Saturday, March 6, 2010

I read the Book of Mormon, so you don't have to.

My foray into the world of Mormon theology is pretty much over. I've read their holy book, we've had multiple conversations, and I think they've given up on me in frustration.

They really pulled out all of the stops on their last visit. They even brought visual aids in the form of small cutouts used to symbolize the stages of a person's life, before, during and after our lifetime.

So, here's the basic rundown of what the Book of Mormon has to say.

God calls an Israelite named Lehi to take his family and leave on a boat. Eventually, they end up in what is now modern day United States. There, they undergo half a millennium of wars and religious angst between the different tribes formed mainly by the descendants of the oldest and youngest sons, Laman and Nephi.

The Lamanites are the bad guys for most of the book. The Nephites are the good guys.

While all of this is going on, the last few books of the Old Testament, and eventually the New Testament events occur. Mormons may have their own book, but they believe in a literal interpretation of the King James Version (and only the King James Version) of the Bible as well.

Eventually, the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs, but instead of going to heaven straight from Jerusalem, he takes a layover in the Americas for a while and preaches to the Nephites and the Lamanites.

After he leaves, everything goes bad again, women cannibalize their husbands, children cannibalize their fathers. Things become terrible and everyone forgets about the teachings of Jesus. Also, they're the Native Americans.

Fortunately, all of these events were recorded on golden plates, and buried near Palmyra, New York. In the 1800s, Joseph Smith was led to these plates by an angel named Moroni, who is also one of the human characters in the later half of the book (he became an angel later). Joseph Smith is also led to a magical crystal ball, that allows him to translate these golden plates from reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics into a version of English that is a bad ripoff of the language in the KJV of the Bible.

That's the basic outline that most people know already, and it is all spelled out straightforward, if rather dryly, in the Book of Mormon.

Now, let's look at the problems with the Book of Mormon.

I see two basic objections to the claims in the BoM. First, the ethics of the god put forward are clearly immoral. Second, the historical claims are demonstrably false.

I. The ethics of the god in the BoM are not the ethics of any deity I would choose to worship.

While this critique alone does not attest to the truth value of the claim of authenticity put forward by those in the Mormon faith, it does create some problems for them. I'll expand upon those problems once I've made my argument.

A. Skin color is a punishment from god. This is explicitly stated multiple times. The Lamanites are cursed with dark skin for turning away from god. Jesus, and his mother Mary, are both white skinned. Anyone in the book who is considered good and holy is portrayed as white. Anyone bad is portrayed as dark.

This isn't implied, like in many works of fiction. The Lord of the Rings is a book that comes to mind as one that has been accused of pitting the good white people against the evil and backward dark people. In the BoM, it comes out and explicitly states this racism. Not only that, but it has occasions where the skin color of characters change in their lifetimes based on the evil actions they take.

B. There is the same maniacal obsession of chastity and virginity that occurs in the Bible. There's a reason why the Mormon church actually has lessons on how not to masturbate. Why sexual desires are a sin is never explained any more in the BoM than it is in the Bible. It is just assumed that since it pisses god off, it must be bad.

C. Mixed messages on slavery. In some parts of the book it says not to enslave your brethren, much like in the Bible. In other areas, it seems to be fine with slavery, much like in the Bible.

So, what are the implications of these ethical problems in the BoM? It seems to me that a book written by an all-loving and perfect god (like that posited by the Mormons) wouldn't be a racist asshole, obsessed with what people do in their bedrooms, or ambiguous on one person owning another as property.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that a racist white man writing a book he intends to use to convince a bunch of other racist white people to follow his new religion might claim that dark skin is a curse from god and that the Native Americans are pure evil cannibals. It also makes sense that a man coming out of the Puritanical society of northeastern United States in the 1800s might have some hangups over sex and masturbation, or that he might have mixed views about slavery. It seems reasonable that a perfect and loving god would have none of these problems.

II. The historical problems with the BoM

A. Multiple times does the BoM mention steel, swords in particular. This simply didn't exist. The Native Americans never developed steel. They didn't have it when the Europeans arrived, and there is absolutely zero archeological evidence that they ever had it prior and lost it.

B. The Native Americans are not Hebrew. We know where the Native Americans came from. There were multiple migrations into the Americas from Asia by land bridge. This can by established through both archeology and (especially) by genetics. The claim that Native Americans are a lost tribe that came here by boat is demonstrably false.

C. Silk in "abundance" is mentioned. Silk never entered the Americans until 1619. There is a reason why the United States went to nylon during WWII. Native Americans did not have silk, especially not in abundance. The only apologetic I can think of to answer this would be that the families that came here originally brought it with them, but the "abundance" lines appear hundreds of years later in the story, and besides, a few small families aren't going to be carrying enough silk over in a boat to make a whole nation consider themselves abundant in it.

