Sunday, July 29, 2012

FOLDED ARMS

“Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus - a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”
― Mother Teresa





Just a few months into my college career, I first heard of Elizabeth Smart, who had been abducted from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah at the age of 14 just 9 months earlier. Utah stood in shock as the events unfolded on March 12, 2003 as Smart's captors were finally arrested and she was returned to her home. The subsequent reports of her kidnapping, marriage and sexual abuse were beyond horrific. Yet, people still had the audacity to say it was a trial from god; that she would be better for having gone through it; that she will be rewarded with greater blessings in heaven. Let's pause for a moment and examine this kind of thinking.

The sentiment that more difficult trials and tribulations result in greater rewards in the afterlife has been a staple argument against natural occurrences like homosexuality as well as victims of other's actions. Mormons have told me--in person--that god makes people gay so they can have a trial like unto Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac. If they remain celibate, as god intended, they will be rewarded in heaven. What they are trying to say is that those who go through the worst experiences on earth will be vindicated and rewarded in the afterlife to make up for any "inconvenience."

Now tell me, at what point does one choose to go through such an experience? If it is not a choice then it is merely an orchestrated event spurred on by god, perhaps even indirectly, as in the case of Job. But god knew these things would happen, and allowed for such victims of fate to go through these experiences for their own good. God could have stopped it. He could have chosen to save Elizabeth Smart in the same way he can have homosexuals be born straight. It is up to his divine plan and will, so they say. Where is the justice in this? People advocating this reasoning are the same people who think god helps them pass an exam, make it to work on time, prepare a sunday school lesson, win a soccer game or find a soul mate. If this is the case, god has strange and immoral priorities. How does saving a victim of kidnapping and rape step on the free agency of the abusers, but helping you find your car keys does not?

Not only are these victims unwilling participants in a sick game, but they are supposedly rewarded more for a choice which was made for them? What if they had killed themselves instead of enduring? Well, then people would say they were tormented and justified in their suicide--who can blame them? Surely, god will take that into consideration when rewarding them in heaven anyways. This is like a parent who beats their children, arbitrarily chooses one child to beat harder than the others, and then, as if to prove their love, gives that child more cake than the others when the abuse is over. Is this love? Does this prove the child's devotion to the parent? If this makes for better people, why do all such kidnapping victims go through years of therapy to process their experience and try to have normalcy again? If this makes for better people, wouldn't we praise their kidnappers and all seek to be such lucky victims in order to attain greater blessings? Shouldn't you pray to become gay, so you can prove yourself through celibacy? Shouldn't you present yourself as an easy target for robbery or assault? Shouldn't you go the long way home, down the dark and damp alley behind the bar, instead of the well-lit sidewalk?

In the middle ages, such attitudes were common among devout Catholic monks and nuns. Suffering is a gift from god to show you the pain and suffering of Jesus, thus bringing you closer to him. There are countless stories of devout followers subjecting themselves to all manner of torture and exposure to the elements for this very reason. One monk, who's name escapes me, is reported to have built a platform on top of a pillar in the middle of a town and lived on that platform for years, braving nature and fasting and praying regularly. Most believers would see this as crazy nowadays, but it follows the same reasoning as the common religious sentiment that "god will not give you more than you can handle."

As terrible and unpleasant as Miss Smart's plight has been, there are more harrowing accounts which are supposedly for the good of the victim. In Austria, Elizabeth Fritzl was locked behind 8 doors in a dungeon for 24 years by her own father, Josef Fritzl. She was raped over 3000 times by Josef and carried 7 children, 3 of whom lived in the dungeon with Elisabeth. The only reason we even know of this occurrence is because the eldest of Elisabeth's children, Kerstin, fell extremely ill due to vitamin D deficiencies (caused by lack of sunlight and malnutrition) which caused her kidneys to fail. In an attempt to save the life of Kerstin, Josef finally succumbed to the incessant pleas of Elisabeth and took the teenage daughter to the hospital. This lead to questioning as this girl who had never been outside before had no public records, and the grandfather (also, father) gave the doctors a suspicious note from Elisabeth, who, according to Josef, had joined a cult 24 years earlier, and had occasionally dropped off children on his doorstep for him to look after. After a few days of public service announcements over the television, which Elisabeth watched from the dungeon, Josef eventually allowed her to go to the hospital in order to admit to being in a cult and to provide medical information about Kerstin. Only after securing assurance that she would never have to see Josef again, Elisabeth unveiled the most unbelievably disturbing kidnapping story I have ever heard, which you can read here.

How can a moral person say this was for Elisabeth Fritzl's good? What mansions in heaven can justify such treachery? What loving god would allow for this to go on for 24 YEARS?!? Wouldn't 24 days have been long enough to secure Josef's eternal damnation? How would an intervention have impeded on Josef Fritzl's agency or free will? What about Elisabeth's free will? This is not just god letting bad things happen to good people. No, this goes well beyond that cliche. This is the worst humanity has to offer, and god stood back with folded arms.



I wonder how many victims have never been found.
I wonder how many people are victims right now.




BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is Christopher Hitchens weighing in on Elizabeth Fritzl (Fraulein Friesel):


Here is a documentary on Elisabeth Fritzl (part 1)



Part 2:


Part 3:


Part 4:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

OUT ON A LIMB

One of the most important principles in Christianity and Mormonism is prayer. It is supposedly our direct line to god. Whenever we are in trouble or need help, just ask god. If you are ill, ask god to guide the hands of the doctors that you might be healed. If you want to know that god exists, just ask him and he will tell you himself. Let's look at some of the scriptures in the Bible and the Book of Mormon concerning prayer (emphasis added):

Matthew 21:21-22
21 Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done.
22 And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.


