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.


TGD said...


It's gotten to the point where so much of what these people say is so down right odd to me that I really struggle to remember that I used to believe in this stuff.

I watched a bit of Oaks' talk(Saturday PM session) where he basically ends up explaining that god's love is conditional? It's God's law. Follow it or you don't get no love! etc. No matter how much he tries to explain the unconditional love, with all it's conditions, it just gets to the point where your head spins. (Ohh, the gospel is so deep and complicated, it must be true! I have a few LDS friends who think that way.)

That part where he tries to say that god's anger, disappointment, and wrath are evidence of love. No, that's evidence of co-dependency. LOL!

I liked the part where he tries really hard to teach moderation for those that either disown their straying loved ones or those that ignore that they've strayed. It will fall on deaf hears because he was essentially skirting the issue. Never talking about a solution that was actually helpful or even real. So essentially it's status quo. If it's working for you then keep doing it. etc. Of course it's a double standard if your gay. There is no middle ground. But the thing is, the correct answer is actually one of his extremes.

Frankly, life gets so damn complicated when religion is inserted into the mix.

Philomytha said...

You're right, Holland's talk was excellent as support for the divinity of the Qu'ran. Everything he said applies better to it than the BoM.

And there's something really not right about a religion where your "eternal reward" depends on the choices of other people. I'm feeling this is not a good time to tell my MIL that we're going to a different church. *sigh* Especially since I'm not supposed to let my kids make up their own minds about the gospel.

dbd said...

I am so glad I didn't waste 10 hours listening to this garbage.

Na'me said...

Wow - moments of brilliance here, like TGD says.

I love this quote:

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.


Saganist said...

Thanks, TGD! I also struggle to remember what it was like to actually buy into this stuff. It could sort of make sense if you live in a bubble (which I think these guys mostly do), but in the real world almost everything they say is irrelevant.

Philomytha, I don't get it either. Thanks for posting an excerpt from the Christofferson talk, where he says you need to indoctrinate your kids. I missed that one because I totally tuned out after Holland finished with his diatribe.

dbd, I totally agree. From what I gather, they spent a lot of time railing against unbelievers. Not exactly worth enduring for hours if you can help it.

Thanks, Na'me! Someone gave me that insight a few years ago, and it's really stuck with me. The doctrine of "forever families" is often trumpeted as a comforting doctrine that makes the LDS church unique. In a way, that's true, but it's only because the LDS church claims they know who won't be together forever unless they jump through hoops X, Y, and Z. What kind of comfort is that?

Probative said...

Thanks for writing this up Saganist.

That it comes from Holland is so very sad.


C. L. Hanson said...

Good analysis! I think this increasing polarization is unfortunate, but I guess that's the road they've chosen, and there's not much we can do about it.

BTW, this is the first time I've seen that link about chaismus in the INFORMIX-OnLine Database Administrator's Guide -- too funny! I'm currently writing a technical (computer) book myself, so I know the style well. I'm tempted to go back and check my earlier chapters for accidental chaismus!

Or maybe I should just get back to work... ;^)

Saganist said...

Thanks, Probative. I agree. I expected better from him.

Thanks, C.L. It really bothers me that the LDS church has apparently chosen their own "strait and narrow path" toward fanatical fundamentalist authoritarianism. You'd think they might have learned an historical lesson from God's other One True Church that went down that path (the Catholic church, of course). I believe the Catholic church was forced to adapt or die in the 1400-1600s; by adapting, it survived. Maybe LDS church leaders think they're different because they're really the One True Church. Uh huh.

I was surprised that the Informix manual was the only example of accidental chiasmus that popped up in my Google search. I'm sure I've read about plenty of others, not all of which are ancient scriptures of Semitic origin.