Sunday, March 29, 2015


"Don't swallow your moral code in tablet form."
--Christopher Hitchens

I am often flabbergasted by the assertion that the Christian "10 Commandments" are the basis of modern morality (I say "Christian" because Jews tend to not limit themselves to such a finite number of divine mandates). Throughout the United States, courthouses and government buildings are riddled with plaques and monuments advertising everyone's favorite imposing religious screed.

Perhaps my cynicism is kicking in, but it seems that the most vocal proponents of plastering the "10 Commandments" on publicly funded government buildings know very little about the commandments, or what they say. In fact, it is a common gag on late night TV programs to ask random people on the street who profess to be Christians and advocates of the moral superiority of the "10 Commandments" just how many they can name. As you may suspect, most people can't name very many.

Typically, the commands which most people get right also happen to be the ones which likely do not need to be spelled out (i.e. Do not murder, steal, lie, etc.). Few people get the ones which set up the Old Testament god, Yahweh, as a jealous control freak, or equate women with cattle. I wonder why?

I have heard theists claim that every law on the books can be traced back to one of the "10 Commandments." Think about this. They suggest that traffic laws and taxes and divorce suits with messy custody battles all originate from the "10 Commandments."

Before I get to the actual list of commandments, I should point out that not only do the "10 Commandments" say nothing about the things above, but they also fail to address issues like rape, genocide, slavery, and child abuse. Not to mention some of the commandments have absolutely no modern adaptation in US laws, such as keeping the Sabbath.

There is no reason to think that the "10 Commandments" would be so broad and all-inclusive. After all, they are only the first 10 of over 600 Jewish laws in the Old Testament, many of which speak favorably of things like rape, genocide and child abuse. And this is exactly what we would expect from a moral code devised by tribalistic, bloodthirsty, ignorant Palestinians in the Bronze Age.

On to the Big Ten:

1. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

Right off the bat, god shows his petty jealousy by at once acknowledging and dismissing the existence of other gods. This is consistent with the ancient Canaanite pantheon of gods, from which Yahweh originated. Conversely, this challenges the proposed omnipotence of Yahweh. Why would an all-powerful being care if mere mortals believe and worship him?

Also, none of the laws in the US constitution have anything to do with the idea that the Old Testament god should be the only god worshiped. Our pluralistic melting-pot of a society simply does not allow this totalitarian ideal.

2. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:"

"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;"

"And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

More tribalistic chest-puffing. Some people read this commandment to mean that nothing should be more important to a person than god. But the language indicates to me that Yahweh wants to set himself apart from the other gods of the pantheon. To do this he threatens a curse on those who do not accept him, which will extend at least four generations. Nothing says divine justice and mercy and sound moral reasoning like punishing children for the actions of their great great great grandparents.

It is also worth noting that many Christian religions, including Catholicism and Christian orthodoxy, proudly flaunt their "graven images" (i.e. "pics of dead people"). Such saintly iconography has created issues in the past, in some cases resulting in Protestant splinter groups, and as a result the Catholic Church (I'm not so sure of the Orthodox Church) has changed this commandment. I suppose they can get away with this since they are just making it up anyway.

Again, this command has no modern equivalent in our multicultural society.

3. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

This commandment has bred confusion for centuries. It seems that every denomination has its own interpretation of this verse. I was taught that it decries profanity in general by specifying an improper use of god's name, whatever that means.

Some Jewish sects go so far as to condemn the very utterance of god's name (which in Hebrew is super long and includes every letter in their alphabet). Not only does this have nothing to do with morality or US law, it creates a false sense of morality in much the same way Muslims view pictures of the prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims are willing to kill non-Muslim blasphemers, such as Danish cartoonists and French satirists.

A less common interpretation is that one should not make oaths on god's name which cannot be upheld, because this makes god look silly. Although this reading of the verse makes more textual sense to me than the anti-profanity gibberish I was taught as a child, I still find it absurd.

Oaths make little sense to me. Aside from oaths made in court, and a few other instances, they have been largely abandoned by society in favor of written contracts, which, let's face it, are more effective and easier to regulate.

4. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy."

"Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:"

"But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:"

"For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

Further in the 600+ commandments in the Law of Moses it is specified that those who violate this command should be stoned to death. Nothing about this is moral. Not the law, nor the punishment. Whether a person works on Sunday (or Saturday, if they are Jewish or Seventh-Day Adventist, or Friday if they are Muslim) speaks nothing about their morals.

