Thursday, November 7, 2019

D&C 3: Liar Liar

God's Pants are on Fire
Our third entry begins with a particularly dubious claim (verse 1):
The works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught.
Okay, so...here's a handy list of things that were supposedly God's designs that were ultimately frustrated:  selling the copyright to the Book of MormonZion’s Campthe search for treasure in Salemthe United Orderthe command to build a temple in Missouri, and apparently the timeline for the second coming was pushed back because Joseph Smith didn't live long enough (D&C 140:13-15).

For a more modern examination, how about the ultimate court defeat of Proposition 8 and the 2015 ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges?


God's Pants have Burned off Completely
Verse 2 doubles down on God's dishonesty:
For God doth not walk in crooked paths, neither doth he turn to the right hand nor to the left, neither doth he vary from that which he hath said, therefore his paths are straight, and his course is one eternal round.
Okay, so...what about Zion's Camp or the Kirtland Safety Society?  Those are times when God's designs came to naught, right?

And I know I harp on this a lot, but I think it bears repeating...if God doesn't walk in crooked paths, his church certainly does.  Flip-flopping on polygamy, waffling on racism, behaving in ways explicitly condemned in its own scripture (polygamy, priestcraft, letting alms be seen before men, not standing up to wicked, corrupt leaders, etc).  These are not straight paths.


God Smears the Ashes of his Pants on his Followers
Verse 3 continues the madness.  It just doesn't stop.  Brace yourself:
Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men;
Only...it was God's work that was frustrated too.  The coming forth of the most important scripture in the history of the world was delayed because God put the same story from a different POV into his scripture and allowed his prophet to waste precious time translating it instead of just preventing the bad guys from stealing it.


Just Desserts
Take a look at verse 4:
For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.
This makes me think of the quote from Joseph Smith that he had more to boast of than any man because not even Jesus could keep a whole church together. Was his murder the promised vengeance of God, then?  Was his death a punishment for boasting and for setting aside the counsels of God regarding polygamy found in the book of Jacob?  Does that mean that Joseph Smith is a fallen prophet and that another sect of Mormonism has the true gospel?

Also, I'm not really okay with vengeance being taught as something that is just.


No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
God spends most of this section tearing Joseph a new asshole for setting aside divine counsel.  Which makes no sense because Joseph didn't give Martin Harris the manuscript until receiving permission from God.  God should chew him out if, after the first no, Joseph gave Harris the 116 pages anyway.  But that's not what happened.  Joseph complied with the first two nos and only gave Harris the manuscript after his third attempt, when he received a green light from Heaven.

So why didn't God just keep saying no?  Seems like Joseph was pretty obedient.  Why give him permission to do the wrong thing and them blame him for doing what you let him do?


Full Circle
With satisfying symmetry, this section also concludes with a particularly dubious claim (verses 19-20):
And for this very purpose are these plates preserved, which contain these records—that the promises of the Lord might be fulfilled, which he made to his people;

And that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ, and be glorified through faith in his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved. Amen.
Seems pretty weird that the the purpose mentioned for the Book of Mormon is for the salvation of the Native Americans.  I thought it was for everyone.  But the phrasing implies pretty strongly that the purpose laid out in this chapter is the only—or at the very least the most important—purpose of the Book of Mormon.  Strange that there isn't a massive LDS following among the descendants of indigenous American civilizations.

Or maybe that's just yet another example of one of God's designs being frustrated, despite his claims to the contrary.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

D&C 2: Belay the Smiting

This one is so short that I might as well quote the whole thing:
Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. 
And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. 
If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.
What is the point of quoting Malachi here?  This is commonly taught in Mormonism as a prophecy of the latter-day importance of genealogy and temple work.  But what did it accomplish to reiterate this prophecy from Moroni's 1823 visitation?  This section wasn't included in the 1833 Book of Commandments, which I suppose makes sense because we didn't know about temple ceremonies at that point.  So perhaps this part of Joseph Smith's personal history was used later for section 2 to remind everyone that he received a Biblical prophecy at the beginning of his origin story that wouldn't have a full payoff until near the end of his ministry.  So maybe it's a nod to his prophetic foresight.

But if that's the objective of this section's inclusion, it's strange that it seems to correct the Bible or at least to refocus the meaning of Malachi chapter 4.  We're adding promises into the mix when we're talking about turning hearts and we're also tweaking the threat a little bit.

Malachi seems to make it clear that the turning of the children's hearts to the fathers and the turning of the fathers' hearts to the children will prevent the Lord smiting the earth with a dreadful curse.  But this section puts the threat in a separate sentence (and even a separate verse) and makes things a little murkier.

The word "were" in the closing verse is confusing.  It doesn't feel like it's looking forward in time to warn that if the heart-turning happens the smiting will be prevented.  It sounds like a subjunctive form of the verb that implies something is already the case, but that if conditions were different the smiting would, hypothetically, take place.  Which makes it sound not like a warning for us to turn our hearts to our fathers but as a reassurance that God has foreseen the problem and sent Elijah to turn the hearts and avert the smiting.

I'm not sure what that means, really, but it does seem to show that modern revelation adjusts and fixes established scripture.  Which is fine, because that's what the church teaches, especially since the church teaches that the Bible is a little iffy when it comes to the reliability of the translation.