Enos 1:15
15 Wherefore, I knowing that the Lord God was able to preserve our records, I cried unto him continually, for he had said unto me: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask in faith, believing that ye shall receive in the name of Christ, ye shall receive it.

23 And now I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive.

35 Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock of my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen.

26 And after that he came men also were saved by faith in his name; and by faith, they become the sons of God. And as surely as Christ liveth he spake these words unto our fathers, saying: Whatsoever thing ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is good, in faith believing that ye shall receive, behold, it shall be done unto you.

20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

6 And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.

In no uncertain terms, these passages mean to tell the reader that if they ask god for something, god will give it to them. Some passages qualify it with stating that for this to work the person asking needs "faith as a grain of mustard seed" lest they should ask frivolously or for something evil. But it is clear, if you ask for something good or righteous, believing that god will answer, you will recieve it. They even give examples of this working:

30 For the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed. And if he had not had faith it would not have moved; wherefore thou workest after men have faith.

This is not mere hyperbole or metaphor, it is supposed to be literally true. If you have the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains. But this is not limited to simply manipulating inanimate objects like mountains and sycamore trees. The scriptures are also clear that through faith people can be cured of various ailments. Jesus did this numerous times, as have many prophets, according to scripture. It is even a common practice in the Mormon Church to give blessings to the sick, and I have heard many first-hand accounts of people being cured of things like cancer. Yes, CANCER.

There are, in fact, many such accounts for cripples walking, the blind receiving their sight, and tumors vanishing in a matter of days. The interesting thing is that such accounts are not limited to Christians, or even those who pray! For instance, cancer remission, although unlikely, happens regularly. As Stephen Hawking has said, the universe is so vast that improbable things happen all the time. Let's say that the chance for remission is about 1% for a particular type of cancer. The chances of an individual going into remission is very slim. But if there are 1000 people in the US with this cancer, 10 of them will go into remission naturally. Does this make it a miracle? Does it happen only to those who pray? Were the patients who went into remission the only ones who prayed? Were they the only ones with faith like unto a mustard seed? If prayer really worked in this way, why would a believer go to a doctor in the first place? Clearly god's success rate should be higher than that of a mere radiation oncologist or surgeon. If you have enough faith, you could save a lot of money from medical costs.

Remember, according to Alma 7:32 we are to ask for spiritual and temporal needs, so these are not minor cases. And this is not some ancient account by an anonymous author--this happens today! Miracles are supposed to be one of the ways to tell who is on god's side. And, allegedly, god has not ceased to be a god of miracles:

15 And now, O all ye that have imagined up unto yourselves a god who can do no miracles, I would ask of you, have all these things passed, of which I have spoken? Has the end come yet? Behold I say unto you, Nay; and God has not ceased to be a God of miracles.

It may be possible that only the truly faithful and penitent are healed "miraculously." Perhaps, cancer remission really is simply an answer to prayers. OK, then why doesn't god heal amputees? If god can move mountains, cause the blind to see, and cure cancer, surely regenerating a limb should be in the repertoire of an omnipotent being. Surely, amputees have just as much faith as cancer patients. Why such discrimination? And what about people born with down syndrome? Or an IQ of 50? Why doesn't he cure babies born with AIDS? Why is it that every legitimate and consistent cure we have is brought about through science instead of religion? If god can cure any disease, why did we have to eradicate small pox on our own?

Here is a very interesting website which explores this thought further: whywontgodhealamputees.com

A couple of side notes: As I was researching scriptures on faith and prayer, I came across the following passages in the Book of Mormon.

21 And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

I remember discussing this scripture as a teenager with my family. Even then I thought it was a bit of a contradiction. My father clarified that you cannot have faith in something that is not true, as this scripture indicates. But without knowledge how can you say something is true?  By this definition, how can you say you have faith without knowledge that it is true? Wouldn't such knowledge make faith unnecessary? I still hold it to be a contradiction.
  
42 Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope.

This is just absurd. Faith and hope are not the same thing and are not dependent or contingent on each other. One can hope that god exists, for example, without believing or having faith that god exists. You can even have faith that god exists but hope he doesn't! Besides, there are lots of things which people hope for which do not require faith. Going back to the cancer example, if the best treatments give a patient an 80% chance to survive, they can have hope that they will make it, and have science on their side, making faith unnecessary. Furthermore, faith is useless when applied to things that are likely to occur. I don't have faith that my car will start when I turn the ignition.

Faith is useless.


BONUS MATERIAL:
 
Here is a video about god not healing amputees:


Here is the Atheist Experience talking about the failure of prayer:


And one more on believing parents...

Friday, July 27, 2012

BLAME GAME

"And if there be faults [in the Book of Mormon] they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire."
--Mormon 8:17

 “I 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.”
--Joseph Smith, Introduction to the Book of Mormon

I was going to do another post critiquing the Book of Mormon, specifically the story around the Brass Plates. I have discussed this before, but there are some other aspects of the story and the prophecies contained within the plates which I wanted to address further. That is, until I found a website which did a much better job than I would have. So, instead of doing a full review, I will just use some of the points Richard Packham makes, and encourage you to check out the rest of his post. As you read these exerpts, consider which "man" is to blame for such "faults?" (links added):







Was there only one copy, and only on brass?
If the brass plates were the only copy, then by taking them Lehi would deprive the Jews of the record. (Remember that without these scriptures, a nation will perish - 1 Ne 4:13, 15) If there were other copies, why didn't Lehi try to obtain one of those, instead of getting a copy at the cost of a man's life?
Why would the records be engraved on brass plates?
Even the most important records, especially records of any length, were kept on papyrus or parchment rolls in Lehi's time. Why should this one record be different?
Why would a prominent man like Laban go out at night drinking without escort? 1 Ne 4:7-10, 19, 22
The fact that he was armed and wearing armor would indicate that it was not entirely safe to be abroad. A prudent man of his wealth and position would have been accompanied by private bodyguards.
Why would Laban's clothing not be bloody after being beheaded? 1 Ne 4:19
If it was not a bloodless beheading, Nephi would be wearing Laban's bloody clothes when impersonating him later at his home.
Did Nephi have any difficulty putting on Laban's clothes?
Nephi was unusually large in stature (1 Ne 4:31). Unless Laban was the same size, his clothing would not have fit Nephi.
How could Nephi have impersonated Laban so as to fool Laban's servants? 1 Ne 4:20-27
This is one of the many "tall tales" in the Book of Mormon.
Why would not the discovery of the naked, decapitated body of an important man such as Laban stir up an immediate search for his killer? And for the missing plates and servant?

