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Archive for March 2007

How to Convince an Atheist That They Are Wrong

So you know a Mormon who became an atheist—just hypothetically of course—and you want to convince them of the error of their ways. I’m going to show you exactly how to do it.

The first step is to understand why the transformation happened. Stereotypes like “They just want to sin without feeling guilty”, “They never really had a testimony or knew God”, “Someone in the church must have offended them”, and so on simply will not do. You must let go of preconceptions and try to truly understand. Only through understanding can you know where to start.

I mention an article that will help the believer to understand in my “about” page, but that might not be a visible enough place for such a great article. When a Loved One Has Let Go of the Iron Rod by Michael Felix starts the believer on the path of understanding and give some tips about how to talk with the once-believing Mormon.

Ebon Musings gives the next step by asking the question “What would it take to change an atheist’s mind?” in The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists. Follow those helpful directions† and you cannot fail to convert the average atheist.

How Not to Convert an Atheist goes further and tells you what to avoid in your efforts to show your atheist the light.

There you go: a surefire method to call the average atheist to repentance. Go forth and thrust in the sickle with all of your might.

† Some may pooh-pooh some of the methods presented as sign-seeking or tempting God. A theist can see that this is not the case by asking themselves “What would it take to make me give up my religion?”. If a Pastafarian missionary came to a Christian, for example, and asked them to join his delicious religion, I’m sure the Christian would ask to have some evidence of his claims before taking him seriously. It’s only reasonable.

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Masturbatory Insanity

I recently read through Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Counterrevolution, and Emerging Reform by Mark Kim Malan and Vern Bullough (Sexuality & Culture, Fall 2005, Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 80-127.). I put together a timeline of the history of masturbation in the Mormon church as I read through the article:

1700s Masturbation is first connected to insanity and disease in popular and medical literature—anti-masturbation sentiments rise in response—homosexuality and pederasty are linked to masturbation—hysteria becomes widespread and leads to the popularization of male circumcision (which was previously only a religious rite) in an effort to curb masturbation
1830 Joseph Smith organizes the Mormon church
1800s Smith remains publicly silent on masturbation leaving no record of any statements on the issue—Brigham Young, Joseph’s successor, is also silent on the issue of masturbation leaving no record of any statement on the issue—in the absence of official guidance, members of the church tend to go along with popular, hysterical opinion of the day
1870–71 The subject of masturbation is addressed in meetings of the School of the Prophets by Apostles Daniel H. Wells and Lorenzo Snow and President George A. Smith, First Counselor in the First Presidency—polygamy is seen as a cure for masturbation by church leaders—Elder Wells echoed the common sentiment that masturbation would lead to insanity and an early death
1883 Masturbation lumped together with excessive marital coitus as cause of disease in a meeting of the First Presidency
1800s (late) increased acceptance of the bacterial causes of disease undermines the idea that masturbation leads to disease
1920s and ’30s a new era of more factual attitudes in the Church’s official response to masturbation—masturbation shame linked with mental health concerns—official church manuals encouraged parental guidance rather than repression—warned against parental overreaction to masturbation
1940s Church promoted “better dead than alive and unclean” to Mormon members of the military in WWII
1950s several church leaders publish opinions which encourage total abstinence from masturbation—church reverses previous moderate stance, the first time that church policy diverged from the common medical opinion of the day
1958 Elder Bruce R. McConkie publishes Mormon Doctrine with a statement that directly condemns the psychiatric opinion that masturbatory shame is a mental dysfunction thereby creating the impression of an authoritative denunciation of masturbation because of his position as an Apostle
1969 Elder Spencer W. Kimball writes The Miracle of Forgiveness which denounces masturbation and states that religious authority trumps any empirical evidence
1972 American Medical Association declares masturbation to be normal behavior—Boy Scout manual is rewritten to affirm the normalcy of masturbation and its positive role in sexual development—25,000 copies of the manual are destroyed under the influence of Catholic and Mormon churches—revised edition advises boys to counsel with parents and spiritual leaders regarding masturbation—Mormon health care professionals come under increased pressure to honor their priesthood oaths over their professional oaths and standards
1976 Church distributes pamphlet To Young Men Only, a reprinting of an speech by Elder Boyd K. Packer in which he promoted his personal ideas about sexual physiology and desire which contradicted contemporary empirical medical evidence—the pamphlet promotes the idea that sexual desire would be almost absent during puberty if it were not incited, that masturbation causes sexual desire
1980s Elder Mark E. Petersen authored Steps in Overcoming Masturbation targeted to young, male missionaries—his pamphlet advocated harsh psychological control methods and aversion therapy techniques to control masturbation—Mormon psychiatrist Cantril Nielsen pays a large settlement in the wrongful death case of 16-year-old Kip Eliason who he advised to follow his bishop’s counsel to abstain from masturbation in order to be worthy (contrary to the standards of his psychiatric profession)—Kip Eliason committed suicide due to overwhelming feelings of unworthiness while trying to abstain from masturbation—medical experts in the case confirmed that masturbation posed no risks to mental or physical health, but that attempted abstinence from masturbation had a documented history of suicidal risk
1990 LDS church officially publishes For the Strength of Youth pamphlet which continued to denounce masturbation as morally unclean
1994 Is Kissing Sinful?, a book by church member Grant Von Harrison, is published which promotes the extreme position that “If you allow yourself to become sexually aroused prior to marriage, you commit a moral sin”
1995 In a study of 103 married Mormon women (91% of whom attended church services weekly, 5% monthly), 43% reported that they masturbated currently, 54% when they were younger
2001 The church publishes a highly revised For the Strength of Youth which no longer mentions masturbation by name
2004 And They Were Not Ashamed: Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment by church member Laura M. Brotherson aims to counteract some of the sexual shame in popular LDS culture—she admits to suffering from psychosexual shame which caused marital dysfunction—she advises that masturbation is permissible when intended to promote marital health

