Saturday, December 23, 2006

Why I celebrate Christmas even as an atheist

Although I don't believe in God or that Jesus was anything other than a man, I still celebrate Christmas and Easter in my own way. Why?

1) It is a national holiday that is part of our culture like the 4th of July. Look, I am not Catholic, but I still celebrate St. Patrick's Day and St. Valentine's Day. I don't believe in ghosts and goblins, but I still partake in the Halloween activities.

2) All of my extended family still celebrate Christmas. It is a family thing. It is fun to join in all of the festivities and traditions, including giving and getting gifts, and visiting each other. We even still put up our own lights and tree.

3) Many of the Christmas traditions aren't Christian anyway, but have pagan roots, such as Christmas trees, 25th of December, etc. And Santa is far from any religious message as well.

Now, as my son grows, we will be sure to tell him how we do not believe Jesus was a Savior or that Santa or the Easter bunny are real, but that does not stop us from enjoying this traditional, national holiday.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thinking about Consciousness

My current thinking on the subject is that consciousness is not what we think it is. I think the phenomenon evolved probably because it proved useful for our ancestors to know which actions were caused by us and which were caused by others. But, I think we are given the sensation that we have decided to do something after our neurons have already computed and sent the signal to commit the act. (see Libet's famous experiments:

I do not think we are really able to make parts of our brain functioning available for review. Several tightly controlled experiments have shown that we often have no idea why we do what we do or have the thoughts occur to us that we do, but if asked why we gave the answer we gave or did what we did, we will make up some plausible explanation out of what is available to us and firmly believe that our made up reason is the real reason why we did what we did. This is the same process that goes on when we speculate about the reasons for the actions of others. We are observers of our own behavior and then speculate as to the reasons why; we do not appear to be able to actually review the real antecedents.

For a nice, light treatment of the subject that I think most will enjoy (probably not dcleve), read this:

Must we give life meaning?

(Originally posted Aug. 25, 2006, on Perspectives)

Some people ask the question, "What is life for?" As an atheist and according to the way I think of the universe, there is no ultimate answer to that question. Imagining life has a purpose is just a coping mechanism we utilize to prevent depression and to keep motivated.

Natural selection chose our ancestors because they had a desire to live and that gave them an advantage in producing offspring. Most of the time, we have a strong desire to live (possible exceptions are when we are depressed, in pain, or terminally ill). I believe our default programming will search for a meaning to life to justify the effort and discomfort we sometimes feel. Due to our large forebrains we, at minimum, have the impression that we can choose to override our default programming and accept one of the meanings preached around us, choose a different meaning for our lives, or choose to give life no meaning at all. We certainly don't have to give life meaning if we can tolerate the implications.

For me, I have "chosen" to give my life meaning. I believe that there is no eternal consciousness that will remember or appreciate anything that took place on this planet once we are all dead and gone. And "heaven" knows my life has no meaning to any of the organisms on this planet that cannot comprehend "meaning". That is not to say that my life does not affect or influence the lives of at least some non-conscious organisms, but they don't understand enough to care whether I live or die. So, meaning seems to only exist for humans, and perhaps only a subset of them (existentialists and the very religious - I don't know).

In any case, I choose for my life to matter to me and I know that my life matters to my loved ones, and I choose to care about their feelings. What matters to them, matters to me. To help illustrate this, imagine your 4-year-old coming to your side quite upset because she is scared of the dark. Now you know that there is no need to get upset about the dark. You could easily dismiss her fears as being irrational and send her on her way. But, instead because you love her, what matters to her matters to you. You choose to comfort her and reassure her and allow yourself to feel for her. Remember the movie "What Dreams May Come"? The main character could not save his wife from her depression until he allowed himself to empathize and join her in her suffering, then they both could leave the suffering.

I am rambling, but I give my life meaning through my relationships and by helping people learn to be happy.

Freedom from Judgment

(Originally posted Sept. 7, 2006, on Perspectives)

One of the great benefits that came once I no longer believed that god exists is the great relief of no longer having to worry about being judged. Now depending on your beliefs about God, you may have never had to deal with this, but believing in God can give you lots to worry about.

Such as, "Am I pleasing the Lord? Did I exercise enough faith? When I am judged will I be found wanting? Is God displeased with what I am doing? Is this or that choice God's will for me? Am I following my calling?" Ick! It is so refreshing to be done with all of that.

Now lest you believers think I never experienced the great joy of God's love and peace and grace and forgiveness; let me assure you that I have. And I certainly was not constantly aware of God's judgment hanging over my head. However, once it was completely gone, I realized that I had been carrying it all along. All I can say is that I feel a great relief.

For those of you believers that do not feel the looming judgment hanging over your head or who do, but don't mind it, I say good for you. There is no need to get defensive in your replies. I am simply speaking to my own experiences.

Christ preaches intolerance and abandoning one's family

(Originally posted on Perspectives on Sept. 29, 2006)

Long before Christians started ostracizing family members who fell away from the faith or condemning apostates and others who did not toe the line, Christ taught that his followers should do the same. I am frankly frustrated by people always praising Christ, that he was full of love and the world would be a better place if everyone were like him, blah, blah. Sure he taught some great things and showed some examples of charity, but he by no means was the first or the last to do that. (I of course am assuming that he even existed and that he said and did the things credited to him; contrary to popular belief the Gospels are not first hand accounts and much of his story seems to be borrowed from the stories surrounding the pagan gods before him.)

Anyway, here is a sampling of his teachings that promote hatred and intolerance and leaving one's family if they don't believe the same as you.

Topic: Leave family members who are not of your faith
Matt 19:29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.

Matt 10:34-37: 34Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

35For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

36And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

37He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matt 8:21-22: And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.

22But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

Topic: Curse those that don't believe as you do
Matt 10:14-15 14And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.

15Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city. (So, if we don't believe you are god, you are going to send destruction upon us; see also Matt 11:20-24).

Matt 12:30 He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. (Wonderful black and white thinking that makes enemies of anyone who does not become your follower).

Matt 12:34 O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (What loving language; I am sure that will endear you in people's hearts.)

Matt 13:41-42: 41The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;

42And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (So, if we offend you by not doing what you want us to do, you promise to burn us. Does that remind you of evil King of Babylon?)

Matt 22:12-13: 12And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.

13Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (So, if I don't have the right clothes on you'll cast me into outer darkness. Your love overwhelms me.)

Matt 25:41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: (God, you are so nice, if we don't help every single person in need, you'll burn us.)

Those are just the teachings of Jesus. Now, if we look at what Jesus did as Jehovah of the Old Testament... (the following is reused from another thread) His Love for us explains why he killed every living creature except for a few during the Flood he caused, why he commanded the Israelites to needlessly slaughter helpless animals as sacrifices, why he killed children and infants in Sodom, why he killed the Egyptian first borns, why he orders the death penalty for adultery and treats women as inferior and unclean, why God sent two bears to rip up 42 children for making fun of Elisha's bald head, why he threatens hellfire to anyone who refuses to kiss his ass, etc.

