Saturday, January 30, 2016

Switching Tracks and Switching Opinions

Gordon B. Hinckley shared a story on several occasions that had a profound impact on me as a teenager.  I've been thinking recently about how I've come to view it as nothing more than manipulative hogwash.  Here it is from the October 1972 General Conference:
Many years ago I worked in the head office of one of our railroads.  One day I received a telephone call from my counterpart in Newark, New Jersey, who said that a passenger train had arrived without its baggage car.  The patrons were angry.
We discovered that the train had been properly made up in Oakland, California, and properly delivered to St. Louis, from which station it was to be carried to its destination on the east coast.  But in the St. Louis yards, a thoughtless switchman had moved a piece of steel just three inches.  
That piece of steel was a switch point, and the car that should have been in Newark, New Jersey, was in New Orleans, Louisiana, thirteen hundred miles away.
So it is with our livesa cigarette smoked,  a can of beer drunk at a party, a shot of Speed taken on a dare, a careless giving in to an impulse on a date.  Each has thrown a switch in the life of a boy that put him on a track that carried him far away from what might have been a great and foreordained calling.  And as Nephi said, "...thus the devil cheateth their souls and leadeth them away carefully down to hell."
Hearing this story as a child intensified my fear of doing anything wrong.  Hearing this story as a teenager intensified my sense of despair because of what I'd already done wrong.  Hearing this story as a doubter intensified my hesitancy to indulge my questions.  Here's what this story teaches that I find so awful:

1.  Don't Question the Destination
Why is Newark such a great place to go?  In the literal interpretation of Hinckley's story, obviously the luggage belongs in the same city as its owners.  But in the figurative interpretation, it's not nearly so obvious that the eternal destination the church tells us to strive for even exists.  If there's no way of demonstrating that Newark is a real place and that everyone's interests are best served by the baggage car's arrival in Newark, then why should we care that it was sent to New Orleans?

This story only works if you accept its premise that where we're supposed to be travelling is real and worth going to.  Hinckley sidesteps that issue by focusing on the importance of the little deviations along the way and the dramatic consequences that can result.  Because if people start to question the value of the destination, people will start to question the value of his advice.

2.  Change Can Only Be Bad
This story heavily implies that the original course is the only acceptable one.  While this makes sense in the context of a railroad, it doesn't apply so obviously to our eternal destinies.  Hinckley is trying to illustrate that change is a bad thing and that the course that you're on when you hear his voice from the pulpit should never be deviated from in any way.  It's not just the destination that shouldn't be questioned—it's every single mile on the way there.  Any slight modification of your path or any minor shift in the plan is akin to a monumental mistake that can lead you away carefully down to hell.

But change can be good.  If your destination isn't as great as you initially thought or the way you're getting there isn't as efficient as you'd like, altering your course here and there should be considered a positive step.  Staying locked into a particular track simply for the sake of being locked into a track isn't necessarily virtuous.  It's more likely to be just plain stubborn.

3.  Every Drug is a Gateway Drug
The basic principle here is that little things can change our direction and remove us from our intended course.  The examples he gives are smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, taking speed (which seems funny coming from an old guy), and what is perhaps an oblique reference to anything from "petting" to actual fornication.  Not only are these all treated as though they are of equal severity, but they're also treated as though they entail equal consequencesany and all of these options can land you in the spiritual prison of New Orleans when you really wanted to be in the righteous paradise of Newark (which, clearly, is not a literal paradise of any kind).

I had some anger issues as a kid.  What if swearing was my fateful switch point?  I definitely liked looking at girls.  What if masturbation was my fateful switch point and I was already halfway through Arkansas?  What if it was even simpler than that?  I tried to read my scriptures faithfully, but sometimes it was so boring...what if skipping a day last week meant that I'd never make it to Newark?

While it's wise to be mindful of seemingly small decisions that can have possibly disastrous ramifications, teaching your faithful disciples that every small decision is a potentially damning bombshell waiting to drop its eternally ruinous payload is manipulative, irresponsible, and reprehensible.

4.  For Dramatic Effect, Let's Ignore Repentance
This reminds me of high school physics class.  We were taught that air resistance was a real thing, but that for the sake of all the examples, homework problems and test questions, we'd just pretend that it wasn't important.  Why?  Because air resistance is pretty complicated and this was just a high school class, so for the sake of learning the basics, we'd just ignore it.

