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I just got back from a funeral.

It caused me to think, as funerals tend to do. The man who died and the services held in his honor were emblematic of my relationship to Mormonism.

The man who died was the bishop to whom I first confessed my sins. He tried to help me the best he knew how, but our shared belief in Mormonism got in our way. Instead of telling me that I was acceptable just exactly as I was, he tried to help fix me, to help me meet an arbitrary standard. Though he was kindhearted, our interaction led to years of heartbreak.

Everything in my life has been a mixture of good and bad.

Going to the funeral was a homecoming. The church was the same building where I spent long hours in stake conference as a child and where I attended my freshman year of early morning seminary. The people that I saw were the faces of my childhood: teachers, leaders, old friends, people whom I haven’t seen in years, people with a smiles of recognition when they see me, everyone a little older and worn down by life. The lilt and rhythm of Mormon thought weaved itself through the entire occasion and helped to impart to my mind a sense of timelessness. So many parts of my life were connected in this moment. My childhood folded in on the present moment.

I appreciate Mormon funerals. Because they sincerely believe that they will see their family and friends again, their funerals take on the air of a somewhat melancholy family reunion. I don’t share their hope for a continuation of life after death, but I want my funeral to celebrate that life goes on. Saying goodbye is the inevitable price of building relationships. We can’t have the one without the other.

I sat listening to stories about his life mixed in with assertions of supernatural miracles and certainty for unjustified beliefs. I briefly wished that we could dispense with the nonsense and focus on who the man was. However, these beliefs were part of him. They were an appropriate part of his funeral because he received a sense of meaning from them. Even though my feelings about Mormonism range from ambivalence to repugnance, if I wanted to acknowledge this man as a friend, I had to make peace with the parts of him that I dislike.

I can’t say that I willingly accept the bad with the good. But what choice do I have when the two are inseparable?

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  1. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

    Are you going to claim that you have a justified belief in an absolute absence of life after death?

  2. TAG said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 4:36 am

    Hi, Jonathan – Did the folks from your youth know your current situation with the church?

    When my brother died, I still was holding tightly to the LDS beliefs and they gave me peace. When my sister died, I was really doubting, but I wanted to believe, and I said the things I was supposed to say for my mom’s sake. I’m sort of past that now (though still haven’t “come out” except to my husband and one friend about my feelings on church and religion), and I wonder what the next funeral I attend will be like. I think it makes the whole idea of a funeral being a celebration of a life much more real. Without hope of an afterlife, it’s the here-and-now that matters. Not to say that I have that appreciation perfected, but I’m trying.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 8:42 am


    I don’t claim to be certain that there is no afterlife. I do claim that no one can be certain what happens to our consciousness when we die. Even those who have had near death experiences cannot know.

    But, lacking a strong reason to believe in a continuation of life after death, I don’t believe.


    No, they didn’t know. Everyone said how good I looked (I’ve been trying to take better care of myself lately). One old friend even said I looked sixteen. I think he must have missed my graying hair. :)

    If they had known, I imagine that may have become the focus of conversation with some of them. Instead it focused on catching up. I’m glad that their ignorance allowed our time together to transcend the concerns of Mormonism.

    I don’t ever expect to be perfectly fine with this life being all there is. I have some good days, some bad. On balance, I have more good days now.

  4. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 8:52 am

    In fact, I saw the wife of one of my Young Men’s presidents. She said how she and her husband had wondered about me the other day and said how they always thought I was one of the good ones. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but I tried. I think a lot of people would be shocked to find out where I’m at today.

  5. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    . . . and lacking a strong reason not to believe in a continuation of life after death, you don’t not believe?

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    There is much more reason to believe that consciousness ends at death. I can see the body lie motionless. There is no understanding in the blank eyes. I can watch the body decompose into its elemental constituents. All of the signs that I take that other human beings have a consciousness similar to my own no longer exist, in that body or anywhere else.

    By the force of direct experience, the end of consciousness at death becomes my null hypothesis.

  7. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    . . . “or anywhere else” or anytime else are assumptions you are making. My assumption is that life will continue somewhere sometime somehow, and our assumptions are an important aspect of realizing an important kind of truth.

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:12 am

    My assumption is on par with the assumption that there is no teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars (i.e. a rather safe one given the lack of evidence).

    I also don’t think it’s necessary to believe in something beyond what the evidence will allow in order to make progress toward making our desires real. No amount of false hope for the present immortality of consciousness is required to make that real. In fact, it hinders any such efforts.

    Who is behind the various efforts at making us immortal? Present company excepted, the vast majority are those who think we are not currently immortal. Religionists think we already are, so it’s not a concern for them. The irreligious are driving the technological search for immortality.

  9. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 8:06 am

    Your assumption is not on par with that of the teapot, given that almost no one cares about the teapot. You believe in all sorts of things beyond evidence, whether you recognize it or not. Meaning itself depends utterly on that which is beyond evidence. The premises and operations of logic cannot be proven by logic. The axioms of mathematics cannot be proven by mathematics. Your thoughts are not a clean slate reflecting absolute truth, but arise into your consciousness already processed and filtered into that which is quite Jonathan.

