Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: sunk-cost fallacy

BoM Lesson 24 (Alma and Amulek 2)

“Give Us Strength According to Our Faith . . . in Christ”

Alma 13–16

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show that God is unjust, and allows unnecessary suffering.

Reading

CONTENT WARNING: rape, murder

Is Alma still talking to Zeezrom? Poor guy must be getting bored by now. After all, you can’t spell Zeezrom without ‘Zz’.

Alma 13:1 And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.

And on and on. Check out chapter 13 — it’s a bit of a snore. And there was more beyond that.

Alma 13:31 And Alma spake many more words unto the people, which are not written in this book.

Main ideas for this lesson

Foreordination

Part of Alma’s discourse in chapter 13 centers around the Melchizedek Priesthood. (Amazingly, a doctrine from the Book of Mormon seems to have survived unedited in the modern church.)

Let’s browse some questions in the Gospel Doctrine Lesson Manual.

• When are men first “called and prepared” to be ordained to the priesthood? (See Alma 13:3.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 365).
How did men demonstrate in premortal life that they were worthy to be foreordained to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood? (See Alma 13:3–5.) What must men do in this life to remain worthy of their foreordination? (See Alma 13:8–10.)

And here are the relevant scriptures in the Book of Mormon.

Alma 13:3 And this is the manner after which they were ordained — being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
13:4 And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.

In other words, whatever your station in life — whether worthy priesthood holder in affluent North America, or non-member in the benighted third world — you’re in the position you are because of what you did in the premortal life. You were foreordained to this condition.

There’s a narcissistic appeal to this idea. If you’re in the church, it means you’re special somehow. And it’s not just that you’re special because you were chosen; you earned this by your meritorious works before you were born.

We’ve talked a lot about the sunk-cost fallacy: it’s difficult to leave (or even question) the church because of the time, money, and effort you’ve invested. But adding in the premarital life kicks it up to Level One Million. Not only have you invested part of your life, you’ve (supposedly) invested an eternity in the life before this one! Talk about kicking up the commitment — and the cost of abandoning the investment. I remember learning about the premortal life, and thinking, “This life is so short, and if I can just get through it, I’ll be in heaven forever with Heavenly Father!”

Okay. So where’s the problem in thinking that our station in life depends on a premortal life?

It leads to the idea that people who are worse off somehow deserve their situation. And if that’s the case, then one could conclude that…

  • they deserve their situation
  • other forms of discrimination against them is justified
  • there’s nothing to do for them

See, for instance, this bit from LDS apostle Mark E. Peterson:

Is there reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not a reflection of our worthiness or lack of it in the pre-existent life?…can we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Latter-day Saints. There are rewards and punishments, fully in harmony with His established policy in dealing with sinners and saints, rewarding all according to their deeds….

The Brethren used this idea to justify discrimination, in not giving the Priesthood to men of African descent in the 1950s.

Official Statement of First Presidency issued on August 17, 1951
“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes…..
“Man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. If this is carried further, it would imply that the Negro is punished or allotted to a certain position on this earth, not because of Cain’s transgression, but came to earth through the loins of Cain because of his failure to achieve other stature in the spirit world.

It’s hard to overstate how callous this belief is. I know lots of Latter-day Saints are good-hearted people who care about others, but this belief does not contribute to such a mindset. It provides a divine justification for why some people are worse off. If we can’t solve problems of poverty and injustice in the world — well, how can we, when such a condition is God-ordained? And the belief contributes to the narcissism that is general in religious circles: God helps me; finds my car keys, finds me parking spots, arranges things for me — and not only that, but he placed me here with benefits not afforded to others.

It puts a rather sinister pall on the Primary song:

I am a child of God
And he has sent me here…

I’ve come to a different view since my deconversion. I now think that every person on earth is a human much like myself, with a body, a brain, and a limited lifespan. We face unequal situations and unequal opportunities because of where and how we’re born. There are no gods, as far as I’m aware, that are going to work to fix this. So it’s up to us. The idea that we lucky few with enough to eat and the “right” ideology get to live this way because of some hypothetical premortal history is a terrible and unjust distraction.

The Problem of Evil (again)

But now here’s the interesting part: this long discourse doesn’t seem to have put the audience to sleep. Instead, it got them so riled up that they start burning people.

Alma 14:8 And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire, and they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.
14:9 And it came to pass that they took Alma and Amulek, and carried them forth to the place of martyrdom, that they might witness the destruction of those who were consumed by fire.

Amulek thinks what any normal human would, and suggests stopping the horror.

Alma 14:10 And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.

Alma says no. It’s okay, because God is whisking them all to heaven, and he needs the bad people to do bad things so he can judge them.

Alma 14:11 But Alma said unto him: The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

It’s said that with great power comes great responsibility, so with infinite power comes infinite responsibility. If I’d had the power to stop the fiery deaths of all those people, I would have done so. So would anyone. Anyone, that is, except God, who allows them to suffer and die. And why? So that he can find out what he already knows — bad guys are bad.

The Book of Mormon says that it’s all okay because God is taking them all to heaven. Would that be a good enough reason for you or me to fail to prevent their deaths? Let’s return again to the Tale of the Twelve Officers, in which a woman is raped and murdered over the course of several hours, while officers look on.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” said the ninth officer. “Moments after Ms. K. flatlined, I had her resuscitated, and flown to a tropical resort where she is now experiencing extraordinary bliss, and her ordeal is just a distant memory. I’m sure you would agree that that’s more than adequate compensation for her suffering, so the fact that I just stood there watching instead of intervening has no bearing at all on my goodness.”

No one would accept this kind of justification from me, and yet many people are willing to give God a pass. They shouldn’t.

After this, Alma and Amulek knock the walls down, in a rehash of Paul’s escape in Acts 16. All the bad guys die, in a rehash of Samson in Judges 16.

Alma 14:26 And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound; and when the people saw this, they began to flee, for the fear of destruction had come upon them.
14:27 And it came to pass that so great was their fear that they fell to the earth, and did not obtain the outer door of the prison; and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain, so that they fell to the earth; and the chief judge, and the lawyers, and priests, and teachers, who smote upon Alma and Amulek, were slain by the fall thereof.

Fortunately, Zeezrom is healed and converted, so it was all worth it.

Alma 15:5 And it came to pass that they went immediately, obeying the message which he had sent unto them; and they went in unto the house unto Zeezrom; and they found him upon his bed, sick, being very low with a burning fever; and his mind also was eexceedingly sore because of his iniquities; and when he saw them he stretched forth his hand, and besought them that they would heal him.
15:6 And it came to pass that Alma said unto him, taking him by the hand: Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation?
15:7 And he answered and said: Yea, I believe all the words that thou hast taught.
15:8 And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.
15:9 And he said: Yea, I believe according to thy words.
15:10 And then Alma cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord our God, have mercy on this man, and heal him according to his faith which is in Christ.
15:11 And when Alma had said these words, Zeezrom leaped upon his feet, and began to walk; and this was done to the great astonishment of all the people; and the knowledge of this went forth throughout all the land of Sidom.

He still felt annoyed at everyone’s inability to pronounce his name, though.

Amulek felt his pain — his phone always tried to autocorrect his name to ‘Amulet’.

Additional lesson ideas

Mass graves?

The Book of Mormon talks about Ammonihah, a Nephite city that was destroyed by the Lamanites.

Alma 16:1 And it came to pass in the eleventh year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi, on the fifth day of the second month, there having been much peace in the land of Zarahemla, there having been no wars nor contentions for a certain number of years, even until the fifth day of the second month in the eleventh year, there was a cry of war heard throughout the land.
16:2 For behold, the armies of the Lamanites had come in upon the wilderness side, into the borders of the land, even into the city of Ammonihah, and began to slay the people and destroy the city.
16:3 And now it came to pass, before the Nephites could raise a sufficient army to drive them out of the land, they had destroyed the people who were in the city of Ammonihah, and also some around the borders of Noah, and taken others captive into the wilderness.

16:9 And thus ended the eleventh year of the judges, the Lamanites having been driven out of the land, and the people of Ammonihah were destroyed; yea, every living soul of the Ammonihahites was destroyed, and also their great city, which they said God could not destroy, because of its greatness.
16:10 But behold, in one day it was left desolate; and the carcasses were mangled by dogs and wild beasts of the wilderness.

Of course, no site has been found that corresponds to the city of Ammonihah, though all due props to ‘Captain Kirk’ for actually trying to suggest one. The problem is going to be that there’s no place with all the bones and human remains that would have been the result of such a slaughter.

It’s possible to discover remains of people from that time. Check out this article from Science showing the remains of a battle between just a few hundred people, about a thousand years before this passage in the Book of Mormon. You really should click through to see the photo of just how close together the bones are.

In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.

Yes, we can find piles of bones from ancient battles. We don’t find remains of Book of Mormon peoples because they didn’t exist.

BoM Lesson 15 (King Benjamin 1)

“Eternally Indebted to Your Heavenly Father”

Mosiah 1–3

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To show how the gospel sets up impossible, confusing, and damaging expectations for people

Reading

From all my years of teaching Gospel Doctrine (either here or in church), there’s a principle I’ve learned about prophecy:

It’s crap.

Wait, that wasn’t the principle! The principle is this:

All prophecies either

  • turn out false (but become plausible if reinterpreted creatively enough)
  • turn out true, but in ways that anyone could have known at the time
  • turn out true, because they were written after the thing happened.

All the stuff about Jesus in the Book of Mormon is in the latter category. The Old Testament (contra Jacob) doesn’t mention Jesus at all. It’s so vague about him that the people who knew the scriptures best resisted him the most. But how about the Book of Mormon, which was written after people had heard of Jesus? Suddenly it’s all about teh Jesus! They can’t stop talking about Jesus. How about that?

Mosiah 3:5 For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases.
3:6 And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.
3:7 And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.
3:8 And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.

I mean, check that out — the Book of Mormon writers practically had his damn mobile number. They’re calling him by name, they’re calling themselves Christians — and strangely, they’re still living the Law of Moses, so that must have been confusing.

“Why are we sacrificing animals again?”
“Just do it; don’t worry about it.”
“But this won’t matter in a few years.”
“That’s why we’re not writing any details down in the Gold Plates.”

What’s more likely: that Book of Mormon prophets were so amazing that they knew stuff that other Bible prophets didn’t know — or that someone in the 1820s sat down and wrote it?

It’s not just the knowledge of Jesus that marks the Book of Mormon as a 19th century document. It’s the subject matter that the Book of Mormon presents. Check out this odd reference to the status of infants, which preoccupied theologians in the 1800s, and precisely no one in Biblical times:

Mosiah 3:17 And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.
3:18 For behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just; and the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy; but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

Isn’t that kind of a 1830s thing?

When I was at the dear old Brigham Young U, I found that you could read forbidden documents at the library. Well, they weren’t forbidden; you could give your student ID to someone in the Special Documents collection, and while they were sending your details to the Strengthing the Members Committee in Salt Lake, you could read the documents there.

I decided to check out the “Position Papers”, a set of documents generated by the Reorganised Church of JCoLDS when they were making their break from traditional Mormon theology in the 1960s. For some reason, I was interested in Chapter 11, about their reasons from shifting away from the Book of Mormon.

As we examine the Book of Mormon, shorn of any intention solely to amass data in support of preconceived notions about it, we must honestly admit that there arises an awareness of certain problems concerning traditional understandings of the Book. The problems include:

3. Its propensity for reflecting in detail the religious concerns of the American frontier. Alexander Campbell in 1832 pointed out that every major theological question of the frontier was covered in the Book of Mormon, including infant baptism, ordination and ministerial authority, the Trinity, regeneration, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, and even the burning questions of Freemasonry, republican government and the rights of man.

It certainly did seem to me as though the Book of Mormon did have a preoccupation with issues as they were in the 1800s. It seems that what they say in General Conference is true: the Book of Mormon is “written for our day” — but this is because it was written in our day.

Main ideas for this lesson

Unprofitable servants

King Benjamin is giving his great address to an improbably large crowd.

Mosiah 2:19 And behold also, if I, whom ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service, and yet has been in the service of God, do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!
2:20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another —
2:21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another — I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

I’m remembering back to my LDS days, and thinking about all the effort the church took. Three hours every Sunday is just a start. For many, there are extra meetings during the week, including ward and stake leadership meetings and Seminary. Then there’s temple attendance. Oh, and cleaning the buildings.

Not to mention going on a two-year mission, and giving 10% of your income for the whole of your life. There’s more, but it all works toward the same point: The LDS Church has a really high bar to be considered basically active.

But even after all of this, what this scripture tells us is that no matter what you do, you’re still unprofitable.

Ask: How does this make someone feel, if they’re trying to do their best in the church?

It’s such a glaring scripture, and I think it calls for some kind of explanation. What is it doing here? What kind of function does this idea serve?

You could argue that it’s designed to motivate people who aren’t doing all they can. But what about people who are knocking themselves out, and get so little in return?

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I think it goes beyond the motivational. I see this as an out-clause. Here’s how:

Religion is a con. It makes phoney promises that fail. And when those promises fail, there has to be a way of getting the mark (the person being conned) from blaming the religion. How to divert their disappointment? By setting up impossible conditions for success.

“Oh, you’re not feeling fulfilled? Bad things happening anyway? Well, have you been you coming to church? You have?

“Have you been praying? Oh.

“How about reading the scriptures? Attending the temple? Having Family Home Evening…?

“How’s your home teaching? Aha… home teaching a little spotty? That was probably it. Bring those stats up, and I’ll bet you’ll be in line for some blessings pret…ty soon.”

It’s a fantastic way of explaining away failures — it’s not the church’s fault; it’s yours, you unprofitable servant, you.

And of course there’s the usual benefit: if the church asks for more, it gets more. And the investment fallacy means that members who have given their all will be less likely to question their belief — you must believe it, or you wouldn’t have given so much, right? And if you walk away, you’ll lose everything you’ve invested!

Mosiah 2:22 And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.
2:23 And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.
2:24 And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

Again, the church doesn’t want just some of your time and attention. It claims the right to have it all. Forever and ever.

Mosiah 2:25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.

No matter what you do, you’ll never be worthwhile under this system. You are less than the dust of the earth.

God-Abuse

But of course, if you’re running a church, you can’t just heap this kind of abuse on people all the time. That’s why there’s a parallel narrative: I am a child of God. You’re a chosen people, a special generation held in reserve, etc. The church can pull out this story when it needs to, and this makes people feel bonded to the organisation. But if people feel too special, the church can remind them of the “dangers of pride” (which is only really dangerous to the church itself), and it can hit them with the “less than the dust of the earth” story. It can switch between these two stories whenever it needs to.

Seen this way, the church resembles nothing more than an abusive and narcissistic partner, for whom this hot-and-cold tactic is typical (see point 3 on that link). The abuser builds you up if you do what they tell you, but they also remind you that you’ll never be good enough.

Benjamin continues by talking about the “natural man”. Repeat it with me, if you remember it.

Mosiah 3:19 For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Ask:

  • What has the Lord inflicted upon you?
  • Why does Benjamin think it’s okay for the Lord to “inflict” things upon us?
  • Why is it important for us to feel helpless like a child in this situation?

Have a read of this commentary from the LDS Lesson Manual:

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said: “After the fall of Adam, man became carnal, sensual, and devilish by nature; he became fallen man. . . . All accountable persons on earth inherit this fallen state, this probationary state, this state in which worldly things seem desirable to the carnal nature. Being in this state, ‘the natural man is an enemy to God,’ until he conforms to the great plan of redemption and is born again to righteousness. (Mosiah 3:19.) Thus all mankind would remain lost and fallen forever were it not for the atonement of our Lord. (Alma 42:4–14.)” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 267–68).
How can we “[put] off the natural man”? (See Mosiah 3:19. Discuss answers as shown below.)
a. Yield to “the enticings of the Holy Spirit.” How does this help us “[put] off the natural man”? (See 2 Nephi 32:5; Mosiah 5:2; 3 Nephi 28:11.)

What Benjamin is telling us is that the way you are is wrong, and if you want to be saved, you have to act other than the way you are.

Now I agree that sometimes, I am a bag of slop. Like everyone, I can gravitate to a level that isn’t the best for me. I eat too many Doritos, I can be self-absorbed, and if I want to be my best self, I have to exert some energy and overcome some of my slouchy bad habits.

But there’s a difference between saying, “Sometimes I’m a bit lazy or uncaring, and I need to work on that,” and saying “The way that I am is essentially broken, and I need someone else to make me whole.” The first one points to, and enables, self-improvement. The second one instills a sense of permanent inferiority that offers the church as a solution. It is not a way to build self-reliant people. It’s a way to build broken people.

Why the Gospel is terrible

Now we’ve seen enough of the gospel’s program to understand why the gospel does not work. Just for a reminder, according to the church’s “plan of salvation”, we are here on earth in a kind of probationary state. Our ability to return to God depends on the choices we make here.

But this plan is stacked against us at every turn.

1. We have been created with an inbuilt tendency to sin.

As King Benjamin says, “the natural man is an enemy to God.” God inexplicably made us want to sin.

But God could have made it so that we wouldn’t want to do anything wrong. This wouldn’t have involved a curtailment of our agency. He had to make us some way or another, and it would have been just as simple to make us in a way that didn’t involve a preoccupation with things he doesn’t like. For example, I have never been curious about alcohol or drugs — not that I think those are wrong anymore, but trying those things out has never been a part of my nature. I still have agency; I’m just not interested in them.

It would have been possible for a super-smart God to think of a way to make humans that aren’t interested in sin, without curtailing their agency. Why didn’t he? Why did he make a decision to stack the deck against us?

2. We can’t trust our own moral compass.

Having given us a tendency to want to sin, God also created us with faulty moral intuition. Not only is the “natural man” an enemy to God, but he tells us that we can’t trust the answers we get from our own moral reasoning.

Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.

Let’s think through this, because this one thing unhinges the entire contraption.

My ability to return to God relies on me making good choices. But God gave me a brain that provides faulty moral intuitions. If I can’t trust my own ideas of what’s right and wrong, then I have no way of knowing what “good choices” are.

You could say, “That’s the point. You’re not supposed to trust your own moral instincts. You’re supposed to obey God and ‘yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit.'”

But if I can’t trust my own moral compass, then I can’t even be sure if that’s the right thing to do. If God gives us a faulty ethical lens and says “Go to it”, then the whole thing stops right there. How could I even tell the difference between good and bad choices if I can’t trust my own ethical filter? Unless I have a reliable moral compass, the whole task becomes impossible.

3. Satan

On top of all this, God allows a perfectly evil being to tempt us. If I knew of an evil being, I would keep them far away from my kids, but God’s like “Go for it,” which is another way that he’s a terrible parent. To help us, the Holy Spirit gives us signals that are indistinguishable from emotions, impressions, or dyspepsia. (That’s if we don’t offend him, in which case, he buggers off.)

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Even prophets get it wrong in this process, so what chance do the rest of us have?

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Ask: Could you convict even the worst criminal under this system?

4. Self-esteem sniping

And after all this — a sinful nature, a broken compass, and access to bad influences — our self-efficacy is constantly being undermined and belittled by the gospel itself. We’re reminded that we’re less than the dust of the earth, that we owe God everything, and that there’s nothing we can do to be considered worthy.

Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone: the gospel is a terrible system. It’s a set up. God could have made it any way he wanted, but he chose to put us in a situation with impossible, contradictory, confusing, and demeaning expectations. This contemptible god belittles us, and expects us to praise him in return.

The appropriate response is the same as it should be for any abuser: we must cut him off entirely, and work within a loving and supportive community to build our own lasting self-respect. Our morality isn’t perfect, but we can work to improve it without the petty sniping of a demanding and jealous father figure.

Additional lesson ideas

Every pore?

Now here’s a linguistic curiosity. When Jesus (allegedly) prayed in Gesthemane,

Luke 22:44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

Was there really any blood? The wording is “as it were”, which usually signals a turn of phrase, not a fact.

But fast-forward a couple thousand years, and Mormons will tell you that Jesus bled “from every pore”. This wording appears in our reading.

Mosiah 3:7 And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

I seem to remember many church talks where the speaker solemnly asserted that if you were in extreme agony, you might bleed from one pore, but Jesus bled from all of them.

I guess there’s a condition where people bleed from their pores, but I got curious as to whether this might be a linguistic artefact. What I mean is that the wording “he bled from every pore” seems to roll off the tongue very easily. Could it be that it was just a phrase that people were accustomed to saying, and Joseph Smith (or whoever) simply wrote the well-known idiom into his book, which Mormons then took as gospel?

If the phrase “bleed * every pore” were in common usage around Smith’s time, this would explain how it worked it way into the Book of Mormon, and why Mormons now think Jesus had a particularly gory night of it in a garden.

In fact, this is exactly what we see if we look up “bleed * every pore” in Google’s Ngram Viewer.

Follow the link at the bottom to ‘bleed at every pore’ from 1768 – 1832, and you’ll find lots of examples, some of which I’ve copied and pasted here. Note that these examples use the idiom ‘bleed at every pore’ even when no actual bleeding is going on, which confirms that this was an idiom that people were accustomed to using in various situations.

1821: And, when they sicken and die, the hearts of their parents bleed at every pore.

1796: still there are circumstances in his situation wHich cause the heart of humanity to bleed at every pore.

1820: Thus this unhappy nation, by a miserable and mistaken policy, is doomed to bleed at every pore

1812: whether we stand by them, or whether we forsake them, those gallant nations will still continue to bleed at every pore.

1815: without reviving the ferocious and appalling doctrine of constructive treason, which once made England bleed at every pore

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 3.45.12 PM

And that’s how (I suspect) a common expression worked its way into Mormon doctrine. A metaphorical statement graduated into a literal belief.

This is something of a one-off in my experience. We already know that believers re-interpret literal statements as metaphorical ones when they’re deemed implausible. This is the only case I can think of where a belief went the other way.

EDIT: Redditor Elijah_Unabel made a point that was too good not to share: there simply isn’t enough blood in a human body to bleed from every pore.

Yesterday my young son asked me how many pores are in the human body. I wasn’t sure off-hand, but the most common answers on Google are 2 billion or 3 trillion (although 3 trillion pores seems pretty high given that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the entire body). I asked my son why he was interested, and he referred to Jesus bleeding from every pore. From that aspect, we might just include sweat glands, of which there are about 2 million. My son and I then ran the math and came up with the following.

We can assume there are about 90,000 drops are in a gallon (about 20 drops per ml). At the extreme of 3 trillion pores, this gives us over 33 million gallons of blood. That’s going to be a bit messy. If we go with 2 billion pores, we get about 22,000 gallons, still enough to fill a couple backyard swimming pools.

Finally, if we just count sweat glands, we get 22 gallons. Not nearly as impressive as the numbers above. However, the average person only has about 1.5 gallons of blood, so bleeding out 22 gallons is still a pretty impressive trick.

NT Lesson 40 (Slavery)

“I Can Do All Things through Christ”

Philippians; Colossians; Philemon

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To encourage readers to emancipate themselves from spiritual slavery

Reading

This lesson deals with three Pauline epistles — Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon — only two of which were written by Paul.

That’s right, Paul didn’t write one of them: Colossians. But how do we know?

The words we use are unique to us, like a fingerprint. We can’t really change our style. That means our word patterns can identify us. So for instance, we could arrange someone’s words into a kind of “top ten most common” list, and see if a new text’s top ten word list matches up.

Or, as Bart Ehrman points out, we could look at unusual words and phrases.

As with every instance of forgery, the case of Colossians is cumulative, involving multiple factors. None has proved more decisive over the past thirty years than the question of writing style. The case was made most effectively in 1973 by Walter Bujard, in a study both exhaustive and exhausting, widely thought to be unanswerable.

Bujard compares the writing style of Colossians to the other Pauline letters, focusing especially on those of comparable length (Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians), and looking at an inordinately wide range of stylistic features: the use of conjunctions (of all kinds); infinitives; participles, relative clauses; repetitions of words and word groups; use of antithetical statements; parallel constructions; the use of preposition ἐν; the piling up of genitives; and on and on. In case after case, Colossians stands apart from Paul’s letters.

Sorry, Not-Paul. You were a good Paul impersonator, but you were detected by science.

My theme for this lesson is slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, even today. I don’t mean to trivialise the really awful kinds. But belonging to the church is a kind of voluntary slavery — and in some cases, it’s not even voluntary. Not only should we not put up with slavery advocates like Paul, we should free ourselves when possible.

Main ideas for this lesson

Real soon!

As we’ve mentioned, Jesus taught that he’d come back within the lifetimes of those living, and Paul appears to have believed this as well. Here he is, telling the members to hang tight until Jesus comes again

Phillipians 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment;
1:10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.

That’s right, folks… any day now. And again:

Phillipians 4:5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Paul devalues our lives and our bodies

The LDS Church is a religion that demands of its members their time, talents, and everything they possess. And so, not surprisingly, the LDS manual phrases things in terms of sacrifices.

• Paul told the Philippians that he had sacrificed all things for Christ (Philippians 3:7–8). What had Paul sacrificed? Why is it important that we make sacrifices for Christ? (See Philippians 3:9–12.)

Ask: Why does the LDS Church demand so much from its members?
Answer: There are low-commitment religions and high-commitment religions. You might think that the low-commitment religions would have an edge, since one can belong to them, and barely have to do anything — or indeed believe anything. And in fact, these religions make up the bulk of Christianity.

But there’s a hidden tool that the high-commitment religions have: investment bias (which we’ve mentioned before in terms of the sunk-cost fallacy). It’s hard to get someone to devote their lives to a cause, but if you can get them started on an ever-escalating treadmill of obligations — come to church, stop drinking coffee, pay tithing, home and visiting teaching, and so on — then it becomes more likely that they’ll continue. After all, stopping the commitments would mean admitting that you wasted your time and money, and no one wants to do that after investing so much.

Joseph Smith was well aware of this. From the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual:

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things” (Lectures on Faith [1985], 69).

In other words, demand everything from them, and you’ve got them.

There are only a few things that we can say that we truly own. One is our body. Another is our life. If you’re going to own someone — in slavelike fashion — you have to attack their autonomy in both of these areas. In this lesson, Paul does just that.

First, he argues that life isn’t much, really. He’s only sticking around for his fans.

Phillipians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
1:22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.
1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
1:24 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.

And Not-Paul points out that believers are dead anyway.

Colossians 3:1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
3:2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3:3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Death cults are so creepy!

Then, as he does from time to time, Paul talks about how terrible and debased our bodies are. Bodies always want what’s wrong, and they’re kind of vile.

Phillipians 3:20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
3:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

(Don’t forget that in 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that even our body isn’t our own.)

There’s a purpose behind this kind of talk. To get someone to hand their bodies and their lives over to you, you have to lower the cost of forfeiture — to convince them that it isn’t anything really very much.

This is dangerous territory. As I write this, religiously-motivated terrorists around the world have murdered people in Beirut and Paris, blowing themselves up in the process. Who would do this, unless they were certain that they were doing it for a higher purpose, just like the one Paul is offering? Other things contribute — military aggression, a persecution narrative, socio-economic inequality — but religion, with its promise of an afterlife, is a uniquely enabling contributor. Many things may be the fuel, but religion is the fuse.

More misogyny

Christians aren’t just slaves to God — Not-Paul thinks women should be slaves to men.

Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
3:19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.

Note that husbands are not under any obligation to submit to their wives. Christian marriage comes with a built-in power imbalance.

Every knee shall bow

Not only does Christianity encourage a kind of slavery, but it looks forward to the day when everyone will be subservient to it.

Phillipians 2:10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
2:11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Slavery

So it’s no wonder that Paul didn’t think actual slavery was any big deal. Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian. Paul sent him back.

Philemon 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

But why? Not-Paul explains that servants should be obedient.

Colossians 3:22 Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God

There aren’t many moral decisions easier than whether it’s all right to own people, and Bible whiffs it. Dan Savage points this out.

Apostate

There’s hope for those in spiritual slavery. This weekend was the scene of yet another Mass Resignation in Temple Square.

Being in Australia, I wasn’t there, but those who were say that there was a great vibe there. Over 2,000 people submitted their resignations over the Church’s surprisingly punitive and harsh policy banning the children of LGBT members from joining the church without denouncing their gay parents.

Getting slightly less press: the LDS Church also defined LGBT people as ‘apostates’. Which led to an interesting observation:

Etymologically, the word comes from Greek: apo– “away from” + stenai “to stand.” But Oxford Dictionaries and Vocabulary.com both point out the “runaway slave” connection.

I think it’s fitting, don’t you? In a sense, those of us who have stopped supporting the church have escaped the slavery we were in. We have emancipated ourselves from a church that used our time, talents, money, and lives for its own benefit and survival. Well done, everyone.

NT Lesson 16 (The blind man)

“I Was Blind, Now I See”

John 9–10

LDS manual: here

Purpose

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

Reading

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

Main ideas for this lesson

Why God allows affliction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus has a rather surprising answer.

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

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

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

WHAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheep

Chapter 10 takes us to a discourse on sheep.

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

Additional lesson ideas

Testimony

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

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

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

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

Mormons enthusiastically promote this bad advice.

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

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

One more time for this Dan Barker quote.

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

Blasphemy review

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

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

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

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

NT Lesson 15

“I Am the Light of the World”

John 7–8

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To discuss how to find out what’s true.

Reading

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

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

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

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

Jesus threatens them like a pissed-off street preacher.

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

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

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

Main ideas for this lesson

Heading

John really didn’t like Jews.

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

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

How do we know what’s true?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth makes you free.

One verse in this reading has some merit:

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

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

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

Woman in adultery story was added later

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

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

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

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

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

Most Bible scholars agree.

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

Here’s another page of references.

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

Additional lesson ideas

What didn’t they include in this reading?

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

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

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

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

Next week: more doubtful miracles. See you then.

NT Lesson 11 (Parables)

“He Spake Many Things unto Them in Parables”

Matthew 13

LDS manual: here

Purpose

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

Reading

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

Main ideas for this lesson

The reason for parables

Let’s start off with a quiz.

Ask: Why did Jesus speak in parables?

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

The surprising answer:

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

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

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

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

Is Mormonism ‘occult’?

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

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

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

Oxford: Communicated only to the initiated; esoteric.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This attitude shows up for other church leaders:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional lesson ideas

Without honour… in his own country

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

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

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

Wheat and tares

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

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

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

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

Faith as a mustard seed

Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed.

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

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

But let’s take it parabolically.

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

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

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

Bad decisions like this book cover.

Admit it, you saw ass.

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

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

LOL non-proportional scaling.

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

NT Lesson 10 (The Yoke)

“Take My Yoke upon You, and Learn of Me”

Matthew 11:28–30; 12:1–13; Luke 7:36–50; 13:10–17

LDS manual: here

Purpose

To instill readers with a sense of gratitude that they no longer have to engage in time-wasting and self-destructive shenanigans, such as those offered by the church.

Reading

In this lesson, Jesus is still in the Galilean phase of his ministry. He’s cruising around, doing miracles, and picking fights with rival religionists. He seems to have outgrown his discipleship with John the Baptist, realising that he’s quite popular in his own right. And when John gets thrown into prison, Jesus realises it’s time for him to step up and take over John’s racket.

John’s not too sure about this. From prison, he sends two of his disciples to Jesus to check him out.

Matthew 11:2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,
11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

It’s a bit odd that John seems uncertain about Jesus. He was supposedly present for the baptism and the dove and the voice from heaven, so you think he’d have made his mind up somehow… oops, unless those things were later insertions like so much of the New Testament.

Not much else to say about John, except that Jesus says some nice things about him.

Matthew 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

You think Jesus / Jehovah mellowed out and got nice after getting a body? Nope. Here, Jesus condemns several cities, Old-Testament style, because they didn’t believe in him enough:

Matthew 11:20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:
11:21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
11:22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
11:23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
11:24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

Main ideas for this lesson

The Sabbath

Then there’s some pointless wrangling about the Sabbath.

I would indeed be ungrateful if I did not take of a moment and say that not obeying the Sabbath is teh best. It’s fantastic not taking up your time with tedious meetings or sitting in Sunday School. You get an entire extra day! It’s like doubling your weekend.

And somehow, even though the consequences of Sabbath-breaking are supposed to be so dire, they ultimately fail to eventuate.

And what was I doing last Sunday? I’m glad you asked. I was helping to break the world record for biggest skinny dip! Nearly 800 people here in Perth smashed the record, and I talked about it on the radio.

Listen on RTRFM

Going to the beach, meeting up with great people, and going swimming in the buff was so much better than going to church. It was infinity times better. There’s no comparison. Being an ex-Mormon opens up a new world of possibilities.

The yoke of Mormonism

Jesus, by contrast, invites us to put on one of these things.

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Looks fun, doesn’t it? Usually, yokes are for beasts of burden, but Jesus says you can wear one, too. It looks entirely necessary, and not like something intended to suck the enjoyment out of your life. And Jesus even says how easy it is, so how does that not sound great.

Object lesson for class: Bring a yoke to class. Ask for a pair of volunteers to stick their necks in it.

Ask: If someone suggested that you wear a farm implement like this so you could do his work for him, what would you say? (Invite responses.)

I know, I know: members will say, “The world claims to offer us fun that is ultimately unfulfilling. Taking on the yoke of Christ may seem like a bad deal, but discipleship is much better.”

Having done both, I can tell you it’s just the opposite. The church wants to absorb your life in a series of time-wasting activities that serve only to advance its own aims at your expense. Being able to direct your own life without superstition is not the same as amoral hedonism. Many people, once they take the yoke off their backs, learn to make better decisions with better information, and as a result live better and more fulfilling lives. (And a few people are total disasters. But frightening people into obedience does not give you a better person.)

Ask: What kinds of responsibilities do church members routinely accept?
Possible answers: Church meetings, leadership positions, missions, callings, home and visiting teaching, temple attendance, zzzzzzz…

And now there’s cleaning the church buildings. After I left the church, I was astounded to hear that they’d laid off their professional janitors and custodians, and were inducing members to clean the buildings! This accomplishes three goals simultaneously:

  • establishes dominance over members,
  • cashes in on free labour, and
  • gets ward meetinghouses to smell faintly of wee.

Watch this inspiring video about how great it is to clean the toilets of a church that you’re already paying 10% toward.

It certainly does put a new spin on an old slogan:

Ask: What could possibly make someone accept such a wide and unnecessary set of burdens and constraints?
One possible answer is the investment fallacy, as discussed in this lesson. People born in the church become used to spending a great deal of time supporting it — see these commitment cards aimed at kids, as one rank example —  and converts are treated to an ever-escalating set of commitments. When someone spends a great deal of time on a system, it becomes harder and harder to unplug from it, since doing so would be an admission that they’re wasted their time, and no one likes to admit that they’ve wasted their time.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett gave a TED talk called “Dangerous Memes” that explains this.

Watch the video describing a bizarre behaviour that ants engage in when their brains are infected by a virus.

Partial transcript:

So you’re out in the woods, or you’re out in the pasture, and you see this ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it falls, and it climbs, and it falls, and it climbs — trying to stay at the very top of the blade of grass. What is this ant doing? What is this in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant? And the answer is: nothing. There’s nothing in it for the ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah, it’s just a fluke. It’s a lancet fluke. It’s a little brain worm. It’s a parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. Salmon swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds, and lancet flukes commandeer a passing ant, crawl into its brain, and drive it up a blade of grass like an all-terrain vehicle. So there’s nothing in it for the ant. The ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain, inducing suicidal behavior. Pretty scary.
Well, does anything like that happen with human beings? This is all on behalf of a cause other than one’s own genetic fitness, of course. Well, it may already have occurred to you that Islam means “surrender,” or “submission of self-interest to the will of Allah.” Well, it’s ideas — not worms — that hijack our brains.

Hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others.

Ask: Why do these ants work so hard in a behaviour that is of no benefit to them, but of immense benefit to the brain virus that has infected them?

Ask: If one such ant could talk, and you asked it why it was climbing that blade of grass, what explanation do you think it might offer for its behaviour?
Possible answer: It might say that it was doing so of its own free will.

Ask: What behaviours do you see Latter-day Saints engaging in that serve to benefit the church, and not themselves?
Possible answers: Missionary work, apologetics, offering their time, talents, and all that they have to the “building up of Zion”.

In addition to these burdens, the church offers some artificial ones. We yoke ourselves with artificial guilt, even when we do normal things or have normal desires.

A lot of the friction between my parents and me was caused by me not doing or saying or thinking the things they thought I should, in order to be a good Latter-day Saint. My enjoyment of popular music worried them horribly, and it shouldn’t have. They worried about what I read, who I knew, what I watched. The church caused a lot of unnecessary conflict in our relationship.

For me now, I can help my sons by appealing to rational reasons to avoid real trouble (drugs, crime, and so on), while realising that there are many ways to live, and I don’t have all the answers. Rather than imagining that they’ll do well if they follow in my footsteps, I can encourage them to grow in ways I didn’t predict — to find things out about our world and our society, and then come back and tell me about them.

And then there’s a post-deconversion aspect: The artificial concept of the afterlife means that our family members are concerned for our “eternal souls”. I have to tell you: I ain’t got one. None of us do. I’m sure that my dear sister is overly anxious for me to return to the church so I don’t suffer an eternity of isolation, inflicted on me by a cruel and sadistic god. Sadly, she’s spending time in her limited life fretting about my non-existent soul, as we both hurry to the grave. This is unnecessary suffering caused directly by her religious beliefs.

As a missionary, one of the toughest audiences I had was a trio of LDS girls who were sisters. We were giving the family a member presentation about the blessings of church involvement, and it was clear that these girls were fucking done. They’d had a lifetime of it, and they tried to explain that the “blessings” were few and the constraints were many. As a fellow lifelong constrainee, I tried to drum up some enthusiasm, but they weren’t having it. Their answers were monosyllabic and flat.

I wonder what happened to those girls. I hope they managed to escape and be happy, instead of spending a lifetime in the empty church, waiting for a better life to begin. We all have the opportunity to throw off the yoke, and begin a new secular life without gods. Our individual circumstances differ. Some of us feel the need to go along with the church to make peace in our personal relationships, but this freedom is still possible, if not in our behaviour, in our minds.

Additional teaching ideas

Sin against the Holy Ghost

What are the worst sins in the world? In the Book of Mormon, having sex is called the sin next to murder, so sex and murder are likely up the top of the list.

But Jesus teaches that even worse than murder (for which, after all, there may be forgiveness under certain circumstances) is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

Matthew 12:31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
12:32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.

Here’s the entry for “unpardonable sin” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

The gravest of all sins is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. One may speak even against Jesus Christ in ignorance and, upon repentance, be forgiven, but knowingly to sin against the Holy Ghost by denying its influence after having received it is unpardonable (Matt. 12:31-32; Jacob 7:19; Alma 39:6), and the consequences are inescapable. Such denial dooms the perpetrator to the hell of the second spiritual death (TPJS, p. 361). This extreme judgment comes because the person sins knowingly against the light, thereby severing himself from the redeeming grace of Christ. He is numbered with the sons of perdition (D&C 76:43).

It may seem strange — to a normal person — that a crime of unbelief would be more serious than murdering someone, but in a religious context, this makes perfect sense. Unbelief is what kills gods, and so it’s natural for a robust and healthy god-meme to develop an immune system to protect itself. Otherwise, deicide is on the menu.

What’s even stranger is that, as dangerous as this sin would appear to be, there’s very little specificity on just what constitutes the commission of it. I recall a belief in the church that it was well-nigh impossible to commit for a garden-variety member. Aside from that, opinions seem to vary widely on what you have to say or do to merit Outer Darkness. What do you have to do? Trash-talk the Spirit? Kill an innocent person? Find Jesus and crucify him again? It’s not clear. And — what can I say — this resembles what happens when a despotic system levies severe punishments for crimes, but doesn’t make public what the crimes are.

So let me take the opportunity to do the worst thing EVAR. Most of my LDS sources say that you have to know the HG before you can deny it. Well, I’ve felt what I once thought to be the influence of Holy the Ghost, but which I now think was a psychological effect that is easily reproducible across world religions. So let me say this:

I deny the Holy Ghost. 

I deny that I was ever under the influence of any such ghost, as ghosts are non-existent figments of human imagination and wonky pattern recognition. Any such influence can be more easily explained as a desire to believe, and as social pressure to uphold the norms and beliefs of a group.

I say essentially the same thing in a recent promo for my language podcast. Listen:

Your browser does not support this audio

Also, I approve of this cartoon showing a Godhead threesome. Suck it, ghost.

Some Mormons might say that in writing and saying the above, I haven’t actually denied the Holy Ghost or committed the Great Unpardonable. Perhaps they’d say I don’t have the requisite knowledge, or the Unpardonable Sin requires me to murder someone, or crucify Jesus again, or some such nonsense. My response would be that I’ve denied the Holy Ghost as much as I can, and if anyone has any ideas for how I can deny the Holy Ghost more completely, please send them in and I can do them, perhaps in a YouTube video.

But not if they involve killing anyone. I don’t want to kill anyone because I’m actually a good person, and it’s the rules of Christianity and Mormonism that are twisted.

OT Lesson 48 (Malachi and Zechariah)

“The Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord”

Zechariah 10–14; Malachi

LDS manual: here

Reading

Hey, we’re to the last Old Testament lesson. This is Lesson 48, which is so far down the list that I doubt many wards will even get to it — the manuals for other years have only 46 lessons — but it’s got some material on tithing, and we can hardly expect the church to skip over that, can we? There’s also some end-of-the-world stuff. So let’s get to it!

To start off, let’s review God’s actions in the OT.

  • Early period: He creates the world and all of humanity, giving them nonsensical and contradictory commandment he knows they won’t be able to obey. He punishes them with death by drowning. He occasionally tries to kill his prophets or their children. Encourages the murder of gay people
  • Post-exodus period: Instead of proclaiming peace, he encourages his people to commit genocide against their neighbours, and eliminates their religions in an attempt to wipe out competition through violence.
  • The Diaspora: Threaten his people with death for being insufficiently religious, and eventually allows their capture and enslavement.
  • Future apocalypse: Threatens to kill the whole world eventually.

In other words, Jehovah (soon to become Jesus) has acted like a tyrant and a bully throughout the entire OT. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I could read the Bible and still worship this violent deity. How could I have read about his failure to rescue his own people from conquest, and thought, “Now here’s a guy I want on my side”?

There’s really only two ways about it: either God is an unimaginably evil psychopath — in which case, I want nothing to do with him — or he doesn’t exist. I find this latter probability to be much more plausible. The god of the Bible is the product of human imagination, as people tried to find explanations for the world around them and all the horrible things that happened to them. The alternative that believers choose — that God is real and responsible for all the horror and carnage in the Bible — is ironically more disrespectful to their god.

Anyway, we’re now up to the minor prophets Zechariah and Malachi. By this point, God was getting so frustrated with his priests that he had to resort to increasingly desperate threats against them, like threatening to smear animal dung on their faces. (They never read this one in Sunday School.)

Mal. 2:3 Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.

When those threats don’t work, God will lapse into a stony silence for 400 years.

Zechariah, for his part, threatens everyone who fights against Israel thusly:

Zech. 14:12 And this shall be the plague wherewith the LORD will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.

No doubt the inspiration for that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Eventually, there won’t be any more non-Jews in the temple.

Zech. 14:21 Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be holiness unto the LORD of hosts: and all they that sacrifice shall come and take of them, and seethe therein: and in that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts.

Keeping non-Jews out of the temple? They may have to rethink that eventually.

Main points for this lesson

Robbing God: It’s about the priests

This lesson contains a very well-known scripture about tithing (the meaning of which has changed over the years).

Mal. 3:8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.
3:9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.
3:10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

What’s not always mentioned is that this scripture is to the priests, not the membership. God (or Malachi) is pissed off because the priests have been fobbing off the blind, lame, and otherwise imperfect animals onto the Levites.

The LDS Church has taken this scripture out of context, and is using it to guilt the members into fuelling its well-moneyed empire. How well-moneyed? A recent estimate from Reuters and University of Tampa sociologist Ryan Cragun pegs it at $7 billion annually.

Relying heavily on church records in countries that require far more disclosure than the United States, Cragun and Reuters estimate that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brings in some $7 billion annually in tithes and other donations.
It owns about $35 billion worth of temples and meeting houses around the world, and controls farms, ranches, shopping malls and other commercial ventures worth many billions more.

This Bloomberg Businessweek article has more. Remember, this is all tax-free, which means the rest of us have to foot the tax bill for religions, even if we don’t believe in them, or want to support them. Meanwhile, they’re rolling in the dough, and paying a pittance in humanitarian aid — about a billion dollars since 1985 by its own reckoning, or about $5 per member per year.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has donated more than $1 billion in cash and material assistance to 167 different countries in need of humanitarian aid since it started keeping track in 1985.

In the words of a modern prophet: Let’s go shopping!

The LDS Church tells its members to pay tithing rather than meet their financial obligations in the mistaken belief that a god will make everything okay.

After reading these scriptures together, Bishop Orellana looked at the new convert and said, “If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing. The Lord will not abandon you.”

And, of course, not paying up means you don’t have access to the temple, which means you might lose your salvation and your eternal family. It’s made out to be voluntary, but it’s really coercive.

It’s easy to see what matters most to the men in Salt Lake. It’s why Latter-day Saints have a special meeting — Tithing Settlement — at the end of the year, just to make sure everyone’s paid up.

Leaders of the church feign concern that God is being robbed, but they’re the ones making out like bandits — and remember, they’re the one selling the fake merchandise, an eternity of pie in the sky when you die. The ones who are really being robbed are the membership, the rest of us who are paying their taxes, and in a sense, people all over the world who are going without because people are donating to their church, instead of to a secular charity.

Hey, this lesson happens around Christmas. Have you donated to a secular charity? Me, I dumped my WorldVision kid and started pumping out money to Oxfam, MSF, the Smith Family, and some other good orgs. Much better than — say — the Salvation Navy.

Tithing and the sunk cost fallacy

Why would a supreme being need money anyway? George Carlin gets it right in this comedy routine.

The typical Mormon response is that “tithing isn’t for the Lord, it’s for you” or it “builds faith”. Well, tithing does keep people believing, but this is because of the sunk cost fallacy. When someone has started giving money to a church, it then becomes harder to think that the church is not true, because doing so would be tantamount to admitting that paying tithing was money down the drain. For many, this is too painful to admit, so they keep paying, and good money follows bad. Tithing is intended to keep you in.

Joseph Smith knew that commitment was the way to hold people.

“Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”

So stop paying tithing. You’ll be saving money, and if Joseph Smith is involved, possibly a daughter.

Actually 11%, but whatever.

Additional lesson ideas

Apple of his eye

Here’s a King James phrase that has stuck with us.

Zech. 2:8 For thus saith the LORD of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.

It appears that here in Zechariah, the word ‘bava’ might really mean ‘apple’, as a reference to the pupil.

Our word ‘pupil‘ comes from Latin pupilla or ‘little doll’, because when you look into someone’s eye, you see your own tiny image, and people thought that looked like a doll. Other instances of eye-apples in the Bible are probably closer to this sense of ‘little man’.

Thanks for reading with me through the lessons this year! I hope you’ve enjoyed them, and I’ll see you next year as we start the New Testament.