Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: skepticism

D&C Lesson 5 (Personal Revelation)

“This Is the Spirit of Revelation”

Reading assignment

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

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual

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

Main points for this lesson


Ask: How is revelation supposed to work?

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

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

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

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

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

From the manual:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal revelation in my life

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

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

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

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

What was Oliver’s gift?

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

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

Gift of Aaron?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BoM Lesson 35 (Samuel the Lamanite)

“Repent and Return unto the Lord”

Helaman 13–16

LDS manual: here


To encourage skepticism and critical thinking


This lesson is about Samuel the Lamanite. You know — this guy.


Helaman 13:2 And it came to pass that in this year there was one Samuel, a Lamanite, came into the land of Zarahemla, and began to preach unto the people. And it came to pass that he did preach, many days, repentance unto the people, and they did cast him out, and he was about to return to his own land.
13:3 But behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, that he should return again, and prophesy unto the people whatsoever things should come into his heart.
13:4 And it came to pass that they would not suffer that he should enter into the city; therefore he went and got upon the wall thereof, and stretched forth his hand and cried with a loud voice, and prophesied unto the people whatsoever things the Lord put into his heart.

Samuel is calling the Nephites unto something called “repentance”, which is a twisted concept. See if this quote from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual doesn’t make you agree.

President Ezra Taft Benson taught:
“Repentance means more than simply a reformation of behavior. Many men and women in the world demonstrate great will-power and self-discipline in overcoming bad habits and the weaknesses of the flesh. Yet at the same time they give no thought to the Master, sometimes even openly rejecting Him. Such changes of behavior, even if in a positive direction, do not constitute true repentance. . . .
“ . . . True repentance is based on and flows from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way. True repentance involves a change of heart and not just a change of behavior (see Alma 5:13)” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson [1988], 71).

In other words, what you do doesn’t matter so much. It’s what you believe. This is in line with the presumed character of God, who will forgive misdeeds, but punishes people for misbelief.

Helaman 13:6 Yea, heavy destruction awaiteth this people, and it surely cometh unto this people, and nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ, who surely shall come into the world, and shall suffer many things and shall be slain for his people.

Somehow, he knows Jesus’s name, way in advance.

Helaman 13:7 And behold, an angel of the Lord hath declared it unto me, and he did bring glad tidings to my soul. And behold, I was sent unto you to declare it unto you also, that ye might have glad tidings; but behold ye would not receive me.

If a guy was standing on a wall, babbling about how an angel was telling him stuff, I’d have reservations about believing him, too. Sorry — receiving him.

Helaman 13:8 Therefore, thus saith the Lord: Because of the hardness of the hearts of the people of the Nephites, except they repent I will take away my word from them, and I will withdraw my Spirit from them, and I will suffer them no longer, and I will turn the hearts of their brethren against them.

As we’ve seen, societies are more peaceful and prosperous when they become secular and ignore gods.

Helaman 13:9 And four hundred years shall not pass away before I will cause that they shall be smitten; yea, I will visit them with the sword and with famine and with pestilence.

A prophecy. I wonder if that will come true later on in the same book.

Helaman 13:12 Yea, wo unto this great city of Zarahemla; for behold, it is because of those who are righteous that it is saved; yea, wo unto this great city, for I perceive, saith the Lord, that there are many, yea, even the more part of this great city, that will harden their hearts against me, saith the Lord.
13:13 But blessed are they who will repent, for them will I spare. But behold, if it were not for the righteous who are in this great city, behold, I would cause that fire should come down out of heaven and destroy it.

Religious people think they’re acting as superheros, saving the rest of us. A better metaphor would be that God is a terrorist, and they’re human shields.

Slippery riches

Joseph Smith, in his pre-cult-leader days, got paid — and arrested — for trying to find lost treasure. Basically, it was a con job. You got people to pay you to find buried gold. You could use a magic rock. Smith did — the same rock that he later used to write the Book of Mormon.

Of course, you don’t find any gold because you have no special powers, but you’ve got to find a way to string your patron along, so you have to say, “We got awfully close — I’m sure if you give me just a little more money, we’ll find the treasure!” Then you have to invent some story, like maybe a witch or a spirit is protecting the treasure.

Or — you could say that you almost got it, but the treasure slipped away. It moved! Just like Bugs Bunny travelling underground, the treasure scooted away somewhere else. Darn that slippery earth!

It was a common enough dodge back in those days. (See, for example, Early Mormonism and the magic world view by D. Michael Quinn.) And wouldn’t you know, it makes an appearance here in the Book of Mormon.

Helaman 13:30 Yea, behold, the anger of the Lord is already kindled against you; behold, he hath cursed the land because of your iniquity.
13:31 And behold, the time cometh that he curseth your riches, that they become slippery, that ye cannot hold them; and in the days of your poverty ye cannot retain them.
13:32 And in the days of your poverty ye shall cry unto the Lord; and in vain shall ye cry, for your desolation is already come upon you, and your destruction is made sure; and then shall ye weep and howl in that day, saith the Lord of Hosts. And then shall ye lament, and say:
13:33 O that I had repented, and had not killed the prophets, and stoned them, and cast them out. Yea, in that day ye shall say: O that we had remembered the Lord our God in the day that he gave us our riches, and then they would not have become slippery that we should lose them; for behold, our riches are gone from us.
13:34 Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone; and behold, our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for battle.
13:35 Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land.

A good excuse works in a multitude of situations.

When did Jesus come?

The time of Jesus’s birth (if it happened at all) has been the source of speculation. Samuel (in 6 BCE) declares:

Helaman 14:2 And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

He was probably off by a few years. According to the Bible, Jesus was born during the time of Herod, who died in 4 BCE. Samuel probably should have said “one more year cometh”. Whoops.

Helaman 14:5 And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you.

14:20 But behold, as I said unto you concerning another sign, a sign of his death, behold, in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land, even from the time that he shall suffer death, for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead.

The Bible has it as three hours of darkness; the Book of Mormon extends this to three days. No reason for the extension is given.

Helaman 14:23 And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great.

Can you imagine how much energy it would take to turn a mountain into a valley? Surely this would leave some kind of geological record.

Helaman 14:25 And many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many.

That’s about as likely as the mountain and valley thing. That was lifted from Matthew, by the way, and no other Bible writer corroborates it (to say nothing of anyone else).

Helaman 14:28 And the angel said unto me that many shall see greater things than these, to the intent that they might believe that these signs and these wonders should come to pass upon all the face of this land, to the intent that there should be no cause for unbelief among the children of men

Wait, so God is going to make provide evidence so that we won’t have any reason to disbelieve? From my chats with Mormons, that’s something that God strenuously refuses to do! What changed his mind?

Helaman 14:30 And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.

If the choice is between belief and punishment, then we’re not free. Any choice that results from a threat is not a free choice. That’s coercion.

Reactions to Samuel’s preaching were varied. Some people believed him.

Helaman 16:1 And now, it came to pass that there were many who heard the words of Samuel, the Lamanite, which he spake upon the walls of the city. And as many as believed on his word went forth and sought for Nephi; and when they had come forth and found him they confessed unto him their sins and denied not, desiring that they might be baptized unto the Lord.

Others were predictably less impressed at first.

Helaman 16:2 But as many as there were who did not believe in the words of Samuel were angry with him; and they cast stones at him upon the wall, and also many shot arrows at him as he stood upon the wall; but the Spirit of the Lord was with him, insomuch that they could not hit him with their stones neither with their arrows.
16:3 Now when they saw that they could not hit him, there were many more who did believe on his words, insomuch that they went away unto Nephi to be baptized.

Good for them; they updated with new evidence.

But others thought Samuel’s force field was of Mephistophelian aetiology.

Helaman 16:6 But the more part of them did not believe in the words of Samuel; therefore when they saw that they could not hit him with their stones and their arrows, they cried unto their captains, saying: Take this fellow and bind him, for behold he hath a devil; and because of the power of the devil which is in him we cannot hit him with our stones and our arrows; therefore take him and bind him, and away with him.

This isn’t a crazy conclusion to reach. Honestly — if you saw someone with a supernatural force field, how could you tell if it was coming from God, the Devil, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? All supernatural explanations are untestable and indistinguishable.

Helaman 16:7 And as they went forth to lay their hands on him, behold, he did cast himself down from the wall, and did flee out of their lands, yea, even unto his own country, and began to preach and to prophesy among his own people.
16:8 And behold, he was never heard of more among the Nephites; and thus were the affairs of the people.

So he went.

Time passed.

Helaman 16:13 But it came to pass in the ninetieth year of the reign of the judges, there were great signs given unto the people, and wonders; and the words of the prophets began to be fulfilled.
16:14 And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.

