Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa Claus is a good metaphor

A recent blog post on Dale McGowan's Parenting Beyond Belief (highly recommended) talks about kids' belief in Santa Claus as a dry run for their belief in Jesus. The experience of realizing that Santa Claus doesn't literally exist has many parallels to the experience of realizing that God and/or religion also aren't all they're cracked up to be. In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of a way in which they're significantly different.

- Everything seems to work by faith and magic despite logic and evidence.
- Parents teach their children and hope they continue to believe as long as possible.
- If you're good, you get good gifts. If you're bad, you don't.
- He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake.
- Jesus will return to earth, and Santa Claus is coming to town.
- We all gather regularly to sing songs in praise of both.

I guess the extremity and duration of the "eternal" good gifts and bad gifts might count as a difference. But the main significant difference seems to be that a whole lot of adults continue to believe in Jesus. Here's where I insert a link to another very enjoyable blog post I read a few years ago: What It Feels Like to Be an Atheist. I think about this article all the time, because I think Santa Claus is nearly a perfect metaphor.

So tonight, Christmas Eve, I got my kids hyped up for Santa Claus to come. We tracked him on the NORAD Santa Tracker. We talked about what presents Santa might bring, and whether they've been good kids this year. We put out cookies and carrots in anticipation of his arrival. My seven-year old daughter wrote him a beautiful note, which I will probably keep forever.

But Santa won't read the note. Santa won't eat the cookies. We will have to eat the cookies ourselves, and sprinkle a few crumbs on the counter as "evidence" of Santa's visit. We will act surprised when we discover what presents Santa brought. We will speculate about how he gets in and out of the house, how he can know when everyone is asleep, and what exactly you have to do to avoid getting a lump of coal. We will do this every year, until eventually the children will figure out that Santa Claus is not really coming to our house. In fact, despite our innocent hopes and dreams, he was never there at all.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Profound conversation with my 4-year old son

The following is a conversation I had last night as I was tucking my 4-year old son, Alex, into bed. Autumn is his 7-year old sister.

Alex: I have a cramp, and I think my toe bone is almost broken.

Me: Oh no, we'll have to check it tomorrow and see if it's okay.

Alex: How can we even do that?

Me: We'll just see if it still hurts in the morning.

Alex: I think I'll know if it's broken even since I'm four years old. I don't want to have a broken bone, and I don't want to die either.

Me: You don't want to die?

Alex: Yeah, but I think everyone has to die.

Me: Well, that's true, but I hope you don't die for a long, long time. I think you'll live a long life and be very happy.

Alex: Autumn said everyone has to die sometime or somehow.

Me: But you know what? No matter what happens, I will always love you, forever. And Mommy will too.

Alex: I will always love you, too. And Mommy, and Autumn. And I love Netflix.

Me: They have good stuff to watch, don't they?

Alex: Yeah, like Sponge Bob.

Me: Good night, I love you.

Looking for critical feedback of my latest novel

NaNoWriMo Winner 2009Well, November is over, and that means NaNoWriMo 2009 is done. On November 30 at about midnight, I finished the first draft of my latest novel, which is a little under 60,000 words. That would be maybe 200-ish pages in paperback? I'm looking for critical feedback, so if you're interested in ripping into my novel and telling me what's wrong with it, please let me know! You'll need to send me your email address so I can invite you to the private blog, where you can leave your comments. You can send me an email at mthelen *AT* (gmail dot com).

I'm actually pretty happy with how the story turned out, for a first draft. Several people who have read it or are reading it have had good things to say, which I find encouraging. At the same time, it does need a lot of work. I'm going to let the draft sit until March before I try to revise it at all. At that point, the story will be less fresh in my mind and I should be able to approach it more objectively than I could today. I will also be taking everyone's criticism very seriously as I revise it. I'm interested in all manner of ideas, from typo corrections all the way up to complete plot overhauls. Everything is subject to change, but I want all the changes to make the story better.

NaNoWriMo is always a blast. My wife and I did it together again this year, and we both won. Last year, I wrote 50,000 words, but the story was about half-finished when I quit. Can you guess whether I ever finished it? I wrote another 5,000 words about 10 months later, but that's it. I was determined not to do that again this year. Regardless of anything else, I wanted to finish the story, and I did. It feels great to set a goal and accomplish it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Neil DeGrasse Tyson answers "Do you believe in UFOs?"

This video has been sitting open in a tab in my browser for a couple weeks now, so I figure it's about time to post it. Someone asked Neil DeGrasse Tyson, "Do you believe in UFOs or extraterrestrial visitors?" His answer is wonderful. For those too busy to watch nine minutes of awesome, his answer is summed up by the following:

"Somebody sees lights flashing in the sky . . . they say, 'I don't know what it is. It must be aliens from outer space visiting from another planet.' Well, if you don't know what it is, that's where your conversation should stop! You don't then say it must be anything!"

This is a classic argument from ignorance, and Tyson explains it very well. He also touches on the value of eyewitness testimony, and gives a strategy for UFO abductees to use if they want to be taken seriously by science. Great stuff.

Neil Tyson talks about UFOs and the argument from ignorance.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

In honor of Carl Sagan's 75th birthday, Broward College is hosting the 1st annual Carl Sagan Day today. Speakers include D.J. Grothe, Phil Plait, James Randi, and others. Do something to honor his memory today, if you like. Watch an episode of Cosmos, take the telescope out for a spin, or encourage someone to think skeptically about something.

Carl Sagan's writing has been instrumental in helping me to understand my own point of view better, and was critical in allowing me to admit to myself and others that I am a skeptic. I owe him a lot. I'll post more about that someday, but today is not the day. I have a novel I need to be writing. I haven't posted much about Carl Sagan here lately, mostly because I'm too lazy. But I'd like to get back to having a Sagan Sunday at least once a month.

Here's a video I recently discovered, in which Carl Sagan features prominently, along with Richard Feynman, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye. I could watch this over and over. It's basically a spiritual experience for me. I hope you enjoy it.

Symphony of Science - We Are All Connected

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Daily Show: The 11/3 Project

For the love of Pete, wake up people! They are coming for your internal organs! If they can take Glenn Beck's burst appendix to save his life, who's to say they can't take your healthy appendix tomorrow and eat it in front of you and your children?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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The Daily Show: The 11/3 Project

Iraq security forces using dowsing rods as bomb detectors

This story is scary as hell. There is nothing in this story, and in fact nothing in the entire body of scientific knowledge, that would suggest dowsing wands are capable of detecting bombs or anything else. False positives and false negatives are easily rationalized away, and in fact both are done by Iraqi officials in the course of this short story. It really would be funny, except that people will die because of this. It's as if TSA wanted to swing a magic crystal pendulum around your head to detect any weapons before you could board an airplane. It's ridiculous.

Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri says, "I know more about bombs than anyone in the world." He also confidently dismisses all the rigorous experiments done to determine whether the dowsing wands are actually capable of... you know, detecting bombs. "I don’t care about Sandia or the Department of Justice or any of them," he says. "Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs." Really? You actually care about that? If you care, you might bother to examine the evidence instead of putting people's lives at risk based on your magical interepretation of the ideomotor effect.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Colbert - Mormon Church Trespassing

This Colbert clip is fantastic, as always. It's about the two guys who were arrested for criminal trespassing on Main Street Plaza, and not at all because they are gay. In case there was any doubt about that, hear the money quote: "I am absolutely not a professor of sticking it to the gays."

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Nailed 'Em - Mormon Church Trespassing
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Nailed 'Em - Mormon Church Trespassing

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Read my NaNoWriMo novel in progress

I've been debating with myself whether to share this year's NaNoWriMo novel in progress, but I've decided to do it. This year I'm writing a story about the first commercial cruise to Mars, in the year 2060 or so. If you're interested in reading it, shoot me an email at mthelen (at) gmail dot (com) or leave your email address in a comment - I think I need your email address to invite you. However, if you think you are interested, there are a few things you should be aware of.

1. It will not be good, and I'm not trying to make it good. I'm trying to write as many words as possible, as quickly as possible, and I am turning off my Inner Editor. Trust me, I will eventually be as bothered about my bad writing as you are, but not now. You may be horrified to learn that the story will even contain notes to myself, written in square brackets. This will be a rough draft in the truest sense of the word.