There is a lot more to the article that isn’t covered in this timeline. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Mormon church or in masturbation. :)

The picture that I got from this article is that—in the absence of scriptural or official guidance on the issue of masturbation—the popular hysteria and religious distaste for masturbation in the days of the early Mormon church were adopted by default by the members of the church and later enshrined in church doctrine by conservative members of the church hierarchy. The church promoted healthy attitudes toward masturbation during a short time in the early twentieth century. The church then reversed course and now promotes unhealthy attitudes toward masturbation due to doctrinal inertia despite clear evidence that this policy causes its members great, undue emotional distress, all for the sake of a man-made doctrine which insinuated itself into the culture and dogma of the church.

Some revelations are of God; some revelations are of man; and some revelations are of the devil
(Joseph Smith as quoted by David Whitmer, An address to all believers in Christ)

Update:

2010 The new edition of the Church Handbook of Instruction fails to mention masturbation in its discussion of the Law of Chastity (transgressions of which law are said to merit disciplinary action). The only mention of masturbation is to say, “A disciplinary council should not be held to discipline or threaten members who do not comply with the Word of Wisdom, who are struggling with pornography or self-abuse,…”.

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Kiai!

I’ve practiced a small amount of martial arts (enough to get myself beaten up while looking like a fool), but all the same I feel somewhat qualified to comment on what’s real and what’s not in that world. I’ve seen a fair share of martial arts snake oil.

A few months ago, I learned about Yanagiryuken, a martial artist who I believe practiced Daito-ryu Aikijutsu (no word on his credentials). He specialized in spectacular feats of channeling qi, a mysterious invisible force, to defeat his opponents at a distance, never laying a hand on them. You can see a video demonstration of his prowess.

He wagered 1,000,000 Yen that he could beat anyone who would pay 500,000 Yen to face him in a no holds barred match. A young MMA fighter took up his wager. (warning: don’t view this if you would be uncomfortable seeing an old man given a bloody nose and knocked on his rear)

What I find fascinating is that he and his students bought in to his fraud so completely. What made the students dance around when there was obviously no reality to Yanagiryuken’s powers? What made Yanagiryuken believe his own press releases and get into the ring with a real fighter?