It’s Christmas! Too bad Jesus had been born four years previously.

Helaman 16:15 Nevertheless, the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom, saying:
16:16 Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken.

This shouldn’t be dismissed. If someone makes a sufficient number of blind guesses, some of them will come true by coincidence. This is a principle that mediums use. They throw out a large number of suggestions, counting on us to remember the hits and forget the misses.

This, from the late Robert Todd Carroll:

The fact is, psychics may know certain things about you in the same way that many people know many things about others by knowing their age, sex, occupation, education, where they live, how they dress, what kind of jewelry they’re wearing, or their religion. Does anyone have perfect knowledge of others based on what are sometimes called warm reading techniques? Of course not. We’re dealing with probabilities, not absolute certainties here, but it doesn’t matter. The psychic is not obligated to stop the reading when she makes a mistake. If she misinterprets your wearing black as a sign of grieving for someone who has died, she doesn’t have to say “oops, wrong again.” No, she just slithers on to the next question or statement, ignoring her “miss” and counting on you to ignore it as well. Eventually, she’ll hit something that resonates with you, that you can validate. The key to a psychic reading is not the psychic’s ability to tap into a world you are not directly privy to. The key to a psychic reading is your willingness to find meaning or significance in some of the statements she makes or questions she asks. If mentioning the death of a loved one evokes no response from you, the psychic will move on to another statement, another question.

Helaman 16:17 And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:
16:18 That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?

Is it reasonable that Jesus would come? Consider: God, who could make any plan he wanted to save the souls of his children, decided on a barbaric and repugnant plan that inexplicably involved getting his son killed, which humans wouldn’t be able to understand, and that a very few would accept.

Yes, I find that quite unreasonable. But I shouldn’t be like that: it’s almost Christmas! In the next lesson, we’ll see the circumstances leading up to the birth of Jesus.

BoM Lesson 28 (Faith as a seed)

“The Word Is in Christ unto Salvation”

Alma 32–35

LDS manual: here


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


What is faith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main ideas for this lesson

Preying upon the poor

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

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


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

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

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

The LDS Gospel Doctrine manual asks:

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

Ask: Why does the church promote humility?

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

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

Arrogance of Faith

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

atheist arrogance

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is faith?

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

Faith is belief without evidence.


Aron Ra elaborates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's called faith because it's not knowledge

Alma reiterates.

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

Well, you hope they’re true, right?

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

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

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

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

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

The seed, or: the experiment that wasn’t

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

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

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

  • A good experiment attempts to be unbiased.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Additional lesson ideas

Vicarious sacrifice for sin is immoral

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

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

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

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

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

…then why would getting his son killed help matters?


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

NT Lesson 27 (Resurrection)

“He Is Not Here, for He Is Risen”

Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20–21

LDS manual: here


To show contradictions in the resurrection story, and to encourage readers to seek evidence for extraordinary claims.


This lesson is about the pivotal event of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. I say it’s pivotal because if it didn’t happen, then there’s no point to Christianity at all. And Paul says as much.

1 Corinthians 15:14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

This really came home to me when my father passed on. I realised that I was the grown-up now, and I had to decide how I was going to live. And if there was a life after this, or no life after this, I wanted to know it. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you don’t care about defending the story you’ve always lived by, and you just want to know if you’re right or wrong. Well, at this point, I wanted to know if I was right or wrong.

So for me, the crucial question became: Did the resurrection of Jesus happen?

And my answer: Of course not. Why would it? Don’t be a credulous nincompoop. People don’t just get up from being totally dead. When has that ever happened in all of human experience? Never. So if someone wants to convince me that it really happened, thry’re going to need better evidence than copies of documents. And as Sam Harris points out, that’s all we got.

Bible scholars agree that the first gospels were written decades after the life of Jesus. Decades.

And of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts which have thousands — literally thousands — of descrepancies between them, many of which show signs of later interpolation, which is to say that people added passages that then became part of the canon. There are whole books of the canon, like the book of Revelation, which for hundreds of years were not included because they were deemed false gospel. There are other whole books, like the Shepherd of Hermas, which you probably haven’t heard of, but for centuries it was considered part of the canon, and then was later jettisoned as false gospel.

Generations of Christians lived and died being guided by gospel that is now deemed both incomplete and mistaken. Think about that. This process, this all too human process of cobbling together the supposed authoritative word of god is a very precarious basis to assert the claims of Christianity. But the truth is, even if we had multiple contemporaneaus claims of the miracles of Jesus this would not be good enough. Because miracle stories abound even in the 21st century. The devotees of the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba ascribe all of the miracles of Jesus to him. He reads minds, he fortells the future, he heals, he raises the dead, he was born of a virgin. Sathya Sai Baba is not a fringe figure. You may not have heard of him, but they had a birthday party for him a few years ago and a million people showed up. There are vast numbers of people that think he is a living god.

So Christianity is predicated on the claim that miracle stories — exactly of the kind that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba — become especially credible when you place them in a pre-scientific religious context of the first century roman empire, decades after their supposed occurance, as attested to by copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek and largely discrepant manuscripts. We have Sathya Sai Baba’s miracle stories attested to by thousands upon thousands of living eye witnesses and they don’t even merit an hour on cable television. And, yet, you put a few miracle stories in an ancient book and half the people on Earth think it a legitimate project to organize their lives around. Does anyone else see a problem with that?

Actually, yes, I do.

Speaking of “largely discrepant manuscripts”, we’re going to see how the stories in the gospels are hopelessly confused as to the details of the resurrection. Here’s a helpful infographic.

This was God’s opportunity to report the facts of the case, and it resembles nothing more than a mishmash of human fabrication.

So how does Christianity paper over this? The surprising answer: By expecting you not to demand any evidence for its claims, and by telling you that you’ll be blessed if you believe without evidence. How about that?

Main ideas for this lesson

Rolling away the stone?

Let’s start at the beginning: In the morning, two Marys (and a Salome, if you believe Mark) were heading to the tomb.

Matthew 28:1 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Other Mary: Why do I have to be ‘other Mary’?
Mary: You’re not married to Jesus.
Other Mary: Well, you’re not married to Jesus!
Mary: (silence)

I don’t know what they thought they were going to do; there was supposed to be a huge stone there. But then Matthew reports a second huge earthquake that no one else noticed, and an angel rolls away the stone.

Matthew 28:2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.

Already we have a fail. Round tomb stones weren’t really a thing at the time. They wouldn’t be popular until about 70 CE, which supports the idea that this was a later addition. Richard Carrier notes:

There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).


Jesus then appears to different people in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. Rather than recount it, I refer to this portion of our infographic.

If that’s not enough for you, I have this PDF file from my good friend David Austin. (He should get a blog.) Click the image to download a copy for yourself.

Thomas and doubt

Jesus appears to the rest of the apostles. And since it’s John, notice the “fear of teh Jooz”. He’s always on about the Jews.

John 20:19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

Good so far, except Thomas wasn’t there. And he won’t believe it until he sees it.

John 20:24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Good on him. He’s demanding the kind of evidence that’s required to support a claim. That’s what a person should do.

John 20:26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
20:27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.
20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God.

Thomas believes, but at least he’s doing it right. He wants evidence, he gets it, and he changes his mind.

But now here’s Jesus with the kicker.

John 20:29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Here we have it, folks. This is the one that I count as the worst verse in scripture. Jesus is saying that evidence is fine, but no evidence is just as good. Maybe even better.

By insisting that believing without evidence is somehow on a par with believing with evidence, Jesus takes the metric that rational people use to evaluate claims, and turns it on its head. If we all did this, there’s no limit to the mutually exclusive and contradictory claims we could believe. To accept this way of thinking is to abandon reason.

Imagine how irresponsible it is for a god to demand this. Here we are in our short lives, having to choose the right religion or philosophy or story among tens of thousands, and if you get it wrong, it’s no salvation for you. Those are serious consequences (which God has set out). A responsible parent would spell out the evidence for his gospel fairly clearly. God doesn’t do that. Instead, he expects you to pick one without adequate reasons, and hope you got it right. To be fair, he also is supposed to give out feelings, the nature of which can easily be misunderstood, and which are experienced by followers of all religions. Otherwise, good luck.

This theme of not needing evidence is often taken up by believers I’ve met. When I ask for evidence, they never provide it. Instead, they make excuses for why I shouldn’t expect evidence, or they tell me why I should accept substitutes for evidence (like feelings). Strangely, they don’t seem to see how this is an evasion of the responsibility to back up what they say.

