the North. (Remember, Israel had split at this point, with the ten tribes to the north, and Judah and Benjamin to the south.) These mixed-faith marriages could be good things, with anthropological mixing and religious pluralism providing some relief from the carnage of religious monoculture. However, Jezebel was influential in promoting the worship of Ba’al, and so the Bible writers — Yahwists that they were — did everything they could to paint her (excuse the pun) as the worst character ever. According to them, she had the prophets of Jehovah killed, not that they wouldn’t have reciprocated.

One thing about Baal: he was a fertility god, and the god of rain. So as our story begins, Elijah shuts up the heavens so it doesn’t rain.

17:1 And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.

That’s not just petty; it’s to show his superiority over the rain god.

Ravens feed him.

17:6 And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.

Too bad about all the other people affected by the drought, including a widow and her son. The boy dies, but Elijah brings him back in a rather odd ceremony:

17:17 And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him.
17:18 And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?
17:19 And he said unto her, Give me thy son. And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into a loft, where he abode, and laid him upon his own bed.
17:20 And he cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?
17:21 And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.
17:22 And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.

Chapter 18 is one of my favourites: the head-to-head death match between Jehovah and Baal! On the one side, 450 priests of Baal. On the other, just Elijah. The task: lighting a fire. (It’s like Survivor.)

18:23 Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under:
18:24 And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.

The priests of Baal yell, scream, and even cut themselves, but Baal just doesn’t light their fire.

18:25 And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.
18:26 And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.

Elijah can’t resist taking the piss.

18:27 And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.

According to many versions, pursuing means taking a leak. Funny stuff.

There’s one thing I have in common with Elijah, though: Elijah finds it perfectly acceptable to mock the silly religious beliefs of others, and so do I.

18:28 And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.

But no dice. Now it’s Elijah’s turn. He wets the wood with water…

18:33 And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.
18:34 And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.
18:35 And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
18:36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
18:37 Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.

And still — zappo! — fire from heaven.

18:38 Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
18:39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.

With that, Elijah commands that the priests of Baal be killed.

18:40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.

When Jezebel hears that her priests have been murdered, she’s justifiably upset. She tells Elijah he’s going to suffer the same fate.

19:2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time.

Elijah hides out, and gets fed by angels. But the writing’s on the wall for Jezebel. Her death is not part of this lesson, but 2 Kings 9 tells of how Jehu had her thrown out a window, to be ignominiously devoured by hounds.

2 Kings 9:33 And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot.
9:34 And when he was come in, he did eat and drink, and said, Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king’s daughter.
9:35 And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands.

Jezebel might have been ruthless, but no more so than the Yahwists, who committed far more murders for their god. She’s a character who was made to look worse in the edit.

There are more shenanigans in 1 Kings, of course. The Israelites kill another hundred thousand people.

20:28 And there came a man of God, and spake unto the king of Israel, and said, Thus saith the LORD, Because the Syrians have said, The LORD is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that I am the LORD.
20:29 And they pitched one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day.

And 27,000 more get killed when a wall falls on them. How big a wall would this have to be?

20:30 But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city; and there a wall fell upon twenty and seven thousand of the men that were left.

And then there’s this little puzzler. If I were a prophet, and I told you to hit me, would you? Think carefully, because if you get this wrong, you get eaten by a lion. You might say, yes, you’d smite a prophet because you’re supposed to do what the prophet says. But wait: even hitting him? What if you don’t want to hit anyone?

Our first contestant chooses the non-violent option.

20:35 And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said unto his neighbour in the word of the LORD, Smite me, I pray thee. And the man refused to smite him.

BZZT! Wrong answer. Thanks for playing, and now you get eaten by a lion.

20:36 Then said he unto him, Because thou hast not obeyed the voice of the LORD, behold, as soon as thou art departed from me, a lion shall slay thee. And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and slew him.

The prophet tries it with another guy. This guy gets it right.

20:37 Then he found another man, and said, Smite me, I pray thee. And the man smote him, so that in smiting he wounded him.
20:38 So the prophet departed,

Moral: Give the prophet a beatdown if he’s asking for it.

Main points for this lesson

God doesn’t mind showing up for empirical tests

The story of Elijah and the priests of Baal shows a laudable commitment to empiricism. Far to often, believers make no effort to test their beliefs under controlled conditions, preferring to let confirmation bias work for them instead.

So I always liked the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. Two altars, one god, see what works. Right?

Except a test isn’t really valid unless it’s replicable, and to my knowledge, no one’s ever tried a repeat. Which tells me that, as with anything that works once and then never again, it’s might be just a big story.

Let’s look at another area: intercessory prayer. Many people believe that people get better faster if you pray for them. Which makes no sense; does God want them to get better or not? Why would he need people to ask him? Is he a bit distracted?

Anyway, there have been some attempts to see whether prayer helps make sick better. These have been double-blind studies where one group of sick people were prayed for, and another group wasn’t.

In the largest study of this kind — a $2.4 million study carried out by the Templeton Foundation — it was found that prayer had no effect on heart disease patients. However, people who knew they were being prayed for had significantly higher complications.

Naturally, the race was on for Christians to explain the failure of prayer. An article in Christianity Today said that, well, God is so awesome that he just helps everyone, prayer or not. Which makes one wonder why one should pray at all.

But many Christians I’ve talked to have explained this result in this way: God doesn’t want to be tested. He does things for his own reasons and in his own way. In other words, the test was double-blind, but it wasn’t triple-blind.

A closely-related rationale is that God refuses to prove he exists. God requires our faith, and leaving clear evidence would thwart his desire for us to believe in him for no good reason whatsoever. Because it’s not true worship unless it’s unmoored from observable reality and careful thinking.

But the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal shows us that this rationale is incorrect. God didn’t seem to mind showing up for a test back then. He was happy to set Elijah’s altar alight in the presence of witnesses. So what’s his problem now? Why does he refuse to heal sick and suffering people just because he knows some scientists might be watching? Why must he operate on the very margins of statistical significance? Unless, again, he’s just a big story.

Sunk-cost fallacy

Even though they’re starving, Elijah gets the widow to feed him first.

17:13 And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.

It’s quite audacious for this old fraud to insist on being served first. However, this is a pattern taken up by the LDS Church, which encourages its members to be financially irresponsible by giving money to it, even if they are unable to meet their other financial commitments.

Your attitude is important in paying tithing. Pay it because you love the Lord and have faith in Him. Pay it willingly with a thankful heart. Pay it first, even when you think you do not have enough money to meet your other needs. Doing so will help you develop greater faith, overcome selfishness, and be more receptive to the Spirit.

And again here:

If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing.

And this, even when the church has enormous holdings, builds huge shopping malls, and is not transparent about what it does with the money.

That’s pretty evil for someone to insist on. What’s behind it?

Psychology tells us about the sunkcost fallacy, which could be formulated:

Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.

