Deseret News Chooses Dishonesty Over Truth

Posted By on July 28, 2016

Deseret News, the newspaper owned by the Mormon Church, released an editorial today criticizing Planned Parenthood of Utah’s tongue-in-cheek campaign using “choose the right” logos on condom packages. Sadly, the poorly written editorial amounts to little more than presuppositional propaganda.

planned parenthood ctrDeseret News’ editorial board, which includes the Catholic Activist behind the disgraced and debunked study claiming that LGBTQ people are awful parents, Robert P. George, claims that putting the CTR logo on condoms “intentionally prostitute[s] a childhood symbol of faith.” They also say that Planned Parenthood of Utah should have considered the Mormons “for whom CTR symbolizes their faith and serves as a powerful heuristic for Christian living.”

What the Deseret News is actually doing is perpetuating the myth that anyone who uses Planned Parenthood’s services are “obviously” not members of the church, when a great number of the women who take advantage of PP’s numerous healthcare programs in Utah are also members of the church. A typical casting of ‘us vs. them,’ hoping that their audience won’t notice if it’s not said outright.

The Deseret News also seems to be forgetting that Mormons do, in fact, use condoms. Despite the antiquated dark age anti-sex morality the Mormon paper seems to think is still relevant, condoms and other birth control measures are wisely used by those responsible enough to know that they shouldn’t risk having children (or getting an STD for that matter) every time they want to have sex. This false outrage is in contradiction with 150 years of science, and only serves to further alienate the Mormon church from reality.

The editorial puts much of its rage on the *gasp* horror that Planned Parenthood would use an “innocent symbol of childhood faith.” Different people can have reasonable disagreement over whether or not PP should have used that particular symbol, but for the Mormon church to all of a sudden throw up children as impressionable sponges of various ideas only works if we completely ignore the church’s simultaneous claim that a child of 8 years old (around the same time they get CTR rings) is fully capable of rationally evaluating the most disputed claim of all time and making a decision that could likely effect the rest of their lives.

And because it wouldn’t be an editorial from the Deseret News without it, the paper ends with an outright falsehood, claiming that the national Planned Parenthood may have been guilty of “selling baby parts” as alleged by the anti-abortion activist group, Center for Medical Progress. Those claims were investigated more than a dozen times by local, state, and congressional hearings, and not one was ever shown to have even a tiny bit of truth to it. In fact, the activists who created the falsified videos have actually been indicted by a Texas grand jury. Shame on Deseret News.

 

Critique – Gospel Doctrine 3: The Vision of the Tree of Life

Posted By on July 27, 2016

The third lesson in the Gospel Doctrine manual is the metaphorical Tree of Life vision by Lehi. This story is a favorite among many Mormons, but are the lessons it contains of any moral value?

Screen grab of The Tree of Life animated short by Living Scriptures

Screen grab of The Tree of Life animated short by Living Scriptures

In Lehi’s (and later Nephi’s) Tree of Life vision, he sees a tree of white fruit that tastes delicious, representing Jesus. Other people try to get to the tree, using an iron rod that guides them through fog as they make their way along the treacherous path. Some people refuse to follow the rod, and end up in a “great and spacious building” while others fall into a river.

Before diving in, perhaps we should begin by mentioning that Joseph Smith’s father had almost an identical dream several years before the Book of Mormon was written. There were a few differences (it was a rope instead of an iron rod, etc.), but it’s probable that Smith Sr.’s dream was the inspiration behind what made it into the Book of Mormon. (Smith Sr.’s dream was recorded by his wife and published in  Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, pg. 59)

1st Ne 8:23-24:

And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost. And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.

What this passage is saying is that rather than acting as a thinking, rational human being, we should instead follow the church even though we do not know where it leads, only where we are told we are being led. A logical person would ask to see evidence of the church’s claims of what lies at the end of the path. Is it really a tree with white fruit? The metaphor has other flaws as well.

For instance, the metaphor assumes that in the mist of darkness there is only one rod claiming to lead out. But within Christianity alone, there are thousands of denominations each with their own iron rods, which run in all different directions but each claiming to arrive at someplace wonderful. And that’s just the iron (Christian) rods, there would also be copper rods, and bronze rods, and nickel, aluminum, zinc, brass, and hundreds of thousands of others representing every other religion that does and has existed. It is not possible that every iron rod leads to the “tree,” but it is possible that none of them do. Therefore, the only possible rational choice one can make is to demand evidence of which rod is the correct one to choose (if any). Absent that demonstrable and verifiable evidence, none of the rods can be falsified and therefore it would not be rational to believe in any of them (or even that the tree itself exists).

