Monday, December 30, 2013

Alma 6: Church Discipline

Alma reorganizes the church in the city of Zarahemla, setting apart new leaders and baptizing new members.  But the organization he establishes doesn't sound very Christlike:
And it also came to pass that whosoever did belong to the church that did not repent of their wickedness and humble themselves before God—I mean those who were lifted up in the pride of their hearts—the same were rejected, and their names were blotted out, that their names were not numbered among those of the righteous.
This makes the modern church's occasional policy of disfellowshipping and excommunication seem downright benevolent.  Imagine the bishop telling you you're too full of yourself and wear too much costly apparel and subsequently removing your name from the church records.  That kind of thing doesn't happen.  The church is pretty big on the whole repentance/forgiveness thing.  If you want to get excommunicated you need to be unrepentant for some pretty big sins, not just any old thing.

I suppose the argument could be made that these people whose names were blotted out weren't barred from attending worship services and that means they weren't truly cast off:
Now I would that ye should understand that the word of God was liberal unto all, that none were deprived of the privilege of assembling themselves together to hear the word of God.
Okay, so the prideful sinners were removed from the church rolls, but if for some reason they still wanted to go to church, they were allowed to.  But come on—who wants to attend sacrament meeting wearing a scarlet letter?

I guess that's one thing that Alma's Zarahemlan church has in common with today's Mormon church:  it makes idealistic claims about itself that can't possibly be expected to work out in practice as they're advertised in theory.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

It Takes One to Know One

Someone at work the other day used the "it takes one to know one" cliché.

I shook my head as I usually do when I hear that line.  It's such a stupid retort.  If it takes an idiot to know an idiot, then that makes both people involved idiots and everyone they know is an idiot and by extension everyone on the whole planet is an idiot.  Everybody knows somebody.

Then it hit me--that's not what that rejoinder means.  It doesn't mean "it takes one to be acquainted with one."  It means "it takes one to recognize one."  Then I felt stupid--it's actually not such a bad comeback.  How could I have not seen this before?

I realized I couldn't remember the first time I heard "it takes one to know one."  It's something I've heard semi-regularly for my entire life, going back into my early childhood.  I remember thinking the same things about how stupid it was way back then.  I guess what happened was that I heard it before I understood it and before I was capable of really comprehending its intended interpretation.  But every time I heard it since then (until now) I'd fallen back on my original assumption of what it meant and totally missed the point.

Similar things happened with everything I was taught in primary classes at church.  I heard that the church was true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that Jesus died for my sins before I had the ability to consider what all that might mean.  By the time I was a teenager, all those things formed the baseline for my assumptions about reality.  Sure, I had my own opinions, but they were all built on someone else's false teachings.  Instead of just getting one cliché totally wrong, I was getting everything totally wrong.

Once I began to revisit the assumptions I'd been directed to make as a child, I started to make some very important realizations.  Joseph Smith was not a good guy.  The Plan of Salvation makes no sense.  The church is not what it claims to be.

And I felt stupid--Mormonism is actually a pretty crappy way to live.  How could I have not seen this before?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Alma 5: Discretionary Agency

After abandoning his post as the chief judge, Alma the Younger goes on the lecture circuit in his capacity as high priest, delivering a similar speech to communities across the Nephite nation.

Forced Enlightenment
Alma urges the Nephites to remember the captivity of their ancestors and their deliverance by the hand of God.  But he makes some very peculiar statements in his commentary on God's intervention.  In verse seven, Alma claims that God "changed [the Nephites'] hearts" and "awakened them out of a deep sleep" so that they "awoke unto God."  The language is strong and direct, with no passivity implied on God's part.

Which begs the question—why does God do this?  The way he manipulate the people into rediscovering their faith seems to trample their free agency—which is something Lucifer was in favor of and God was opposed to.  God didn't allow the Nephites to remember him.  He took a hands-on approach, did what he cast Lucifer out for even suggesting, and directly "changed their hearts."

Which begs another question—if God could save the Nephites by making them believe in him, why can't he just do that for everyone?

The Good Shepherd
Alma makes numerous references to "the good shepherd" in this chapter.  Although mainstream Christianity believes that phrase was coined by John more than one hundred years later, apparently Alma beat him to it.

