So it’s no secret that something’s going on in the LDS Church. It’s having a truth crisis. People keep leaving. Some are finding out about its awful history. Others are feeling at odds with its policy with regard to LGBT people and marriage equality. It seems like every member knows someone who left.
The leadership is surely aware of this, and have tried to patch the problem with essays. But the essays are only intended for members with one eye on the door. What has been the focus for members?
I was mystified by this. They’re facing an exodus, and they respond with a kind of boilerplate response that’s not even related to the problem? That’s the kind of thing you come up with for a stake conference, not for a church in crisis.
“They’re not coming to church? Then let’s tell them to go to church more!”
At first, I thought they’d lost it. Had the Q15 been in church leadership so long that they’d lost touch with humans? Are they in denial? But then I remembered that these guys have been professionally fleecing people for a long time, and the church still exists largely because they’ve made the right moves.
So could there be something behind the whole Sunday thing?
Turns out that this was probably a really good choice. Here’s why.
Informational bubbles depend on strong social networks. If people keep relying on communal reinforcement, people feel like the beliefs of the group are true. Or they don’t mind as much if they’re not true. Or they’ll interpret ambiguous information in the most charitable light. So getting people together is a good move. So is cultivating a group mentality, separate from other people. An emphasis on Sabbath observance does both those things.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Section 59, and see how this works.
The world is dirty
If you want to have an ideological community, you have to make it look like other communities are wrong. That’s why there’s a very strong anti-world thread running through LDS doctrine.
D&C 59:9 And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day;
The world gives you spots. It’s a dirty place.
You’re also supposed to carve off huge blocks of time doing nothing.
D&C 59:13 And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.
14 Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.
Fasting, while not exactly synonymous with rejoicing, is probably a good thing to do for a while. More and more people these days are doing intermittent fasting. That includes Your Humble Gospel Doctrine Teacher; I’m doing alternate-day fasting. Food fads are silly, but there is some science backing this up.
Alternate-day fasting trials of 3 to 12 weeks in duration appear to be effective at reducing body weight (≈3%-7%), body fat (≈3-5.5 kg), total cholesterol (≈10%-21%), and triglycerides (≈14%-42%) in normal-weight, overweight, and obese humans.
This could easily reverse with more research, and if it all turns out to be fake, I’m okay with that; it’s still working for me in the medium term and I’m not going to go overboard on it. Modest claims for modest evidence.
But one thing I’ve noticed is that fasting puts you in a bit of an altered state. My wife comments that I seem slightly more light-headed and intense on fasting days. That must be the ketosis, as my body breaks down long chains of ketones into energy. (It also gives the faster the characteristic ‘temple breath’. How many times did I have to try to remember the Five Points of Fellowship with my arms wrapped around some elderly temple worker with ketosis.)
Religions love their altered states, and if you take a person who’s fasting and put them in a room where all they can do is read the scriptures — voilá! Spiritual experience!
You might remember how, in an earlier lesson, we saw that some early church members got a bit boisterous in meetings. This must have triggered quite a backlash! Now there’s a huge reaction against anything indecorous, raucous, or indeed interesting. This means that in the 21st century, you can’t bring a drum into a chapel for a musical number, and… they tell you how you can laugh. Controlling much?
D&C 59:15 And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances, not with much laughter, for this is sin, but with a glad heart and a cheerful countenance
The prohibition on loud laughter also pops up in the temple endowment ceremony. So what’s up with this?
I think this has to do with how people support bad ideas. If you’re confronted with flat-earthism, climate denialism, religion, or other silly (or dangerous) beliefs, you could patiently explain why someone is wrong. That can at times be a good strategy. If the person is convincible, or it’s someone you have a relationship with, patient explanation (and at times saying nothing) is a good way to go.
But in other situations, where you’re in a forum with observers, against someone who’s not going to shift, then dropping a bit of sass can be just the thing. It gets people not to take the belief seriously. Ridicule is appropriate for ridiculous ideas.
Here’s a cartoon I did a while ago. The main point was:
Click on the image to read the whole thing.
Loud laughter is something religions just can’t withstand. That’s why they demand that they be met soberly and seriously. Don’t play into it. Deploy ridicule judiciously.
The earth belongs to humans
Here’s one of the more dangerous ideas: the earth and other animals belong to us.
D&C 59:16 Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;
If we treated things well, that would be fine. Unfortunately, we only seem to exploit public goods. Our effect on the earth has been disastrous. I don’t want to get all cosmic here, but it seems to me that we’d do a lot better if we thought of ourselves as a part of the earth, instead of as owners. People who accept evolution seem to get this; people in the human-supremacy movement (including, apparently, Mormons) don’t.
And this attitude is just making it harder for us to survive.
God gets pissed
Was this one of the sections that was dictated in one big stream of consciousness? Because you can tell that Joseph Smith was totally free-styling here.
D&C 59:21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.
Isn’t it strange that this is the all-powerful creator of the universe, and what really ticks him off is not getting acknowledged by puny mortals? Why would an omnipotent being need humans to obey him? And what’s with the wrath?
Talk to the Spock.
A renewed focus on Sabbath observance may help shore up members in the short term. The church will still have considerable issues in the medium- to long-term, however, and these won’t be so easily dealt with
There’s a major problem with using church meetings as a tool: they’re terrible. Even as a Mormon, I had to acknowledge that going to church was the worst part of church. Meetings are dour, boring, and repetitive. And why would it be necessary to use communal reinforcement if a belief is true? It’s been years since I studied (let’s just pick an example) continental drift. Yet I still think it’s as true as I ever did. It’s only nonsense that needs to be constantly shored up. This should be a warning to church-goers.
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.
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.
“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)”
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.
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.
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.
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.
To be a missionary, you have to have a knowledge of the gospel
D&C 11:21Seek 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 12:8And 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.
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 18:20Contend 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.
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.
The Church of Christ Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially reorganised on 6 April 1830. Members partook of the Sacrament. From the manual:
• Explain that at the meeting in which the Church was organized, members partook of the sacrament (History of the Church, 1:78). Why do you think it was important to have the ordinance of the sacrament performed at the first meeting of the restored Church?
This sacrament meeting happened on a Tuesday. How weird would that seem to Mormons today? Never mind, they’re always at church.
Without the church
The lesson begins with a perennial question:
•How might your life be different if the Church had not been restored or if you were not a member of the Church?
I remember members of my ward telling big stories about how they didn’t know where they’d be without the church. They’d probably be dead or in jail.
Sound familiar? It’s all part of a “scary external world” narrative in which life outside the religion is made to look unappealing.
I did learn a few good things from my time in the church. I got good at public speaking and giving lessons. I had lots of music in my background, and even though LDS music isn’t particularly good, it paved the way for better music later. I don’t mind that I didn’t drink alcohol.
The best thing about my church upbringing was that I learned to value truth. Truth mattered. That’s why the church was great: because it was true. This was what got me out of the church when it no longer appeared to be true. Leaving was an act of integrity.
In some ways, I would have been better off without the church. I wouldn’t have had to make up excuses for an organisation that was human, but that claimed to be divine. The LDS Church teaches false history, false morals, and (most important) a false method for finding truth. I could have done without all of that.
Now I’m finding that life without the church is kind of great.
God soon changed the sacrament, substituting water for wine.
• In D&C 27, the Lord gave further instructions to Joseph Smith regarding the sacrament. What was Joseph doing when he received this revelation? (See the heading to D&C 27.) What did Joseph learn about the sacrament in this revelation? (See D&C 27:2.) How can we partake of the sacrament “with an eye single to [Christ’s] glory”?
This is kind of odd. Why would God not have told the Saints to use water from the start? Did he forget? Or is this someone making it up as they go?
From mine own mouth
Mormons teach that they should obey the president of the church as though he were God.
D&C 1:38 What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.
D&C 21:4 Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;
5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
Section 20 says that converts should have “sufficient time” to teach about the church. (I note that “sufficient information” is not a priority.)
D&C 20:68 The duty of the members after they are received by baptism—The elders or priests are to have a sufficient time to expound all things concerning the church of Christ to their understanding, previous to their partaking of the sacrament and being confirmed by the laying on of the hands of the elders, so that all things may be done in order.
69 And the members shall manifest before the church, and also before the elders, by a godly walk and conversation, that they are worthy of it, that there may be works and faith agreeable to the holy scriptures—walking in holiness before the Lord.
This advice has been ignored where convenient. Here’s a story (PDF | Text) about the disastrous “baseball baptism” era, in which kids were hurriedly baptised, knowing nothing about the church. Henry Moyle, the architect of this plan, told missionaries:
You elders need have no concern, no matter from what source the criticism comes, as to whether your baptisms are too fast. . . . If you think that President McKay does not know what is going on and that Brother Moyle and Brother Woodbury, and Brother Brockbank are “pulling a fast one,” so to speak, why you are mistaken about that. . . . I have noted a little apologetic tone in some of your voices about baptizing too many young people. Well don’t put on the brakes.
This part is going to get a little bit Star-Warsy, in the sense that I’m going to pick over the minutia of something that normal people don’t care about. But I’ll make a point along the way.
The question is: Do Mormons think that Jesus was born on April 6th?
People at church in my old home ward sure thought so. They would read about how Joseph Smith received the precise day for the organisation of the church:
The Prophet wrote, “We obtained of Him [Jesus Christ] the following, by the spirit of prophecy and revelation; which not only gave us much information, but also pointed out to us the precise day upon which, according to His will and commandment, we should proceed to organize His Church once more here upon the earth.”
And then they’d read Section 20:
D&C 20:1 The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it being regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country, by the will and commandments of God, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April
and they’d think, “Yep — that’s Jesus’ birthday all right.”
Except it’s not all that clear. It depends on the writer’s intention (and that writer would appear to have been John Whitmer, who wrote a lot of the intros for the sections in the Book of Commandments). Was the writer intending to say that April 6, 1830 was exactly one thousand eight hundred and thirty years to the day, or just to the year?
This is the annual conference of the Church. April 6, 1973, is a particularly significant date because it commemorates not only the anniversary of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in this dispensation, but also the anniversary of the birth of the Savior, our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith wrote this, preceding a revelation given at that same date:
“The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it being regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country, by the will and commandments of God, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April.” (D&C 20:1.)
My brothers and sisters, today we not only celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the organization of the Church, but also the greatest event in human history since the birth of Christ on this day 1,980 years ago. Today is Easter Sunday.
Today is April 6. We know by revelation that today is the actual and accurate date of the Savior’s birth. April 6 also is the day on which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized.
But somehow this wasn’t enough for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which says:
The LDS Church has not taken an official position on the issue of the year of Christ’s birth. Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, offers what for the present appears to be the most definitive word on the question: “We do not believe it is possible with the present state of our knowledge-including that which is known both in and out of the Church-to state with finality when the natal day of the Lord Jesus actually occurred” (Vol. 1, p. 349, n. 2).
Ask: Why would the word of prophets not be enough to establish the date?
Although most Christians celebrate December 25 as the birthday of Jesus Christ, few in the first two Christian centuries claimed any knowledge of the exact day or year in which he was born. The oldest existing record of a Christmas celebration is found in a Roman almanac that tells of a Christ’s Nativity festival led by the church of Rome in 336 A.D. The precise reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25 remains obscure, but most researchers believe that Christmas originated as a Christian substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
We’ve seen in previous lessons how Joseph Smith failed to write down significant events in the church’s history that were supposed to have happened, and this is probably a sign of a made-up story. Well, it looks like Jesus’ birth falls into that category as well. Were the early Christians just really bad with birthdays? Or was the story invented after the fact?
It’s okay with me if Jesus existed, but the whole thing begins to look like a cobbled-together myth.
To help readers build on a solid foundation of science
Having escaped the book of Alma, we’re spiralling into the book of Helaman. More wars. More armies. So many armies that fought and died without leaving any physical traces.
Helaman 1:14 And it came to pass in the forty and first year of the reign of the judges, that the Lamanites had gathered together an innumerable army of men, and armed them with swords, and with cimeters and with bows, and with arrows, and with head-plates, and with breastplates, and with all manner of shields of every kind.
This wasn’t just an army of hundreds of thousands of men. This army was “innumerable”. Apparently an infinite number of people were armed with swords and shields and armour, and no one can find any traces of them.
A group of Icelandic goose hunters got more than they bargained for during a recent outing – they didn’t catch a single bird, but stumbled upon a Viking sword thought to be more than 1,000 years old.
The five men were in Skaftarhreppur in southern Iceland when they found the sword, which they think may have washed up during a recent flood, the Visir news website reports….
The agency’s director, Kristin Huld Sigurdardottir, says only 20 swords of this age have been discovered in Iceland before, making it a significant find. It didn’t take much effort on the hunters’ part, though. “It was just lying there, waiting to be picked up – it was obvious and just lying there on the ground,” one of them, Runar Stanley Sighvatsson, tells Iceland Monitor.
Again, fictional people don’t leave archaeological traces.
There’s another warning against pride.
Helaman 3:33 And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church — not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God —
3:34 And they were lifted up in pride, even to the persecution of many of their brethren. Now this was a great evil, which did cause the more humble part of the people to suffer great persecutions, and to wade through much affliction.
Ask: Think of a time when you felt proud. When you felt this way, did you want to persecute anyone?
Probably not, if you felt proud of yourself or of something you did. Nationalism or insecurity have that effect, but not pride.
Pride is forbidden, not because it makes you persecute people, but because in a system where you must always be subordinate, it’s not okay to feel good about yourself or anything you do.
I think the Book of Mormon was written by someone who didn’t understand how feelings work.
Main ideas for this lesson
What is a sure foundation?
Latter-day Saints promote the idea that their ideology is built on a firm foundation. They even sing a rousing hymn called “How Firm a Foundation”. Every kid in Nursery knows that song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock. And there are scriptures like this one:
Helaman 5:12 And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.
And the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual says this:
After the hymn or song, explain that today’s lesson shows the difference between people who build on weak foundations, such as people who place their trust in wealth or physical strength, and people who build their foundations on “the rock of [their] Redeemer, . . . which is a sure foundation” (Helaman 5:12).
I’m led to think, however, that this emphasis on having a strong foundation is simply wishful thinking, or trying to make it so by repeating it over and over.
If the LDS Church is true, then
it was brought about by a known con-man who had a thing for underage girls
its foundational document is plagued with anachronisms, and has no evidence to support it
it has prophets, seers, and revelators who avoid revealing anything, except when it comes to anti-LGBT policy
it worships a god who could demonstrate his existence unambiguiously but doesn’t, and also worships his son, whose evidentiary basis is flimsy
it requires a small army of apologists and thinkers to make up explanations for why we don’t see what we expect to see
it encourages its members not to engage with people or materials that could disprove its claims
it teaches its members that the strongest evidence for its truthfulness is emotional reasoning, one of the worst kinds of evidence
it exists side-by-side with similar churches, but is much less successful at building and maintaining its population, even though it uses similar methods
Ask: Does this seem like a firm foundation?
Ask: What would be a better foundation to build on?
My answer is science. We have the combined knowledge of millennia, and the methods and techniques to get more. Occasionally we find that the things we’ve learned are wrong or incomplete, but we can discard those things without harming the whole structure, because we understand that they have a human origin. At any given point in time, we have the best repository of knowledge that humanity is capable of, and we’re always updating it.
There was a man who had a book
Of Things Which He Believed;
He followed it religiously—
He would not be deceived.
The story in its pages was
The Truth that he adored—
The world outside its ancient script,
He faithfully ignored.
When someone found a falsehood
Or a small mistake inside it
(Or even some tremendous flaw)
He eagerly denied it.
The Truth was there inside his book
And never found outside
If something contradicted it
Why then, that something lied
And when he met another man
Who had another book,
He fell not to temptation—why,
He didn’t even look.
And, surely, there are other men
With other books in hand
Who walk, with views obstructed,
Here and there across the land
There was a man who had a book
(I find this quite exciting)
Who looked upon a tangled bank
And then… he started writing.
He wrote about the things he saw
And what he saw them do
And when he found mistakes he’d made
He wrote about them, too
He shared his book with other men
And women that he met—
They found the catch is bigger, when
You cast a wider net.
They shared their observations
So that everyone could read;
They worked as a community,
The better to succeed.
They found they saw much further,
And discovered so much more
When they stood upon the shoulders
Of the ones who’d gone before
It’s a book that keeps evolving,
Always growing, as we learn.
Many people help to write it:
Would you like to take a turn?
Obsession with secret societies
The Book of Mormon reflects the conditions of its time. At the time, secret societies were all the rage. The Masons, the Druids, and even a group called the Society of Flagellants! And of course, the Illuminati.
By the 1830s, frontier America was reacting with alarm to these secret societies. The Anti-Masonic Party formed in 1828, with a view to stopping these supposedly subversive elements, and combatting the danger they represented.
And predictably, the Book of Mormon laments the secret societies — here, secret combinations — that bring down the Nephites.
Helaman 1:11 And he went unto those that sent him, and they all entered into a covenant, yea, swearing by their everlasting Maker, that they would tell no man that Kishkumen had murdered Pahoran.
Helaman 2:2 And it came to pass that Helaman, who was the son of Helaman, was appointed to fill the judgment-seat, by the voice of the people.
2:3 But behold, Kishkumen, who had murdered Pahoran, did lay wait to destroy Helaman also; and he was upheld by his band, who had entered into a covenant that no one should know his wickedness.
2:4 For there was one Gadianton, who was exceedingly expert in many words, and also in his craft, to carry on the secret work of murder and of robbery; therefore he became the leader of the band of Kishkumen.
Did anyone notice the “flaxen cord”, back in 2 Nephi?
2 Nephi 26:22 And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.
Flaxen cord? That’s a reference to a Masonic symbol known as the “cable tow“.
The Cable Tow is a symbol of the First Degree and represents the candidates bond to his guide. In some esoteric circles it represents the umbilical cord.
The word tow has another significance, in addition to pulling or dragging, it also means the fiber of flax, or hemp, or jute. A cable might be made of plaited wire, or of metal links, or of manmade fibers, but the combination “cable-tow” which seems to be of purely Masonic usage, implies almost certainly the natural fiber from which the rope is to be made.
In other words, the Book of Mormon perpetuates the anti-Masonic feeling that was current at the time, by comparing one of Freemasonry’s symbols with satanic enslavement.
Remember, Masonry doesn’t go back to Solomon. It’s a recent thing. It goes back no farther than the 1500s. So this really is a tip-off to the Book of Mormon’s recent origins.
This Book of Mormon reading places a great deal of emphasis on remembering.
Helaman 5:4 And it came to pass that Nephi had become weary because of their iniquity; and he yielded up the judgment-seat, and took it upon him to preach the word of God all the remainder of his days, and his brother Lehi also, all the remainder of his days;
5:5 For they remembered the words which their father Helaman spake unto them. And these are the words which he spake:
5:6 Behold, my sons, I desire that ye should remember to keep the commandments of God; and I would that ye should declare unto the people these words. Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how that it is said, and also written, that they were good.
So does the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual.
In the Book of Mormon there are over 240 instances of the word remember or forms of the word (such as remembered, remembrance, or forget not). Fifteen of these instances are in Helaman 5. What must we remember? (See Helaman 5:9; see also Mosiah 3:17.) Why is it important to remember?
Mormons have the idea that if people leave the church, it’s because they’ve somehow forgotten about how wonderful it is. They’ve simply forgotten about testimony-building experiences.
Take it from Dieter Uchtdorf.
What he’s actually describing is not forgetting. It’s a normal reaction when you stop believing that something’s true, which you’d carefully conned yourself into believing for years. When you can finally see things without the Mormon filter, you sort of shake your head in amazement at all the crazy things you’d believed.
One day recently, a pair of Mormon missionaries came over for dinner. I like to have them over because they’re usually quite nice. Also — let’s face it — I also feel kind of bad for them, because I remember what it was like. And finally, I want them to see that you can leave the church and live a good, ethical life as an unbeliever, and apostasy doesn’t have to spiral into drug abuse and cannibalism. (Those are optional.)
So on this particular night, in our after-dinner discussion, the younger of the two thought he’d explain why I left. I wrote it down afterwards because it was so perfect. He said,
I think what happened is:
you stopped praying
you stopped reading the scriptures
and over the course of time, you stopped going to church
and then you stopped believing it was true.
It was amazing. Four complete misses! I was pleased to let him know that he was quite wrong on every point. If anything, he had it in reverse order in my case.
When you’re going through deconversion, and you recognise that you’ve been utterly, terribly wrong on everything, and you’re wondering what it all means, and one of those things is the loss of your social group and your status in a community and your mental model of the entire universe — not to mention all the time and money you’ve invested — you don’t just drift away. In my case, I prayed harder! I read the scriptures with a new intensity. I went to church for a good solid six months after I no longer believed. (That’s what finally finished my testimony off.)
So when this young elder told me what he thought my reasons were… I was secretly glad. Why glad? Here’s why.
Mormons simply do not understand why people leave, or what deconversion is like. They could ask someone who’s been through it, but they never do. That might open up an unwanted conversation — and besides, they know already! It’s because we forgot.
Except we don’t just forget. I could tell you the details of all my biggest and most convincing spiritual experiences. I remember everything. I just don’t think they mean what I used to think they mean. I’ve reordered my evidentiary model.
But Mormons don’t get this. And because they don’t understand why people leave, they won’t be able to stop it. The die-off will continue. And that makes me very glad, even though I know Mormons won’t be able to help someone who’s hurting. That’s where I come in. And not just me — a whole lot of other ex-Mormons who have formed supportive communities of disbelief.
Sadly, there’s another consequence of Mormons not getting it when it comes to apostasy. They blame themselves for their church’s failures. Here’s a scripture that lets them do that.
Helaman 4:22 And that they had altered and trampled under their feet the laws of Mosiah, or that which the Lord commanded him to give unto the people; and they saw that their laws had become corrupted, and that they had become a wicked people, insomuch that they were wicked even like unto the Lamanites.
4:23 And because of their iniquity the church had begun to dwindle; and they began to disbelieve in the spirit of prophecy and in the spirit of revelation; and the judgments of God did stare them in the face.
4:24 And they saw that they had become weak, like unto their brethren, the Lamanites, and that the Spirit of the Lord did no more preserve them; yea, it had withdrawn from them because the Spirit of the Lord doth not dwell in unholy temples —
That’s right; when you’re bad, you get abandoned by the Holy Spook, your supposed source of spiritual strength. And then the church collapses. But it’s not because of the lack of evidence, the sinister leaders, or the lack of tangible benefit. It’s you.
I really hope that church members today aren’t blaming themselves for the failure of the church and the current on-going final apostasy. But this scripture might have that effect.
Additional lesson ideas
I always thought cement was an anachronism in the Book of Mormon.
Helaman 3:3 And it came to pass in the forty and sixth, yea, there was much contention and many dissensions; in the which there were an exceedingly great many who departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and went forth unto the land northward to inherit the land.
3:7 And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.
3:8 And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.
3:9 And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.
3:10 And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.
3:11 And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement.
3:14 But behold, a hundredth part of the proceedings of this people, yea, the account of the Lamanites and of the Nephites, and their wars, and contentions, and dissensions, and their preaching, and their prophecies, and their shipping and their building of ships, and their building of temples, and of synagogues and their sanctuaries, and their righteousness, and their wickedness, and their murders, and their robbings, and their plundering, and all manner of abominations and whoredoms, cannot be contained in this work.
They most often utilized limestone, which remained pliable enough to be worked with stone tools while being quarried, and only hardened once when removed from its bed. In addition to the structural use of limestone, much of their mortar consisted of crushed, burnt, and mixed limestone that mimicked the properties of cement and was used just as widely for stucco finishing as it was for mortar.
Not actual houses of cement, which the Book of Mormon says there were apparently so many as to cover “the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east”. Ideally you’d want to find the houses, but we do see something like cement, so the Book of Mormon gets this one on a technicality.
I think this is the real problem with the Book of Mormon. If so many people were building cement buildings, ships, and temples in such abundance, then we should be able to find them. Shoot — we should be able to see them from Google Earth. But we don’t. And instead, by way of defence, apologists say, “Well, something like cement has been found in a few places.”
The other problem is that things that we know existed don’t appear in the Book of Mormon. It would have easy to write,
Behold, they did construct walls hewn of stone with such exactness that a hair would not fit between the stones.
To encourage readers to live by secular principles.
Alma, having gotten the chief priest gig, is doing the work of preaching and exhortation. As with all priests, a lot of his advice is just so much twaddle. However, the goal for a good humanist / thinker / person is to take the good and improve on it.
Main ideas for this lesson
His image in your countenance
In his preaching to believers, Alma gives a well-known checklist.
Alma 5:14 And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
Apparently, one of the side effects of righteousness is that you get Jesus-face.
This is one of those ideas that gets taken with varying degrees of seriousness in the church. I don’t know if anyone thinks that your face changes when you become more “spurchul”, but there is a very human tendency to judge by appearances.
Back in my Provo days, I would visit my Uncle Richard, who taught me to play the Deseret News Wedding Game. Here’s how to play: In the Deseret News (an LDS-owned newspaper that serves as the propaganda arm of the church), take a look at the Weddings section. There are photos of all the couples who have announced their weddings, along with a blurb about them. DO NOT LOOK at the blurb yet. Just by looking at their faces, can you tell if they’re getting married in a temple? Then check out the blurb, and see if it says something like, “They will be married in the Panguich Temple” or something like that. Non-temple-goers would typically omit a reference to a temple.
Truth to tell, it didn’t seem very hard to pick the temple weddings. They usually had an appearance that I’d describe as ‘special’. Their countenances seemed to shine with a look that said, “We haven’t done it yet, but we’ve been having heaps of oral on the low.” Whereas the photos of the non-temple heathen wedding couples had a murky and dark appearance, though this may have been the colours that couple chose to wear for the photos. Dark shirt on the guy = automatic non-temple.
Uncle Richard was convinced that it was easy to tell — although you’d get it wrong with some couples — and he put it down to discernment, or the Sperrit. Or the countenance thing that Alma is talking about. Looking back, I’d put it down to someone in a human social community being able to recognise one of their own, on limited data. We’re extremely sensitive to the social cues that we all beam out every second of our lives. And then there’s confirmation bias; I don’t think Uncle Richard was great at remembering the ones he’d gotten wrong.
At its worst, the ‘countenance’ idea is a form of social conformity enforcement, and a way of judging people by appearances. I still remember the investigator who was really into the church. He showed up one Sunday wearing a white shirt like usual, but you could faintly detect that he was wearing an undershirt, which he never had before. What was this? Had he noticed that the other men were wearing a garment top? Was he trying to fit in? I wouldn’t doubt it; again, we’re very sensitive to markers of membership in social groups.
What if you’re wrong?
Alma 5:15 Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?
5:16 I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?
Contrast this with the fearful wrath that awaits the non-believers:
Alma 5:17 Or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day, and say — Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth — and that he will save you?
5:18 Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?
5:19 I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?
I mentioned that I’ve been visiting my LDS family. We’ve been having a grand time, while dancing around the difference in belief. Mostly it’s territory we’re happy to leave alone. But on occasion, Dear Sister and I have been making incursions into the Dangerous Valley of Discussion. It’s dangerous because it makes it clear that, yes, I really don’t believe that nonsense. (I think she’s hanging out for my tearful redemption one day, and these discussions make her realise that it’s Not Happening.) It’s also dangerous because it tends to compel her to an emotional Testimony Bearing, which is annoying, and it always seems heartless and abrupt to respond with the obvious “Feels aren’t facts”.
Anyway — today we ventured there, and she asked Alma’s question: What if you’re wrong? Apparently it’s upsetting a few people in the family. They’re afraid of what God is going to do to me. (Isn’t that a horrible and unnecessary form of suffering they’re putting themselves through on my behalf? Another reason why I hate the church.)
Ask: What if you get to the Pearly Gates and God is up there saying, “LOL you screwed up — I existed all the time, and the Mormon Church is totes true!” What would you do?
One way of approaching this is to turn the question back on the questioner: What if you’re wrong?
Richard Dawkins used this one.
“What if I’m wrong? I mean, anybody can be wrong. We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.
“You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in the Christian faith. you know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim — you’re not a Hindu.
“Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in in America, not in India. if you had been brought up in India, you’d be a Hindu. If you’d been brought up in Denmark at the time of the vikings, you’d be believing in Wotan and Thor. if you had been brought up in classical Greece you’d be believing in Zeus. if you had been brought up in central Africa, you’d be believing in the great Juju up the mountain.
“There’s no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god in which, by the sheerest accident, you happen to have been brought up, and ask me the question, what if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong about the great Juju in the bottom of the sea?”
I think this one would just bounce off a true believer, who would just say, “But I’m not wrong, because feels.”
My response? What will I do if I die and see God singing “Hello, It’s Me”? (Because Todd is God, you know.)
Simple: I’ll change my mind.
How about that?
And then I would have some pointed questions for him.
Why the absent father routine?
Why was it only possible to have a relationship with you if we cultivated a mindset that’s indistinguishable from self-delusion?
Why did you expect us to believe in you on the basis of bad evidence, when you could have provided good evidence?
Why did you have your son say that it was more blessed to believe something on the basis of no evidence?
Why did you try so damn hard to make it look like you didn’t exist?
And then I might follow that up with some damning Stephen-Fry-level questioning.
Changing my view in the face of new evidence is really all anyone can expect. But someone might say that that isn’t good enough. By the time you can see God and know for sure he exists, it’s too late! You were supposed to act by faith! Because it’s blessed to make major decisions based on no evidence.
Jumping ahead to Alma 34:
Alma 34:34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
Well, that would be a hell of a thing. In the real world, one needs to have the full range of information in order to make a decision. But God expects us to make eternal choices without any of that. (He actually wiped our memory!) And he’ll condemn us for eternity if we don’t make the right choice. It’s like he’s setting us up to fail.
If that’s the way God’s going to do it, then he’s an unjust jerk.
Well, that isn’t the way I phrased it to Dear Sister, but here’s what I did: I showed her this quote of uncertain provenance. It’s attributed to Marcus Aurelius.
And then something surprising happened. She seemed satisfied that I would change my mind with actual evidence. And she said she didn’t think it would be too late at that point (Alma 34 notwithstanding).
So I asked if that resolved her concerns, and she said that it did. How about that! She believes in a god who’s not a complete dick. It’s not the god of the Book of Mormon, but that’s encouraging.