He expects us to give of our love freely to God. Well, I am sorry, but love cannot be freely given in an environment in which we are threatened with hell if we don't love and worship him. I have no fear because the God of Abraham does not exist. I don't doubt that one bit. But, if he did exist I would not want anything to do with him. He just seems like a big bully who is full of himself. The whole idea of sin was invented to keep us in bondage and "gratitude" to a god that does not even exist. Sorry, but I will get my instructions on the virtue of love from someone who doesn't have so much hate for those who don't buy his bull.

Yeah, Love is behind everything God does. So, when Christians ostracize their family members for no longer believing or when they damn apostates to hell, we must remember that they are only following their Master.

Atheist "Church"?

Atheism is not a religion. It does not spell out a way of life. It, in and of itself, offers no theory of morality, no hope, and no philosophy of life or meaning. Atheism at minimum means not having a belief in God.

Yet, many atheists, such as myself, can see the advantage of having a system of morality, a source of hope, a philosophy of life, and a way to give meaning. In addition, many atheists see the benefit churches provide in the sense of community. Communities are important for celebrating births and marriages, for commemoration during deaths, for support during hospital visits, for exchanging ideas in developing one's philosophy of life, for examples and mentors for your children, for a broader perspective and lessons in cooperation, and for opportunities for growth and to give service. I also enjoy feeling elevation with others, that transcendent emotion (warmth in the chest, love in the heart, peace in the mind).

So, to meet these needs for those who don't believe in god, atheists have created something akin to atheist churches, although they would not call them that. There are many "churches" in which atheists may feel at home, both real brick and mortar churches and internet communities. Here are a few:

I personally, attend a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Not all UU's are atheists, but a good number of them are and many atheists feel very comfortable there.

Introduction to Atheism

Here is a link that answers the usual questions theists ask about atheism:

It responds to comments like:
"Isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as believing he does not exist?"
"Isn't it impossible to prove the nonexistence of something?"
"It seems to me that nothing will ever convince you that God exists"
"If atheism is not religious, surely it is anti-religious"
"Is atheism just a way to backlash against one's upbringing, a way of rebelling?"
"Aren't atheists less moral than religious people?"
"Don't atheists want to believe in God?"
"Of course atheists see no evidence for the existence of God - they are unwilling in their souls to see"
"Isn't life pointless to an atheist?"
"If atheism is so great why are there so many theists?"
"What about all the famous scientists who have concluded that god exists?"

Relaxing and Peaceful Sunday

(Originally posted on NOM, Oct. 23, 2006)

I had such a wonderful day yesterday. I attended the UU fellowship for the 3rd time in 4 weeks with my wife and 4 month old in hand. The meeting house is an old one room school in a pleasant valley with horses and cows grazing nearby. The first hour was about various creation myths. Then there is a coffee hour for socializing, and the second hour was presented by a husband and wife team who talked about their experiences as park rangers. The pace and dress is casual and no prayers were said all day. We, as a congregation learned a new hymn and the other hymns were very accepting no matter what you believe.

As I left for home, I just felt a wonderful peace and felt refreshed. I am really getting used to my new post-Mormon life. It is really nice to be able to go to Sunday Services as a family again (I haven't been to LDS services in 6 months because I find them intolerable). I am so grateful that my wife and I are on the same page and we both really like the UU's.

I find that I am losing the zeal and fervor I had before in which it was important to me to have others realize that the LDS church is not true and to convince others of the evidence against the God of Abraham. I suppose two things have happened recently that have allowed me to relax on those issues. One, my wife and I recently submitted our resignation letters, and I felt like I got a chance to say all that I needed to say in my letter. The other event was my wife and I attended a delightful lecture by Richard Dawkins on his new book, "The God Delusion". I think it was validating and cathartic for me to be in a huge auditorium listening to a lecture that succinctly stated many of my arguments and beliefs. But even more than that, it was great to be in an audience, most of the whom were agnostics or atheists like me judging by the timing of the applause.

So often during the process of leaving the church, one feels very alone and isolated; misunderstood and unheard. Being in a huge crowd full of fellow non-believers; being able to say what I wanted to to the leadership of the Church in my resignation letter; and finding a community in which I can experience joy and comfort have helped me to counter those feelings. I still wish my extended family and in-laws would be more at ease with our decision to leave the church, but I am doing all that I can on that front. Time will have to ease the sting.

Last night I got a pm inviting me to participate in a discussion on the Book of Abraham on another message board. The Book of Abraham was one of my favorite topics as I had studied it so intensively. But, I had no desire to enter that discussion. I lack the motivation to rehash those points. I am content to let others believe whatever the heck they want to believe. I have found peace, and I hope all others can find peace if they desire it.

Who knows? I may get fired up again and want to debate at some future time. But, Mormonism is becoming ever more irrelevant to me. I am much more interested in finding my new spiritual practices.

Learning to find the good after no longer having to fight "truth" claims

(Originally posted on NOM, Nov. 13, 2006)

I was talking with my wife, Lilly of the Field, last night. We have been attending the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for a couple of months now and loving it. We are still waiting for acknowledgment from the COB that we are no longer members of the LDS church.

But, we were talking about how it has always been easy for me to find the good in religions like Buddahism and Native American religions. I realized last night that it may be because I was never being told "this is the true religion" by practitioners of these faiths. Once I quit believing in Mormonism, I was angry for a while at being lied to and I still felt like I had to defend myself and counter those asserting that the Church is "the one and only true church". As long as I felt the need to counter that position, I had a difficult time seeing the good. But, once I finally acknowledged that I was done with all that (stick a fork in me I am done), I could finally start appreciating little things again. For example, we kept several of our cd's with church music on them (EFY, etc). I can now re-listen to the songs about self-worth and compassion (I still can't listen to songs praising JS or the BOM).

After I quit believing in the LDS Church, I researched the Bible and quit believing in it, Jesus Christ, and God, and am now atheist. For a while there, I felt like I had to defend against the "God truly exists and Jesus saves" proselyters. And as long as I did, I had a hard time seeing good in the Bible or a belief in God. But, now, I am done with that too. I am less reactionary and more sober about the subject. I can again appreciate the good in the Bible and the Christian theological movements. I think UU is very good for me in helping me learn tolerance and to look again for the good.

I have re-learned something about human beings. I guess I have known it for a long time and am simply applying it to a new sphere. But, like a mule, many of us have a gut reaction to fight back when someone tries to arrogantly shove something in our faces. And Mormon culture does that a lot, so I can understand why so many NOM's have such a hard time not getting angry or critical of the Church. I think those who have been successful at finding that Third Way no longer feel the need to fight back in a reactionary mode and are at peace with their non-belief and thus are enabled to again find the good in Mormonism.

