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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Have you reached a conclusion yet?

When I first told my wife a few years ago that I was starting to doubt the claims of the LDS church (and my belief in God, for that matter), she was understandably freaked out. Thankfully, we gave each other time and space to deal with what was happening, and our relationship now is better than ever.

But one question she asked me every so often during those first few months was, "Have you reached a conclusion yet?" The implication was that I was going to reach a final conclusion that the LDS gospel was "true" or "false".

It was a little frustrating to answer such a question, because my answer was, and still is, "yes and no". Yes, I have reached a conclusion. My conclusion is: No, I may never reach a conclusion. And that's okay. I no longer subscribe to the concept of reaching a final conclusion that cannot be changed by further evidence. I now regard all conclusions as tentative (yes, even this one!) and contingent on being supported by good evidence.

HinckleyThe false dichotomy that the LDS church is either wholly true or wholly false is often emphasized by church leaders. For example, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a General Conference talk in April 2003, in which he boldly stated, "Either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing."

This is obviously oversimplified. It is a fact that there are many positive things about the church, many true principles taught by it, and many good people who believe in it. However, it is also evident that Joseph Smith's foundational mythology includes many claims that are... shall we say, not entirely grounded in reality. Must we conclude that Joseph Smith was either the Prophet of God on the earth, or else a willful liar and a fraud? No. I don't believe the evidence completely supports either claim. Life is much more complicated than that.

flat earthSomeone on a discussion board recently asked, "What would it take for you to believe again?" For me, that question is kind of like asking, "What would it take for me to believe the earth is flat?" It would take a whole heck of a lot of observational evidence, as well as a coherent, parsimonious explanation for all the other evidence that seemed to indicate that the earth is a spheroid. The same is true of belief in the LDS church. In principle, I suppose the dead could start walking the earth, testifying of Joseph Smith and the restoration. That would challenge both my naturalistic worldview and my view of the LDS church. In practice, the possibility seems so unlikely as to be ignored.

To summarize: Yes, I hold certain tentative conclusions with an estimated probability, given the evidence I know about. I may believe the likelihood of the existence of gods is very small, and I may believe the likelihood of the LDS church being a true church (whatever that means) is even smaller. However, given enough good evidence, I am willing to change my mind. So, have I reached a conclusion yet? Yes... and no.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Apollo moon landing sites imaged by LRO

In case you haven't heard, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Apollo moon landing sites. You can see the lunar modules that were left behind, and in an Apollo 14 image you can even make out a trail of astronaut footprints in the dust! Freaking incredible.

My thoughts on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

My wife, brother, and I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in a souped-up Extreme Digital theater last night. They packed more digits into that sucker than I ever would have thought possible. I recently read the book again, so the story would be fresh in my mind. Also, that makes it much easier to criticize all the ways in which the movie diverges from the book.

On the way to the theater, my brother said that when he's talked to people who have seen the movie, they all liked it. But he also heard rumors that "some people thought it sucked". After watching the film, I can understand some reasons why some people might think that, even if I disagree with them about whether these problems push the movie into overall suck territory.

The main shortcoming of the film is that it's so unrealistic. Okay, it's a story about magic and wizards. That's fine, I get that. I'm okay with magic wands, spells, apparition, flying smoke Death Eaters, invisibility cloaks, love potions, cursed jewelry, vanishing cabinets, wrackspurts, werewolves, zombies, killing curses, pulling cinematic memories out of your head for later review, etc. I loved all that.

However. There is one scene near the beginning of the movie where you can see the night sky out a window during summertime. I didn't recognize any constellations, but that's fine. It's fiction, after all. Later in the movie, there's another scene that occurs at night, about six months later, and the exact same arrangement of stars is visible in the sky! That would never happen! I can suspend my disbelief, but there's a limit to how much unrealism I can accept, and that was way over the line. I imagine this is probably the primary complaint of most people who thought the movie sucked.

Of course, the same stars might be visible if the first scene took place just before sunrise and the second scene took place just after sunset. Come to think of it, maybe that's what happened. I take it all back.

Other than that, the movie was excellent. It's probably my favorite Harry Potter movie so far. Of course, they made some changes from the book, but none of the changes detracted from the story, and in fact some changes actually improved my enjoyment of the story. I'm thinking of one particular change near the end, in which the implications of the final events were made even more profound and personal. I absolutely loved that change.

I definitely recommend it. The entire movie was so intense and enjoyable that I didn't even realize it was almost three hours long. I think I'll be going again sometime soon.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Anything but that

Here's a pointer to an Atheist Cartoon that's right on the money. Except he forgot to mention the virtues of eating babies:

anything but that

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Can we be good without my friend Marvin?

I've had a good friend ever since I was a child. A best friend, really. We grew up together, and I feel like we've never really been apart. His name is Marvin, and I don't know what I would do without him.

There are a few things you need to understand about Marvin, though. First, he thinks it's funny or clever to show up at random times when I'm not expecting it. He even tracked down the B&B where my wife and I spent our wedding night, and started banging on our door, yelling about purity during what happened to be a particularly personal moment. That was annoying at the time, but I guess it was kind of funny. Maybe you had to be there. Good old Marvin.

Second, he's a pretty big guy, not the kind of person you want to mess with. He always has some kind of weapon, usually a baseball bat, and he enjoys using it whenever I do anything wrong. One time, we went golfing together, and he left his driver at home in favor of the baseball bat. I hit a particularly bad drive into the rough, and found my ball stuck behind a tree. Thinking that Marvin wouldn't see or wouldn't care, I casually rolled my ball about two feet to the left, so I could have a clearer shot to the green. All of a sudden, thwack! Marvin clocked me in the back of the head with his baseball bat. "Thou shalt not cheat," he said with a smile. I had to admit he was right.

Third, he loves to give hugs all the time. But only when I'm doing something right. Last year after I finished my taxes, he scared the hell out of me by bursting into my home office and giving me a giant bear hug. I asked him what that was for, and he said he was proud of me for not cheating on my taxes. The thought of cheating had never occurred to me, but I appreciated the hug. I like how Marvin is always thinking of me, and helping me do the right thing even when he's not there. I never know when he might show up and give me a hug, and that just makes me feel good inside.

As you can see, my friend Marvin is a little quirky, but I know he means well. And to be honest, I think he makes me a better person. Sometimes when I'm putting the kids to bed and they're screaming and belligerent, I think I ought to punch them in the face. But then I remember the last time I did that. Marvin jumped out of my daughter's closet and whacked me in the kneecap with his baseball bat. I couldn't walk for a week. And just the other day, I saw an old lady fall down on the sidewalk in front of me. I was going to walk right past her, but then I realized that if I helped her, Marvin would probably show up and give me a hug. And he did. He was so proud of me.

I wonder sometimes, is it really possible to be a good person without my friend Marvin? I have some friends who think so, and they claim they've never even heard of Marvin. I don't entirely believe them. I figure they must be embarrassed to admit how many times Marvin has smacked them with his baseball bat. Or maybe they have friends of their own - not Marvin himself, but someone just like him. Maybe a friend with boxing gloves instead of a baseball bat. Without my friend Marvin or someone just like him, what would stop them from punching their kids in the face? Why would they help old ladies cross the street? Without my friend Marvin, would life be worth living at all? I don't see how.