The reasoning behind this law is completely crazy anti-science woo. Because the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe created everything in six days and then took a break, we must follow the same pattern. Why does an all-powerful being need a break? Why don't those who advocate for the moral superiority of the "10 Commandments" work six days a week? It seems to me that they like their weekends as much as anyone.

Of course, there is no equivalent to this commandment in US law. Although, many areas in highly religious states frown on businesses simply being open on Sunday. So much so, in fact, that I know many people who refuse to go to businesses that open on Sunday, even on other days of the week. This is a major selling point for Macy's grocery stores in Utah, for example.

5. "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."

As with the command to not do any work on the Sabbath, the punishment for breaking this law, as explained further in the Law of Moses, is to stone the unruly children to death.

While there is no shortage of troubled kids who disobey their parents, it is not the disobedience which is most troublesome, since it is often a manifestation of deeper issues. Typically, mental issues, substance abuse and criminal activity are the primary reasons kids may be deemed sufficiently troubled as to warrant intervention or disciplinary action from the state. In most other cases I can think of, the children are actually victims and any "acting out" is simply a cry for help. So, again, there is little to no correlation to US law.

Adding to the moral disconnect between the "10 Commandments" and our society, the promise that obedience to parents will extend one's life is simply untrue and more superstitious bull crap. Unsure? Ask the parents of a child who has passed away just how extra disobedient the child was before their death. I would be surprised if any such parents could utter a single word against their lost child. As far as I can figure, the only way the promise of a longer life for obedient children would hold true is if parents, as the Law of Moses commands, stone their disobedient children.

6. "Thou shalt not kill."

Simple and to the point, this commandment is one of the few on the list which actually has a modern equivalent in our laws. In fact, every society that has ever seen growth and civilization has had some form of this prohibition. As Christopher Hitchens points out, it would be hard to imagine that the ancient Jews would have made it as far as Mount Sinai had they been under a different impression.

The universality of laws against murder suggests that the "10 Commandants" are not the origin of such a moral position, and are not necessary to see the societal benefits.

Some people who question the veracity of the bible point to the apparent hypocrisy of god issuing the command to not kill, when he also commands the Jews to wipe out entire civilizations, killing men, women, children, and in some cases, livestock. Not to worry, though! Christian apologists have you doubters covered. You see, the argument goes that the Hebrew word used in this commandment is specific to unlawful or unjust murders between Jews. If you are killing heathens or apostates for god, you are morally unblemished.

7. "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

Although this is not explicitly in our laws (infidelity may lead to uncontested divorce, depending on agreements made in the marriage contract, but it is not illegal), I generally agree that cheating on one's partner is immoral. It could cause psychological issues and distrust, as well as putting the other person in harm’s way of STDs without their knowledge. If both parties are aware and agree to extramarital relations beforehand, however, I see no moral reasons to oppose it.

8. "Thou shalt not steal."

As with the sixth commandment ("Thou shalt not kill"), prohibitions on theft seem fairly universal. And such universality suggests that a pronouncement from god on this subject is neither revolutionary, nor necessary. In short, when people are allowed to set their own moral limits, they generally wind up agreeing that stealing is bad. There may be exceptions to this, such as a starving homeless child stealing food to survive, but it works as a rule of thumb.

The reason this works is because most people understand that things like theft and murder do real, demonstrable harm to others. This is the root of morality: levels of harm in social interactions. God need not enter in to the equation, especially if he can arbitrarily decide not to follow his own moral commands should it suit his purposes (or, rather, the purposes of self-proclaimed prophets speaking on god's behalf...).

9. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."

Most people simplify this verse to say that one should not lie. I find this overly simplistic. As with theft, there may be situations in which lying is the most moral choice.

A well-known example of this is Jews during WWII pretending to be Christians in order to avoid the wholesale slaughter of their people by the Nazis (by the way, many Nazis believed that, since the Jews killed Jesus, they were killing for god).

Not all examples of acceptable reasons to lie involve saving one's life, however. Perhaps a young atheist cannot admit their position due to family pressures. Perhaps parents want to surprise their small children on Christmas and Easter with miraculously appearing presents and chocolate eggs. Perhaps one wishes to spare someone else unnecessary grief.

The point is that lying is not cut and dry. Generally, it may be advisable not to lie, but it is not universal. Of the commandments which do have some connection to modern laws, lying seems to have the most exceptions. Furthermore, most instances when a person might lie are not illegal.

