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.