How could the plates contain whole chapters from Isaiah that had not yet been written?
Lehi obtained the plates about 600 BC, just before the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile of the population to Babylon. Biblical scholars are almost all agreed that the present Book of Isaiah contains some writings by the prophet written pre-Captivity (up to chapter 35 or 39), but that chapters 40 to 66 could not possibly have been written before the Babylonian Captivity, since the situation described in those chapters does not reflect pre-Captivity circumstances. However, the Book of Mormon contains several whole chapters from this so-called Deutero-Isaiah, supposedly copied from the brass plates:
Isaiah 48 = 1 Nephi 20
Isaiah 49 1 Nephi 21
Isaiah 53 Mosiah 14
Isaiah 54 3 Nephi 22
Also, many individual passages from Isaiah's chapters 52 and 55 appear scattered throughout other books in the Book of Mormon.

O RLY?

Get comfy--this is a long one:

Mormons often say that there is nothing factually wrong or incorrect in the Book of Mormon. It is essentially inerrant. It must be correct in order for Mormonism to be the least bit credible. So, if someone were to examine the Book of Mormon and show something wrong, immoral or perhaps just inconsistent, that would shake Joseph Smith's claim that the Book of Mormon "is the most correct book ever written." Shall we begin?

While on my mission, one of my favorite chapters in the Book of Mormon was Alma 30. Since I was in a post-communist country we met our share of atheists (although, not as many the Cold War would have suggested), so this chapter was particularly relevant to us, as it dealt with atheism head-on. The main characters in this chapter are Korihor (anti-Christ), and Alma (High Priest, Chief Judge, and Governor). Before we get into their dialog, let us first examine why Korihor was arrested and brought to Alma in the first place.

The people of Ammon were living in a period of peace for about a year and a half when Korihor comes onto the scene. According to verse 3, the people "did observe to keep the commandments of the Lord; and they were strict in observing the ordinances of God, according to the law of Moses; for they were taught to keep the law of Moses until it should be fulfilled." This will become very important later on, but for now just note that they are following the law of Moses.

Moving on, in verse 6 Korihor starts to preach that there is no god and that Christ will not come (keep in mind this is before Christ's birth). Verse 7 says, "Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds." Oh really?

,___, 
{o,O}
|)``)
-"-"-
O RLY?

The Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 13:6-11) clearly states that "If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend" tries to lead you away from god "thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people." Therefore, either the people of Ammon are not following the law of Moses as claimed, or Joseph Smith did not know that particular part of the law. In either case, the Book of Mormon is wrong in this instance. In fact, the whole concept of religious freedom and freedom of speech described in this chapter do not reflect the law of Moses at all, but rather the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which Joseph Smith was certainly aware of since he was born just a couple decades after its ratification. Freedom of speech and religion were among the most important aspects of the Revolutionary War, because, well, they were revolutionary concepts! So it is not at all surprising that Joseph Smith would incorporate these ideas while being ignorant of the law of Moses.

Let's move on to Korihor's arguments against god and the coming of Christ. Verses 13-15 pretty much just say it is foolish to believe in the traditions of our fathers and no one knows what is to come--straightforward and actually good advice. However, Korihor makes a fatal mistake by saying that you can't know of something you do not see. But let's assume that this is a reference to the scientific method and demonstrating things through empirical evidence. Then I would agree.

In verse 16 he even says that such a belief is the result of "frenzied mind," meaning that if you believe in god you are crazy. Some atheists have made this claim, but I am of the opinion that most people believe through indoctrination rather than psychosis. But still, the ancient Jews didn't really know about psychology and there are many scriptures which describe mental illnesses as demon possession (more on this later).

Verse 17 describes Nihilism which, according to my mission president's wife, is the inevitable conclusion of atheism, which she based on this scripture. I have refuted this before, so I won't do it here, but suffice it to say atheism and Nihilism are not the same thing.

In verses 19-21 Korihor goes to a couple new cities where they arrest him and cast him out for his blasphemy. This, of course, stands against the idea of freedom of speech described earlier.

Verse 22 begins the rather brief dialog between Korihor and a priest named Giddonah. The priest asks Korihor why he is trying to take away the happiness people get from their beliefs (a common question asked of atheists). Korihor's response is that the traditions are used by those in power to subjugate the common folk. As compelling as religious corruption is, it is essentially irrelevant to atheism.

Continuing, in verse 25 Korihor says something very interesting, "Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents." He is refuting the idea of the Fall of Man and Original Sin. Now, most Mormons disregard Original Sin, but the Fall of Man is still widely believed. In another post I may address the immoral nature of the Fall of Man, but for now I will just point out that the concept of the Fall of Man and Original Sin did not come about until early Christians tried to interpret the Creation account in Genesis. So it seems odd that a group of Jews living in America before the birth of Jesus would have any such concept. Also, at no point does anyone in this chapter refute this claim, thus implying that the people of Ammon did believe that the sins of the fathers carry on to the children.