That’s why you might sit through a terrible movie that you’ve paid for, even though you’d have more fun walking out and doing something else.

On a grimmer note, when cult leader Jim Jones induced his followers to commit suicide, he had the children drink the poison first. Why? Once the adults had watched their children die, they would be more likely to follow through and die themselves. They would be all in. What would they then live for?

And so it is with the LDS Church. You are encouraged to give time, money, and effort to the building up of Zion. After an 18–24 month mission, hours spent in meetings, tens of thousands in tithing, and (importantly) saying over and over again from a young age that you know that the church is true, it’s very difficult to then go back on that and say it was all wrong. Leaving would mean the loss of all your contributions, and — in accordance with the sunk-cost fallacy — this is very difficult for our human brains to pull off. This is why investigators are encouraged to start on a path of small but ever-increasing commitments. No one likes to admit that something they’ve done was a waste of time, so the greater the outlay, the tighter the hold.

Additional teaching ideas

Controlling the weather through religion

Controlling the weather is probably one of the earliest uses of applied religion, and it persists today. Check out this item from President Newsroom: Interfaith Group Prays for Drought Relief

Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Baha’i, and other faith leaders participated in a joint prayer service in Nevada on February 1, urging for divine intervention in view of persistent drought conditions in the western United States.

Sparks Nevada Stake President Joseph E. Johnson served as host of the service, held in the Sparks Nevada Stake Center. “Our belief is that prayers are answered and connect us with God. We also need to be responsible stewards of what God has given us,” said President Johnson, who was co-coordinator of the event.

Yep, they really think it works.

I remember how, in 2006, the LDS Church joined a similar interfaith effort to end the drought in Australia. They even put out a press release — now pulled, but which still exists on the Wayback Machine.

Needless to say, the drought in Australia continues. But the thing which I always remembered was that no one at church ever mentioned the fast ever again. No one wanted to talk about it! It was a clear sign to me that confirmation bias was an active force in the lives of Latter-day Saints.

The hell’s a Tishbite?

Elijah is described as a Tishbite, but that’s just someone from Tishbe in Gilead, and not someone who goes around biting anyone. On the tish, or anywhere else.

Tishbite is also the name of a Cocteau Twins song, one of the better ones from their last album. That will be our closing hymn.

OT Lesson 27 (Jeroboam and Rehoboam)

The Influence of Wicked and Righteous Leaders

1 Kings 12–14; 2 Chronicles 17; 20

LDS manual: here

Reading

Jeroboam and Rehoboam

This reading is taken up with the machinations of two of Solomon’s successors, his son Rehoboam, and Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s trusted men. Before you ask: no, -boam was not some sort of common additive on kids’ names, like -ayden is today. No, Jeroboam’s name might have meant ‘he increases the people‘, and Rehoboam’s name might have meant ‘he who enlarges the people‘. While similar, these names have an important distinction: Jeroboam wanted to make more people, while Rehoboam just wanted to make the existing people larger through better nutrition and so on. Jeroboam’s strategy would appear to have the better one; he soon found himself at the head of ten tribes, while Rehoboam’s tribes would dwindle down to two, probably because of lack of exercise, sex, and so on.

But we’re getting ahead of the story. In the last lesson, we saw that Jehovah/Jesus was going to punish Solomon for relaxing Israel’s monotheism and allowing religious pluralism — in other words, for being a generally tolerant guy. The punishment would be the dissolution of Israel, and it would be carried out some time after Solomon’s death.

1 Kings 11:11 Wherefore the LORD said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant.
11:12 Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it for David thy father’s sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son.

Solomon must have been like, “Oh, no, God’s going to fracture my kingdom. Wait — after I’m dead? That’s great! We don’t even have a coherent concept of the afterlife yet!”

No, this would take place after Solomon’s death, thus continuing the tradition of punishing children for the sins of their fathers.

As our story begins, Jeroboam is hiding out in Egypt after trying (and failing) to become king of the ten northern tribes of Israel. He becomes part of a coalition to petition king Rehoboam for better conditions.

1 Kings 12:3 That they sent and called him. And Jeroboam and all the congregation of Israel came, and spake unto Rehoboam, saying,
12:4 Thy father made our yoke grievous: now therefore make thou the grievous service of thy father, and his heavy yoke which he put upon us, lighter, and we will serve thee.
12:5 And he said unto them, Depart yet for three days, then come again to me. And the people departed.

Rehoboam asks the smart old guys what to do, and they say: Be nice.

12:6 And king Rehoboam consulted with the old men, that stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, and said, How do ye advise that I may answer this people?
12:7 And they spake unto him, saying, If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever.

Wow — is the Bible encouraging leaders to be nice? This is a change.

He then asks the young dudes of his generation what to do, and their answer is: Be a dick.

12:8 But he forsook the counsel of the old men, which they had given him, and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him:
12:9 And he said unto them, What counsel give ye that we may answer this people, who have spoken to me, saying, Make the yoke which thy father did put upon us lighter?
12:10 And the young men that were grown up with him spake unto him, saying, Thus shalt thou speak unto this people that spake unto thee, saying, Thy father made our yoke heavy, but make thou it lighter unto us; thus shalt thou say unto them, My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins.

If loins means what I think it means, this just became a big dick contest.

1 Kings 12:11 And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.

“How about scorpions? Does scorpions sound okay with you?”

So Israel rebels. The rival Jeroboam becomes leader of Israel to the north, leaving Rehoboam to be king of Judah (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin)  to the south.

Interestingly, Jeroboam makes a break with monotheism by setting up golden calves. Israel loved those golden calves, you know.

1 Kings 12:26 And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David:
12:27 If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.
12:28 Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
12:29 And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan.
12:30 And this thing became a sin: for the people went to worship before the one, even unto Dan.

The prophet who was tricked by a prophet

God’s up to his old tricks again. He’s commanded a “man of God” to tell Jeroboam off. He does so by talking to the altar.

1 Kings 13:1 And, behold, there came a man of God out of Judah by the word of the LORD unto Bethel: and Jeroboam stood by the altar to burn incense
13:2 And he cried against the altar in the word of the LORD, and said, O altar, altar, thus saith the LORD; Behold, a child shall be born unto the house of David, Josiah by name; and upon thee shall he offer the priests of the high places that burn incense upon thee, and men’s bones shall be burnt upon thee.
13:3 And he gave a sign the same day, saying, This is the sign which the LORD hath spoken; Behold, the altar shall be rent, and the ashes that are upon it shall be poured out.

Steve Wells points out that God must be okay with some kinds of human sacrifice.

Jeroboam doesn’t like this, so he stretches out his hand — and God dries it up.

1 Kings 13:4 And it came to pass, when king Jeroboam heard the saying of the man of God, which had cried against the altar in Bethel, that he put forth his hand from the altar, saying, Lay hold on him. And his hand, which he put forth against him, dried up, so that he could not pull it in again to him.
13:5 The altar also was rent, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of God had given by the word of the LORD.

