Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why would he make that up?!

A friend of mine and I were discussing in the comments of a recent post whether or not the writers of the Gospels were entirely truthful in their accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. I suggested that they may have had motivation to embellish or distort the truth. My friend countered that Jesus' disciples did not gain personally for what they said and that his disciples all believed whatever he was teaching enough to be willing to die for them. Since they weren't benefitting personally, what motivation could they have had for saying the things they did other than that they were true? 

In 2003 South Park aired an episode titled "All about the Mormons." (It's season 7, episode 12 if you want to watch; it is indeed quite hilarious.) The character Stan meets a Mormon family that has moved to town and learns about their beliefs. As they tell him the story of Joseph Smith, and as Smith's claims become more and more outrageous, they repeatedly respond to Stan's incredulity with, "Why would he make that up?" It's an argument I heard frequently growing up in the Church. It's true that Joseph Smith endured a lot of pain and difficulty because of the things that he taught. Why would he have chosen that kind of life if he knew that what he was saying wasn't true?

C. S. Lewis said, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell (from Chapter 3 of Mere Christianity)." LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland made a similar proposition about Joseph Smith: "Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase (from an address given in 1994)." 

How often is anything ever that cut and dry, especially where human beings are concerned? (And before you jump in with, "But Jesus wasn't a mere human; he was God!" we have no evidence that he was God other than that he said he was and his followers believed he was, and he was neither the first nor the last person to convince people that he was God.) No human is either all good or all bad. This Bushian sort of all-or-nothing, with-us-or-against-us proposition seldom holds any validity in the real world.

I would venture that Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith were probably very much alike. Here my Mormon friends are saying, "Yes! Joseph Smith was very Christlike!" and my Protestant friends are saying, "How can you possibly put that charlatan in the same category as the Lord?!" Let me finish. Both were teaching something radical: Jesus, that he was God incarnate; Smith, that he had seen God and that he was a modern prophet of the same order of Moses. Both built on religious traditions already in existence: Jesus claimed he fulfilled the prophecies of Judaism; Smith claimed he was restoring ancient Christianity in its original and pure form. And while they both had devoted followers, they both also had just as many people who hated them. Indeed, both died for what they taught and who they claimed to be.

For reasons I didn't quite understand--because I found it absolutely suicidal to his argument--my friend also cited as examples the cults of David Koresh and Heaven's Gate. 

You can believe in something strongly enough that you're willing to die for it, and still be dead wrong, pun intended.

My friend later explained that he was only trying to say that whatever Jesus taught, it must have been more radical than just "be nice" in order for the disciples believe it was worth dying for, though I still don't quite see how that's different. (Sorry, Patrik. I still like you! Feel free to comment if you feel like I'm misrepresenting what you were trying to say.)

Let's go back to the dichotomy proposed by Lewis and Holland: A good man wouldn't claim to be the Son of God --or a prophet--unless he actually was. If he was lying, then he was evil, and, supposedly, his only motivation could have been for personal monetary or political gain. We know this couldn't have been the motive for Christ nor Smith because neither was wealthy, and each gave up his life rather than back down from the cause.

I don't buy either of their claims. So what was his motive? Why would he make that up?

C. S. Lewis' statement has also been summarized thusly: Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Mark chapter 3 gives an account of Jesus' friends trying to "lay hold on him" because "he [was] beside himself (vs. 21)." In other words, they thought he needed some help. Later, when his mother comes for him, he doesn't receive her, but instead turns to his followers and declares that they are his family. (Charles Manson had a "family" too, remember.) 

Margaret Toscano thinks we need to explore more middle ground possibilities for Joseph Smith as well. She says, "To me there are so many things in between the fraud and the completely truthful prophet that we haven't explored yet (from an interview given in 2006 for the PBS documentary The Mormons)." She also says, "[E]very religion, when it starts out, usually has a charismatic, chaotic stage, where in order to found a religion, you often have to have this kind of troubling, charismatic leader that later we have to cover over all the embarrassing things of a leader." defines the word "cult" as: "a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader." By that definition every religion begins as a cult. The only difference between a cult and a "legitimate" religion is that some cults catch on and stick around and others don't.

Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith weren't very different from any charismatic cult leader who has come along, except that what they taught struck a chord with a particularly large number of people and their followers grew until there were enough of them that they were no longer considered cults.

Why did they make that up? Well, the all-or-nothing statement is partially true, which is what makes it a particularly difficult  conundrum from which to extract oneself. I grew up believing the argument that my religion was either all good or all bad, and I knew that there was some good, so I performed all sorts of intellectual acrobatics to rationalize the bad. Either a person is lying or he isn't, right? Well, yes, but human imperfections lead to a messy middle ground. He might be telling a partial truth. Perhaps he had a vision of some utopian society where he believed people would have happy, wonderful lives and because of his good intention, he was able to rationalize the deceptive means he needed to employ to achieve his vision, in which case he wouldn't have been "all bad." Maybe he was, as Richard Dawkins suggests in chapter 3 of The God Delusion, genuinely mistaken. Perhaps he had some kind of mystical experience (because I don't deny that those experiences occur, even though I don't think God is the explanation for them) which caused him to believe that what he was saying was true, and so even though he was technically lying, he wasn't being intentionally deceptive, and therefore, again, not "all bad." Maybe he suffered from megalomania.

There are many possible explanations, all of them more probable than a fatherless man rising from the dead or a farm boy translating an ancient record left in New York by Israelites who emigrated to America. 


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Personal experience is not enough.

I am sharing this link to a friend's blog about why personal experience is not valid evidence of God, because it's very well articulated.


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Friday, October 30, 2009

Demons do not get you if you leave.

No one who leaves the Church is ever happy again.

That's what I thought, because that's what I'd been told. And it made sense, because we were God's one true church. Leaving was tantamount to turning your back on God Himself and the only explanation for why anyone do that was that they had allowed Satan to deceive them. And then Satan would torment them for the rest of their lives. They would be angry, bitter and hateful and never find true peace. Those stray sheep might experience some momentary pleasures, but they weren't truly happy. Only we were.

So here I am. It's been over four years since I've attended a Mormon church service and a little over a year since I officially resigned my membership. I am more peaceful and content now than I ever was as a faithful Mormon. If rejecting the impossible and following your heart is the influence of Satan, please, sir, I'd like some more!

I once thought that leaving the Church was extremely rare, because supposedly apostates were miserable, and who would choose to be miserable? The truth is, thousands of us have left. If you're having doubts, you are not alone and using your brain is not the influence of Satan.

You can get out. You can have a normal life. Depending on your situation, you may have to deal with pressure and disappointment from family and friends, but nothing spiritually bad is going to happen to you.


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Thursday, October 29, 2009

We're on our own, and that's okay.

     My son is sick, pretty sure it's flu. He's had a cough for about a week now, a fever that comes and goes and last night an earache. He doesn't seem too sick, but when you've heard that there have been some deaths from the flu this year, it still makes you nervous.
     It's time's like this when I wish there really was some higher power I could call on to intervene and make my child well. Ricky Gervais put it well: "I wish there was a God. It would be great. What I've heard, he's brilliant." But I have no reason to believe that there is a god, and wishing something doesn't make it so.
     Lucky for us, we live in a time when science has helped us understand how the body works, how diseases spread and what will and won't work to offer relief. Lucky for us, we evolved language and writing and technology to record and transmit knowledge. Information about how to help my son is just a few clicks away. No ancient scripture or supernatural being told us how to create computers or the internet. We experimented and figured it out.
     We are capable of solving our own problems, and the sooner we realize that there's no one in charge upstairs and it's all up to us, the better off we'll be.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why do you celebrate Halloween if you're not...Christian?

     October 11 was National Coming Out day, and in support of our gay and lesbian friends, my husband used his Facebook status to "come out" as an atheist. We haven't believed in any deities for quite a while, though this was the first time either of us had officially announced it. About a week later, he got an email from a relative who suggested that perhaps we shouldn't come visit for Christmas so the family could spend Christmas with people who feel the same way about the birthday boy (even though December 25 isn't actually his birthday) as they do. This relative was also puzzled as to why we would celebrate Christmas at all, since we are atheists. I will add that the letter was polite and well-intentioned, but it still came as a bit of a shock.
     I know plenty of Christians who go to costume parties and take their kids trick-or-treating. Why would they do this since Halloween is a pagan holiday? Or is it? A little bit of digging unearthed some interesting tidbits:
  • Halloween originated as a celebration of the Celtic new year, a time when the Celts believed that the spirits of the dead returned. They would try to disguise themselves a ghouls to fool spirits into thinking that they were other spirits instead of vulnerable mortals ripe for tormenting. They also left treats on their doorsteps to appease these spirits and keep them out of their homes.
  • But, the Christian Church, in its grand tradition of hijacking indigenous celebrations and supplanting them with their own, replaced the new year celebration with All Saints' Day, a time to honor the deceased saints, which evolved to All Hallows' Day, with the preceding day becoming All Hallows' Eve, or Halloween.