Well, the priest never responds to Korihor, but instead sends him to the Chief Judge, Alma. Keep in mind that so far Korihor's only crime was saying there is no god in a country where it is not a crime to say there is no god. In verse 31 he continues to say that the priests are suppressing the people through their traditions and in verse 32 Alma finally cuts him off. In verses 32-35 Alma goes off on a rant saying that the priests do not get any money from the people for their work. But this has nothing to do with atheism, so I don't see why Korihor would find it particularly relevant to continually condemn someone for being paid to preach. This is clearly a jab at churches who employ paid clergy; a practice which the Mormon Church very openly condemns, and also takes great pride in their own pro-bono Bishops and Stake Presidents. Again in verse 35 Alma makes it clear that people who believe in god are happy, so why take that away?

Verses 37-39 establish that Korihor does not believe in god and Alma does (I guess for clarity). In verse 40 we have an interesting reversal of an argument against god. Alma says, "And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only." I have heard theists use this argument many times. It is completely stupid. Belief in god is active. One needs a reason to believe in god--lacking such a reason leaves one without belief. This should be Korihor's main argument, but he's carried up with irrelevant arguments about paid clergy. Doesn't seem genuine to me.

In verses 41-42 we see another very common Christian argument that "there are no atheists." It is presumed that everyone ultimately knows god exists--atheists are just in denial. Alma takes this concept to the next level by saying "I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit." This goes back to the concept of demon possession explaining things like mental illness. Now it is being used to explain disbelief. An interesting idea, except for the whole concept of FREE AGENCY, a basic doctrine of Mormonism. If Korihor is possessed by Satan, how can he be held accountable for his actions? I will return to this later.

In verse 43 Korihor says the most ignorant thing imaginable, and this is really the main reason this story seems made-up by a believer: "If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words." The old tired argument of showing a sign... A sign would not prove the existence of god, plain and simple. If Alma did something miraculous, all it would prove is that Alma can do something which Korihor can not explain. How would that prove anything? Later in the chapter Korihor receives a sign and instantly believes in god. This is ridiculous. Signs prove nothing. How many ailments has Rev Benny Hinn "cured?" How many Pentecostals have spoken in tongues? How many people have found their car keys just in time to make it to work? How would any of this prove the existence of anything supernatural?

Alma responds to Korihor's request for a sign by using some of the most common logical fallacies used by theists today. First Alma cites "of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee." This is a classic argument from popularity--this many people can't be wrong, right? The popularity of a view has no bearing whatsoever on it being true (i.e. "the earth is flat"). Next Alma uses the Argument from Creation (i.e. "God of the Gaps") which I have addressed many times and have shown it is nothing more than an argument from ignorance. Your lack of knowledge proves nothing.

In verses 45-47 Alma and Korihor have a back-and-forth where Alma gives Korihor one last chance to accept god. And in verse 48 Korihor responds, "I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe." This is kind of confusing, but I think that he is trying to make a distinction between atheism and agnosticism. At any rate, the two are not mutually exclusive, so it is irrelevant to Korihor's piss-poor argument for atheism.

In verses 49-50 Alma finally gives Korihor a sign by making him unable to speak. An interesting twist and likely meant to be poetic given that Korihor used his voice to blaspheme against god. But as I explained above, signs or miracles do not prove that god exists. The only conclusion that could be drawn is that Alma can make people dumb by uttering some words, which says nothing about the process by which the sign came about. Without explaining how god made Korihor dumb, or that god actually did it, it is nothing more than a magic trick. This is, of course, assuming that this happened at all.

In verse 52 Korihor writes a response to being struck dumb, "I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God." This verse is another reason I cannot take this story seriously. Naturally, it feeds into the concept that Korihor knew that god existed all along, not to mention that he buys into the sign hook, line and sinker. How does he know that only god could do this to him? How does this prove that Alma is using the power of god? Perhaps Alma is a necromancer or a witch as described in the Bible. Nothing about Korihor's conversion seems genuine, and to me this is exactly what someone might write if they were trying to assuage nay-sayers as they begin a new religion. "I can show you a sign from god, but you aren't going to like it." This plays on the same fears as threats of Hell and eternal torture. Pure hucksterism.

In verse 53 Korihor further explains that "the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel." Assuming this actually happened, how can Korihor be accountable for saying there is no god? AN ANGEL TOLD HIM SO. If it were possible for the devil to do such a thing, how can anyone rely on any miracles or signs or visions or dreams or anything supernatural? How would you know it isn't Satan? There is a Mormon legend that if you are approached by an angel you should ask him to shake your hand. If the angel declines, it is of god; but if it accepts, it is of Satan since they envy our bodies and wish to touch us (creepy). But how do you know that that is true? And wouldn't Satan and his minions know this? How can a thinking person take this seriously?

From a legal stand point, the real question becomes how Alma can ignore the law of Moses in this case. Let's suppose that the freedom to believe there is no god and freedom of speech were overstated at the beginning of the chapter. This would give Alma a legal basis to hold Korihor captive, as he had violated the law of Moses. If this were the case, then Alma should not have given Korihor a sign, but rather he should have killed him as the law clearly states. Since he did not do this, and the beginning of the chapter emphasizes freedom of speech and religion, one can only assume that they were not really following the law of Moses as described in verse 3. Either way this chapter contradicts itself.

The rest of the story describes Korihor's life as an outcast and he eventually is "trodden down" by other people and dies a beggar. Charming.

So to recap, the people of Ammon are following the law of Moses even though it appears more like the US constitution; Korihor, who is arrested for using freedom of speech as outlined in their law (of Moses?) is the worst representation of an atheist ever; and Alma's proofs of god are extremely weak, he has no legal basis to hold Korihor captive, and instead of adhering to the law of Moses concerning blasphemy and apostasy, he makes Korihor dumb which will ultimately lead to his death.