“Aaaah!” says Jeroboam. “Put it back!” So he does.

13:6 And the king answered and said unto the man of God, Intreat now the face of the LORD thy God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored me again. And the man of God besought the LORD, and the king’s hand was restored him again, and became as it was before.

Jeroboam thinks this is a neat trick, so he invites the guy over for drinks.

13:7 And the king said unto the man of God, Come home with me, and refresh thyself, and I will give thee a reward.

No dice, says the man of God. God told him not to eat or drink anything.

13:8 And the man of God said unto the king, If thou wilt give me half thine house, I will not go in with thee, neither will I eat bread nor drink water in this place:
13:9 For so was it charged me by the word of the LORD, saying, Eat no bread, nor drink water, nor turn again by the same way that thou camest.
13:10 So he went another way, and returned not by the way that he came to Bethel.

Then, another prophet comes and makes the same offer.

13:11 Now there dwelt an old prophet in Bethel; and his sons came and told him all the works that the man of God had done that day in Bethel: the words which he had spoken unto the king, them they told also to their father.

13:14 And went after the man of God, and found him sitting under an oak: and he said unto him, Art thou the man of God that camest from Judah? And he said, I am.
13:15 Then he said unto him, Come home with me, and eat bread.

And again, “Nope, I’m not supposed to eat or drink.”

13:16 And he said, I may not return with thee, nor go in with thee: neither will I eat bread nor drink water with thee in this place:
13:17 For it was said to me by the word of the LORD, Thou shalt eat no bread nor drink water there, nor turn again to go by the way that thou camest.

“Oh, yeah? Well, I’m a prophet too, and an angel told me to give you some dinner.”

13:18 He said unto him, I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the LORD, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water. But he lied unto him.

“Oh, you’re a prophet? That changes everything. Sure, let’s eat.”

13:19 So he went back with him, and did eat bread in his house, and drank water.

So Jehovah/Jesus killed him, with the help of a hungry lion.

13:20 And it came to pass, as they sat at the table, that the word of the LORD came unto the prophet that brought him back:
13:21 And he cried unto the man of God that came from Judah, saying, Thus saith the LORD, Forasmuch as thou hast disobeyed the mouth of the LORD, and hast not kept the commandment which the LORD thy God commanded thee,
13:22 But camest back, and hast eaten bread and drunk water in the place, of the which the Lord did say to thee, Eat no bread, and drink no water; thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers.
13:23 And it came to pass, after he had eaten bread, and after he had drunk, that he saddled for him the ass, to wit, for the prophet whom he had brought back.
13:24 And when he was gone, a lion met him by the way, and slew him: and his carcase was cast in the way, and the ass stood by it, the lion also stood by the carcase.

The moral of the story: You can’t always trust prophets, which is probably the best lesson we could take from the Old Testament.

Sodomites

Rehoboam, for his part, is having his own problems. He’s fighting wars with the forces of Jeroboam, and soon Shishak (the pharaoh of Egypt who once protected Jeroboam, remember) is going to start his own offensive soon. What’s the problem? Sodomites!

1 Kings 14:24 And there were also sodomites in the land: and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the LORD cast out before the children of Israel.

But David’s son Asa is going to fix that right up.

15:11 And Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, as did David his father.
15:12 And he took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made.

At this stage, I get the feeling that the Bible writer is just pulling ideas out of a hat. Every time something bad happens, he comes up with some arbitrary cause. Israel in tatters? Solomon’s idolatry. Israel lost a battle? Must be the sodomites.

Modern Christians follow Asa’s example by blaming gay people for all kinds of things.

God kills more children

Remember the city of Jericho? Joshua and friends were supposed to have destroyed with place with trumpets of sonic destruction. At the time, Joshua put a curse on anyone who tried to rebuild it. The curse was that if anyone did so, God would kill his oldest son, and his youngest son.

Joshua 6:26 And Joshua adjured them at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it.

Well, guess what: Someone did, and sure enough, his two sons died.

1 Kings 16:34 In his days did Hiel the Bethelite build Jericho: he laid the foundation thereof in Abiram his firstborn, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Joshua the son of Nun.

Isn’t it wonderful to know that the Lord never forgets his promises?

We now transition to 2 Chronicles, which repeats a lot of the foregoing chapters in 1 Kings.

The real lesson manual makes a contrast between the wickedness of Jeroboam and Rehoboam, and the righteousness of Jehoshaphat, Rehoboam’s great-grandson.

Three generations after Rehoboam, his great-grandson Jehoshaphat reigned over the kingdom of Judah. How did Jehoshaphat demonstrate his personal righteousness? (See 2 Chronicles 17:3–4, 6.)

It also asks this, rather frighteningly:

How does our private devotion affect our ability to lead others?

This is code for: Vote for Mormons.

What Jehoshaphat did was tear down the groves and the high places where other people used to worship their gods. In our day, as in ancient times, religious believers were big on deforestation.

Apparently Jehoshaphat tried to “help the ungodly” once, and a seer named Jehu called him out for it: “You shouldn’t have helped the ungodly. But you tore down the groves, so God still thinks you’re pretty awesome.”

2 Chr. 19:1 And Jehoshaphat the king of Judah returned to his house in peace to Jerusalem.
19:2 And Jehu the son of Hanani the seer went out to meet him, and said to king Jehoshaphat, Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the LORD.
19:3 Nevertheless there are good things found in thee, in that thou hast taken away the groves out of the land, and hast prepared thine heart to seek God.

And once again, Jehovah/Jesus helps Jehoshaphat commit genocide by confusing the Moabites and the Ammonites into fighting each other. Yes, it’s that story again.

2 Chr. 20:22 And when they began to sing and to praise, the LORD set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten.
20:23 For the children of Ammon and Moab stood up against the inhabitants of mount Seir, utterly to slay and destroy them: and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, every one helped to destroy another.

No one was left alive.

20:24 And when Judah came toward the watch tower in the wilderness, they looked unto the multitude, and, behold, they were dead bodies fallen to the earth, and none escaped.

And the takings were incredible.

20:25 And when Jehoshaphat and his people came to take away the spoil of them, they found among them in abundance both riches with the dead bodies, and precious jewels, which they stripped off for themselves, more than they could carry away: and they were three days in gathering of the spoil, it was so much.

Main ideas for this lesson

Leadership

According to the real lesson manual, the purpose of this lesson is:

To encourage class members to develop good leadership qualities so they can influence others to live righteously.

This got me thinking about good leadership qualities. I suppose I could make a list of what I think makes a good leader, and there would be nothing special about it. But right up at the top of my list would be: A good leader leads.

That seems simple enough: A good leader leads. But as I look at the leadership of the LDS Church in my lifetime, I have to say that they’ve failed in this, in two major ways.

LDS Church leaders do not provide good moral leadership.

