Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: Word of Wisdom

D&C Lesson 22 (Word of Wisdom)

The Word of Wisdom: “A Principle with Promise”

Reading assignment

Doctrine and Covenants 89; Our Heritage, pages 25–26.

Links: Teacher’s manual | Student manual


The Word of Wisdom is one of the most distinctive of the Mormon beliefs. Kids at school would ask me, “So you don’t drink Coke?” Which I always thought was an annoying question, but in retrospect it wasn’t as annoying as having a prophet who refused to clarify the question one way or another. More on that later.

But a funny thing would happen in those exchanges. When a kid would say, “You’re a Mormon. So you don’t X?” that was when I felt the Mormonness most overtly. I found myself becoming a Representative. And that, friends, is what the church wants to happen. Once you present to your friends in the capacity of a Representative, then it brings in lots of tapes that start playing in your head, and the tapes have titles like “I Am Different” and “The World Is Watching Me”. And then you either suck it up and obey, or you throw it off and rebel — and a whole lot of kids suck it up.

The Word of Wisdom is weird. It’s not weird that a god would give you health advice — that would be bloody useful. But he gives weird and bad advice — some of which the church largely ignores. It looks like something a 19th century grifter would cobble together from scraps of health fads that were lying around at the time, in complete ignorance of anything that would later be revealed by science.


Was it optional?

Section 89 says that this section is not a commandment, but a smart idea.

D&C 89:1 A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion
2 To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days
3 Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.

And in the early days of the church, it really was treated as optional. Joseph Smith drank quite a bit, even up until the day he died. He was even prone to the odd cigar.

“Joseph Smith tried the faith of the saints many times by his peculiarities. At one time he had preached a powerful sermon on the Word of Wisdom and immediately thereafter, he rode through the streets of Nauvoo smoking a cigar. Some of the brethren were tried as was Abraham of old.” (Tanner 1987:6 c: Joseph Smith as an Administrator, Gary Dean Guthrie, M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, May 1969:161, in turn c: the diary of Apostle Abraham H. Cannon. V.19. 1 Oct 1895. Special Collections Dept. BYU Library). (Emphasis added).

Now I’m cool with this in a Zen master kind of way: do what’s right, not because you see me doing it, but because it’s right. But there’s testing people, and there’s flagrant disregard.

When did this change? The cartoonist Pat Bagley gives an answer in the Salt Lake Trib.

Young was urged to make the Word of Wisdom a test of fellowship, but he said, “I do not think that I shall do so.”

That job fell to Joseph F. Smith in 1902, who was the first church president to make the Word of Wisdom mandatory. Kind of. He urged local leaders to allow leeway with the old men and their tobacco and the old women and their tea. Many church leaders and members, however, continued to drink their wine, beer and coffee with a clear conscience.

In 1921, Heber J. Grant aligned church policy with the national temperance movement and made absolute abstinence church law. The culture of open warfare on demon rum is at least partly a legacy of that alliance. Grant never forgot or forgave the rogue Utah Legislature that very publicly thumbed its nose at his wishes and repealed prohibition in 1933.


D&C 89:4 Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation
5 That inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him.
6 And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.
7 And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies.

This idea grew out of the Temperance Movement, which was an idea that was going around at the time.

Is alcohol bad for you? This one kind of goes back and forth. There may be some benefits to light to moderate drinking. The risks seem to centre around excessive drinking. Here’s a good summary.

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as:

  • Reduce your risk of developing and dying from heart disease
  • Possibly reduce your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)
  • Possibly reduce your risk of diabetes

Even so, the evidence about the health benefits of alcohol isn’t certain, and alcohol may not benefit everyone who drinks.

As for me, I stay away from the stuff. That’s just me.


Tobacco sucks. More to the point, nicotine is just the worst drug. The only high you get is cessation of cravings. From the reading:

D&C 89:8 And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.

Many times I heard people in church say something like, “You know, back in Joseph Smith’s time, doctors were saying that tobacco was good for you.”

What were doctors really saying?

When was tobacco first considered to be dangerous to health?

In 1602 an anonymous English author published an essay titled Worke of Chimney Sweepers (sic) which stated that illnesses often seen in chimney sweepers were caused by soot and that tobacco may have similar effects. This was one of the earliest known instances of smoking being linked to ill health.