    No amount of false hope is required to make something real? It is your assumption that the hope is false. There is good reason to believe that we will never attain the technological capacity to resurrect the dead unless others have already attained such capacity. Moreover, it is incorrect to hold that hope hinders progress. To the contrary, hope is and always will be essential to progress. What hinders progress is apathy, induced either through dogmatic skepticism or dogmatic fatalism. There are, indeed, many among the religious who are dogmatically fatalistic regarding immortality. Here, however, you are bordering on dogmatic skepticism, which, to repeat, is as damaging to hope and its natural consequences as is the opposite.

    I disagree, at least in part, with your assessment of who is driving the search for immortality, for at least two reasons. First, I consider Transhumanists religious — one need not be a theist to be religious; I am not alone in this, and have the good company of agreeing with some leading Transhumanists who are themselves atheist, yet honestly recognize the religious paradigm. Second, beyond Transhumanists, it is not clear whether more atheists than theists are involved in the life extension movement generally.

  10. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 8:34 am

    The assumptions are on par with respect to available evidence.

    I accept that I believe many things without conclusive evidence. I try to avoid believing things on absolutely no evidence, however. Even those things that I do believe on inconclusive evidence, I try to keep in mind the relative weakness of the evidence.

    Meaning itself depends utterly on that which is beyond evidence.

    This is something that I have learned since awakening from my religious past: meaning need not be anchored in the absolute. A sense of meaning and purpose is an emotion that can be tied to finite pursuits. Therefore, meaning doesn’t suffer from the same lack of evidence as our hopes which are placed in an unknowable eternity.

    To the contrary, hope is and always will be essential to progress.

    Hope for things that are possible given enough human effort is essential to progress. Hope that Jesus has already made us immortal hinders progress.

    Whatever the theist/atheist balance in Transhumanism, it remains true that they are not content to wait for a deus ex machina to overtly help humanity in its quest for long life. This is evidence to me that they are atheistic in this one respect (i.e. they lack hope for direct divine intervention, aside from perhaps vague notions of divine inspiration).

  11. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 8:54 am

    Without conclusive evidence? No, Jonathan. The qualification is still too strong. You believe many things without any evidence at all, as we all do. Indeed, everything you believe ultimately requires an appeal to faith. It’s unavoidable and even in your interest, if for no other reason than your survival.

    I agree that meaning need not be anchored in the absolute. I don’t know if there are any absolutes, and would not care if there are none — indeed, I suspect there are none. However, that’s not the point of my statement, that meaning depends utterly on that which is beyond evidence. My point is that meaning, of whatever sort you’ve got (whether you want to call it “finite” or not), is not a matter of evidence. Meaning is created. Meaning is posited. You can’t prove it except within the context of another position, also created. Beyond that, lack of evidence is a poor argument against human hope. You know that, in your heart. To use an example on the end of the spectrum with which you are less comfortable, it may be true that you and I are fatalistically doomed to burn for eternity in a hell imposed on us by a supernatural being that some theists call “God”, but we don’t give up our hope to the contrary.

    I agree that hope for things that are possible given enough human effort is essential to progress. However, we don’t know in advance all that is possible, and an important class of possibilities depend on our hope for their realization. Moreover, while I agree that fatalistic hope in Jesus hinders progress,our hope nonetheless relies wholly in the grace of the possible, which Jesus manifests archetypically, if not also historically.

    I agree that Transhumanists have no intention of waiting for God to save us in ways that we can save ourselves. However, I disagree that this makes them definitionally atheists, unless Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and many contemporary Mormons (those who, I would argue, most accurately reflect in their thoughts an authentic Mormon theology) are also atheists.

  12. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    . . . and unless the Book of Mormon is an atheist text:

    “Behold, could ye suppose that ye could sit upon your thrones, and because of the exceeding goodness of God ye could do nothing and he would deliver you? Behold, if ye have supposed this ye have supposed in vain.” (Alma 60: 11)

  13. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 9:33 am

    Logic and mathematics are not grounded absolutely, I agree. And yet there is evidence for them: they work. I am therefore relieved of needing to accept them on no evidence.

    Meaning isn’t a belief, per se. Our beliefs may give shape to our sense of meaning, but meaning is an emotion, not a belief. It would be more accurate to say “I feel like my life has meaning” than to say “I believe that my life has meaning”. For example, I might believe that doing my job gives my life a purpose, and yet lack a sense that my work is meaningful. If I volunteer to help kids learn to read, I might not only see a purpose in my life, but I feel like it has meaning.

    However, we don’t know in advance all that is possible, and an important class of possibilities depend on our hope for their realization.

    We need to judge what things are more likely to be possible in order to judge where our efforts are most effective. While we cannot know what is truly possible, we can find evidence to guide us.

    Regarding theism/atheism, I’m using it in the sense that theism is the belief that God exists and intervenes in our lives. Transhumanists believe that no God, if he exists, will help them in this respect.

  14. Lincoln Cannon said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 9:48 am

    Transhumanists hold only that we can and should work toward a better future, because our anatomies and environment (grace) allow for it whether or not advanced life forms help out from time to time — and this is wholly consistent with an authentic interpretation of Mormon texts on grace and works.

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