Which is pretty much Hinckley's approach to repentance in his story.  How many switches did his precious baggage car go through between Saint Louis and New Orleans?  And once the car arrived in New Orleans and the mistake was realized, weren't arrangements made for it to reach its intended destination?  Plenty of bad decisions can have unavoidable outcomes, but smoking one cigarette does not doom a man to eternal damnation.  He has all the travel time from Saint Louis to New Orleans to repent of it.

And, in fact, the beauty of repentance is that it's so much easier than switching train tracks.  The baggage car could only have been transferred to its correct track at specific locations.  With repentance, you can immediately start to fix your mistake the moment you decide you want to.  But none of that comes into play during Hinckley's one-sided, fear-mongering parable.

There's nothing wrong with altering your course, as long as you make your decision carefully and proceed in good faith.  And while it's perfectly possible that your current trajectory is the correct one—or at least the best one for you—changing it should never be taken off the table.  The ability to change your mind, rearrange your priorities, and progress in a new direction is one that should be nurtured and celebrated instead of demonized and stifled.  After all, if our society doesn't learn these skills, how are we supposed to stamp out sexism and racism and homophobia?  How are we supposed to recognize our problems if we aren't willing to face the possibility that some of our preconceived notions may be erroneous?  How can we improve without working to overcome our flaws and correct our behaviors?

Sometimes you need to switch tracks and switch opinions.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

3 Nephi 1: Helaman Reloaded

Now that we've moved on to a new book, it's time to retire some characters.  Nephi the Third ironically disappears at the beginning of the Third Book of Nephi, and his son...Nephi...takes up his mantle.  Also, some guy we've never heard of named Lachoneus is now chief judge.

Way to Miss the Point, Guys
Just when the nonbelievers in the land are reaching the point at which their gloating about unfulfilled prophecies is about to turn violent, the sun sets without leaving the world in darkness.  This fulfills one of Samuel the Lamanite's prophecies but the very first reaction of the skeptics is a bit odd (verse 16):
And there were many, who had not believed the words of the prophets, who fell to the earth and became as if they were dead, for they knew that the great plan of destruction which they had laid for those who believed in the words of the prophets had been frustrated; for the sign which had been given was already at hand.
So the nonbelievers had given a deadline for Samuel the Lamanite's prophecies, and the plan was to execute all the believers once that day had passed with no heavenly signs.  But when something so mindbogglingly impossible happens—such as a night with no darkness—what is the first thought in the bad guys' heads?

"Dammit!  Now we don't have an excuse to kill all those religious nut jobs!"
I can assure you, as a skeptic, that if Thomas S. Monson clearly prophesied something that I knew to be utterly impossible and it actually happened, my first reaction would not be "Now I don't have a good reason to keep writing a blog that deconstructs Mormonism!"  It would be "Have I actually been wrong about this?"

So what I'm saying here is that, true to the patterns of behavior already established in the previous 174 chapters, these people make absolutely no sense.

Haven't We Been Here Before Before?
While we're on the subject of people who face a shocking revelation of a religious nature falling down "as if they were dead," please allow me to lazily quote myself:
Alma the Younger slipped into a coma when an angel appeared to chew him out for persecuting the church. King Lamoni similarly lost consciousness when he got the full force of Ammon's point blank range testifying. And when Lamoni finally woke up, he talked about his catatonic visions of Christ before zonking out again and taking his entire royal household to dreamland with him. 
Oh, yeah, and I also forgot about the time the same thing happened to Lamoni's father a mere three chapters later
Now, upon arriving at the judgment seat, the five guys from the crowd in Nephi's garden who have been selected to test out his prophecy pass out from shock. But not the regular holy-crap-a-government-official-is-dead-and-his-blood-is-everywhere kind of shock. According to verse four, it's the holy-crap-that-crazy-preacher-dude-totally-called-it-maybe-he's-right-about-stuff kind of shock.
And now we'll add wicked Nephites who witnessed an impossible cosmic event to the list.  This has got to be a strong contender for the most overused trope in the Book of Mormon.

Logic-Defying Miracle
And while we're on the subject of being on the subject, how exactly does this miracle work?  Look at verse 19:
And it came to pass that there was no darkness in all that night, but it was as light as though it was mid-day. And it came to pass that the sun did rise in the morning again, according to its proper order;
It rose the next morning?  So the sun, which was created by God for the very purpose of providing light, sets one evening and it doesn't get dark?  Where did the light come from?  Why do we need a sun in the first place if God can just make it bright outside without a star burning at the center of the solar system?

I realize that the whole point of miracles is that they defy what we think is possible, but I was taught that God works within the laws of his own universe to do his thing.  With all the scientific knowledge we now possess that the ancient Nephites had no access to, I'd be interested to know if there is any kind of bizarre astronomical scenario that can even approximate the effect described in this chapter.

This isn't a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court thing.  This is like the exact opposite of a solar eclipse—bright at midnight instead of dark at midday.  How does that kind of thing even happen?

The Mosaic Flaw
After the overwhelming majority of the population decides to get baptized, the Nephites enjoy a brief period of peace (verse 24):
And there were no contentions, save it were a few that began to preach, endeavoring to prove by the scriptures that it was no more expedient to observe the law of Moses. Now in this thing they did err, having not understood the scriptures.
It's a little jarring to hear that apparently, despite the Nephites' constant waffling over whether they will be righteous and belong to the correct religion, the Law of Moses seems to have some kind of big societal influence.  Enough of an influence that some people are running around saying that they don't need to practice it anymore.

Who knew they were even practicing it in the first place?

The last time the Law of Moses was even mentioned in the Book of Mormon was in Mosiah chapter 2, when King Benjamin's subjects perform burnt offerings while they psych themselves up for his renowned address.  This was well over a century ago.  And the last time any kind of burnt offering was mentioned before Mosiah 2 was in 1 Nephi chapter 7, before Lehi's family had even built their freaking boat.

The Law of Moses is a pretty extensive code of conduct.  It seems to me that if it really was practiced among the righteous Nephites as this chapter implies, there should be a lot more evidence of it in the text.  I mean, there's scattered references to it in Jarom, Jacob, and 2 Nephi.  The Book of Alma mentions it several times, but only in general terms—the people followed it, whatever it was, the Lord commanded it, whatever it entailed, and the law was fulfilled, whatever that meant.

It sounds to me like whoever wrote this stuff didn't actually know much about the Law of Moses and was terrified of going into detail and demonstrating his ignorance.  It doesn't sound to me like the civilization we've been reading about for the last six hundred years is all that wrapped up in its observance of the Mosaic Law.

Gadianton Gets the Band Back Together
The Gadianton Robbers make a sudden return to the narrative, after a conspicuous decade-long absence.  While some of us may have been hoping that they'd simply moved to Mandyville, it seems merely that they've conveniently escaped mentioning for a while.

But the way the Gadianton Robbers' power is described in their last appearance at the end of Helaman 11 makes their hiatus seem illogical.  If they were really an evil empire of thugs hiding out in the mountains, kidnapping, plundering, and murdering with impunity, why would that kind of stuff not show up in the several verses summarizing the passage of time?  This chapter hits on some basic news items from the 91st through 94th years of the Reign of the Judges, The 93rd year is described as being overshadowed by the violence of this powerful gang, but no mention of their "slaughter" has been made during the previous seven years.

Did Gadianton's cronies just up and decide to stop terrorizing people for seven years?  Did their bloodshed not merit headlines for a while?  Or did the writer simply forget about them?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Many Reasons This Particular Apologist is Totally Unconvincing

Every now and then, I stumble across something on the internet that gets me riled up a little more than it should.  This time, at least, it wasn't Greg Trimble.  It was a blog post entitled 5 Reasons Anti-Mormon Arguments are Totally Unconvincing.

The author begins by explaining that he's noticed a lot of people losing their faith in Mormonism, and with the desire to illustrate the "logical weaknesses of anti-Mormon arguments," he lists some reasons why people should not be swayed from their testimonies.  It quickly devolves into a poorly conceived, one-sided blog promotion.

Negative Evidence Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be
The author relates a story about Isaac Newton and the way Uranus's orbit didn't match up with his predictions.  It wasn't until Neptune was discovered that scientists realized that the apparent negative evidence against Newton's model had been missing a vital piece of information.  This anecdote is used to warn people that "negative evidence is far from supreme."

My problem with this is that Newton was only one guy and the model in question only concerned the movement of the planets.  Mormonism claims to be the one true church doing the work of God and its model involves basically everything.  The higher the stakes, the more damning any negative evidence is.  You can't build your reputation on honesty and then pretend that one lie isn't a big deal.