In 1795 Sammuel Thomas von Soemmering of Maine (Germany) reported that he was becoming more aware of cancers of the lip in pipe smokers

In 1798 the US physician Benjamin Rush wrote on the medical dangers of tobacco

During the 1920s the first medical reports linking smoking to lung cancer began to appear. Many newspaper editors refused to report these findings as they did not want to offend tobacco companies who advertised heavily in the media

A series of major medical reports in the 1950s and 1960s confirmed that tobacco caused a range of serious diseases.


Hot drinks

D&C 89:9 And again, hot drinks are not for the body or belly.

What did the phrase hot drinks mean in 1830? (A lot is riding on this.) Was it a common way of referring to coffee and tea? Or was it simply referring to any beverage of high temperature?

Kenneth from 30 Rock

“I don’t drink coffee, sir. I don’t drink hot liquids of any kind. That’s the devil’s temperature!”

I’m afraid my Google Books research is far from conclusive. A few non-LDS sources from the time refer to hot drinks, and either sense could be intended. Sometimes the intended meaning is unclear.


God has really strong opinions over what bean derivatives should go in your hot water.


If you think Mormons don’t take the coffee thing seriously, get a load of this. This is Relief Society General President Julie B. Beck giving a General Conference talk in April 2007.



My next story is about a woman I will call Mary. She was the daughter of faithful pioneer parents who had sacrificed much for the gospel. She had been married in the temple and was the mother of 10 children. She was a talented woman who taught her children how to pray, to work hard, and to love each other. She paid her tithing, and the family rode to church together on Sunday in their wagon.

Though she knew it was contrary to the Word of Wisdom, she developed the habit of drinking coffee and kept a coffee pot on the back of her stove. She claimed that “the Lord will not keep me out of heaven for a little cup of coffee.” But, because of that little cup of coffee, she could not qualify for a temple recommend, and neither could those of her children who drank coffee with her. Though she lived to a good old age and did eventually qualify to reenter and serve in the temple, only one of her 10 children had a worthy temple marriage, and a great number of her posterity, which is now in its fifth generation, live outside of the blessings of the restored gospel she believed in and her forefathers sacrificed so much for.

Life tip: If you burst into tears because of someone else’s choice of beverage… you may be in a cult.


The Coke debacle

Then there are issues that the Brethren could sort out, but don’t.

Let’s turn our attention to the Caffeine Incident of 2012. One day in September, the veil parted, and President Newsroom had a revelation. At last! a definitive statement about the Coca-Cola question that so vexed my childhood.

On Wednesday, the LDS Church posted a statement on its website saying that “the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine” and that the faith’s health-code reference to “hot drinks” “does not go beyond [tea and coffee].”

Wait, so caffeinated drinks are okay now? Yay! Let the BYU vending machines flow with that sweet elixir.

But wait again! That statement was too definitive! Nothing of substance must ever be said. So President Newsroom rushed to declarify.

A day later, the website wording was slightly softened, saying only that “the church revelation spelling out health practices … does not mention the use of caffeine.”

Do you ever get the feeling that church leaders are just trying to lock the church into whatever pattern it’s been in for the last 100 years?


God gives rules about meat, which Mormons routinely ignore.

He even says it twice.

D&C 89:12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.

D&C 89:14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;
15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.

Hands up if you were a Mormon who ate hamburgers in the summertime.

It’s been suggested that the comma after used in verse 13 is a later addition that reverses the meaning of the text.

Wheat for man, oats for horses?

Also in the category of “advice Mormons don’t really know what to do with”:

D&C 89:16 All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—
17 Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.

Well, if I had to go on the research alone, I’d go with oats, which have shown a robust correlation to the reduction of cholesterol. Wheat, on the other hand, can be downright terrible for someone who has a gluten allergy. (There aren’t as many of you as you think, by the way.)

Good health advice that a god could have given in the 1830s

This was God’s chance to give his law of health, and explain nutrition to humanity in a way that would have been groundbreaking, and would have made it obvious that Joseph Smith was his prophet. Humans would have been able to confirm the things that he revealed.

If he existed, and if Joseph Smith wasn’t a huge fake, here are some thing he could have revealed that would have saved many lives.

  • God could have explained about cooking eggs to avoid salmonella.
  • God could have explained about niacin, a deficiency of which causes pellagra. Humans would have to figure that one out in 1937.
  • Deficiency in iodine causes goiters, mental retardation, and death for many. God could have explained iodine, but didn’t.
  • He could have settled that question of what causes scurvy. By 1830, quite a few people had supposed that scurvy was caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, but people were still kind of confused, and they were stuck on the idea that scurvy had multiple causes. The few people who had written about this weren’t well-publicised, and humans would have to figure it out in waves. The Lord could have sorted this out.
  • He could have promoted fluoride in drinking water, vaccines, insulin, how to do a clinical test, or any of the many health discoveries humans made in the 20th century. But he didn’t. Humans had to do that by themselves.