The problem is that the church also teaches that the Book of Mormon is not subject to the reliability issues of the Bible.  Because Christ himself quotes Malachi 4:6 verbatim in 3 Nephi 25:6.  So it does seem a little odd that God feels the need to rework the phrasing of Jesus's words, especially when it only muddies the cause-and-effect relationships between the different parts of his statement.

God decided to rewrite his son's sermon to make it less lucid.  What are we supposed to do with this?  Why did this need to be included in a set of published revelations?  How is this useful to us during our quest for exaltation?

Saturday, October 26, 2019

D&C 1: In Media Res

I've been kicking around the idea of an analysis of the Doctrine and Covenants for a few years now and I think I'm ready to pull the trigger.  As with my commentary on the Book of Mormon, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for contradictions, dangerous doctrines, and teachings that don't align with what the church claims in the present day.  As this book of scripture isn't, strictly speaking, fictional, there will be less for me to point out when it comes to plot holes and amateurish storytelling.  I suspect all of that may be compensated for with opportunities to point out divine edicts that make no sense and passages that demonstrate God's subpar command of modern language.

So let's dive in.


Warning, Live Without Warning
Section 1 constitutes a revelation provided specifically for inclusion as a preface for a publication of the Lord's collected musings.  I'll begin by highlighting verse 4:
And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.
Interesting that this book of scripture starts with themes of fear, warning, and authority.  Not a great tone to set.  I mean, I suppose a lot of this made sense in the culture of its time when millennialism was a big deal, but as far as its use as present-day scripture is concerned, it's not a great look.

And also, the voice of warning still hasn't gone to all people because the church is so tiny and has such limited influence outside of the mountain west region of the United States.


Weighted Grading System
Moving on to verse 10:
Unto the day when the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.
This is simply not true.  This does not jive with our understanding of how God "measures" us.  He has his own standards that humanity has no power to change.  This is why apostles teach against gay marriage by saying society's standards may change but God's will not.

The weirdest part is that this seems to imply that if we go easy on each other and not look down on rapists,  then God won't punish us as harshly for our own rapes.  I have never met a Mormon who believes this is the case.  By that logic, the eat-drink-and-be-merry crowd probably has the best shot at exaltation.


Zero Tolerance Policy
Our favorite uncompromising deity flexes his uncompromising muscles of uncompromisingness in verse 31:
For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;
Why not?  A being as wise as God should understand that there is a lot of complexity in the world he's created.  He should know it's not that black-and-white.  There are plenty of things that you can do that are wrong but that are understandable considering the circumstances.  But God can't cut us a slight degree of allowance for doing bad things with good intentions?  I mean, it's his fault that it's so tough to determine what's right anyway since he sent us through the veil.  If there are degrees of glory why can't there be degrees of infraction against his commandments?

And how does this work with what is often termed Lying for the Lord?  How does this work with Joseph's denial of polygamy?  With Ballard's claim that the church leaders have never hidden anything?  And with all the dishonesty in between?


A Crooked Catchphrase 
Verse 35 contains one of the more dubious claims in this section:
For I am no respecter of persons, and will that all men shall know that the day speedily cometh; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand, when peace shall be taken from the earth, and the devil shall have power over his own dominion.
Here is the first point in the Doctrine and Covenants when God proclaims that he is "no respecter of persons."  This phrase will be repeated many times.  And at this point, it may be true according to the historical record.  But according to the pseudohistorical record (by which I mean the racist-against-Native-Americans Book of Mormon) and the subsequent historical record of the church, yes, he fucking IS a respecter of persons.  He plays favorites all the time, all the way back to the Old Testament up until this decade when his church enacted policies that blatantly favored straight people over gay people...well, at least over people in gay relationships.  And their children.  And of course there's all the "shall I tell you concerning the negro race" bullshit in the middle.  And the ongoing issue with pretending women are honored but not giving them the priesthood or addressing the overwhelming cultural oppression and repression.

Other than that, though, God is, more or less, no respecter of persons.


Search, Ponder, and Pray
Perhaps the most preface-y element of this preface is showcased in verse 37:
Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.
Ah, here we have the tender mercies thesis statement.  Just like the Book of Mormon doesn't really support Nephi's thesis statement, I think the following 139 chapters will demonstrate that these "true and faithful" commandments will contradict each other and that the promises and prophecies have not all been fulfilled—some of their deadlines have expired.


Godly by Association
Verse 38 may represent Joseph's attempt to align his reputation with God's to make his words as unassailable as the Lord's:
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.
And this leads us into the murky sinkhole of prophets speaking as men.  God is saying that his promises and prophecies are all set in stone whether it's his voice saying them or whether it comes through his prophets.  He's trying to make sure we take his prophets seriously...which is exactly how we get so much bullshit and miscommunication in the church. 

See, when you're taught things like this, it doesn't make a lot of sense to pick and choose what teachings of the prophets you want to follow.  Because if it can carry the full weight of God's word, it seems really risky to ignore.  Which is why indoctrinated Mormons can be racist, sexist, or homophobic.  Sure, the racism has been "corrected," but fifty years ago racism from the pulpit was indistinguishable from God's will. 

It seems really irresponsible of God to say something like this and then utterly fail to either properly control his prophets' message or to provide us with a reliable method for determining when a prophet is speaking as a man.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Flaws, Fallacies, and the CES Letter

I haven't done this in a while, but during a slow day at work I fell down a rabbithole of Mormon apologetics.  I found a delightful recent takedown of the CES Letter that very earnestly missed the point.  In my usual format, selected quotes will follow.