1st Ne 8:26-27:

And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.

“Their manner of dress was exceedingly fine,” doesn’t tell us much. “Exceedingly fine” by whose standards? I think it would be fair to assume we’re using Lehi’s standard, given that this is his dream. But in context, he’s been living in the desert for a while now, and he supposedly left all of his things except for some provisions back in Jerusalem. All we can really say that the clothes these people are wearing are of higher quality than desert-dwelling Lehi, which is a pretty low bar. Obviously I’m just having a little fun with taking the metaphor too literally, but I’m doing so to draw the point that metaphors shouldn’t be so heavily relied upon for insight or truth – they all fail at some point.

When something is wrong, mocking and humor is often the most effective tool to use to expose those flaws. True, we shouldn’t be jerks about things (and pointing and laughing is probably too far). But it’s intellectually dishonest to argue that any idea or ideology should be beyond questioning or mocking. Particularly when it comes to a belief in something for which we have absolutely no independently verifiable evidence. Anyone who is making a claim, such as the claim that not only does a god exist but that your religion is the only path to get to “him,” must be open to questioning, investigation, and mocking. To claim that something is above these things is to freely admit that you have something to hide.

The lessons concludes:

Suggest that class members mark the following words in their scriptures: commence (1 Nephi 8:22), caught hold (1 Nephi 8:24), clinging (1 Nephi 8:24), and continually (1 Nephi 8:30). Point out that these words help us understand what we must do to reach the tree of life: we must commence in the strait and narrow path, catch hold of the rod of iron and cling to it, and continue moving toward the tree.

Which path must we commence on? Which rod must we cling to? How are we determining that there is even a tree at the end of one of the paths, or (even if we assume there is) how do we know it is something we should even want? Currently, we do not have any sort mechanism to measure or evaluate supernatural claims. Until we have such a mechanism, we are only left with unverifiable claims, and with every religion offering nearly equal passionate claims and equally empty and unfalsifiable evidence, the only possible rational conclusion is to refuse to believe any of them until such time as their claims can be verified.

Criticism – Gospel Doctrine 2: All Things According to His Will

Posted By on July 25, 2016

Lesson 2 in the Gospel Doctrine manual is all about the first few chapters of 1st Nephi, and how obedience to the Mormon god supposedly brings safety and salvation.

To start, the manual tells us to read the stories of 1st Nephi 1-7 which—for those who need a quick summary—follows Lehi, his wife Sariah, and their sons Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam (there are actually six sons, and at least two daughters – although Nephi’s sisters apparently matter so little to him that he doesn’t even mention they exist until after the family arrives in the Americas, and even then not by name or how many he has) as they leave Jerusalem after Lehi has a vision of the city being destroyed. The family packs up their household and travels from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, then travel back from the Red Sea to Jerusalem twice for the brass plates and then for the family of Ishmael.

Traveling From Jerusalem to the Red Sea

On modern roads, the distance from Jerusalem to the Red Sea is roughly 222 miles.

On modern roads, the distance from Jerusalem to the Red Sea is roughly 222 miles.

First, let’s consider the journey from Jerusalem to the Red Sea through the desert. According to 1st Nephi 2:6, the trip took three days. If you look at a map of Israel, the trip from Jerusalem to the Red Sea using modern roads (route 25 and route 90) is a distance of approximately 222 miles. The Book of Mormon is claiming a family in the year 600 BC (roughly) was able to travel the 222 miles through the desert in three days?

Anyway, back to the lesson:

“…ask a class member to prepare to summarize the efforts of Nephi and his brothers to obtain the brass plates from Laban (1 Nephi 3:9–4:38).”

God’s Forgetfulness?

After the family has traveled 222 miles from Jerusalem to the Red Sea, Lehi calls Nephi to his tent and tells him that he dreamed that god told him that Nephi needed to go back to Jerusalem with Laman, Lemuel, and Sam to obtain Lehi’s genealogy, which is recorded on brass plates and in the possession of a man named Laban.