Perjury before a court, breaking or lying about legal contracts, or pretending to be someone else to deceive a police officer are among the few types of lies which concern our legal system. Whether or not you say truthful things about a neighbor will not generally raise any legal eyebrows.

10. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s."

So far, most of the commandments are either amoral (morally neutral) or morally obvious. This command, however, is explicitly immoral. It is tantamount to thought-crime. It tells believers that god not only knows what they think, but will judge them eternally according to their thoughts.

"Covet" is synonymous with "desire." Some add that it is an obsessive desire. If all a person does is desire, obsessively or not, and does not act on this, where is the harm to others? I don't see how wanting something can be implicitly immoral, much less punishable.

For instance, pedophilia (another issue completely missed by the Law of Moses) is pretty close to universally despised, yet simply finding children sexually appealing is not a crime. Only when an adult actively tries to seduce a minor is the criminality line crossed. It is the action which is criminal and immoral, not necessarily the thoughts.

I realize this may sound off-putting or morally questionable to some, and to be clear, I am not condoning pedophilia--even in thought. Such people need psychological help, because in most instances the condition is indicative of deep emotional issues, even mental underdevelopment. But needing professional help is not immoral and it is not criminal. And neither are disturbing thoughts or wanting the possessions of others.

Also, did you catch the subtle bit of sexism when god listed women alongside cattle as possessions of "thy neighbor?" Nice one god. Ancient Jews, like many patriarchal societies of their time, viewed women as property of men. Many Christians, Muslims and Jews today still follow this and treat women as second class citizens. Worst of all, the holy book to which they adhere and claim is the basis of their morality actually supports their misogyny!

If you take nothing else from this far too long post, please see that the bible does not make people more moral. It teaches them to surrender their conscience and accept an outdated moral authority. This is not morality--this is subservience. Hitchens asked, "Who, but a slave, would want this?"

Many atheists have addressed the "10 Commandments" by either deconstructing them and pointing out their immoral nature, as I have attempted here, or by submitting their own "atheist" or "secular" commandments.

The most entertaining of these which I have come across is from Bobby Henderson in his book, "The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster." This satirical take on religion is both more interesting than the original Commandments (aka "Condiments") and, somewhat ironically, more moral. See for yourself:

The eight "I'd Really Rather You Didn'ts"

1. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Act Like A Sanctimonious, Holier-Than-Thou Ass When Describing My Noodly Goodness. If Some People Don't Believe In Me, That's Okay. Really, I'm Not That Vain. Besides, This Isn't About Them So Don't Change The Subject.

2. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Use My Existence As A Means To Oppress, Subjugate, Punish, Eviscerate, And/Or, You Know, Be Mean To Others. I Don't Require Sacrifices And Purity Is For Drinking Water, Not People.

3. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Judge People For The Way They Look, Or How They Dress, Or The Way They Talk, Or, Well, Just Play Nice, Okay? Oh, And Get This In Your Thick Heads: Woman = Person. Man = Person. Samey-Samey. One Is Not Better Than The Other, Unless We're Talking About Fashion And I'm Sorry, But I Gave That To Women And Some Guys Who Know The Difference Between Teal And Fuchsia.

4. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Indulge In Conduct That Offends Yourself, Or Your Willing, Consenting Partner Of Legal Age AND Mental Maturity. As For Anyone Who Might Object, I Think The Expression Is Go F*** Yourself, Unless They Find That Offensive In Which Case They Can Turn Off The TV For Once And Go For A Walk For A Change.

5. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Challenge The Bigoted, Misogynist, Hateful Ideas Of Others On An Empty Stomach. Eat, Then Go After The B******.

6. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Build Multimillion-Dollar Churches/Temples/Mosques/Shrines To My Noodly Goodness When The Money Could Be Better Spent (Take Your Pick):

A. Ending Poverty

B. Curing Diseases

C. Living In Peace, Loving With Passion, And Lowering The Cost Of Cable

I Might Be A Complex-Carbohydrate Omniscient Being, But I Enjoy The Simple Things In Life. I Ought To Know. I AM The Creator.

7. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Go Around Telling People I Talk To You. You're Not That Interesting. Get Over Yourself. And I Told You To Love Your Fellow Man, Can't You Take A Hint?

8. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You If You Are Into, Um, Stuff That Uses A Lot Of Leather/Lubricant/Las Vegas. IfThe Other Person Is Into It, However (Pursuant To #4), Then Have At It, Take Pictures, And For The Love Of Mike, Wear A CONDOM! Honestly, It's A Piece Of Rubber. If I Didn't Want It To Feel Good When You Did IT I Would Have Added Spikes, Or Something.



Christopher Hitchens on the 10 Commandments:

Friday, March 20, 2015


The following is a video of Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, on "
Why It's So Hard for Scientists to Believe in God":

This video was posted by a sibling of mine on a communal family blog. Rather than picking bones and potentially starting an argument where one is not needed and would not be productive, I decided to respond to the video here. There will be less collateral damage this way.

Dr. Collins is defending faith. He claims that science and religion are Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), or that they are unrelated responses to different types of questions, and as such they do not conflict with each other. Before I get to how this is an excuse educated people often employ in order to preserve their pet beliefs, I want to point out a few things about Dr. Collins' position and his own sincere, deeply-held beliefs.

First, Dr. Collins is defending a comforting belief he came to accept for irrational reasons. While on a hike, Dr. Collins came across a waterfall which split into three parts. This reminded him of the Trinity and he became an evangelical Christian on the spot. There was no rational reason for his conversion. He did not come to his belief through "sound" arguments, like those he touts in the video. He became a Christian because a common natural phenomenon reminded him of a supernatural claim he was taught as a child. Who, but the Trinitarian god of evangelical Christianity, could do this?

Second, none of Dr. Collins' arguments defend his specific Christian beliefs anymore than competing Jewish or Hindu or Muslim or pagan beliefs (or, for that matter, other Christian beliefs, such as the non-Trinitarian Mormon view of god). He is using deistic arguments for a generic god, which may or may not care about its handiwork after setting the universe in motion.

Ultimately, his arguments (the argument from design, the anthropic principle, NOMA, etc.) are logical fallacies which fall neatly under the massive umbrella of "arguments from ignorance." Dr. Collins doesn't know what caused the universe, he doesn't know why there is a specific order to things, therefore god did it. This is a classic "god of the gaps" mentality. Coincidentally, "god of the gaps" arguments crumble with each scientific advancement, thus slowly squeezing out the breath of these fatuous claims.

The intellectually honest thing for someone to say when they don't know how something came to be is not to insert the unfounded superstitions of their youth, but to admit their ignorance. Why does the universe exist? I don't know. Why do the cosmological constants exist? I don't know. Could life exist if the cosmological constants were slightly different? I don't know. See? It's easy.

Asserting supernatural explanations without evidential support does not help the discussion and it does not get us any closer to an answer. It serves only to muddy the waters and build complacency with a wrong answer. In turn, this causes people to stop looking for the correct answer. It is an attempt to solve the biggest mysteries in life by appealing to an even bigger mystery: god.

Dr. Collins would have you believe that religion does not make testable claims, and, therefore, cannot be confirmed or discounted through evidence or a lack thereof. This is simply not true.

In as much as science and religion do overlap (i.e. Asserting the existence of divine beings which interact with people; The efficacy of intercessory prayer; The creation of the universe and the order of events; A supreme being "tinkering" with cosmology, biology, and physics in order to ensure our existence; The age of the earth/universe/man; The earth being a flat disc in the center of the universe and being created before the sun, moon and stars, which all revolve around the earth; The star/planet "Kolob" being both where god lives and being the source for our sun's energy and light), the two seem to be at perpetual odds.

In most serious studies of prayer, for instance, prayer offers no benefit to the infirmed. The only exception to this seems to be when people are aware of such supplications made on their behalf. These slight morale boosts, however impressive they may seem to believers, can easily be chalked up to the placebo effect.

In as much as science and religion do not overlap (i.e. questions like: "Why are we here?"; "What happens after death?"; "From whence cometh evil?"; "How many angels can fit upon the head of a needle"; "What is the airspeed velocity of a swallow carrying a coconut?"; OK, maybe not that last one...), science defers to philosophy. In fact, I cannot think of a single question to which religion offers an unsubstantiated answer which cannot be answered, at least in part, by either science or philosophy. But, if such questions are presented, "I don't know" is always a more tenable response than claiming to know a supernatural answer is true by faith.

Dr. Collins criticizes the ability of the scientific method to answer certain questions and claims that faith is an alternative methodology to finding answers. How could one possibly hope to demonstrate that their faith-derived answer is correct if not by supporting it with evidence? Faith does not explain anything. The very definition of faith indicates that beliefs are held without--in some cases despite--evidence.

To answer the question which Dr. Collins attempted to answer in the video, scientists generally don't subscribe to a higher power to explain the mysteries of the universe because the insertion of "god" as a de facto answer does not actually answer anything. Anything that we know to be true has been demonstrated through the scientific method--not religion. As Aron Ra puts it, "Science can't answer everything, but religion can't answer anything!"

Bald assertions of the ilk Dr. Collins advocates do not require evidence. This is the whole point! And without evidence you cannot demonstrate accuracy or efficacy or consistency or any ability to explain the heretofore unexplained. Faith is an excuse--a cop out. Faith is an attempt to shirk accountability in order to spare precious and weak beliefs from critique and ridicule. It is nothing to be admired. It is not worth defending.


Christopher Hitchens responds to NOMA:

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson rebutting the "God of the Gaps" argument:

Monday, March 16, 2015


"I give money for church organs in the hope that the organ music will distract the congregation's attention from the rest of the service."
--Andrew Carnegie

A few months ago the Mormon church produced a film called "Meet The Mormons." This propaganda piece, which focuses on the stories of six carefully selected camera-friendly Mormons, came with an interesting catch: all proceeds will go to the American Red Cross. Earlier this week, the church made good on this promise to the order of 1.8 million dollars. Interesting.

Although the film itself contains no useful information about the church's teachings or history, I do know a jaw-dropping thing or two about how the film came to be.

First, the film was funded entirely by tithing money offered by church members. Second, the church told members to pay to see the movie (which explains why it was so well-received...), effectively coercing members to pay twice. Third, the movie grossed over 7.8 million dollars (there is some discrepancy between sources, 7.8 million is the highest estimation). After expenses (paying back the church the tithing money spent to produce the film and to distribute the film to theaters and on media, about 6 million dollars in total), the church gave what was left to the Red Cross, 1.8 million dollars.

So, the church spent 6 million dollars of members' money in order to raise 1.8 million for the Red Cross? The return on this investment seems minuscule, unless you're the Mormon church, of course.

The church got a free propaganda film, which was designed to show the positive face of Mormonism without addressing any real or meaningful issues, while giving a fraction of the costs of that film to a true charity. They poured more money into the movie industry to promote themselves than they gave to people in need of life-saving blood.

Keep in mind, while 1.8 million dollars is not chump change, if the church really wanted to help the Red Cross they could have just given them the money they spent on the film. After all, the members paid for it anyway.

What is 6 million dollars to a multi-billion dollar religious corporation with an annual revenue of about 8 billion dollars a year from tithing alone--tax free? After all, they recently threw over 10 times the 1.8 million given to the Red Cross at a for-profit shopping mall in Salt Lake City. That's right. The church spent 1.8 billion (with a "B") on a shopping mall and they gave a tenth of that to a charity that saves lives.

Maybe they just payed their tithing...

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Lately I have been focusing my blogging on my "Textual Analysis of the Book of Mormon" (click at top of the page or here) where I examine the book from a critical perspective. I have powered through several chapters in the past couple of months. In fact, I have almost finished the second "book" in the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi. Here is my latest entry:

Chapter27: "Morons and Meatheads and Boobs, Oh My!"

Chapter Summary:
Darkness and apostasy will cover the earth in the last days--The Book of Mormon will come forth--Three witnesses will testify of the book--The learned man will say he cannot read the sealed book--The Lord will do a marvelous work and a wonder--Compare Isaiah 29. About 559–545 B.C.

For those who thought that Nephi was done with Isaiah, I have some bad news. Nephi goes back to ripping off Isaiah's work in this chapter.

However, when I read the chapter summary, which gives some pretty specific predictions about the Book of Mormon, I was intrigued. So, I skipped over to the chapter in Isaiah to which Nephi refers (Isaiah 29), and I noticed that the incredible specificity Nephi uses is absent in Isaiah.

In fact, as with most of Isaiah's prophecies, there is no indication that Isaiah is speaking about our day or the Book of Mormon at all. But you wouldn't get this from reading the Mormon-added chapter summary of Isaiah 29:

"A people (the Nephites) will speak as a voice from the dust--The Apostasy, restoration of the gospel, and coming forth of a sealed book (the Book of Mormon) are foretold--Compare 2 Nephi 27."

Basically Nephi (or Joseph Smith) takes a few key points from Isaiah 29 and extrapolates upon them in 2 Nephi 27. Nephi adds his own spin, which is painfully obviously retrofitted and self-fulfilling prophecy. We'll get in to that later.

Nephi returns to the sealed book mentioned in the previous chapter. But before we get to Nephi's interpretation, let's go over what Isaiah actually said:

"11 And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:"

"12 And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned."