2. Along these same lines, I will eventually be interested in critical feedback, but right now I'm mostly interested in adulatory praise and flattery. I'm also interested in knowing what you find most interesting about the story, and what you're looking forward to reading next. I won't promise to satisfy you, but I think I will find that kind of feedback valuable.

3. For the most part, I plan to write the story straight through, but I may very well write scenes or entire chapters out of order. If this happens and it confuses you, try to remember that this is just a pile of rubbish anyway. I will do whatever I need to do to get my 50,000 words by the end of the month. I apologize, dear reader, that I am not truly writing for your benefit. Yet.

4. There will potentially be offensive language, mature themes, embarrassing dialogue, and unlikable characters who might seem an awful lot like you. I will be writing whatever comes to mind, and I will not be censoring anything for anyone. If this might bother you, please don't read it! You've been warned.

5. I may eventually try to get this story published, so please don't share any portion of it without my explicit permission. The blog is by invitation only, so if you've been invited, consider yourself special and please respect the limited nature of this draft's distribution. Obviously, all contents of the blog are copyright 2009 Michael Thelen, all rights reserved. Yadda yadda.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's NaNoWriMo time again!

NaNoWriMo Participant 2009Last November, I finally took the plunge and participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. It was a blast, and I actually pulled it off!

Unfortunately, I can't show you the finished product, because... well, it's not finished. Although I wrote 50,000 words, the story was just starting to get interesting. In the past 11 months, I've only added about 5,000 more words, so the novel's current status is still "half-finished first draft". I've learned my lesson, and this year I will be completing a full story arc by 50,000 words even if I have to write scenes consisting entirely of a single sentence such as, "Here is the scene where two of the alien's three heads confess their love for our hero, while the third head spits in his face."

Here are a few more lessons I learned from last year's NaNoWriMo experience.

Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft. No, seriously. I pretended to do this last year, but in hindsight I wasn't really committed to it. I did a lot of re-reading, cleaning up dialogue, closing plot holes, etc. That is absolutely not the way to pump out a first draft in 30 days. During the month of November, your Inner Editor is your enemy. Sure, it will be your best friend on subsequent revisions, but not in the next 30 days. Go for quantity, not quality. The goal is to get it written, not to get it right. Detailing David's lovely locks before you even chisel out the bottom half of his body makes it less likely you'll finish the sculpture at all.

But just how shitty are we talking here? Without your Inner Editor, does this mean your plot may not make sense? Yes. Does this mean your characters may be boring stereotypes or wild caricatures of your cow-orkers? Yes. Does this mean your dialogue will be full of clichés, and will probably read like it was written by a second grader? Yes. Does this mean you will leave stray commas, parentheses, and adverbs where none are needed? Yes. Does this mean you will write run-on sentences from hell? Yes. Does this mean you will make up impossible fantasies instead of spending hours of research to ensure your sci-fi devices obey the known laws of physics? Oh, hell yes. Make something up. Pretend you're an expert. Write love notes to yourself and use them toward your word count. Don't worry too much about where this is going. Just go, go, go!

Don't fall too far behind. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to average about 1,666 words per day. This can seem daunting, but less so if you write without the Inner Editor reading over your shoulder. However, even if you write like the wind, there may be times when you fall behind. Especially during Week 2, when the novelty has worn off and your story starts to get stuck. Last year on November 16, I was 10,751 words behind pace. I was supposed to have written 26,666 words, and I had only written 15,915. I saw the writing on the wall; unless I made a drastic change, I wasn't going to make it. I confessed to my wife that I didn't think I was going to finish. It was fun while it lasted, and I wouldn't feel too bad for falling short.

Fortunately my wife talked some sense into me, and I kicked it into high gear. Making up ground is possible if you fall this far behind, and it can even be thrilling, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's much better for your sanity if you can stay on pace by writing every day. Write a ton during the rush of Week 1, and you will give yourself a cushion that Week 2 will do its best to destroy.

If you do fall behind, catch up with sprints. Writing in short, focused bursts is a good way to crank out high word counts while avoiding burnout. I like to do what Simon Haynes suggests; write in chunks of 500 words, four times per day. Each sprint should last about 20-30 minutes. If you get behind, Simon also has a fantastic catch-up plan that will net you 7,500 words in a single day. I did this last year on November 22 and it made all the difference. I went from 6,000 words behind to right on track. Talk about a confidence booster!

So what are you waiting for? Have you ever wanted to write a novel but haven't sat down and made it happen? Almost no one has done it, but writing a novel is well within reach, and there's no better opportunity than NaNoWriMo. Sign up now, and while you're at it, add me as a writing buddy. Even if you're not participating, you can follow my progress at the link above, and I'll be posting about it periodically on this blog as well. Any questions? Let me know. Happy noveling!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Are you a Mormon?

(Cross-posted at Main Street Plaza.)

At Main Street Plaza, we recently discussed the various names we use to refer to ourselves (liberal Mormon, NOM, post-Mormon, ex-Mormon, etc.) depending on how we each perceive our relationship with Mormonism. I’m interested in much more direct question, which I’m never quite sure how to answer. Are you a Mormon?

It seems like a straightforward question, but I find it surprisingly tricky because it’s not always clear what is meant by “Mormon”. If it means a member of the CoJCoLdS, then my answer should be yes, because I am still on the records as a member of that church. If it means someone who has ever had the experience of being a Mormon, then my answer is also yes. If it means a person who considers oneself a part of the Mormon culture or believes Mormon doctrine, then my answer should be no, because I am neither. For others, the situation may be reversed; you might not be a member of the church anymore, but still consider yourself part of the Mormon culture. So are you a Mormon?

In my own mind, I’ve pretty much moved on from Mormonism, but to answer either yes or no without further explanation seems strange. I tend to give a different answer depending on the context. If a stranger asks, I’ll usually just say no unless I’m interested in having a conversation about Mormonism. If I actually feel like talking about it and they seem interested, I might start with something like, “Technically I am a Mormon, but…” I’ve heard of others using the phrase “I was raised Mormon,” which I would love to use, except that I was an adult convert. Do the details really matter? Maybe the phrase “I used to be a Mormon” is an acceptable substitute.

However, there is one situation in which I always say yes: whenever I run into LDS missionaries. I’m not interested in arguing with them, and I’m not interested in their attempts to convert me, either. So I just say yes, I’m a Mormon; no, I don’t have any referrals; good luck, elders, and have a nice day.

When I sat down to consider this question, I was surprised to discover that my answer depends mostly on whether I feel like getting into a discussion. In a way, my approach feels a little shady, but I think I’m okay with it. How about you? How do you answer the question? Are you a Mormon?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Should we beat this guy up for violating Leviticus?

The Friendly Atheist has an interesting post illustrating the dangers of cherrypicking from Leviticus. Apparently there was a brutal beating of a gay man in Queens recently, and one of the attackers' buddies proudly displayed this tattoo.

idiot tattoo

The tattoo reads, "You shall not lie with a male as one does with a woman. It is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22." Ignore for the moment that "abomination" means ritual uncleanness in the exact same way as eating shellfish or touching a menstruating woman. Ignore for the moment that Leviticus also prohibits eating pork, wearing clothes made of two kinds of material, trimming your beard or sideburns; and prescribes the death penalty for talking back to your parents. Ignore all that for now.

Let's simply skip to the next chapter, Leviticus 19:28, which says, "Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD." Levitical law is apparently very important to this idiot. But not important enough to read more than a single verse that appears to justify his prejudice. Well, Levitical law is very important to me too, and I think I would be justified in beating this guy nearly to death for violating it. Wouldn't I?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dallin H. Oaks is wrong again

It can be frustrating when the LDS church always insists on framing itself as the innocent victim, even when they are actively seeking to oppress others. They seem very interested in speaking out of both sides of their mouth in the past few weeks, first with Bruce C. Hafen's anachronistic address on the evils of homosexuality and now with Dallin H. Oaks's recent statements about religious freedom, in which he compares the LDS church to oppressed black people in the 1960s. (No, I'm not kidding.) I read the address from Oaks in its entirety, so I understand his statements in context. Here are my responses to Oaks's five points of counsel concerning religious freedom.

First, we must speak with love, always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries. We are under command to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27), to forgive all men (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10), to do good to them who despitefully use us (Matthew 5:44) and to conduct our teaching in mildness and meekness (Doctrine and Covenants 38:41).