There have been many cases where LDS leader could have led the way in helping Latter-day Saints be better, more moral people, in particular:

  • Being less racist
  • Being less sexist
  • Being less homophobic

These are three issues where people in society have evolved to become more moral, more caring, and more progressive. Just about everyone now agrees that being less racist is a good thing, or at least the racists now have to drop their voices a few decibels when voicing their views. Similarly, public views on the status of women and LGBT people are advancing. An all-knowing god would have foreseen that these views would be better accepted over time, and a good god would have known that these views are important for the rights and well-being of the people he created. At the very least, such a god would have figured this out at the same time as humans did generally.

And yet, the LDS Church does not take the lead on these moral issues. Society has taken the lead, and church leaders have dragged their feet. In issues of moral leadership, society — and portions of the church’s own membership — is way out in front of LDS leaders, on the order of decades. This represents a failure of moral leadership.

LDS Church leaders do not provide clear spiritual leadership.

But not only does LDS church leadership fail to provide moral leadership to the world. It also fails to lead its own people.

When I was a missionary, there was a pattern I taught people in the first discussion (paraphrasing here):

  1. God speaks to prophets
  2. The prophets report what God said
  3. People are invited to obey

There are a lot of stories like that in scripture, but nowadays the church exists in a kind of revelatory vacuum. You only need to look at an incident like the Great Caffeine Manifesto of 2012 to see the reluctance of LDS leaders to make any kind of official clarifying statement on even the tiniest of issues. When we ask what the LDS prophet says, the answer has to be: As little as possible.

Instead, LDS leaders send out armies of surrogates:

  • Apologists — professional excuse-makers — who try to explain away the holes in LDS theology, and whose explanations can be disavowed if they seem repugnant or run afoul of reality
  • PR flacks such as Ally Isom; smooth talkers who try to handle the media and muddy the issues
  • and, in the Tom Phillips case, lawyers who scarcely seem to be able to get the name of the church right.

The communication of modern prophets is typified by a reluctance to say anything definite that could later be proven wrong, as you’d expect from a normal non-prophet who is not really in touch with a god. Again, the moral questions facing the world and the LDS Church would be easy for a god to sort out with revelation — revelation that never seems to come from the leaders of the church. They do not show moral leadership. They show moral lassitude.

I look at people like Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and even Carol Lynn Pearson — people who, in their way, challenge the leadership of the church to be better leaders and better people — and you know who I see? In a funny way, I see prophets (even though I’m an atheist).

Let me explain. You’ll notice that lately, in these recent readings, Israel isn’t run by a prophet. It was in the days of Moses, Joshua, and so on, but now Israel is controlled by kings, who play the part of administrators. Isn’t that how LDS Church leaders seem? They don’t prophesy — they’re businessmen, running the corporation.

Okay, so then what happens? Well, when the king screws up, then some prophet or seer or man of God — call him what you will — pops up and calls him out on it! These guys must have been everywhere! They were the moral force of Israel. And the kings would listen to them.

Can you imagine that happening in the church today? Not on your life. Today, when a moral person pops up and tells uncomfortable moral truths, the Brethren see that person as a threat. That person gets excommunicated, marginalised, and put on a watch list. Ancient Israel had a place for its seers — the people who saw clearly — but modern Israel doesn’t. No wonder they’re morally adrift.

So what kind of leadership do church leaders use? In many ways, the same as cult leaders always have.

Ask: How many of the following tactics do LDS leaders avail themselves of?

Things God is okay with

This reading has a list of things that the god of the Bible approves of.

God is okay with polygamy

2 Chr. 13:20 Neither did Jeroboam recover strength again in the days of Abijah: and the LORD struck him, and he died.
13:21 But Abijah waxed mighty, and married fourteen wives, and begat twenty and two sons, and sixteen daughters.

God is okay with killing a million people (or trying)

2 Chr. 14:8 And Asa had an army of men that bare targets and spears, out of Judah three hundred thousand; and out of Benjamin, that bare shields and drew bows, two hundred and fourscore thousand: all these were mighty men of valour.
14:9 And there came out against them Zerah the Ethiopian with an host of a thousand thousand, and three hundred chariots; and came unto Mareshah.
14:10 Then Asa went out against him, and they set the battle in array in the valley of Zephathah at Mareshah.
14:11 And Asa cried unto the LORD his God, and said, LORD, it is nothing with thee to help, whether with many, or with them that have no power: help us, O LORD our God; for we rest on thee, and in thy name we go against this multitude. O LORD, thou art our God; let no man prevail against thee.
14:12 So the LORD smote the Ethiopians before Asa, and before Judah; and the Ethiopians fled.

God is also okay with killing non-believers

2 Chr. 15:13 That whosoever would not seek the LORD God of Israel should be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman.
15:14 And they sware unto the LORD with a loud voice, and with shouting, and with trumpets, and with cornets.
15:15 And all Judah rejoiced at the oath: for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought him with their whole desire; and he was found of them: and the LORD gave them rest round about.

But God is definitely not okay with worshipping some other god in a bunch of trees.

It’s worth repeating yet again: The god of the Bible (who is Jesus of the New Testament) is not a good god. He doesn’t care for all of his children, and he’s okay with a wide variety of acts that we now find morally abhorrent. He kills people for trivial infractions of his arbitrary commands. The one sure-fire way to piss him off is to worship someone else. This is incredibly petty, coming from someone who is supposedly secure in his dominion of the universe. If this god were real, he would not be worth worshipping. The worst person on earth is better than this being.

Additional ideas for teaching

The Bible encourages people not to go to doctors

King Asa has a foot problem, and — would you believe it — he tries to fix it by going to doctors! He should have “sought to the Lord.”

2 Chr. 16:12 And Asa in the thirty and ninth year of his reign was diseased in his feet, until his disease was exceeding great: yet in his disease he sought not to the LORD, but to the physicians.

We know now, however, that taking an illness to the Lord is a good way to die. We’ve seen many recent cases where parents have sacrificed their children to faith healing. Many children have died of treatable causes because their parents did nothing but pray.

Faith healing doesn’t work, of course. Otherwise, doctors would use it.

Piss, again

God tells Jeroboam:

1 Kings 14:10 Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall,

Presumably this refers to males, but I always pee sitting down for this very reason.

And I stay away from walls.

OT Lesson 18 (Joshua)

“Be Strong and of a Good Courage”

Joshua 1–6; 23–24

LDS manual: here

Reading

After the last few lessons, I’ve gotten a bit tired of slaughter and genocide. Anyone hoping we’d get a break after the death of Moses will be disappointed; Moses has an able successor in Joshua, whose genocidal tendencies (also known as obedience) helped him to, in the words of the lesson manual: “ably [direct] the conquest and settlement of the promised land.”

The atrocities in the Book of Joshua are well known to every child in Sunday School. In addition to the siege of Jericho, the Israelites are alleged to have conducted the slaughter of multiple cities, including men, women, children, and animals.