Read this excerpt from The Ethics of Belief, written by William K. Clifford in 1877

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it — the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

Ask: How does the LDS Church encourage people to “avoid the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss” church doctrines?
Answers: By avoiding material that is not “inspiring”, and by labelling books and people who tell the truth about the church as “anti-Mormon”.

Ask: How is the refusing to confront doubts “one long sin against mankind”?
Answer: One of the most important things we can do in life is to advance our collective knowledge. Doing this helps create technologies that can cure illness, sustain life, and improve the quality of living. But this only works if we make reality the metric against which we compare other ideas. Accepting false beliefs means that we stop advancing, and start retreating, and this helps humankind not at all.

I’d like to take a moment and bear my testimony of doubt. Doubt is amazing! Doubt has helped me figure out what’s true and what’s false far better than faith can. Having faith just confirms what you believe, whether it’s right or not. It’s like a compass that always points in the way you’re going. What good is that? It might be okay if you’re trying to feel good about your beliefs, but if you’re trying to find out what’s true, it’s no use at all.

By contrast, doubt won’t hurt true claims (as long as you understand the kind of evidence required to establish a claim). However, it’s lethal to false ones.

Why’s it have to be snakes?

Jesus eventually jet-packed back up to heaven, but before he did, he left this instruction:

Mark 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
16:17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
16:18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Poison aside, let’s talk about the snakes. This scripture has resulted in generations of pastors dying in snake-handling churches of the American South.

Snake-handling preacher Cody Coots got scared when the 6-foot long rattler bit his right hand early Monday.

Just three months ago, his father, Jamie Coots, died within minutes of being bitten by a rattlesnake during a service at his Middlesboro church.

The loss was still fresh for his family and friends, and Cody Coots, who took over for his father, had just been bitten by an even bigger rattler.

At first, “All I could think about — am I going to make it?” Coots said.

Jamie Coots, 42, was handling three rattlesnakes during a Saturday-night service at the church when one bit him on the right hand. Jamie Coots had survived more than half a dozen previous bites, but that night the venom quickly overwhelmed him.

His legs buckled in the bathroom at the church after he murmured “Sweet Jesus,” said Andrew Hamblin, a snake-handling minister from Tennessee who was with him.

People at the church rushed Coots home. He had made clear earlier that he did not want medical attention for a bite; his family sent an ambulance crew away as believers prayed over him.

A deputy coroner pronounced Coots dead about 90 minutes after he was bitten.

This raises all kinds of questions for me.

  • When someone dies from a snake bite in these churches, why don’t they take it as a sign of the victim’s lack of faith?
  • Why do they pray for the person to get better? Is that supposed to be some kind of Plan B, in case of lack of faith?
  • And where are all the poison-drinking churches? Did they used to exist, but poison worked more reliably than snakes?

Then there’s this quote:

If you don’t understand it, don’t knock it,” said Hamblin, who was close to Coots. “We adhere to the literal interpretation of the Gospel.”

I think I do understand it. They believe the Bible, and that is a terrible and costly mistake. However, unlike most believers, they take the claims of the Bible seriously. Well, one of them.

NT Lesson 7 (Miracles)

“[He] Took Our Infirmities, and Bare Our Sicknesses”

Mark 1–2; 4:35–41; 5; Luke 7:11–17

LDS manual: here


To show that science has actually accomplished everything Jesus is claimed to have done, but much better and for more people.


Jesus is really getting into the miracles in this lesson. Here’s what he’s been up to.

  • Jesus casts out devils.

In Mark 5, Jesus finds a man who seems to be some kind of container for unclean spirits. Jesus casts them out, but in a compassionate gesture, allows them to inhabit a herd of swine. The pigs have other ideas, and drown themselves. That’s very sad, isn’t it? Let’s imagine another ending for the piggies:

  • Jesus heals the sick and raises the dead
  • Jesus walks on water

Look out, Jesus!

Main ideas for this lesson

The Bible is wrong about unclean spirits

There are lots of exorcisms in this reading.

Luke 4:33 And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice,
4:34 Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God.
4:35 And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not.
4:36 And they were all amazed, and spake among themselves, saying, What a word is this! for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.

Luke 4:40 Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them.
4:41 And devils also came out of many, crying out, and saying, Thou art Christ the Son of God. And he rebuking them suffered them not to speak: for they knew that he was Christ.

And of course, the pig episode.

The Bible teaches that mental illness is caused by demons. And, as with so many things in the Bible, it’s unhelpfully and inexcusably wrong. How easy would it have been for Jesus to point out the real causes of mental illness — psychology, biology, and genetics? Blaming it on malevolent supernatural agents is the kind of thing that pre-scientific people would have come up with.

Thankfully, most Latter-day Saints don’t seem to believe in demonic possession anymore. I still remember one time in church, where a woman had a rather violent psychotic episode in the middle of sacrament meeting. I wonder why no one performed an exorcism — perhaps no one in attendance had the experience. Instead, health services were called, the women was collected, and then jittery ward members — in an adult meeting and a separate youth meeting — were counselled by a psychiatrist and a psychologist who happened to be ward members. It was really handled very well, and all without casting out devils.

In some other Christian churches, though, exorcisms are de rigueur. Benny Hinn makes a good living out of it.

They’re so easy, even a child could do one.

While this ritual seems silly to me, the participants sure do seem to think something real is happening to them. But what’s really going on here? The psychological explanation is that people undergoing an exorcism are conforming to expectations about what is supposed to happen in an exorcism, and how the participants are supposed to behave.

Exorcisms tend to follow a predictable path. The apparent victim of possession’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, perhaps even violent, until the exorcist casts the demonic spirit out. “Possessed” people may speak in tongues, vomit, become violently ill, or harm themselves. And while these behaviors might seem shocking, they can be easily explained.

Mental issues can cause strange behavior, and people tend to conform to expectations. This means a person experiencing an exorcism is more likely to act in ways he or she has heard of others behaving during exorcisms. Exorcisms sometimes also involve the use of potions, drugs, or fasting, each of which can induce violent illness and strange behavior. Starvation can affect brain function, and the stress of an exorcism may radically alter behavior.

In other words, both exorcist and exorcee are both playing a role. And in some cases, participants can break out of the role at inappropriate times.

“Hang on, it’s the Prince of Darkness; I gotta take this.”

And now for the part that’s not so funny: exorcisms do a lot of harm, and in some cases people get killed. Try reading this very long list of people (especially children) murdered by parents and others who believed they were possessed.

Evelyn Vasquez
Age: 6
The child had a history of sleepwalking. Her mother confessed to brutally stabbing her to death because she believe she was possessed by the devil. She was charged with murder.

Amora Bain Carson
Age: 13 months
They believed the child was possessed and tried to rid her of demons. They allegedly bludgeoned her and bit her more than 20 times. She died. Her mother and a man were arrested and held on $2 million bond.

Dane Gibson
Age: 12
After attending a fundamentalist church, they became convinced they were surrounded by demons. The boy had been held down in the yard as part of an exorcism. They were found not guilty of murder.

And on and on and on and on and on. Exorcism is a barbaric practice that has no basis in fact, and a book that claims to come from the all-knowing creator of the universe ought to reflect this.


Healings are another dodgy area. Jesus was supposed to have healed a few people of blindness and illnesses. The effect of this on us today in practical terms is about nil. Diseases in our time don’t seem amenable to healing.

Also, some types of healings never occur at Lourdes, as indicated by the comment of French writer Anatole France. On a visit to the shrine, seeing the discarded canes and crutches, he exclaimed, “What, what, no wooden legs???” 

Ask: Why won’t God heal amputees?

But then some people claim that God has indeed healed people of their illnesses, and that this is evidence of God’s existence, love, and what have you. In fact, this really makes the case for God’s goodness even more problematic, not less. If God really is healing various individuals in piecemeal fashion, without addressing the underlying causes of disease and while allowing others to languish and die, then this calls God’s goodness even more into question. Why is he so capricious about who he heals? Why does he choose not to heal the rest, when he could? (What are they, chopped liver?) How does this relate to God not being “a respecter of persons”?

Watch the video for “Thank You, God” by Tim Minchin. In this video, Tim recounts the story of Sam’s mum, who allegedly got God to heal her cataracts.

Ask: What are some other explanations for Sam’s mum’s healing that Minchin mentions? Make a list. How many times can you say ‘Minchin mentions’ really fast?
If God is healing relatively well-off Westerners, then what are some illnesses God is ignoring? Why would he do that?

As with exorcisms, there’s a dark side to faith healing. News reports seem to bring a steady stream of stories of parents who kill their children by denying them medical care in the belief that God will heal them through prayer. Here’s a smattering of recent stories, and I didn’t even have to try very hard to find them.