There is one more point I want to make. At the end of Korihor's conversation with Alma, he says that as he went around telling people that there is no god, he began to believe it himself. This is probably the only thing of value in this chapter. This is a well known psychological concept and can be applied to any belief system. If you keep telling yourself it is true, you can convince yourself it is true. I wonder how many theists have done this to convince themselves that god exists...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

ROCKET SURGERY

“A little pornography may not only lead to child and spouse abuse, but it slowly sucks out the marrow of self-esteem”
--Neal A Maxwell (in LDS Conference Report, Oct. 1992, 91; or Ensign, Nov. 1992, 67 ).






A lot has changed since Mr. Maxwell made that comment in 1992. We have better cars and Google, not to mention earth-tones are more fashionable than neon. The wide spread use of violent video games has caused a bit of a stir, yet, no one but concerned housewives and politicians appealing to lobbyists seem to think it leads to street violence. In fact, the ever-widening acceptance and general use of such games makes research in this area very compelling. Violent games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto have become so widespread that if the claims had any bearing at all, we should expect to see much higher crime rates. But, in fact, crime rates are down!

A similar case has been made against the use of pornography. Social conservatives like Fundamentalist Christians and Mormons have claimed that viewing pornography leads one to sexual violence, including rape. Much of the early research on this was spurred by various criminals who claimed to view pornography, such as the case of Ted Bundy. Here is a report on Bundy's final interview where he claims pornography lead him to violence.




Very compelling, but it is true? Is it consistent with current research? Not really. Let me explain by using research from BYU's own research department.

Early research had mixed results in showing a connection between viewing violent pornography and sexual assault. An article published in 1988 stated, "It is hypothesized that the specific fusion of sex and violence in some pornographic stimuli and in certain belief systems may produce a propensity to engage in sexually aggressive behavior." Even the most convincing studies only showed a correlation between violent pornography and self-reported likelihood of rape. This seems intuitive: those who like violence will like violent porn. Similarly, other studies show a correlation between those who view child pornography and those who molest children. But again, these studies fail to conclusively show that people who sexually assault others do so because of viewing violent or child pornography. In other words, there seems to be some kind of relationship, but it is too early to tell exactly what that relationship means other than indicating one's inate sexual preferences. But let's say for a moment that it were true that viewing violent or child pornography leads to assault. That would mean that anyone who views it will be predisposed to offend. Does this happen? Well, BYU's website didn't have any studies on this specifically, but there are studies elsewhere which have tried this method on homosexuals in order to change their sexual orientation. And every single attempt failed. So, it seems that the claim that viewing particular forms of pornography will lead to like behaviors has no basis.

In fact, there seems to be evidence that the rate of rape decreases as circulation of pornography increases, as shown in this 1988 article. As well as in this article (the link seems to be broken, but BYU's website still has the abstract available): Kimmel, M.S.; Linders, A. (1996). Does Censorship Make a Difference? An Aggregate Empirical Analysis of Pornography and Rape. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality.

Interestingly, Utah has the highest use of pornography and one of the lowest rates of rape. But again, this relies mostly on corollary evidence; as Penn and Teller put it, "it could easily be a coincidence."

So, to recap, there is some evidence which suggests that viewers of violent pornography will act out violently, but there is no evidence that it is the pornography that causes the violence. And there is no evidence whatsoever that nonviolent pornography leads to violence of any kind. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case, especially with regards to violence against and general attitudes towards women. So, it seems that Mr. Maxwell is mistaken when he says that pornography leads to "child and spouse abuse." It is also noteworthy that many of the studies I referenced from BYU's own website were conducted several years prior to Maxwell's statement in 1992. Furthermore, Maxwell is championed by Mormons as a successful scientist and doctor, yet he failed to do his own scientific research before making a bald assertion concerning social behaviors over the pulpit.

The Mormon Church's attitude on pornography has changed somewhat since Mr. Maxwell's statement, as shown by Dallin H. Oaks' article on lds.org. Oaks clarifies:

"Brethren, you have noticed that I am not discussing the effects of pornography on mental health or criminal behavior. I am discussing its effects on spirituality—on our ability to have the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord and our capacity to exercise the power of the priesthood."

It seems that the Church is finally abandoning the claim that pornography is harmful in any real or tangible sense. This shift of focus seems to indicate that the only perceived harm caused by pornography is spiritual regression, which is not only immeasurable and, therefore, irrelevant to science, but would only apply to Mormons themselves. Although, many still advocate that pornography damages families and leads to divorce. I couldn't find anything conclusive on BYU's website on divorce rates and pornography, but we can imagine quite easily what would happen if a man were to be caught by a wife who believes pornography ruins families and leads to divorce... Besides, even if such a correlation were shown, we still wouldn't be able to say that divorces are caused by pornography, as opposed to, say, a difference of opinion in sexual kinks.

There are a lot of reasons why a married man might view pornography. Perhaps he really doesn't love his wife anymore. Maybe he is bored with their routine. Maybe his sex drive is greater than hers. Or maybe he just likes it and doesn't see any harm in it. All of these seem consistent with the data and could easily cause a rift in a marriage where the wife disagrees. At worst, pornography seems to be a symptom of a much deeper marital disease--conflicting values. As with violent video games, if pornography really did lead to divorce, then we should expect to see more divorces, since studies show that 70% of ALL MEN view pornography. Not to mention 31% of women.

I looked for information on BYU's website about porn addiction, but couldn't find anything. It seems that the evidence for such an addiction is about as substantiated as the claim that viewing pornography leads to rape. In order for something to be classified as an addiction it has to actually cause harm. Without any supporting evidence that pornography (or even masturbation) is harmful to anyone, in any way whatsoever, how can it be addictive? You can make a better case for the addictiveness of food than pornography, since over-eating leads to obesity which increases the risk of heart disease, among other things. Given that ACTUAL SCIENCE shows that pornography does not seem to be anymore addictive than sex itself (which is a natural drive, like sleeping, eating, and flexing in front of the mirror), it doesn't lead to violence, and it generally improves men's views on women's rights (all of which I have shown above through BYU's own website), why do people still post crap like this?