It seems to be a great example of communal reinforcement. I can imagine a new student not wanting to stick out of the crowd and tell the emperor that he’s got no clothes. This student also would also feel a subtle social pressure to react to the teacher’s buffoonery as if it were real. This is a great example of the principle of insufficient justification. (How Denial Works—Denial in General and Mormon Denial in Particular, p. 87)

I feel bad for those who are duped by their teachers into a false sense of security. I can only hope for their sake that the student’s aura of confidence will dissuade any potential attacker from making the attempt.

They lied to each other often enough that they all came to believe the lie to be truth. What a fascinating case study of how groupthink can overcome an individual’s otherwise rational judgment!

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Why I Left

I’m going to tell a little bit about why I left the LDS church, but this time the gloves are off. I’m not going to be vicious, but I’m in a mood and I will be completely forthright. Don’t read it if you’re going to allow yourself to be offended (Elder Bednar’s got by back on this one). If you think that you will allow yourself to be offended, please content yourself with the more palatable recounting of my story. Be doubly forewarned.

As I sought a greater connection with God through study and prayer, I learned that the history of the Mormon church isn’t what it is portrayed to be. I have encountered anti-Mormon literature throughout my life like most members of the Church. It caused me some moments of panicked doubt, but through study and the help of others, I was able to see through the spiteful lies and return to faith.

Things were different when I read Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman, currently serving as a Stake Patriarch. This book wasn’t filled with lies from the anti-Mormon crowd. It presented what the historical evidence seems to say without bias for or against the LDS church.

It became clear from this book and others that the Mormon religion wasn’t founded by a heroic, almost god-like prophet of the last days, but by a deeply flawed human being. Brother Joseph may have had experiences which led him to feel a divine vocation, but I saw little evidence that the Church was actually led by the hand of God. Joseph lived as a human being, full of pride, anger, and lust. He fell victim to his own power. He seduced young women and other men’s wives into sexual relationships through charisma and the promise of eternal salvation for themselves and their families. Only after his first affair did he mention to anyone the doctrine of polygamy. In case it didn’t come through the first time I said it, Joseph Smith was married to other men’s wives while the men were still alive and married. In a handful of cases, Joseph Smith practiced polyandry. That was news to me.

There were missteps, blunders, and doctrinal reversals at every step of early Church history. Joseph’s inept leadership culminated in Joseph and Hyrum’s assassinations and the exile of most of the Saints into the Rocky Mountains. The Saints were not strictly innocent victims as we often see portrayed by the LDS church. They provoked some of their own troubles.

I next read Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 by Thomas G. Alexander. This was another scholarly work which presented a balanced history of the Mormons in Utah during this pivotal time. The book treated many themes, but the ones that stuck with me concern:

  1. the radical changes in doctrine during this time like the abandonment of the Adam-God theory which had been taught in the Temple Endowment for a time
  2. the continued, secret solemnization of polygamous marriages by members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve well into the twentieth century despite public avowals to the contrary
  3. the consolidation of centralized priesthood authority in the church which removed the autonomy of the Relief Society and the other auxiliary organizations (the Relief Society had been a parallel organization to the priesthood)
  4. the change in emphasis from worship centered around gifts of the Spirit to attendance at the temple (this change also further reduced the autonomy of the Sisters of the Church who were probably the most fervent practitioners of the Gifts, who for example, would often heal members of Church through their spiritual gifts)
  5. the nascent development of a literalist orthodoxy which changed the original, freeform, creedless Mormonism into the more authoritarian, exclusive religion we are familiar with today

I next read David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory A Prince and Wm Robert Wright. This book tells the story of how Mormonism was transformed into something that is easily recognizable to modern members. It traces the continued consolidation of power and authority and the continued creation of an LDS orthodoxy. It also portrayed the machinations and politics at the highest levels of the Church which betrays the image of calm unanimity which is portrayed to the public. It only added another damning witness to the previous two books in my eyes.

At this point, I was on pretty shaky ground. I was a member of a church that I no longer recognized. I didn’t know whether to give up on Mormonism entirely or to become a fundamentalist Mormon in hopes of regaining something which was lost.