Yes, please. I'm on board. After all these press releases and the recent General Conference addresses attacking everyone from gays to unbelievers to parents who teach their children to think for themselves, I would love to see a little more mildness and meekness.

Second, we must not be deterred or coerced into silence . . . We must also insist on this companion condition of democratic government: when churches and their members or any other group act or speak out on public issues, win or lose, they have a right to expect freedom from retaliation.

I completely agree with this. However, what Oaks and his ilk seem to want is not freedom from retaliation, but freedom from opposition. That is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. There is nothing illegal or immoral about boycotting the businesses of those who contribute money to causes you disagree with. There is nothing illegal or immoral about denouncing bigotry broadly and loudly. Oaks did get one thing right, though: vandalism is wrong. Vandals deserve to be prosecuted and punished under the law.

This next statement seems to be the one that has gotten everyone riled up:

It is important to note that while this aggressive intimidation in connection with the Proposition 8 election was primarily directed at religious persons and symbols, it was not anti-religious as such. These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation.

Okay, in the context of his argument, the point would be technically valid if religious voters were actually intimidated against voting on Proposition 8. However, I haven't seen any evidence of this. All the "retaliation" he cited happened after the election, and most of it was not intimidation but simply free speech.

While I think I understand why he said it, I'm frankly amazed that he chose the "blacks in the South" analogy, and that he stuck by it when pressed. It's a very, very bad analogy for several reasons.

First, if any group is being deprived of its civil rights analogous to blacks in the 1960s, it is certainly not the LDS church. It is the gay people who are being denied the right to marry. Duh. I mean, mega-duh.

Second, as I said, it's not clear that anyone was actually intimidated against voting in the Proposition 8 contest. People didn't just boycott black businesses in the '60s. Call me when Prop 8 opponents start lynching and turning the fire hose on Mormons on their way to the voting booth.

Third, the LDS church actively discriminated against black members until 1978, at least a full decade after the rest of the country got with the program. LDS church leaders have made many extremely racist remarks in their official capacities as officers of the church. Most notably, Brigham Young spent three decades preaching racism and hatred from the pulpit, including the doctrine that "if the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." Considering the circumstances, Oaks's comparison of the LDS church to blacks struggling for civil rights is thoughtless and offensive.

Just because you have a persecution complex doesn't give you the right to compare yourself to every group that has ever been oppressed. Especially when you yourself were the oppressor then, and you are still the oppressor now. Come on now.

Third, we must insist on our freedom to preach the doctrines of our faith.

No problems here. Freedom of religion entails the freedom to preach bigotry. Freedom of religion does not entail the freedom to enact bigotry into law simply by virtue of its religious nature. However, all people, religious or otherwise, have the right to vote as they please.

Fourth, as advocates of the obvious truth that persons with religious positions or motivations have the right to express their religious views in public, we must nevertheless be wise in our political participation. . . . religious persons will often be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and that contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.

Excellent. I assume this means the church is retracting the false assertions it advertised widely during the Proposition 8 campaign: that churches will be forced to perform gay marriages, that schools will be forced to teach young children about gay sex, that private adoption agencies will be forced to give children to gay couples, etc. Not to mention the biggest, most ridiculous lie of all: that gay marriage somehow takes away the rights of heterosexual people. Spreading lies about your opponents seems less than respectful.

Fifth and finally, Latter-day Saints must be careful never to support or act upon the idea that a person must subscribe to some particular set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for a public office. The framers of our constitution included a provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI). That constitutional principle forbids a religious test as a legal requirement, but it of course leaves citizens free to cast their votes on the basis of any preference they choose. But wise religious leaders and members will never advocate religious tests for public office.

Top-notch advice. This is in contrast to Rick Warren's statement, for example, that he "could not vote for an atheist", and the 2007 Gallup poll where 53% of respondents said they would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate. As a likely result of these kinds of attitudes, the number of Congresspersons who listed their religion as "unaffiliated" in a 2009 Pew Forum survey is exactly... zero. In fact, according to the survey, "In 2007, Representative Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a Unitarian who joined Congress in 1973, became the first and so far only member of Congress to publicly declare that he does not believe in a Supreme Being."

Far from "persons with religious-based points of view [being intimidated] from influencing or making the laws of their state or nation," as Oaks would have you believe, the current situation is the exact opposite. Lack of religious belief is political suicide. But it shouldn't have to be.

For the most part, I agree with many of the principles Oaks outlined. My main beef is that I don't believe the LDS church generally follows its own advice in this regard. And the comparison to "blacks in the South" was completely unjustified and ridiculous. I understand that playing the victim is a cherished LDS tradition, but sometimes you need to own up to your actions. Dallin H. Oaks, you're truly not the victim here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

General Conference impressions

I don't know why I keep putting myself through this. We spent the day at my in-laws' house, and of course they watched both two-hour sessions of the LDS General Conference on TV. I decided to pay attention, because even if I disagree with much of what is said, every once in a while someone will say something interesting.

The morning session was okay. I don't remember much except Eyring explicitly emphasizing that you and every member of your family need to be "worthy" if you want to be with your family in heaven. This strikes me as a particularly nasty mafia tactic. Awfully nice family ya got there; it would be a shame if anything happened to it. Every other religion that comes to mind already believes that you will be reunited with family after death. Only the Mormons make it conditional.

The afternoon session was much worse. Holland went off on a tirade about how Joseph Smith's miraculous story of the golden plates is the only possible explanation for the Book of Mormon, and that all other explanations are "silly theories" and "pathetic answers". Anyone who doesn't believe this story is "foolish" and "misled", and must... well, actually, I'll let you read the words for yourself.

[T]ell me whether in this hour of death [Joseph and Hyrum] would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as impostors and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

For one hundred and seventy-nine years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed, often silly theories about its origins have been born, parroted and died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spalding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for the book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator. In this I stand with my own great-grandfather who said simply enough, ‘No wicked man could write such a book as this, and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.’

I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort for our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ of whom it testifies. If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity without honestly attempting to account for the origin of those pages—especially without accounting for their powerful witness of Jesus Christ and the profound spiritual impact that witness has had on what is now tens of millions of readers—if that's the case then such persons, elect or otherwise, have been deceived and, if they leave this Church, they must do so by crawling over or around or under the Book of Mormon to make their exit. In that sense the book is what Christ Himself was said to be ‘a stone of stumbling,… a rock of offence,’ a barrier in the path of one who wishes not to believe.

First, every religion has its martyrs. Joseph and Hyrum Smith did not go meekly to the slaughter, but died in a gunfight while incarcerated on charges of destroying a printing press that was being used to expose Joseph's polygamy and aspirations to set himself up as a king. All of this is well documented, and completely irrelevant to whether the Book of Mormon has divine origins. My point is that Joseph Smith did not choose to "die rather than deny". He was violently killed by a mob after continually provoking those outside his Latter Day Saint movement.

For the record, my personal assessment is that Joseph Smith probably did not consider himself an "impostor and a charlatan", but was a devout Christian and believed that the Book of Mormon would bring more people to faith in Christ. The Book of Mormon is like Christian fan fiction, except it desperately wants to be part of the canon. Joseph may have even felt "divinely inspired" while dictating the story from a rock in a hat. But I tend to think he knew on some level that he wasn't, which explains the extremely lame excuse for the lost 116 pages. Anyway, all of this is armchair psychology, and also irrelevant.

Here is what is relevant. Any of the explanations mentioned by Holland (Ethan Smith, Solomon Spalding), as well as the null hypothesis that Joseph Smith simply wrote the Book of Mormon himself, are much more plausible and better evidenced than Joseph Smith's miraculous story of angels, golden plates, seer stones, and a "Reformed Egyptian" language no one has ever seen before or since. This explanation is supported only by the testimony of Joseph's friends and family, who claimed they saw the plates "with the eyes of their understanding". Nearly everything that is falsifiable about this explanation has been falsified. If you're going to call unbelievers foolish for disbelieving the paranormal story that is contradicted by evidence, you're going to need to come up with some damn good reasons why this story is more likely than the null hypothesis.