It is unclear what is meant by the "vision of all." But the metaphor of a sealed book (not a literal book) is presented to a learned man and an unlearned man, both of whom state that they cannot read the book.

Perhaps this is means that highly educated people will miss the point of Isaiah's vision, and uneducated will be overwhelmed by it. It could mean that in order to understand Isaiah one must be humble enough to set aside their formal education and wise enough to not be intimidated by its content. Whatever the meaning, Isaiah most certainly is not speaking about a literal book presented to a literal educated man and a literal uneducated man.

Nephi seems to think that such is the case, however, as he describes a book being taken to an educated man who cannot read it, and then to an uneducated man who can read it through the power of god:

"15 But behold, it shall come to pass that the Lord God shall say unto him to whom he shall deliver the book: Take these words which are not sealed and deliver them to another, that he may show them unto the learned, saying: Read this, I pray thee. And the learned shall say: Bring hither the book, and I will read them."

"16 And now, because of the glory of the world and to get gain will they say this, and not for the glory of God."

"17 And the man shall say: I cannot bring the book, for it is sealed."

"18 Then shall the learned say: I cannot read it."

"19 Wherefore it shall come to pass, that the Lord God will deliver again the book and the words thereof to him that is not learned; and the man that is not learned shall say: I am not learned."

"20 Then shall the Lord God say unto him: The learned shall not read them, for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee."

Well, it turns out that just such an event occurred exactly like this!

During the "translation" of the Book of Mormon, Joseph sent one of his scribes, Martin Harris, to linguistic expert, Dr. Charles Anthon (the learned man), to verify the Book of Mormon as authentic. But rather than allow Dr. Anthon to see and hold and examine the gold plates (which is the only way to legitimately verify authenticity), Mr. Harris was allowed to bring a piece of paper with a few lines from the the gold plates scribbled on it. The Mormon version of what happened next is strikingly different from Dr. Anthon's account.

According to Harris (and Mormons at large), Dr. Anthon viewed the characters and announced they were authentic characters from specific ancient languages. Dr. Anthon asked Harris from where the characters originated, as he drew up a certificate of authenticity. Harris answered that an angel had given a young man named Joseph Smith (the unlearned man) gold plates containing an ancient history of Native Americans, and through the power of god Joseph was translating it in to English.

In a fit of anti-religious rage, Dr. Anthon tore up the certificate and told Harris that such things are impossible. But if Harris would just give Dr. Anthon the gold plates, he would translate the record. Harris refused and told the doctor that the book was sealed, and Dr. Anthon withdrew his offer to translate the plates because he cannot read a sealed book.

It should be noted that Joseph claimed that a large portion of the gold plates was sealed off--even to him--and the Book of Mormon is derived from the unsealed portion. This unsealed portion would have been accessible to Dr. Anthon.

According to Dr. Anthon, the events were much less animated. Harris presented the characters to the doctor, who said they were from various incongruent languages arranged in a random and insignificant manner. He then described Harris as a superstitious pushover who was likely being had financially by the charismatic charlatan, Joseph Smith.

It is interesting to me that Mormons still cling to this story as though it proved through prophecy the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. You see, whatever really happened in Dr. Anthon's office some 170 years ago doesn't really matter.

As a quick google search will show, we still have Harris' original paper with the characters from the gold plates. Modern linguists and experts in ancient languages have studied the characters and have concluded that the characters are nonsensical gibberish. Funny how the experts seem to agree more with Dr. Anthon's account.

This far, all of the prophecies in the Book of Mormon can be placed in to one of three categories: self-fulfilling, retrofitted or yet to happen. The Anthon incident appears to be self-fulfilling. Clearly Joseph set up the whole shebang to prove his prophetic prowess. But there are more self-fulfilling prophecies within this very chapter equal to the Anthon incident in terms of transparent charlatanism.

Nephi claims that when the sealed book is revealed to the unlearned man, god will allow three people to witness the book to testify to the world that it really does exist:

"12 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein."

As you might have guessed, Joseph Smith had three such "witnesses" to the gold plates! You can read their "testimony" (which Joseph wrote beforehand and had the men sign) in the introduction of the Book of Mormon.

The three men Joseph Smith chose to be witnesses are Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. I have given you some context as to the caliber of Martin Harris' character. Let me just add that when Joseph had the men witness the gold plates, they had trouble getting the angel to appear with the plates. Harris thought that his sins might be the reason for the angel's trepidation, and offered to step out so the other two men could go through with it. This sounds noble, but Joseph needed three--not two--witnesses.