One might ask, if god is all-knowing and isn’t capable of having slips of mind, then why didn’t he tell the family to get the brass plates before travelling 222 miles through the desert? Or, since god has been regularly talking to both Lehi and Nephi, why couldn’t he just dictate the genealogy to them? Or if that’s too much trouble, couldn’t he just give them a copy since he already gave Lehi a book to read earlier in the story (1st Nephi 1:11)? Some apologists argue that while the god could indeed have told them to take the book with them earlier, god wanted to test the brothers. But if god is all-knowing and already knows the future (as established by the fact that he has warned the family to leave Jerusalem because the city is going to be destroyed), then he already knows how they would do in the test – making it completely unnecessary.

Nephi’s brothers have a rather reasonable response (3:5), questioning the validity of Lehi’s vision which he himself described as “a dream.” But Nephi reveals his dubious morality, accepting his father’s dream as truth without question because an angel had promised him prosperity and rulership over others if he did (1 Ne 2:19-22).

So the brothers begin the ∼444 mile round trip back to Jerusalem. Upon arrival, the brothers cast lots—apparently the modern equivalent to flipping a coin—to decide which of them has to do what god supposedly told them to go do (3:11). Laman draws the short straw and asks Laban for the plates, but is chased away. The brothers then try buying the genealogy with all the gold and silver that was still in their abandoned house (looters in 600 BC were notoriously procrastinators), but that fails too.

God & Murder

nephi kills labanNephi then sneaks back into the city again, and just happens to come across Laban passed-out drunk in the street (4:7). The god of the Book of Mormon proves himself to be just as monstrous as the god of the Old Testament, and tells Nephi to take Laban’s sword and kill the unconscious and (now) unarmed man (4:10). There are several issues with this particular passage, even outside of the unethical order to murder. Could Nephi not have just tied Laban up somewhere so he didn’t have to kill him (Laban is passed out and will have no idea who did it)? Or, since the Mormon scriptures say that god has the power to soften people’s hearts so that they will follow his instructions (1 Ne 2:16; 2 Ne 10:18; Mosiah 21:15; D&C 105:27, etc.), why couldn’t god just soften the heart of Laban so that he’d be willing to give the brass plates to the family, or even just enough so he’d sell them to the family? As mentioned before, since god is all-knowing he already knows whether or not Nephi will commit murder if he orders him to, so the apologists’ arguments that Nephi needed to prove himself also don’t hold much weight.

There’s an additional dimension to this order to commit murder. For Nephi to follow it, he had to have already been under the impression that murder is something his god might ask him to commit. If he thought that his god was good and would never order him to murder a helpless human being, then when the order came his response would have been something along the lines of “depart from me evil spirit, for my god would never instruct such a thing!” But since this was not Nephi’s response, it tells us that murder was already something he accepted his god might tell him to do and god chooses to reward this acceptance with confirmation that murder is indeed in his nature.

It’s also worth mentioning that 1 Ne 4:9 specifically claims that Laban’s sword was made “of the most precious steel,” even though steel wouldn’t exist in the Middle East for several hundred more years after this story supposedly took place.

Fortunately, no one in the populous city of Jerusalem saw the murder take place, and Nephi strips the decapitated Laban of all of his (presumably blood-drenched) clothing and armor, and puts them on (4:19). The disguise is so impressive that Nephi is not only able to fool Laban’s servant (who doesn’t notice the blood despite walking next to him) into bringing the brass plates outside the city to a small group of waiting men, but even Nephi’s own brothers can’t recognize him until he speaks.

This part of the story concludes as Lehi prophecies that the brass plates will “go forth unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people who were of his seed. Wherefore, he said that these plates of brass should never perish; neither should they be dimmed any more by time.” (1 Ne 5:18-19). However, the brass plates are virtually never mentioned or heard from again, except for Nephi telling us that they included some version of the Genesis story, and it “sufficeth me to say that we are descendants of Joseph.” (1 Ne 6:2)

The manual poses the following question:

“How did Nephi show strong and abiding faith? How can we follow his example?”

From an ethical standpoint, it would probably be a good idea to not follow Nephi’s example. Following an authority’s instructions unquestioningly in order to receive promised rewards is not a moral act. Put it into a different context, if someone claimed they had a bag of $25 million hidden in a locker somewhere, and they’ll tell you the location if only you will follow their instructions unquestioningly, would you do it? Additionally, when it comes to an action as serious as murder, is thinking that a god has commanded you to commit it really an excuse? That excuse isn’t all that rare even in modern times, such as the case of Deanna Laney who smashed her three sons’ heads in with a rock because she thought god told her to do it. Even if you believe that a god is actually talking to you, can you confirm it and that you’re not having a hallucination or a psychotic break (even a temporary one), or hearing the wind whistling, etc.? Wouldn’t the moral person demand independent verification that a god really was demanding such a thing? And even if turned out to be true that a god was commanding you to commit a murder, is that a god worthy of adulation or worship given that they’re capable of directing events in a manner that doesn’t require murder but they’re telling you to go ahead with it anyway?

Going Back for Wives

Now that Nephi and his brothers have completed the 444+ mile round trip back to their tents by the Red Sea, god tells them to pick up and go back again, this time to get Ishmael who has enough daughters for all of them (1 Ne 7). Ishmael takes practically no convincing that he should give the brothers his daughters to marry, and for the entire household to abandon their homes and go live in the desert (let’s hope neither family carries any genetic issues, since they’re starting a while civilization themselves).

Conclusion

The manual concludes lesson 2:

“Remind class members that because of Lehi’s and Nephi’s willing obedience, millions of people have been blessed. Encourage class members to always ‘go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” (1 Nephi 3:7).'”

It’s unclear who the “millions” of blessed people are. According to the Book of Mormon, the only civilization to survive in the Americas were the Lamanites, who were cursed by god. In fact, 1 Ne 13:10-16 describes the rape, torture, enslavement, and massive injustices committed against the Native Americans by Christopher Columbus and then the United States as simply the “wrath of god” for the supposed wickedness of their ancestors against the Nephites — which itself seems to be a contradiction of Mormonism’s claim not to believe in the concept of Original Sin. Perhaps the lesson is referring not to the direct and hereditary “beneficiaries” of Lehi and Nephi’s decisions, but to the more vague “anyone who reads about them” audience. However, in that case one could argue that Lehi and Nephi are entirely irrelevant, as an all-knowing god simply picked the two people who he already knew would play out the story the way he wanted them to, so they might as well have been fictional characters.

Gospel Doctrine Lesson: Keystone – A Criticism

Posted By on July 23, 2016

The first lesson in the Mormon Gospel Doctrine manual is entitled Keystone, and aims to have teachers instruct members that the Book of Mormon is the keystone of the religion. That’s a perfectly acceptable and, indeed, appropriate way to look at a religion which has its own scriptures. If the Book of Mormon is false, then the entire religion must also crumble.

“Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1986, 5; or Ensign, Nov. 1986, 6).

Book of Mormon Witnesses

Joseph Smith, as depicted at the LDS Visitors Center

Joseph Smith, as depicted at the LDS Visitors Center

The lesson begins by suggesting the teacher ask class members to summarize the testimony of both the three witnesses and the eight witnesses. Unfortunately, however, while the testimonies still appear in the Book of Mormon, their validity is highly suspect. Many of the witnesses outright recanted their versions of the event, while the additional beliefs of others makes it extremely difficult to take anything they claimed seriously.

As Jeremy Runnells diligently documented in his Letter to a CES Director, “They are 11 individuals: Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. – who all shared a common worldview of second sight, magic, and treasure digging – which is what drew them together in 1829.”

Not only did the witnesses (who except for Oliver Cowdry were all related to Joseph Smith or David Whitmer) believe in magic, but many had previously made even wilder claims, such as Martin Harris claiming that ” he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.” (Early Mormon Documents, 2:271).

Additionally, with the exception of Oliver Cowdry, every living witness to the Book of Mormon later converted to follow James Strang, the self-proclaimed successor to Joseph Smith who also claimed to have discovered buried plates, received the Urim and Thummim from god, and was visited by angels. As Runnells notes, “every single member of Joseph Smith’s family except for Hyrum’s widow also endorsed, joined, and sustained James Strang as ‘Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.’” Martin Harris actually served a mission in England on behalf of Strang.

David Whitmer himself later claimed that he did not even believe that John the Baptist gave the priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdry, saying, “I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] [183]5, or [183]6 – in Ohio…I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…” (Early Mormon Documents, 5:137).

These facts about the lives and deeds of the witnesses are not well known among many of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—unsurprisingly, as open discussion of such could shake the faith of any member who looks at the testimony of the three and eight witnesses as solid confirmation that Joseph Smith wasn’t lying about discovering golden plates in upstate New York.

The Most Correct Book on Earth

In the “Helps for the Teacher” section of the manual, it reads “In a meeting with the Twelve Apostles, the Prophet Joseph Smith ‘told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (History of the Church, 4:461; see also the introduction to the Book of Mormon).’