Again, why is this slaughter necessary? Because Jehovah forgot to reserve some land for the Israelites.

We must conclude that God is an incompetent doofus who murders people to get around the problems that he himself set up. This isn’t out of character, and in fact forms the basis for the Atonement.

Chs. 12: Joshua and the Israelites are to besiege the city of Jericho. Joshua sends to spies to check the place out, and they find a sex worker named Rahab, who tells them everyone in Jericho is terrified of Israel. She hides the spies, and in return they promise that she and her family won’t be killed in the ensuing carnage.

Ask: Would you describe Rahab as a moral person?
Rahab is held up as an example of faith later in the Bible, but it’s hard to see how her actions are moral. She certainly sees which side her bread is buttered on. She lies to protect the enemy of her people, and made a deal for herself and her family. All these things we wouldn’t exactly call moral, but it was to the benefit of the Israelites, and that’s the only kind of morality the Bible seems to be concerned with so far.

This is a pattern we’ve seen all throughout the OT: Murder is wrong, unless God (or the leader) does it. Israel gets what it wants, and no one else matters.

To my way of thinking, this functions like a set of moral blinders, possibly the same set the believer will have in heaven, happy while their disbelieving family and friends are being tortured — or isolated, take your pick — for eternity. And this moral failure will continue through to the last chapter of Revelation.

Chs. 3 – 5: Joshua parts the waters of the Jordan — eh, Moses did it first — and the Israelites cross over. Joshua circumcises the men (owie owie owie), and the magical manna that’s been falling all this time stops.

Ch. 6: Joshua and troops surround the city for six days, walking around it and blowing horns. On the seventh day, they blow their horns and shout, and what happens next is the subject of songs and stories told to children: the walls came a-tumbling down. The kids’ stories gloss over what happens next:

6:21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
6:24 And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein: only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.

Ch. 7: The Israelites lose the next battle against the people of Ai, so when they try to figure out why, blame falls upon Achen, who’d hidden some of the spoils for himself. They murder him — and his family.

7:24 And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor.
7:25 And Joshua said, Why hast thou troubled us? the LORD shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire, after they had stoned them with stones.

Robert Ingersoll was an atheist back in the time of the US Civil War. It’s hard to imagine someone giving fiery denunciations of religion at that time, but that’s what he did. Here’s his commentary.

Joshua took the City of Jericho. Before the fall of the city he declared that all the spoil taken should be given to the Lord.

In spite of this order Achan secreted a garment, some silver and gold.

Afterwards Joshua tried to take the city of Ai. He failed and many of his soldiers were slain.

Joshua sought for the cause of his defeat and he found that Achan had secreted a garment, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold. To this Achan confessed.

And thereupon Joshua took Achan, his sons and his daughters, his oxen and his sheep—stoned them all to death and burned their bodies.

There is nothing to show that the sons and daughters had committed any crime. Certainly, the oxen and sheep should not have been stoned to death for the crime of their owner. This was the justice, the mercy, of Jehovah!

After Joshua had committed this crime, with the help of Jehovah he captured the city of Ai.

Ask: Are children responsible for the crimes of their parents?

Chs. 8 – 12: More genocide:

The city of Ai

8:25 And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.

Tricksy Gibeonites: They were local — and therefore marked for death — but they pretended they’d come from far away, and made an allegiance with the Israelites. When they realised they’d been tricked, the Israelites honoured the deal (plus points for them), but made the Gibeonites slaves forever (many minus points for them).

9:22 And Joshua called for them, and he spake unto them, saying, Wherefore have ye beguiled us, saying, We are very far from you; when ye dwell among us?
9:23 Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.

Killing Amorites: The Israelites are killing the Amorites, and this gives God such a hateboner that he decides to wade in and kill them too. He makes sure to kill more of them with hailstones than the Israelites kill with weapons. Apparently this is a big-dick contest for him.

10:10 And the LORD discomfited them before Israel, and slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them along the way that goeth up to Bethhoron, and smote them to Azekah, and unto Makkedah.
10:11 And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the LORD cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.

God’s not through; he makes the sun stand still for a day so that more killing can be done in daylight.

10:12 Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
10:13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

More cities: none left alive

10:40 So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.

Hazor

11:11 And they smote all the souls that were therein with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them: there was not any left to breathe: and he burnt Hazor with fire.

The Anakims

11:21 And at that time came Joshua, and cut off the Anakims from the mountains, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the mountains of Judah, and from all the mountains of Israel: Joshua destroyed them utterly with their cities.

Ch. 13 contains a memorable passage.

13:1 Now Joshua was old and stricken in years; and the LORD said unto him, Thou art old and stricken in years, and there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed.

I remember reading this on my mission, and God seemed like some kind of evil sprite or something. “Come on, come on! There’s still so much more to kill!” I’m thinking Ryuk, if Kira were an old man. But slightly smaller and more impish.

Chs. 14 – end: A very long denouement, with lots of boring bullshit. The Book of Joshua does end with this well-known verse:

24:15 And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

I’d just like to point out that at this stage of the action — with the slaughter of entire cities; men, women, children, and animals murdered; kings hung on trees; children punished for the crimes of their parents, and all at the command of a being who has an absolute and unchanging standard of morality — I’d say yes, it does seem evil to serve this being. As for me and my house, I’ll have nothing to do with him.

One more time for this graphic:

Main points from this lesson

Celebrating genocide is the mark of a small moral circle

In my missionary days, I was part of a singing quartet. Apparently something that talented young blighters do in the mission field. One of our songs was indeed “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”. We sang “And the walls came tumbling down” with great gusto. Now I hate thinking about that. We didn’t seem to realise that we were celebrating genocide, and if we did, I don’t know if we would have minded.

Since becoming an atheist (and part-time humanist), I’ve become aware of the work of moral philosopher Peter Singer. The metaphor he uses is a circle. We start off caring about the people in our circle — people like us. But if we’re doing it right, we expand our circle of concern so that we care about people who are less and less like us, continuing to animals. Here’s his talk from the Global Atheist Con of 2012.

The view of morality presented by the Bible is firmly focused on the tribe. In a way, we can’t fault them for that; that’s where humanity was at the time. One would think that having input from a timeless, transcendent, all-loving god would have expanded their circle, but quite the contrary. Jehovah has no interest for people beyond his favourite tribe, and participates in the slaughter himself.

This is a hopelessly narrow kind of morality. As humanists, we can do better than religion.

Evidence for Jericho?

Did Jericho really happen? Fortunately, the evidence from archaeology has disconfirmed the Jericho story. Not only did the walls not come tumbling down

Unfortunately for believers in biblical literalism, no strata of destruction that would correspond with such an invasion has yet been identified.

…but at the time of the alleged Jericho story, there was no wall at all.

Most significantly, although the LB was the period when an Israelite conquest would have happened, there was no trace of any fortifications during this period…. Therefore, although the Book of Joshua depicts Jericho as a mighty walled city when the Israelites encountered it, during this period it was in fact a meager, unfortified village. There were no walls to come tumbling down.

Does that mean I’m getting worked up over a genocide that never happened? Perhaps, but there’s more to the story than ‘did it happen’. Also significant is that there are millions of people who think it did happen, think it’s good that it happened, defend the god who they imagine made it happen, and are in fact disappointed and troubled to think that it didn’t happen. To me, it’s the best news I’ve heard all week.

I’m also amused to think that a group of people who today we consider bookish and intellectual imagined up for themselves a history of bloodthirsty carnage. Everyone overcompensates for something.

Did the sun stand still for a day?

According to Joshua, God himself stopped the sun in the sky so the carnage could continue.

10:12 Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
10:13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Now you must’ve heard the story about the NASA engineer who found the missing day:

They called in the service department to check it out and they said “what’s wrong?” Well they found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time. They scratched their heads and tore their hair. There was no answer. Finally, a Christian man on the team said, “You know, one time I was in Sunday School and they talked about the sun standing still.”

Hallelujah! Science confirms scripture! But science communicator Dr Karl debunks the story in his wonderful style:

But ignore the lies and exaggerations, and just think about the idea of a Missing Day. You can measure the length of a piece of string only if you can get to both ends of the string. In the same way, you can find a missing day only if you have known dates on each side of the missing day. Eclipses are ideal for this purpose, because they are such well-documented and memorable events. But at the time of Harold Hill’s lectures, the earliest documented eclipse was in 1217 BC, nearly two centuries after Joshua battled the Forces of Evil. In Harold Hill’s day, there were no eclipses documented before the time of Joshua, and so there was no way to find a Missing Day. It’s mathematically impossible.

The story is so thoroughly implausible that even Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International don’t believe it, and list it as an example of arguments Christians shouldn’t use.

The morality of selective Bible study

Let’s have a look at the real lesson manual. Did they run through all the carnage?

a. Joshua 1. The Lord calls Joshua to succeed Moses and commands him to be strong, have courage, study the scriptures, and keep the commandments. Joshua prepares the Israelites to possess the land that the Lord has promised them.
b. Joshua 3–4; 6. The Israelites cross the Jordan River on dry ground and place 12 stones as a memorial of their crossing. Through the Israelites’ faith, Jericho is destroyed.

Had to stop here. “Through their faith”. I suppose the swords and fire had nothing to do with it.

c. Joshua 23; 24:14–31. Joshua and his people covenant to serve the Lord.

Nope, they stop at Jericho, and skip over to the end. I guess class time is limited, and they would want to skip the bits that might disturb the membership. But is this an honest presentation of scripture?

How about the church’s presentation of Brigham Young? Even to this very day, his bio on the official church website says:

1824: Marries Miriam Works (23).
1832: Baptized into the Church and ordained an elder. Wife dies (31).
1834: Marries Mary Ann Angell.

First wife dies, marries another. There are no mentions of any of his other 53 wives; anyone would come away with the impression that Brother Brigham was a monogamist.

Mormonism has a culture that encourages obfuscation, prevarication, and lying by omission. Check out this video of this Mormon guy, explaining how to sidestep tough questions.

The manual is guilty of lying by omission, and this is a pattern in the church, as FlackerMan points out.

To get into the temple, a member has to affirm that they’re honest in their dealings with their fellow men. Members who can affirm this are certainly doing better than their church. But then what are we to expect from an esoteric mystical religion that teaches that the greater knowledge of godliness is to be held in reserve for those who have been initiated into the mysteries?

Additional ideas for teaching

Evolving ideas about the afterlife

Joshua is about to die, and there’s a curious thing about his death speech:

23:14 And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof.

“Going the way of all the earth” is how he describes it. But do you notice that there’s no follow-up:

  • “And I testify that I shall come forth…” Nope.
  • “My body shall rise again…” Nothing like that.

We won’t see anything about people rising from the dead until Job, and even then it’ll be vague and isolated from anything else in the Old Testament.

At this point in the Bible, the idea of an afterlife seems absent from Hebrew mythology. It’ll be one of Jesus’s big innovations, along with the idea of eternal punishment in Hell for unbelievers and evildoers.

Animal cruelty

In addition to killing all the land’s inhabitants, God commanded them to ‘hough the horses’.

11:6 And the LORD said unto Joshua, Be not afraid because of them: for to morrow about this time will I deliver them up all slain before Israel: thou shalt hough their horses, and burn their chariots with fire.

A ‘hough’ is a hamstring — the word is related to ‘heel’ — and to hough a horse is to cut its hamstrings, rendering it lame.

I suppose the idea is that Jehovah doesn’t want the Israelites to become good fighters on horseback. He wants them to be hobbled in battle, so that when they win, his big dick gets all the credit. That’s what it’s all about. And really, isn’t that worth a few hocked horses?

Remember this if anyone tells you that God cares for animals.

Leaving Joshua

Let’s wrap up the book of Joshua with a reading from “Skinny Legs and All“. You like a bit of Tom Robbins? I do.

The protagonist, Ellen Cherry, is talking to a Jewish character named Spike.

“You’re not exaggerating, Mr. Cohen? Wasn’t Canaan kind of a wilderness area that was open for settlement?”

“Hoo boy! You young people today, you’re knowing nothing very much. An advanced civilization, we’re talking about here. Already two thousand years old when the Hebrews invaded it. A lot of our culture comes from Canaan. You believe, darlink, that God told Moses go invade an advanced civilization, pilfer its territory, and kill all its people? Suppose in Westchester you had a nice house, and I stayed there the weekend as your guest, and then years pass and one day I come back and say, ‘God promised me your house.’ You would believe such a cockamamie story? No, you would not. So, okay, I murder you and your kids and your grandmother what’s in a wheelchair and your cat and your dog and your three goldfishes. And I say to the neighbors, ‘It’s my house now, don’t be peeing on my lawn.’ Hoo boy!”

“I guess we got America the same way,” ventured Ellen Cherry. “From the Indians.”

Spike ran his index finger, stubby and liver spotted, along the rim of his dry glass. “Okay, yes,” he said, “but at least John Wayne never said that God promised it to him. He honestly stole it.”

He paused. “I can tell you something?” He paused again, and Ellen Cherry could detect tearwater magnifying the green gooseberries of his eyes. “I can tell you something? Why I changed my birth name? Abu knows this, but no other body. I quote to you from the Old Testament. Joshua ‘carried off all the livestock of these cities,’ meaning the cities of Canaan, ‘but all the people he put to the sword, not sparing anyone who breathed.’ Joshua ‘plundered,’ Joshua ‘burned,’ Joshua massacred,’ Joshua ‘wiped them out,’ Joshua ‘put to death,’ Joshua ‘turned his forces,’ ‘all were taken by storm . . annihilated without mercy and utterly destroyed,’ Joshua ‘subdued,’ Joshua ‘slew,’ Joshua ‘left no survivors.’ In your Christian Bible you will find this nice story of this nice guy Joshua. You think I could go on living when I wear the name of such a man?”