Holland made a brief allusion to such an alleged reason when referring to "Semitic complexity", which I must believe refers to chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. The problem is that chiasmus also exists in James Strang's Book of the Law of the Lord, the INFORMIX-OnLine Database Administrator's Guide, and even, according to LDS apologists themselves, in "random" (unintentional) places in the Book of Mormon. The human brain is extremely adept at finding patterns where none exist, especially when one is looking for the pattern in the first place. The presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is evidence of its ancient origin just as the presence of the word adieu is evidence of its French origin. In other words, it's not.

Also, how do I account for the fact that the Book of Mormon has had a profound spiritual impact on millions of people? The same way I account for the fact that billions of people believe the Pope speaks for God. The same way I account for the fact that billions of people have been profoundly spiritually impacted by the Qur'an. Excuse me, I think misspelled a word. I said billions, but I meant to say BILLIONS. The only way Mormonism can win the numbers game is not to play. Oh yeah, and I should mention that the numbers game is, of course, irrelevant. Millions of Hindus can't be wrong either.

The point of Holland's talk seems to have been polarization. I believe his talk will strengthen believers while also pissing off and alienating unbelievers. Is this what we really need? Is it useful somehow? I can understand his frustration with the increasing numbers of Mormons leaving the church lately, but launching into a rant about how stupid you must be not to believe in the obvious truth seems like a bad long-term strategy. If the church wants a small group of fundamentalist fanatics, they should continue to make inflexible, literal-minded speeches like this one. If they want a large group of believers of various level of orthodoxy, they will need to be a little more tolerant.

Before this talk, I actually considered Holland to be one of the more understanding and compassionate members of the Q12. From what I've read, and the talks I've heard from his own mouth, I believed he had a bit of insight into the mind of an unbeliever, or at least a bit of empathy for anyone who has tried to believe but simply cannot. I am greatly disappointed in him. I don't know why I keep expecting people, religious leaders even, to be rational rather than polemic. I'm starting to realize that such a hope is completely naive. People simply do not change, and religion gives them the perfect excuse.

So to sum up. Is the Book of Mormon a stumbling block, something that must necessarily trip me up in my irrational desire not to believe? Hardly. As an unbeliever, must I hopelessly crawl through the muck, always to curse God and never to find true happiness? Not really. Is it going to be easy to continue dealing with the personal attacks and vilification from the octogenarians with chips on their shoulders and heads up their asses? Apparently not. I really have to get better at tuning this crap out.

Friday, October 2, 2009

General Conference predictions

(Cross-posted at Main Street Plaza.)

Back in the days when I paid attention to LDS General Conference, I always attended the priesthood session with my wife's father and brother. I enjoyed the tradition of returning to report some fantastic fictional revelation to my wife and her mother. I call this a tradition because I did it every time, but I was the only one who ever did.

When I returned from the priesthood session in October 2000, shortly after I was baptized, I reported that President Hinckley had a revelation that all worthy women should be allowed to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, beginning on the next Sunday. They were flabbergasted and asked if that was really true. "No," I said. "But he did say you're supposed to wear only one pair of earrings."

I think the reason I did this is because I longed for true revelation. Something that could make a real difference. Even as a new convert, I recognized that no longer do Prophets Of God boldly proclaim Revelations From The Lord about the Very Nature Of God And Humanity. These days, "thus saith the Lord" has been replaced with "thus saith the manual", and dress codes and style guides pass for revelation.

I've forgotten most of the fake revelations I came up with over the years, but every once in a while, I still wonder what kinds of "revelations" from the LDS church leadership I would actually be impressed with. Here are some things I would love to hear. They may be implausible, but hopefully not totally out of the realm of possibility.

- All members will be afforded the same opportunities regardless of genitalia, social standing, business background, or sexual preference.

- The church's finances will be made public again, as they were before 1959, so everyone can confirm the incredible charitable work that has been done with members' donations. And for the next month, all donations will be given to those in the Philippines who desperately need it.

- Members are encouraged to express concern or dissent with the church's policy or actions, because that is a necessary part of a healthy community. Church leadership will seriously consider members' feedback instead of excommunicating them.

- The Word of Wisdom means what it says. Don't scald your throat with hot chocolate and don't eat three Big Macs in one sitting. Beer is okay, as are tea and caffeinated drinks. Better yet, disregard the Word of Wisdom entirely and follow the recommendations of your physician instead.

- Members are encouraged to examine church history from all perspectives, thinking critically about the evidence for the church's claims and trying to be as objective as possible in reaching their own conclusions.

- Previous revelation states fairly clearly that a proper tithe is 10% of one's surplus. Especially in these difficult times, this interpretation is emphasized, without any subtle implications that you should pay 10% of gross income instead.

- An earthquake of epic proportions will hit the Salt Lake Valley on March 22, 2010. Everyone pack up your handcarts. We're heading to Missouri.

Okay, maybe it's too much to hope for. Sadly, I think the chance of any of these revelations is nearly zero. Almost any of them would be a good start in making the world a better place. Instead, what we will hear from the prophets, seers, and revelators is probably more like this.

- Obedience is the first law of heaven. But don't just obey any old person. Obey the prophet. He says exactly what God would say if God could talk.

- Tithing is the first law of heaven. We won't come right out and say how much you should give. Just give as much as you possibly can, or preferably even more. It would sure be a shame to miss out on all those blessings, wouldn't it?

- Speaking of money, we're building a dozen new temples. That's called faithful stewardship, and it's certainly not a wasted opportunity.

- For God's sake would you please stop sending your kids to church in skirts and flip flops! How many times do we have to say this?! The Lord is displeased!

- Pornography is bad. Really bad. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly bad it is. By the way, you can find lots of it very easily on the Internet. But don't look at it. Don't even think about it. In fact, don't even think about trying not to look at it. We shouldn't even be talking about it right now. But we can't stop talking about it. That's how bad it is!

- I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that this is the true church of Jesus Christ on the earth today. I know that Thomas S. Monson is a true prophet. We love our dear prophet so much. We are unworthy to kiss his feet, or even to unloose his oxfords. May the Lord bless him with good health, and long life, and lots of sweet widow stories forever and ever. Oh yeah, and nameofjesuschristamen.

What would you love to hear in General Conference? Got any predictions of your own?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hey preacher, leave those kids alone!

(Cross-posted at Main Street Plaza.)

I have a 6-year old daughter, and one issue that will start coming up soon is baptism. It’s not the actual baptism that bothers me; I basically see it as a rite of passage. I think eight years old is far too young to decide to join a religion, but if my daughter wants to do it, that’s great. What makes me most uncomfortable is the prospect of interviews with the bishop.

Interviews make me uncomfortable for several reasons. First, I’m not thrilled about a relative stranger probing for private, personal details of my children’s lives, especially without her parents in the room. I’m not okay with the church acting in loco parentis when the parentis is already loco. Second, the church ostensibly teaches a concept of Jesus Christ as a mediator between us and God. However, in my experience, the institution itself likes to usurp that place, and interviews are a powerful way to do that. Third, most of the shortcomings one is asked to confess are not really shortcomings. The bishop asks questions to determine whether you are a good Mormon, not whether you are a good person. And finally, the horror stories. Oh, the horror stories.

Our bishop seems like a good guy, but I’ve heard the stories many times, from people I know. The perverted bishop who pried for details about a young girl’s level of intimacy with her boyfriend. The girl who had no idea what oral sex was until the bishop described it in detail. God forbid, the actual sexual abuse that occasionally shows up on the evening news. I’m sure that most interviews are not like this, probably not even close. But you never know when it will happen. In a private room with a closed door, with a young girl who believes the bishop speaks with the authority of God, inappropriate things will sometimes happen. And as the parent of a daughter, it worries me.

Strangely, I’m not as worried about my younger sons, at least not as far as the inappropriate questions and behavior. Maybe that’s because they’re not old enough to be interviewed yet. Or maybe it’s because almost every horror story I’ve heard happened to a girl.

I see value in the act of confession, whether it be to another person or simply in your own private reflections or prayers. It can help us become better people by identifying our shortcomings, but only if we define a plan of action for overcoming those faults and improving our lives. I think it’s interesting that in the Catholic church, you are given the choice to speak with the priest face-to-face, or to keep your confession (theoretically) anonymous. I can see how anonymity could help you feel that you are confessing to God, not just to the guy across the desk. I can’t ever see the LDS church moving toward anonymous confessions, because the point of the interview is to identify a connection between your identity and your status vis-à-vis the church. I think the interview is meant to strengthen one’s loyalty to the institution, not one’s penitence before God.

On a related note, has anyone noticed that the LDS church has gone a little interview crazy lately? Tithing settlement, temple recommends, PPIs, and you had to get a special recommend to attend the recent temple dedications in the Salt Lake Valley, for crying out loud. This screams of control tactics to me. I don’t remember Jesus grilling his apostles about masturbation. He usually just said, “Come, follow me.”

Anyway, I’m not sure of the best course of action. I think all the potential problems may be alleviated by insisting that my children not be interviewed unless one of their parents is present in the room. It still doesn’t thrill me, but at least I may retain a modicum of control over the situation. If my child feels less inclined to divulge personal secrets that way, so much the better. It's none of their business anyway.

Do you have any interview stories of your own? Do any of you have kids that have been through interviews? How did you feel about it? How did you handle it?

Friday, September 11, 2009

MSP: The Ethics of Speaking Up

C.L. Hanson invited me to blog over at Main Street Plaza (don't worry, this blog isn't going anywhere), and today was my first post. It's called The Ethics of Speaking Up, and I hope you enjoy it. It's about a question that has been on my mind for a long time, which I don't have a good answer to. When do you speak up, what do you say, and who do you say it to? Especially in the context of church or conversations with believers, I have no idea what the right answer is.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gay scientists isolate Christian gene

Swiped this from de-conversion:

Drinking Skeptically with Salt City Skeptics, tomorrow night!

For any of you in the Salt Lake City area who are interested in good drinks and good conversation, there's a Drinking Skeptically event tomorrow night (Wednesday), 7:00 at Piper Down. I went last month and had a great time. Eat dinner beforehand or order something there, either is fine. Just be there!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Good week at church today

Most weeks for me at church are really irritating, but this week was actually pretty awesome. I think it started last night as I was dreaming about (not really dreaming, more like my brain was trying to work out) how I could be more active and part of the church community even as total unbeliever. I'm not sure I want to commit to anything regular, like - heaven forbid - a calling. But I like some of the people at church and I could probably stand to be more social.

So I approached the day with a positive attitude. My wife got a migraine just before we were about to leave the house, and I surprised her when I said I would take the kids to church by myself. Not for all three hours; I'm not that crazy. But long enough for my wife to take a nap.

The Elders Quorum lesson was about profanity. The instructor is one of my favorite people at church, because he always has an entertaining way of saying things. He took an interesting approach wherein he alternately would write "fake" swear words on the board, but then refused to say "Dios" out of respect, even though he said the word in English when he asked, "What's the Spanish word for God?" I volunteered "cheese and rice" as fake swear words. He didn't get it, and I didn't explain it.

I brought up the recent study showing that using actual swear words can alleviate pain in physically painful situations, and the instructor said that you could probably find a study to support any position. He mentioned conflicting studies about the benefits of wine, and said we should take those kinds of studies with a grain of salt. The guy next to me and I looked at each other immediately. He said, "Salty wine?" I said, "Maybe with a margarita, but not with wine, ugh!"

The instructor then proceeded to cite a few scientific studies as part of his lesson. For some reason I can't remember which studies they were, but they were good ones. I thought the irony was kind of funny, but then again, I was amusing myself throughout the whole lesson. Other people piped up and talked about how the most offensive part of profanity was the (sometimes) hurtful intent behind it, not necessarily the words themselves. Not everyone was convinced.

After the lesson, one guy came up to me in the hallway and said he had read about the same study I cited. We got talking, and I was surprised that we agreed about nearly everything regarding profanity, even down to the idea that words truly have no meaning except the meaning we give them. It was perhaps the coolest conversation I've ever had in church.

The Sunday School lesson was about "celestial marriage", and I was prepared to bite my tongue hard when the instructor started reading from D&C 132. But instead, it turned into a discussion about nice things we can do for our spouses to show them we love them. I enjoyed the conversation so much, I even stopped reading my book! In fact, I was in such a good mood by the end, I even said the closing prayer when I was called on spontaneously to say it. Most weeks I either would have declined, or seated myself farther back to begin with.

Anyway, as long as I'm going to church, and I don't see that ending anytime soon, I think having a positive attitude helps a lot. I'm going to try to do that more often, and to look for ways to interact that don't require me to share everyone else's beliefs. I'm not sure what exactly that means, but it was a good day and I'm feeling encouraged.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

He wants evil powers

Jesus in GethsemaneA few months ago, my wife and I were substitute teachers in a primary class at church. I remember it was my son's class, so it must have been the four-year olds. I usually like teaching primary, and try to focus the kids' attention while also being goofy and uncontroversial. I enjoy being goofy and uncontroversial, which doesn't seem to happen much at church anymore. I also enjoy teaching lessons like "I'm Thankful For My Toes". Apparently they've recently changed the lesson manual so the lessons are more like "Follow the Prophet" (big surprise), but that's another story.

I also love all the funny things kids say. At some point during the lesson, my wife held up the picture you see above. It's a picture of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. My wife asked, "What is Jesus doing in this picture?" And one girl replied immediately, "He wants powers. He wants evil powers." I couldn't stop laughing. The same girl mentioned "powers" at least two more times before the end of the lesson. Primary is awesome.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Radio Lab: Moments

This four-minute film, Moments, was recently featured on the Radio Lab podcast as short #16. I definitely recommend it. I also recommend listening to the rest of the Radio Lab "Shorts" podcast episodes. They are all short, and they are all incredible.

Life as distraction

For as long as I can remember, I've had a gnawing feeling at the back of my consciousness. I've tried to shake it — believe me, I've tried — but it's always there, floating around the back of my head like storm clouds just over the horizon. Sometimes I can ignore it, but never for very long. Although it has been my lifelong companion, I haven't been able to identify this feeling until recently.

Here it is. I've always felt that I am filling my life with busywork to distract myself from the difficult task of figuring out who I am, what my purpose in life is, and what I need to do about it.

I have felt this way not only when doing actual busywork, but also when doing things that are ostensibly worthwhile. I have felt this way while reading classic literature in high school, serving inner-city kids on a college mission trip, improving my skills at chess and Scrabble, playing volleyball on the Lake Michigan beach, fixing computers, and writing blog posts. I've felt this way while studying history and religion, which is ridiculous because I love those two subjects so much that I have often spent all my spare time learning more about them. Maybe love isn't the right word. Maybe it's more like obsession to the point of distraction, which is sort of the point.

Joining the LDS church quelled the feeling of distraction very well, because church-related activities will suck away all your time if you let them. That was one of the things I liked best about it. There's precious little time to discover your true self, when you're losing yourself in the Lord's work. And when I was reading my scriptures, preparing lessons, and attending ward activities, I felt like I was making the world a better place. In some ways, I was. At the same time, much of it was definitely busywork, and none of it was my true calling. Someone else assigned me a plausible life purpose, and I happily followed it. I feel like I've been indulging that avoidance mechanism for my entire life. Mormonism was perhaps the biggest distraction I've ever provided for myself.

I have filled my time with plenty of other distractions, too. Competitive chess and Scrabble, computer programming, amateur astronomy, foreign languages, skepticism, reading, podcasts, and way too much time on Facebook. These are all worthwhile pursuits, and I believe I am a better person because of them. But they're not who I am, and they're not what I ultimately want to do with my life. Unless they are, but I haven't figured that out yet.

I think it's likely that I'm already doing some of the things I ought to be doing with my life, probably not to the extent I ought to be doing them. Or maybe I should be doing something I haven't discovered yet. Who knows? Because I haven't identified my purpose yet, everything feels like a distraction. Of course, even if I find my true calling in life, it's impossible to break free of all distractions without joining a Zen monastery. Hm, maybe I ought to join a Zen monastery. At least I have given this feeling a name, and I will let it inform my life instead of ominously looming over it.

So what's my point? What's my purpose? I don't know, but I want to find out. I am the only person who can determine the right answer to this question. That's assuming the question has an answer, but I suspect it does. Has anyone else felt like this? If so, and if you have found any answers to this question for yourself, how did you find them?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A crappy review of The Reason For God

About 10 months ago, a friend recommended that I read The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. Here is a blog post I made at that time, with my impression after reading the introduction. I'm sad to say that my impression of the book did not improve much after reading it.