Mistakes I made by following what I thought was the "Spirit"

(Originally posted Nov. 18, 2006)

During my mission, I and some of my fellow missionaries felt strongly by the Spirit and as full of confidence and faith as I have ever been that the Lord desired to heal a recent convert of mine of her endometriosis. I knew that she also desired this blessing and had faith that the Lord could do it through us. We all fasted and prayed, and when time came for the blessing came, I felt strongly impressed to cast the illness away and declare her to be healed. We gave it some time, but it did not happen. I performed mental gymnastics trying to account for this experience. We were worthy, authorized priesthood holders, who had fasted and prayed, and had unshakable faith in our Redeemer. At the time I gave the blessing, I was absolutely positive that it was the will of the Lord to heal her, right then, but maybe I had read the Spirit wrong. But, if that were the case I no longer knew when I was reading it right or not. I eventually suspected that my convert lacked sufficient faith and suggested that as a possibility to her, which deeply hurt her feelings for she felt that she did have unwavering faith. That is one of those things I wish that I could take back. I was a young, inexperienced missionary. I have been rather embarrassed about the experience ever since and have not shared it with many others.

Another experience came when I was dating a young woman at the Y. It was during a time when I felt particularly close to the Lord. A couple of months into the relationship, I was praying in the Maser Building, not about our relationship, but I felt powerfully impressed that she and I would get married - not that we should get married, but that it would happen. I wisely, did not tell her about that revelation because I knew that I had no authority to receive revelation for her, she would have to receive her own.

Now, I had had a few other experiences growing up in which I felt by the "Spirit" that something would happen, even improbable things, and they did end up happening. For example, after my mom died, my dad and I went out to Utah (from Georgia) to visit a now single, old girlfriend of his and I got the spiritual impression that she would offer for me to come there to live with her, even though her relationship with my dad was uncertain and he would continue to live in Georgia, and a couple of weeks later she did. Through that and other experiences I had learned to trust those personal prophecies (or so I thought).

Well, after my girlfriend and I had been dating for a year, I graduated and was getting ready for grad school in another state, my girlfriend had not decided whether she would marry me or not, so we kind of had a long distance relationship. She grew more distant from me, and it was very painful. I did eventually tell her about the impression I got. We were well past the point of which I should have given up on her, and moved on, and start recovering from her, but I felt compelled to hang in there so that my revelation could be fulfilled. I second guessed my revelation many times and wondered if it had just been my desires and not the "Spirit," but I felt sure it had been the Spirit. My girlfriend would not break up with me and say it was over even when I encouraged her to if that was how she felt. So for many months, I tortured myself holding on to a dead relationship because the "Spirit" told me to. Eventually, I realized that it was not going to happen, so I officially ended our relationship. I struggled for a while to figure out why the revelation had not come true.

Over the course of my life, I have had both good and bad results from following the "Spirit" - some experiences were quite remarkable. But, there were times when I would have exercised better judgment and saved myself and others a lot of pain if I had not followed the "Spirit". Discovering that the BoA was not scripture is what convinced me that there was no such thing as the "Spirit". The experience is real, but it does not come from a member of the godhead. God cannot lie, yet the "Spirit" told me and countless others that the BoA was from God. The evidence conclusively rules out that possibility. Either every Mormon who has a testimony of the BoA has no clue how to recognize the "Spirit," or that feeling originates in us and is as prone to being wrong as everything else we think and feel.

After taking a new look at all of my spiritual experiences and the experiences of others with which I am familiar, I concluded that the "Spirit" is just a feeling we get that it natural in origins and is not a reliable source of truth or a tool of communication with any greater power. I wish I had realized that when I blessed my convert or hung on to a dead relationship.

What Torture Has Taught the Former Head of Amnesty International

(Originally posted on NOM, Nov. 17, 2006)

This article really got me thinking about the difference we can make by treating people with dignity and worth. I think there are some institutional changes that can help, for example the way we treat prisoners and the welfare system, but I think the real change can only be accomplished one on one by having people go out of their way to care for those who have not been treated kindly by their parents or by their communities and have a lot of anger and depression that they redirect on to less threatening targets. A large part of our feeling of worth does come from the feedback we get from others. We also get a feeling of worth from doing things that we can be proud of, but I don't think either can fully compensate for the lack of the other.

Often, as a psychotherapist, I wish that I had someone on the outside that could treat my clients with dignity and respect to help them get that feeling of worth from others. But, as it is they have to settle for the kind treatment I give them. What we need is more people to go and love the unloved.

Switching gears a bit, but more on the topic of the article, we must do what we can to encourage our legislatures to put an end to torture. (Hopefully, that is not too political of a statement for this board). It is not a reliable source of information because people will say anything to stop the pain and it makes more enemies.

Things we are grateful for that the LDS Church gave us

(Originally posted on NOM, on Dec. 12, 2006)

I thought that it would be nice to take a moment and express our gratitude for what the LDS Church gave us. I know that it will be a challenge for many of us, but perhaps a useful, temporary(?) perspective shift.

Three things that I am grateful for that the LDS Church gave me are: 1) a very good knowledge of the Bible which is useful in understanding much of Western literature and the continuing Christian influence in the world, 2) a lot of skills (leadership, teaching, speaking, etc) acquired through my many different callings and service opportunities, and 3) a pretty happy and joyful life (I leaned a lot on my Mormon beliefs when my mom passed away when I was 14).

My respect for faith and doubt

(Originally posted on NOM, Dec 12, 2006)

As many of you know, I am an atheist and value doubt and skepticism. But, what you may not know is that I still recognize some value and utility in faith.

I am a social scientist and clinician in training. I see that the scientific endeavor has two stages: the first is generative and creative in which hypotheses are formed, the second is critical and formulaic in which the hypotheses are tested and tried with the express purpose of causing false hypotheses to fail. These are related to brainstorming and then later rejecting the ideas that are not as good.

The critical phase demands skepticism, detachment, and actively setting up experiments that will make your hypothesis fail if it cannot meet certain criteria. This phase utilizes doubt and no scientist is justified in holding onto her hypothesis for long if her hypothesis has not gone through this rigorous testing phase.

However, doubt and skepticism can only rule out bad hypotheses. If all scientists ever did was rule out hypotheses that already existed, we would never know about relativity, DNA, or cognitive dissonance. Scientists must also generate new hypotheses (to eventually test) and doubt is not suited for that task. I am open to changing my opinion on this if you can show me how doubt can generate new hypotheses. Doubt can only take us back to what we cannot doubt, and then we have to start building new hypotheses from that point, and to do that we need faith. Perhaps you have never looked at faith like this before.