If you make the claim that, say, Dexter was a good television show, and somebody points out a few of its flaws, the original claim can still be true.  But if you make the claim that Dexter was a perfect television show, all you have to do is find one tiny editing continuity error in one frame of one episode and you have all the proof you need (or you could, you know, cite the final episode or basically the entire last season).  If the statement in question is extreme or superlative, negative evidence is pretty damn close to "supreme."

The blogger continues:
You can dig up all sorts of facts about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but you will never know if you really have access to all the relevant context and perspectives. And if that is the case, why discount the positive evidence proving that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God?
Similarly, you can dig up all sorts of good things about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, but you will never know if you really have access to all the relevant context and perspectives.  And if that is the case, why discount the negative evidence that Joseph Smith was a con man and that the Book of Mormon is truly a fraud?

Don't discuss weighing the evidence if you're going to fall back on a default position.  An honest search for truth should be open to any possibilities.  Was Joseph Smith a con man?  Did he restore the true church and then become a fallen prophet?  Was he inspired by God the whole time?  What else could be the case? We shouldn't be discounting positive or negative evidence, and we shouldn't be implying that coming to one conclusion or another is so simple as completely disregarding the other side of the argument.  People struggle with this stuff.  They don't flip a switch and decide to stop caring about half of the evidence.

And beyond that, if the evidence requires a buttload of context in order to be understood and it's often misunderstood even in context, I don't think it's fair to use the word "proving."  We should stick with something like "suggesting" to avoid coming off as, I don't know...overbearingly presumptuous.
How many accounts against the Prophet turned out to be forgeries?
Uh...yeah.  And how many prophets, seers, and revelators were duped by those forgeries?  How many of God's true churches introduced those forgeries into their official materials?
To be fair, there are certainly things about the Church and its history that continue to defy any honest attempt to explain. But again, if we are sincere in our quest for truth, we will be very careful about how much weight we give negative evidences considering all the context we are potentially missing.
That admission is a little refreshing.  But weight should not be assigned to evidence based on whether it is positive or negative.  If you're not giving it much weight, it should be because the argument is weak, not because of an unknowable context.  If you don't know the context, find out.  If there isn't enough context to rationalize whatever issue you're confronting, it's totally reasonable to change.  Adapting what you believe in light of new information is a good skill to have.

Continuing in your beliefs while patiently waiting to be provided a context in which troubling issues can be addressed to your satisfaction is not being sincere in your quest for truth.  It's postponing your quest for truth by ignoring the possibility that you've been lied to.

The Evidence in Favor of the Restoration Is Truly Extraordinary
The article moves on to its second section:
And I don’t care if you think that the Book of Mormon was actually written by Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon or if you think that a 23 year old Joseph Smith was some kind of genius, you still can’t explain away what a feat the Book of Mormon would be if it truly was an invention.
Sure I can.  People write books all the time.  James Fenmore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Edgar Allan Poe were all active writers around the same time the Book of Mormon was published.  As a novel, the Book of Mormon isn't even that good—it's a mess of recycled plot devices, one-dimensional characters, frequent grammatical foibles, and a whole lot of unnecessary filler.  If the Book of Mormon isn't true, its value isn't literary.  At best it's a historical curiosity.
The Book of Mormon, from start to finish, is filled with ancient Hebraic art forms. The LDS Church wasn’t even aware of this until a missionary discovered it in the 1950s. You’ve got to see what our forthcoming article has on this.
I would be surprised if the Book of Mormon weren't filled with ancient Hebraisms, considering that it borrows heavily from both the Old and New Testaments.  Plus, regardless of whether it's a book of divinely inspired scripture, the writing style clearly mirrors that of the King James version of the Bible, so it shouldn't be surprising that similar ancient-sounding elements make an appearance.

Also, the part about the missionary discovering it sounds a lot like folklore, but I guess I'll have to wait for the next article for that.  Stay tuned, viewers.
The Book of Mormon explains a monetary system that happens to not only be closely related to the ancient Egyptian one, but that also constitutes the most efficient money system the world has ever known. (This one is also pretty darn cool) Stay tuned for more details.
I learned about this during a special fireside when I was maybe 14.  I don't know how true it is, but I agree that it's pretty cool.  If I remember right, the currency is designed to require the fewest number of coins to make any given sum.  So it might be numerically efficient, and certainly an impressive invention if the Book of Mormon is a fraud, but I don't think it's fair to characterize it as the most efficient money system the world has ever known.