The author, David Snell, asserts that the CES Letter is one giant logical fallacy.  He identifies it as a Gish Gallop, which he explains with some helpful quotes from RationalWiki:
The Gish Gallop is the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. The Gish Gallop is a conveyor belt-fed version of the on the spot fallacy, as it’s unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop. 
… Although it takes a trivial amount of effort on the Galloper’s part to make each individual point before skipping on to the next (especially if they cite from a pre-concocted list of Gallop arguments), a refutation of the same Gallop may likely take much longer and require significantly more effort (per the basic principle that it’s always easier to make a mess than to clean it back up again).
I have some objections to this characterization.  For starters, in order for the CES Letter to be a dreaded Gish Gallop, it needs to be composed of individually weak arguments.  I'd be the first to admit that the CES Letter has some sections that don't measure up—or perhaps the second, as the author later cites Jeremy Runnells's Reddit post in which he deliberates over whether the map of similar place names is too weak to include.  I think the theories about possible source materials for the Book of Mormon are pretty flimsy, too.  But the presence of weak arguments—even one Runnells himself admits is "meh"—does not impose that every argument is weak.  And, of course, the strength of an argument generally cannot be judged by someone who does not actually confront the argument.  Think of it as Schrodinger's criticism—it's both weak and compelling until you open the CES Letter, observe the argument, and measure its merits.
And, yes, the CES Letter is designed to make any rebuttal lengthy, but not as a way of confounding attempts to refute it.  I think the author of this article forgets that, once upon a time, long before it became the darling of the online ex-Mormon community, it was simply a letter to a CES director.  Jeremy was invited to lay his questions out so that this director could answer them.  In all fairness, I'm sure the seventy-odd pages Jeremy produced were not exactly what the director had in mind when he extended the offer. 

Besides, if the arguments are not weak, having a lot of them shouldn't invalidate their presentation.  Does the author require that criticisms of the church only be delivered one at a time?  Since Tad Callister's talk about the Compelling Witness of the Book of Mormon contains a flood of weak arguments, does that mean we should dismiss the whole thing as a logical fallacy instead of addressing it in its entirety?  Should no one ever publish a book arguing for or against any subject because this always constitutes a Gish Gallop?  Is the book linked to in this article a Gish Gallop as well because I can't quickly and easily address every item in Michael Ash's CES Letter rebuttal?

I also want to point out that RationalWiki calls this a debate tactic.  The CES Letter is not a debate.  It's a publication, a collection of concerns.  If two people were discussing Mormonism and one of them were to sit there quoting the CES Letter in its entirety, that would definitely be unfair.  In that setting, yes, it would be difficult to compose a coherent response on the spot and it would be tough to rebut without a lot of digging.  But this isn't a live debate.

The article then tries to demonstrate how the CES Letter qualifies as a Gish Gallop by showing the weakness of a key argument.  Adducing that Reddit thread in which Jeremy Runnells asked for feedback on removing the geography section because the evidence was "not strong enough" for his taste, Snell concludes:
The galloper knows full well that the argument is weak. And yet, it remains to this day in the first chapter of the Letter. If that’s not highly manipulative and intellectually dishonest, I don’t know what is.
Hey, I'm with you part of the way.  I think that map is a pretty shoddy challenge to the legitimacy of the Book of Mormon, especially when there are plenty of more powerful ones that could take its place.  It is indeed the most meh part of the whole document.  But I don't think it qualifies as intellectually dishonest because it shows that Jeremy cares about the strength of his arguments.  He wanted to avoid a see-what-sticks-to-the-wall approach and asked for input on the merits of a particular argument.  Just because he drew different conclusions about it than you did after reading his Reddit thread doesn't mean he's using the argument to manipulate.  Contrast this with Callister's talk, which is, in my opinion, full of flimsy arguments and which even goes so far as to dictate what those who disagree with him are required to claim.  Do you think Callister went on Reddit to publicly share his thoughts with members to see if one tack of his was more toothless than others?  Which of these demonstrates more intellectual dishonesty?

And...I hate to be that guy, but if this whole thing is gonna be about a logical fallacy, I need to get on a slightly tangential soapbox (which, geometrically speaking, is probably inadvisable).  See, as much as I think it's important for us all to articulate our convictions in logically watertight ways, I happen to be of the opinion that things like RationalWiki and the endless logic infographics have negatively impacted public discourse.  Logical fallacies have become a crutch for some and a mutated strawman for others.  A lot of people are quick not to point out the substantive weaknesses in a speaker's theses but instead to hurriedly slap a friendly logical fallacy label on it and dismiss it as wholly unreliable because logical fallacies are seen as some kind of mystical trump card.
No true Scotsman charges into battle without a full complement of logical fallacy accusations!
Some of you may think this is a cynical, cantankerous diatribe on the decline of personally imposed static social values that's less reminiscent of a dorky blogger and more evocative of the stereotypical crotchety old man hobbling along his porch and shaking his cane at those darn blasted kids again.  To those of you, I say: how carefully did you read this Third Hour article?  Because that's pretty much what happened here.  We've found a handy logical fallacy we think we can use to discredit the entirety of something we viscerally disagree with.  Even though it doesn't fit very well, if we try hard enough our audience might not notice.

And while we're invoking popular fallacies, the assertions of Jeremy Runnells's motives reek of—you guessed it—ad hominem.  Of course, that's not entirely fair, because Snell has brought up an issue he legitimately believes challenges Runnells's credibility.  But see how delicious it is to pretend like I can dismiss Snell with the wave of a magic prepackaged ad hominem wand?