Perhaps we need to agree on a definition of faith. There are many definitions of faith, even in the scriptures. But, I'll try to be conservative and offer this one that came from an online dictionary: Faith is "belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact" (

When a scientist begins to consider possible explanations for his observations, he begins to venture past that which is known and supported by evidence into the unknown, concepts that do not yet have much or any evidential support. One potential hypothesis catches his imagination and he begins to run with it considering all of the different implications if this hypothesis is true. To me, when he entertains the possibility of this idea being true even though there is not yet sufficient evidence to support it, that is faith. If he were to entertain the possibility of it not being true, even though there is insufficient evidence to justify that conclusion, he is doubting (i.e., the opposite of faith).

This entertaining of the possibility of something being true is generative and creative and exciting. We begin to believe that this hypothesis might be the solution we are looking for. However, every good scientist exercises caution and waits to fully commit to the belief until after some experiments and scrutiny by peers have been conducted. But once those tests are done, it can no longer be faith, for we begin to have sufficient evidence to justify the belief. (We can't have faith in something we know is true).

Every scientist I can think of has exercised this kind of faith. Einstein believed in relativity before all the experiments had been run that showed it was true. Darwin believed in evolution by natural selection before all the evidence was in. This is not a bad thing. Faith and doubt need to work together in every endeavor that aims to discover truth, IMO.

Now, the scientists did not begin to have faith in their hypotheses until there were at least some observations that supported the possibility that the hypotheses might be true. But, I think the same goes for people who put their faith in God. Religious people have a little evidence that supports their beliefs: answered prayers, the fact that others believe it, dreams or impressions that come true, feelings of love and purpose, etc. I think that evidence is enough to at least consider the possibility that the God hypothesis might be true and thereby exercise faith.

I have a problem when people become certain that their beliefs are right before they have been rigorously tested. (In some cases, it can never be tested because God is not available for testing; and in that case I believe it is best that they should never fully commit to their beliefs in Him, but hold it as a possibility). But, as you and I know, much of the religious experience and claims can be tested (i.e., the historicity of scriptures including the Bible, the accuracy of spiritual impressions, how often we get what we want when we pray for it versus when we don't, etc). When I subjected my religious beliefs to the critical phase, I found that much of what I believed was false. I am now a doubting atheist.

I have nothing against faith, even religious faith. I think it is justified in the beginning. My only problem is when people stop there, and think they know something is true when all they have is faith and have never subjected their beliefs to be tested for validity. I was guilty of that as a believer; I have tried to avoid being like that as an unbeliever. Now, to be fair some believe they have investigated the validity of their beliefs. But, the danger in conducting the critical phase by oneself is that one might be too easy on your hypothesis or just be unaware of some of the challenges. One way to ensure that the tests were conducted correctly and completely is to let skeptical peers investigate your hypothesis and point out any things you might have missed. Science would be in a world of hurt if peers were not able to review the investigations of their fellow scientists.

I know that the great majority of religious people will never let skeptics point out the evidence against their beliefs. It bothers me as well that doubt is often looked down on in the scriptures and by religious leaders. That is a shame because it is only through doubting that we can guard against being deceived, taken advantage of, and being led away from truth. So, I try to live in the real world with patience, understanding, and tolerance for those who have no desire to critically examine their beliefs.

It is my position that there is enough challenging evidence of religious claims that one would be wise to be very suspicious of them. And I think that there are naturalistic explanations for all out-of-the-ordinary experiences like near-death-experiences, intuitions that proved to be helpful, dreams that appear to be fulfilled, prayers that appear to be answered, etc. But, I respect that others come to different conclusions. Hey, I don't agree with every scientist's theory, or their criticisms of my work. I think the most important thing if we are all interested in finding truth and not just defending our positions is that we use both faith and doubt in our quest and let others in to what we are thinking and invite criticism and collaboration.

Now, in the spirit of practicing what I preach I invite you to either show where I am in error or collaborate with me in expanding these ideas.

Softening: Humility and Awe

(Originally posted on NOM, Dec. 19, 2006)
I sometimes sit in wonder at the changes taking place in me. What a roller coaster ride this year has been? I just turned 31, earlier this month. This time last year, I was organizing a book club among a few select friends from Elder's Quorum. We were going to read "Rough Stone Rolling" together and then discuss it. I was still a TBM back then, but one that was very familiar with the warts in LDS history and something of an amateur apologist. We were reading RSR to prepare ourselves to handle the tough questions members might ask of us for the likelihood was high that we would all go on to leadership positions in the church (I was currently a counselor in the Bishopric).

I am not sure what it was, but something led me to more fully investigate what a friend who went inactive had told me about a few years before. It was about mistakes that Joseph had made in his "restoration" of the facsimilies in the Book of Abraham. I found a book that contained photos of the original papyrus. The book was, "By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus," by Larson, and by the time I finished reading that book and investigating all the original materials I could put my hands on, I knew that Joseph had defrauded the whole church. I became angry and hurt and indignant. That is not typical of me. I do not apologize for the emotions I felt; I still feel that those emotions were an appropriate response. But, I also became cynical and arrogant and disrespectful at times, mostly online, either here or elsewhere. I do want to apologize for that.

I am returning to my normal self. I am softening. Those who knew me before this year could tell you that I am typically easy-going, sensitive to the needs of others, and reflective. I apologize especially to Josephine and Justin for not taking the time to really see things from your points of view. I think UU has been very good for me in helping me really consider points of view with which I differ.

I want to be more humble. I want to spend more time being in awe. I want to be less harsh, yet still show strength when it is needed. I am losing my zealotry. I want to have more of a respectful attitude, yet I do not wish to ever become stuffy and holier than thou. I guess that is my current challenge. I no longer believe that the best path for me is to "be not of the world". I do not want to remove myself from the world as a monk does. So many times, as a TBM, I sacrificed fitting in with my non-member colleagues, so that I could have the "Spirit" with me. Now I see that such aloofness is off-putting and often interpreted as judgmental. Yet, frequently mocking and swearing and being crude (which often is the way to fit in at least among my peers here) seems at odds with humility and awe. I guess the answer is everything in moderation and as much as possible find colleagues and friends who are more into humility and awe.

Sorry for my long stream of consciousness post. I guess I am still trying to figure out how to live my life and what I value, now that I don't have a god for which to live a certain way. I do feel that I am coming back to an equilibrium for me. Sometimes it is hard to tell what parts of my personality are native to me and which parts were only in place because my TBM beliefs encouraged me to be that way. I have no particular reason to be any particular way now, so I am asking myself how do I want to be and why and what is natural for me given my biological make-up and learning history. I am discovering what is left after the anger and cynicism leaves and the former beliefs are no longer in place. The only thing I am sure of right now is I want to be humble so that I am teachable, and I want to experience awe frequently.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Turning a new leaf

I am going to resurrect this blog and let the reader know that I am now atheist.