This is because the Nephite currency as described in Alma chapter 11 involves gold, silver, and "measures" of various types of grain.  There's so much going on and so many complicated conversions between the different types of money that it's hardly efficient.  Efficiency would be selecting only one metal to be legal tender.  If a senum of silver is equal to a senine of gold, why are both denominations necessary?
The Book of Mormon’s seamless fit with Bible doctrines and the lack of self-contradiction is incredible.
There's plenty of self-contradiction within the Book of Mormon.  For example, just about everything Captain Moroni does in the name of freedom denies people freedom.  And it doesn't fit that seamlessly with Biblical doctrines, either (thou shalt not kill, unless you're Nephi and I tell you to).  The "seamlessness" is very subjective—if you ever try explaining the whole "stick of Joseph" thing to a mainstream Christian, you might learn that they have no idea what you're going on about.  And a lot of the ways the Book of Mormon fits with the Bible can be traced back to the fact that a decent chunk of the Book of Mormon is the Bible.
It is difficult to imagine a fraud producing so much good.

I reject the entire premise of this statement.  All of it.  I don't think it's difficult to imagine a fraud producing good and I don't think that this particular fraud has produced that much good anyway.

I mean, sure, the church donates a few million dollars every year, but its spending on charitable giving is far outstripped by its spending on the construction of needlessly ornate temples, its properties, ranches, and condominiums, and on its various business interests (cough cough shopping mall cough cough).  What other good things has the church produced?  It has repeatedly been one of the last institutional bastions of bigotry, it has taught youth to fear their emerging sexuality, it has led gays to commit suicide, it has stunted critical thinking skills across generations, it has taken countless bishops and stake presidents away from their families for unreasonable hours, it has separated families on their wedding days, it has applied an insane amount of social pressure to convince teenagers to give up two years of their lives in its service.  It has convinced my aging parents to run themselves ragged with indexing and temple work and callings that have them driving all over the region, even in dangerous weather conditions, to fulfill the assignments the church has given them.

I mean, Mormonism also promotes a nuclear family, which is nice I guess.  Unless you don't have one.

I find it very easy to believe that a fraud can produce these kinds of results.

Anti-Mormon Arguments are Like Conspiracy Theories
One of the principal problems with government conspiracy theories is that they assume the guilt of government from the beginning (this is also known as circular reasoning).
One of the principal problems with a lot of Mormon apologists is that they assume the truthfulness of the church from the beginning.  To be fair, one of the principal problems with many anti-Mormon arguments is that they assume the church is not true from the beginning.  But circular reasoning is found in both camps.  Let's not pretend we're immune.
Why did none of the 11 witnesses ever deny their testimony of seeing the gold plates, particularly when several of them became disaffected?
Not to fall back on an anti-Mormon trope of referencing the CES Letter, but I think Jeremy Runnells addressed this issue nicely (starting on page 50).

But hey, while we're oversimplifying people's opinions, let's take a moment to talk about how Mormon theology is like the embarrassing Hollywood bastardization of a popular novel and how the members are only slightly less crazy than Scientologists.  Or is that not a fair characterization?

Anti-Mormon Literature Uses Deceptive Presentation Tricks
Unfortunately, this provides an opportunity for the naysayers to say, “Let me tell you something you don’t know about. Do you know why you don’t know about it? It’s because the Church is hiding it from you. Don’t you see? These historical facts are incriminating, and that is why they have kept it from you.” Suddenly, what wouldn’t have been such a big deal if you had always known about it, is made out to be a conspiracy by Church leaders.
I don't think this is accurate in the majority of cases.  My first troubling issue with the church was learning about the end of the priesthood ban.  It was nothing about a conspiracy.  It was just difficult for me to wrap my brain around how the ban amounted to anything less than totally un-divine racism.