I didn’t get to Part Two of my explanation: Having evidence would change my mind about God’s existence, but it wouldn’t change my mind about his character. Decided to drown everyone? Thinks gay people should be killed? Doesn’t reveal anything to his prophet except for the Gay Exclusion Policy? No, thank you. Even if the LDS Church is true, I’d still fight it, because the god of the Bible and the Book of Mormon is a homophobic, misogynistic, murderous asshole. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Alma continues his preaching:
Alma 5:28 Behold, are ye stripped of pride? I say unto you, if ye are not ye are not prepared to meet God. Behold ye must prepare quickly; for the kingdom of heaven is soon at hand, and such an one hath not eternal life.
5:29 Behold, I say, is there one among you who is not stripped of envy? I say unto you that such an one is not prepared; and I would that he should prepare quickly, for the hour is close at hand, and he knoweth not when the time shall come; for such an one is not found guiltless.
5:30 And again I say unto you, is there one among you that doth make a mock of his brother, or that heapeth upon him persecutions?
5:31 Wo unto such an one, for he is not prepared, and the time is at hand that he must repent or he cannot be saved!
Well, mockery isn’t very nice; I’ll grant that. But I think Alma has misidentified pride as a really big problem. The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual does this as well:
• What do proud people set their hearts on? (Have two class members read Alma 4:8 and Alma 5:53 aloud.) What are some examples of “vain things of the world”? (Write class members’ responses in the heart with the word Proud written above it.)
Here are those scriptures:
Alma 4:8 For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.
Alma 5:53 And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches?
Throughout the Book of Mormon, pride and materialism are held up as two very common sins.
Ask: What function would it have for a religion to warn against pride?
Answer: A demanding religion like the LDS Church requires the submission of its members. If the church can set itself up as the source of all good feelings, then this is a powerful motivator for people to stay with it. But having pride in one’s self works against this. It allows a kind of emotional self-sufficiency that works against the church.
Ask: What function would it have for a religion to warn against materialism (‘riches’, or the ‘vain things of the world’)?
Answer: A church / real estate corporation like the LDS Church needs money, and lots of it. Convincing members that material wealth isn’t all that important lowers the cost of giving their money away to the church — particularly if they think they’re getting pie in the sky when they die.
Here’s an idea — if the church is so deadset against riches, then don’t give them any. It’s hypocritical of them to preach against the “vain things of the world” — and then go build a mall.
George Carlin, ladies and gentlemen.
Read this quote from Ezra Taft Benson, a notorious conservative.
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. . . . The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1985, 5; or Ensign, Nov. 1985, 6).
While this may seem like standard religious talk, there’s a socio-political element. Benson was alluding to the tension between social programs that try to lift people out of poverty (which is standard Democratic stuff), and exhortations to “character” and “personal responsibility” (which Republicans typically appeal to). Benson is adding a Jesus-y element to this debate. Why waste money on welfare in the hopes of changing people’s circumstances, when Jesus can change their circumstances for free?
And let’s not forget that religions do pretty well in times of economic uncertainty, as people struggle for a support network. When their needs are taken care of, they tend not to be quite so religious. (RMs: were your most successful neighbourhoods ever the wealthy ones?) And therefore, by cutting the legs out from under the social support network, churches find an ideal set of conditions for growth.
I’ve wandered a bit, so let me return to Alma’s checklist. I think Alma has it wrong. Pride isn’t necessarily bad, as it’s related to self-confidence. Envy isn’t necessarily bad, as it can fuel a desire for better things.
I think we can make a better list. So here are my questions for ex-Mormons:
Are you aware of the flaws in your perception? Having been wrong in the past, do you approach with enthusiasm new areas in which your mind could be changed?
Do you strive to cultivate intellectual humility? Being able to say “I don’t know” indicates an awareness of a new area that you can learn more about.
Do you make a mock of believers? Or are you able to attack ideas without attacking the people who hold them? Are you able to characterise someone else’s point of view fairly?
Do you now contribute to charities or worthy causes, as you used to tithe? There’s some research into whether religious people or non-religious people give more. Religious people sometimes have the edge in these discussions, but it’s not clear whether that’s because they’re more generous as people, because they’ve had a long time to build up a charitable infrastructure, or because religious donations are automatically counted as charitable. But we non-religious folk could be doing better at giving than we are. When we drop tithing, let’s not stop giving.
Alma advises the church members to separate themselves from others.
Alma 5:57 And now I say unto you, all you that are desirous to follow the voice of the good shepherd, come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things; and behold, their names shall be blotted out, that the names of the wicked shall not be numbered among the names of the righteous, that the word of God may be fulfilled, which saith: The names of the wicked shall not be mingled with the names of my people;
The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual points out this theme.
Alma commanded his people, “Come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate” (Alma 5:57). How can we separate ourselves from wickedness while living in the world?
Ask: What is the function of this idea?
Answers: False ideas don’t last very long when there’s a free exchange of ideas and information. They do best in a bubble. Communal separateness helps foster social and ideological bubbles where the community’s alternate-history narrative can flourish.
Also, the creation of a ‘scary external world’ narrative — in which the ‘world’ is seen as fundamentally unsafe — keeps members inside the bubble. When Latter-day Saints give testimonies, saying “I don’t know what I’d do without the church”, they’re not kidding. They often struggle to function in the real world, and this anti-world mindset perpetuates this.
It was weird being among my LDS relatives. I just listened for how much of the conversation focused on the church. Answer: just about all of it. Every point of discussion was about this or that church member. Every discussion about every friend and acquaintance tied back to the church somehow, and I realised that it was possible (even in a state like Washington, which is by no means exclusively LDS) to restrict one’s social interactions to members of the church.
That takes us to the next point: meetings.
Alma 6:5 Now I would that ye should understand that the word of God was liberal unto all, that none were deprived of the privilege of assembling themselves together to hear the word of God.
6:6 Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.
You know what — those of us who “know not God” probably know him better than you think.
It’s more or less acknowledged that church is the worst part of church. Why get together and have boring meetings?
One of the books that put me on the way out was “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger. Psychologists infiltrated a group of UFO enthusiasts who had predicted a specific date for the end of the world. The goal was to find out what they’d do when the prophecy failed. Would they dump it? Would they modify?
Spoiler alert: the world didn’t end. But there was one telling detail. The weekend after the prophecy failed, some people went back home for the weekend, and some stayed with the group. In general, those that stayed with the group stayed in the group, and those that left left. Being together with other members brought powerful feelings of belonging and affiliation.
This is why Mormons take one Sunday a month and tell each other that they “know the church is true”. Communal reinforcement keeps people pumped up, and reminds them of what the social group believes.
For me, this was an important realisation. If an idea is true, it doesn’t need to be continually propped up. Take an idea like continental drift. I haven’t studied continental drift since Geography 101, which was about 25 years ago. Yet I still think it’s as true as I ever did, and I haven’t been going to meetings to testify about it. True ideas simply do not need communal reinforcement in this way.
Is this a linguistic slip-up?
Alma 7:10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t born in Jerusalem; he was (allegedly) born in Bethlehem. But wait — the phrase is at Jerusalem. The guys from FAIR point out that at can be used for general locations, which is true enough. On the other hand, the folks at the Mormonism Research Ministry point out that the phrase “at Jerusalem” is always used in the Book of Mormon to refer to the actual city.
We can only offer our readers the simple suggestion that if a phrase is used 19 times, and in 18 of those times it can be demonstrated that it means the actual city of Jerusalem, it is both inconsistent and tenuous to interpret Alma 7:10 otherwise.
My take: Joseph Smith (or whoever) probably had a momentary slip-up and said Jerusalem when he meant to say Bethlehem, which is the kind of thing that can happen when you’re dictating a first draft with your face in a hat. But with all the linguistic problems of the Book of Mormon, this one slippery preposition is probably the least of its difficulties.
To encourage readers to question the morality of the material in the Book of Mormon.
In our last reading, Nephi saw his father’s vision of the Tree of Life. But would you believe it, Nephi one-ups his father by getting special bonus content! (It’s almost like Nephi was trying to make himself look good in this narrative.)
This director’s-cut version of Nephi’s vision contains prophecies of future events that, by sheer coincidence, had already happened by Joseph Smith’s time. And nothing that happened after. And that’s the big lesson of prophecy:
If they succeed, either they were’
extremely vague, or
written after the fact.
Not only that, but isn’t it curious that prophecies given by God — a being so trancendental that he’s outside of space and time — reflect in precise detail the kind of knowledge, opinions, and prejudices held by people of the time? We’ll see an example of this in this lesson.
The Book of Mormon is the story of people who (allegedly) came from the Middle East, started a civilisation, clashed in a series of wars — and left no physical traces.
They didn’t even leave any DNA — Native Americans are the descendents of Asians, and not Middle Easterners.
But in Nephi’s vision, the angel tells him that his ‘seed’ — his physical progeny — will be numerous.
1 Nephi 12:1 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Look, and behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren. And I looked and beheld the land of promise; and I beheld multitudes of people, yea, even as it were in number as many as the sand of the sea.
12:2 And it came to pass that I beheld multitudes gathered together to battle, one against the other; and I beheld wars, and rumors of wars, and great slaughters with the sword among my people.
12:3 And it came to pass that I beheld many generations pass away, after the manner of wars and contentions in the land; and I beheld many cities, yea, even that I did not number them.
So why can’t we find anyone in the Americas with Middle Eastern DNA?
This is a huge issue in Mormonism, and I’m only going to touch lightly on it here. But we’re going to be delving into it more deeply in future lessons.
Dark and filthy vs. white and beautiful
Nephi sees that Laman and Lemuel’s progeny are dark, loathsome, and filthy…
1 Nephi 12:23 And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
whereas white people are beautiful.
1 Nephi 13:15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain.
Brian Dalton — aka Mr Deity — rightly calls out Mormonism for this racist doctrine.
In recent years, the LDS Church has tried to tamp down this idea, but they’ll never be able to completely disavow the racism in its foundational document. The idea that dark skin could be a punishment for sin is at the heart of the Book of Mormon. The only way to purge racism from the church is for it to disavow the Book of Mormon completely. And that’s not going to happen.
Main ideas for this lesson
The Great and Abominable Church
Nephi sees something curious — the formation of the G&A.
1 Nephi 13:4 And it came to pass that I saw among the nations of the Gentiles the formation of a great church,
13:5 And the angel said unto me: Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.
13:6 And it came to pass that I beheld this great and abominable church; and I saw the devil that he was the founder of it.
Its founder is the devil.
1 Nephi 14:9 And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look, and behold that great and abominable church, which is the mother of abominations, whose founder is the devil.
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.
As a Mormon, I tried to make sense of what exactly the G&A was, but I was confused by the hopelessly contradictory descriptions. Was it a specific church? or just some kind of generalised ‘evil church’?
“The Roman Catholic, Greek, and Protestant church is the great corrupt ecclesiastic power, represented by great Babylon which has made all nations drunk with her wickedness, and she must fall, after she has been warned with the sound of the everlasting gospel. Her overthrow will be by a series of the most terrible judgments which will quickly succeed each other, and sweep over the nations where she has her dominion, and at last she will be utterly burned by fire, for thus hath the Lord spoken. Great, and fearful, and most terrible judgments are decreed upon these corrupt powers, the nations of modern Christendom; for strong is the Lord God who shall execute His fierce wrath upon them, and He will not cease until He has made a full end, and until their names be blotted out from under heaven.”
– Apostle Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, p.84 – p.85
“It is also to the Book of Mormon to which we turn for the plainest description of the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church. Nephi saw this ‘church which is the most abominable above all other churches’ in vision. He ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it’ and also the murders, wealth, harlotry, persecutions, and evil desires that historically have been a part of this satanic organization. (1 Nephi 13:1-10)”
– Mormon Doctrine, p. 130 (1958)
“Harlots. See Church of the Devil, Sex Immorality.
Literally a harlot is a prostitute; figuratively it is any apostate church. Nephi, speaking of harlots in the literal sense and while giving a prophetic description of the Catholic Church, recorded that he ‘saw the devil that he was the foundation of it.‘ … Then speaking of harlots in the figurative sense, he designated the Catholic Church as ‘the mother of harlots’ (1 Nephi 13:34; 14:15-17), a title which means that the protestant churches, the harlot daughters which broke off from the great and abominable church, would themselves be apostate churches.”
– Mormon Doctrine, pp. 314-315 (1958)
I asked McConkie why, in fact, his reference to the Roman Catholic Church as the “Church of the Devil” had been removed from the 2nd edition of his book, Mormon Doctrine.
McConkie insisted to me that it was excised not because it was not doctrinally sound but because it was too difficult for people to accept.
Which brings us up to the present definition of the Church of the Devil: It’s everything
Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “The titles church of the devil and great and abominable church are used to identify all churches or organizations of what- ever name or nature—whether political, philosophical, educational, economic, social, fraternal, civic, or religious—which are designed to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. , 137–38).
It’s Protestantism, it’s Catholicism, it’s Communism, it’s secularism — everything that isn’t Mormon is the church of the devil. Which stretches the definition of church, wouldn’t you say? By including everything, Mormons make this scripture meaningless.
The colonization of the Americas
If the last part of this reading is disturbing, this part of the Book of Mormon should have alarm bells ringing for anyone with a social conscience.
1 Nephi 13:10 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld many waters; and they divided the Gentiles from the seed of my brethren.
13:11 And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.
13:12 And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.
The spirit of God wrought upon Columbus? Let’s see about the kind of people that the Holy Ghost liks to hang out with.
Columbus’ rule in Hispaniola was tyrannical and cruel. Unruly colonists were summarily executed and natives were either sold into slavery or worked to death. The death rate for natives under his rule was 80-90%, punishments including cutting off of hands, nose, tongue and ears. Dismembered bodies were regularly paraded about the colony to deter the rebellious. In 1500 he was sent back to Spain in chains for trial under allegations of genocide and cruelty. He was widely hated by both the natives and the natives, however today he is celebrated.
Columbus was a religious maniac and used to justify a litany of cruel and savage practices. He saw conversion to Christianity as the main purpose for his mission, yet freely denied natives baptism so as to sell them into slavery. Towards the end of his life he wrote the ‘Book of Prophecies’ in which he claimed his own role in the discovery of the new world had bee prophesied by the Bible. He also outlined some events that would occur, such as the whole world being converted to Christianity, the last Crusade to the Holy Land to finally defeat Muslim rule, that King Ferdinand of Spain would become the Last World Emperor. In the end, Columbus was a corrupted, disease-ridden and more than a little deluded.
Mormons think that the Holy Ghost is offended if you say “damn” and “hell”, but Columbus gets a pass.
What, then, do we know of the real Columbus? What were his motives in pursuing his world-changing enterprise? Perhaps the greatest motivating feature of his life was his faith. His writings and the records kept by his contemporaries indicate that Columbus had unshakable faith that he was an instrument in God’s hands.
And, indeed, the Book of Mormon affirms that he was.
We interpret that to refer to Columbus. It is interesting to note that the Spirit of God wrought upon him. After reading that long biography, a Pulitzer winner of forty years ago, titled Admiral of the Ocean Sea—I have no doubt that Christopher Columbus was a man of faith, as well as a man of indomitable determination.
I recognize that in this anniversary year a host of critics have spoken out against him. I do not dispute that there were others who came to this Western Hemisphere before him. But it was he who in faith lighted a lamp to look for a new way to China and who in the process discovered America. His was an awesome undertaking—to sail west across the unknown seas farther than any before him of his generation. He it was who, in spite of the terror of the unknown and the complaints and near mutiny of his crew, sailed on with frequent prayers to the Almighty for guidance. In his reports to the sovereigns of Spain, Columbus repeatedly asserted that his voyage was for the glory of God and the spread of the Christian faith. Properly do we honor him for his unyielding strength in the face of uncertainty and danger.
Let’s face it: the LDS Church doesn’t hesitate to stand up for one of the worst and most cruel people that Europe has produced.
Nephi sees the American Revolutionary War.
1 Nephi 13:16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was with them.
13:17 And I beheld that their mother Gentiles were gathered together upon the waters, and upon the land also, to battle against them.
13:18 And I beheld that the power of God was with them, and also that the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.
13:19 And I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles that had gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.
This seems as good a place as any to mention one of the probable sources of inspiration for whoever wrote the Book of Mormon: The Late War.
The Late War is a history of the USA, written in a high-flown scriptural style. (Sound familiar?) It contains — dare I say — a number of 4-grams (4 words in a row) that match the Book of Mormon (though see here for some criticism).
The interesting thing about the Late War is that telling stories in biblical style was a thing. Try reading some, and see if it doesn’t match the Book of Mormon for tone.
Again, notice that Nephi’s prophecy runs right up to Joseph Smith’s time, and stops. It seems prophets can only see the past.
Additional lesson ideas
True to the Faith, a currently used “correlated” booklet, summarizes the Great Apostasy this way:
“After the deaths of the Savior and His Apostles, men corrupted the principles of the gospel and made unauthorized changes in Church organization and priesthood ordinances. Because of this widespread wickedness, the Lord withdrew the authority of the priesthood from the earth. During the Great Apostasy, people were without divine direction from living prophets.
This would be a weird way for a god to do something. After working to build his church, god decided to give a big middle finger to humanity and sit around for a few centuries.
Heavenly Father was apparently content to let generation after generation pass away without access to true knowledge regarding himself or the authority and rituals his alleged children require to return to him. Now he is super concerned with trying to get the word out?
Disbelief is not dwindling.
To finish out this lesson, I’d like to address a theme we’ve seen a few times already, even in the short readings we’ve done. I’d like to point out the word dwindle, and how believers use it to describe the unbelieving.
1 Nephi 4:13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.
1 Nephi 12:23 And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
What’s all this about dwindling in unbelief?
I had an LDS friend ask me about this once. She knew I didn’t believe, and she was concerned. After all, if you’ve ben told over and over again that disbelief is a prerequisite to dwindling, you might be scoping out the unbelievers you know for signs of dwindling!
So she asked me hesitantly, “Are you okay? and happy in your life and your beliefs?”
I responded, “Yes. I’m fine.
“I’m living a good, happy, ethical life as an unbeliever.”
It’s true. I’m someone who has left the church, and is doing better than ever. I’m flourishing in unbelief. Sure, I know some people who haven’t done so well, and the church was barely enough to keep them (unhappily) in check. But there’s no reason why a reasonably smart person with an internalised moral code needs a cage.
My poor friend, who’d been conditioned by the church to worry about me. How unnecessary. What a burden for our Mormon friends.
I want to say that we should show our LDS friends how well we’re doing after Mormonism, but that isn’t quite right either. I don’t want to put on a display and become an ad for my ideology — that was for then. Some of us aren’t doing well. And some of us avoid saying so to our LDS friends and family because we don’t want to prove them right. Aha! — we told you you’d dwindle.
What’s the answer?
I think the best thing is to be how you are. If you’re flourishing in unbelief, then it could be instructive for members. And if you’re dwindling, don’t go to great lengths to not show it, and be sure to ask for help from understanding people when needed. All of us can dwindle from time to time, belief or no belief.
To encourage a more helpful view of the world than Mormon theology allows
For this lesson, we’re getting into Nephi’s analogy of the Tree of Life — a big white tree that makes you happy when you eat its fruit. (It’s not drugs, apparently.)
But the real message of the tree is that there’s only one place to be, and only one way to get there. This fits in well with the current message of the church, which pretty much amounts to “stay in the church”. And when your organisation just says “stay in the organisation”, that means the organisation is entirely superfluous.
Main ideas for this lesson
Origins of the Tree of Life story
Members of the church make a big deal about how Joseph Smith couldn’t have cranked out the Book of Mormon himself in such a short time. Well, he didn’t have a short time. You know what they say: You have your whole life to write your first book.
And so it is here. It seems that Smith borrowed the Tree of Life analogy from a story his dad used to tell. Here’s the story as his mother told it in her book History of Joseph Smith by His Mother.
In 1811, we moved from Royalton, Vermont, to the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Soon after arriving here, my husband received another very singular vision, which I will relate:
“I thought,” said he, “I was traveling in an open, desolate field, which appeared to be very barren. As I was thus traveling, the thought suddenly came into my mind that I had better stop and reflect upon what I was doing, before I went any further. So I asked myself, ‘What motive can I have in traveling here, and what place can this be?’ My guide, who was by my side, as before, said, ‘This is the desolate world; but travel on.’ The road was so broad and barren that I wondered why I should travel in it; for, said I to myself, ‘Broad is the road, and wide is the gate that leads to death, and many there be that walk therein; but narrow is the way, and straight is the gate that leads to everlasting’ life, and few there be that go in thereat.’