     That's the gist anyway. You can visit if you want more details. My point is, Halloween--like all holidays, including Christmas--has its roots in multiple traditions. 
     Why do I celebrate it, or any holiday? Because it's fun and life was meant to be enjoyed. Because I loved the creativity of going to thrift shops with my son and piecing together "junk" to make a costume. Because I can't wait to see the grin on his face when he comes back with a sack full of candy. Because traditions like carving a jack-o-lantern every year are the stuff memories are made of. 
     Does not believing in Jesus make you unworthy to enjoy the traditions of Christmas, most of which have nothing to do with Christianity anyway? I, like plenty of non-Christians, celebrate Christmas as a time to strive toward human ideals like kindness and generosity, a time to express love and appreciation for my family. I doubt that the actual Jesus was as perfect and benevolent as his followers make him out to be, and I certainly don't think he was God, but many of his teachings--like loving your neighbor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, the whole concept that we have an obligation to take care of our fellow human beings--have alleviated a great deal of suffering in this world.
You'd have to have a heart two sizes too small not to celebrate that.


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Spencer Wells and evidence I'd been trained to ignore

     In the spring of 2003, I was home alone watching PBS (yep, geek) when they broadcast geneticist Spencer Wells' film The Journey of Man, documenting the journey our species made to go from living in a small region in Africa to living in all corners of the globe. I was riveted by how science could unlock such a mystery.
     A couple of things surprised me. First, this study placed our common male ancestor "Adam" as having lived about 50,000 years ago. I'd been taught that Adam and Eve lived about 6000 years ago, and since they were the first man and woman, no humans had lived on this planet before that. 
     Second, not one bit of evidence pointed toward the American Indians having descended from Middle Eastern ancestors. Yet the introduction to the Book of Mormon stated explicitly that a small group of people that God led out of Jerusalem in 600 B.C. came and populated North and South America and that "they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" (from the edition of the Book of Mormon copyrighted 1981).
     It seemed a little strange to me that scientific research was contradicting rather than confirming what had been revealed by God, but, well, no worries. Science gets stuff wrong all the time. They used the think the world was flat, for crying out loud. Besides, I had a witness from the Holy Ghost.
     Interestingly, in 2006, the Church published a new edition of the Book of Mormon and altered the introduction to say that the Book of Mormon characters from Jerusalem are "among" the ancestors of the American Indians, rather than their principal ancestors. Considering that they claim to get their information straight from God, they sure seem to need to tweak things pretty frequently, but I guess DNA evidence can be a real bitch.


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Monday, October 26, 2009

A witness from the Spirit is not proof.

For almost as long as I can remember, I was aware of certain incongruencies or gaps in logic in the doctrines of my religion. But I learned not to worry about it, because I had a testimony, based on personal spiritual experiences. I felt the presence of the Holy Ghost fairly frequently, when I prayed, when I was in seminary, and more than anything when I sang or listened to music. It was a warm, peaceful feeling that seemed to emanate from somewhere inside my rib cage, and I interpreted this feeling as a witness from God that I was doing his will.

I remember a couple of analogies that I read and heard as I was growing up. One was: "The Gospel is like a big jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes when you're working a puzzle, you can't see how to make all the sky pieces fit right away. That doesn't mean that you throw up your arms and say, 'This puzzle isn't true!' Sometimes you have to fit in other pieces first before you can see how it all fits together, but if you just have enough faith and keep trying, eventually, it will all fit." The other was: "Well, I don't have the slightest idea how a computer works, but that doesn't change the fact that it does work."

The message was, "Don't fret about the stuff that doesn't make sense. We can't possibly understand everything about God. As long you feel the Spirit, you know it's all true." 

In his recent Ted talk, physicist David Deutsch defines a bad explanation: it is one that is too easy to vary. As soon as we have another explanation that could account for the experience of "feeling the Spirit" (and I believe that there are other explanations and intend to explore this topic in the future), the entire justification for believing in religion breaks down.

I've noticed something interesting since I quit believing in God: I still "feel the Spirit," or at least, I still have the feeling that as a Mormon I called "feeling the Spirit." I feel it when I'm holding one of my children, when I'm out in nature, sometimes when I'm doing yoga, and frequently when I'm creating or listening to music. 

I do believe that it's a real experience. I don't believe that religion has a monopoly on it.


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Some wisdom from Pixar

So I took my son to see Toy Story 1 & 2 this weekend, and while I'm sitting in the theatre it dawns on me, "Buzz Lightyear is like a religious person! That was me when I was Mormon!" Seriously. He's convinced that he's been chosen to fulfill some special mission. The world is in danger because of the evil emperor Zurg and he alone has the answer. He thinks he's in touch with Star Command, that his blinking light bulb is a laser, that he can fly, and a series of mundane coincidences further convinces him of all this. Really, he's just a toy, but in the end, being a toy is cooler than being a spaceman.

When I was religious, I believed that God had sent me to this earth to fulfill some unique purpose that I alone could accomplish. I believed he could hear my thoughts and that he sometimes influenced those thoughts. I believed that the hosts of Satan were lurking around every corner, and I was one of the few in this world who had the real answers about life. Really, I'm just, as Tim Minchin puts it, a cognizant lump of carbon, but when I think of the series of coincidences that converged to make my existence possible--the combinations of all my ancestors back for thousands of generations, our planet that coalesced at exactly the right distance from the sun, the stars that exploded to create the elements of our planet and my body--it makes me feel even more special and lucky to be here, and even more determined to relish every bit of my life while I still have it.


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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why religion deserves to be challenged

When I first decided to leave organized religion, I had no intention of taking anyone with me. Up until just a few months ago, I listed my religious views on Facebook as "Live and let live." My attitude was, "Well, it's not for me, but if it makes other people happy, then that's fine." However, I've since changed my mind on this matter. I have seen religion wreck too much to any longer think of it as simply misguided but benign.

It's easy to write off examples of religious "extremism," such as 9/11 or the Inquisition, and say, "Well, my religion isn't like that. I worship a God of love." And while large-scale atrocities of fundamentalism fortunately are rare, I assert that the personal damage caused by religious moderation can be even more insidious.

Imagine a homosexual man who commits suicide because he believes that God would rather have him dead than gay.

Imagine a thirteen-year-old girl who believes that she will be eternally cut off from the presence of God unless she submits to the humiliation of confessing to her middle-aged male bishop that she masturbates.

Imagine a man and woman who ignore their strained finances and evidence of overpopulation because they believe that God wants them to procreate as many children as possible.

Imagine a mother who believes that her baby is suffering in hell, because he died before he was able to be baptized, as though losing a child were not painful enough in and of itself.

Imagine a man who dares not attempt to improve his social or economic condition because he believes that this is the lot he earned due to decisions in a past life, and he must endure what karma has dealt him if he is to have any hope of improvement in the next life.

Unfortunately, these are not hypothetical examples. I do not deny that religions contribute to humanitarian efforts and offer social support networks to their members, but they also cause a great deal of stress, guilt and anxiety in believers. It's worth examining whether or not all that hardship is worth it. The old adage, "Anything worth doing is hard," is not true in reverse: Not everything hard is worth doing. 

Ask yourself if your religion is truly making you happy. I once believed that my religion was a source of happiness, and testified to others that this was so, even as I was undergoing treatment for clinical depression. I never suspected that my religion was a cause of my pain, because I had a testimony that it was true, so I thought any unhappiness must have been my own doing. I now testify that having a good feeling while you pray or sit in church is not sufficient evidence to justify the psychological torment caused by religion. If your beliefs are causing you any grief, please be sure that you aren't suffering needlessly.

Ask questions. Ponder and study it out in your mind. You are intelligent and capable, and you are your own best guide to the truth.


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