So, Harris prayed and prayed until the angel came to him individually (a detailed skipped over in their formal signed testimony) and Harris described the event as a spiritual experience, rather than a physical or literal experience.

He said he saw the plates with his mind's eye the same way a clairvoyant person could see a far-distant city through a mountain. He was a superstitious man hell-bent on seeing this angel. How much stock would we give his testimony today?

David Whitmer is also compromised in that he had family ties to Joseph and a financial stake in the successful publishing of the Book of Mormon. In fact, all of the three witnesses had invested large amounts of money in the publishing of the book. Talk about a conflict of interests.

Mormons love to point out that Oliver Cowdery left the Mormon Church, yet never recanted his angelic experience with the gold plates. He was also very superstitious and had a financial stake in the book. A lesser known fact about Mr. Cowdery is that he used the Book of Mormon to start his own religion after leaving Joseph Smith's cult. So, naturally he would not undermine the Book of Mormon.

As much as I enjoy discrediting the character and intentions of these men, they still may have seen an angel with gold plates. Who knows? But one of the most glaring failings of these men, which they all share, is that not a single one of them was educated or trained in ancient languages or artifacts. Therefore, not a single one of them was qualified to "testify" to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon--angel or not.

Who cares if these three superstitious men with vested interests saw the gold plates? They were unable and unqualified to distinguish an authentic ancient record from a hoax. And I'm willing to bet Joseph Smith knew and counted on this.

The real question for me is why would god rely on such tenuous methods of authentication? Especially when god warns us in verse 14: "wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!" If these are god methods, whereby he expects me to take his true and living church seriously, how could I possibly know that these three men weren't completely off their collective rocker. If this is the best god can do to appease skeptics and doubters, color me unimpressed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


" is surprising how petty some of the "supernatural" miracles now seem. As with spiritualist seances, which cynically offer burblings from the beyond to relatives of the late deceased, nothing
truly interesting is ever said or done."
--Christopher Hitchens, god Is Not Great

"And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
--Mark 9:42

Let me tell you of a few incidents I have had with a co-worker. Easily one of the largest people I have ever met, the stature of this native of Samoa is surpassed only by his religious assumptions. Not only does he (let's call him Stephen) assume everyone with whom he comes in to contact is religious, Stephen also seems to have forgotten every conversation we have had on religion and super-nature. I have both stated my skepticism of religious claims and challenged his personal beliefs. Yet, he still assumes I pray...

Just before Halloween of last year, another co-worker (let's call her Stephanie) announced that she had seen a super scary movie: Ouija. As she described her terror, which she assures only worsened when the movie ended, and how she had to sleep with the lights on for fear of dark forces assembling against her, Stephanie pointed out that films about monsters and slashers don't scare her as much as dark supernatural movies. Films about demons and black magic and the dead communicating with the living via a children's toy made by Mattel are totally different and much scarier because they "could actually happen."

Since this occurred before any patients were awake (I generally avoid these conversations in front of patients), I poked fun at Stephanie's pronouncement that such magical things could really happen. This led to an interesting conversation with several co-workers who all seem to think black magic and Ouija boards are real. Seriously, I was literally the only person who did not believe that Ouija boards could relay messages from the dead.

I explained group-think mentality and how one's desire to believe a proposition influences one's perception of events. I explained how the ideomotor effect can lead a group of people to believe that their collective involuntary movements are really a demonic influence.

I even pointed them all to a specific episode of Penn and Teller's B.S., wherein the two veteran magicians thoroughly debunk Ouija boards by blindfolding participants and changing the position of the board. The test subjects collectively moved the board piece to where they thought certain words were located on the board--not where the words actually were. If the board was communicating with dead spirits, the testers would have moved to where the words actually were, rather than where they thought the words were.

To put it simply, there is ample evidence that Ouija boards do not communicate with the dead. So, I asked the rational follow up question: if there is a reasonable natural explanation for a given phenomenon, why would you accept a supernatural explanation?

Not to be out done by reasoned argumentation, Stephen shared an experience he had within his own family. Stephen's cousin, who is also quite large, went on a visit to Samoa. Upon returning, Stephen's cousin was "not himself". He was distant, and full of rage. Stephen's aunt swore that while on his trip, Stephen's cousin had been possessed by a demon. Stephen offered to help, and, with another cousin, he attempted to exorcise the demon.