Instead, we get advice that’s partly good, partly bad, and partly nonsense. The Word of Wisdom tells us to avoid things that aren’t actually harmful, and prohibits some things which are actually beneficial. JS also managed to jag one good idea — anti-tobacco — that was floating around the populace generally. That’s not very impressive. If this god existed, he’d be an idiot.

Are Mormons healthier?

In some ways, not others. Utah men have high rates of prostate cancer:
Toward a better understanding of the comparatively high prostate cancer incidence rates in Utah

but Mormons in Utah have lower cancer rates
Cancer incidence among Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah (United States) 1995-1999.

Given our current knowledge of risk factors for cancer, differences between LDS and non-LDS in smoking for males and smoking and sexual and reproductive behaviors in females primarily explain the lower risk of cancer in LDS populations.

Mostly because they got the tobacco thing right, which people already knew.

Real reason for the Word of Wisdom

Why do Mormons really have this set of idiosyncratic food standards? For a controlling religion — a cult, if you will — food is a natural thing to have rules about. You eat two or three times a day, so having food rules is a sneaky and subtle cue, always reminding you that the religion controls your behaviour.

And the more arbitrary and idiosyncratic the better. Weird rules cultivate a sense of separateness. Remember that a demanding religion has to make its members feel different — like people apart from the world, who know the true meaning of things, unlike the common herd. (An us/them mentality also helps if you can make the “them” seem unsafe — then the member has to run back to “us” for security.) And how do you make people feel different? Not by doing normal stuff — everyone does that — but by doing arbitrary weird stuff, like not drinking coffee, wearing archaic underwear, and other constant reminders that You Are Different and Special.

Finally, it’s good to note that Mormon understanding of the Word of Wisdom has little to do with what the words say at face value. Back to Pat Bagley:

The Word of Wisdom is a dietary code with many head-scratching restrictions, squishy provisos, and openly flouted prohibitions. Don’t take my word for it; read the original passed on to the world via Joseph Smith in 1833 in Doctrine and Covenants section 89, available at http://www.lds.org.

Unless you’re willing to drink wine of your own making at sacrament meeting and swear off summertime barbecue, hot chocolate, barley (except for mild drinks), you’re not doing it right.

The Word of Wisdom convinced me that, for Mormons, when the revealed word of God bumps up against prevailing cultural belief, the prevailing cultural belief wins every time.

NT Lesson 13

“I Will Give unto Thee the Keys of the Kingdom”

Matthew 15:21–17:9

LDS manual: here


To show how religious people try to shift the burden of evidence through character assassination and attacks.


I sometimes say that Jesus acts like kind of a jerk during his ministry — although “kind of a jerk” is an upgrade from the complete psycho that he was in the Old Testament. But during this lesson, Jesus really goes for it, abusing people who don’t believe in him, and even those who do.

Here are the stories we’ll be tackling in today’s lesson.

  • Jesus calls a Canaanite woman a “dog”
  • Jesus criticises people who ask for evidence
  • Jesus says he will build his kingdom on a “rock” which is either Peter, or revelation, or something or other
  • Jesus says he will come back within the lifetime of people who were alive then

Main ideas for this lesson

Jesus the racist

In our first story, Jesus calls a gentile woman a dog. Imagine: A woman’s daughter has a mental illness. She hears that there’s a guy, Jesus, who’s good at this kind of thing. Desperate, she goes to him and asks for help.

Matthew 15:22 And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.

Ask: What might you say to her?
Answer: I’d tell her that mental illness isn’t caused by demons, and she should consult a psychiatrist.

But Jesus doesn’t even say that; he just ignores her. Finally, she annoys the disciples.

Matthew 15:23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
15:24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

This is a really important point: Jesus only ever intended to teach Jewish people. He never meant for his message to go to Gentiles, and he would have been horrified to see modern-day goyim worshipping him. Bob the WASP out in North Dakota? Pfeh. Ignore him.

Apparently Jesus didn’t realise that this was going to be a block to future growth, and it would take people with more vision than he had to realise that gentiles would be an important growth market. Diversifying your portfolio and all that. But at the time, Jesus didn’t get it.

Matthew 15:25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
15:26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.

Ouch! Not cool, Jesus. “Sorry, lady. Jews only. They’re the children, you’re the dog.”

Matthew 15:27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
15:28 Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

There’s a saviour for you: the only reason Jesus helped her is because she was able to come up with a witty riposte. What a douche.

The bread trick again

In the last lesson, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people on some bread and fish. Now he does it again, feeding 4,000 people.

Remember how in previous lessons, there would be composite stories — two versions of the same story, side by side?

  • The creation
  • Animals aboard the Ark
  • Abraham tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister

Well, now we have another example. This happens when people invent two versions of a story, and the compiler basically just leaves them both in.

Asking for evidence

There’s a well-agreed-upon rule of argumentation, and it’s called the burden of evidence (or burden of proof): If someone makes a claim, the onus is upon them to provide evidence for that claim.

Religious people — as with people with extraordinary but unsupported claims — don’t try very hard to support their claim, but they expend a great deal of energy trying to dodge the burden of evidence, and shifting this burden to others.

Here’s how Jesus responds to the burden of evidence:

Matthew 16:1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.
16:2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
16:3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
16:4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.

Ask: How does Jesus respond to people who ask for evidence?
Answer: He calls them adulterers.

Okay, so the Pharisees and Sadducees are asking for the wrong kind of evidence. They want a sign from heaven, some miraculous display. Asking for this is asking to be fooled by conjuring tricks. But asking for some kind of evidence is a normal response to a grandiose claim, and if a claimant tries to dodge this most basic responsibility, then this should serve as a warning. That Jesus responds to this perfectly reasonable request with charges of adultery tells me that he knew he didn’t have the goods.

Ask: What logical fallacy is someone committing if they say that anyone who challenges them must be committing adultery?
Answer: Click here to see the answer.

Joseph Smith used this dodge as well.

When I was preaching in Philadelphia, a Quaker called out for a sign. I told him to be still. After the sermon, he again asked for a sign. I told the congregation the man was an adulterer; that a wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and that the Lord had said to me in a revelation, that any man who wanted a sign was an adulterous person. “It is true,” cried one, “for I caught him in the very act,” which the man afterwards confessed when he was baptized. (Feb. 9, 1843.) DHC 5:268. (Teachings, p. 278)

I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn other, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives. The principle is as correct as the one that Jesus put forth in saying that he who seeketh a sign is an adulterous person; and that principle is eternal, undeviating, and firm as the pillars of heaven; for whenever you see a man seeking after a sign, you may set it down that he is an adulterous man. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 156-157)

It is, of course, outrageously ironic for Joseph Smith to have accused anyone of adultery. He was making hay with women before the so-called “sealing power” had been restored, before any “revelation” on the subject, and then lying to Emma and everyone else about it.

Joseph F. Smith continued this dodge.

What is sign seeking?
“It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign. Show me Latter-day Saints who have to feed upon miracles, signs and visions in order to keep them steadfast in the Church, and I will show you members of the Church who are not in good standing before God, and who are walking in slippery paths. It is not by marvelous manifestations unto us that we shall be established in the truth, but it is by humility and faithful obedience to the commandments and laws of God.
Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine

This is a strange claim. In reality, no member could ever be sustained by “miracles, signs and visions” because these things don’t happen. If they did, it wouldn’t be possible to keep people out of the church, and there would be no need for missionaries. The church strings its members along by encouraging them to interpret ordinary events as miracles.

One related point before we move on. Many Latter-day Saints say that people shouldn’t expect to see miracles because the real convincing power comes by the Spirit / feels / emotional reasoning. This quote from the D&C Student Manual ties it all together:

When we understand this process, we can see why sign seeking is condemned. Someone who demands outward evidence of the power of God as a condition for believing is seeking to circumvent the process by which faith is developed. He wants proof without price. As with the adulterer, he seeks the results without accepting the responsibility. Thus it is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeks signs.

This is shifting the “burden of proof” all over again. Why should someone pay a “price” to come up with evidence that the claimant should be providing? Why doesn’t the claimant simply produce the evidence, instead of demanding that the listener do the work for them? Would the claimant be happy to undergo “the process by which faith is developed” for any dumb claim that anyone else chooses to bring, like Muhammad or Reiki?

This is a failure to provide publicly-available evidence, directing the listener instead to unreliable evidence and emotional manipulation. It’s the same as saying, “You have to believe it first, and then you’ll believe it,” which is a tautology. It’s very commonly engaged in by believers, and it’s no surprise that they get the idea from Jesus himself. But it’s a nasty slur, and it’s poor reasoning.

“Upon this rock”

Oh, how Mormons tap-dance around this scripture. It’s like the only time they bust out the Greek.

Matthew 16:13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
16:14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
16:15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16:16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
16:19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

It’s tricky because Catholics use this to show that Peter was the first pope. Jesus built the church on Peter (πέτρος, petros, “rock”), you see.

How do Mormons respond? By ignoring the whole thing about Peter, and going back to the previous sentence about “revelation”. Here’s the real Gospel Doctrine manual:

Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the rock Jesus referred to is revelation (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 274).

Protip: If your argument involves ignoring a chunk of the text, it’s probably not very good.

I don’t have a point with this because I think it’s all silly. But, if you’re an ex-Mormon, isn’t it nice not to have to take this stuff so seriously anymore?

When was Jesus to return?

I always thought of the Second Coming as something that was always meant to happen 2,000 years after Jesus. (Coincidentally, that just happens to be the time I’m alive.) But imagine my surprise: early Christian belief held that Jesus would come back during the lifetimes of people who were living then.

Matthew 16:27 For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

This scripture has caused all kinds of gymnastics, creating the myth that John the beloved is still alive somewhere, Highlander style.

But if you think Mormons have it bad, spare a thought for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who pegged the time of “some standing here” to 1914. They expected Jesus to return before the last person in that generation died. Well, Jesus had better hurry, because that was 101 years ago, and counting. (The JWs would appear to have abandoned this line of thinking.)

Additional lesson ideas

What did they leave out of this lesson?

For some reason, the lesson manual skipped this part:

Matthew 15:11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

15:17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?
15:18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.

Ask: Why might the LDS Church wish to downplay this scripture?
Answer: Now that the Word of Wisdom has been elevated to non-negotiable doctrine status (much worse than other sins), the idea that what you eat or drink is not that big a deal would upset the order of things.

Whatever you’re eating, drinking, or smoking, I hope you’re enjoying it. Until next week, cheers!

OT Lesson 45 (Daniel 1, Esther)

“If I Perish, I Perish”

Daniel 1; 3; 6; Esther 3–5; 7–8

LDS manual: here


God’s been terrible lately in the Old Testament. He’s been messing around with his prophets, making them do weird things, and basically threatening to kill the whole world. I’ve just been waiting to see if he’ll do something nice for someone, sort of like Erin Brockovich’s boyfriend did before he left. Well, in this lesson, we finally get to see the nicer side of Jehovah, with the stories of Daniel and Esther.

Ch. 1: Daniel and friends are captured by the Babylonians, who are surprised to find that Jews can be vegan. The prince of the eunuchs asks, “Where do you get your protein?” He doesn’t want them to keep their diet, but in a sudden burst of science, a test is proposed, and Daniel and his friends look healthier than the kids who eat meat.

Ch. 3: Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to worship king Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, and are cast into a fiery furnace. Because the fire’s so hot, it kills the men throwing them in. But that’s collateral damage, and they’re not Jews anyway, so it doesn’t count. This begins a long tradition of not caring much about minions.

The king looks into the fire and sees:

3:25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

This verse is noteworthy for the appearance of the concept of God having a son, but what’s really impressive is how perceptive Nebuchadnezzar is. How was he supposed to know what the Son of God would look like? There’s only one explanation: everyone in this story is freaking high.

Ch. 6: Daniel himself is thrown to the lions when he prays in defiance of the king. Nothing bad happens to him because God always intervenes in favor of those who believe in him.

Wait, does that mean that God just nullified the agency of everyone who saw the event? It must have been such an amazing rescue that those who saw it would have no choice but to believe! At least, that’s what people always tell me when I ask why God can’t give sufficient evidence for his existence. God requires faith, which evidence would nullify.

But this is a silly rationale. The scriptures are full of stories like this, where God rescues people who have faith in him. So if you have faith, but you don’t get rescued, you might well ask: What am I, chopped liver? Unless you die, in which case you can’t ask anything at all. And this is why God seems better than he is: lots of people are walking around thinking God saved them; dead people aren’t around to give the other side of the story.

There’s nothing supernatural about the story of Esther; in fact, terms like God and Lord never appear. As a consequence, it’s quite enjoyable to read. It’s rather similar to Daniel in theme: the Jews are threatened with extinction, but Esther saves the day. This will get rebooted into tales of destruction in the Book of Mormon, including burning the people of Ammonihah alive (Alma 14), and the wicked Nephites planning to put all the believers to death (3 Ne 1)

Main points from this lesson

God protects his people, but don’t expect protection

The king asks Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego what they’ll do if he decides to burn them. And where’s their god now?

3:15 Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?

The answer of the boys is interesting.

3:16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.
3:17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
3:18 But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.

As a believer, this always seemed very moderate and mature. You shouldn’t expect God to protect you. As Neil Maxwell said,

“We will [not] always be rescued from proximate problems, but we will be rescued from everlasting death!”

Meanwhile, Neil Maxwell is still dead.

To me now, this seems like a dodge. You might expect God to protect you, but if he doesn’t feel like it for some reason, that doesn’t mean he’s failed or he doesn’t exist or anything. It’s a good excuse for explaining away a lack of results, or explaining why a god who does nothing might possibly exist.

Click to continue to the rest of the comic.

So which is it? If he doesn’t intervene, how can they be sure he exists? And if he does intervene, why does he do so in such a selective fashion?

Persecution complexes

As a kid in the Mormon Church, there were two doctrinal constants:

  • Don’t ever drink alcohol
  • They’re coming to get us.

No shit; some teacher once tried to terrify a class full of us by telling a hypothetical story about how our neighbours went berserk and decided to burn all the Mormons to death in a huge fire — naming each of us by name during the story — and would we be strong enough to be killed for our faith? WOULD WE?

What I didn’t realise was that our neighbours couldn’t have cared less about our goofy religion; they just wished we wouldn’t bug them so much about it. That didn’t stop us from incorporating imaginary future persecution into our worldview.

After all, why was Joseph Smith persecuted? This was never clear to me as a Mormon kid, though it seemed to be satanic in origin. I’d often hear that Joseph could have made the persecution stop at any time, just by denying the Book of Mormon and the First Vision — and that means he really believed it and it must be true. Post-polygamy-essays, I now see that for the distortion it is. If Joseph had denied the Book of Mormon or the First Vision, that wouldn’t have stopped the persecution because the persecution was never about those things. He was persecuted because he was bilking people out of their money, abusing his position as a religious leader, marrying girls and wives, planning the assassination of a governor, and destroying printing presses. Trumped-up charges? Hardly.

The early Mormons were persecuted in Illinois and Missouri, but this didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, nor was it entirely unreciprocated. Here’s a page listing some of the factors — Caution: it’s a Christian site.

The two stories in today’s reading are used to fuel paranoia and a persecution complex among believers. In the story of Daniel, anyone who refuses to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image gets the fiery furnace, and anyone who prays gets lions.

As for Esther, Haman gets king Ahasuerus to agree to genocide against the Jews.

3:13 And the letters were sent by posts into all the king’s provinces, to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day, even upon the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, and to take the spoil of them for a prey.

Note that in past chapters, when the Israelites are commanded to commit genocide against their neighbours, this is just another day in the Old Testament. But when it’s the Jews thenselves that are endangered, this is meant to be biblically terrible. At this stage, having read this much of the OT, this kind of myopia shouldn’t be surprising.

Let’s not forget that in many places in the world, religious persecution is very real, against Christians, against Jews, against all sorts, including atheists.

That aside, imagining persecution is one thing that American Christians are really good at. It’s given rise to the War on Christmas, in which Christians imagine that their 11-month holiday, enthusiastically celebrated by everyone, is being prohibited because they can’t force everyone to make it explicitly Christian.

All too often, it’s Christians who are unwilling to give up the religious privilege that they’ve historically enjoyed. Here are Christians interrupting a public prayer in the US Senate when it’s a Hindu’s turn.

and here’s a Christian interrupting a Muslim giving a prayer at a Christian cathedral.

Even Buddhists, who many of us would consider placid and tolerant, can become murderous when their dominance is threatened.

It’s especially rich when US Christians claim that persecution is happening at the hands of atheists.

In the words of this possibly fictional youth pastor:

Ask: What can we learn from these cases?
Answers: Religious majorities can very easily become tyrannical.

Read Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. What does it say about religion?

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Notice also Article 20:

(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Atheists and non-believers must be committed (somewhat ironically) to upholding religious pluralism and the right to join, leave, or switch to any religion (or none), while upholding secular principles in government, schools, and workplaces.