Faith-Healing Churches Linked to 2 Dozen Child Deaths
Living on a Prayer: Why Does God Kill So Many Children in Idaho?
Faith-Healing Parents Jailed After Second Child’s Death
Big list on HuffPo

Of course, the believer could always argue that someone wasn’t healed because they didn’t have enough faith. It’s a common enough dodge; even Pat Robertson has engaged in it.

But saying that the sufferer didn’t have enough faith is really just a way of blaming the victim. It allows people to believe that faith healing is real, even when it plainly doesn’t work.

Supernaturalism is terrible at curing illness, but science has done a great job. Let’s see the totals for leprosy.

Take a look at this video of a man who is getting his life and his autonomy back by the use of robotic arms that he can control with his thoughts. This is amazing. I see it as nothing less than new-testamental, in a way that the New Testament can’t match. This, after all, is publicly verifiable.

Some people say God is responsible for medical progress. Isn’t it great of God to heal people at exactly the same time that scientists work out how to treat disease? Unless it’s really medical science doing it all, which seems to be a much more straightforward explanation.

We still have a lot to learn about the body, and progress is sometimes frustratingly slow. But in the area of human health, medical science is doing the job that God has failed to do.

Additional lesson ideas

No exorcisms in John

When you read the book of John, guess what you never see? You never see any exorcisms or cases of demonic possession. The reason is a bit of a mystery; Twelftree cites “theological considerations” which I assume means he thinks some compiler left it out on purpose. Or perhaps the synoptic texts (Matthew, Mark, Luke) just come from a different tradition that John.

For whatever reason, it’s yet another way in which the gospels tell widely varying stories about Jesus, and this should cause the reader to regard these fragmentary accounts with skepticism.

Walking on water

This miracle has been difficult to duplicate by spiritual means. Here’s a story that’s both sad and hilarious. Sadlarious.

Nigerian Pastor Tries To Walk On Water Like Jesus, Then Drowns In Front Of His Congregation
Pastor Franck Kabele, 35, told his congregation that he was capable of reenacting the very miracles of Jesus Christ.  He decided to make it clear through way of demonstration on Gabon’s beach in the capital city of Libreville.
Referencing Matthew 14:22-33, Kabele said that he received a revelation which told him that with enough faith he could achieve what Jesus was able to.
According to an eyewitness, Kabele took his congregation out to the beach.  He told them that he would cross the Kombo estuary by foot, which is normally a 20 minute boat ride.
Sadly by the second step into the water Kabele found himself completely submerged.  He never returned.

I guess he didn’t have enough faith.

On the other hand, it is possible to duplicate the feat by non-scientific means, at least well enough to fool you and me. Here’s illusionist Criss Angel doing it.

Try one of the YouTube suggested links for an explanation of how he does it.

And of course, with a little corn starch, you can walk across a non-Newtonian fluid.


Thank you for reading this week’s lesson. To finish our demonic theme, let’s have a closing hymn.

See you next week.

OT Lesson 30 (Temple)

“Come to the House of the Lord”

2 Chronicles 29–30; 32; 34

LDS manual: here


This lesson focuses on temple worship, and just as it’s hard to see the point of the very repetitive endowment ceremony, so it is with this week’s reading. Basically, it’s still Jehovah / Jesus being okay with all kinds of murder and warfare, but punishing people for the relatively trivial act of not being sufficiently worshipful to him.

He kills king Jehoram by what must have been an agonising illness.

21:14 Behold, with a great plague will the LORD smite thy people, and thy children, and thy wives, and all thy goods:
21:15 And thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day.

21:19 And it came to pass, that in process of time, after the end of two years, his bowels fell out by reason of his sickness: so he died of sore diseases. And his people made no burning for him, like the burning of his fathers.

He gives up on his followers.

24:20 And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the LORD, that ye cannot prosper? because ye have forsaken the LORD, he hath also forsaken you.

Here’s an illustrative example. King Amaziah is considered one of the good kings.

25:1 Amaziah was twenty and five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem.
25:2 And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, but not with a perfect heart.

He kills ten thousand people. Then he throws ten thousand more over a cliff, and Jehovah doesn’t bat an eye.

25:11 And Amaziah strengthened himself, and led forth his people, and went to the valley of salt, and smote of the children of Seir ten thousand.
25:12 And other ten thousand left alive did the children of Judah carry away captive, and brought them unto the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they all were broken in pieces.

Wait — if it’s not the murders, what is it that gets Jehovah’s dander up? Burning incense to another god. Now God’s all like: whoa, whoa!

25:14 Now it came to pass, after that Amaziah was come from the slaughter of the Edomites, that he brought the gods of the children of Seir, and set them up to be his gods, and bowed down himself before them, and burned incense unto them.
25:15 Wherefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Amaziah, and he sent unto him a prophet, which said unto him, Why hast thou sought after the gods of the people, which could not deliver their own people out of thine hand?
25:16 And it came to pass, as he talked with him, that the king said unto him, Art thou made of the king’s counsel? forbear; why shouldest thou be smitten? Then the prophet forbare, and said, I know that God hath determined to destroy thee, because thou hast done this, and hast not hearkened unto my counsel.

Could we please please please remember this when Christians say that God is all about love love love, and how he loves everybody? According to the Bible, he’s really all about self-preservation, humans be damned.

Uzziah in chapter 26:3–21 is really the same story. He kills loads of people, and God helps him do it.

26:3 Sixteen years old was Uzziah when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name also was Jecoliah of Jerusalem.
26:4 And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah did.
26:5 And he sought God in the days of Zechariah, who had understanding in the visions of God: and as long as he sought the LORD, God made him to prosper.
26:6 And he went forth and warred against the Philistines, and brake down the wall of Gath, and the wall of Jabneh, and the wall of Ashdod, and built cities about Ashdod, and among the Philistines.
26:7 And God helped him against the Philistines, and against the Arabians that dwelt in Gurbaal, and the Mehunims.

But then he burns incense — and this time it’s to the right god, but in the wrong way! — and God gives him leprosy.

26:16 But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense.
26:17 And Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him fourscore priests of the LORD, that were valiant men:
26:18 And they withstood Uzziah the king, and said unto him, It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the LORD, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense: go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed; neither shall it be for thine honour from the LORD God.
26:19 Then Uzziah was wroth, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense: and while he was wroth with the priests, the leprosy even rose up in his forehead before the priests in the house of the LORD, from beside the incense altar.
26:20 And Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked upon him, and, behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out from thence; yea, himself hasted also to go out, because the LORD had smitten him.
26:21 And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD: and Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.

It seems like nothing good happens to people who fall in with this god. Best advised to stay away.

But the real story for this lesson is the rebuilding of the temple by king Hezekiah. He repairs the place…

29:1 Hezekiah began to reign when he was five and twenty years old, and he reigned nine and twenty years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Abijah, the daughter of Zechariah.
29:2 And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done.
29:3 He in the first year of his reign, in the first month, opened the doors of the house of the LORD, and repaired them.

and restarts temple worship. Sounds like everyone’s really stoked about it.

30:25 And all the congregation of Judah, with the priests and the Levites, and all the congregation that came out of Israel, and the strangers that came out of the land of Israel, and that dwelt in Judah, rejoiced.
30:26 So there was great joy in Jerusalem: for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there was not the like in Jerusalem.

So stoked that they engage in the destruction of the religious traditions of their neighbours, which seems to be the inevitable consequence of religious zeal.

31:1 Now when all this was finished, all Israel that were present went out to the cities of Judah, and brake the images in pieces, and cut down the groves, and threw down the high places and the altars out of all Judah and Benjamin, in Ephraim also and Manasseh, until they had utterly destroyed them all. Then all the children of Israel returned, every man to his possession, into their own cities.

Later, Josiah does the same thing, but he engages in human sacrifice. (Wait — do competing priests count as ‘human’?) Rather chillingly, the Bible refers to this as an act of ‘cleansing’.

34:1 Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem one and thirty years.
34:2 And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined neither to the right hand, nor to the left.
34:3 For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his father: and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem from the high places, and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images.
34:4 And they brake down the altars of Baalim in his presence; and the images, that were on high above them, he cut down; and the groves, and the carved images, and the molten images, he brake in pieces, and made dust of them, and strowed it upon the graves of them that had sacrificed unto them.
34:5 And he burnt the bones of the priests upon their altars, and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem.

Main points from this lesson

“A credit card with the Lord”

The real lesson manual contains an excerpt of a Gordon B. Hinckley in which he compares a credit card and a temple recommend.