This claim of “most correct of any book on earth” is also problematic, as we already know that many of the things claimed within the book are false. For example, the steel and grains mentioned in the Book of Mormon did not exist in pre-Columbian America. Nor, for that matter, did the swords, chariots, donkeys, cattle, oxen, sheep, goats, figs, silk, brass, chains, or plows. In fact, as has been noted by the Smithsonian, “none of the principal food plants and domestic animals of the Old World (except the dog) were present in the New World before Columbus.” Likewise, DNA has shown that there is no evidence that Native Americans (supposedly the descendants of Laman and Lemuel from Jerusalem) are descended from the Middle East.

These inconvenient facts are becoming more and more difficult for many believing Mormons to ignore, which recently led to Mormon Apostle Russell M. Nelson to acknowledge that the Book of Mormon “is not a textbook of history, although some history is found within its pages. It is not a definitive work on ancient American agriculture or politics. It is not a record of all former inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere, but only of particular groups of people.”

So we have a problem, if the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book on earth,” how can it also make false claims about the history of civilizations? If a god is all-knowing and all-wise, wouldn’t he have noticed that false claims were going into his “most correct” book and fixed the problem?

Self-Fulfilling & Vague Prophecies

The manual next reads:

Point out that although the Book of Mormon is an ancient document, it was written and preserved for our day.

Read with class members Mormon 8:26–41. Explain that these verses contain a prophecy about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. What conditions did Moroni foresee would exist in the world when the Book of Mormon was again brought forth?

Unfortunately, like many prophecies littered throughout both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the verses mentioned are as vague as could possibly be, claiming that the time when the Book of Mormon would be brought forth would be a time when “The power of God shall be denied” (verse 28); people will lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts (verse 36); people will “love money . . . more than [they] love the poor and the needy” (verse 37); there will be wars, rumors of wars and earthquakes (verse 30); etc.

Is there a time in recorded human history when every single one of those predictions was not true? The characterizations given are about as specific as the daily horoscope you can find in your local paper. Additionally, since we have established that the timeline is not specifically related to current times, the claim that the Book of Mormon accurately foretold the coming of the Book of Mormon is the very definition of circular logic. A book claiming to be true is not in itself proof or evidence that the book is true.

Conclusion

The lesson concludes by directing members back to the opening quote from Joseph Smith, and how the Book of Mormon is the keystone to the church. But if the Book of Mormon must be entirely accurate (or the church itself begins to crumble), then the false claims made within it must logically cast doubt over the entirety of the church.

Does Morality Require God?

Posted By on July 23, 2016


Does morality come from a god, as many theists claim? Or does morality exist irrespective of the existence of a supernatural being?

Nearly every atheist is likely to at some point face questions about the basis of their morality, with theists demanding to know how we could possible have any moral foundation without a god to serve as a moral absolute. I remember once in an online debate with Paul Mero (former head of Sutherland Institute), he demanded to know if my morals were written down in a book somewhere, and if not then how could anyone know what they were (I suppose the idea of asking me was too painful to consider).

The first question I would ask a theistic believer is whether or not they believe that their god only does good things, which would imply that morality and the concepts of right and wrong exist independent of such a being. In that case, morality would by definition be a secular construct, with that god merely following the rules that already exist. And in that instance, it is up to us to determine a moral system that best reflects our values and well being.

On the other hand, if their answer is that things are good because a god does them, then the question that would follow is whether or not their god has ever done or prescribed anything that is not good. Because if their god has ever done things that are not good, that would make him unworthy of praise or worship.

slaverySupposing that we are talking about the Christian god, the god of the bible, you then have to ask why that god has done so many things we would today consider immoral, or indeed, monstrous. For example, how many theists today would agree that it is moral for one human to own another human as property? I would guess very few. And yet the god in the bible very clearly advocates for slavery (Exodus 21, and many other instances), and the beating of slaves, and the tricking of male slaves into being slaves for life if they want to keep their wives and children. Does that sound like a moral commandment from a being worthy of our adoration?