Okay, all of that aside, the ad hominem of debatable validity only demonstrates that one argument in the seminal anti-Mormon document is weak.  If you expect someone to extrapolate that all the arguments—or even a majority of them—are rickety, you'll need to do better than debunking just one.  Yes, I suppose that's how Gish Gallops are designed.  But it's also how lengthy treatises are designed.  If a reality is so complex and so fraught with contradictions, why should it be considered unfair to collect those intricacies in a single volume?  I could probably whip up 70-some pages of reasons why flat-Eartherism is wrong, but is it unfair for me to publish it 70-some pages at a time?

Obviously, that's an extreme example.  Believing in Mormonism makes way more sense to me than denying the Earth is round.  But I guess it's really just a less disrespectful version of Godwin's Law I'm playing into now....

More quoting from RationalWiki:
It’s hard because there’s so [darn] much to refute. Every claim probably requires at minimum one Google search, a writeup of what was found, and a link to the source. Conversely, making the claim only requires one of those steps: the writeup itself. And if the Gish Gallop itself seems to have some substance, this process becomes much harder: each claim’s evidence must be thoroughly debunked. As such, the debunker must understand both the claim and why it’s [not credible]. The claimaint need only recite the claim.
Yes, it's hard to refute because there's so darn much to refute.  That doesn't mean the material is factually incorrect.  This also seems to imply that Runnells just threw together a bunch of stuff over a weekend and called it definitive.  There are citations and links and visual aids and updates all over the CES Letter.    It's not just word vomit.  It's not a publication purely of Potemkin pablum.  (I think alliteration-happy Holland is rubbing off on me after General Conference.)  Credible or not, it seems pretty intellectually dishonest to write the whole thing off because all Runnells had to do was "recite the claim."  (Sorry, I guess that was an ad hominem of my own.  Not cool.)
It’s easy to make claims. It’s harder to prove claims wrong. For example, I can make the claim that the sun has a core made out of molten gold. Prove me wrong!
But that's the sort of thing that Mormonism is built on.  You can't see the Holy Ghost, you don't have historical evidence that Nephi was a real person, and you can't actually see the afterlife ahead of time to know there's actually a Celestial Kingdom to aspire to.  You weren't there in the Sacred Grove when the founding event of the Restoration took place.  It's a lot easier to make those claims than to poke holes in every single logical error, doctrinal contradiction, unfounded assertion, or downright manipulative lie.  But you don't see me crying foul that the general authorities spend ten hours every six months publicly arguing in favor of their beliefs.  You see me crying foul at plenty of the things they say during those ten hours, of course, but I don't cry foul that they feel empowered to share their thoughts and opinions.  (Except maybe with Oaks sometimes.  I really don't like that guy.)

And you certainly may posit that the sun has a core made out of molten gold.  And if you do so, we should enthusiastically argue against you instead of dismissing your pseudoscientific astronomical manifesto as too lengthy to refute.  If you produce diagrams and quotations of revered physicists and cosmochemists to bolster your claims, we should go through the evidence, admit what, if anything, is valid, and deconstruct what is not.
But if you take the time to tackle each argument individually, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t be intimidated by the claims, or the work necessary to understanding the refutation.
Amen to that.  The same should be said of any vigorous criticism of anyone's closely held beliefs.  Except, perhaps, the foregone conclusion that refutation is what will be necessary.  Sometimes we find arguments that are persuasive on their own virtues.  This is why I tend to side with Mormon apologists over ex-Mormons, for example, when it comes to View of the Hebrews.  I think that particular argument only works when you presuppose the Book of Mormon is a fraud.  Without that assumption, Ethan Smith's racist masterwork is merely a mild curiosity and offers compelling evidence of absolutely nothing.  Apologists' arguments against the claims of View of the Hebrews, The Late War, and The First Book of Napoleon serving as source materials for the Book of Mormon win me over because I think those arguments are stronger.  It's probably impossible to be truly objective with this kind of thing, but as objectively as I can see things, I think the Mormon apologists win this round, despite how much I would prefer to refute what they have to say.
It’s an interesting exercise to confront anti-Latter-day Saint material and ask yourself in your head, What do they want me to do after I’ve abandoned my faith?
Why should we tell you what to do?  That's kind of the whole point.  Follow what you determine to be true.  Don't let other people—or other institutions—make those determinations for you.
Some entities exist for the sole purpose of destroying your foundation of faith, leaving it in shambles, and not replacing it with anything in particular. But the majority are trying to break down your faith in the hope that you’ll adopt their own viewpoints.
Again, why is the onus on the source of the new information to do the replacing?  Empower yourself.  Draw your own conclusions.  Redesign your belief system.

And, yes, many people are trying to get you to adopt their own viewpoints, but that's not necessarily sinister.  When you feel passionately about something and you share your opinions, of course you hope your audience will join you.  This is exactly the same as Mormons sharing the gospel—they believe they have the truth, they're passionate about bringing that truth to others, so they try to get people to adopt their viewpoints.  I dunno, man, condemning anti-Latter-day Saints for doing the same thing sure feels like a double standard.
They try to burn down in minutes that which took years to build. Then, from the ashes resulting from their own act of arson, they generously offer to take you in.
While we're sloshing through the pedantic swamps of logical fallacies, let's bring up the one about sunken costs.  How much does it really matter how long it took you to build your house if you built it on the sand?  Devoting a lot of time to something doesn't impose that it is deserving of more time.  That can be true of just about anything—religions, abusive relationships, silly blog arguments, whatever.

The sarcasm here gets to me, though.  Because it still reminds me of what the church does.  The church obviously is not the only organization guilty of this, but it does teach you that you are an enemy of God and an unprofitable servant, it tells you that you are a licked cupcake or a pervert or an addict...and then generously offers to take you in and to help fix you in exchange for a yearly payment of ten percent of your earnings.  Just like what the author accuses anti-Mormons of doing, the church manufactures the problem and oh-so-magnanimously offers a self-serving solution.

Yeah, I'm being really sarcastic too.  I'm not better.  Just a regular everyday hypocrite.

Snell then quotes a non-Mormon defender of the LDS church, Manu Padro:
They are trying to coerce you into a situation where they can bombard you with so many doubt-provoking questions that they can cause your resolve to collapse and your identity to fall apart. Inside of that vacuum, created by an act of psychological rape, they hope to impregnate you with their own belief system.
If that sounds abusive, it’s because that’s what it is. It’s an extension of the cultural legacy of the inquisition. They can’t torture you, but they can humiliate you and pressure you with questions you don’t have an answer to yet. They try to hit you up with too many of these questions to answer, because if they don’t it wouldn’t work. That’s how the CES Letter works. It’s garbage but it’s a common strategy in the anti-Mormon ministry.
First of all, if we're going to level accusations of psychological rape, I don't think it's fair to start with critics of Mormonism, because a lot of those critics will assert that the church psychologically raped them first.  But that's veering into territory of we-had-to-commit-war-crimes-because-the-enemy-committed-war-crimes-against-us-first and I don't think that's a productive discussion for anybody.

Moving on, the reason it often doesn't work to bring up one issue at a time isn't because the arguments are too weak to stand on their own, it's because Mormon brainwashing is very resilient to solitary issues.  I encountered individual problems with Mormonism all the time as a kid—how could you not unless you lived in an armor-plated bubble?—but it was easy to deftly explain them away when they arose because I only had to confront about one problem at a time.  Think about Hopper's analogy of ant rebellion from A Bug's Life—one issue doesn't hurt.  It's not until you realize there are hundreds that you understand the power that critical information can wield.
He's quite the motivational speaker, isn't he?
And I don't think anyone should get to defend Mormonism by claiming that its critics are abusive.  Are we perfect?  Of course not.  Can we be abusive?  Absolutely, we're people.  But we're not charging huge sums of money for the promises of unseen rewards, we're not counting on crushing cultural pressure to send teenagers away from their families for two years, we're not ostracizing and marginalizing LGBT youth to the point of suicide, and we're not convincing young women that their value is tied to their virginity.  That's abusive.  Can ex-Mormons be more respectful and more tactful?  Of course.  Is it anywhere near approaching the abuses of the institution we stand against?  No.  That doesn't make us right, it just makes the church that reviles us another bulwark of hypocrisy in an age already glutted with double standards.
Either avoid the trap altogether (I recommend this), or slow down, and do your homework.
I agree with the second part.  Everyone should always be doing their homework.

Avoiding the "trap" altogether is not something I think is a great idea.  We should never be afraid of information—and constantly welcoming more of it can help us hone our abilities to judge new information on its veracity and its value. 
And while there are plenty of answers in regard to the CES Letter, there are some things of faith that cannot be proven, whether you’re a Latter-day Saint, Catholic, Muslim, or Protestant. If we had all the answers, faith wouldn’t be the first principle of the gospel.
There are plenty of answers in regard to the CES Letter.  Some of those answers are, "no, of course Joseph Smith didn't copy a map of New England and change a few syllables when he dreamt up the Nephite territories" and some of those answers are, "yes, Joseph Smith was wrong about what the Book of Abraham papyrus actually contained."

This also brings me back to my frequent complaint that a benevolent god values faith above all else.  That makes no sense.  Why is faith the first principle of the gospel?  Shouldn't the first principle be good works, or love, or compassion, or selflessness or something?  Why is our worthiness to live in God's presence again contingent not on the good things we accomplish and the righteous desires of our hearts but on whether we believe in God's existence in the midst of a deliberate dearth of definitive evidence?

I don't think it's fair to expect that there are easy answers, but I think it's entirely fair to reject invalid or incomplete answers and to keep searching for something more fulfilling.  And I think it's also wise not to avoid troubling doctrinal questions out of some white-knuckled sense that obtaining the answers will water down the gospel.
We have access to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. We have every reason to hold our heads high and proclaim our gospel far and wide to those who seek it. Let us do so ethically, responsibly, and in as Christ-like a way as possible.
Amen to that.  Everyone should feel empowered to share their beliefs in an ethical, responsible, compassionate manner.  This applies to Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and people of any other belief system—including those whose belief system was once Mormonism.

I'd also like to point out the context of Manu Prado's earlier quote—not as one of those yOu'Re TaKiNg It OuT oF cOnTeXt things, but to bring up an important genesis of these issues and, sometimes, these animosities.

Notice that he lumps the CES Letter in with what he calls "ministries," including evangelical organizations that are out to rescue Mormons from their off-brand Christianity.  His condemnation, though a little dramatic, is a poignant one in the context of people who spam the CES Letter to their stake email lists and put ads on Facebook using the familiar "CES" acronym to make the letter appear to be a church-friendly product.  I completely agree with Mr. Pradu and Mr. Snell that this behavior is unhealthy. Foisting this kind of information on people—often strangers—who haven't asked to be confronted with the flaws of their worldview is wrong.  And this is something that the CES Letter's author has specifically asked people not to do.  If someone comes to you with questions about the church and you give them the CES Letter, that could be considered a rescue.  If you send someone the CES Letter unsolicited, that could be considered abuse.  Everyone is on their own paths.  We may not approve of other people's paths, but that doesn't give us the right to try and forcibly steer someone onto our own.

And I think that's the most important takeaway for all of us, regardless of where we land on the multidimensional spectrum of faith.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Notes on the Sunday Sessions

When I acted and made my best decisions, it was then the strongest spiritual confirmations came.
Gerrit W. Gong
Oh, right, that's exactly what it says in Moroni 10:6—"But verily, I say unto you, the Holy Ghost will only manifest the truth of all things unto thee most strongly if thou wilt first make thine own decision and act upon it."  That must be why spiritual confirmation didn't work for me. 

That's also what it says in Doctrine and Covenants 9:10—"But after you have studied it out in your mind and asked me if it be right, I will only cause that thy bosom shall burn within thee most strongly if thou hast already made thine own decision and acted upon it."  I'd never noticed that verse before.

I'm so sick of the church trying to water down the simple instructions the scriptures offer for receiving confirmation and revelation.  They're always adding qualifiers that will explain why it still works even when it appears not to have worked.  At least this one is a little more creative than "your confirmation will come according to God's timeline, not your own."

 To help others is the path of discipleship.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
I liked most of Uchtdorf's talk.  It was a cute little parallel drawn between the Plan of Salvation and The Hobbit.  In a similar vein of Sister Aburto's talk from last night, a lot of what he had to say represented what I wish more religions actually sounded like.  Including: 

If people decide the church is not for them, that is their decision.  It does not mean that you have failed.   
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
I sure hope my parents didn't nod off and miss that comment.  There is one thing he said I want to criticize, though: 

God has appeared to men in our day.  We have a living prophet.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
The fact that these statements are right next to each other sure makes it seem like he's trying to strongly imply that Russell M. Nelson has seen God face-to-face without having to say so explicitly.  I, for one, would like to hear some more information about this.  I'd like Nelson to relate his visionary experience seeing the face of God.  Scriptural prophets did it.  Joseph Smith did it.  If the fact that it still happens today is supposed to be evidence of the legitimacy of Mormonism, I think we deserve to hear some details straight from the horse's mouth.

The Lord, who knows the end from the beginning, knows the unique difficulties of our day.  Therefore, he has provided a way for us to resist challenges and temptations, many which come as a direct result of the deceitful influences of the adversary and his attacks.  The way is simple:  through his servants, God speaks to us, his children, and gives us commandments.
Gary E. Stevenson
Here's how Stevenson suggests that we learn to resist temptation:  by keeping the commandments.  Thanks, but that's not really helpful.  Generally the way temptation works is by getting us to do something we already know is wrong.  So he's really saying that you should avoid doing the wrong thing by always doing the right thing.  Let me tell you, if it were that simple, temptation wouldn't work very often.

He's saying you should avoid the thrill of driving really fast by reading the speed limit signs.  Okay, sure, but when a really catchy banger is blasting on the radio and you really really really want to put the pedal to the metal and accelerate up to 90 miles an hour, it's not like you're unaware the speed limit is 50.  You already know what you want to do is against the law.  How do we resist the temptation to drive at unsafe speeds?

Stevenson's answer:  by keeping the speed limits that are on the posted signs!

Thanks, I'm cured.

In addition, he [Satan] camouflages other dark, harmful content found online such as pornography, blatant attacks on others through cyber-bullying, and sowing misinformation to cause doubt and fear in our hearts and minds.  Cunningly, he whispers, "Just follow me and you will surely be happy."
Gary E. Stevenson
Just follow me and you will surely be happy?  Didn't he just tell us, more or less, that the secret to freedom from misery is to follow the prophet?  He's not so cunning about it, but he's doing the same thing he accuses the devil of doing.

Sure, cyber-bullying and sowing misinformation are bad things.  But let's not pretend like the Adversary-with-a-capital-A is the only guy camouflaging things as something they're not.

It would be impossible to calculate the amount of service that Latter-day Saints render around the globe every day of every year, but it is possible to calculate the church as an organization does to bless men and women, boys and girls, who are in need of a helping hand.  The church's humanitarian outreach was launched in 1984.  ...  This effort proved to be the beginning of what would later be known as Latter-day Saint Charities.  Since that time, Latter-day Saint Charities has provided more than 2 billion dollars in aid to assist those in need throughout the world.
 —Russell M. Nelson
Sure, that figure sounds impressive, but let's not forget that a lot of us weren't even born in 1984.  How impressive is the figure of two billion dollars over that time span? By my math, it's a little over 57 million dollars per year.  If we use the membership total from 1984, when the church hadn't yet hit the 6 million mark, that works out to a little over ten bucks per member.  2 billion is a lot of money, but when it's spread out over 35 years and the organization providing it requires a minimum of ten percent of the annual income of its members, it's really not that impressive.  It also means that the total amount of humanitarian donations over that 35-year period is just about on par with what the church spent to build a single shopping complex in Salt Lake City.  What does that say about the church's priorities?

To be fair, I have no doubt that the church has done plenty of good around the world.  But the fact that the funding put toward those projects pales in comparison with the funding put toward commercial ventures should indicate that these things are done to give the appearance of charity.  They're done so the church can pat its members on the back in speeches like this while taking more money to put toward less admirable endeavors.  Meanwhile, the individual members who actually donate the clothing and work in the bishop's storehouses and clean up disaster-stricken areas exhibit so much more compassion and Christlike love than the organization they represent.

To be fair a second time, Nelson does repeatedly give credit to the members for their generosity, their sacrifices, and their service.  I don't really trust this gratitude he expresses because I think he's only doing it to convince them to keep giving him money, but at least he did give credit where credit is due several times.  And I think that's important, because I think that the overwhelming majority of the good accomplished by Mormonism is due to the members, not the organization.

This assistance is offered to recipients regardless of their church affiliation, nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender, or political persuasion.
Russell M. Nelson
So, do you want a cookie, or what?

Congratulations for having some basic human decency when you're giving assistance to those in need, I guess.  Does Nelson expect that most charities will say things like, "I'm sorry you're starving, but since you're a Methodist, or Bangladeshi, or white, or bisexual, or a woman, or a member of the Labour Party, I'm not going to give you food"?

I'm sure that kind of thing can happen, but it's not like avoiding it yourself is something that deserves celebration.  It's like saying in casual conversation that you don't believe cannibalism is morally right and then expecting a standing ovation.  Who was suggesting otherwise?

The people of Laputa spent three years digging a one-meter-deep trench through rock and jungle.  By working together, the joyful day finally arrived when fresh, clean water was available to all in that village.
Russell M. Nelson 
Dude.  You gave them training materials so that they could build themselves access to fresh water and you let them work on it for three years?  What the hell is wrong with you??

You spent two billion on a mall, you have thirty-some-odd billion dollars in the stock market, you're throwing up multi-million-dollar temples around the world all the time—if you really wanted to help these people, I'm sure you could have managed an 18-mile aqueduct or committed your charitable efforts toward helping with the actual digging.  I get that there's value in a community coming together and for the people putting the work in themselves, but this is for access to clean water.  That's a basic human necessity.  Based on the gloomy picture you painted of this town before explaining the solution, there's no reason you should have expected them to wait three years for this. 

Maybe I just don't know enough about how things work in the Congo, but it sure seems like an organization with the resources of the church should have been able to give something a lot better than this.

Side note:  in my efforts to learn more, I found a page on the church's website that should contain a video about this.  It doesn't load.  I know I'm putting my tinfoil hat on again here, but that's a little strange, no?  I can access other pages on the website just fine, but this one keeps timing out.

This kind of service provided by so many of you is the very essence of ministering.
—Russell M. Nelson 
Really?  Including those bright yellow Mormon Helping Hands vests you pointed out?  The essence of ministering isn't selfless service, it's service while advertising an organization that gives its devotees speeches about giving more money to the organization but doesn't guarantee them how that money will be used and doesn't show any details of its spending.  The essence of ministering is probably shit Nelson doesn't even know about because the Mormons who do it don't wear bright yellow shirts, may not even mention religion, and probably don't advertise what they did.  If you're worried about who's getting credit for the help you're providing, you're not helping the best way that you can.

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them.  Or have we completely forgotten whose church this supposedly is?

I have also marveled as world leaders have visited the first presidency, expressing their hope for the church to be established in their lands.  Why?  Because they know that Latter-day Saints will help to build strong families and communities, making life better for others wherever they live.
Russell M. Nelson
You were worried I'd forget to use it this time, weren't you?
I have a hard time believing that this happens.

See, my original thought was that perhaps Nelson doesn't realize that world politicians have to be, well, politic.  When he said all the world leaders he's met with have remarked about how wonderful their Mormon citizens are and have thanked Nelson for the relief efforts of the church, I just thought he was naive.  Of course the heads of state will say things like that.  Even if they think Nelson is a cult leader, you don't welcome the head of a foreign religion and then tell him his followers are crackpots and he should go pound sand.  And it's very likely that Nelson's organization has helped numerous countries with disaster relief and humanitarian crises, so of course any world leader should express gratitude.  It's just good manners and good politics, and it doesn't necessarily mean these leaders would personally give a glowing five-star endorsement of the church behind closed doors.  I don't know why Nelson doesn't realize that.

But then we got to the above quote and I started to think Nelson wasn't naive, he was just making things up.  World leaders have visited the First Presidency?  Not the other way around?  So, like, for example, maybe President Xi Jinping of China would visit the United States and say, "Hey, let's make a stop in Salt Lake City on our flight back from DC so that I can visit the First Presidency of the Mormons.  I want to talk to them about establishing their church in our lands because that will help us build strong families and communities."

If this has happened, I'm sure it's not with China, but probably a much smaller country.  I would be really interested in the details of this, because it sure sounds like bullshit.  Nelson did refer to "world leaders" as a plural noun, so that means that there were heads of state of at least two countries in which the church is not established that have visited the first presidency.  

Please, Russ, tell us more.

But perhaps the greatest blessing for Job was to have increased in holiness through adversity and repentance.  He was qualified to have greater happiness in the days he had yet to live.  Greater holiness will not come simply by asking for it.  It will come by doing what is needed for God to change us.   
Henry B. Eyring
If you're miserable and suffering, this is a good thing!  Just like Joseph Smith in jail and Job when he hit rock bottom, this is all going to help you be even better than before!

Thanks, I'm cured.

We all know how we can do better.  There is no need to repeatedly remind each other.
—Hans T. Boom
Sure, right, okay, yeah, but what's the purpose of General Conference then?  If we all know how to be better, why do we need to have the prophets and apostles reiterate similar concepts every six months?

The same principles apply to those of you who are experiencing same-gender attraction and feel discouraged and helpless.  And maybe for this reason some of you are feeling that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not for you anymore.  If that's the case, I want to assure you that there is always hope in God the Father and in his Plan of Happiness, in Jesus Christ and in his atoning sacrifice, and in living their loving commandments.
Ulisses Soares
Did he drop his middle initial?

Anyway,  we need to stop saying things like "experiencing same-gender attraction."  These and similar phrases indicate that sexual feelings that diverge from what the church teaches is acceptable are temporary crises rather than deeply personal aspects of physical and emotional identity.
But assuring someone who is considering leaving the church because of discouragement stemming from their homosexuality that there's hope in the gospel of Christ is useless.  The church, through its backward positions, its exclusionary policies, and its bigoted sermons, is responsible for making its own gay members feel discouraged and helpless—but here Soares is crying out, "Wait!  Don't feel discouraged and helpless! There's still hope!"  He doesn't offer any solutions to the despair beyond that, but he sure hits that hope note as hard as he can.

Say it with me:  Thanks, I'm cured.

Sometimes we seek for a blessing and set a time limit for the Lord to fulfill it.  We cannot condition our faithfulness to him by imposing upon him a deadline for the answers to our desires.  When we do this, we resemble the skeptical Nephites from ancient times who mocked their brethren, saying that the time was passed for the fulfillment of the words spoken by Samuel the Lamanite, creating confusion among those who believed.
Ulisses Soares
I'm...sorry...is he blaming people who don't get their prayers answered quickly for the confusion of other people?  Stop whining, you're making my friends uncomfortable?

Some of these situations are literally life-and-death.  He's telling people who are in the final stages of degenerative disease that they should be patient when they're waiting to be healed?

Also, I don't like how he spins this to make it sound like people are only faithful if the blessing is fulfilled on their preferred time frame.  At the time the blessing is pronounced upon the head, there is no difference in faith between a person whose blessing will be fulfilled tomorrow and a person whose blessing will be fulfilled ten years from now.  By talking about conditioning our faithfulness, Soares pretends like there are people out there whose home teachers are about to lay hands on their head who are saying, "I have faith to be healed if it happens this week, but if it's going to happen next month I don't have faith in the healing power of the priesthood."  That doesn't even make sense.

Faith generally becomes conditional as the person exercising it fails to see the promised benefits of that faith.  And that is completely rational.  When you've been raised to believe in the healing power of God and God's representative blesses you and time passes and passes without the fulfillment of that blessing, of course it makes sense to adjust the conditions upon which your beliefs are predicated.  But the way Soares is phrasing it kind of makes it sound like when you get impatient waiting for a promised blessing, you never had enough faith in the first place.  

Which is shitty.

At that time, she told her bishop that she was ready to accept the Lord's will, expressing her faith to be healed as well as her faith to endure her illness to the end.
—Ulisses Soares
And here's the counterpoint to the previous quote.  Ah, of course, real faith is being cool with whatever happens.  With respect to the woman who was ill, I wonder if it's easier to have faith when you don't actually expect it to have any affect on the outcome of a situation.  At least it doesn't put people like Soares in the awkward position of having to explain why priesthood blessings still totally work even though she wasn't healed.

His fruit is plentiful and always in season.  It cannot be purchased with money and no one who honestly desires it is denied.
Neil L. Andersen
I mean, full benefits of the fruit have to be purchased with ten percent of your annual income.  And plenty of people who have honestly desired the fruit have been denied.  In the past it was blacks, more recently it's been children of gay parents (maybe in that case it merely wasn't in season), and even within the past few weeks, it happened to a former member who was excommunicated more than 25 years ago.

So is Andersen lying, or is he saying that these people were not honestly desiring the fruit? 

You may wish to begin your preparation by reading afresh Joseph's account of the First Vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price.
Russell M. Nelson
In his closing remarks, after announcing some revisions to the temple recommend interview questions—and then reading every single one of them—Nelson drops a big teaser about next year.  He's decided that 1820 absolutely had to be the year that the First Vision took place and that there's no need for any discussion of the conflicting historical data—and, of course, that's assuming Joseph Smith didn't just make it up.  So next conference will be completely different.  I'm thinking strippers.

Sometimes I wonder how the biggest evidence against the church for believing members isn't the frenetic pace of change that only began after the advent of new leadership. If the church has been led by the same God the whole time, why did it take Monson's death for us to shorten church, to introduce new home-study gospel manuals, to let sister missionaries wear pants, to create 11-year-old deacons, to dissolve high priest groups, to reorganize youth programs, and now to mix up the format of General Conference a little?  It's obviously Nelson doing this stuff.  Nelson the man.  Just a regular guy.

Honestly, the special conference he's hinting at will probably just involve more musical numbers, maybe a bit more supplemental multimedia, perhaps with a Donny Osmond or Gladys Knight type of character, and more thematic cohesion when it comes to the speakers' topics.  I guess we'll see how prophetic I am six months from now.