Monday, September 29, 2014


"God, Satan, Paradise and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith. I recall it vividly. I was at school in England by then. The moment of awakening happened, in fact, during a Latin lesson, and afterwards, to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down. I remember feeling that my survival confirmed the correctness of my new position."
--Salman Rushdie

"I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves."
--Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism)

In some religions there is a subtle but significant difference between doctrine and cultural norms. For instance, it is common for Hindus to abstain from eating animal products as they tend to view the practice as cruel. But this is not a hard-line rule as many Hindus still choose to eat meat. It seems that for some Hindus it is a matter of upbringing and what is common in the surrounding culture rather than religious beliefs. It is rare for individuals to challenge religiously-inspired cultural norms, even if such norms are not strictly doctrinal.

A common practice within Mormonism--even among my own family--is to abstain from caffeinated soda. This is a practice thought to be a logical extension from Mormon scripture which states that one should not drink "hot drinks" (i.e. "coffee or black tea"). The reason for such a prohibition is often expounded upon by members and church leaders, but to my knowledge the church has never officially explained the reasons god would even care about such a thing.

Nonetheless, it is generally accepted among Mormons that since both coffee and black tea contain caffeine (a slightly addictive stimulant) that this commonality must have something to do with their prohibition. Further more, other drinks which also have caffeine must be similarly discouraged by god, therefore one should also abstain from caffeinated sodas. This hypothesis was reinforced in the 90's when the then-president of the Mormon church Gordon B. Hinckley did not deny that the church discourages the consumption of caffeinated soda during an interview on 60 Minutes.

Despite the fact that church leaders often encourage such extrapolation of commandments (at least when it leads to even more conservative practices, like many Mormons who don't view PG-13 movies when the church only discourages watching R-Rated movies) in 2012 the Mormon church sent out a press release to clarify that caffeinated sodas are not explicitly prohibited by the church. As one might suspect, this pronouncement caused a stir among members and many people began to ask follow up questions about how this will change things for Mormons in general and the various church functions and institutions, most notably church owned universities and schools.

When asked how this would affect the largest of the Mormon schools, Brigham Young University, the response was that there was "no demand" for caffeinated soda on campus, therefore the local vendor who stocks the university's vending machines with non-caffeinated soda upon the request of BYU dining services--not the university administrators or the church--would continue to do so.

Is it true, though, that there is no demand for caffeine on campus? I, for one, would often drink Mt. Dew or Dr Pepper while attending BYU. I did most of my studying at home, but I knew many people who would bring caffeinated soda with them while they studied on campus.

One does not need to take my word for it. Just last year an incident occurred which illustrates my point splendidly. The company which stocks BYU's vending machines accidentally put caffeinated Coke Zero in a machine in the Brimhall Building on campus. It did not take long for word of the error to spread among students via social media, and within hours, all of the caffeinated soda was snatched up. Keep in mind that Coke Zero is among the least popular flavors of Coke. But this did not matter to those seeking caffeine on a campus which systematically limits its use.

There is also a student-run online service called Caffeine On Campus (I'm not sure if this is still active) which allows students to order any caffeinated beverage they like and have it hand-delivered to them anywhere on campus for a nominal fee. No demand? Really?

So, the question stands, why does BYU not offer caffeinated soda on campus when the church has officially declared it "OK" to drink? 

Perhaps rather than teaching people correct principles and allowing them to govern themselves they have created slaves of culture, non-confrontational pushovers (for contention is of the devil), who will blindly follow those around them for the sake of conformity and who passively await clarification on life's difficult questions from spiritual "authorities."

This principle is why I find religion not to be a moral system. In no way do those who follow commandments make a moral assessment of a situation and decide the best course of action. It is infinitely easier to simply do what you are told by a supposed prophet than to think for yourself.

Instead of asking what you should do from a self-appointed authority (especially one whose authority extends only as far as you allow), maybe you should ask yourself what you should do based on your desired outcome. If you don't like caffeinated soda, fine. Don't drink it. But take the time to formulate your own thoughtful and compelling reasons to do so. 


Richard Dawkins on secular morality:

The Atheist Experience on the cost of religion:

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


"I prayed for freedom twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs."
--Frederick Douglass

"Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"
--James Madison

In new-hire training meetings at the mental health care facility where I work, staff are instructed not to talk to patients about their personal religious beliefs. There have been a number of occasions where I have witnessed staff break this admonition. Some times they are verbally reprimanded, but more often the predominantly Mormon culture of the facility means that a blind eye is the standard. Still, as a medical facility the rule is no pushing religion on patients.

As an atheist I see the benefit for all parties inherent in this rule and have never told my patients what my personal beliefs are, even though there have been several instances where I super-duper wanted too. It is not my place, nor is it in any way appropriate for me to use my position and professional relationship to influence my patients religiously. They are here for psychiatric medical care--not church.

You can imagine my surprise when this morning, for the first time ever since my tenure at this facility, an academic supervisor ordered via loudspeaker that all patients stand and recite the pledge of allegiance, which has in it the phrase "one nation under god". I suppose that legally I may not have a basis to request that the practice be stopped, especially if it is not compulsory (a detail which I do not yet know but I am determined to find out). However, a patient may have such a legal basis for a complaint as this can be seen as pushing religion on them by the facility, which is a cause often taken up by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. Perhaps I should warn my supervisor of a potential lawsuit should the pledge continue...

At the very least I would like to hear their reasoning for suddenly mandating the pledge while I am still expected to remain quiet about my atheism. Why should I keep my beliefs in my pocket when others around me wear their beliefs prominently on their sleeves? After all, a subtle nudge towards one religious belief over another is still a religious endorsement and it is more than this facility officially allows its staff. By the way, this is not a privately owned, religiously affiliated facility. We are owned by a parent company which oversees 200 or more mental health care facilities nation wide. So it is unclear to me exactly how the first amendment would apply here since it is a prohibition on the government to not respect one establishment of religion over another. But we are not a 501c3 non-profit organization, therefore, it may still apply in some way.