D. Horses. Really? Horses? Yes, horses existed alongside humans in the Americas at one point, but they went extinct thousands of years before the events depicted in the BoM. There was no domestication of the horse in the Americas prior to their reintroduction by Europeans. For an interesting discussion of the possibility as to why the horse went extinct and was never domesticated in the Americas, I point you to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

E. Chariots. Even better than horses is chariots. Not only did the Native Americans NOT have chariots, or the horses to draw them, there is scant evidence that they even developed the wheel for drawn or otherwise.

All of these points are problems for the historicity of the BoM. There are plenty of others in my notes, these are just the most obvious ones. I'm sure that there are extensive apologetics out there attempting to reconcile these concerns. Feel free to link them if you want. It'll give me an excuse to make another post.

As far as I'm concerned, the BoM is even less historically accurate than the Bible. At least the Bible talks about peoples that really existed (mostly). The BoM attempts to rewrite settled history, and fails at every level.

Safe to suffice, the claim by the missionaries that if I read the BoM I'll get a feeling in my heart that shows me to truth of its claims didn't happen. The guys were rather disappointed and confused when I told them that I didn't feel anything special reading their text.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dealing with death...

We are currently dealing with what appears to be the impending death of a family member. As of right now, the extended family is having serious discussions about DNRs and maintaining life through machines.

I feel more prepared for these discussions than most, because these are topics that I have seriously considered for myself, but most people have a strong aversion to considering end of life scenarios. They seem to have this almost superstitious idea that discussing it can make it happen. Regardless, it isn't my place to contribute anything to these current discussions more than as a sounding board for those who will be making a difficult set of decisions.

My wife is dealing with the imminent loss of a family member she feels very close to, in a way that is fairly unexpected and that she does not feel prepared to handle.

I'm dealing with feelings of being both a participant and an outsider looking in. I am just trying to fill the roll of a caring and understanding husband for a wife that is about to be going through a grieving period. This is not a role I've had to take on before.

The family as a whole is having to deal with the loss of a caregiver for her husband. It is raising questions about finding a proper home for a loving and intelligent, but also ill and dependent, member of the family.

The decisions that the family must make over the next few days will be difficult, and can potentially cause hard feelings if strong disagreements arise. I will be supportive of whatever decisions are made, regardless of whether they would have been the same decisions I'd have made in the same situation. My role is to be supportive and as helpful as possible, and to be there for my wife during this time of loss and sadness.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I don't smoke, but if I did...

This is how I would quit. I found out about this via, Skeptically Speaking, one of the various podcasts I peruse.

Turns out MC Frontalot from Nerdcore, a band whose name pretty much says it all, decided to quit smoking the best way invoking D&D. From his blog post:

1. Name your character. Mine's Breathorr Inflatagon, a level 2 Lung Elf. You don't have to roll up stats. If you're a real stickler for form, go get your lungs x-rayed. The x-ray film is your character sheet.

2. Keep a d20 in your pack of cigarettes. If it doesn't fit, keep die, lighter, and pack together in some kind of totable container. May I suggest a pouch?

3. Whenever you feel like smoking, that means the GM (you) is trying to poison your character (also you). Time for a saving throw! I decided the DC (Difficulty Class) for my save vs Poison is 15. Roll the d20. 15 and up: I am saved from that cigarette I wanted! Hooray? 14 and under: oh darn, I get to enjoy another satisfying and flavorful cancer treat.

4. If you make the save, you really can't have a cigarette. Rolls have to be at least an hour apart. If you haven't rolled for two hours, that does not mean you get to roll twice. Be strict, or the GM Regulatory Cabal will revoke your authority. (I assume? I haven't GM'd since like 1988.)

5. Every day of the campaign, your Wisdom increases slightly. You're using Will to save against Poison, so increased Wis modifies in your favor (well, in your character's favor — your GM prefers that the poison attacks land). I'm using a mod of +1 for each day, so on day two rolls of 14 and up are successful saves, on day three it's 13 and up, etc. Fifteen days into the campaign, I will only be allowed to smoke when I roll a natural 1.

6. Rolling a natural 1, of course, is a critical fail. Thus, no matter how wise I get, I will always be able to sneak a cigarette if I can roll a 1. But after fifteen days I'm going to limit myself to one poisoning attempt per day, instead of one per waking hour. The game logic behind this is: fuck you, I do what I want.

Turns out, that he failed in his first attempt at this, and later amended his rules to include a "potion", also known as a piece of nicotine gum, every time he successfully avoided being poisoned. Seems to me like this little addition would be a vast improvement over the original.

The whole thing is pure genius, if you ask me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My kid is going to have such a different view of dinosaurs than I did...

Cool science news is coming out. It has been known for years that dinosaurs had feathers. Even as a kid in a highly religious house that was dubious of any science news, I heard about dinosaurs with feathers. Now, my kid grows up in a world where we know what color they were. Awesome.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Boy, what a day.

I met my first homeopath today, also the Mormons just left.

The baby's teeth have been bothering her, and aspirin seems to stop her up. It has been a real frustration around our house lately. My wife, in desperation suggested I go down to the local herb shop. A friend had suggested they might be able to help. I was dubious, but I went ahead and stopped by while I was out. Sure enough, the only thing they had was a homeopathic solution made from chamomile. It was sitting next to a similar solution for bed wetting. Yes, they make homeopathic cures for bed wetting now. I asked the lady at the shop if they had anything that wasn't homeopathic, and she indicated that homeopathy was what they did. I was cordial, but told her that I wasn't convinced homeopathy worked and left. I forgot to even check the price.

When I got home, the Mormons were there. They've been making the rounds of my neighborhood for the last few months, and I was hoping to catch them. Fortunately, it was at a good time too. Other than having to take care of the baby, nothing else was going on. We spoke for over an hour, and they promised to return again in two weeks time.

I found it amazing how unprepared these guys were for a legitimate theological discussion. They were not well spoken. They did not have a firm grasp, or have even heard of, the most common atheist objections to theism or Christianity in particular. They'd never even heard of Jephthah or Elisha and the 42 bears.

When they return in two weeks, I'll be a little more prepared with questions and objections specific to their faith. Maybe then we can have a more fruitful discussion. Between now and then, I've got to go through my copy of the Book of Mormon.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Varieties of Secular Experience

My job allows me to listen to a lot of podcasts. A lot. Tons. Something like 12-14 hours a day.

This means my iTunes is constantly being updated and I'm always looking for new shows to listen to. Sometimes this is wonderful. Sometimes it isn't. I get stuff on philosophy, skepticism, atheism, history...all of it. Everything from guys in a basement talking comic books and video games to serious university lectures on physics and chemistry. I get to be the information sponge I always wanted.

Unfortunately, sometimes the most promising podcasts turn out all wrong. Other times podcasts I'm initially dubious of, turn out to be gems. Recently, both of these have occurred.

First the bad, Irreligiosophy. This podcast had so much promise. Both hosts are ex-Mormon atheists, a religion I find fascinating. It is up there with Scientology for crazy origins, and these guys come from both the mainstream and fundamentalist sects, so they have good perspectives.

If only they'd stick with what they know. In their third episode, they interviewed a liberal Christian author who had blasted the New Atheist movement in one of her books, which is great. Unfortunately, they didn't address any of her book's claims, and spent the whole time throwing really bad questions her way. This is forgivable. It was their first guest. They aren't professionals. Whatever.

Then they ruined me with episode four. Most of the episode was dedicated to ranting about Rick Warren's prayer at Obama's inauguration and a segment about atheists on Glenn Beck's show. I agree with these guys in principle on both subjects, but the arguments they were making were childish and unconvincing. Worse, they were uninformed. On the Beck rant, they attacked a good piece of legislation out of the Illinois constitution, because it mentioned religion.

Now the good. I had a mildly religious experience today. One of those transcendent moments that nearly brings a hard heart like mine to tears. A podcast I recently subscribed to called Skeptically Speaking had a special episode of music inspired by science and skepticism. By the time they got to the remix of Carl Sagan's 'A Glorious Dawn' featuring Stephen Hawking, I nearly cried. It was like one of those moments during prayer that Christians talk about where they have to pull over for the feeling of transcendence.

Finally, I found something much less emotional, but wonderfully educational. A professor at York University in Toronto has a lecture series on the early Christian church, its diversity and establishment, along with the historical Jesus. Anyone who wants to have a solid grasp of the historical context of the early church, and what evidence there is regarding its culture shouldn't miss this.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Give money, you godless heathens!

This is your chance to help prove to the world that you can be good without a god.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation is spearheading a Non-Believers Giving Aid drive to raise money for Haiti. All donations will go through two entirely secular charities, Doctors Without Borders and International Red Cross. You can rest assured that none of your money is going to programs trading souls for food.

Additionally, if you prefer one of these over the other, you can pick which of the two you want your money to go towards.

The payments are through Paypal (you don't have to have an account, you can use a credit card). All of the money you donate will go to the charity. Richard Dawkins has agreed to cover the Paypal fees up to $10,000.

Here is a link to the press release and donation site.

Our family donated. Will you?