“I hold before you two credit cards. Most of you are familiar with cards such as these.

“The first is a bank credit card. It permits me to secure merchandise on credit and then pay for my purchases at one time. It is a valuable thing and something to be safeguarded. If stolen and dishonestly used, it could cause me great loss and perhaps considerable embarrassment. In accepting it from my bank, I enter into a contract and become bound by obligations and agreements. In accepting the card, I agree to meet the conditions under which it was issued.

“It is issued for one year only and must be reissued each year if I am to enjoy the privileges afforded by it. It is not really mine. The bank retains ownership. If I fail in my required performance, then the bank may shut off the credit and repossess the card.

“The other card which I have is what we call a temple recommend. It represents a credit card with the Lord, making available to me many of His greatest gifts. The bank card is concerned with things of the world, the recommend with things of God.”

If it was his own credit card, it was probably one of those black ones that comes with a concierge. Bonus points to GBH for using an attention-holding prop, but this is a comparison he should have avoided. For one thing, the explicit money/temple link is very appropriate and very unflattering. For another, credit cards are way better.

Top ten ways a credit card is better than a temple recommend

10. Credit cards can be used to purchase goods and services. A temple recommend can only be used to get into a long and boring religious service, or in Utah County, to get out of a speeding ticket (see You know you were born in Utah County… #10).

9. Both charge high rates of interest. But at least you can avoid paying credit card fees if you pay in time. Tithing is not as easy to avoid.

8. A credit card can put you in debt to a multi-national corporation that will keep you paying all you have for the rest of your life — but only if you use it very foolishly. With a temple recommend, this is its normal and intended purpose.

7. Some credit cards include frequent flyer points. Temple recommends just include creepy old guys touching you (but at least now you’re not naked).

6. Credit cards: rugged plastic with a cool hologram. Temple recommends: flimsy paper with a barcode.

5. Banks are required to let you know the rules surrounding the use of your credit cards. Members of the church do not have access to the Church Handbook of Instructions (leaked copies: Scan Text).

4. You can use credit cards to see more than one movie.

3. When they change the terms of your credit card, they have to send you a notice. When they change the temple ceremony, they do it quietly, and never speak a word about it. Then people claim that the earlier terms never existed.

2. Credit cards renew pretty much automatically. Temple recommends require you to have a tedious interview every year with some guy about your beliefs, associations, and actions.

1. If you cut up your credit card, no one comes to repossess your family for eternity.

That last one is the sticking point. Some people would pay anything to be with their family for eternity. And if you think the church has the authority to keep you together — and, more importantly, keep you apart — and this is conditional on temple attendance, AND you have to pay the church to go to the temple… well, it’s pretty clear that this is financial coercion. This isn’t a covenant freely entered into. This is a hostage situation. What the LDS Church does is something close to racketeering. “Nice family; shame if something was to happen to it.” It’s why I say that ‘eternal families’ is the most evil doctrine of the entire LDS Church. Once you think they have your family, there’s nothing you won’t do for them.

What the temple was like for me

I went to the temple for the first time in September 1987, before the 1990 changes. (New name: Titus.) That means I still remember the penalties. It was an odd experience to be there with my Mom and Dad and several other family members, all pantomiming our murders, with our throats slit, and our bowels disemboweled if we were to reveal the tokens and signs. (The penalties used to be even more graphic.) And then walking around in the Celestial Room wearing those odd outfits with my family. I imagine that if I’d gone through on my own, I would have NOPED out of there. However, seeing my family doing the ritual, and them feeling so happy that I’d done it too, went a long way towards reassuring me. As intended, I’m sure.

One thing about my brain that I’ve learned to live with is that I always have a song in my mind. I always have, for as long as I can remember. And the odd thing is that as I go through my day, I’ll find that the song might have lyrics that are somehow fitting to the situation. I can’t help it; I guess my brain is always free-associating. I’ll think: why this song? And then I’ll sort through the lyrics and find a phrase that someone just said or that seems appropriate to what’s happening. For example, when my dear Uncle Richard told me he was going deaf, and how painful this was for him, I noticed that the song on my iBrain during the whole conversation was Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. The iBrain can be cruel that way.

This musical tendency made for some interesting musical accompaniments during temple ceremonies. Imagine me, a TBM, believing and trying to have a good temple experience, and this is the song for the entire endowment.

Or this one — a real blast from the 80s.

I still like this song in particular; it’s a good way of looking at groups that stress mental conformity. But at the time, these songs were unwelcome. And I couldn’t seem to stop them. What was it about the temple — or about me — that made these songs come up, and not something more happy and inspiring? Looking back, I think my brain knew more than I did.

As a believer, I always approached the temple in kind of a Zen way: yes, it was repetitive, but maybe there was something to be gained by going through the ritual. And I felt certain that there were deeper things in the temple that could only be understood by going through the ritual over and over. I remember hearing Spencer W. Kimball’s statement (also related by a visitor to this page) that he had only just started to understand the temple. Surely if I just continued and “endured to the end”, I would grasp the great truths at the heart of the endowment.

And then after more years of activity in the church, after years of conference talks, recycling through the same Sunday School lessons a few times, and above all temple sessions, I began to realise that there really wasn’t anything more. The whole process of church activity seemed characterised by a kind of intellectual vapidity that wasn’t just me. It was endemic to a process in which questions had no good way of being answered, and in fact could never really be answered.

By contrast, I was at this time learning about science and skepticism, and I was amazed that there was so much that could be learned about this vast universe through natural means. While the people who used supernatural means were getting it more and more obviously wrong, people doing science were getting it right. Valuing the scientific method was important to my process of rejecting supernaturalism, religion, and mysticism. Without that, I might still be stuck in the same old rituals. The temple might have become my cage.

The real manual asks:

Once we have made these covenants, why is it important that we return to the temple as often as possible?

Ask: Why would the church say it’s important to keep doing session after session?
My answer today is that

  • it’s an investment in time that members will be less willing to dump the more time is invested
  • it’s a way of making the church seem normal and the real world seem less normal, and the longer you do it, the more normal it seems

Got any other ideas? Why would this sleepy ritual become the focal point of Mormon worship? Leave your ideas in comments.

Additional teaching ideas

The return of really old people

We haven’t seen any absurdly superannuated people for a while, but here’s one.

24:15 But Jehoiada waxed old, and was full of days when he died; an hundred and thirty years old was he when he died.

I think attributing great age to someone is just how people say that the person was a great hero. So take a guess whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. Yup, he’s a good guy. If he’d done anything morally questionable, Jehovah / Jesus would have killed him. The Old Testament is kind of like a horror movie in that way.

Joseph Smith taught that animal sacrifice would happen again

Animal sacrifice was a part of temple worship for ancient Judah.

29:32 And the number of the burnt offerings, which the congregation brought, was threescore and ten bullocks, an hundred rams, and two hundred lambs: all these were for a burnt offering to the LORD.
29:33 And the consecrated things were six hundred oxen and three thousand sheep.

That’s a lot of animals.

Unsurprisingly, the real lesson manual says that animals are no longer sacrificed in temples:

Explain that although some of the practices in the temple of ancient Israel were different from what we do in latter-day temples (for example, we do not sacrifice animals or burn candles and incense in latter-day temples), the purposes of ancient temples and latter-day temples are the same: to prepare us to come into the presence of the Lord and be like him.

However, rather surprisingly, Joseph Smith taught that animal sacrifice would return as part of the restitution of all things.

Words of Oliver B. Huntington: I heard the Prophet reply to the question: “Will there ever be any more offering of sheep and heifers and bullocks upon altars, as used to be required of Israel?”
He said: “Yes, there will; for there were never any rites, ordinances of laws in the priesthood of any gospel dispensation upon this earth but what will have to be finished and perfected in this last dispensation of time — the dispensation of all dispensations.”

Now that would be interesting! No one would be sleeping through an endowment, I assure you. But what about all that carpet?

It shouldn’t need to be said that putting your sins onto animals and killing them instead is an evasion of responsibility. And killing an animal or a person to show a god that you really really like him or that you’re very grateful is unnecessary, if he’s all-knowing.

* * *

Sorry there aren’t any funny memes or video for this lesson; Kings and Chronicles are tough chapters. But we’re getting into some good stuff. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are next! And then it’s all the psycho minor prophets. You’re going to love ’em. See you next week!

OT Lesson 26 (Solomon)

King Solomon: Man of Wisdom, Man of Foolishness

1 Kings 3; 5–11

LDS manual: here



This chapter certainly starts off with a bang: Kind David is old and cold, so they throw a girl into bed with him. Her name is Abishag, or as it is sometimes rendered — rather amusingly, given the situation — Avishag.