I finished the book many months ago, and I've been meaning to write a review ever since, but I've found it difficult to commit myself to spending the time necessary to do it justice. So I've decided to write a crappy review instead. Here's what you'll get:

1. A basic overview of what the book claims to be, and my impression of what it actually is.
2. A summary of the biggest problems that became increasingly frustrating as I read the book.
3. An unedited transcript of my notes, which I hastily scrawled on index cards, natch.

Despite all the negative things I say throughout the review, I would mildly recommend reading the book if you're interested in this kind of thing. At the very least, it did make me think, and I appreciated that. Also, the book seems to be pretty popular, and it may be useful to be familiar with it. On to the review!

1. What the book actually is

The book bills itself as helping skeptics to evaluate their doubts in the same way they evaluate belief. That's fine, and I think this is a noble goal. I am in favor of everyone reevaluating their beliefs, and questioning not only why they believe certain things, but why they doubt as well.

As for me, I know exactly why I doubt: lack of evidence. When the evidence is good enough, I believe. Unfortunately, this book never addresses evidence. It presents many philosophical arguments against some questions that I doubt many atheists would actually care to ask, such as "How can one religion be right and the others wrong?" Um, I don't have a problem with that concept. But I also don't have a problem with the concept that they're all wrong. Although it is logically consistent for one belief to be correct, and many others to be wrong, that does not imply that your particular belief is correct. For that, we would need evidence.

2. The many problems with the book

Reading this book made me increasingly frustrated for many reasons.

First, despite the book's billing, the author approaches every question from the point of view of a believer justifying his belief, not the point of view of a skeptic looking for evidence. This leads to a lot of begging the question, e.g. "Our existence is evidence of God's existence." No, in fact that's not evidence. That's just assuming the thing you are trying to prove.

Second, he often falls prey to the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. He dodges legitimate concerns about Christianity by claiming that people who believe X, Y, Z are not true Christians. For example, those who support violence, injustice, a literal hell of fire and brimstone, etc. Just because you don't believe something as a Christian doesn't mean it's not a real consequence of believing in Christianity for many Christians. Yes, true Christians.

Third, and most importantly, he is a philosopher, not a scientist, and the book reflects this. The entire book is about philosophy and never addresses evidence. That was probably the most frustrating thing to me. I expected something very different.

Oh yeah, and chapter 9 ends with a quip about how anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest and lacks integrity. That didn't thrill me either. I do question my beliefs, and I do question my doubts. I question everything, and I try to base my beliefs on evidence. In doing so, I reach a different conclusion from Timothy Keller, but I don't believe he is dishonest or lacks integrity.

3. The unabridged brain dump

Enjoy this. I would like to hope that my frustration was not in vain. I apologize for the rough nature of the notes, but I just can't bring myself to go back through the book again to make them more coherent.

I make no claims of being unbiased; as I recall, I tended to take notes mostly on the things I disagreed with. Also, if you are offended by colorful language, be sure to skip the notes from chapter 8. If you enjoy colorful language, be sure to skip directly to the notes from chapter 8.

Ch 2: Suffering
- Our sense of justice is evidence of God
- Therefore, Jesus suffered and died for our sins because the Bible says so
- Suffering is a good thing because it will make the glory and joy of heaven that much greater

Ch 3: Christianity is a straitjacket
- He sure likes to attack straw men. "All truth is a power play"? Please.
- Christianity is more like African supernaturalism than secularism is.
- This guy is in love with C.S. Lewis.
- This chapter was mostly a waste. This is not an issue that I have any problems with.

Ch 4: Religion breeds injustice
- "No True Christian" would be a fanatic
- Secularism has started just as much violence as religion (???)
- The Crusades were caused by values outside Xianity, therefore we should more fully embrace true Christian values
- Christianity is the only belief system that could perceive the injustice of slavery & segregation, b/c MLK was a Christian
- Let's pick and choose lots of good Christian examples of charity, shall we?
- Those who support injustice are not "true Christians". Ta da!

Ch 5: God sends people to Hell
- This guy is in love with C.S. Lewis.
- Someone should tell Christians about Keller's idea of Hell. I don't think they've heard of it.
- If everyone chooses Heaven or Hell for themselves, where does Christ come in?
- Evidence? None.

- I don't want "proof", just some evidence that shows how God's existence is the most likely explanation, or at least more likely than the null hypothesis. Is that too much to ask?
- You CAN study the sun best by looking directly at it.
- Saying that our existence supports the argument for God's existence is BEGGING THE QUESTION.

Ch 8: Clues of God
- Who caused God? And why don't you mention this objection? You only like accusation of self-insufficiency against skeptical logic? Does the existence of God imply the existence of infinite gods?
- Welcome mat: BTQ again. We exist and have evolved to adapt to the universe, not the universe to us. This is a misunderstanding of evolution.
- The regularity of nature is an argument for God ... why exactly?
- The Clue of Beauty: it is the nature of an illusion that you don't know it is an illusion. (or find it hard to believe) The existence of beauty implies the existence of God ... why exactly?
- Interesting that the lack of evidence is transformed into "clues"
- Holy flying fuck, he really actually went there. He's trying to claim that reason is a product of evolution and therefore we can't trust it. Give me a fucking break. What about EVIDENCE!? Evolution is not philosophy, it is science! "We can't know anything, therefore this might even be a dream world, therefore God exists." Huh?

Ch 8 cont.
- Just because our emotions are the result of chemical reactions doesn't mean they are not REAL.
- A secular person doesn't say "Maybe the Big Bang caused itself." She ought to say, "we don't know what caused the Big Bang but we're trying to find out."
- He assumes too much.

Ch 9: Knowledge of God
- "Everyone knows there is a God" is not a radical thesis, it's an arrogant one. What about everyone who lived before the concept of monotheism was even developed?
- Perhaps no values are objectively better than others, since we are the measure of our own values. But subjectively we each believe our own values ARE better, so we fight to give them influence. This is not a contradiction.
- What is the basis for human rights? I am. And so are you. Not our beliefs, but our persons. We must act in a way that would be fair to us if we were in the minority. Appealing to God doesn't provide a solution any more than appealing to the sun. We believe in human rights because we are humans.
- "There is no God" may lead to the conclusion that napalming babies is culturally relative. I don't know. Just because I have an opinion doesn't mean that opinion is objective, even if I feel it is. It is the nature of subjectivity to feel objective. There are cultures that have practiced human sacrifice. it is a culturally relative morality. This is true and consistent. And subjectively, it is wrong. Sez me.
- Living with dignity despite the nonexistence of gods is not a lack of integrity. In what universe does that make sense? There may be no objective meaning of life, but we are here. Now. And we create our own.
- This chapter ends with a real stinker. Anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest and lacks integrity. Whatever.

Ch 10: The problem of sin
- Not everyone has to live for something. I believe I live for many things. I don't need cosmic significance, just to make the world a better place.
- Why is God the one thing that can bring fulfillment? Why couldn't it be my imaginary friend Marvin?

Ch 11: Religion and the gospel
- This chapter is pretty much right on, even though there's a fair amount of "true Scotsman" logic happening.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Persecution pop quiz!

Pop quiz! Test your knowledge of persecution! In which of these situations are you being persecuted?

1. Other people are granted the right to marry even though you object to their marriages on religious grounds.

2. Wal-Mart stays open on Sunday even though you do not shop on Sunday for religious reasons.

3. Someone expresses skepticism at your religious beliefs, and asks you straightforward but difficult questions that you can't answer.

4. Public schools teach scientific facts about natural history instead of teaching the creation myth of your religion.

5. Someone pays for a bus advertisement or billboard promoting a religious point of view that contradicts your own.

6. You are denied the right to marry because other people object to your marriage on religious grounds.

7. Because of your religion, you are forced to fight against armed combatants and wild beasts for the amusement of others.

8. Most of your family is killed and your village is burned to the ground by a neighboring tribe whose religion tells them that God is on their side.

9. You are tarred and feathered and run out of town because you claim God told you to marry other men's wives, and you follow through on it.

Time's up! How did you do? If you answered that you are being persecuted in all of these situations, you're not alone! But you're wrong. The correct answers are #6, #7, and #8. You might be able to make a case for #9, but I tend to think that if you're doing that sort of thing, you have to expect a little heat to come your way. In all the other cases, no one is taking away your freedoms, your rights, or anything else you are entitled to. This is not persecution. This is part of living in a secular society that protects individual liberty.

Incidentally, if you are being persecuted (or, to use the vernacular synonym, criticized), it is not necessarily an indicator that your ideas are true. If being criticized were an indicator of truth, then some of the most correct people in the world would be Nazis, Scientologists, George W. Bush, opponents of vaccination, and people who use the center turn lane for merging into traffic. Hell, if antipathy polls are any indication, atheism must be the most correct philosophy on earth, and we know that can't be right. By itself, criticism or persecution is not necessarily evidence of anything at all. Think carefully before you claim you're being persecuted, and think extra carefully before you claim persecution as evidence of truth.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Notes from the Richard Dutcher talk

I attended a talk by Richard Dutcher this past Sunday at a local Unitarian church. It was totally worth it. I took copious notes, which I have synthesized below. Be warned, it's long! But for those of you who aren't interested in reading all the details, here's a 64-word synopsis of the main message I took away. This may not have been the message Richard intended to convey, but it's what struck me most powerfully.

The search for truth will necessarily lead you down paths you never could have expected. In this search, a real artist must be willing to open the doors that he is afraid to open. In doing so, he will discover more about himself and about ultimate reality than he could have thought possible. It is a difficult journey, but the only journey worth making.

That's Richard Dutcher looking sophisticated and me looking goofy. Here are my notes from the talk. Everything in boldface is a direct quote; everything else is my own words.

Richard started out by asking whether anyone had ever had the experience of preparing a talk, only to discover two minutes beforehand that you don't actually like it. This happened to him, so he delivered page one of the "old talk" (that part wasn't so bad, in his opinion) and then decided to wing it.

In an email to an LDS friend, Richard encouraged him to attend this talk, saying, This historic speech will rock the very foundation of civilization and will be known as the turning point in the evolution of human spirituality. But apparently the friend had to babysit in primary instead.

The first movie Richard ever saw was The Cowboys, starring John Wayne, at age 7 or so. The reason he didn't see any movies before then was because he was raised Pentecostal and it wasn't allowed. TV was okay for some reason. When his mother married his stepfather, a Mormon, he discovered that Mormons were allowed to watch movies. A great benefit! He fell in love with movies and watched everything he possibly could.

An embarrassing moment, trying to get in to see The Exorcist while underage. The cashier asked, "Do you have ID?" Richard responded that he had forgotten it. The cashier grabbed his wallet, which Richard had set down, and Richard said, "Oh, there's one!" One of the most embarrassing things he's ever said.

The Holy Ghost was far better behaved in the Mormon church than in the Pentecostal church. Also, the story of Joseph Smith's martyrdom was the coolest story ever. They took him to jail, then they shot him, then he fell out a window, then they shot him some more. What a story!

Deciding whether to go on a mission, Richard really wanted to head to Hollywood instead. No one could convince him otherwise. Then he saw Return of the Jedi. He had a change of heart and decided that going on a mission was the right thing to do. It's all George Lucas's fault. (Incidentally, this reminded me of my own experience when I saw God's Army, which I mentioned to Richard later. I guess I can say it's all Richard Dutcher's fault I joined the LDS church.)

He almost made it two whole years on a mission in Mexico without seeing a movie. But he couldn't hold out, and went to see Splash. It was like giving a bowl of soup to a man who hasn't eaten for a week. He thought it was an outstanding movie that should be nominated for every award in the book. He convinced his companion to go see Police Academy after that, but 30 minutes into it, the companion was convinced Satan was in the theater, so they had to leave. If I ever meet Satan, I'm going to ask him how it ended.

After the mission, Richard went to Hollywood and spent some time writing vampire stories and other stuff that didn't make it big. His first movie Girl Crazy was where he learned filmmaking, and it took five years of his life, but the movie itself had no lasting importance. He wanted to make movies that would tell his story, say something important, something to be proud of.

When someone once asked a famous writer, "What do you think about X?" the writer responded, "I don't know, I haven't written about it yet." They all say "write what you know" but what we know is boring to us. So we avoid it, but we can't get by just writing vampire stories. Richard realized that no one had made a movie about what it's like to be a Mormon missionary, and that was his story.

He wrote about ten revisions of God's Army, and found himself weeping at times because it opened up thoughts and feelings that he didn't realize were unprocessed. His wife reviewed it and said, "It's good, but there's not enough of you in it." Finally, he decided to make the story his own and no one else's. I don't care if President Hinckley likes this movie.

At Q&A sessions, everyone always asked, "What does the church think about the movie?" He never knew how to respond until once he said, I don't know... you're the church; what do you think? Elder Haight's wife was in the audience and applauded his answer. So that was how he answered that question from then on.

He thought for sure he would get in trouble for the scene in which a missionary is reading "anti-Mormon" stuff and says, "What if they all know it's a lie? Damn them to hell!" But no one made a peep about that scene. They were all upset at the scene where a missionary is on the toilet. Apparently missionaries do not go to the bathroom. But I was a missionary, and I knew different!

Suddenly Richard was being compared to Ozu, Tarkovsky, Bresson; and he had never heard of them. He started exploring Tarkovsky's idea that film is its own language. It's not theater, not music, not photography. What is its nature? It's perhaps the medium where you can come closest to seeing the soul of the filmmaker. He doesn't particularly like Tarantino movies, because those movies show no soul.

He carries around a piece of paper with about 30 good ideas for stories that fascinate him. Subjects that interest him but he hasn't figured out yet. I probably shouldn't tell you guys this, but he is currently working on a project dealing with the prostitution problem in 1908 in Salt Lake City. Murders, how the culture responded to the problem, etc. Fascinating stuff.

Normally when Richard makes a movie, he loves to see a packed house. After the premiere of Falling, though, there was something so intensely personal about it that he had a strong impulse to go up to the projection room, take the film away and never show it to anyone again. It's like baring your soul for the world to see. If people don't like his other movies, that's no problem. But if they don't like this movie, they don't like me.

My notes get much more fragmented at this point. I think this is when the Q&A period began. The first question was about how Mormonism has shaped his storytelling, and Richard said that just after he finished up his talk, he realized he hadn't really touched on his journey through Mormonism at all!

No other art form besides film has such an ability to express a human soul. Art can transcend the specifics that normally prevent communication. Barriers of time and place. One person two hundred years ago in Africa can speak directly to someone right here, right now.

There's no arriving. When I made God's Army, I thought I had arrived. And I was so wrong.

Directors he would recommend: Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, John Cassavetes.

I don't say I lost my faith. I say I lost my belief.

These virtues that religions coopt don't belong to them. They belong to humanity. Things like love, kindness, honesty, etc. They were not invented by religion and they are not exclusive to religion.

His spiritual journey has taught him to have humility about his own beliefs. He is no longer adamant that his own point of view is the correct one. I was so very wrong and so very sure.

It is very difficult to change one's beliefs, and it took a long time to deal with it. Who did this to me? Or did I do it to myself? He had a transcendent experience looking up at the Lincoln Memorial.

About whether the Joseph Smith story is on the list of ideas for stories he still wants to tell: Yes, I have to tell it. That's unfinished business. But you won't know about it until it's done. Someone interjected, "Which version?" Richard responded, "My version."

Why do Mormons struggle with creating good movies? Richard suspects that Mormons struggle because a real artist is searching for truth, and that will necessarily lead them out of Mormonism. There are some doors that dare not be opened. But as an artist, you need to go through those doors.

He told a Buddhist parable he recently read, about a man who was journeying through a forest and came to a wide river. He constructed a boat, which allowed him to cross safely. Once he reached the other side, he was faced with a choice. He was grateful for the boat because it had helped him on his journey. Should he therefore pick up the boat and carry it with him on his back? Or could he instead simply express his gratitude and move on? For Richard, Mormonism is like the boat. It helped him when he needed it, and he is grateful. But he has said goodbye and moved on.

I think this might be where I raised my hand and asked my own question. I started by saying that God's Army was my Return of the Jedi, and that it helped me decide that I should join the LDS church. I quickly followed up with, "But don't feel bad about that!" and everyone laughed. I asked Richard whether it has been difficult to deal with friends and family who are still believers, and how he deals with it. Then I quickly sat down, because although I don't normally get nervous when speaking, even in front of large groups of people, I realized that for some reason I was starting to shake violently.

I didn't hear much of Richard's answer, because I was too busy thinking about how weird it was that I was so nervous. But I think he said that it's not too much of a problem dealing with LDS friends because most of them don't want to talk to him at all. I think he said he tends not to talk religion with them, and if they want to know more about what he thinks about that, they can read about it in the paper.