Friday, May 12, 2006

What should non-believers do? Stay or Go

A lot of True Believing Mormons (TBM's) believe that people who no longer believe the Church is true should leave. I left immediately upon no longer believing, but there are a lot of New Order Mormons (NOM's) who no longer believe, but stay anyway for family, community, moral upbringing for their children, the feeling of elevation (AKA the Spirit), or because it is the best thing out there. I do not think that it is our place to judge, but to be understanding and let each person live according to the dictates of their own conscience as the 11th Article of Faith says.

Here are two links. The first was my short struggle about whether I would fake belief at least through my son's naming blessing. I have an advantage that most newly non-believers don't have, my wife is receptive to the idea that the Church is not true.

The second is a link to the home of New Order Mormons:

Why I left the LDS Church

[Last edited 1/28/10]

I was a very deeply spiritual person and easily moved to tears when thinking of the Savior and the sacrifices I believed he made for me and the rich blessings he bestowed upon me. I was born in the covenant to convert parents who were very active in the Church and true believers. I had a strong testimony of Joseph Smith and the restoration even before turning eight for I had recognized the joy of the Spirit and the love for mankind I felt when reading the Book of Mormon. And after turning eight, I had an experience which I considered to be a visitation of an angel.

When I was 14, my mother passed away. I felt very much alone and learned through that experience to lean on the Lord even more. I decided that I would do what was right because it was the path to happiness, not to please my dad or because of fear of punishment. I felt particularly close to Heavenly Father over the next few years, having had countless experiences of answered prayers, premonitions that were fulfilled, marvelous insights, church leadership positions, and the privilege of baptizing my brother-in-law at the age of 16. I truly felt like I had a deep and personal relationship with my Savior.

Also, at that time, I began to read a lot of church books: “The Miracle of Forgiveness”, the biography of Joseph Smith by his Mother, “The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” etc. I found that I was good at explaining gospel principles to my friends and in helping them to take full advantage of the Atonement.

Then, I became an Elder and went to BYU. I loved being able to talk about deep doctrines like Kolob and such with smart, well-read members. I took lots of religion classes and loved listening to the General Authorities speak. I then went on my mission, and had numerous wonderful experiences feeling close to the Spirit, full of faith, and exercising my priesthood to bless others. Not that all of my experiences were good. I and some of my fellow missionaries felt strongly by the Spirit and as full of confidence and faith as I have ever been that the Lord desired to heal a recent convert of mine of her endometriosis. I knew that she also desired this blessing and had faith that the Lord could do it through us. We all fasted and prayed, and when time came for the blessing came, I felt strongly impressed to cast the illness away and declare her to be healed. We gave it some time, but it did not happen. I performed mental gymnastics trying to account for this experience. We were worthy, authorized priesthood holders, who had fasted and prayed, and had unshakable faith in our Redeemer. At the time I gave the blessing, I was absolutely positive that it was the will of the Lord to heal her, right then, but maybe I had read the Spirit wrong. But, if that were the case I no longer knew when I was reading it right or not. I eventually suspected that my convert lacked sufficient faith and suggested that as a possibility to her, which deeply hurt her feelings for she felt that she did have unwavering faith. That is one of those things I wish that I could take back. I was a young, inexperienced missionary. I have been rather embarrassed about the experience ever since and have not shared it with many others. That was a trial of my faith though.

I have since had many experiences that sometimes work out and sometimes do not even when I believe every condition upon which the blessing is predicated was met. I assured myself with the knowledge that even Christ who was worthy of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost had to go without the Spirit while on the cross. While on my mission, I encountered a fair amount of anti-Mormon literature or just other concerns. I became quite good at being able to resolve people’s concerns. One advantage that the apologist (defender of the faith) has is that there is almost always some tiny hole in the anti’s argument that can be exploited by offering another interpretation of the facts and inserting faith in that tiny hole of uncertainty and possibility.

Once home from my mission, I went back to BYU and taught in the MTC. I loved thinking about the gospel and brought enthusiasm to the classroom and even came up with an “inoculation shot against anti” to shore up my missionaries as they prepared for the field. It included 5 compasses: 1) The Spirit felt in the heart, 2) Enlightenment of the mind, 3) By their fruits ye shall know them (look at what has come from Joseph Smith and how it leads us to Christ), 4) Live the principles and evaluate the consequences, and 5) the sacred experiences of using the priesthood. I told the trainees that Anti-Mormons may challenge one point or another, but you always have the other 4 pointing you in the right direction.

I continued to read church history because I could not get enough. I wanted to be close to Joseph, I wanted to learn to be like him in learning to open the windows of heaven. Shortly before getting engaged to Lilly, I became convinced that it was the will of God for us to receive the Second Comforter (a visitation by the Savior through which we make our calling and election sure) in this life if we could prepare for it. There is even an ordinance called the Second Anointing performed in the temple to prepare you and your spouse for the reception of the Second Comforter. I wanted that for Lilly and me if possible.

Now, during my course of studying church history I had discovered many things that might shake the faith of even the most faithful. These things were not written by anti’s, but in the records of the truest and most faithful associates of Joseph. I learned most of the issues that can concern Mormons about their history and the standard apologetic responses. Here is just a few of those issues:

1) The Book of Abraham is not as Joseph Smith claimed - the writings of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus. In fact, the text contains anachronisms and much of the text appears to be borrowed from other authors whom Joseph confessed to be familiar with: Swedenborg, Book of Jasher, Josephus, Thomas Dick, etc.
2) Joseph Smith had 33 wives, at least one as young as 14, two were his own teenage foster daughters, and several were concurrently married to other men, and yes there is sufficient evidence (children and statements) that he had sex with many of them.
3) The text of the Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph while burying his head in a hat with the very same peep stone he used while defrauding Josiah Stowell by claiming to be able to find buried treasure and accepting payment for those services.
4) Many of the doctrines and stories Joseph claimed were revealed to him from heaven were actually plagiarized from the writings of others that we have evidence he was familiar with: Swedenborg, the Book of Jasher, Josephus, Thomas Dick, Ethan Smith, etc.
5) Many supposedly eternal doctrines (aka unchanging truths) have been changed. For instance Brigham Young taught not only from the pulpit, but also arranged to be taught during the lecture at the veil that Adam is God the Father, the same one who sired Jesus Christ in Mary's womb, that Eve was just one of Adam's wives that he brought with him to start the human race on earth. Joseph Fielding Smith outright rejected that doctrine as false, but remember this had been taught quite clearly and unambiguously in the temple. Also the doctrine of blood atonement in which the only way to get forgiveness for certain sins is to have your life taken by church leaders who spill your blood on the ground was taught by Brigham, but is now denied.
6) The temple signs and tokens (and penalties) were lifted from the Masons. And the Masons and their signs date back to the 12th century AD not back to the building of the Jewish temples.
7) There is a history in the Church dating back to Joseph Smith in which the leaders have lied about their history and practices. Joseph "rewrites" his history several times embellishing accounts and changing the timing of things. The Church today slyly edits original quotes for its manuals to cover up the polygamy preached and practiced by its early leaders. But, worse than that, old Gordy Hinckley lied to police investigators about his involvement with Mark Hoffman and thus obstructed a murder investigation.
8) We have a lot of DNA evidence that shows that the Native Americans are not descended from Middle Eastern peoples. No archaeological support for BoM, despite what your institute teacher told you. The story of Thomas Ferguson, who was employed by the church to find archaeological support for the BoM might interest some of you as well as B.H. Roberts', a General Authority, investigation into the Book of Mormon.
9) The Church has a nasty habit of excommunicating historians for telling the true history of the Church (i.e., September Six, etc). The Church has what is known as the Strengthening Church Members Committee whose job is to collect information on and writings of dissidents.
10) There are a handful of contradictory versions of Joseph's First Vision. None of these accounts were created until years after the supposed events would have taken place. In fact, all the early accounts always say that Joseph was called to the work by an angel, no one seemed to know anything about a "First Vision" in which Joseph saw God and Jesus. In fact, the idea that God and Jesus were two separate beings never occurred to anyone, not even Joseph, until sometime after the church was established. Joseph revised the first part of the Book of Mormon to align with his new beliefs by make references to Jesus as the Son of the Living God as opposed to the "Living God". Joseph eventually abandoned his editing before he got to Abinidi's confusing speech.

Although difficult to digest at first, I found a way to become ok with every doctrine and practice, always giving Joseph the benefit of the doubt. For after all, a lot of horrible things happened in the Old Testament that supposedly were directed by God, so who was I to say that God did not command Joseph to do those things no matter how wrong it might seem to my sensibilities.

But, I remained firm and true in the faith. Then, I was assigned to home teach a young brother in our ward who had gone inactive due to some anti he had read. (He had read it in attempts to point out the error in it, because his mother had recently left the Church and he wanted to help her regain her testimony of the Church). But, he ended up being persuaded by the anti. So, I had many long discussions with him. He brought up many of those difficult behaviors and doctrines taught and practiced by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that I was already familiar with. I gave him my take on those things and how I had learned to be ok with them. We also discussed the evidence against the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham. I thought I knew all about those things and had an answer for everything, for after all, I had read all the apologetic essays at, knew all the standard responses we give to those concerns, and had become by now very good at defending the Church. However, my friend did bring some things to my attention about the Book of Abraham that I had never heard of before and therefore did not have a good explanation for. I did not quite understand the importance of what he shared with me at the time and dismissed it as some made up stuff in some anti-literature he read. My trust was in the Church and since I did not really understand his evidence, I could figuratively put it on the shelf and not worry about it. As I was oft to say, “I have plenty of questions, but no doubts”. Eventually, I just let the whole issue rest.

A few years had passed before I came across the Book of Abraham issue again, but this time I read about it from the point of view of apologists (believers who are trying to defend the church). My interest was peaked again and I decide to learn for myself what my friend was talking about so that I could help him see it from a faithful perspective. In order to do this I had to read the anti. All apologists do this so that they know what arguments and evidence they need to defend against. I eventually, got a copy of “By His Own Hand, Upon Papyrus” by Charles Larson. I was of course skeptical of the source. One can never take anything at face value. Every claim must be verified in original sources, most of which the Church has in its possession. Contrary to popular belief among the faithful, much of modern day anti is quite good at being accurate when they quote an original source. Where Mormons and non-Mormons usually differ is usually in our interpretations of the data and to whom we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Well, Larson presented a very strong case against the Book of Abraham. Most everyone (apologists and anti’s alike) who have studied this issue seriously agree that Joseph Smith did in fact have in his possession the papyri that were discovered in a museum in New York in the late 1960’s. And virtually everyone agrees that those papyri fragments have nothing to do with Abraham at least in a conventional Egyptian translation way. But, here the apologists and the anti’s split. The apologists have come up with several clever hypotheses to suggest that the Book of Abraham may be scripture even if the papyri we have don’t say anything about Abraham. They have suggested that maybe the Book of Abraham (BoA) text is encoded in the papyri, or that the BoA came from a missing portion of one of the scrolls or from different scrolls altogether, or that the BoA is simply a revelation from God and the scrolls just got Joseph thinking about Abraham in Egypt, or that Joseph’s scribes made a failed attempt to unite the BoA text with the Egyptian characters, etc. Others say that whether or not the BoA is a translation there are amazing parallels between the content of the BoA and many early traditions about the life of Abraham that were unknown before the Book of Abraham text was produced. The apologists' pose the question, "How could Joseph Smith have gotten all of these things 'right' unless they were revealed to him by God?" But, Larson goes on to show through Joseph Smith’s diaries and Joseph’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, some of which is written in his own hand, why most of the apologists’ explanations cannot work. And the rest of their theories are shown as unworkable by other authors.

I find that many of the so-called unique parallels between the BoA text and extrabiblical sources are not unique at all in that the ideas are also present in the Bible. I believe there are other parallels with books that we know Joseph Smith was familiar with like the writings of Josephus, and the Kabbalah. Remaining subtopics can be accounted for as rational inferences from what was already written about Abraham, or necessitated by Joseph's having to incorporate the facsimiles into his BoA text. The last point that I'd like to make is that the traditions about Abraham contradict each other in numerous aspects, and there is no definitive version of the story of Abraham's life, so Joseph's version does not remarkably agree with any authoritative story. When one has scores of different stories about Abraham, one's story is bound to be similar to some of them in some respects and markedly different in others.

Given all of the above there is nothing remarkable about the parallels between the BoA and these ancient texts - nothing that demands us to accept revelation as the only reasonable explanation for the parallels. Now, if we combine that with all the wealth of damning evidence against the BoA (the fact that it is not a translation, that the facsimiles were improperly restored and interpreted, that the scrolls are not old enough to have been written by Abraham, that Joseph reused characters that he translated differently elsewhere, that Joseph created Egyptian characters that don't even exist, the text contains anachronisms and incorrect reconstructions of history, and contains ideas such as intelligences that appear to be lifted from the writings of Thomas Dick and others, etc), and the apologists have nothing left to stand on. In fact there is pretty clear and damning evidence in facsimile #2, that Joseph knowingly deceived the Latter-day Saints.

I launched a six month long investigation. I read everything critical, apologetic, and whatever original sources I could get my hands on. I took no one's word for anything. If I read an article in which the author claimed anachronisms, I read books on Egyptology until I knew for myself that yes, the land of Egypt got its name from the Greeks, not from the character Egyptus as the Book of Abraham claims. I read the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, including Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, I read Ritner's actual translation of the recovered papyri, I have seen high quality copies of the papyri, read the writings of the apologists Hugh Nibley, Jeff Lindsey, Kerry Shirts, John Gee, Daniel Petersen, etc, and critics John Larsen, Kevin Mathie, John Day, etc. I have learned a lot about the ancient Egyptian religion, including Breathing Permits, Anubis, Osiris, Book of the Dead, etc.