Lastly, here is a quote from Former Attorney General Joycelyn Elders, who said, "Masturbation never gave anyone an STD, it's never gotten any girl pregnant, and it's never made anybody go crazy. And you always know you are having sex with somebody you love." Mrs. Elders was removed from her post as Attorney General in 1994 when she spoke out against "Abstinence Only" education programs.

BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is an ex-Mormon couple discussing pornography (Episode 1):


 Episode 2:


Episode 3:


Episode 4:


Episode 5:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

STRANGER THAN FICTION

 "Without a measureless and perpetual uncertainty, the drama of human life would be destroyed."
--Winston Churchill  




There is no doubt that some people find meaning and purpose in their lives through religion. I have even met people who don't believe in their religion, but chose to follow it anyway for this very reason. Beyond the obvious social benefits and support that religion gives, the "big questions" which religion attempts to answer (i.e. "Why are we here?" "Where are we going?" etc.) can also give people purpose. For example, believing that your actions in this life will affect the type of life you get in the next can be a motivational factor for doing good. Although, I would argue there are better reasons.

This is one of the main principles for many of the Eastern religions which employ reincarnation and Nirvana. Many of these religions claim some kind of hierarchy within the animal kingdom, yet I never see them proselytizing to goats, field mice, wombats, fish or spider monkeys. It makes you wonder why humans are so special that we are the only animals with knowledge of the effect our actions might have on reincarnation. As PETA says, "Rats are people, too."

Besides, how exactly does an animal like a badger do something bad? They are instinctually ill tempered. Is that their lot? Does being a good badger simply mean being a prick? If so, can the same be applied to people who are justifiably upset and assault some one? Would this make aggravated assault permissible under some circumstances? Who decides? Fate? God? A jury of peers so stupid they couldn't come up with an excuse to get out of jury duty? I digress.

The point is, many people have a hard time seeing the point of living if their religion isn't true. For some, discovering their religion is false means suicide, but for most they just see life as being pointless, and anything becomes permissible (i.e. Nihilism). Of course, religion is not the only reason to do good things, let alone the only reason to live. But still, the prospect of life without god can be bleak for some, and people often ask atheists why they continue living if life is meaningless.

Well, for starters, even if life is essentially without purpose or meaning, that is not the same thing as saying life is not worth living. Family, friends, movies, fly-fishing and reveling in the misery of others can all be reasons to stick around. Naturally, those would apply to me as well (except for the fly-fishing, of course). But ultimately the reason I "stick around" is simply curiosity.

Growing up I believed in Mormonism implicitly. It had to be true--all of it. I couldn't see a way for it not to be. I knew what my life had in store for me; I knew Christ would come again; I knew the apocalypse was inevitable. Now that I don't "know" those things, I see the world as much more interesting and mysterious. At one point I even used the argument that god will not allow global warming to destroy us because of his promise after the Great Flood, and that the Second Coming of Christ would happen before such an event, anyway. Similar to this gentleman here:


While I am still skeptical of mankind's effect on global warming (which is not to say we shouldn't do anything about it), I am certainly open to the possibility of mankind destroying itself by accident or neglect. Without the certitude that god will stop Iranian terrorists from starting a nuclear war and killing everyone on earth before Christ returns, humanity has become better than television. We really don't know if North Korea will finally create a missile capable of reaching US soil. We don't know if Muslims will take over Europe, as they have tried several times, and as some are trying now. We don't know if American Democracy will fail, and if Obama really is trying to convert us to a Socialist Regime (OK, that's a bit of a stretch). But still, in a hundred years, who knows? A thousand years?

In 50 years, will Christ return? Will the Jewish Messiah finally come? Will everyone on earth convert to Islam or die by the hands of terrorists? Or, is religion merely our first attempt at science and philosophy? Will atheists outnumber Christians in America?

What about scientific advances? Will we ever cure cancer? Is stem cell research the key to fighting HIV/AIDS? Is there life outside of our solar system? What about space travel? Will Utahns ever be able to buy alcohol on Sunday? Will the government stop funding "abstinence only" education? Will the Boy Scouts break free from the Mormon Church and finally allow gays and atheists in their ranks, like the Girl Scouts? Will my gay friends ever get married? Will the Seahawks ever win the Super Bowl?

The human drama is infinitely more interesting and compelling when we acknowledge our solitude, and, hopefully, our solidarity. Uncertainty coupled with a finite existence makes life infinitely more worthwhile. How much worse would the first Act of Hamlet be if you already knew the end of Act III. What if some one told you that Bruce Willis was a ghost before you saw the Sixth Sense? Or that Darth Vader was Luke's Father? The uncertainty of life adds suspense unmatched by any TV drama or cliffhanger commercial break. This includes Heroes and 24.


I don't know what will happen in the next 50 years, but I'm dying to find out.



BONUS MATERIAL:

Here is the Atheist Experience discussing life's meaning:


And one on Nihilism:


One more on "living your life:"



Saturday, July 21, 2012

FRIENDS IN MISERY

Last summer I posted a bunch of statistics about religious growth trends and countered the idea that Mormonism is the next "Great World Religion." In light of the recent shooting in Colorado during the premiere of "The Dark Knight Rises," and the subsequent finger-pointing as to who is to blame for such a mind-numbingly violent act, I am going to continue my discussion of social trends, as well as prejudice against non-believers.