Joshua (or Yeshua) was the successor to Moses. Later on, there will be another successor to Moses, and coincidentally another Yeshua. This’ll be Jesus. Looks like he didn’t have a problem with that name. Telling.

OT Lesson 10 (Eternal families)

Birthright Blessings; Marriage in the Covenant

Genesis 24–29

Links to the reading in the SAB: Genesis 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29
LDS manual: here

Background

This lesson is about Abraham’s son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Strangely, Jacob’s story is almost a complete rehash of Abraham’s story, in fine detail.

You can read my great summary, or you can watch this video. (Language, casual misogyny, unpleasant depictions of birth.)

Ch. 25: Isaac has two sons, Esau (hairy guy) and Jacob (smooth guy). Esau is starving, so Jacob convinces him to sell his birthright.

Ch. 26: Isaac goes to Abimalech, king of the Philistines, and tells him that his wife Rebekah is his sister. Abimalech believes him, even though father Abraham told him the exact same lie. Won’t he ever learn?

Ch. 27: When Isaac is old, Jacob manages to trick his father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Jehovah approves because he loves a good prank.

Ch. 29: Laban sells his daughter Rachel to Jacob for seven years of indentured servitude. But Laban pulls the ol’ switcheroo on the wedding night, and it’s the older daughter Leah in the sack instead. If Jacob wants Rachel, he’ll have to work another seven years. Since honesty isn’t really Jacob’s thing, I think he’s going to fit right into this family.

Again as with Abraham, there’s polygamous conflict when Rachel turns out barren. The whole thing turns into a baby-making competition, as housemaids are pulled into the action. Hilarity ensues.

What’s the theme for this lesson? I would have thought ‘honesty in your dealings’ was a good candidate, but no; everyone in this story lies like a rug, and they’re all doing fine. Instead, it’s ‘the importance of marrying people who think like you do’. Which for Jacob is… actually very fitting, yes.

Main points from this lesson

Marriage ‘in the covenant’ is intended to create ‘ideological bubbles’.

From the real lesson manual:

• Both Isaac and Jacob were instructed by their fathers to marry women of their own faith. Esau brought sorrow to his parents by marrying wives who did not believe in the God of Abraham. Why is it important to marry a person of our own faith?

Ask: Good question, manual. Why would the church think it’s important for Mormons to marry each other?

Short answer: When Mormons marry each other, it affords the opportunity to create ideological bubbles.

I remember being in the Mormon Bubble. It was great. It consisted of my family, the people at church, and pretty much everyone I knew. Inside the Bubble, it was soft and gentle. Everyone affirmed the group’s beliefs, told you how wonderful the Church was, and how wonderful your life was — but only if you were Inside the Bubble.

Sometimes ideas would get in from Outside the Bubble, but there were ways to cope with that. We were encouraged to evaluate external information against the principles we’d learned in the Bubble, which were considered the only reliable principles.

Then I went on a mission, and that was a real bubble. After the mission, I went to BYU, and that was an even bigger bubble! BYU exists to get young Latter-day Saints together so they’ll marry each other, and form their own bubbles. Eventually, you settle into a ward and join your bubble into a bigger church bubble. The church hopes that by doing so, you’ll be in that bubble for the rest of your life.

Purveyors of delusion have found it very useful to construct ideological bubbles. Religious communities rely on them. It’s why we see fundamentalist religions out in rural areas. Sometimes a religious leader will even move the entire group to a foreign country where it’s easier to control the information.

Here’s a primer on religious bubbles, but with a special focus on the Mormon Bubble.

Bubbles are fragile. Believing in things that aren’t real puts you in a tenuous position. To believe in a delusion is to construct an alternative to reality.

In order to seem plausible, delusional beliefs must be handled specially, in communities that are trained to treat the beliefs deferentially and uncritically. Those in the community may also take offence as a way of protecting the belief, or refusing to examine it themselves.

Essentially, religions are support groups for reality deniers.

True beliefs do not need bubbles to exist. Truth isn’t harmed by reality, but delusions sure are. And because reality is available to everyone all the time, it’s easy for delusions to get knocked down. Which is why religion hasn’t done well on the Internet, with its free flow of information.

Here’s a Facebook post by a bubble advocate. It’s Kim Clark, the president of BYU-Idaho, and he thinks ideological bubbles are a fine thing. This post is an elaborate justification for living in a bubble, and I think this is highly instructive.

Here’s the text from the post.

I often have heard students talk about the “bubble”… referring to BYU-Idaho, the campus, and maybe even Rexburg. They have in mind the fact that there is a different feeling on this campus than they find in what they call “the real world”, a different Spirit, and that they feel protected here, surrounded by people who share their faith. Let me share with you a couple of thoughts about what I have heard:

1) The nickname “bubble” has a negative connotation and seems to indicate that what is inside of it is not real. As President John Groberg taught us about the temple, the real world — the world that will endure forever when everything in the mortal world is gone — is actually what you feel and experience inside the “bubble” — Zion, the Holy Ghost, the Kingdom of God.

Ask: How does he justify living in a bubble?
Answer: He has flipped the situation, and now believes that the universe we live in is not real, and the Mormon universe is. His acceptance of the alternate reality is complete.

2) You are a big part of what you feel inside the “bubble”. It really is the faith and devotion and goodness of the people who study and work here that makes the difference.

3) You can take it with you — you can make your own powerful, protective, enduring, eternal “bubble” in your own home and you should. You can build your own little Zion, first in your heart and then in your home, and then in your wards and stakes.

Ask: Why would it be useful to the Church to have its members in a bubble of their own creation?
Answer: You don’t have to monitor your members if the members monitor themselves, and the family can be utilised for this purpose.

Ask: When you find someone who is an advocate of ideological bubbles, what are they telling you?
Answer: They know their beliefs can’t compete with reality.

Ask: How can we stay out of ideological bubbles?
Possible answers:

  • By being willing to update and change our minds when new knowledge and evidence comes along.
  • By engaging honestly and openly with sincere and intelligent people who hold different views.

I’ve formed a book club with Christians, atheists, and a few undecideds. We’re working our way through one Christian book and one atheist book. If I’m wrong about my ideas, I know I’ll hear about it from them. So far, a lot of arguments, but nothing conclusive.

The doctrine of eternal families means the LDS Church owns your family

If someone were to ask me what the most evil LDS doctrine was, I wouldn’t hesitate a second in saying, “Eternal families”.

The church pretends to have to power to reunite families after death. That sounds like a great promise, but it didn’t sound so good to Stephen Fry on his trip through Temple Square.

Ask: How does Fry explain the appeal of this doctrine? Who is it especially meant to appeal to, and why?

The idea of “being with” one’s family for eternity falls apart for anyone who thinks about it for five minutes. How exactly is this meant to work? I love my family, and we always have a great time on our extended visits, but after a couple of weeks, we’re all glad to go away again and return to our own ways and routines. Being available for eternity seems grindingly tedious, even for family members who get along. What if there’s conflict? What if there’s a family member who loves you, but whom you detest? It wouldn’t be very heavenly for you if they’re always around, so would there be some way to block them? That might not be very heavenly for them. The whole idea raises so many problems, I can scarcely believe no one seems to mention them.

But there’s a much more sinister side.

Read this quote from the real Gospel Doctrine manual.

President Gordon B. Hinckley told of a family who joined the Church in Australia and then sold all their possessions so they could travel to New Zealand and be sealed as a family. The father of this family said: “We could not afford to come [to the temple]. Our worldly possessions consisted of an old car, our furniture, and our dishes. I said to my family, ‘We cannot afford not to go. If the Lord will give me strength, I can work and earn enough for another car and furniture and dishes, but if I should lose these my loved ones, I would be poor indeed in both life and in eternity’ ”.

Ask: What did this man think would happen if he didn’t engage in farcical temple ceremonies, a prerequisite of which is paying ten percent of his income to the church?
Answer: He thought he would lose his family. Consider this.

Ask: What do we call it when someone threatens you with the loss of your family if you don’t do what they say (including paying them)?
Possible answers: Kidnapping, extortion, holding to ransom.

This doctrine is vile. It is emotional hostage taking. A normal person should be disgusted by it.

This doctrine plays out in ways that are destructive to the working of a healthy married relationship, and to the development of a person.

From the real lesson manual:

• After two people have been married in the temple, what must they do to ensure they have a truly eternal marriage?

What, indeed.

They both have to stay in the church and keep all the church’s rules (again, including paying buckets of money for the rest of their lives). But if one partner stops believing in the Mormon religion — or in other words, recognises they’ve been conned — then they’re the bad one. Supposedly, they’re the one throwing the relationship into disarray, jeopardising their eternal future together, and so forth.

A Mormon friend of mine once confided in me. He’d thought thoughts that couldn’t be unthought, and now he was uncertain that there was a god. I congratulated him, offered support, and suggested some online communities where he could talk to people in the same situation.

Finally, desperate to get his struggle off his chest — out of a very human wish to be known by those we’re closest to — he told his wife about what he was going through. She didn’t take the news well.

Over the next year or so, he was hauled in for meetings with the bishop, chided for his lack of belief, and systematically bullied back into the Church, because that was the cost of his relationship with his family.

The former Mormon in me can empathise with his wife. Here you think you know someone, you have the same goals, and then your partner explains that they don’t share your heretofore shared values. That must throw you into a tailspin.

Or at least, it would, if your relationship were based on the church, and not on each other. It would, if your relationship is predicated on always believing the same things.

I still don’t know what’s going on for my friend; he doesn’t write me anymore. If he’s happy participating in and enriching that — here’s a loaded word, but I promise I’ll only use it when I think it’s deserved — cult, then that’s fine. It’s his life, not mine. But I hope that he and his wife can finally get to a place where he’s accepted and valued as himself, and not just as a role.

How can a couple make it? There are a few ways this can play out.

  • The believing partner might follow the deconverted one out.

These are the happiest stories.

  • The deconverted partner can stay in the church, but under deep cover.

You can participate in church, and keep going to keep the peace. (Hello, reader.)

I don’t blame anyone for taking this course, but it seems to me the least desirable option, and the one most destructive to one’s integrity. Is this the kind of relationship where your views can be respected? Or will your disbelief in nonsense be taken as evidence that you’re in league with Satan? Believers can have a hard time with negotiation and compromise when they see it as giving in to the Evil One.

  • One stays in, one stays out, and they work it out in an atmosphere of respect.

This one is a tough row to hoe. The LDS Church doesn’t make it easy for disbelieving spouses. Because of its emphasis on having a ‘righteous priesthood holder’ at the head of the family, it’s difficult not to feel like damaged goods. There are a thousand unintended insults. “Yeah, they’re a great person even though they’re not a member.”

There’s a photo of me at my son’s baptism, before I was out publicly. There’s my son, dressed in white. There’s a friend my age, also dressed in white. And then there’s me in a dark suit (obviously not doing any baptising that day), trying to smile. I’m sure that suit was the talk of the ward.

Free advice to those who have deconverted

Place the relationship before deconverting your partner.
Both partners have to recognise in themselves the tendency for evangelism.

I happen to think this is less of a problem for ex-Mos. Yes, there are some preachy ex-Mos out there, but I think this tendency is mitigated by a few factors:

  • Latent guilt
  • An aggressive church culture that thinks nothing of treating a non-believing spouse as second-best
  • A recognition that your partner won’t be punished in the eternities for believing the wrong thing.

Resist the tendency to feel like you’re damaged or diminished.
You got the right answer. You are now able be moral in a way you never could be when you were getting your moral choices handed to you — and frankly, that morality was often terribly immoral.

Develop boundaries and differentiation
You don’t have to believe the same things or have the same goals. You married a person, and not a role. Or if you did marry a role, now’s your chance to forge a new deal with your partner as a person. See if you meant it the first time, when you said you’d stick it out. You get a second chance to choose your partner.

Divorce is not the worst thing, and keeping it together may have too high a price.

Live a good moral life as an unbeliever, as you define it.

What’s been your experience, and how is it going? What advice would you give? Please leave a comment; I’d love to hear what you think.

Additional ideas for teaching

The church still teaches against interracial marriage.

Since we’re talking about dubious morality, here’s a quote that appears in the LDS Church’s Aaronic Priesthood Manual, both in print and online.

We recommend that people marry those who are of the same racial background generally, and of somewhat the same economic and social and educational background (some of those are not an absolute necessity, but preferred), and above all, the same religious background, without question” (“Marriage and Divorce,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1977], p. 144).

Is this an organisation that has any business telling anyone who to marry?

No camels.

Camels as a means of transportation abound in the Old Testament. When Abraham sends a servant to look for a bride for his son Isaac, that servant chooses Rebecca. And why? Because of her kindness in offering to water the camels. That’s just one of dozens of camel cameos in the Bible, mostly in the book of Genesis, but scholars have long suspected that those camel caravans are a literary anachronism. And now more evidence from two Israeli archaeologists. Their radio carbon technology dated the earliest known remains of domesticated camels. And yes, they came along after the time of Abraham.

Camels? Oh, well, clearly they meant tapirs.

This is new research, and it may be overturned by more information. But isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just the Book of Mormon that has anachronism issues?

The Bible gets genetics wrong

It also has genetics issues. Laban promises Jacob all the striped and spotted goats, so how does Jacob make as many of them as possible? By having the goats look at striped sticks while mating. Yep, that will do it.

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