1 Kings 1:1 Now king David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat.
1:2 Wherefore his servants said unto him, Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.
1:3 So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
1:4 And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not.

Davi e Abisag by Perdo Américo, 1879

All kinds of questions here. What does cherishing involve? Was Abishag kind of a hot name for a girl back then? Was the past tense of get really gat?

But we do know that the word shunamitism derives from this practice, meaning ‘throwing a young girl into bed with an old man to extend his life’. Believe it or not, it was encouraged in the 1800s.

In the 17th century, Francis Bacon approved King David’s practice, suggesting, however, that puppies might serve as well as young virgins.

Puppies? Forgive me, but this — while very cute — hardly seems an appropriate substitute. On the other hand, let’s have a moment of sympathy for this Shunammite girl, tossed into bed with a dusty old man. She probably didn’t want to be there.

Succession woes

The young Abishag, for her part, finds herself at the centre of a succession struggle, wonderfully summarised here.

David’s son Adonijah wants to be king after David dies, but Bathsheba wants the throne for Solomon. The prophet Nathan’s on board — Adonijah’s not that into him. So Bathsheba and Nathan bring David around.

1 Kings 1:29 And the king sware, and said, As the LORD liveth, that hath redeemed my soul out of all distress,
1:30 Even as I sware unto thee by the LORD God of Israel, saying, Assuredly Solomon thy son shall reign after me, and he shall sit upon my throne in my stead; even so will I certainly do this day.

Meanwhile, Adonijah and his friends is celebrating his accession to the throne.

1 Kings 1:9 And Adonijah slew sheep and oxen and fat cattle by the stone of Zoheleth, which is by Enrogel, and called all his brethren the king’s sons, and all the men of Judah the king’s servants:

But when they hear the news that David has backed Solomon, all of Adonijah’s friends bail, like Bob Alexander’s campaign event at the end of the movie Dave.

1 Kings 1:49 And all the guests that were with Adonijah were afraid, and rose up, and went every man his way.

Adonijah knows he’s in trouble, so he heads to the temple and grabs the horns of the altar. That’s a safe zone.

1 Kings 1:50 And Adonijah feared because of Solomon, and arose, and went, and caught hold on the horns of the altar.

Solomon tells him to knock it off; he’s not going to kill him.

1 Kings 1:52 And Solomon said, If he will shew himself a worthy man, there shall not an hair of him fall to the earth: but if wickedness shall be found in him, he shall die.

Now you’d think Adonijah would lie low after this, but no, he decides he wants to marry Abishag the Royal Hottie.

1 Kings 2:17 And [Adonijah] said, Speak, I pray thee, unto Solomon the king, (for he will not say thee nay,) that he give me Abishag the Shunammite to wife.

Even Bathsheba thinks this is uncontroversial.

1 Kings 2:18 And Bathsheba said, Well; I will speak for thee unto the king.

But Solomon is a little smarter than your average bear, and sees this as a power play. If Adonijah marries Abishag, who was in a way the last partner David had, it could be a claim to his legitimacy to the throne. Sorry, Adonijah, but you have played the game of thrones badly.

1 Kings 2:23 Then king Solomon sware by the LORD, saying, God do so to me, and more also, if Adonijah have not spoken this word against his own life.
2:24 Now therefore, as the LORD liveth, which hath established me, and set me on the throne of David my father, and who hath made me an house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this day.
2:25 And king Solomon sent by the hand of Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he fell upon him that he died.

In killing Adonijah, Solomon is only following in the ways of his father David, who used his last moments to settle some old scores. He commands Solomon to kill Joab and Shimei.

1 Kings 2:1 Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying,
2:2 I go the way of all the earth: be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man;

2:5 Moreover thou knowest also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Abner the son of Ner, and unto Amasa the son of Jether, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet.
2:6 Do therefore according to thy wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace.

2:8 And, behold, thou hast with thee Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite of Bahurim, which cursed me with a grievous curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim: but he came down to meet me at Jordan, and I sware to him by the LORD, saying, I will not put thee to death with the sword.
2:9 Now therefore hold him not guiltless: for thou art a wise man, and knowest what thou oughtest to do unto him; but his hoar head bring thou down to the grave with blood.

Dispute over a baby

This is the story everyone’s familiar with, but even my highly educated never-Mo girlfriend/wife had never heard it! So here it is.

Two women — sex workers — live together and have a baby each. In the night, one baby dies, and so now both are claiming the same live baby. Solomon considers, and instructs a nearby minion to cleave the living baby in twain, and distribute half to each women. Before the axeman can carry out this eminently fair proposition, one of the women bursts out, telling Solomon to keep the baby alive and to give it to the other woman.

1 Kings 3:26 Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.

King Solomon halts the proceedings, and delivers the baby to the mum that wanted to keep it alive.

1 Kings 3:27 Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.

Everyone’s really impressed.

1 Kings 3:28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

It’s even more impressive when you realise that it doesn’t matter if the woman was the real mother. The child would do best with whichever woman wanted it to be alive, regardless of maternity.

Since I can never resist a bit of Twain, here’s Huckleberry Finn and Jim arguing over this story. Please excuse the n-word as a product of language use at the time.

“WELL, den! Warn’ dat de beatenes’ notion in de worl’? You jes’ take en look at it a minute. Dah’s de stump, dah — dat’s one er de women; heah’s you — dat’s de yuther one; I’s Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill’s de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun’ mongs’ de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill DO b’long to, en han’ it over to de right one, all safe en soun’, de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in TWO, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat’s de way Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what’s de use er dat half a bill? — can’t buy noth’n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’ give a dern for a million un um.”

“But hang it, Jim, you’ve clean missed the point — blame it, you’ve missed it a thousand mile.”

“Who? Me? Go ‘long. Doan’ talk to me ’bout yo’ pints. I reck’n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain’ no sense in sich doin’s as dat. De ‘spute warn’t ’bout a half a chile, de ‘spute was ’bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ‘spute ’bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain. Doan’ talk to me ’bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back.”

“But I tell you you don’t get the point.”

“Blame de point! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de REAL pint is down furder — it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; he can’t ‘ford it. HE know how to value ’em. But you take a man dat’s got ’bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. HE as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. A chile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”

I never see such a nigger. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn’t no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any nigger I ever see.

The temple is built and dedicated

Solomon wants to build a temple. This is a positive sign: instead of war and conquest, Solomon is channeling the Israelites’ efforts into architecture. Not only would this be very beautiful, but also a sign of stability besides.

1 Kings 5:2 And Solomon sent to Hiram, saying,
5:3 Thou knowest how that David my father could not build an house unto the name of the LORD his God for the wars which were about him on every side, until the LORD put them under the soles of his feet.
5:4 But now the LORD my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil occurrent.
5:5 And, behold, I purpose to build an house unto the name of the LORD my God, as the LORD spake unto David my father, saying, Thy son, whom I will set upon thy throne in thy room, he shall build an house unto my name.

Old habits die hard, though; the opening ceremony involved the slaughter of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. How long would that have taken‽

1 Kings 8:63 And Solomon offered a sacrifice of peace offerings, which he offered unto the LORD, two and twenty thousand oxen, and an hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the children of Israel dedicated the house of the LORD.

Whatever. I’m just glad that Mormons don’t sacrifice animals anymore. Instead, they just wave handkerchiefs around in an awkward and slightly dorky way.

Solomon marries foreign women

There has to be some conflict here, and it relates to Solomon’s choice of wives.

1 Kings 11:1 But king Solomon loved many strange women, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites:
11:2 Of the nations concerning which the LORD said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods: Solomon clave unto these in love.

That sounds great. That would have meant that the formerly warring kingdoms were integrating. But Jehovah/Jesus isn’t happy with that. He sees his monotheistic hold slipping away.

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

The real lesson manual chastises Solomon for the sin of — having lots of wives? no — interfaith marriage, equating it with ‘turning away from God’.

How did Solomon’s choice of wives show that he had turned away from God? (See 1 Kings 11:1–2. He married out of the covenant.)

Ask: How do members in part-member families feel about this?

Main points from this lesson

Did Solomon’s temple exist?

We’ve seen a bit of a pattern here in the Old Testament. We read about the Flood — and then see that there’s no evidence for it. We read about the Exodus — and then find that there’s no evidence that the Hebrews were ever in Egypt at all.

And by the way, while I’m thinking of it, did you catch this bit of the church’s terrible new Book of Abraham essay?

But even this evidence of ancient origins, substantial though it may be, cannot prove the truthfulness of the book of Abraham any more than archaeological evidence can prove the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt or the Resurrection of the Son of God.