During the ritual, Stephen's cousin thrashed about and threw Stephen and his other cousin across the room a few times. Stephen reported that his cousin's eyes were pure black and he couldn't focus on Stephen or anyone else in the room. It was all very intense. I do not doubt that the facts of the story (Stephen being tossed around and his cousin's eyes being black and vacant, etc.) all happened more or less as Stephen described.

You see, Stephen works with mental patients. He witnesses rage and vacant eyes in patients at work and doesn't immediately assume it is demonic in nature. It seems that the main reason Stephen assumes demonic possession in the case of his cousin is because his cousin tossed him across the room--something which rarely happens to a man of Stephen's size. But, as I pointed out, Stephen's cousin is also quite large. It would be more impressive if Stephen had been thrown by a small child, rather than another 350 pound Samoan.

I shared an experience I had with a patient who claimed to be possessed (she also had black, vacant eyes, and was quite strong). After her ordeal (she stabbed her wrist with a pencil over 40 times and bit off chunks of her arm, which she either spit at me or swallowed--all while asking to be taken to a church), a debriefing was called for staff with the resident psychiatrist.

The doctor explained the psychological process of mental dissociation (becoming completely disconnected with one's surroundings, often hallucinating). The patient was not actually possessed and there is a clearly understood scientific explanation for her behavior and physical symptoms. So, again I asked: if there is a reasonable natural explanation for a given phenomenon, why would you accept a supernatural explanation?

Stephen never responded to my counter argument, but clearly he understood that I do not agree with him on supernatural claims. Surely he would not be so quick to assume in the future that my position on supernatural phenomena is the same as his. Surely...

A few weeks ago, Stephen got in to an argument with a patient about god. The patient, who is a minor, revealed that she doesn't pray because she doesn't believe in god. Stephen took it upon himself to convince her that there is a god (Mormons...). To be clear, the company for which we both work frowns on this.

Stephen asked her why she doesn't believe in god. The patient responded that for the first ten years of her life she was abused physically and sexually. She prayed every day for god to save her, but nothing happened.

Undeterred, Stephen pointed out that god answers prayers in different ways: yes, no and maybe. He then looked right at me and said, "Isn't that right, Matt?"

With a tone of surprise and fluster, I responded, "Don't ask me!"

I was furious, but I did not intervene because I had confidence that the patient could hold her own. After all, platitudes are small comfort to victims of abuse.

The patient responded that she still wasn't sure of Stephen's assertion. So, Stephen offered the following anecdote to further prove that god answers prayers:

A man is stranded on top of a house during a flood. As the water rises to dangerous levels, a boat approaches the man and offers to save him from certain death. The man declines the offer and says, "Don't worry, god will save me!" Another boat comes and offers to save the man, and the man declines again in the same way. "God will save me!" A third boat comes and the man declines yet again. The man dies.

Entering heaven, the bewildered man approaches god and cries, "god, why didn't you save me?"

God replies, "Save you? I sent three boats after you!"

This is the evidence Stephen offers a seventeen year old girl who doesn't believe in god because, for the first ten years of her life, she cried to god to save her from daily sexual and physical abuse, but never received an answer.

She was unimpressed by Stephen's story, and seemed to just want the conversation to end. In essence, Stephen told this young woman that god did answer her prayers; she just didn't recognize it. This is classic blaming the victim.

If I had knowledge of a child being raped right now, and I had the power to stop it, I would be under a moral obligation to intervene. If I did not do everything I could to stop it, I would be a monster worse than anything in Stephanie's scary movies.

God allegedly sees every child being raped at this very moment and he has the capacity to end it. Yet he doesn't. Why does god get a pass? His ways are higher than ours? He is mysterious? Our morality doesn't apply to god? He has a greater purpose in mind? To preserve the free-will of the offender? What about the free-will of the child being raped?

Basically this line of reasoning suggests that god uses rape to teach children valuable life lessons. Disgusting. Ah, but god will help you find your misplaced car keys, or align all the traffic lights to be green on your way to work...

I admit that there is a difference between the morality of Stephen's god and my own morals: my morals are better.

There is only one moral answer to a child suffering this kind of daily abuse. It is not "no, you will learn a lesson which will make you stronger"; nor is it "maybe, we'll see"; it isn't even sending metaphorical "boats" which the child must recognize in order to be useful. There is only one ethical, acceptable answer to a child asking an all-powerful being to spare them abuse: "yes, I will stop it immediately." Anything short of this is evil.


Penn and Teller debunking Ouija boards: