Sunday, November 29, 2009

Magical Thinking

Aaron commented on last week's post on Personalities of the Deeply Religious and suggested that perhaps the common thread among the deeply religious is magical thinking. He hadn't experienced the violence that I have seen and that was integral to the upbringing of the Lafferty brothers and that seemed to be part and parcel of religious culture of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and 19th century Mormonism. But with or without the violence and spirit of coercion, devoted religiosity does seem to rely on a willing suspension of disbelief and a desire to believe in supernatural powers that can only be invoked through obedience to the practices of the religion. So, I can't help but agree with him, but I think it is a short stroll from magical thinking to violence, especially for people who are naturally inclined in that direction.

Reading more about the Lafferty brothers today I was struck by what a short path it was for Ron Lafferty to go from a devoted, model Mormon, first counselor in the bishopric and pillar of the community to an abusive, fundamentalist Mormon receiving revelations from God that ultimately led him to murder a young mother and her infant child in cold blood for the sin or opposing him and his brothers and their divinely appointed mission to restore the Mormon church to its true practices and doctrines including polygamy.

In the early 80s he was publicly a role model for the members of his ward, but privately he was consumed by the huge recession and on the verge of going bankrupt. At this critical time he met with his brothers who had already independently discovered and retreated into religious and political extremism to try to correct their ways. Instead he found himself convinced and soon started to require his wife to be subservient to him and started to talk of marrying off his teenage daughters in polygamous marriages to other men. When his wife and children left him and he lost his home he fell under the sway of another fundamentalist prophet who taught him to receive revelations. Unsurprisingly he received a revelation reminiscent of D&C 132 that called his wife to repentance and commanded her to return to him or be destroyed. Then he received a revelation commanding him to kill the people who had supported his wife and helped her leave him. The rest is history.

I'm still left wondering whether extreme religious belief is a fertile ground in which coercive and violent behavior can easily find roots. When you are convinced that God has revealed the truth to you and that ultimately truth will prevail in apocalyptic fashion and consume everyone who doesn't believe, it isn't a huge stretch to believe that you are the instrument for fulfilling God's will to cleanse the earth and help the truth roll forward.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


My dad did it again. He lured me into his bizzaro world of politics. This time it was his conviction that President Obama isn't a natural born citizen. I'd already looked into this one because, unlike him, if this were true or had some basis in fact I'd actually like to know it. The link in the title is to a Salon article that addresses the claims of the birthers. The refutation is pretty simple since none of their claims have any evidence to support them.

So, why do my father and uncle and a pretty significant percentage of the U.S. population belief such stuff? The only conclusion I can come to is that they want to believe it. From there it is pretty easy to convince them using false premises, circular logic, strawman arguments, and other logical fallacies and outright fabrications.

Trying to use reason with these people is much like trying to rationally discuss religion with the converted. They have already reached their conclusions and even when confronted with contradicting facts they filter them and twist them through the lense of their world view and are able to dismiss them.

Take for example their assertion that Obama doesn't have a birth certificate. This falls under the category of a straw man argument. While it is true, it doesn't matter because he has a certificate of live birth. Twist it and turn it however you want the existence of a birth certificate doesn't matter because in the state of Hawaii a certificate of live birth is all that is required to prove birth in Hawaii. You can also claim that his was a forgery or was originally falsified in some way, but without proof you're still out of luck because the officials in Hawaii have repeatedly stated that he has a valid certificate. You'd think that would be the end of it, but it is completely unpersuasive to people like my father.

He brought up the "fact" that Obama had traveled to Pakistan on an Indonesian passport when he was 20. The implication here (which proves to be false) is that if he had an Indonesian passport then he must have previously renounced his U.S. citizenship. I've heard this claim so much that I figured that there must be some basis in fact but I should have known better. This little tidbit is an inference based on a false premise. The false premise is that U.S. citizens weren't allowed to travel to Pakistan at that time. Therefore, he must have traveled there using a passport from another nation such as the U.K. or Indonesia. This becomes "proof" and a "fact" to the birthers despite the fact that U.S. citizens were freely traveling to Pakistan at the time and the actual fact that there was no such travel restriction.

Part of the problem here is that people trust the sources of such things and figure that if they say it then they've checked the fact. They trust the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world to tell them the truth.

How many times do you have to show that wack jobs like the birthers are idiots that are so desperate to prove an extremely unlikely point before you just dismiss having further discussions with them? Unfortunately, I still have to interact with my father and I'm intellectually honest so I continue to research some of his more precious beliefs on the off chance that he may have come across something. I just wish he was capable of doing the same.

One point I'd like to make is that it's not just religion and Mormonism that inspires irrational belief in the extraordinary. Politics is also fertile ground for self deception. Despite the temptation to demonize the religious it is important to realize that the enemy is irrationality, fanaticism, and close mindedness no matter where it is found.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Personalities of the Deeply Religious

On the recommendation of a friend I have started reading "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. So far I'm finding a lot of parallels with "Blood of the Prophets" and the culture and circumstances surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

I'm reading about Watson Lafferty and the following things struck me because of the parallels with my own father and some other Mormons I've known.

He was extremely conservative and was impressed with the ideas of Ezra Taft Benson including the John Birch Society and the pervasive infiltration of communists.

He was very pious, individualistic, and strict. He beat his wife and children and once beat the family dog to death with a baseball bat while the children watched.

He was very distrustful of conventional medicine. He was a chiropractor and once tried to treat a daughter's appendicitis at home with prayers and homeopathy and refused to take her to the hospital until her appendix burst and she was on the verge of death.

Despite the periodic violence his son remember him as a loving father and great role model who raised a very special and happy family.

In comparison my father belongs to the Birchers and subscribes to their beliefs in worldwide communist conspiracies. Those that disagree are pinko commies or fools that are under their sway. He's a birther who thinks Obama is an illegitimate president because he isn't a natural born citizen.

He was very strict and didn't have qualms about using the belt and was known to enforce his will with violence.

He is also very distrustful of mainstream medicine. He believes that laetrile is the cure for cancer but that the establishment has refused to research it because it is free and so they can't make money off of it. He regularly ignores medical advice and is prone to trying crackpot cures.

I wonder if these types of rigidly unconventional individuals are at the core of most religions. I know not all or even most religious people are this way. But I'm thinking of those that are the core; those that are most active, most pious, and who inevitably rise to positions of leadership.

-- Sent from my Palm Pre

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Elder Hafen, Come Out of the Closet!

Homosexuality doesn't really bother me so I've always been perplexed by those who are really bent out of shape over the threat of homosexuality to our society. It's as if they think that it's infectious and that by accepting or tolerating it we will encourage its spread. Instead we need to fight it and battle it. After all, any guy could fall prey to the temptations of easy, promiscuous homosexual sex, right? If society says it's okay then think of all of the guys that would stop chasing those icky women and marrying them for reproduction and eternal exaltation.

I know a few of you out there are going, well duh. Of course.

I have news for you. You're at least a little crooked and definitely not completely straight.

Take, for example, the following quote from Elder Hafen, a Mormon General Authority.
In other words, before puberty, boys are typically more interested in other boys than in girls. Then their interest gradually shifts to girls, but a few boys don’t make this transition. Often these boys are emotionally sensitive, introspective, and, especially among Church members, perfectionistic. When puberty hits this group, they can be sexually aroused by many factors. When these factors include other boys, they can become fixated on the fear that they are “gay,” especially if they have male sexual experiences, including male pornography. Then their fixation can block their normal emotional-sexual development.
Now, maybe I'm not your typical heterosexual male, but this doesn't even begin to describe my romantic or sexual interests at ANY point in my life, especially in the years immediately preceding and during puberty. I remember my first crush in first grade on Becky Wolf to this day. My second crush was on my attractive, young, single second grade teacher. Many others followed and by the time I entered junior high I was fairly well entranced by all things female. At no point do I remember ever having even a passing attraction to other males much less being more interested in other boys than girls.

So, my question for Bruce Hafen and Boyd Packer, who he was quoting is if this was their experience? It apparently was also the experience of other anti-homosexual religious and political figures such as Ted Haggard and Senator Larry Craig. They seem terrified of the acceptance of homosexuality because they themselves can easily see themselves succumbing to their own homosexual temptations and without legal and religious proscriptions can see how it would spread.

I had a conversation about this with a friend at work a while back. He was laughingly telling me about a friend who was describing how he could see how easy it would be for a man to become gay and that he could imagine how that could be a temptation that needed to be resisted. Of course, this was pretty laughable to both of us.

Again, maybe I'm way off here and maybe I'm abnormal among heterosexual men, but while I can concede that it may be attractive to some men, I simply can't imagine it. I don't remember ever making a choice about my sexual orientation and frankly find male homosexual sex icky. No offense, but no thank you. It's not hygienic or anything, I just can't imagine being intimate with a man.

Anyway, this whole need to resist the temptation to be gay, repent, be fixed, etc. seems rather like fighting the need to eat or drink water or meet other basic physical needs. The apparent classification of sex by the church as some kind of completely optional, unnecessary physical activity that can be overcome seems pretty unreal to me. Are they gay or frigid? Would they really like to live their lives without any sex or physical bonding with another human being that they find attractive? What would that make their life like? Because that's what they're asking of their homosexual members. For all I know, that's the way they feel about sex with their wives.

The rest of the article is pretty sad that basically asks the gay members he was addressing to repent of their sins (not that their same sex attraction itself is a sin, he points out) and seek the healing power of the atonement to help them either celibate for the rest of their lives or functional heterosexuals who resist their temptations (because what they feel is not their natural state, but a mental illness that can be treated) and be made whole and heteorsexual either in this life or the life to some. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Just Drop Your Pants

Have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live sketch with the androgenous Pat? Was Pat male or female? We'll never know. As it turns out, answering the question can be a lot more difficult than having the person drop their pants (although that will usually suffice).

The question comes up in sports like track and field where men and women compete separately because of the significant difference in performane potential between the sexes. Occassionally men are caught cheating by entering women's events in "drag" so when a woman comes along with broad shoulders, narrow waist, heavy muscles, and a deep voice and proceeds to blow away everyone in elite competitions, the questions inevitably arise. Is "she" a he, or is she just incredibly juiced like the East German women used to be? Or is something else going on?

The problem surfaced during this year's IAAF Track and Field World Championships when suspicion fell on Caster Semenya when she dominated the women's 800m final. Her win fell under a cloud of suspicion and protest and I wondered why a quick trip to the showers didn't solve the problem.

The short answer is because that wouldn't necessarily answer the question.

The IAAF did genetic testing for a while for gender. They checked for a gene that only exists on the Y (male) chromosome. Amazingly (to me) there were 8 of the 3000 females tested in the 1996 Atlanta olympics that tested positive as being genetically male. They had a Y chromosome. So doesn't that make them male? If so, then why were they allowed to compete?

This excellent blog post at "The Science of Sport" gives a great explanation. A condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) can cause a male embryo to develop testes and not ovaries or a uterus, but to not develop the rest of the physical traits of a male. The external genetalia may be ambiguous and the physical appearance doesn't match the genetic sex. Other conditions can result in ambiguous genetalia and intersex conditions where the person is neither male nor female.

So, the result may be very interesting and counterintuitive (to me at least). Caster may indeed be genetically male, have internal testes, no uterus or ovaries, but be allowed to keep her world championship and continue to compete as a female. And, the controversy may actually save her life because internal testes need to be removed because they can quickly become cancerous and in her case are not needed.

Of course, Mormons have this all figured out as witnessed by this excerpt from The Family: A Proclamation to the World:

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.

So there you have it. The Lord's prophets have declared that male/female is an intrinsic, eternal, essential characteristic. So, I wonder if they would ordain Caster to the priesthood even though she, her family, and friends all believe she is a woman. Does her genetic identity trump? It's great that the Mormons have a prophet to sort out and address such issues. Perhaps she can get a patriarchal blessing to not only declare her lineage, but also her gender? Or perhaps in a Mormon family she would be forced to be male although she has no penis and feels like a woman. Perhaps it's her burden to be an eternal male destined to pass mortality feeling like a female.

Or perhaps even on topics so apparently easy to deal with, such as gender and sexuality, the world is much stranger and more complicated than we ever imagined.

I'm not holding my breath for the church to come out with anything reasonable on this because it doesn't fit neatly into their black/white world and would to easily transition to other questions of sexuality for which they aren't known for being terribly understanding or reasonable.

Nope, God has made it all so simple to understand.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess

Over the last few months I read a couple of church history books. The first was Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess by Richard S. Van Wagoner. The second was Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?: The Spalding Enigma by Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis, and Arthur Vanick.

The first is a long overdue biography of Rigdon. He is best known among Mormons for his pivotal role in the early days of the church and was in the First Presidency right up until Joseph Smith's murder. After that he tried to assert his claim to the presidency and when Brigham Young and the apostles supplanted him and other claimants he went his own way and was excommunicated by Young for continuing to try to regain his former leadership role. Like so many early leaders of the church he became an apostate cast by the wayside and largely forgotten.

Most interesting to me was his religious exploits after Smith's death because I think it gives great insight into how to consider his involvement in the founding of Mormonism. After to failing to gain a following in Nauvoo he head east to Pittsburgh (?) and took over leadership of a branch of the church there. He became a prophet and tried to establish a new Zion in a similar fashion to what he had done with Smith in Kirtland, Independence, and Nauvoo. Like those previous attempts he failed miserably. He finally wound up living in impoverished circumstances with his son's family. His son forbid people from discussing religion with his father because of the problems it caused.

Apparently in secret, Rigdon continued to act as a prophet to people who he led via letters as he remotely led them from site to site of new Zions while constantly berating them with prophecies condemning them for failing to adequately support him. His small flock apparently placed great faith in him as they sacrificed everything trying to support him and comply with his arbitrary directions.

In a tragic turn of events for seekers after truth, Rigdon's wife apparently burned all of his papers. One wonders what might have been in that treasure trove that he didn't want exposed to the world but we'll never know.

The second book explores the possibility that Rigdon had a role in the production of the Book of Mormon. Despite the length of the book, there is really no solid evidence. About all that can be said is that they have shown that Rigdon was in the right places at the right times so that it's a possibility. But is is so highly speculative in nature that the case is hardly compelling. It can't be ruled out, but then again neither can the theories proposed by Brody and others including B.H. Roberts who concluded that Smith was certainly capable of producing the Book of Mormon on his own using the resources at his disposal.

But, when you take the two books together it struck me how quickly Smith's prophetic voice changed as soon as he joined with Rigdon in Kirtland, Ohio. Nearly all of the church's revelations were given in Kirtland with Rigdon by Smith's side the whole time. Prior to Smith, Rigdon had already spent years developing his own Christian restorationist theology as a Cambellite minister and had had a falling out with the Cambellites because he seemed to go to far. However as soon as he linked up with the Mormons you can see his ideas finding fruit in Smith's revelations. During this period, not only were most of the revelations given, but he and Smith "translated" the Bible, established Zion in Missouri, and tried to set up a communal order and various business enterprises. It is easy to understand why so many people at that time believed that Rigdon was the real founder of Mormonism.

Like Smith, Rigdon was never successful in earning an honest living with his own hands and relied on his religious roles and the charity of others to support himself. After his split from the main branch of Mormonism it becomes easy to see him continue a pattern until his death where he tried to use the faith of others to his own advantage.

I highly recommend the first book, but not the second unless you really, really want to see how far people are willing to stretch scanty evidence or are very interested in minute details of the period.

Oh. The second book also raises a very good point about how very little we know about Oliver Cowdery prior to his role in the production of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Mormon church. I've pointed this out with regard to the testimonies of the three witnesses, but it is extremely suspicious how little we know of Cowdery's life. As church historian it makes one wonder at what he might have been trying to hide and the book actually does a pretty good job at pointing out what some of those things might me.

Smith and Rigdon were the key figures in the foundation of Mormonism and it's theological evolution. I think that the character of Smith's closest associate sheds a great deal of light on Smith himself.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Evolution Redux

I got a response to an older post, Transitional Life Forms, and I figured I post my response here. You can read the response in the comments, but the essence is that it takes more faith to believe in evolution than creation and that there is no evidence for evolution. Here's my response.

Aw, but MonkeyMom, the evidence is plentiful. Over the 4.5 billion years of its existence the fossil record clearly records the emergence, extinction, and continuation of all of the kingdoms. It just happens over extremely long periods of time. So if you expect to see it over the period of your lifetime or even during the period of recorded human history then you'll probably miss it. People easily misjudge probabilities because they can't easily fathom the magnitudes of the involved numbers. But to state that there is no evidence is simply wrong. It's there even if it is just fragmentary snapshots.

What's completely lacking is any evidence that supports a single creation event where all of the world's species were created with no new ones emerging since that creation.

The beautiful thing about science is that it's not afraid to say when it doesn't know something. Regardless, what we do know is that the earth is significantly older than 6000 years and that life has existed on it for a very, very long time, and that the types of life have changed radically over those long periods and that they have changed from simple life forms to increasingly complex life forms and that the life forms have changed to match the conditions.

If you know what fossils are, you probably know how rare they are and that they are only formed under very special circumstances. The result is that the fossil record is incredibly incomplete. This makes it very unlikely that we'll ever see a complete fossil record showing transitions. However, it does show the appearance of increasingly complex organisms over very large time periods.

Evolution is a theory that tries to explain the known facts. So far, it is the most plausible although like all theories it will be modified and perhaps discarded as new evidence is found that either supports it or undermines it.

That's the beauty of science.

I was, of course, joking about dogs being evidence of transitional life forms. I'm not sure that I buy the theory of evolution either. I'm willing to say I don't know. I think that it's quite likely that there are processes that we don't or can't understand because they happen over millions, billions, or trillions of years. Also, by the very nature of the question, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to know the answer.

What I am 100% certain of, is that the Biblical creation account is not how it happened. The evidence on the ground completely contradicts the account unless you read it as a purely metaphorical story whose details are essentially meaningless.

Since you've studied this so much, I'm sure you're also aware of the problems with postulating an all powerful creator. On the other hand, if you had you'd probably understand why that is an even more improbable theory than evolution.

I'm sure it is comforting to believe in a simple answer: God did it. But if I concede that, then you still have to explain what God is and how he did it. Which kind of brings us back to square one. In the end, "God did it" is just a comforting way of saying, "I don't know." And I'm okay with that answer.

In the end our existence is miraculous, amazing, and astounding. Whether or not we believe in God doesn't change that one bit.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Office of Presiding Patriarch: Where Has It Gone?

Search the Mormon scriptures for the term patriarch and you will find the following tantalizing reference in D&C 124:91-95:
91 And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant William be appointed, ordained, and anointed, as counselor unto my servant Joseph, in the room of my servant Hyrum, that my servant Hyrum may take the office of Priesthood and aPatriarch, which was appointed unto him by his father, by blessing and also by right;
92 That from henceforth he shall hold the keys of the apatriarchal blessings upon the heads of all my people,
93 That whoever he blesses shall be blessed, and whoever he acurses shall be cursed; that whatsoever he shall bbind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever he shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
94 And from this time forth I appoint unto him that he may be a prophet, and a aseer, and a revelator unto my church, as well as my servant Joseph;
95 That he may act in concert also with my aservant Joseph; and that he shall receive counsel from my servant Joseph, who shall show unto him the bkeys whereby he may ask and receive, and be crowned with the same blessing, and glory, and honor, and priesthood, and gifts of the priesthood, that once were put upon him that was my servant cOliver Cowdery;
What's so tantalizing about this you ask? Joseph Smith instituted the office of Presiding Patriarch of the church and Brigham Young later stated that it was an office that should always exist within the church yet today that office no longer exists in the church. It was silently done away with when the church put its last Presiding Patriarch on "emeritus" status without explanation to him or the church other than that all stakes had their own local patriarchs and that therefore the presiding office was no longer necessary.

What is lost in all of this is the prolonged internal debate and dissension within the presiding circles of the church over what exactly the nature of the office of Presiding Patriarch was within the church. The above quote is about all that the scriptures have to say about it, but in Joseph Smith's time it was understood that it was a lineal office that should go to the oldest worthy descendant of Joseph Smith, Sr and that understanding continued in the church right until the end of the office.

So what happened? In a nutshell the office threatened the primacy of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When Joseph Smith was murdered there were no clear succession plans. During his life Joseph Smith ordained his son Joseph Smith III to be his successor but he was too young. There were various claimants to the position but ultimately most of the church followed the president of the 12, Brigham Young. But even with the 12 some of the apostles felt that a new prophet could take the position of the president of the church without a revelation. That revelation never came and after a few years Brigham filled the position and this precedent has been followed to this day despite the fact that there is not revelation stating that this is the correct method of succession. The church could change its succession tradition whenever it wants to and not contradict any known Mormon doctrine. What the tradition does do is eliminate dissent when the president dies.

So how does that relate to the office of Patriarch? In the same section God reveals the officers of the presiding priesthood in order and for a long time the officers were sustained in this order during church conferences.
123 Verily I say unto you, I now give unto you the officers belonging to my Priesthood, that ye may hold the keys thereof, even the Priesthood which is after the order of Melchizedek, which is after the order of mine Only Begotten Son.
124 First, I give unto you Hyrum Smith to be a patriarch unto you, to hold the sealing blessings of my church, even the Holy Spirit of promise, whereby ye are sealed up unto the day of redemption, that ye may not fall notwithstanding the hour of temptation that may come upon you.
125 I give unto you my servant Joseph to be a presiding elder over all my church, to be a translator, a revelator, a seer, and prophet.
126 I give unto him for counselors my servant Sidney Rigdon and my servant William Law, that these may constitute a quorum and First Presidency, to receive the oracles for the whole church.
127 I give unto you my servant Brigham Young to be a president over the Twelve traveling council;
128 Which Twelve hold the keys to open up the authority of my kingdom upon the four corners of the earth, and after that to send my word to every creature.
Note that the office of Patriarch was listed first, before even the prophet or first presidency. Although it was an office without institutional authority over the operations of the church, it seems clear that it was intended to be a presiding officer on par with the rest.

In the aftermath of Joseph Smith's death Brigham Young's authority was challenged on several fronts. The Quorum of the Seventy was also a presiding quorum that theoretically could claim authority to lead the church. Young deftly defused that potential threat by creating stake level quorums of seventy. This ploy existed in the church until the church put the matters right in the 80s when they eliminated the local 70s and left only the 70s who were in the first and second quorums of the 70s. 

He was also threatened by the Smith family. There was young Joseph III, but there were also Joseph's surviving brothers Samuel and William. Samuel died in the care of a confidant of Brigham Young and William believed that Samuel was poisoned to remove a threat to Brigham's authority. William became the presiding patriarch but challenged Brigham's leadership and was subsequently excommunicated under the pretext that he was teaching and practicing polygamy even though all of the twelve were also doing so.

Note that in all of this that a revelation was never received clarifying how the succession was to procede. Remember that Mormon's claim to fame is that it is led by prophets. Yet at a critical junction the leadership crisis was dealt with in a manner that you'd expect from any similar institution with plenty of politics, strife, and machinations.

The next patriarch was Joseph Smith, Sr.'s brother John. He had zero aspirations to power and was thus a safe choice while Hyrum Smith's son was a child. When John Smith died in 1854 the patriarchal office fell on a different John Smith, the eldest son of Hyrum Smith and half brother of apostle and future president Joseph F. Smith. He held the office from 1855 to 1911, but his tenure turned out to impact future successions to the office. While he fulfilled the office well and gave many blessings, he smoked and drank and didn't live the principle of polygamy with proper enthusiasm. He took a second wife, but apparently only as an obligation. His first wife hated the practice and in one telling quote remarked that all of the girls 14-19 in the territory were married off to polygamists. 

John Smith was publicly called to task over his shortcomings during his lifetime and when he died in 1911 the office of patriarch passed over his son to his grandson, Hyrum G. Smith. Apparently John's son was not deemed worthy since he apparently wasn't faithful in obeying the Word of Wisdom.

With Hyrum G. Smith the role of the presiding patriarch again became an issue and a perceived threat to the apostles. Unlike his two predecessors, he was a strong leader and under the presidency of his uncle, Joseph F. Smith, he tried to reassert the primacy of the office of Patriarch in the church. While supported by the president, this received a chilly reception from other apostles. This hostility resulted in the office of Patriarch going unfilled after his untimely death in 1932.

The successor by lineal descent should have been Eldred G. Smith, but President Heber J. Grant strongly opposed him and refused to call him to the office. Unfortunately, the church assumed that he wasn't being called because of unworthiness and he had to live with that stigma for over a decade.

Now once again, this is where a prophet would have come in really handy. Instead, President Grant had the apostles research the issue. He really, really wanted to get around the lineal descent issue so he could be allowed to choose a man of his choosing. He felt that Eldred was too young and of insufficient stature to take such a prominent position. Furthurmore, Grant had grown up in the 1800s and was very familiar with Eldred's great grandfather who had the Word of Wisdom and polygamy problems. Based on that he felt that the entire line of descendants from John Smith were unworthy to hold the office and he preferred for the office to go to a different descendant of Joseph Smith Sr. that he felt was more worthy. In 1942 he finally got his way and Joseph Fielding Smith was set apart as presiding patriarch. The inspiration behind this choice was revealed when the new patriarch was released in 1946 after he was discovered to be a homosexual. So much for revelation.

Eldred G. Smith finally became presiding patriarch in 1947 and continued in that role until 1979 when he told that he was being place on emeritus status.

The thing I find stunning in all of this is the complete lack of divine inspiration and direction in such critical questions as prophetic succession and the role of patriarch and other presiding officers in the church and the ultimate dropping of what was originally the first presiding officer in the church.

I guess I haven't heard how the apologists address this issue, if they even do, but it strongly confirms my belief that the Mormon church is not what it claims to be.

The whole story is documented in the following fascinating book: Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch, Urbana, Illinois, 1996.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Hammer Blow

As I resumed running after my ankle surgery I noticed that my German Shepherd Dog (GSD), Scout, seemed a little out of shape. Then one morning one of the kids noticed bloody streaks on the floor of the kitchen after a run. Worried that he'd cut a paw during the run I quickly examine Scout's paws. The pads were fine, but the nails on both his hind paws were worn down to the quick which is where the blood was coming from. As he was walking around it became clear he was dragging them forward.

The vet took xrays which showed that his hips are in great shape and the only thing he noticed was some calcification between a couple of vertebrae that might be an indicator of a bulging disk. The problem was definitely neurological and it was either a disk pressing on the nerves or a condition called degenerative myelopathy (DM). He referred me to a orthopedic specialist who I saw on Thursday. He confirmed what my vet had told me. If it was a disk I was looking at about $2000 for corrective surgery, but if it was DM then there was nothing that could be done.

When I got back to work I looked up DM and discovered that it is fairly common and almost exclusive to GSDs. It was the first I'd heard of it. In a nutshell it is like MS in people. It is a disease that attacks the nerves in the spinal column starting with the rear legs and rapidly progresses until the hind legs are paralyzed and eventually the dog dies.

The way the condition is progressing, I'm 99% sure that Scout has DM. His symptoms are rapidly worsening. He has difficulty going up and down stairs and frequently trips or stumbles. His legs cross under him when he is walking slowly and when he is standing it isn't uncommon for his hind legs to just slide out from underneath him. If it's DM then in a short time, 3 to 6 months, he'll become incontinent and completely lame. Before it gets too bad I'll have the difficult task of saying goodbye to a dear friend and putting him down.

Sad day.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Secret Mormon Temple Endowment

Why do so many Mormons out there have their garmies in a bind over HBO's Big Love depicting the Mormon temple endowment ceremony?

Growing up in the church, young Mormons are taught that their main aspiration should be to go on a mission and be married in the temple. Eventually they learn that before they can go on a mission or be married in the temple they have to "take out their endowments" in the temple. But all they know about the endowment is that it can't be discussed and that afterward they will be required to wear temple garments instead of normal underwear for the rest of their life. Throughout their young lives, if their parents are devout, they see their parents go away to the temple regularly to do who knows what. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa my parents made annual pilgramages to the nearest temples in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. to do temple work. But I never knew what that work consisted of other than doing endowments for dead people.

Prior to taking out their endowments Mormons have to pass worthiness interviews with their Bishop and Stake President. In the interviews no more information is provided about what will happen. The church sometimes has temple preparation classes and it has a book, "The House of the Lord," written by an apostle, but none of those resources give much information about what the endowment consists of or what to expect. It is a great, sacred secret that you will only receive once you are proven worthy.

The secrecy is then reinforced in the ceremony itself when the participantsy promise before "gods, angels, and these witnesses" to never reveal the secrets that they learn within. When I went in 1990 I had to promise to suffer my life to be taken rather than reveal its contents. I promised this not only once, but three times and each time had to ritually enact different ways in which my life could be taken: by having my throat slit, by having my chest torn open, and by being disemboweled.

When Mormons go the first time, they receive additional instruction from the temple officials after the ceremony to never talk about the ordinance outside of the temple, not even to their spouse. The secrecy is reinforced throughout their lifetime of church attendance by all of the oblique, obscure, indirect references made to what goes on inside the temple. It has such an air of sacredness, mystery and untouchableness that I don't know any active Mormons that are willing to talk about what goes on inside the temple.

So, within the culture of Mormonism it is really, really, really, super duper, mega bad to talk about the temple. It is a violation of their most sacred promises. In some ways, the very essence of the endowment is its secrecy. It is special, occult knowledge that is only supposed to be known by those who have lived worthily and who are candidates for eternal exaltation. Its signs and tokens are supposed to be the keys to entering heaven and so it's unthinkable to disclose those sacred things to non-believers or unworthy people.

And that, my friends, is why the Mormons freak out when people publish the endowment on the web or re-enact it on film or put it on TV.

Ironically, if you read it over there is absolutely nothing doctrinal in the entire thing that isn't openly taught outside the temple. The only unique things are the secret handshakes and passwords which, again, are easily available outside the temple.

For a recounting of my experience with the temple, click here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big Love to Show Endowment

Since the Mormon temple ceremonies are in the news I thought I'd link to my previous posts about my temple experience when I was a young TBM Mormon preparing to leave on a mission to Bolivia in the fall of 1983. You can read it here.

For the full text of the ceremony, click here. It includes markup that shows the extensive changes that the church made in 1990 to remove parts that are particularly unsettling.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Daisy 5k

Today was a significant milestone for me. I completed my first road race since my ankle surgery, a small 5k in downtown Austin. It was pretty much what I expected: slow (9:15/mile pace). The weather was a nice crisp 46 F with a strong wind blowing out of the northwest. My left foot and ankle were sore for the first mile or so but then they calmed down and by the end I was running comfortably. It felt good to try to run hard and try to push my limits some although it wasn't until the last couple of hundred meters that it started feeling good instead of like work.

I've made good progress with a few setbacks over the last several weeks. Three weeks ago my ankle's swelling was less than it's been since the surgery and I was able to see my ankle bones. So the next week I tried to run every day, nice and easy. I also extended my long run out to 4.5 miles. This made my ankle start swelling again and I started feeling pain on the outside of my left foot and ankle and having a lot of swelling again. I had a 6 month followup with my doctor last Tuesday and while he was happy with my progress he wasn't happy with the swelling and pain in the foot and thought that it might be the result of overpronation and he referred me to an orthotic specialist.

I'm not so sure about the need for an orthotic because neutral cushioned shoes feel good and stability shoes hurt my feet. Before dumping $300-$400 on custom orthotics I went down to the running store and bought some Superfeet over the counter orthotics. In my Saucony's they raise my heel some and make my heels slip a little so I have to tighten the shoes more. But in my new Nike Zoom Victorys they felt completely natural and my foot and ankle feel good this evening so maybe they are helping. I'll see over the next few weeks.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Blessings of Tithing (Not), Part 2

On January 30 I walked into work with a huge smile on my face and I felt like I was entering a period of great prospects. This was incongruous because it was the last day of my contract and my company had no prospects for new contracts. I had friends and co-workers who had already been unemployed for over 4 months and had done thorough nationwide searches trying to drum up new contracts with absolutely no results. Over the last year the contracting job market had completely dried up.

I had resolved to live off my savings for as long as possible and I was looking forward to some time off after working a tremendous amount over the previous year and a half. I also had some ideas for starting my own business that I wanted time to think about and work on. I also had things to do around the house that had been neglected for too long.

One of the things I wanted to do was go on a cruise with my wife. Not knowing my job future made me delay until the last moment but I booked a cruise at the last moment over the internet. My wife and I hurriedly packed and drove down to Galveston on February 8. We got caught in a huge traffic logjam just south of Houston and barely made it to the dock in time to board. I dropped my wife and our luggage at the dock and parked the car. We then got into the line to check in and got out driver's licenses out. We got up to the TSA people and they asked for our birth certificates or passport. I had hurriedly read the travel documents web page the night before which said that passports weren't required so I panicked a bit. I thought you only needed a driver's license. No problem, we'd brought our passports along even though we thought they weren't needed so we ran back out to our luggage.

After 30 minutes later of going through every piece of luggage we couldn't find any sign of my passport. Feeling like the stupidest person on the planet I made one last attempt to beg my way onto the ship only to be denied. I went back to the car, searched it for my passport, and went and picked up my wife and luggage for the long drive back to Austin.

Before leaving I called Royal Caribbean and they graciously agreed to transfer my non-refundable payment to a future cruise. The only problem was that this was the only week that really worked for us that was also affordable. After a little discussion we decided the only week that would really work was the week of spring break. This also meant that all of the kids would be free. So I made a command decision to book a cruise not just for the wife and I, but also for all 4 kids. Royal Caribbean helped us get it all set up the next day and we are now looking forward to a dream vacation.

By the way, in our haste to leave, my small backpack that I was going to carry on got left at the house. Inside were my cameras, some computer cables, and ... (drum roll please) ... my passport.

That next week I enjoyed my time off and didn't do much. On Friday I got an update from Linked In and I decided on the spur of the moment to ping a couple people in my network to see if they knew of any jobs. Within the hour they had responsed and I'd sent out a couple of updated resumes. The following Monday I got a call from a hiring manager and on Tuesday I had a phone interview with him and on the next day did a phone interview with a senior fellow of the company. The next Tuesday I had an on campus interview and two days later had an offer which I accepted two days ago and I start a great new job on 3/9.

If I was still an active member of the church this string of events would make a great faith promoting story to tell during testimony meeting. What initially looks like a calamity (missing the cruise and losing a lot of non-refundable money) results in my getting a great job and being able to take a cruise with the whole family while on paid vacation instead of while hoping to find a job.

Are these the blessing of heaven despite my unworthiness or because of my wife's worthiness or is it just life? My personal opinion is that there wasn't any divine intervention. Everything that happened was a direct result of my own stupidity and my own initiative in doing what I could do. I'm happy that Royal Caribbean felt it was good business to allow me to rebook the cruise at a later date even though they had no contractual obligation to do so. But, their decision was rewarded with more business from me that they wouldn't have otherwise gotten. I'm glad that I was in Austin to send out those feelers instead of on a cruise ship. But in the end, I don't know if it would have made any difference if I'd sent those resumes out a few days or a week later. I have a very good resume with unique skills and the company really wanted to hire me and found a spot for me despite challenging ecomonic times.

I'm blessed and I'm happy. But I wouldn't feel any differently if those things hadn't happened. The flip side is I also don't feel cursed or tried when things aren't going well. I feel like my personal life philosopy allows me to ride the ups and downs of life with relative equanimity.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses

I've formed some opinions about the Book of Mormon witnesses, but I don't like reaching uninformed conclusions so I decided to read up on them. I just finished reading Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard L. Anderson based on the recommendation of no less that Daniel C. Petersen whose quote on Amazon is titled, "An Instant Classic" and states
This is one of the most important books ever published in the field of Book of Mormon studies. I recommend it without hesitation, and with the greatest enthusiasm. It deserves to be kept in print for the indefinite future.
Based on that I wanted to see how it would address my concerns about their testimonies.

Unfortunately, it didn't offer anything new. Here's my review that I posted on Amazon.

Based on Daniel Petersen's review I was expecting quite a bit more. This book is essentially a series of brief biographical sketches of each of the witnesses with an emphasis on their normality and integrity in their normal lives and how they repeatedly re-affirmed their testimony of the Book of Mormon. I'm convinced that they believed and weren't lying and that it was real to them.

What it fails to do, however, is provide any kind of detail about the nature of the experiences that they have. The author repeatedly emphasizes that it was real to them. However, these were people that believed in peep stones and magic too. I have no doubt that their visionary experiences were as real to them as alien abductions are to people that have experienced them. He readily dismisses, however, the possibility that the experiences were the product of the charismatic, visionary, ecstatic experiences that are typical of the religiously zealous. This is despite the fact that Martin Harris and David Whitmer both emphasize that their experience occurred by the power of God while in the Spirit. The fact that such experiences are real to them shouldn't be convincing to the rest of us.

I'm convinced that they had an experience and don't think they were lying. But if I accept their witness then do I have to believe equally sincere spiritual witnesses of countless others throughout the ages even though they are all contradictory?

I think the more interesting question, which isn't addressed by this book, is what is the actual basis of these types of experiences.

Unfortunately, the book only gives a couple of well-known descriptions of the experiences which bring up more questions than they answer. What is extremely troubling to me is the pro-forma nature of the testimonies. We lack critical details such as the date, the setting, the time of day, etc. We have evidence that the 8 witnesses' experience was spiritual as well. The author challenges this, but curiously can provide no refutation from the 8 witnesses themselves. I think it says a lot that they never described what happened and that the author doesn't bring this up.

He also minimizes or neglects to mention evidence that challenges his thesis. One example is that he gives the Mormon version of the Charles Anthon story but neglects to quote Anthon's version which calls into question the veracity of Harris with regard to the Book of Mormon. He fails to mention the issues that David Whitmer brought up about Oliver Cowdery editing Joseph Smith's revelations by adding and deleting parts as well as challenging problematic details. This alone should call Cowdery's trustworthiness with regard to church history into question. This is why this book is an apologetic as opposed to a real history. I think the topic is covered much better by other more objective historians who treat all of the evidence and not just the favorable evidence.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Additions to My Library

My work contract is ended on January 30 and in preparation I ordered a bunch of books from Amazon. Here are my latest additions:

Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses


Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess

Do Mormons Even Bother Reading The ApologeticsThey Send?

My brother's comment about Stela 5 reminded me of the books and CDs my parents sent to me to try to help me regain my testimony. After reading and listening to them I wondered if they'd even bothered to read or listen to them. In several cases they confirmed facts that my father had stated that he couldn't possibly believe were true that were obvious attacks by the enemies of the church. But mostly, they didn't tell me anything I didn't already know and were a confirmation of things that I'd only learned when I started reading non-Mormon sources. I also discovered that they conveniently failed to mention facts or information that weren't helpful to their argument. And finally I found that they made some of the most egregious logical flaws in leaping to conclusions that either weren't supported or were explicitly contradicted by their own facts.

Unfortunately, they don't feel they need to study or understand because the Spirit has already told them what the truth is and nothing is stronger for them than that witness and the good feelings it gives them.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


And now for your moment of Zen. I took this at a scout camp in New Mexico. The hummingbirds lived in the woods and would fly over to a feeder by the crafts area. If you were still you could put your fingers on the perches and they would land on your hands to eat.

All They Have to Do Is Ask

My emails with my little brother reminded me how almost no one in my family or ward has asked why I've left the church. I think that there are several things going on.

What his email reveals is how Mormons have been taught to think of apostates as misguided sinners who have lost the Spirit and fallen away from or rejected the truth. The stated reasons for their apostasy don't really matter because the prophets and scriptures have pretty clearly stated why people apostatize. Everything else is just rationalizations. These people don't ask because they think they already know the answer.

I think another reason is that they don't want to know the answer. If the reasons were strong enough to break my testimony then maybe it's better not to know.

Finally, the last reason I've observed are those members who are aware of the issues and still remain active in the church. This was really surprising to me. I learned things such as the nature of Joseph Smith's polygamy that I simply couldn't swallow. Those people have somehow made peace with the uncomfortable facts. Some put the issues on a shelf or reformulate their beliefs to accommodate the facts while others no longer believe but continue to remain active and pretend to believe in order to keep the peace and reap the benefits of membership. That last group was especially surprising to me. These people don't ask because they already know what the problems are.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Tree of Life, Lehi Stone, or Stela 5

From my TBM brother:
Regarding archaeological “evidence” do you not find the Lehi stone in Chiapas, Mexico to be intriguing? That is one of the clearest objects that corroborates the writings found in the Book of Mormon. Regarding linguistics, I’ve heard mixed reports.
I had heard of this stone engraving that some Mormons claim is a depiction of Lehi's dream in the Book of Mormon. Even as a TBM it seemed pretty speculative. But I try to keep an open mind so I googled it and hit the following FARMS article. You can read it, but it basically states that it's not evidence for or against the Book of Mormon and that even Hugh Nibley thought it was essentially rubbish. So, no, I don't find it intriguing, but it is typical of the "evidence" for the Book of Mormon. The evidence against it, on the other had, is pretty solid.

Regarding linguistics the results are pretty iron clad. There are no known remnants of Hebrew in any Indian languages. Furthermore, the vast numbers and varieties of dialects requires thousands of years of development, not a couple of thousand years as the Book of Mormon would show. I'll refer you to B. H. Roberts Studies of the Book of Mormon for more on that topic.

Of course, the current Mormon apologetics seems to state that the Nephites and Lamanites were an essentially insignificant population whose genetic and cultural impacts were swallowed by a much larger non-Hebrew population that pre-dated them. I guess they ignore the statements of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and almost every subsequent prophet.

The burden of proof lies with the Mormons, not me or you. However, the only proof they are willing to stick to is their individual testimonies based on "feeling the Spirit."

More DNA Evidence Related to the Book of Mormon

My brother sent me an extract from an article that published some very interesting DNA research. Instead of using human DNA they used the DNA of bacteria that are found in the gut of humans. Based on that DNA they showed that some pacific islanders had apparently originated in Taiwan. The same article also talked about how linguistic patterns has shown similar results which strengthens the conclusions.

As a true believer, my brother thought it would be interesting to see if similar research could be done to show that Book of Mormon Americans had populated some of the pacific islands. You see, the Book of Mormon talks of people that sailed away in ships never to be seen again. Mormon prophets have subsequently stated that pacific islanders in places like Samoa are descended from those nephite adventurers.

I would be interested in the results of such a study too, but I would expect them to confirm what mitochondrial DNA studies have already shown.

I said as much to my brother which he interpreted, rightly, as an attack on the veracity of the Book of Mormon. He then proceeded to imply that I was an addict searching for an intellectual escape from Mormonism so I wouldn't have to repent and conquer my many sins. I posted a quote in my previous post. He then stated that because of the goodness of the church and his testimony things like evidence were superfluous because he knew what was true and would be lost without the church and his testimony.

Monday, January 26, 2009

3 Categories of Sinners

I received this unsolicited categorization of sinners from my TBM brother.
I love and respect you as my brother for all the good memories I’ve had as a result of you, but I’d be willing to almost state that there are other life choices and habits that preceded your choice to actively distanced yourself from activity, service, and affiliation with the Church. Maybe you’re an exception and I’m wrong for being suspicious about your motives, but I’ve known too many people who have dipped deeply into pornography or other forms of addiction and gone through cycles of guilt-shame-repentance-relapse. To me I’ve been able to see people sort themselves into one of three groups.

Group 1: People who have battled patterns of behavior who fight until they conquer it
Group 2: People who go inactively quietly in an attempt to minimize feelings of shame or guilt because they have lost confidence in their ability to change
Group 3: Inactive people who actively seek to cover-up wrongdoings by justifying a choice to become inactive based solely upon scholarly merit.

From this, I gather that he believes or has been told that I'm some kind of an addict. I'll even concede that he may be right. So there you have it. People battling addictions and sins either conquer and remain believing, give up and go inactive, or seek intellectual rationalizations for giving up. I guess that in his world those that are successful never leave.

I'm not sure if it has ever occurred to my brother, but every single apostate is a sinner, so if you want to blame apostasy on sin then you can always do so. Of course, every believer is also a sinner so I could just as rationally blame belief on sin and a need to seek peace and say that the only reason believers don't apostasize is because they need the peace that belief gives them in order to live with their guilt. In fact, I'd never thought to turn it around like that, but I suspect that it explains belief a lot better than apostasy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cross Examing Witnesses

Why do lawyers cross examine witnesses? Why does a person accused of a crime have an opportunity to face his accusers in open court?

The simple answer is that witnesses can lie or be mistaken and often the only way to tell is to ask questions to clarify their testimony or to catch them making inconsistent statements that would indicate either fabrications or faulty recollections or perceptions. This is also why eye witness testimony is not considered very strong; it is very often wrong. The most important evidence in a court is factual, forensic evidence such as DNA or fingerprints, not eye witness testimony.

Before publishing the Book of Mormon to the world Joseph Smith had 11 witnesses sign statements attesting to its divine origins. First there were 3 witnesses and then later 8 more. Their testimonies can be found at the front of every Book of Mormon that has ever been published and are linked in the previous sentence. If you haven't ever read them, then you probably should. If they are to be trusted and their testimonies are true then the Book of Mormon is the word of God even more surely than the Bible or any other book known and you ignore it and the Mormons at your eternal peril.

So, why don't I believe them? This is most assuredly the strongest piece of evidence that the church has in its favor. None of the witnesses ever renounced their testimony and throughout their lives repeatedly reaffirmed by word and deed their belief in the Book of Mormon as the word of God even though some repudiated Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet and Brigham Young and his polygamist followers as apostates.

First let's look at what they actual testified. The 3 witnesses state the following:
  • They saw, through the grace of God, the gold plates.
  • The voice of God declared to them that the plates were translated by the gift and power of God.
  • They saw the engravings that were on the plates.
  • They were shown to them by the power of God and not of man.
  • An angel came down from heaven and showed them the plates and engravings.
  • The voice of the Lord commanded them to bear record of it.
The testimony is kind of written backwards, but seems quite clear enough. The 8 witnesses state the following:
  • Joseph Smith showed them the plates.
  • They had the appearance of gold.
  • They handled the leaves that Joseph translated.
  • They saw the engravings which appeared ancient and of curious workmanship.
  • They hefted the plates.
Unfortunately, other than the witnesses, the church lacks any forensic evidence to corrobate the points of the testimony. For example, they don't have the plates so that they can be inspected by experts to verify their age or the correctness of the translation. In fact, this is the most curious thing about the Book of Mormon. Why should special witnesses be required at all if the gold plates actually existed? Mormons will answer quite simply that God requires us to have faith and so he took the plates back up to heaven after having shown them to these witnesses. After all here we have 11 witnesses and Joseph Smith makes 12.

So, again, why don't I believe them?

Let's start with the 3 witnesses. If the plates physically existed then why did an angel have to bring them and why was the power of God required to see them and inspect them? In later accounts Martin Harris gave a curious account of how he obtained the witness and it hardly makes his witness very believable. It is clear that the experience was in his head, or as believers would have it, spiritual. David Whitmer later confirmed that the testimony was based on a spiritual experience. This caused him no pause, but it make me wonder why physical plates rely on what has proven to be highly suspect "spiritual" experiences. People, Harris and Whitmer among them, believe strongly in the trustworthiness of such experiences, but evidence shows otherwise.

Other than Martin Harris, why didn't the witnesses subsequently talk about the particular circumstances of seeing the plates? What were the dates and places? Did they see them individually or in a group? Was the lighting good? Did they all see the same details? Were they in a visionary state when they saw them? Were the characters engraved deeply? Were the engravings thick or thin? Were both sides of the plates engraven or only one side? How were they bound? What size were they? How thick were they? How much did they weigh? How was the sealed portion sealed? Were they smooth or rippled? Did they show signs of age?

There are so many questions that could be asked, but from what I can tell, if they were ever asked these questions they weren't answered. Given the church's fondness for its history, if these details existed I'm sure that I'd have heard them during my years of Sunday School, seminary, institute, missionary service, and church meetings. Instead, what I know of are pro forma responses that basically say, "We confirm our written testimony." That in and of itself seems very suspicious.

When lawyers cross examine a witness they look for signs of memorized or prepared testimony. If the witness repeats exactly the same thing over and over again it starts to sound suspicious like they have been told what to say. The 11 witnesses' testimonies seem to fall into this category. In fact, the testimonies were prepared by Joseph Smith. Martin Harris claimed that the 8 witnesses also saw the plates only with their spiritual eyes and that some were hesitant to sign the prepared statement.

So, do I believe them? As far as I can tell, they are testifying to what they saw in a dream-like state. So, I believe that they are telling the truth. But I don't believe that what they saw in vision actually existed. Otherwise they wouldn't have needed to be in a vision.

Do I belive the gold plates ever existed or that the Book of Mormon is a translation of them? Nope. The evidence is strongly against it and the dreams or visions of 11 witnesses won't change that.

New Year's: Resolution Time

This is the worst time of the year to be at the gym. The place is suddenly packed with all the people who bought their membership and didn't hardly use it during the year and now suddenly resolve to use it to lose some pounds or get those six pack abs or whatever.

Nothing wrong with that, but it does make you wonder where they were for the rest of the year. Or perhaps it's better to ask why they stop coming after a pretty short period of time. Rather than focus on why they stop, though, I'd like to share some advice on how to make permanent changes and achieve your resolutions.

Set a concrete, achievable goal: A New Year's resolution is a goal. In order for to reach a goal it must be measurable. Losing weight is an easy one. One of mine is that I want to get to 205 pounds from my current 240. I also want to run the spring race series here in Austin and a fall marathon.

Make a plan: A goal without a reasonable plan is just a wish and it will probably never happen. My plan is to net 1500 calories a day, to run 5-6 days per week, and to do some strength training at least once a week. Once I build up a base of about 25 miles a week I'll formulate more detailed training plans targeted at the spring races and the marathon that I choose.

Track your progress: A major reason that people fail to execute their plans is that they don't regularly track their progress. First they miss a day, then two, and before they know it they can't remember the last time they worked on their plan. Tracking requires some kind of tool. It could be a piece of paper or a notebook where you write down status each day. In my case, I'm a geek so I use computers to track my progress. I use the free training log on Nike's web site to track my workouts. Their log will also build customized training plans for races for you, track the mileage on your running shoes, and other cool stuff. I can just pop it up and quickly see if I've been missing runs. For weight loss I highly recommend Dietpower. You can track the calories you eat and the calories you burn and come up with a custom plan with daily tracking to help you manage your diet and exercise to meet your weight goal. It's the only way I've found to reliably lose weight and keep it off.

Team up: It's easier to tackle a difficult goal if you are on your own. Your support can be family, friends, a training group, or a hired hand such as a coach or trainer.

Look where you want to go: Put mistakes or shortcomings behind you and focus on what you need to do. If you are trying to lose weight, don't focus on how hungry you are. Instead create a list of healthy foods and snacks that you like and eat reasonable portions throughout the day to stave off the hunger pangs. If you focus on what you can't do you'll almost inevitably fail. If you focus on what you need to do and what you can control, then you will do it.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Stuff That People Will Believe

People believe all kinds of strange stuff. Some people are convinced that they are victims of alien abduction and experimentation all evidence to the contrary. Some believe that the apollo missions to the moon were staged and never actually happened. Others believe that the Jewish holocaust never happened. Some of these people might be liars, but others are completely convinced and aren't being deceptive. If they were all mentally ill, then that might make understanding them easier, but many are perfectly sane or at least as sane as you and I (which might not be saying much...).

As I was leaving Mormonism this topic interested me a lot. How could I have believed such impossible stuff? I found a couple of books helpful. The first was "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" by Michael Shermer and the other was "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan. Both are excellent books that are pretty short and easy to read and the topic is very important to understand because it helps explain why witnesses can be pretty unreliable sources for figuring out if something is true or not. As a bonus they also give some pretty good insite into how to avoid being a sucker.

The topic is a broad one that I don't intend to explain it here. If you are interested then read away. But the ramifications are very important, especially when it comes to religious belief.

Take, for example, the 11 witnesses to the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon story is pretty ridiculous just about any way you look at it. Yet, here you have 11 individuals who were eye witnesses to its origins to testified to it and never gave up that testimony. From reading David Whitmer's writings I firmly believe that he believed that the Book of Mormon came from God. I think the same can be said of Martin Harris, but when it comes to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith I doubt it.

But the bigger question is "So what?!". Let's concede that they all firmly believed what they were saying. Does that mean it's true? Certainly not. It is something you need to address if you don't believe, but when you understand why people believe all kinds of strange things then it isn't so difficult to understand and explain away. In fact, given the enormous burden of proof that must be met, their statements are pretty thin.

I'll write more on this topic in the next post where I want to talk about problems that I have with the witnesses and their story.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Trustworthy? Sure, You Can Trust Me

I promise you that I am trustworthy. Heck, I hardly ever lie or distort the truth. So, go ahead and trust me.

Our natural inclination is to trust people. In "Social Intelligence" the author talks about mirror neurons that have been identified in human brains that trigger empathetic responses in us when we view something happening to another person. For example, when I was watching the Olympic 200m trials in Oregon last year I instinctively groaned and grabbed my hamstring when I saw Tyson pull up and fall to the track. I could almost feel the pain in my own leg and I got teary eyed watching the anguish on his face that was not only physical, but also the emotional atom bomb that he wouldn't be competing in the 200m race in Beijing where he was the favorite against Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell in both the 100m and 200m events.

We can usually trust people to treat us like they would expect to be treated because hurting you in effect hurts them too. But in some people, something goes awry and they simply don't have a clue on what is going on in other people. People with autistic spectrum disorders have this problem. They will consistently continue on and on talking about something long after it is clear to everyone that they are being a bore. If it seems like they don't have a clue, it's because they don't.

But another social behavior counter balances our trusting nature. When we discover taking advantage of our trust then we go into full out revenge mode. Traitors are reviled. The petty thief isn't trusted with the till. The convicted felon can't get jobs. The apostate is shunned by his former co-religionists or worse.

When you lose someone's trust, it's hard to get it back.

When I discovered that the Mormon church has systematically deceived me throughout my life I lost all trust in it and it's defenders and over time my distrust has been confirmed as I found more and more deceits and half truths. It turns out that the best source for unbiased information isn't always the source and in the case of the Mormons they only thing you can guarantee is that they'll only tell you the things that they think will be well-received. You see, they know what will turn you off so they give you "milk" before the "meat".

We can't function without some level of trust, but we need to develop a healthy skepticism so we can find who can and can't be trusted and once we find the untrustworthy change our default stance. Or as I constantly say in my line of work: Trust but verify.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Book of Mormon Witnesses

When I stopped believing in the truthfulness of Mormonism I suddenly found that many things that collided with my previous beliefs fit better with my new disbelief. I could probably phrase that better. How about, things that I couldn't explain and had to put on a shelf hoping to understand them in the future could now come down off the shelf and be explained.

One subject that troubled me for a while were the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Everything else seemed to fit well with Joseph Smith being a fraud and his followers willing dupes. However, the witnesses never recanted their testimony which seems like pretty strong evidence that they believed in the Book of Mormon. I still think that this is probably one of the stronger pieces of evidence that the church has and is one of the smartest things that Joseph Smith did. Until he had the witnesses' signatures, everything pretty much rested on his word. Afterwards he would have 11 other men who essentially testified that what he was saying was true. Furthermore, several of these men were subsequently run out of the church and would have seemed to have ample excuse to recant their testimonies, but they didn't.

I've since learned a little more about the witnesses that makes there testimony much less compellingto me.

The most important is the following statement by David Whitmer found in his publication, An Address to All Believers in Christ:
If you believe my testimony to the Book of Mormon; if you believe that God spake to us three witnesses by his own voice, then I tell you that in June, 1838, God spake to me again by his own voice from the heavens, and told me to "separate myself from among the Latter Day Saints, for as they sought to do unto me, should it be done unto them."
This entire document is a repudiation of Joseph Smith and the various branches of Mormonism and he argues persuasively that they had fallen into error. If you believe his witness of the Book of Mormon, then should you also believe his arguments against the church? I think so. He was there from the beginning and argues very clearly how Joseph Smith and others fell into errors, gave false and contradictory revelations, and edited revelations after the fact to fix them.

As far as the witnesses themselves, I think that one would have to read their testimonies and try to ascertain what actually happened, because they subsequently said very little about the actual experiences that they had and what details they gave talk of spiritual land visionary experiences that would seem to be unnecessary if the plates physically existed. In fact, I find this to be one of the more damning evidences against them. They basically reaffirmed their statements time and time again, but with no details. As a result we really have almost no information of how, when, or where they saw the plates. If this were an exception I wouldn't think much of it, but since it seems to be the rule it makes me think that they had agreed to stick to the written testimony to avoid contradicting one another.

I have no doubt that David Whitmer believed he had had a vision of divine vision that was as real to him as any other experience in his life. In fact, it seemed to be more real than anything else because he believed the power of God was also involved. He had no doubts. I really don't doubt that he was earnest, but I do question his interpretation of the experience and whether his vision was a divine manifestation or a product of his brain. Read my post about Lexapro Dreams for my own experiences in this regard. I can attest to the fact that they can seem vividly real even though they clearly are not.