I used to think this view was little more than cynically splitting hairs. It seems like such a minor thing. But the phrase "under god" was not even part of the pledge until the 1950s--the same time frame as when congress changed our national motto from "E Pluribus Unum" (out of many, one) to the anti-communist mantra "In god We Trust", in typical McCarthy-era "red-scare" fashion.

Additionally, this acknowledgment of god was never intended to be inclusive of Allah, the multiple Hindu gods (Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, etc.), Buddha (who is not a god), Thor, Zeus, Apollo, The Lord Xenu (Scientology), any of the European pagan gods, any of the Native American gods, any of the Aztec or Mayan gods, any Wicca gods, any cult leaders, any Demi-gods, any messiahs (except for Jesus, of course), any deistic non-intervening gods, any alien prime movers (Raeliens, look it up), or my personal favorite, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only ever meant to reference the Christian god, and arguably only the mainstream Protestant three-in-one god (take that Mormons).

The pledge is inherently divisive and I strongly doubt any of the minor patients at my facility (which is all of them) have any idea that they have a legal, constitutional right to refuse to participate in its ritualized recitation. Most of them are likely to just follow the crowd, which is its own kind of coercion. And don't get me started on how ridiculous it is to pledge your allegiance to a flag, of all bloody things, in the very first place!


Edward Current converts to every religion:

Glenn Beck "rebuts" my arguments:

Fox News debate on the subject with Micheal Newdow:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


“It seems that those who lean unto their own understanding or rely on the arm of flesh are more likely to develop a disproportionate focus or obsession almost for material gain, prestige, power, and position.”

--Gary E. Stevenson, Presiding Bishop of the Mormon Church

A couple of months ago I was at a get-together, the hosts of which are active Mormons. Towards the end of the evening the head of the household requested that we read a few passages from the Book of Mormon together. Being the odd man out, and not wanting to rock the boat, I complied. 

I had been in similar situations with my own family, and aside from feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable (not to mention feeling like a hypocrite just prior to my leaving Mormonism) I figured the exercise would ultimately be harmless. Besides, to this day I still occasionally read from the Book of Mormon and other scriptures, usually while doing research for this blog. 

The passage was 3 Nephi 17, where Jesus allegedly came to visit the Native Americans shortly after being crucified, thus proving empirically his existence (I wonder why I never seem to qualify for such evidence). Each person present read a few verses each. My assigned passages contained a pleasant bit about Jesus very tenderly blessing all of the little children and angels coming down from heaven to do the same:

"21 And when he had said these words, he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.

"22 And when he had done this he wept again;

"23 And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones.
"24 And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them."

As I read this nice, quaint story aloud for the first time in many years, I had a glimpse of the emotional manipulation I once endured as a boy raised in Mormonism. The story depicts a very tender scene, indeed. Surely, I would have been touched emotionally as I read this in my formative years. And it is at this point--this exact moment of elation and tenderheartedness--that a parent or church leader would have told me that the good feelings that I was experiencing while reading this story are god telling me that the story is true and the events as described really did happened. Therefore, the Book of Mormon is true and, in turn, the Mormon church, also.

It had been a long time since I had felt that sensation, only this time I had a much different perspective and I would not allow myself to be manipulated to take things as true which are not evidently so. In fact, the very next verse refutes the idea that one should take things solely on faith:

"25 And the multitude did see and hear and bear record; and they know that their record is true for they all of them did see and hear, every man for himself; and they were in number about two thousand and five hundred souls; and they did consist of men, women, and children." [emphasis mine]
That's right. The Book of Mormon actually says that the people were able to know that "the record is true" by seeing and hearing Jesus themselves. This seems especially odd to me since just one verse prior Jesus says (in irony personified):
"20 And they arose from the earth, and he said unto them: Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now behold, my joy is full." [emphasis mine]

I am curious, in what way do these people have faith? They, like Doubting Thomas, saw and heard Jesus after his resurrection. And in both instances Jesus commends those who believe without seeing him with their own eyes:
"2 And again, more blessed are they who shall believe in your words because that ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that ye know that I am. Yea, blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins."
"29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." [emphasis mine]
So, Jesus condones believing extraordinary, supernatural claims on second-hand (at best) information? Apparently such gullible saps are worthy of eternal salvation (from god's eternal wrath for not being perfect--just like he intentionally made them), while those who honestly admit doubt and do not simply believe things based on tenuous evidence or subjective anecdotal experiences are deserving of damnation. In other words, the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe prefers gullibility over intellectual integrity. Really?

Moving on, I have recently noticed other things about religion which I once took for granted or as good and sound, but have since realized their insidious implications. For instance, Proverbs 3:5:

"5 ¶Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding."

I can easily see this being inspirational and comforting for a person who genuinely believes that talking to god is more than a one-sided conversation. If such a being existed, it might actually make sense. However, barring evidence which would indicate that an answer from god is more than just one's conscience or intuition, this is demonstrably bad advice. If you have sound reasons to do a thing ("thine own understanding"), and you choose to do a different, contradictory thing because you think god told you in "thine heart" to do so, that is insane. 


Basically this is saying, if something which sounds reasonable goes against what you understand god to have said (which is an entirely different conversation), then you should go with what god said. So, if god says to stone your unruly child, but you think that may be a bit harsh, do it anyway! If god says to kill gay people, or your apostate spouse, push aside your misgivings and be the first to throw rocks at their faces. Think slavery is bad? Not if god commands it. If god says it is an abomination to eat shell fish, oh wait... that's in the old testament. We don't have to do that anymore.