Traveling a short distance farther, I came to a narrow path. This path I entered, and, when I had traveled a little way in it, I beheld a beautiful stream of water, which ran from the east to the west. Of this stream I could see neither the source nor yet the termination; but as far as my eyes could extend I could see a rope running along the bank of it, about as high as a man could reach, and beyond me was a low, but very pleasant valley, in which stood a tree such as I had never seen before. It was exceedingly handsome, insomuch that I looked upon it with wonder and admiration. Its beautiful branches spread themselves somewhat like an umbrella, and it bore a kind of fruit, in shape much like a chestnut bur, and as white as snow, or, if possible whiter. I gazed upon the same with considerable interest, and as I was doing so the burs or shells commenced opening and shedding their particles, or the fruit which they contained, which was of dazzling whiteness. I drew near and began to eat of it, and I found it delicious beyond description. As I was eating, I said in my heart, ‘I can not eat this alone, I must bring my wife and children, that they may partake with me.’ Accordingly, I went and brought my family, which consisted of a wife and seven children, and we all commenced eating, and praising God for this blessing. We were exceedingly happy, insomuch that our joy could not easily be expressed.
While thus engaged, I beheld a spacious building standing opposite the valley which we were in, and it appeared to reach to the very heavens. It was full of doors and windows, and they were filled with people, who were very finely dressed. When these people observed us in the low valley, under the tree, they pointed the finger of scorn at us, and treated us with all manner of disrespect and contempt. But their contumely we utterly disregarded.
I presently turned to my guide, and inquired of him the meaning of the fruit that was so delicious. He told me it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments. He then commanded me to go and bring the rest of my children. I told him that we were all there. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘look yonder, you have two more, and you must bring them also.’ Upon raising my eyes, I saw two small children, standing some distance off. I immediately went to them, and brought them to the tree; upon which they commenced eating with the rest, and we all rejoiced together. The more we ate, the more we seemed to desire, until we even got down upon our knees, and scooped it up, eating it by double handfuls.
After feasting in this manner a short time, I asked my guide what was the meaning of the spacious building which I saw. He replied, ‘It is Babylon, it is Babylon, and it must fall. The people in the doors and windows are the inhabitants thereof, who scorn and despise the Saints of God because of their humility.’
I soon awoke, clapping my hands together for joy.”
Anyone familiar with the contents of this Book of Mormon reading will recognise all the salient elements of the Tree of Life story, which Joseph absorbed and repackaged into his own narrative. It seems that Joseph Smith wasn’t the only creative one in the family.
Elements of the story
I’m going to pull the important bits of the story out, and maybe give some ideas about how they contribute to Mormon thinking.
The dark and dreary waste
Lehi starts the story.
1 Nephi 8:5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
8:6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
8:7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
No clue from the manual as to what this is supposed to be, but I suppose it’s the world. Believers need everyone to think the world is an awful and unfulfilling place without their bullshit.
The tree of life and its fruit
1 Nephi 8:10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
8:11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
Notice that, in this story, there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: near the tree. In the same way, Latter-day Saints seem to think there’s only one place to be if you want to be happy: stuck in boring meetings for three hours on a Sunday.
The rod of iron
1 Nephi 8:19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
Not only is there only one place to be, there’s only one way to get there: a cold, hard iron bar. You have to hold onto the bar and never let go, if you want to get to the tree.
Ask: What’s wrong with this picture? Answer: We live in an amazing world, with many options open to us. There are many ways to live and be happy, and they don’t all involve undeviating obedience.
In fact, undeviating obedience is way more likely to lead to committing atrocities than thinking for yourself is.
The river of filthy water, the mist of darkness, and the great and spacious building
The story continues:
1 Nephi 8:21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
8:22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
8:23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
8:24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
8:25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
8:26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
8:27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
8:28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
8:31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
8:32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
8:33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
Boy, the world sure seems like a dangerous place, doesn’t it? And if you let go of that rod for a split second, you could get drowned in a fountain.
This part of the story contributes to a “scary external world” narrative, which keeps many believers from venturing very far outside the confines of the faith.
Notice also that in this lesson, the church is attempting to inoculate its members against criticism and scorn.
I admit it’s not very nice to make fun of people. On the other hand, I think making fun of beliefs and ideas is perfectly acceptable. Ridicule doesn’t harm true ideas, but it’s lethal to false ones, which is why people with false beliefs are incredibly touchy about mockery and ridicule.
Ask: If you’ve been in a science class, did the lecturer warn you that people would mock and ridicule you for accepting a certain scientific idea? Answer: Such a warning is unnecessary for factual ideas that are demonstrably true. If someone did try to ridicule you for accepting a fact, it would be sufficient to display the evidence for that fact, and then let that person do what they want with that information. But for beliefs that have no evidentiary basis, this is impossible, which is why believers typically resort to an appeal to faith as a fallback position.
People in the story
So the LDS lesson manual mentions four kinds of people in the story:
a. 1 Nephi 8:21–23. (Those who start on the path but then become lost in the mist of darkness.)
Not very high achievers, are they? All they had to do was keep hold of that rod, and they couldn’t. Sheesh.
b. 1 Nephi 8:24–28. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, but then become ashamed and fall away.)
Ah — they succumbed to peer pressure. Losers.
c. 1 Nephi 8:30. (Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, and who then remain faithful.)
Those brave and stalwart individuals who stayed in the boat. And how did they manage it? By ignoring people with contrary opinions.
d. 1 Nephi 8:31–33. (Those who never start on the path but instead go directly toward the great and spacious building.)
So one group ends up believing, and three don’t. There’s something I want to point out about the three groups: They’re all people who succumbed to less-than-worthy motivators, whether apathy, or insufficient stamina, or social pressure. No one ever lets go for a worthwhile reason, like the fact that the iron rod isn’t really going anywhere, or the fruit of the Tree of Life is kind of meh. And what with all the scriptural editing, uncredited essays, and apologetic double-talk in the church today, the iron rod isn’t as firm as it used to be. It’s more like a steel slinky.
Which leads me to a conclusion. All the church knows how to do is devalue the life choices of people who don’t stay in the church. You can blame them or feel pity for them, but in this story, there’s no way to see their choices as valid.
How is a Mormon supposed to respect non-members or ex-members? How is a believer supposed to regard an ex-Mormon partner? How does this story help to build relationships? Or really, to do anything besides keep Mormons in their seats every Sunday?
There is one good thing in the manual, however.
Encourage class members to strengthen each other and to never mock or belittle others.
Hey, that’s fair. If we’re doing that, we need to knock it off. Ideas are fair game, but people deserve respect. That also goes for people who stay Mormon. We may not think it’s a good decision, but we don’t always know their motivations or their situation. Who knows — maybe something could have been different for me, and then I’d still be there.
A better story
Here’s my try at writing a better analogy. It’s more reflective of reality as I see it. From the Book of Daniel (Midgley), chapter 1.
And it came to pass that I saw a world, and this world had treasures wondrous to behold.
There was knowledge to gain, and work to be done.
There were books to read and stories to tell.
There was treasure.
What’s that game where you slash around in the grass and find gems? Is it Zelda?
It was like Zelda.
There was food and people and music and art and love.
There were a lot of dangerous animals and there was disease.
For a lot of people, things sucked pretty much all the time.
But fixing that was part of the work to be done.
Oh, yeah, and there was coffee, too.
And it came to pass that into this land there came a group, all huddled together, with a huge muslin sheet over them.
The Sheet kept them together in a group, like a great amoeba or something.
The Sheet blocked out the light, and kept them from seeing the things in their world as well as they might.
For those closest to the centre, it obstructed their view entirely.
God, were they sensitive about the unkind comments people made about the Sheet; but in fairness, they looked frigging ridiculous under that thing.
And it looked hot and uncomfortable.
But they did not mind being under the Sheet because they felt it was safer then being outside.
Their leaders told them what life was like outside, and their descriptions of the dangers was enough to keep them under the Sheet.
Being under the Sheet made them feel special, like a community.
And some said that they could not imagine life without the Sheet.
And some were not sure about the this whole Sheet thing, but that the Sheet was a part of their identity, and they’d been under the Sheet for this long, so.
And it came to pass that some of them would venture out in pairs to convince others to join them under the enormous Sheet, and some would join them.
And it came to pass that in the course of time, I saw more and more people venture out from underneath the Sheet.
They had seen that the world outside the Sheet had more treasures than they’d been able to imagine, and that life under that Sheet involved a lot of unnecessary crap.
Especially not having coffee.
But when they returned to tell others about life without the Sheet, they found themselves ignored by their erstwhile fellow Sheet-mates.
And it came to pass that Sheet-mates was not intended as some kind of sexual euphemism.
And sometimes they were cut off from their families and partners (who really had been Sheet-mates) and these were the saddest of all.
And it came to pass that some of the People of the Sheet were happy, and some were miserable.
And some of the people outside the Sheet were happy.
And some were miserable.
A fact which the People of the Sheet harped on endlessly.
But sometimes not being under a Sheet is like that.
And the people outside the Sheet ended up, not in one place, but across the whole face of the land, since that was where the action is.
And as the people discovered things about their world, they called unto each other, and shared their discoveries, and used their knowledge to discover more.
And there were many ways to live, and many places to be, and all chose their way as best they could.
Additional lesson ideas
Is Jesus the Father?
The first edition of the Book of Mormon contained these verses:
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.
… 11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
… 11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
In current editions, the text of these verses has been changed to read:
1 Nephi 11:18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
11:21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
11:32 And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
It’s a change that goes quite a bit beyond a simple textual edit, and shows that the Book of Mormon was Mormonism v1. Even so, sometimes Mormons double down on this, insisting that Jesus is the Father, if you redefine ‘father’. (Redefining words is the last refuge of a scoundrel.)
• Christ is sometimes called Father because of his role as Creator from the beginning
• Jesus Christ is also known as Father through the spiritual rebirth of mankind (see Born of God). As the foreordained Redeemer, he became the “author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him”
• Furthermore, Jesus is called Father because of the authority God gave him to act for the Father.
So Jesus is the Father, but only when he’s acting as the Father. Unless he’s also the Creator or the Saviour, which is all the time. Totally not confusing.
Sometimes the Savior has spoken both as the Father (Elohim) and as the Son (Jesus) in the same revelation
Because the writer got confused.
At this point, I tap out. It’s like arguing about the Force v Midichlorians with Star Wars nerds. Mormons are basically making their Godhead indistinguishable from the Trinity, so I hope they have fun with that.
In the reading for this lesson, Jesus talks about the Holy Ghost. Since speaking against the Holy Ghost is inexplicably the worst, most unpardonable sin you can commit, I’ll be doing lots of it in this lesson.
Main ideas for this lesson
Holy the Ghost
Some people say that religion fills a need, and I suppose that’s true in a rather sad way: it tries to give people things that life doesn’t. One Christian evangelist revealed one of his angles to me: when he meets people without a strong father figure in their life, he pushes the angle of “God is your father”. Voilá; insta-dad.
Ask: Is that comforting, or just manipulative and awful?
In the same way, people who don’t have a lot of friends might be drawn to the idea of having a “constant companion”, which is how Mormons often describe the Holy Ghost.
Here’s a swag of times where the phrase constant companion has turned up in General Conference. The phrase has been coming up more and more lately. (Try your own searches here.)
And in John, Jesus calls the Holy Ghost “the comforter”. But he mentions another function:
John 14:26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
The Holy Ghost will teach you all things? Like as in: all things?
John 16:13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
Note that there are no caveats as to the kind of truth one can learn from the Holy Ghost. It’s not just spiritual things you can learn by the Spirit; it’s all truth and all things.
We can submit this claim to some skeptical analysis.
Object lesson for class
Here’s a test you can use for comparing the efficacy of the Spirit as a revealer of truth: Have two class members work out the digits of π to some level of precision. One class member gets to use science and technology — math books, web sites, and an ordinary computer — and the other has to use the Spirit. How accurate was each method? I predict the second class member will be right no more than random chance. And it’s no use trying to fudge it and say that the digits of π “aren’t important to your salvation”. Jesus makes no such qualifications in the scripture.
(If this test is not suitable for your class, feel free to substitute any other sort of fact that can be easily verified, and for which answers can be unambiguously right or wrong. Another suggestion is blood type. How accurately can a very spiritual person tell the blood type of various individuals, using revelation? Be sure to have several testing kits on hand.)
There really are no “other ways of knowing”. Science is the only way of knowing. Observing carefully, making predictions, testing them, observing some more — this is the only way we have of knowing something, and even then it’s darn hard. Everything we think is at least a little bit wrong. How could anyone think that communicating with a spirit can do better than science? If it’s hard to get it right with all that careful work, what chance does anyone have mumbling to a ghost?
If you think you know “another way of knowing”, please tell me, because science is hard.
Not only is the Holy Ghost not great at the “revealing truth” part of his job, he’s also terrible at offering companionship. Ask someone their definition of a true friend, and you’re likely to hear that it’s someone who sticks with you through thick and thin, through good times and bad.
Well, the Holy Ghost isn’t that kind of companion. Apparently the Holy Ghost takes off the second you have a lapse in behaviour, or even temperament.
This is not really a dependable companion. Which is why I say: Piss off, little ghost. I have human friends that are more dependable, and a whole lot better at teaching me things.
How to feel the Holy Ghost
Here’s what the LDS manual says about how to feel the Holy Ghost:
To help class members feel and recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost, speak with a few of them in advance, inviting each of them to choose one of the following presentations to do as part of the lesson:
a. Read a favorite scripture passage.
b. Bear testimony.
c. Sing a hymn or Primary song about the Savior.
d. Express love for Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
e. Share a spiritual experience (as appropriate).
In class, invite class members to describe how they felt during the presentations. Read the statement by President Boyd K. Packer on pages 99–100, and help class members recognize feelings that come from the Holy Ghost. Talk about how you feel when you receive guidance from the Holy Ghost.
What a show: the Gospel Doctrine teacher is supposed to get people to do soppy vulnerable things in front of everyone, and then hope that a collective soppy vulnerable mood ensues. What’s amazing is that it works so often.
After all the things I’ve done in church and all the experiences I’ve had, people still invite me to church hoping that I’ll have some kind of creepy, weepy “spiritual experience”. If I did feel something, that wouldn’t prove the veracity of the church. It would prove that I was capable of emotional reasoning. It would also show that my body can produce oxytocin and other chemicals, which is nice, but hardly evidence for supernatural claims.
Again, from the LDS manual.
President Boyd K. Packer taught: “The Holy Ghost speaks with a voice that you feel more than you hear. It is described as a ‘still small voice.’ And while we speak of ‘listening’ to the whisperings of the Spirit, most often one describes a spiritual prompting by saying, ‘I had a feeling . . .’ . . . Revelation comes as words we feel more than hear” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1994, 77; or Ensign, Nov. 1994, 60).
Emotional reasoning is a bad way of reasoning, but in the LDS Church, ideas verified only by emotion are considered to be the highest form of evidence that there is.
Show the class this video featuring LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland.
“Noting that the sun was going down, we decided that we’d better get back. But we came back to a particular fork in the road, really the only one that at that point was absolutely unrecognizable. I asked my son to pray about which road to take, and he felt strongly that we should go to the right, and I did as well. And we went to the right, and it was a dead end. We went four or five or six hundred yards and it was an absolute dead end, clearly the wrong road.
“Turned around, came back out, took the other road. And clearly the road to the left was the correct road.
“Somewhere along the way, Matt said, ‘Dad, why did we feel, after praying about it, that the right road was the proper one to take, the correct one to take, and it wasn’t?’”
Ask: When the Holy Ghost failed to lead him and his son in the right direction, despite them being sure that they had a confirmation, what should Holland have done if he’d had any intellectual honesty? Answer: He should have admitted that this method failed in this instance.
And I said, ‘I think that the Lord, His wish for us there and His answer to our prayer was to get us on the right road as quickly as possible with some reassurance, with some understanding that we were on the right road and we didn’t have to worry about it. And in this case, the easiest way to do that was to let us go 400 yards or 500 yards on the wrong road and very quickly know without a doubt that it was the wrong road and, therefore, with equal certainty, with equal conviction that the other one was the right road.’
Ask: What did Holland do instead to rationalise this failure? Answer: Claim that the failure was a success! The Lord led them the wrong way to a dead end, so they could be more certain that the right way was indeed right.
This story with its explanation is, quite frankly, astounding. Before Holland gave this talk, if you had a spiritual revelation, you could be pretty sure that what you were told to do was the right thing. Now, post-Holland, you have no idea. Now, a spiritual prompting could be taking you the wrong way, and you won’t know it until you hit a dead end. Is a spiritual prompting to, say, join the Mormon Church leading you to a dead end, and the Lord is helping you be more certain of the right way when you eventually leave?
If you get a hit, your faith is confirmed. if you get a miss, your faith is confirmed more. This is the definition of blind faith. Someone on r/exmormon (can’t find at the moment) said it well: An eye that responds the same to light and darkness is a blind eye. A faith that responds the same way to both confirmation and disconfirmation is blind faith. It is a terrible method. It is just asking to be fooled. We need to make life decisions using good methods and good information.
In the world but not of the world
It’s very common to hear this little aphorism in church, and it’s based more or less on this scripture.
John 17:14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
From the LDS manual:
How can we, like Jesus and his Apostles, live in the world and be “not of the world”? (John 17:14; see also verses 15–16).
Elder M. Russell Ballard said:
“In the Church, we often state the couplet, ‘Be in the world but not of the world.’ As we observe television shows that make profanity, violence, and infidelity commonplace and even glamorous, we often wish we could lock out the world in some way and isolate our families from it all. . . .”
With so much violence in the world, isn’t it kind of sweet and touching that he’s concerned about fictional representations of violence? Anyway.
Ask: What function could this idea serve?
This idea works to create a “scary external world” narrative that will ensure that members get their information, their values, and their positive feels only from church. Not only does this foster a “bunker mentality” that keeps members worried about “the world” and therefore likely to remain in the church orbit, it makes it very difficult for Latter-day Saints to appreciate or even recognise the morality of people in the broader community. And this is important for keeping the brand afloat. If people in “the world” are not uniformly lost and wounded, but have morals similar to — and in some cases, superior to — the rather narrow tribalistic morality taught in the LDS Church, this challenges the idea that Mormon morality is superior and divine.
Additional lesson ideas
I’m Jesus: AMFA
Again, Jesus says that whatever you ask for he’ll give you.
John 16:23 And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.
It has occurred to me that perhaps this referred to the disciples only. In that case, it seems kind of strange that they didn’t ask Jesus for some very sensible things, like not being crucified upside-down or not being shot through with arrows. But then the disciples were not the sharpest people ever.
To explain why Jesus’ return is a failed prophecy, and to show the foolishness of waiting and hoping for the end of the world
This lesson is about the end of the world. As we all know, Jesus is coming back to kill billions of people (but more of this in the lesson on the Revelation) and usher in his earthly kingdom. Everyone’s been waiting for it for quite a while.
Of course, as we’ve already seen, Jesus taught that he was coming back during the lifetimes of people who were still alive then. And later on, we’ll see how Paul had to hose down the end-of-the-world stuff. “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!” they said. Two thousand years later, and they’re still saying “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!”
Still, people wait for the end of the world — in some cases, with an eagerness that any normal person would find unseemly. I guess a lot of people are waiting for Jesus to come back and tell everybody that they had the right religion and everyone else was wrong. Kind of like in this South Park clip.
As for me and my generation, we got told that we were the final generation, held in reserve for the end times, and how valiant we must have been!
Little did we know, we were actually a group of mammals who were born like groups of mammals before us. Which is still pretty great, you know, because mammals.
Still, we thought the end was going to come any day! When you don’t expect it! (Surely someone is expecting it every day.) If God was saying back in Joseph Smith’s time that the day was at the doors, then surely by now we must be in the latter days! It’s even in the name of the church, right? Latter-day Saints?
The end is not near, senior LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer said Saturday.
Today’s youths can look forward to “getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren,” Packer told more than 20,000 Mormons gathered in the giant LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Well, now what do I do with all this food storage?
On the other hand, maybe Jesus has already returned.
Teaching tip of the day
A helpful tip from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual: Don’t just make up a crap answer when you get a question about the made-up crap in the Bible!
Suggestion for teaching: A call to teach does not require that you know everything about the gospel, so you should not feel embarrassed if a class member asks a question that you cannot answer. Instead of making up an answer, admit that you do not know and offer to try to find an answer.
…that someone else has made up. But it will be a correlated someone. Leave it to the professional apologists, kid.
Try to find an answer? There isn’t just one answer to lots of gospel questions because the whole thing is made up from top to bottom.
Why shouldn’t you make up an answer? When has that not been what everyone does? That’s all Joseph Smith did. That’s all any prophet or apologist does — come up with some kind of answer that will satisfy the believing and save the story.
Seriously, when you bring up a discrepancy with a believer, what’s the first thing they try to do? Quick, come up with an answer — whether it’s scriptural or not! Anything that comes to hand will do, and if it sounds right, then it must be right, because the gospel is right. Right?
Look, it’s all very well that the Church try to rein in the impulse to conduct on-the-spot apologetics, but they’re fighting a very strong and well-trained urge — and one that for many people is the quickest way they have of resolving the conflict and putting cognitive dissonance back to sleep.
Main ideas for this lesson
Are the number of earthquakes increasing?
For signs of the end times, Jesus names things that are going on more or less constantly. Smart move, Jesus.
Matthew 24:7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
In church, I sometimes heard about how earthquakes were increasing exponentially as we approached the Last Days. Are they? Not really.
No, the number of earthquakes is not increasing compared with the recorded history, according to data from the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center.
The USGS estimates that several million earthquakes occur in the world each year. Many go undetected because they hit remote areas or have very small magnitudes. There are more seismographs installed worldwide every year, so more earthquakes can be detected. However, the number of large earthquakes (magnitude 6.0 and greater) has stayed relatively constant.
Cecil Adams, in this Straight Dope column, points out that natural disasters — earthquakes aside — may be increasing because of climate change, and because we count the ones that affect humans. Urbanisation means more of those.
You see where it gets tricky — the definition of natural disaster is unavoidably tied to the number of people affected and/or the value of the damage done, both of which will naturally increase as the earth’s population and wealth do, and of course wealth and population aren’t evenly distributed worldwide. And that brings us to the other big part of our growing vulnerability to disasters: urban migration in developing countries means denser populations, which often goes hand in hand with quickly-assembled, not overly sturdy housing. The parts of the world where this is most common tend to have largely informal economies, in which the enforcement of building-code regulations may not be a top priority. All this makes it much more likely that a serious meteorological or seismic event will meet the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s criteria for a disaster: ten or more people killed and at least 100 injured, evacuated, displaced, or left homeless. By that organization’s count we now have twice the number of disasters per year that we did 20 years ago.
Matthew 24:11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
Well, just don’t believe any prophets. That was easy.
Stars falling from heaven?
Matthew 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
“You know, one of the signs that the second coming, is that the stars will fall out of the sky and land on Earth. To even write that means you don’t know what those things are. You have no concept of what the actual universe is. So everybody who tried to make proclamations about the physical universe based on Bible passages got the wrong answer.
Again, Jesus says that the end of the world is coming within his generation.
Matthew 24:34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
I’ve had Christians tell me that this statement is only meant to apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 CE. Could that explanation work?
No, not really. It’s true that Jesus talks a lot about the destruction of the temple — and I take this as evidence that it had already happened by the time this was written. But let’s go back a few verses.
Matthew 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
24:31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
24:32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
24:33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
Jesus talks about a lot of amazing public events: everyone seeing him in the clouds, angels and trumpets — things that haven’t happened. Then note that he says that “all these things” will be fulfilled in this generation — not just the one thing. Good try, Christians, but I don’t see any reason to limit the scope like that.
Function of this belief
From time to time, it’s good to ask: What’s the function of a belief like this one?
Matthew 24:21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
I can see a couple of reasons why this works for Christianity.
When things go wrong, it provides a handy reason: the world is getting worse!
It provides a “scary external world” narrative that keeps people frightened. Frightened people aren’t good critical thinkers. So this meme keeps them in the group, for the perceived safety it gives.
But this “hell in a handbasket” meme is unhelpful. People with the attitude that the world is in an irretrievable and divinely-predicted decline aren’t good at trying to find solutions to the world’s problems. They ooze a kind of cynicism and contempt regarding the “world”. This is what I’ve found when I’ve run across them.
But as I explain to these Jehovah’s Witnesses — who have been wrong many times on this issue — things aren’t actually getting worse. They’re getting better. Steven Pinker explains.
On the day this article appears, you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It’s impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, “What is the world coming to?”
But a better question may be, “How bad was the world in the past?”
Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.
This is very difficult for people to get their head around when they’re been hearing the “hell in a handbasket” narrative for the whole of their lives. I try to bring up this theme whenever possible with a certain believer — we’re at the lowest point in violent crime for forty years, etc. — and every time I do, it’s like it’s the first time she’s heard it. It just bounces off. How could reality compete, when all they have to do — they suppose — is watch the news?
Failed prophecy — and thank goodness
After all these years, one thing should be clear: Jesus is not coming back. This is a failed prophecy, but people don’t realise it’s a failed prophecy because of the rolling deadline.
Harold Camping told us the date on which the world would end. Of course, the date passed without incident. Camping was wrong. According to the Christian bible, the Jesus character told his contemporaries that the world would end during their lifetimes. Jesus was wrong too. Like Camping, the Jesus character was a failed prophet.
So were all these people who made failed end-of-the-world predictions, dating from 2800 BCE to today.
Anthropologists who study the Melanesian tribes speculate that Frum might have actually been a real person – most likely a generous sentry, engineer or aircraft mechanic who handed out goods, Hershey bars or medicine to the locals during the occupation. Perhaps he even identified himself as “John, from America”. Others speculate that Frum may instead be a composite of several personnel from the airbase or even a hodge-podge of American icons and archetypes including Uncle Sam, Popeye and Santa Claus. Some suggest that the Melanesian veneration of John Frum actually pre-dates the Second World War and may be based on some unknown charitable westerner that visited the island by ship in the decades before World War Two.
Regardless, Frum-worshipers still herald their god as the almighty “King of America”. Each year on Feb. 15, devotees mark their bodies with the letters U.S.A. and march in hopes that Frum will return. The entire religion, which is now more of a kitschy tourist attraction than anything else, also formed the basis of a homegrown nationalist political party that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007.
At this point, it begins to look like the “hero’s return” is a bit of a theme in human belief.
Springville • In the Springville home where Benjamin and Kristi Strack and three of their children were found dead on Sept. 27, no note was found to explain the murder-suicide.
In a notebook, a “to-do list” had been scribbled on the pages, Springville police revealed at a press conference Tuesday. The list looked as if the parents were readying to go on vacation — items such as “feed the pets” and “find someone to watch after the house” were written.
But there was no clear explanation for why on that September day, the five family members ingested a fatal mixture of drugs.
In the weeks and months after the family’s deaths, Police Chief J. Scott Finlayson said investigators talked with their family and friends, who told them that Benjamin and Kristi Strack spoke frequently of “leaving this world.” Friends said the couple believed there was a looming apocalypse and that they desired to escape from the evil in the world.
We can see that this is a tragic waste of life, but it’s just as true that putting your life on hold for an imaginary saviour’s return is a waste of your life.
In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.
In our case, as the distinguished astronomer and former president of the Royal Society Martin Rees has conjectured, extinction is likely to be self-inflicted. Destructive technology becomes more powerful by the decade, and there is an ever-increasing danger that it will fall into the hands of some holy fool (Ian McEwan’s memorable phrase) whose ‘tradition’ glorifies death and longs for the hereafter: a ‘tradition’ which, not content with forecasting the end of the world, actively seeks to bring it about.
On that theme, Christopher Hitchens explains more ably than most — and off-the-cuff, as well — how this hope for an apocalypse really evinces a kind of contempt for life.
I think maybe I will take a few moments to say something I find repulsive about especially Monotheistic, Messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die, it wants this world to come to an end you can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts, or listen to any of its real authentic spokesman, not the pathetic apologists who sometimes masquerade for it. Those who talk, there was a famous spokesman for this in Virginia until recently, about the Rapture, saying that those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus, leaving all of the rest of you behind: if we’re in a car it’s your lookout, that car won’t have a driver anymore; if we’re a pilot that’s your lookout, that plane will crash; we will be with Jesus and the rest of you can go straight to Hell.
The eschatological element that is inseparable from Christianity, if you don’t believe that there is going to be an Apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats, a condemnation, a final one, then you’re not really a Believer and the contempt for the things of this world shows through all of them. It’s well put in an old rhyme from an English exclusive Brethren sect: “We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you, we don’t want Heaven crammed!” You can tell it when you see the extreme Muslims talk, they cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake and overwhelm the World, they can’t wait for what I would call without ambiguity a Final Solution. When you look at the Israeli settlers — paid for often by American tax dollars — deciding if they can steal enough land from other people and get all the Jews into the promised land and all the non-Jews out of it then finally the Jewish people will be worthy of the return of the Messiah, and there are Christians in this country who consider it their job to help this happen so that Armageddon can occur, so that the painful business of living as humans, and studying civilization, and trying to acquire learning, and knowledge, and health, and medicine, and to push back the frontiers can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.
That to me is a hideous thing in eschatological terms, in End Times terms. On its own a hateful idea, a hateful practice, and a hateful theory but very much to be opposed in our daily lives where there are people who sincerely mean it, who want to ruin the good relations that could exist between different peoples, nations, races, countries, tribes, ethnicities; who openly say they love death more than we love life and who are betting that with God on their side that they’re right about that.
So when I say as a subtitle of my book that “Religion poisons everything”, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity, it says we can’t be moral without Big Brother, without a totalitarian permission, it means we can’t be good to one other, it means we can’t think without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone who we fear – the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship – and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that this is evil.
So what do we do with our lives, if things will continue as they are until the Big Blast?
Enjoy it. We are born without asking. We are helplessly alive. And we are doomed to die.
Even so, it seems to me that doing something is a higher-quality decision than doing nothing. Here are some ideas.
Enjoy life responsibly. You only get one.
Help make things better for others. They only get one life, too
Learn as much as you can about the world and the universe, since the sharing of knowledge is a very good way to help make things better for everyone.
Try to leave something good for the next generation.
And I might add: Interplanetary travel seems like a good idea, if we want to get off this rock.
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.
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?
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:
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?
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.
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.