Comparing the Book of Abraham with two other fictitious events. That’s cute.

Anyway, while it may have been a bit of shock to find that these Bible stories have no evidentiary basis, it’s equally surprising to find that the trail of evidence never really gets started the further you go. And so it is with Solomon’s temple. The book of 1 Kings was written way after the fact — about 400 years after the temple was allegedly built — and no evidence for it exists.

Could Solomon’s temple have existed anyway? Well, much of 1 Kings is taken up with very specific detail that gives the whole thing an air of verisimilitude. Then again, fiction can be very detailed. Some works of fiction even come with their own constructed languages (which you can hear me talking about in Episodes 161 and 162 of my language podcast Talk the Talk).

Skeptic Brian Dunning, for his part, feels that we should believe the Solomon’s temple story until it’s disconfirmed

Since we can’t verify that the temple existed, we certainly can’t say that the Holy of Holies did, and we can’t say that there was an Ark inside of it. However, there is a wealth of non-empirical evidence supporting the idea that Solomon, his temple, and the Ark within probably did exist. Historians going back through ancient Rome, such as Josephus, and ancient Greece, such as Herodotus, have all provided accounts that are generally consistent with the Biblical history of Solomon’s temple. I believe it’s fair to say that the existence of Solomon’s temple, and a gilt wooden ark hidden inside of it, are the null hypothesis. We’ve no compelling reason to doubt it.

…but it doesn’t work that way. Unspecified ‘non-empirical evidence’ might be okay for ordinary propositions, but I think I’d like a bit more before I sign off on this.

I feel the same way about Solomon’s temple as I feel about Jesus. It’s fine with me if it existed, and if more details come to light that confirm their veracity, I have no problem with that. On the other hand, I’m not holding my breath, and if the LDS Church wants people make important life choices based on this elaborate narrative, then it needs to support it with publicly verifiable evidence.

Temples, Solomon, and Freemasonry

Just about every Latter-day Saint has heard unflattering comparisons between Freemasonry and the Mormon temple ceremony, with the implication that Joseph Smith ripped off the Masonic ritual and incorporated it into the endowment.

While I’d always heard talk of such things, it wasn’t until I read a leaked copy of the Master Mason Degree ritual (PDF) that I fully understood the extent of Joseph Smith’s plagiarism (a representative slice is at right). I went through the LDS temple for the first time before the 1990 changes, so I remember the penalties and the Five Points of Fellowship, and they’re all there. It’s a wholesale transplant. What a spin-out. I found myself thinking, “Was there anything original that Smith did?”

See also Richard Packham’s convenient chart.

How do Mormons explain away the similarities? One common line of reasoning involves Solomon’s temple. The argument goes something like this:

  • The LDS temple ceremony was practiced in Solomon’s temple.
  • Solomon’s temple was built by stone masons, who had access to the temple ceremony.
  • Those same masons formed Freemasonry.
  • They therefore pilfered the temple ceremony from Solomon’s temple, and used it for their own.

As a believer, I accepted this explanation for a while, until I became aware that Freemasonry does not go back to the time of Solomon’s temple, supposedly about 900 BCE. In fact, organised Freemasonry starts in the 1700s, and probably goes no farther back than the 1200s or 1300s. Even that might be a bit generous — Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope pegs it at the 1500s. By the way, Uncle Cecil’s description of Masonic handshakes might raise a tremor for an endowment holder.

In shaking hands, for example, a Master Mason will press his thumb between the other guy’s second and third knuckles, thereby identifying himself to initiates while leaving others clueless.

And more handshakes and drawings here. Beware, though: evangelical Christianity.

To say that Freemasons borrowed the temple ceremony from proto-Mormons is to get it exactly backwards. It was Joseph Smith that remixed the Masonic ritual into what is now the LDS temple endowment.

Additional ideas for teaching

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: Is it true about those two?

The book of 1 Kings has this little subplot about a powerful woman — the Queen of Sheba — who came to visit Solomon.

1 Kings 10:1 And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions.
10:2 And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.
10:3 And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the king, which he told her not.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for this supposed meeting; it sounds like a meeting between two intelligent people who found an intellectual kinship. And when people bond in this way, things can get… well… a little bit hot.

1 Kings 10:13 And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.

So… did they have a thing?

Certainly film and artwork have had no trouble filling in the gaps in the narrative.

At this point, we need to look back on the Bible and see the two similar stories we’ve run across: David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Boaz. In both of these, the Bible is maddeningly circumspect in its details. But are we to believe that nothing went on there? Were these rough and semi-barbaric people secretly the inventors of Victorian morality? Even though the text doesn’t explicitly sanction such a reading, you have to look at this and say, come on.

Another thing: when there’s no sex, as with David and Abishag, the text specifically says, “He knew her not.” If that’s not there, some bets are off.

So my take, as Gospel Doctrine for the Godless teacher: They totally did it.

pi = 3

As we all know, the value of pi (π) — the ratio of the circumference of a circle and its diameter — is 3.141592… and on and on and on.

And if you didn’t know the value of π, just remember this sentence: “Boy, I wish I could calculate pi.” The number of letters in each word corresponds to each digit. Science moment of the day.

But a common atheist criticism is that the Bible puts the value of π at just plain 3. How so? Well, 1 Kings 7 gives some measurements of the ‘molten sea’, which was a vessel of some kind.

1 Kings 7:23 And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.

That makes π = 30/10, or just plain 3.

I actually think this is not a good argument against the Bible. Remember, π is a transcendental number, so the flow of digits never stops and never repeats. That means that any value of π given in the Bible could be considered insufficiently precise to anyone who decided to think so. Bible says 3? That’s not accurate. Bible says 3.1? Also inaccurate.

So this is on my list of Arguments Atheists Shouldn’t Use.

And yet… this is a bit of a missed opportunity for Jehovah/Jesus. He could have stuck an easter egg in the text, something like “The number thereof never endeth.” That way, when people found out more about π (and it wouldn’t have taken long), they could have been amazed by the Bible’s accuracy, instead of patting the ancient Hebrews on the back and saying, “There, there; you weren’t to have known about geometry.” Too bad.

OT Lesson 7 (Abrahamic religions)

“The Abrahamic Covenant”

Abraham 1:1–4; 2:1–11; Genesis 12:1–8; 17:1–9

Links to the reading in the SAB: Abraham 1, Abraham 2, Genesis 12, Genesis 17
LDS manual: here


For this lesson, we’re looking at Abraham, a nomadic herdsman with a tendency to hear voices in his head. Schizophrenia is a serious condition, and fortunately in our day people can get the help they need. But at the time of the alleged Abraham, you were much more likely to either harm yourself or start a religion, or both. That Abraham gave rise to three major world religions speaks to the severity of his condition.

The three Abrahamic religions are:

  • Judaism, essentially an ethnic/tribal religion whose foundational doctrine is that God likes them a lot
  • Christianity, which as a universalising religion is open to everyone, and so is the world’s most commercially successful death cult
  • Islam, which for historical reasons has been tightly aligned with law and government, and for this reason it has a record of oppressing women, gay people, apostates, and religious minorities that Judaism and Christianity can only dream about.

Ask: What’s the difference between the Abrahamic religions?

Bill Maher puts it like this:

Or you could think of it like a movie:

Think of it like a movie. The Torah is the first one, and the New Testament is the sequel. Then the Qu’ran comes out, and it retcons the last one like it never happened. There’s still Jesus, but he’s not the main character anymore, and the messiah hasn’t shown up yet.

Jews like the first movie but ignored the sequels, Christians think you need to watch the first two, but the third movie doesn’t count, Moslems think the third one was the best, and Mormons liked the second one so much, they started writing fanfiction that doesn’t fit with ANY of the series canon.

The Abrahamic religions share some notable characteristics:

  • worship of an all-powerful god, with stories of how he has harmed, or will harm, people who didn’t follow his commands
  • sharp cultural distinctions between in-group and out-group
  • an end-of-the-world scenario that they long for

Ask: How would these characteristics influence the thinking of a believer in an Abrahamic religion?
Answers: fundamentalism, clannishness and parochialism, a desire for an end to this world, accompanied by a failure to appreciate this life.

More seriously, I think, is that the desire for a new world saps the will and the commitment to make this world better now.

Main points from the lesson

Mormons like to pretend they are Jews

Mormons like to borrow Israel metaphors from people of Hebrew extraction, and this metaphorical borrowing goes back a long way. Here’s kind of a fun article from the news agency JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency), looking at Salt Lake City in 1927.