I eventually had to conclude that the Book of Abraham is not what Joseph claimed it was, and that Joseph Smith was not a Seer or Revelator in this thing, and worse than that, a strong case can be made that he knowingly created evidence to dupe us into thinking he had the power to translate ancient records. That in turn cast doubt on everything he ever did.

Unlike other challenges to the truthfulness of the Church I had faced before, there is no hole for the apologist to exploit. The case against the Book of Abraham is air tight and bullet proof. There is no uncertainty for faith to work in; no doubt to give the benefit of. If one wants absolute proof of fraud within Mormonism, one needs to look no further than the Book of Abraham.

Yet, I believed that the Spirit had told me the Book of Abraham was exactly what Joseph claimed it to be: a translation of papyri written by the hand of Abraham; and I now had evidence to prove that it was nothing of the sort. Well, they both could not be right, so I out of necessity had to discount the one or the other.

So, I started by questioning my rational and logical analysis. I could find no possible way for Joseph to remain a true prophet, seer, and revelator and present false scripture as if it were true. And there also appeared to be no way that he did not create false scripture and pass it off as it were true. There were only two ways that it could work: 1) either Joseph Smith had been a true prophet, but was a fallen prophet by the mid 1830’s, or 2) it is ok for a prophet to write inspired fiction and pass it off as if it were historically true. Neither option appealed to me, and there is enough evidence against the historical reality of the Book of Mormon (although not as conclusive as the evidence on the BoA) that the most likely case was that he was never a prophet at all. This approach also had the advantage of resolving all those other things that Joseph did for which I had previously performed mental gymnastics to accept.

Since, the case was so solid, I next had to question all of my Spiritual experiences. I fasted and prayed to know the truth of these things. There was no doubt that I had those experiences. What was in doubt was the meaning and interpretation I had given them. It was not just a personal failure to interpret the Spirit correctly, for all the latter-day prophets and apostles presumably also believe the Spirit has told them it is what Joseph claimed it to be. I mean, it was ratified as scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price in general conference. Yet, they all were mistaken. It appears that no one can tell when the Spirit is telling them the truth or a lie. At minimum this means that the Spirit is an unreliable way to discern what is true from what is false. And now that the witness of the Spirit is suspect, what does that mean for the weight of the evidence against the church.

I found that there were other ways to account for my “spiritual” experiences other than that they were witnesses for Joseph’s prophethood. I experienced the Spirit most often as a feeling, perhaps a burning in the bosom, or the emotions of peace, love, joy, etc. We are taught that those feelings come from the Spirit, but it is entirely possible that they are created by our brains like all other emotions. And answered prayers, sometimes we get the help we desire and sometimes we don’t. It may be that the outcome would have happened regardless of whether we prayed or not. And the experience of visitations from the dead could very well be our imagination. [I know that there are faithful interpretations of these things. But, either my reasoning and evidence was flawed or my interpretation of my spiritual experiences were flawed. And reason and evidence stood up very well to my questioning. Spiritual experiences on the other hand have alternative explanations.]

And what about the reason and evidence in support of the Church, such as: the 3 and 8 witnesses, the visions that had two mortal participants seeing the same thing, the chiasms in the Book of Mormon, the “Tree of Life” stone, the fulfilled prophecy about the war that would start in South Carolina, etc. Well, in my opinion, they can’t stand up to scrutiny either. There are reasonable explanations for all of these that don’t require anything supernatural.

So, at length, I concluded that the Church was just not true despite that I really wanted it to be. I have no problem feeling what I formerly called the “Spirit,” I just no longer accept it as a reliable source of truth. In fact, psychologists have begun studying that burning in the bosom feeling we experience when we observe great acts of compassion, etc. They call it elevation. So, what to do next?

My wife knew that I knew a lot more about Mormonism than she did, and although we were both TBM (True Believing Mormon), I might have been a little more uber-TBM than she was. Occasionally, she would overhear me reacting vocally to myself over something I read of D. Michael Quinn's (a former BYU history professor), and ask me what it was. I was often reluctant to share because I was afraid that it might weaken her testimony. That holier-than-thou attitude would irritate her until I would tell her what I had just read (since she wanted to know what had caused the reaction). I would then go onto the FAIR LDS website and see if I could find some apologetic interpretation for what I had just read and then share that with my wife. Those issues did not really weaken her testimony, but gave her something to put on her shelf. At the time she felt like her testimony was kind of stagnant, because although she was reading her scriptures and "Jesus the Christ", and attending the church and the temple, none of it was really doing anything for her.

Both she and I do not like secrets. If there is information out there, we want to know it, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent. When I finally finished my 6 month long investigation into the Book of Abraham and found that for me, Joseph was guilty of fraud beyond a reasonable doubt, I knew that my integrity would not allow me to continue acting as a TBM and serving as a counselor in the Bishopric. I let go of all my mental gymnastics about the temple, the First Vision, restoration of the priesthood, the BoM, the polyandry, and Joseph marrying his own foster daughters, and let the weight of the evidence hold sway. I absolutely had to resign from my calling and quit acting like I had the priesthood, etc. My responsibilities in the Bishopric forced urgency in my situation because I could not lie and lay my hands on people's heads and set them apart, etc. I had to resign my calling and I had to do it then or not be able to live with myself. So, before I spoke with the Bishop, I told my wife what I had found out about the Book of Abraham, and how I no longer believed, and how my integrity demanded that I resign my calling, etc. She was shocked at the possibility that the BoA could be a fraud, and that my testimony that I had held to so firmly for so long was gone so quickly, but knew me well enough to know that I could not live a lie if I no longer believed. She trusted my ability to reason and knew that if I said that there was something to this, then there might be something to it. I invited her to look into it for herself, and due to her trust in me and her curiosity and my persistence she began reading some things within the week.

We discussed the possibility of being "foyer members" (you know the ones that don't participate and just come and sit out in the foyer). But, I could not bear the thought of it because I knew people would judge me, since in an instant I would go from counselor in the Bishopric to withdrawn, non-priesthood exercising member. I knew people would bug me to become more active, and I would have to listen to "Praise to the Man" and keep my mouth shut about a man who I felt deceived us all and abused his power and the trust of the people. Now, that I knew the Church was not true, I became really bothered by the homophobia, misogyny, cultural insensitivities, intolerance of open skepticism, historical cover-ups, leadership adoration, and emphasis on obedience and conformity. Furthermore, I wanted to turn my focus to figuring out my own spirituality and theology, and I saw wasting time at the LDS Church as contrary to my goals. Nevertheless, I would have continued to attend if she had wanted me to. I was the one who changed, and she meant even more to me now than she had when I believed. So, I would have done anything for us to be together, but I needed her to know that my integrity would not allow me to deceive others. Thankfully, she did not demand that I keep going.