Enter the new crop of atheist authors, stage right. I never read any of Dawkins’, Harris’, or Dennet’s books, but I became familiar with their ideas through snippets of text and video on the internet.

I don’t think I’ve shared this anywhere else yet, but the following two sites were a central turning point when I became aware of how absurd a belief in God looked when observed objectively: Why Won’t God Heal Amputees and Kissing Hank’s Ass (video inspired by Kissing Hank’s Ass). The first asks a very provocative question. Had I ever heard of an amputee made whole through prayer? Why not? I thought I had a good answer to this challenging question, but as I read through that site, I realized that my answer was only a weak rationalization to preserve a belief which seemed more and more like simple superstition.

It all comes down to this: what the atheists said made sense on a level that all my religious training did not. My experiences, when I looked at them honestly, confirmed the atheists’ viewpoint much more than it confirmed the Mormon doctrines. I had never seen God or felt any special communion with Him. I never had a witness of the Holy Spirit that could be distinguished from a simple emotional response. I had never witnessed any miracles. Answers to my prayers had been sporadic and indistinguishable from natural phenomena. The leaders of the LDS church seemed like nothing more than sincere men who acted with no more insight than other intelligent managers in the business world.

My world under the burden of my religious faith had been filled with guilt, fear, and superstition. If you had told me this at the time, I would have denied it. The world was peachy keen from where I stood. I was a fish swimming in an ocean of water, ignorant of the true nature of my surroundings. I must say the following exactly as it is: the Mormon church laid a mighty awful mindfuck on me. It’s only now that I can see that.

Giving up on Mormonism, Satan, and God has made the world make sense. I was always struggling to reconcile my beliefs with what I saw in the world around me. I never dug too deeply into religious doctrines because it only ended in paradox and infinite regress. My mind is now unfettered by filial, cultural, or dogmatic constraints. I feel no obligation to believe anything that isn’t reasonable to me.

All the days of my life I had never known the pleasure of pure intellectual integrity. Now that I’ve tasted that fruit which is most precious and sweet above all that is sweet, I will not be easily persuaded to turn back to the pandemonium of the great and spacious houses of religious ignorance and pride.

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Self Empowering Prayer

My flight from religion has been tempered by my desire to accommodate my wife’s sensibilities and to fulfill what I can of the promises that I made to her in marriage and by my understanding that religion is a treasure trove of human wisdom which should not be dismissed lightly. Many religious practices hold real value. I try to discern what is of true value and hold on to it rather than define myself as irreligious rebel and throw out my baby with its bathwater.

Prayer is one religious practice that I find value in. It can be of immense value to sit together or alone and speak aloud our troubles and concerns; remind ourselves of all that brings gratitude to our hearts; express our hopes, goals, and deepest desires; and to simply separate out a sacred space in time where we meditate on our lives and commune together. There is power in prayer.

I had been praying all my life for divine protection as I start to drive my car. Recently, I have morphed that prayer into a meditation to focus my attention and purpose. I say something like this to myself, concentrating on each item: “As I drive, may I be focused, patient, courteous, conscientious, predictable, and alert. May I do all within my power to help myself and all my fellow travelers arrive at our destinations safely.” This simple meditation has effected a significant change in my attitude, a change which I didn’t experience before when I asked for divine help. This meditation puts the onus on me to make my drive safe. I am responsible for my own attitudes and actions. Me. This meditation helps psyche myself into a good frame of mind for driving safely.

I derive real strength from this kind of prayer. What I don’t miss from the old style of prayer is waiting for my answers and worrying constantly if I’m praying for the right things. What I do miss is unburdening my concerns on an omnipotent, benevolent being. I miss the singsong of the familiar formulas even more. It seems too abrupt to skip “Our dear Heavenly Father” and “In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen” at the beginning and end of prayers. Leaving those phrases out doesn’t separate the meditation satisfactorily from mundane conversation. I’m still trying to come up with a good set of formulas to replace these theistic phrases.

I feel a new power of transformation working in my life as I refocus my prayers to a transcendent being into an communion with my self. I gain insight into what makes me work enabling me to make personal changes.

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