Some apologists may argue that’s only in the Old Testament—which many agree is stuffed with barbarism—and that this was corrected in the New Testament. However, not once in the New Testament does it specifically renounce the practice of slavery, or the prescriptions laid out by that of when and where it was permissible. Further, not only do several of Jesus’ apostles condone slavery, Jesus himself skips an opportunity to condemn the practice and instead seems to condone it when he says “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” (Luke 12:47-48). Also, how is it possible that a moral god could have condoned slavery at one time, but then changed his mind later? Did god learn something new? If the act of owning another human being as property is immoral, than it was always immoral – even if not considered so at the time. If god is all-knowing, than how could he have not condemned the practice from the beginning?

These are not the words or the commandments of a moral figure. And even if the subjugation of women, the slaughters of entire peoples (both directly and by command), and the numerous other injustices and atrocities committed by the god of the bible didn’t happen, these actions should be more than enough for any rational person to turn their backs on such an immoral creature. Even the atonement and crucifixion are morally dubious at best (you’re saying god willingly allowed his son—or himself, depending on your interpretation of the bible—to be tortured and brutally killed in order to solve a loophole in a flawed plan he created himself?)

But to reduce the argument even further, the commands of a supreme being are incapable of being the basis of human morality, if for no other reason than a moral edict is far too simplistic (and perhaps even unethical) for a society of thinking, intelligent beings. Simplifying morality to mere edicts to be followed without question may offer some measure of comfort, as what could be simpler than just following what you are told by an authority figure? But to be worthy of society at large, we must develop not edicts, but moral systems which we can constantly debate, argue, and improve upon.

For myself, I am mostly a fan of the proposal put forward by Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape, in which he argues that the foundations upon which human beings have built their morality is simply well being—the well being of both the individual as well as society. What precisely well being encompasses or is defined as is up to all of us to continue to explore and debate.

But it is clear that throughout history, it is secular morality that has advanced us as a species, from the abolishment of slavery (at least in most nations’ laws), to religious pluralism and tolerance, to the advancement of women out of servitude and property, to even gains in LGBTQ rights in many countries. And it is most religions that have had to be dragged kicking and screaming on each step.

Discussing Truth With Catholics & Mormons

Posted By on July 19, 2016

Does it matter whether or not what you believe is true? This is a critical question I try to direct my conversations with theists towards, and their answer really determines whether or not it’s worth the time to continue the conversation.

During a recent discussion with someone close to me who is a Roman Catholic, I was trying to drill down on what evidence this person specifically had that a god of any sort exists. My friend mentioned that much of his faith was built on the foundation of personal experience—things that he has personally felt or witnessed that have convinced him of his religious beliefs. In my counter, I paraphrased from philosopher David Hume, pointing out that an individual’s personal experience is hearsay to everyone else, and given that millions of people have all had identical or similar experiences which have pointed them to other gods or to no gods at all, personal experience seems to be worthless as a mechanism for determining what is or isn’t true.

Unfortunately, the response from my theist friend was perplexing. He said that truth was not important to him, and that he preferred emotion and intuition. That’s an unusual response from a Roman Catholic, and I admit it threw me for a loop for a moment. Perhaps he was being sincere, or perhaps he was just done with the conversation and was simply looking for a way out without admitting his reasoning was flawed.

I continued with the conversation primarily because this person is so dear to me, but under normal circumstances would have ended it there. After all, if you don’t care whether or not what you believe is true, then what more is there to discuss?

Photo of an 1890 oil painting of Joseph Smith preaching to Native Americans. The painting used to hand in the Salt Lake Temple.

Photo of an 1890 oil painting of Joseph Smith preaching to Native Americans. The painting used to hand in the Salt Lake Temple.

When I have these conversations with Mormon friends, as happens much more frequently here in Utah, typically the response is “Of course I care if what I believe in is true!” Now, Mormonism is one of the few religions that rivals Catholicism in demonstrably false claims—while most religions have gotten more and more vague about their doctrine as science and reason have progressed (compare most modern Christianity and the uber-specific gods of Mt. Olympus), these two are really sticking with the specifics, which make them vulnerable to argument and deductive reasoning. So when I arrive at this point in conversations with Mormon believers, there are usually two ways to proceed, either pointing out the glaring falllacies in the beliefs (the location of the Garden of Eden and the origin of the human species, or the tools/weapons/animals/vehicles claimed to have existed in the pre-Columbian Americas, etc.), or I can go down the road of helping them identify a reliable methodology for determining truth.

I typically prefer to use the latter discussion, because jumping right to the fallacies in Mormon dogma tends to put people on the defensive, and sends them reaching for wild or nonsensical explanations and excuses, or even worse it simply shuts down the discussion for them.