In Utah Mormons Call Themselves Jews and Jews Are Considered “gentiles”

The Mormon people regard them-selves as of Israel, too, if you please, and the term “Israel” as applying to themselves is frequently heard in their congregations. They believe themselves to be of Ephraim, and cousins of the Jews, who are of Judah. To a Mormon those not of their faith are regarded as “Gentiles.” Gentiles in Utah often say, in a bantering way, that everybody in Utah outside of the Mormons is a Gentile, even the Jews!

Not a lot has changed since then; Mormons still sing hymns with titles like “Hope of Israel”, refer to missionaries as “elders of Israel”, and even assign each other to tribes of Israel in patriarchal blessings.

Ask: How does this meme benefit the religion?
Answer: Studying the peculiarities of an ancient tribe would seem pretty remote to a congregation, unless there were some way of making it meaningful. The way the LDS Church makes it meaningful is to say, “This is really all about you, because you’re Israel. Somehow.”

Ask: How do actual Jews feel about this kind of cultural appropriation?
Answer: Strangely, as a Latter-day Saint, I never thought to ask. So recently I asked the good people on the Judaism subreddit what they thought about this. You can read the entire thread here, but here are some of the answers.

– The general consensus where I am is that they are an annoying but ultimately harmless group that we should basically just ignore. Stuff like baptizing Anne Frank posthumously is obviously obnoxious, but since we ascribe no meaning to baptism it has no real effect on us.
So we don’t care enough to do anything about it, but yeah, it’s creepy and annoying.

– Meh – No different than Christians claiming to be the true Jews with the New Testament or Muslims saying they are the true torch bearers of the Abrahamic faith.

– I find it entertaining, to be honest. Kind of like the Black Israelites. But to be frank, it’s just one of the many things I find quite humorous about Mormon beliefs.
Sorry for the condescension, but realize that from a Jewish perspective, Mormonism is yet another religion that claims to inherit and replace ours, and my reaction can only be “Oh, well this time I believe you.”

– I think creepy might be a good way to describe it.

– Gross.

– What’s one more group claiming to be the real us? It’s a little annoying, but whatever.

There you have it, folks: annoying and creepy.

Patriarchal blessings

An interesting ritual in the Mormon Church is the patriarchal blessing, usually received in one’s late teen years. In this ritual, an older man called a stake patriarch places his clammy hands on the recipient’s head, and free-associates some stock phrases intended to be pertinent in their life.

As with any oracle, the pronouncements are usually vague and broadly applicable. A good deal of latitude is encouraged in their interpretation. Check out this bit from the church website:

Similarly, the recipient of the blessing should not assume that everything mentioned in it will be fulfilled in this life. A patriarchal blessing is eternal, and its promises may extend into the eternities. If one is worthy, all promises will be fulfilled in the Lord’s due time. Those promises and blessings that are not realized in this life will be fulfilled in the next.

What an enormous rationalisation. What couldn’t be explained away using this logic? “Your blessing said you’d become a giraffe? Obvs in the next life.”

Patriarchal blessings bear some resemblance to psychic readings. Psychics typically use a technique called cold reading, in which the psychic fishes for information by making general statements (guided by observations about the person), and then following up the ones that get confirmed. For a patriarch, it’s a little more challenging because the subject doesn’t speak or move during the blessing, but the patriarch has the advantage of being acquainted with the subject or the subject’s family, and usually chats beforehand about goals or plans. As such, the patriarch will probably be doing more of a warm reading — a reading with the benefit of prior knowledge of the individual. Either way, for both psychic readings and patriarchal blessings, the subject will say that the oracle knew things they “couldn’t have known”.

A feature of the patriarchal blessings is the lineage, where the subject is told which actual tribe of Israel they’re from. Even though the patriarch could name any lineage, a curious number come up Ephraim, but there are outliers. Again, from the church website:

Because each of us has many bloodlines running in us, two members of the same family may be declared as being of different tribes in Israel.

I imagine this is a hedge in case a patriarch, unaware of the lineage of other family members, stuffs up and announces a different lineage for someone. Next:

Patriarchal blessings are sacred and personal. They may be shared with immediate family members, but should not be read aloud in public or read or interpreted by others. Not even the patriarch or bishop or branch president should interpret it.

Ask: Why would it be to the church’s advantage that we not talk about patriarchal blessings?
Answer: Communicating about blessings would mean that more people would know about possible disconfirming details. Of course, it’s sometimes all right to talk about the details that are ‘faith-promoting’. This is a good example of confirmation bias: members count the hits, and don’t talk about the misses.

Long ago, my friend Liz once told me something surprising about her PB: it contained a statement that, to her understanding, meant that she would only live for a short time. Well, I’m glad to say she’s still around. But what an unnecessary burden. And what a strange way of getting information about your life. To give someone a set of vague pronouncements which are supposed to be Very Important Messages from a god, and then send them out the door saying, “Good luck interpreting that!” — how could you blame someone for whatever they came up with? It seems like spiritual malpractice.

I asked her if she’d write her experience for this lesson, and I was very grateful when she accepted. What I didn’t realise was that there was an added dimension to her story. Here’s what she wrote.

The short story is that I interpreted something that was said in my PB as meaning that I would live a short life. This hung over me for many years and made me sad. What a waste of energy.

I was 17 yrs old. Female. My whole life ahead of me, much ambition. I reread my PB today for the first time in many years recalling the impact it had on me in my youth. In retrospect and with the clarity of experience and one might be bold enough to say wisdom, I see the influence it had. At first this was about the implications my PB made about the length of my life. Which stunned me at 17. However I realise there was actually a more subversive message I carried with me….

I realise that my whole life I had been receiving a message that was about my powerlessness as a female in the LDS church and my PB reinforces that by implying that my whole life, however short, is already determined and as long as I do as instructed I will be rewarded when I’m dead. I hate that. Don’t get me wrong; my PB has many motivating and inspirational words, but clearly instructs me to do A B C whilst obeying whatever else the priesthood says.

I believe that anyone and anything you choose to have in your life should help you to fulfill your hopes and dreams, not limit them. If any religion requires you to give those up for God I question why? Why do religions in particular do that? My answer is control. Control of actions, thoughts, intent. When I got married and didn’t have children right away I was asked by my bishop why? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After that it was all over for me. I couldn’t bear one more minute of the powerlessness and inability to choose for myself within their walls.

Thanks to Liz for her story.

Additional ideas for teaching

The creation of a “scary external world” narrative

From the real manual:

Explain that the ancient Israelites were surrounded by many nations whose people did not believe in the true God. These nations included the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and others.

And for a short time, the Ammonites and the Midianites.

• Why do you think the Lord put his covenant people in the middle of the ancient world instead of where they could be left alone?

He wanted them to set an example for others and to fulfill the Abrahamic covenant to bless all nations.
As he did with ancient Israel, the Lord has placed us, his latter-day covenant people, in the middle of the world. Our challenge is to influence the world in righteous ways rather than allowing the world to influence us in unrighteous ways.

We’ll see later on how the Israelites tried to “influence the world in righteous ways” through genocide, when we get into the books of Joshua and Judges.

But for now, let’s just take note of a special term: the world. For Latter-day Saints, the world represents everything evil and scary.

Ask: How does the idea of the world benefit the church?
Answer: The Church constructs a “scary external world” narrative to keep members tucked safely inside its ideological bubble. Members reinforce this among themselves by telling each other,

“I just don’t know where I’d be without the church.”

Well, of course you don’t know. You’re terrified to even imagine it. Or:

“If I didn’t have the church, I’d be dead / drug-addicted / a prostitute / lost.”

The purpose is to make the outside world seem insecure and turbulent, and the world inside the church-bubble safe by comparison.

Watch “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled.

Ask: What tactics does Mother use to weaken Rapunzel’s desire to escape her prison?
Answers: Emphasises the dangers of the outside world, offers herself as a loving and safe alternative, tells Rapunzel she’ll regret leaving the tower, emphasises her weakness by telling her she’s not strong enough to survive without her.

Let’s be clear: the world can be a scary place where bad things happen. But it can also be a beautiful place where great things happen, Ignoring this is unhelpful, and is intended to make members dependent on the church for their sense of security. It’s true that one could avoid most of the bad in the world by never venturing out, but this is not a good way to live a happy life. As well, fitting one’s mind into the church’s ideological box will probably keep members from finding out details that the church doesn’t like, but limiting the input in this way will prevent someone from finding the best ideas available.

As for me, I like finding out things and interacting with people all over this amazing world of ours, and I reject anyone who tries to make me feel afraid of “the world” as an entity. Such a meme could only ever work to benefit those who try to frighten us.

Sing along with the class.