I think Joseph Smith may have included this to give himself more Christian credibility.  Alma's rant about the good shepherd (and about how you shouldn't let the devil be your shepherd) is less fleshed out and considerably less eloquent than Jesus's speech in the gospel of John.  But similar terminology is used and Alma predates John, which could be Smith's way of saying, "See?  Not only does my book talk about the same stuff as the Bible, but it happened first!  It has to be true!"

Childish Reasoning
Some gradeschool philosophy appears in verse 40:
For I say unto you that whatsoever is good cometh from God, and whatsoever is evil cometh from the devil.
Not only is this black-and-white outlook naive, but it's also pretty useless.  Let's say a Mormon is considering taking a new job—one that will require him to work a lot more hours away from his family, but that will come with a sizeable pay bump, allowing him to more ably provide for his wife and children (and pay more tithes and fast offerings).  There are pros and cons to both of his options.  Neither is wholly evil or wholly good.  How does this scripture assist him in making a decision?  And how much would this scripture terrify him of making the "wrong" decision—the devil's decision?

Binary morality is profitless in a multifaceted universe.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Who's Worse--God or Stalin?

I have a few more thoughts to add (to many other thoughts) about what's wrong with the supposedly wonderful Plan of Salvation.

Don't Judge a Book by its Second Chapter
According to Mormonism (and a whole lot of other religions against which I harbor considerably less anger), after we die, we will be judged according to how we lived on Earth.  Regardless of the verdict, this judgment will determine where we spend eternity.


Eternity is a long time, obviously.  But regardless of how valiantly we may have fought against Lucifer during the War in Heaven before we were born, this life affects one hundred percent of our grades.  Despite the fact that our mortal existence is a fleeting blip on our unending spiritual timelines, once you're assigned to the Telestial Kingdom, you're stuck there forever.  There's no appeal, no negotiating, and there's no promotion to a higher kingdom because of good behavior.  It's the equivalent of a lifetime prison sentence for possession of an ounce of marijuana.

God's decision to base our eternal fates on such a tiny data point is ludicrous--not to mention unjust.  It's akin to reading chapter two of To Kill a Mockingbird and proclaiming that the entire book is crap.  The best stuff is in the second half, but you'd never know that by focusing only on chapter two.  You might even miss out on the good things about that section, considering you didn't bother with the beginning and might not completely understand what you're reading.

It's also unfair to us, the ones being judged, because even those few of us who follow the "right" religion have no way of precisely gauging where we stand in God's eyes (other than a Second Anointing, I suppose).  Imagine getting a new job and never once discussing your work performance with your boss--or even meeting him at all--until he shows up one day to inform you that you suck and that you're fired.  Obviously, if you'd known earlier what he thought of your work, you would have tried harder to meet his standards.  But the way the Plan of Salvation works, you have one brief, blindfolded opportunity to hit the bulls-eye with the dart.  It's not exactly a recipe for success or the brainchild of a being who could be considered just or merciful.

Political Upheaval in Heaven
The War in Heaven was, supposedly, a battle of ideas.  Jesus had one idea and Lucifer had another.  God sided with his favorite son and then executed a very Stalinesque purge of his political opponents.  Simply for disagreeing with the man in charge, Lucifer and his followers were cast out of heaven and denied the possibility of eternal progression in every way.  This is the equivalent of the death penalty for a first time offense of marijuana possession.

It would have been more merciful of God to compel Lucifer and his friends to comply with Jesus' plan.  It would have been more understandable to have those who disagreed with him be born with the curse of Cain (yeah, I went there).  It would have been better to simply take their defiance into account as one misdeed in a long existence of sins and virtues and let it be one of many things to consider in a judgment far ahead.  But God decided to throw a fit and cast a third of heaven into outer darkness over one ideological difference.

Stalin killed hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.  God damned billions of his own children.  Who's worse?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I watched a video today.

A friend of a friend (who I have on Facebook despite the fact that I don't think very highly of him) shared yet another "This is Why Obama Sucks" image.  I'm not Obama's biggest supporter or anything, but this guy's constantly one-sided, poorly-informed, uncorroborated political drivel pisses me off.  For weeks I've been trying to work up the courage to comment something along the lines of, "Okay, you may have a valid point, here, but this particular information is unreliable and false because of X and Y and Z."  I'd prefer to make sure I have a solid case before committing to anything, so I decided to do some research into his claims before I commented.  So I clicked on the link underneath the shared picture, and it led me to this...weird video.

The video was all about how the government is about to collapse and chaos will break out.  It stressed the point that, unless you're properly prepared for survival, your loved ones are ALL GOING TO DIE.  A few things about the video and its claims jumped out at me.

  1. I lost track of how many times he pointed out that the people you care about WILL ALL DIE.
  2. He made a lot of claims without providing any evidence to support them--he was a world-renowned survival expert (using a pseudonym, of course), a leading economist (who is not named or referenced) can predict when this will all happen, claims of the early signs of this apocalypse around the country, etc.
  3. There were some oddly specific points made that he could have no way of knowing.  For example, it will apparently take "three to four months" after the catastrophe for "order to be restored."
  4. At the end, he asked you to buy his survival plan so that he can ship you a book and a DVD that contains all the information he just alluded to.  And reminded you that your family could die if you don't.
  5. He went through a detailed rationale of why he's charging for this information (because people wouldn't believe it was legitimate if it was free, or something).  Then he explains that, because he's such a great guy and wants people to have the information (unless you're an "Obama-head," in which case he asked you to stop watching the video near the beginning), he's only charging like forty buck for it even though the information is worth almost two thousand dollars.
I don't put much stock in conspiracy theories, although I'm sure there are a few that might actually have something to them.  But even as I watched this video that played shamelessly on my fears...even as I noticed all the dishonesty and exaggeration and blatant manipulation...I kind of considered buying the thing.  

I don't think the government is going to collapse in a matter of weeks, but I do believe that there's plenty of stuff wrong with the way my country works--and that was enough for this guy's fear-mongering to get a foothold in my psyche.  What if this guy was right?  What if, two months from now, I had to fight for survival?  What would I do if my parents didn't survive?  How would I protect my myself?  How would I protect my girlfriend?  

And then another thought hit me--this must be what it's like to be taught by Mormon missionaries.  Look at the similarities:
  1. Don't you want your family to be together forever?  The unspoken flip side to this, of course, is, "if you don't join our church, you'll live out eternity in the afterlife without your family."  Detailed descriptions of the Plan of Salvation might further his fears that, if this stuff is true, he's getting the short end of the stick by not signing on.
  2. Mormonism makes a lot of grand, unsupported claims.  The missionaries teach about the First Vision and the visitations of the Angel Moroni.  Perhaps if you're already too busy thinking about how bad it would be to live forever without your spouse and children, you're not properly capable of assessing the veracity of these claims.  Get the fear in first, then slide some crazy stuff past 'em while they're still reeling and they won't even notice.
  3. There are some specific points that the missionaries will make that they have no way of knowing.  They will testify to the fact that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God despite the fact that they haven't actually seen Joseph Smith interact with God and they weren't around for the writing or translation of the Golden Plates.  Perhaps their faith, like that survivalist's conviction, will sell their product based purely on trust.
  4. Once joining the church, an investigator will be expected to pay ten percent of his income to the church.  In Preach My Gospel, tithing isn't even mentioned until page 62.  It doesn't come up until the third lesson.  If you're investigating the church and you've invited the missionaries back for a third visit, it's safe to say you could be seriously considering baptism. The missionaries don't bring up the expected sacrifice of a tenth of your money first thing.  Not many successful sales pitches begin with "Give me forty bucks if you want to survive the apocalypse!" because that sounds more like extortion.
  5. The missionaries can provide a detailed rationale for why tithing is important--the Lord promises us blessings, it shows our faith, it builds temples and meetinghouses and furthers the spreading of the gospel.  Then they explain that, because the church is so honest and virtuous, the tithing money doesn't go toward the payment of any of the leaders (unless you're an apostle, in which case you get a "modest stipend.")  Besides, ten percent of your money is a small price to pay for eternal salvation.
The investigator in question may not put much stock in organized religion, although he may have some kind of belief in God.  But if he doesn't realize that the missionaries are shamelessly playing on his fears...if he doesn't notice the dishonesty and manipulation...he might consider getting baptized.  And that's when the church claims another victim and rakes in a little more cash for its non-humanitarian coffers.

I didn't buy the survival guide.  I guess I just don't like it when people try to manipulate me.  Although I'm not sure if that characteristic led me to leave the church or if I acquired that trait because of my apostasy.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Revelation About Revelation

I was poking around in the Doctrine and Covenants today and I was suddenly struck by how crazy it is that there are so many specific revelations given to members of the church by name.  There are so many that it's conceivable to compile an entire 240-page book containing brief biographies of each one of them. And that made me think of this verse from Joseph Smith History, when Smith discusses his vision with a Methodist preacher:
I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had.  I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
 Mormonism loves to celebrate this moment and how it causes the church to diverge so boldly from the rest of Christianity.  From this point in history on, so it goes, one church was getting revelation from God and all the rest continued as rudderless as before.  Mormonism is proud of its claim of a living prophet and constant divine revelation.  But oddly, the "revelation" the church gets today doesn't look much like the revelation it got in its beginning stages.

It's not a new concept to me that recent prophets haven't made much of anything resembling a prophecy or even a revelation in years.  I've seen that idea brought up repeatedly in the blogosphere, on forums and on Reddit.  But what's never occurred to me is how different the things that supposedly come from God are nowadays.  Apparently God stopped micromanaging and and no longer gives his disciples personal written instructions relating to specific circumstances.  Why?

My guess is that there are no such things as clear, unambiguous personal revelations from the prophet himself in these days.  All such things ceased with the pioneers.  There will never be any more of them.

The more I think about the church, the more glaring it becomes to me that it has changed and evolved in a manner obviously directed by the decisions of men instead of by the unchanging wisdom of a deity.

That doesn't seem right to me.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Alma 4: Alma's Absurd Abdication

In the wake of their wars with the Amlicites and Lamanites, the Nephites reacquaint themselves with the religion of their chief judge, Alma the Younger.

A Numbers Game
Verse five seems to boast of the success of their Great Awakening:
And it came to pass that in the seventh year of the reign of the judges there were about three thousand five hundred souls that united themselves to the church of God and were baptized.  And thus ended the seventh year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi; and there was continual peace in all that time.
Thirty-five hundred converts in one year?  Impressive.  That's almost a rate of ten per day.  But it's much less impressive when you review the battle statistics from Alma chapter two--in one day, twelve thousand five hundred thirty-two Amlicites and six thousand five hundred sixty-two Nephites were killed.  I guess Nephites spread the gospel at approximately one two thousandth the rate that they kill each other.

The battle report also implies a sizable society.  Making some broad assumptions here, if the Nephites and Amlicites both suffered a very steep loss of forty percent of their armies, and if every single male adult was at war, and if every single male adult had one wife and two children at home, the population of the Nephite nation before the schism was approaching one hundred fifty thousand at minimum.  More than likely, it was a much larger population than that.  Considering that the true church is implied to be one of the larger religious groups of the civilization, an increase of thirty-five hundred converts in one year among a society possibly numbering in the hundreds of thousands seems far less than miraculous.

So Much for Democracy
As the next two years pass, the members of the church begin to prosper, and, falling into the predictable pattern of the Book of Mormon, they become prideful and wicked.  Alma the Younger, seeing the iniquity among his peers, decides to abdicate the position of High Priest and preach the gospel to his people.  This is how he does it:
And he selected a wise man who was among the elders of the church, and gave him power according to the voice of the people, that he might have power to enact laws according to the laws which had been given, and to put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people.
Now this man's name was Nephihah, and he was appointed chief judge; and he sat in the judgment-seat to judge and to govern the people. 
So Alma appoints his own successor.  What happened to King Mosiah's preaching about choosing leaders by the voice of the people?

Prophet on the Go
Verse 18 makes sure to inform the reader that Alma only gave Nephihah the position of chief judge, choosing to "[retain] the office of high priest unto himself."  This is odd, considering he abdicated his political office for the purpose of travelling and preaching (verse 19).  That's a terrible idea.

Generals don't fight on the front lines. Conductors don't play violins in their own orchestras.  If you are the head of an organization that requires leadership and oversight, you can't just wander off to do other stuff.  You can't involve yourself so directly in the tasks that are supposed to be done by the people you manage.  Alma knew he couldn't leave the judgement seat empty.  Why does he think it's okay to leave the high priest's position vacant?

Unless he's just wandering around ancient America with a Bluetooth device in his ear, in constant communication with his staff at home.  Then this arrangement could work.