The Saturday following conference, we talked with my wife’s mom about it. She wanted me to fast and pray, so I did, but by that point I had no faith in the Spirit. She did not understand that I had already been through all that. The next day, my wife and I met with the Bishop, I turned in my temple recommend, my bishopric books and keys to the building, caught the Bishop up on any assignments I had been working on, told him why I was leaving and that I would not be back. He was shocked, sad to hear it, but could tell my mind was made up. We hugged and that was it.

My wife continued to read and now knows just about everything I know. We resigned our memberships in October 2006, six months after I quit attending. I am so glad I have my wife as she means even more to me now than ever before. I left the Church not because it was not true (for I no longer believed that any religion was), but because I could not stand being there anymore and I no longer supported many of the things it stood for. We now attend a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. And though I do not believe in God anymore (which would require a separate explanation), I am learning how to create the feelings of elevation, transcendence, reverence and awe without a belief in the supernatural.

Dear Reader, I respect your right to believe as you wish. Leaving the church ruins a lot, and I understand that people often would rather stay content with what they have, and I can't say that I can blame them. I told the Bishop at the time that he could send over home teachers if he liked, but I would advise against trying to discuss the Book of Abraham with me, as I stand a better chance of convincing them than they do of convincing me. I had read all the apologetic essays on the Book of Abraham before I ever read any non-Church approved books and thought I had gathered from them the complete set of problems, but it was not until I read the non-Church approved books and researched all of their assertions, that I realized that I was not familiar with the half of it. I began this quest so that I could be a great apologist and help struggling members resolve their concerns. I had been good at that on my mission and when I taught in the MTC. I thought the church could stand up to any criticism, or at least that the anti's could never disprove the church was true so I would inspire faith in the space created by that ambiguity. The church does not have a banned book list so I felt free to read anti so that I could point out the flaws in their arguments. I never dreamed in a million years that it would be the anti's who were right all along.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Sincerity and openness

I admire sincerity. I am drawn to people who are earnest. My wife has told me that one of my traits that attracted her to me was my sincerity.

I am not exactly sure why I find honesty and openness so engaging, and really...intriguing. I could speculate on why I have a preference for this, but I know enough about psychology to know that I can't really know why I like what I like. I don't have access to the part of my brain that determines things like that. The best we can do is create a model as to why we and others might have the preferences we do. Our common error is to think we actually discovered why when we have only come up with a reasonable speculation. An excellent article on how we don't have access to what motivates most of our behaviors is "Telling more than we know: Verbal reports on mental processes" by Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977) in the Psychological Review, Vol 84-3, pages 231-244.

Back to the topic of sincerity. I have found many people, members and non-members, who are very sincere. I respect that. I think that honesty with ourselves is one of the ingredients of learning things as they really are. But, I think all of us come to conclusions too quickly and with too much certainty. All we really have are data points, data points which are open to many different interpretations. Data points do not become evidence until one organizes them in support for their hypothesis. But, just because data points can be shown to support one hypothesis does not mean that there is not a different hypothesis out there that the data supports equally well or better. Example: a defense attorney may use the same evidence that the prosecutor uses to reach an entirely different conclusion. What I am getting at is that if your hypothesis is that God exists, there are data points that can be used to support it, but, if your hypothesis is that God does not exist, there will be an alternative explanation for the data.

The key in determining which hypothesis is more plausible or reasonable is in asking yourself which hypothesis fits the data best. In other words, how hard is it to explain away the data (how many unlikely scenarios have to combine to be able to fit the data to the hypothesis). To do this honestly, we must start on a level playing field, without judging the case before we hear the evidence. I guess I have a problem when we adopt one hypothesis and then put on blinders so that we quit gathering evidence and start to conveniently ignore other data. We think that we have learned enough or know all that we need to know. Honestly, I think "there are more things in heaven and earth...than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy" (Shakespeare in Hamlet).

Yet, I am humble enough to admit that I could be wrong. Perhaps sincereity with certainty (if acquired appropriately) is better than sincerity with openness.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

My Perspective

I think it is helpful at the beginning of a new blog to allow the reader to understand the current world view of the blogger. This allows the reader to have some context with which to understand future posts.

I am an active, faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I feel that I have a strong, personal relationship with my Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ. I feel that I am very familiar with the doctrines of the modern Church. I have become acquainted with the challenges to the validity of the truthfulness of the Church. Some of which is still unresolved with me. I am capable of entertaining the idea that the Church is not true. I believe that it is possible to look at all the evidence, spiritual included, and come to the conclusion that the Church is not true. However, I do believe that it is possible to look at all the evidence, bar none, and arrive at the conclusion that the Church is true provided that one modifies one's understanding of a few doctrinal points. I have had to undergo several paradigm shifts to accomodate new knowledge. I am very interested to communicating with others who are believers in learning what modifications you have made to your understanding of the gospel to accomodate the difficult things.

I used to be confident in my understanding, using words like "I know" when sharing my testimony. Now I am more humble. I have faith that the feelings and impressions I have and believe to come from the Spirit, really do come from the Spirit. I have faith that the good things that happen to me in my life are answers to prayers and blessings from God. I have faith that the transformation that takes place in me is the result of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe these things while acknowledging the possibility that my perceptions and way of organizing my experiences could be mistaken.

This faith is sufficient for me to be able to give priesthood blessings, to receive what I believe to be inspiration to help me with my callings, to continue to worship in the temple and keep my covenants.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Virtue of Being Teachable

I believe that a great obstacle that stands in the way of our growth and development and our futher acquisition of knowledge is our tendency to believe we have arrived when we have barely begun our quest. I think it behooves us to delve deeper into everything that we think we know because there are often hidden treasures to discover.

One example that comes to mind is the topic of faith. Up until about 5 years ago, I did not really think a lot about faith. I had previously read Lectures on Faith given at the School of the Prophets. From that I learned that faith was a principle of action and that faith in God comes from first being taught that there is a God, having a correct understanding of His attributes and perfections, and a knowledge that the life one is persuing is in accordance with His will. I also learned that everything we do requires faith in that we have an expectation of an outcome, but not a sure knowledge.

What this blog is about is pushing against the condition I found myself in next. I was content and rested in my understanding of faith. When opportunities arose to revisit faith, I felt that I "had been there, done that". That close-mindedness kept me from learning more. Eventually, I took the time to ponder about faith again, and I recognized that another aspect of faith is looking for the positive and how it is closely related to gratitude and the two types of hope. Maybe, I'll post more on faith later.

My point is we need to guard against our own close-mindedness in which we choose not to learn more.