But how can we help these Mormon theists determine a reliable mechanism for determining truth? As I mentioned above, personal revelation/experience almost by definition cannot be trusted – not by the individual and certainly not by anyone else. Usually the next answer involves scripture, but no book can be the proof of itself and with a little epistemology one can hopefully help them reach that conclusion as well.

That typically leaves only one option in orthodox Mormonism: the prophets. But while the average Mormon in Utah probably hasn’t considered it, that argument is little more than a reduction back to the personal experience argument. And as discussed above, someone else’s personal experience is only hearsay to you. So what evidence do we have that what Thomas S. Monson, Gordon B. Hinckley, or even Joseph Smith were actually in communication with a god being?

The range of irrational excuses is wide and varied, but all lead back to the most important question of them all: what evidence do you have that those things happened, and if so what evidence do you have that they are the result of a god being?

Truth, and believing in true things, is important. I don’t believe in the idea of individual or subjective truth (“Well it’s true for me!”), because truth is objective—it’s true whether or not you believe it to be so. Believing in false things dulls your ability to rationally consider evidence in all areas of your life, leaving you open to all sorts of manipulation and deception. It is only (to quote Matt Dillahunty) by believing as many true things and as few things as possible that we can overcome irrationality.

Blaming Bernie Supporters

Posted By on July 18, 2016

As if the 2016 presidential election wasn’t septic enough, the new fad among Hillary supporters of seeking to shame Sanders supporters is pushing 2016 to a new low.

The groundwork seems to be going into place to put the blame for a potential Trump victory on the shoulders of Bernie supporters who choose to support other candidates rather than falling into line in Hillary’s camp. This was emphasized for me today when I saw a message on Facebook from Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary for President Bill Clinton, reading:

“… if you don’t get behind Hillary you increase the odds that Donald Trump will be president. That would be a disaster for America and the world. Trump is a menace. He is not just unsuited to being the president of the United States – a bigoted narcissist who incites and excuses violence – but his presidency would threaten everything this nation stands for: tolerance, inclusion, freedom of the press, equal justice, and equal opportunity. It would make it far more difficult ever to achieve the progressive goals you and I share.”

Reich is not alone in his rhetoric, the Clinton campaign itself has clearly adopted a strategy of “not Trump”—focusing on the negative aspects of Trump rather than on asserting positive reasons to support Clinton herself (not to the complete exclusion of positive reasons, of course). The strategy seems to be the natural evolution of the time only a few months ago when the Clinton campaign was telling women that they had a moral duty to support Clinton simply for the fact that she is a woman.

To be fair, this line of reasoning is utterly unoriginal, and crops up during almost every presidential campaign when two intra-party candidates finish their primary battles. However, this year feels much more intense than many previous election cycles, perhaps because of the apparent deep ideological divide between Clinton and Sanders, or perhaps because of the uniqueness of Donald Trump receiving the Republican nomination.

Personally, I find the entire line of reasoning irrational. One’s vote is of much value, and (although it frequently is) should not be cast for any candidate—whether school board or president—lightly. Some Sanders supporters have decided to vote for Clinton, and that’s absolutely fine if they feel she represents them enough to deserve their vote. However, there are others who find that Clinton’s attachments to some elements of the Christian Right, and/or her neoliberal corporatism tendencies put her too far out of their comfort zone.

Does this mean this latter category of voters thinks that Clinton is as bad as Trump, as is being suggested by many in the Hillary camp? I suppose you would have to ask each individual for that answer, although it is worth being pointed out that, while Clinton is certainly not the right-wing nativist populist that Trump is, if elected her centrist policies would undoubtedly become labeled and potentially standardized as the new definition of the “radical Left,” pushing those progressives who are actually to the left-wing of the political spectrum even further to the fringes where their ideas and ideals can be even further ignored. I admit most people probably don’t see that as the enormous problem that it is, but just ask somebody who holds to radical progressive policies how they feel about it.

It is true that there is no excuse for not voting (outside of physical inabilities, of course). But seeking to shame someone out of voting for someone (be it a third party candidate or even a write-in) who actually represents their ideals is morally reprehensible. And it makes it worse if the only line of reasoning you’re providing for voting for your candidate is the fear-based “the other one is worse.”

The burden cannot be shifted. It is not the job of a conscientious voter to align with a candidate. It is the job of a candidate to align with as many conscientious voters as possible.