First, let's start with the opportunism of Evangelical Christians. The Colorado shooting is only the most recent exploitation of tragedy used to fill the pews of churches. Pretty much any shooting will get this kind of response, but the interesting thing about the man from Colorado is that he is a devout, active Christian. So, when evangelists like Rick Warren and politicians like Rep. Louie Gomert say the attacks are caused by trends of declining religious devotion, the rise of atheism, liberalism, the ACLU, evolution, gays, or anything else they don't like, one has to wonder if there is anything they won't say to gain supporters (read "money"). Disgraceful.

Prejudice against non-believers has been a religious staple since the Dark Ages; in fact, that was one of the key characteristics of the Inquisition. Suppressing nay-sayers is one of the ways tyrants maintain power. If you can control the masses so that they only agree with you, while simultaneously villainizing the opposition, even if someone challenged you, the masses would remain loyal to you. During the McCarthy Era of the 50's, Communists were villainized in this way. It wasn't about their politics--they were morally bankrupt and evil.

Today, Atheists are the new villains. According to recent polls, Atheists are as trusted in our society as rapists. Think about that for a second. In our society, many people equate those
who don't believe in god with those who forcibly have sex with other people. This reveals amazing prejudice! I have touched on morality before, and have shown how a belief in god is not necessary to be a good person, and, yet, a huge chunk of our society seems to think Atheists are as evil as rapists.

It is true that Atheism is on the rise. In fact, according to a recent article in USAToday, non-believers have reached 19% in America, which makes it the second largest minority in the US, after Catholics (larger than Baptists, Jews, Mormons, Gays, Blacks, etc., all of whom get more respect and representation in politics). It is also true that this poses a threat to religious leaders and their ability to fill the coffers. Hence the opposition.

Another reason for the alarm theists have concerning the rise of Atheism is that other surveys show that atheists know more about religion than religious people do--even about their own religion. So, some postulate that as our society becomes more educated, and information becomes more readily available (via the internet), fewer young people will buy what pastors and priests are selling. As a result we will likely see an increase in the attacks against atheists and non-believers proportionate to the decrease in religiosity. Afterall, desperation makes people say and do incredibly stupid things.



BONUS MATERIAL:

Just listen to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell talking about 9/11:


Here is Pat Robertson exploiting the earthquake in Haiti:


For shame.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

DEAFENING SILENCE

"The evidences which this generation have of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and of the existence of the plates, are far greater than the evidences which they have for the truth of any of the books of the Bible."
--Orson Pratt

"Pics or it didn't happen."
--Facebook colloquialism





Imagine a battle field with millions of combatants, 2 million of whom are already dead. Men, women, and even children are armed to the teeth with swords, shields and armor. As the battle wages, every single person is killed except for 100 of the strongest warriors on both sides. Think of the carnage strewn across the field. Millions of bodies clad with heavy military gear baking in the sun. The last hundred or so continue to fight until only their commanders are left. One commander beheads the other and he slumps to the ground in exhaustion. Imagine this is in a children's book.

This is the story of the Jaredites as described in Ether 15, in the Book of Mormon. It sounds over the top; but is that enough to dismiss it? After all, the story of D-Day at the start of WWII is also pretty over the top and equally gory. So, how would you determine if the Jaredites really did kill each other in this way?

Before I get into this by way of archaeology, I want to recap a previous post where I discussed the argument: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." I qualified it by adding: "Except when you should find evidence." I also want to touch on something from a Mormon apologist website, fairlds.org, where they mention that archaeological findings cannot be used to prove stories mentioned in the Bible or the Book of Mormon. I agree; New York is not evidence of Spiderman. But, by the same token, contrary evidence suggesting that New York did not exist at the same time as Spiderman would call the historicity of the comics into question (oh ya, I went there). Therefore, while I agree that archaeological evidence is not enough to say with certainty whether the Jaredite story is true, we can use it to determine the likelihood of it happening, and whether archaeology supports the story, or gives reason to withhold belief until further evidence is presented. 

In the case of the Jaredites, Ether (the author of the story) reports that nearly 2 million people died before the final battle. This means that if the story is true, somewhere on the American continents is an old battle field with piles of dead bodies, or perhaps a mass grave which would put the Nazi's to shame. Also, each of the combatants (men, women and children) were equipped with weapons and armor. So, somewhere nearby should be a cache of this gear, unless it was stolen by another tribe. That's a lot of gear. Millions of swords and armor. And in Ether 7:9, these swords are described as being "made out of steel." So, to recap, if the Jaredite story is true, we should find millions of bodies and millions of steel swords and armor.

If such a cache were found, it would likely be the archaeological find of the century, as it would completely change our current understanding of the archaeological record of North and South America. Not to mention, it would give credence to the claims of the Book of Mormon. As fairlds.org points out, it would not be conclusive evidence, but it would certainly support the claims nonetheless.

Currently, archaeology shows that Native Americans did not have steel, or even iron swords. A few tribes have been known to dabble with copper. But this is not consistent with the claim that the Jaredites used a furnace to smelt millions of iron and steel swords. In fact, no steel has ever been found in the Americas dating before Columbus--centuries after the Book of Mormon is said to have been written (2200 BC - 400 AD). We have iron from every other colonized continent in the world from roughly that same time period, but nothing from America. This is peculiar since iron and steel erode very slowly.

The earliest known use of iron was around 2000 BC, but mass use didn't start until 1200 BC in select areas. And we have archaeological evidence of this. And yet nothing turns up anywhere on the American continents for at least another 2500 years. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Native Americans are among the few civilizations who did not go through the iron age--let alone used steel (this is one reason the Europeans described them as "savages"). All weapons found so far have been made of either wood, stone or animal bone; which, aside from the stone, deteriorate much more quickly that metal. How can this be? Perhaps a better question is, "How can this be if the Book of Mormon is true?" Is god hiding the evidence? Is he purposely making it look like the Book of Mormon isn't true just to try your faith (similar to Young Earth Creationists and Dinosaur fossils)? Does this make any sense?