Films with plenty of spirituality: Blue Angel, The Bicycle Thief, It's a Wonderful Life, To Live by Ozu. Trying to think of a modern example. The best he could come up with was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I wish someone would ask me a question like, "How does it feel to kill a person on-screen?" What about when the death is implied, off-screen? How does it feel? This is a very important kind of question to ask.

Richard thinks that when people see Evil Angel, they may think it contradicts what he's saying in this talk, but it doesn't. In filmmaking, one is always trying to come to greater understanding; what you are continually creating is yourself. Experiment! If there are brushes in your box that you "shouldn't use", then you should definitely use them! You will learn. Either you will learn why you shouldn't have used them and will never use them again, or you will learn that the people who told you not to use them were full of crap. Either way, you have learned something valuable.

So that's the synopsis. I apologize for the disjointedness of it. It's the best I could do in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute. Oh yeah, and after I left, I realized that although I went up and shook Richard Dutcher's hand after the talk was done, I never properly introduced myself. Richard, if you ever read this, my name is Mike. It was nice to meet you.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Richard Dutcher at the Summer Forum 2009 at First Unitarian church

This coming Sunday, August 9, Richard Dutcher will be speaking at the Summer Forum 2009 at First Unitarian church. That's the awesome-looking church up by the University of Utah, near the corner of 1300 East and 500 South. The talk begins at 10:00am and will last about an hour and a half. Anyone interested in going? I'm definitely planning to be there.

Richard Dutcher is a talented filmmaker who basically started the "Mormon cinema" genre with his film God's Army in 2000. Interestingly, that film played a fairly significant role in my decision to join the LDS church as a 22-year old convert. That's a story for another time; I plan to post more about my complicated religious journey fairly soon. But I vividly remember sitting in the theater with my wife and her family, thinking, "You know this is true. You know this is true." That was the closest thing I ever got to an answer to Moroni's promise. Apparently it was good enough for me at the time.

Anyway, Dutcher has since left the LDS church, as he stated in an open letter published in 2007. It seems that many of the questions he raised in his films led him to unexpected answers, and "a spiritual path which may ultimately prove incompatible with Mormon orthodoxy". Because his talk on Sunday is entitled "A Spiritual Journey Through Film", he will probably be talking about his experiences of the past several years, and I'm very interested to hear what he has to say. I would guess he's traveling along a similar path to many others who have left or are leaving the LDS church. Which is to say, he must have been offended and left because he wanted to sin. Right? Right?

If you're interested in attending, post a comment, or send me a private note, or just show up. Try to find me if you like. I'll be the one wearing clothes. Hope to see you there.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Skipping church... again

My wife enjoys going to church each week, so I usually go as well, because I love her and want to support her. Also, one adult trying to wrangle three kids aged 6 and under, keeping them quiet for a 75-minute sacrament meeting, qualifies as one of the worst babysitting jobs in the world. I don't want to leave my wife alone to face that cruel task, so I usually go to church.

Lately, though, I've been finding my church experience, especially the first two hours (Elders Quorum and Sunday school), to be more annoying than it's worth. So I've been skipping the first two hours more and more often. At this very moment, in fact, Elders Quorum is being dismissed and Sunday school is about to begin. I am sitting at my desk in the basement of my house. All is quiet. Out the window, I can see clouds, sky, and grass. I am content.

Whenever I attend church, I find myself disagreeing with almost everything that is said. That is pretty amazing in itself, as I am not a particularly disagreeable person. Since it would be somewhat impolite to vocally express disagreement with everything that is said every week, I usually scribble my thoughts furiously on index cards so that my head doesn't explode. I don't mind being in a setting where I disagree with those around me, but I've started to decide that I'm not going to put myself through it week after week without a damn good reason. Masochism has its limits.

I would probably find more to agree with if every week weren't a Joseph Smith lovefest. Last week's Elder's Quorum lesson boiled down to "Be like Joseph Smith. He was awesome." But what if you have good reasons to think he was not so wonderful? There are also plenty of admonitions about how important it is to sit through the temple movie for the jillionth time, and to visit your list of assigned neighbors each month and pretend to care about them while taking notes on their religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Of course, that's not exactly how it's phrased, but that's the gist.

I know people of various belief levels who go to church and just tune most of it out, and I don't understand how they do it. If I'm in a situation like that, especially a situation that looks and acts like an actual discussion, as Sunday school does, I can't help paying attention and trying to contribute. It's very frustrating to feel that my contributions would not be welcome, and that's how I feel whenever I go to church. I don't learn anything new. I can't contribute. I'm not challenged in any way except via frustration. I feel like an outsider.

So I attend church less and less. Somehow this feels like a failing, not because other people expect me to attend church, but because I have expected it of myself basically forever. However, the reason I expected myself to attend church as a believer was because I wanted to be challenged and enlightened as often as possible. In fact, this desire has not changed. But the sad fact is that church no longer fulfills this need in my life, so I need to move on. Not just physically but emotionally as well. And that's okay.

I will still be attending church for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this post, but I'm going to try to improve at tuning it out. I know why I'm there, and it's not for anyone but my family. I shouldn't continue to behave as if it's for me.

I know there are plenty of unbelievers of various persuasions reading this blog. Do any of you still go to church? If so, what kind of church do you attend, and why do you go? How do you deal with it? Do you tune out, pay attention, speak up, start discussions, or what? I'd love to hear any of your coping mechanisms, and maybe try them myself.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is this a negative blog?

A few months ago, I was asked by a faithful LDS person not to do any "negative blogging" while at this person's house. The request caught me off guard, especially considering I had just finished fixing this person's wireless network, and I stammered something conciliatory. There's plenty I could say about the concept of asking someone not to indulge their personal thoughts in unobtrusive silence. I won't. But I will say two things. (If this person happens to be reading this entry, my comments aren't directed to you personally, but our interaction sparked some thoughts I felt like expressing.)

First, I don't consider what I do here to be negative. This person was obviously referring to this blog, where I am sometimes critical of the LDS church, as well as other organizations and belief systems I find to be suboptimal. I try to promote the virtues that are most central to who I am as a person. These include honesty, integrity, evidence-based critical thinking, kindness, empathy, and not making shit up while claiming divine truth. I think these are among the highest virtues, and to support them is a very positive thing indeed.

I will always be critical of people who proclaim virtues with their lips while denying them by their actions. This sometimes includes the LDS church leadership, though they're certainly not the only people who do this. I genuinely hope others will treat me in the same way, and will let me know if they think I am falling short of my own ideals. If I were not open to criticism myself, my criticism of others would be hypocritical. Criticism does not mean simply to tear something down. It means to try to examine it objectively, perhaps even to improve it. Although criticism is one thing the LDS church seems not to value, I continue to express it because I believe it makes the world a better place.

Second, in the "wink, wink" nature of the request, I perceived an implied, unspoken agreement. Maybe it was a misperception, but the attitude seems to be that unbelievers like myself know we are wrong, and we know deep down that we are fighting against the truth. Hence the ease with which the word "negative" is used to describe my actions, and I'm supposed to just nod my head in agreement.

Well, I disagree. In fact, I do not believe deep down that I am doing something wrong. I do not believe that I am fighting against the truth. When I say Korihor was right, I'm not being flippant; I mean it. However, I would not say that Mormons are really atheists who are fighting against the truth. I would not say that deep down, Mormons know their beliefs are harmful. I understand that we have honest differences, and I respect those differences as valid disagreements.

Here's something I would hope we can all agree on: Regardless of whether there is a creator god who loves us and wants us to grow, I believe we should try to do so anyway. The more questions we ask, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more we grow. The more we grow, the better we are. Progression is a valid principle, even if not an eternal one.

However, I no longer see the value in artificially constraining the answers to my questions. For example, I don't see the value in seeking answers only as long as the answers don't challenge faith in Joseph Smith or the LDS church. I also don't see the value in seeking answers only as long as the answers don't indicate anything paranormal or supernatural. I'm not interested in protecting my personal answers at the expense of hard questions. I am only interested in what is true. As Joseph Smith himself once said, truth will cut its own way. In other words, if something is actually true, it will withstand scrutiny. So I scrutinize, and I believe that makes this a positive blog.