But when you tell a person for the first time about, say, Joseph's polygamy, the problem isn't that there's been some kind of church cover up.  The problem is that it's true.  I think most people who are swayed by anti-Mormon arguments are initially shocked by the discovery that the claims aren't merely vicious lies.  It's only after they've reached the conclusion that the anti-Mormon was right that they angrily blame the church for hiding the information.  The conspiracy theories come second.
The Church has responded to this by demonstrating that they have nothing to hide. They have released article after article discussing the biggest controversies, but placing them in context and providing a faithful perspective. For example, the Church is plenty open that Joseph was indeed a treasure hunter as a young man and that he used superstitious practices in this pursuit.
I don't think it counts as "plenty open" if the best example of openness is a recent and little-publicized essay tucked away in a corner of the church website.  "Plenty open" would be the appearance of this information in church lesson manuals and missionary discussions.
Of course, you’ll never get the relevant context from John Dehlin and others.
Hold up.  How is this different from the condemnation of conspiracy theorists a few paragraphs earlier?  How is this anything other than discarding an argument simply because you don't like its source?

And the phrase "relevant context" is starting to bother me.  So John Dehlin can offer context, just not the relevant context?  How do you know what constitutes relevance?  Because if the definition of "relevant" is "faith-promoting," I think maybe we need to review our earlier musings on weighing evidence equally.
By capitalizing on information that the Church does not hide, but which few members know, anti-Mormons are able to control the presentation in a way that makes what Joseph did seem to be something that it is not.
If few members know about these things, how can you be sure the church hasn't hidden them in the past?  The article on the seer stone is from 2013.  (I think.  Maybe 2012.  It's not dated, of course, but these essays have only been posted within the last few years.)  Other than a few passing mentions in an Ensign article here and a decades-old General Conference address there, what was the church doing before the age of Google to make this kind of information readily available to its members?

I think it's fair to label this a lie of omission.  If it's not common knowledge in the membership, even after twenty hours of General Conference and fifty sacrament meetings and fifty gospel doctrine classes every year, when was the church going to speak up?  If you want to talk about controlling the presentation, there's plenty of blame to go around.
In these and so many other cases, it is not the force of reason that drives people from the Church: it is the effect of emotion.
Can't reason and emotion both be valid reasons to leave?  Besides, the church tries to play on emotion too—Monson's heartwarming stories about widows, Eyring's throaty sobs as he bears his testimony, the whole directive to base your beliefs on an emotional, non-objective "burning in the bosom," the promises of happiness and eternal glory in the typical patriarchal blessing, etc.  There's also Heartsell, if you want to delve into another conspiracy theory kind of thing.
In addition to manipulating information that few members know about, anti-Mormons also talk about things that happened two hundred years ago that are difficult to understand from a modern perspective.
I'm pretty sure sending somebody overseas and marrying his wife while he was gone was a dick move two hundred years ago, too.  Publicly lying about practicing polygamy was still morally wrong in the nineteenth century.  Using your political power to order the destruction of a printing press that was publishing stuff you didn't like was still a violation of the First Amendment.

There are even a few things that better knowledge of the time period can do to suggest that Mormonism is a fraud.  For example, understanding the mysticism and superstitions of the era explains a lot about Martin Harris and his claim to have seen the plates with his spiritual eyes.  But perhaps that's not relevant context.

A Spiritual Witness Is a Really Good Reason to “doubt your doubts”
The real reason that I believe in Christ and in the Restored Church is because of the spiritual experiences I have had.
And I don't have any problem with that—up until the point at which people cling to their spiritual experiences when threatened by logical arguments.  The scriptural depictions of spiritual witnesses (short of angelic visitation) are usually vague, often metaphorical, and largely unhelpful, which means it's difficult to identify them when they happen and difficult to accurately pinpoint their sources.  If you won't allow your beliefs to change when a rational argument debunks something you've had a spiritual witness of, you're putting too much faith in your spirituality and not enough faith in your intelligence.
Whatever atheists tell you, they have to exercise faith too.
I have no idea what this sentence is doing here.
So, when you experience personal revelation confirming the existence of God, Christ’s love for humankind, the Book of Mormon’s veracity, and Joseph Smith’s sacred calling, it only makes sense that this would be an overpowering piece of evidence. It may be evidence that no one else can understand, but it is evidence, and it is certainly logical to draw conclusions from it.
I agree with this.  Except that I think that wariness concerning the source of the confirmation is wise.  When I first discussed my disaffection with my dad, he reminded me that the answer to Moroni's promise probably isn't going to be an actual still small voice.  And it's not necessarily going to be a burning in the bosom, either.  It might be something that happens to you in your daily life that makes you look at something differently, or an event that speaks to the subtle machinations of your father in heaven.

But if it's not a voice and it's not an obvious burning in the bosom, I can't think of many methods of discovering truth that are less objective.  If you're going about your day searching for a sign, you're going to find one.  Every coincidence can be construed as a divine being nudging you in the right direction.  And maybe it is...but how can you know?  How do you know you haven't completely misinterpreted everything?  And how is it responsible to draw conclusions upon which you will base your identity and your entire life from something you can't really validate, corroborate, quantify, or even identify?

Human reason is limited. There are so many things that are unknowable, and that's why I believe it's important to avoid overcommitting to a mechanism you can't comprehend just to have the luxury of thinking you can know the unknowable.
Before my mission, I had a crisis of faith that led me to study and pray more fervently than ever before. I really wanted to know. And after many weeks of effort, praying and studying for hours each day, I had experiences that witnessed to me the truth I had been seeking.
This is very reminiscent of my own experience.  Right up until the ending, anyway.
So, consider sharing the article to help someone you may know or love who needs a little help seeing that the arguments made by the “world” are not as convincing as they seem to be.
This couple is clearly trying to get their blog launched successfully, and they're probably doing so with a desire to help.  I can hardly fault them for that, considering that I have a blog too and I run it with a desire to help...although mostly with a desire to complain.  But I don't think we need to tell people that the arguments of the "world" are not convincing.  I think we just need to get information out there.

Good information, though.  Not this kind of rubbish.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Helaman 16: Something Something Something Prophecies

Much like Abinadi, Samuel the Lamanite gets way too much time to talk before he's required to stop.  He flees back to his homeland and leaves the Nephite society divided in confusion and contention.

An Unnecessary Partnership
It's interesting to me that Samuel stands up on the wall and cries repentance unto the people, but everybody who believes what he says is baptized by Nephi.  There's no mention of the believers trying to persuade the unbelievers to stop shooting arrows at Samuel.  There's no mention of any of the believers saying, "That sounds great!  Tell me more!"  But there is an extensive description of how the people who were touched by Samuel's sermon went scurrying over to Nephi for baptisms.

I don't really understand why God needed Samuel.  For one thing, it seems that his preaching faced additional resistance simply because he was an unwelcome foreigner.  Nephi at least had helped out in the investigation of a very prominent assassination, so you'd think he'd have a pretty decent reputation around town in spite of all that religious nonsense he was into.  Plus he wasn't a Lamanite, which probably means his opinions wouldn't be dismissed quite so quickly.  But for some reason, God insisted on Samuel preaching in Zarahemla even though there was already a perfectly good prophet in place there already.

Strangely, Samuel acted as the street performer while Nephi acted as the guy passing around the tip jar.  Samuel corralled the believers and Nephi operated the slaughterhouse.  Or baptismal font.  Whatever.

Show, Don't Tell
The Book of Mormon's frustrating tendency to summarize at the worst possible moments rears its ugly head again in this chapter (verses 13 and 14):
But it came to pass in the ninetieth year of the reign of the judges, there were great signs given unto the people, and wonders; and the words of the prophets began to be fulfilled. 
And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.
This is simply a different version of "and many other wonderful truths did [insert prophet's name here] speak unto the people which cannot be written."

If these signs were so great and wondrous and if these tidings were so glad and joyous and if these scriptures were so miraculously fulfilled, why the hell wouldn't all that be chronicled in at least slightly more detail?  We can quote Isaiah ad nauseam, but we can't explain exactly what celestial signs were given and which particular prophecies were fulfilled?  That doesn't make any sense.

Instead of telling its readers how and why their testimonies should be strengthened, this chapter is basically patting them on the head and assuring them that lots of unspecified faith-promoting stuff happened.

Funny You Should Ask...
The Nephite society largely rejects Samuel the Lamanite's prophecies, reveling in wickedness and opting to "depend...on their own wisdom."  This seems to be the crux of the Nephites' logic (verse 18): is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?
Those Nephites sure are clueless with all their rational arguments and perceptive questions, aren't they?  But at least they serve a purpose to Joseph Smith, who can use their reasoning to support the legitimacy of his book.  Why wouldn't Jesus appear in places other than Jerusalem?

In a few pages, we're going to see Jesus Christ appear at some undisclosed location in ancient America, thus allowing Smith to pose an important question and subsequently answer it to his satisfaction in his own manuscript.  A loving God would send his son to more than one nation to accomplish the work of the gospel, wouldn't he?  According to the Book of Mormon, he did.  Therefore, the Book of Mormon must be scripture.

Unfortunately, though, the skeptical Nephites should have extrapolated their inquiry a little further.  If Jesus lived in Jerusalem, why wouldn't he appear in America?  And if he appeared in America, why wouldn't he also have visited the ancient Chinese or the Australian Aborigines or any number of other cultures that were isolated from the two societies lucky enough to have interacted with the Savior of Mankind?

If he didn't, then the objection raised by the Nephites in this chapter is invalidated.  If he did, then perhaps this can be added to the list of things that we will eventually uncover historical evidence for, like chariots and steel and epic Jaredite warfare.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Helaman 15: Another Prick on the Wall, Part III

Despite all the arrows and soldiers coming at him in that iconic Arnold Friberg painting, Samuel has survived into his third chapter.

God Hates Lamanites
Yes, you read that section header correctly.  No, I am not making this up.  This is explicitly stated in verse 4:
But behold my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated because their deeds have been evil continually, and this because of the iniquity of the tradition of their fathers. But behold, salvation hath come unto them through the preaching of the Nephites; and for this intent hath the Lord prolonged their days.
According to the primary song, Jesus said "love everyone."  But according to the Book of Mormon, Jesus's dad said he hated the Lamanites because they didn't do what he wanted.  I think that's more evidence that the depiction of God as a loving father is an absurd fabrication of Mormon culture instead of a logical conclusion from Mormon scripture.  You can—and should—love your family members even when you don't approve of their behavior.

How is that Fair?
Riffing on God's terrible parenting style here, verse 11 provides another example:
Yea, even if they should dwindle in unbelief the Lord shall prolong their days, until the time shall come which hath been spoken of by our fathers, and also by the prophet Zenos, and many other prophets, concerning the restoration of our brethren, the Lamanites, again to the knowledge of the truth—
So God is going to destroy the Nephites because they are going to dwindle in unbelief.  But if the currently (and, might I add, temporarily) righteous Lamanites dwindle in unbelief, he'll permit them to survive another fifteen hundred years or so until they can be taught the gospel once again.

God is playing favorites again, although it is admittedly strange that he's favoring the society that he's historically insisted is his least favorite.

Not only is God's poor management of his children on full display in this chapter, but so are his completely screwed-up priorities (verses 12-13):
Yea, I say unto you, that in the latter times the promises of the Lord have been extended to our brethren, the Lamanites; and notwithstanding the many afflictions which they shall have, and notwithstanding they shall be driven to and fro upon the face of the earth, and be hunted, and shall be smitten and scattered abroad, having no place for refuge, the Lord shall be merciful unto them. 
And this is according to the prophecy, that they shall again be brought to the true knowledge, which is the knowledge of their Redeemer, and their great and true shepherd, and be numbered among his sheep.
Oh, those rascally Lamanites will be slaughtered mercilessly, but God's such a virtuous guy that he'll make sure they eventually convert to the true church at some point in the absurdly distant future.  What a pal!

Maybe God's been cooped up in his paradisaical bungalow near Kolob for so long that he can't see the temporal forest for the eternal trees.

A Good, Solid Non Sequitur
Samuel makes a baffling statement to his wicked audience in verse 15:
For behold, had the mighty works been shown unto them which have been shown unto you, yea, unto them who have dwindled in unbelief because of the traditions of their fathers, ye can see of yourselves that they never would again have dwindled in unbelief.
He's explaining to the Nephites that they've been witnesses to much greater miracles than their brethren have.  This makes the Lamanites superior because they've become more pious with less evidence.  But Samuel seems to think that it's readily apparent that the Lamanites would never again have fallen away from the faith if they'd been blessed to see as many miracles as the Nephites have.

How is that supposed to be obvious?

He uses the phrase "ye can see of yourselves" as though the irrefutable evidence of the future behavior of an entire society in a hypothetical situation is laid out before him in perfect clarity.  But the Nephites can't see it, because it didn't happen.  And beyond that, never is a pretty strong word.  Considering that both the Nephites and the Lamanites waffle back and forth between wickedness and righteousness several times over the course of the Book of Mormon, nobody should claim that either group will adopt one philosophy and never again deviate from it.

Not that any of this matters, because the whole thing is entirely theoretical and it never winds up needing to be proven.  But rest assured that Samuel the Lamanite is completely confident that he's right.