The fact is, there is virtually no archaeological evidence supporting the Book of Mormon stories; yet, if the Nephite, Lamanite, and Jaredite civilizations were as vast as described, then we should find considerable evidence. I have been focusing primarily on the Jaredites, steel, and iron, but there are other similarly unsupported claims in the Book of Mormon, as outlined in this wiki-link, which says:

"Critics and supporters disagree as to whether archaeological findings support or disprove the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Some Mormon archaeologists and researchers claim various archaeological findings such as place names, and ruins of the Inca, Maya, Olmec, and other ancient American and Old World civilizations as giving credence to the Book of Mormon record. Critics and non-Mormon archaeologists disagree with these conclusions, arguing that the Book of Mormon mentions several animals, plants, and technologies that are not substantiated by the archaeological record between 3100 BC to 400 AD in America, including the ass, cattle, horses, oxen, domesticated sheep, swine, goats, elephants, wheat, barley, silk, steel, swords, scimitars, chariots and other elements. Further, scientists note that genetic studies show that Amerind peoples are most likely of Asiatic origin,which appears to conflict with the Book of Mormon account of their ancestry. Mormon archaeologists deal with the genetics problem in a variety of ways."


To me this is very telling; but in an effort to be fair, I have to admit that it does not necessarily mean Mormonism is false. But it does seem unlikely, and until supporting evidence emerges, belief in Mormonism should be withheld.

As I see it, the evidence so far seems consistent with the contrary claim, that the Book of Mormon was written by a man who knew little to nothing of the ancient Native Americans, and lied about having an ancient record with a divine means of interpreting it. Furthermore, to claim that ancient Native Americans had access to advanced technology (i.e. smelting iron and steel) without any evidence, is like claiming Australian Aboriginals had sports cars and Internet before the English discovered them. Pics or it didn't happen.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

STRAIGHT-AND-NARROW MINDED

I like debates. I like listening to them, and, on occasion, even participating. It is a great forum for people to express opposing ideas in a civilized manner. The problem, though, is that many of the opportunities I have to debate is with people I care about--especially family. I try my best to distinguish between arguing against an idea and a person, but this can be difficult. Sometimes it is exhausting. And sometimes it comes from the other side... But still, debating significant issues is important, even if things get heated.

I recently engaged in a conversation with several family members at once about gay marriage. I knew going into it that I would be a lone wolf, but I presented an argument which I think most people would agree with--even if they are against gay marriage. Basically the argument goes like this: All arguments against gay marriage seem to be rooted in religious beliefs; therefore, from a legal standpoint, denying gay marriage to those who do not share your religious beliefs is an unjustified moral imposition, which is both immoral and a violation of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. In other words, you have no right to deny someone else something based solely on your religion. I also gave a few examples of moral impositions, like Muslim anti-blasphemy laws being extended to non-Muslims and resulting in murder. I think most moral, thinking people will acknowledge the strength of this argument.

By this point in the conversation, at least one person was willing to see my point, and he and I pretty much agree on the moral implications of pushing religious beliefs onto other people. However, he did make one point which I don't feel I addressed very well at the time, and I wish to do so here. He said, "Is it OK for a society to want to promote a particular ideal?" My response was simply: "Yes." But having considered it more, I would qualify it a little. In order for a society to promote one ideal over another, which would grant privileges to one group and deny them to another group (i.e. heterosexual marriage vs gay marriage), they would first need to demonstrate that heterosexual marriage is better than alternatives, or that the alternatives are harmful to society. If they could do this, then it would venture out of the realm of a imposing religious views on to other people, and could then have a legal basis. But this has not yet happened! Therefore, in the specific case of gay marriage, I would have to tell him that it does not qualify, because the only reasons for such an ideal are religious. Besides, lots of religious people are OK with gay marriage--even Mormons!

I read a recommended article concerning the Mormon Church's views on gay marriage, and at one point they cite a sociologist, David Popenoe, who claims that homosexual homes are detrimental to the development of children. He justifies this claim by describing gender roles:

"The complementarity of male and female parenting styles is striking and of enormous importance to a child’s overall development. It is sometimes said that fathers express more concern for the child’s longer-term development, while mothers focus on the child’s immediate well-being (which, of course, in its own way has everything to do with a child’s long-term well-being). What is clear is that children have dual needs that must be met: one for independence and the other for relatedness, one for challenge and the other for support."

This is not a new argument, but it is still prevalent within conservative circles, so it should be addressed. Notice that at no point does he explain why gender roles are important, or how they actually benefit the children. He simply asserts it. He does not address the contrary claim that these roles (long-term and short-term needs) can be met through a homosexual couple. Why is it necessary for those needs to be met only by a man and a woman, respectively? Can the woman in a heterosexual couple be the bread-winner and the man stay at home? If so, why not two women, or two men? I know it is very difficult to study these things and it is one of the challenges social scientists face, as it is challenging to isolate variables in a social context. But it is important because failure to do so leaves a lot of room for personal views and biases to seep into the studies.

When you look at what every major psychological association in the USA says about homosexuality (i.e. the American Psychological Association), the idea that heterosexual couples are better for children than homosexual couples seems to be questionable. I have touched on this before, so I won't go into detail. But the gist is that homosexuality does not cause dysfunction in the individual, and homosexuals can lead normal, happy and healthy lives. How can this be if some sociologists say that gay couples are harmful to children? This is a major conflict between scientific fields. The psychological research is well founded, and seems to coincide with my own experience with gays, while the sociological evidence being presented against gay marriage from a few individuals seems to rely almost entirely on correlation (which is not causation). So, I see no reason aside from religious convictions to think gay marriage is harmful. Therefore, I still hold that denying gays the right to marry is a moral imposition.



BONUS MATERIAL:

 Here are a few clips from the Atheist Experience concerning Gay Marriage:




Continued:



One more: