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A Not So Eloquent Atheist Kerfluffle

I’ve been mulling over Sam Harris’ talk at the Atheist Alliance International Convention (video: part 1 and part 2). I avoided commenting on it while the debate crested in the atheist community because I wanted to think it over.

Up to that point, I’d begun to think Sam Harris a bit overzealous. This talk changed my opinion. The response from the leaders of the atheist community seemed largely to misunderstand what I thought Harris had said. I took away from his talk that by labeling ourselves as Atheist (or Bright, Humanist, etc.) we become incapable of seeing nuance in complex situations and finding common cause with our religious brothers and sisters.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.…

Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewilderment—with peaks and valleys and local attractors—and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.

I’m still considering dropping the atheist label and speaking out against ideas that I disagree with as nothing but myself.

Recently, I experienced the business end of the blunt instrument of atheism that Harris had observed. The Eloquent Atheist recently ran a four part memoir of growing up in a small Idaho town. Included in this memoir are some assertions about Mormon beliefs and history, many of which were in error. The inaccuracies disappointed me because I naïvely expected better from fellow atheists. I submitted the following comment.

Warning: A lot of petty back-and-forth follows, but if a blog isn’t good for getting pettiness out of my system once in a while, then I don’t know why I bother. :) Please skip to the end if you have better things to do.

As a former Mormon, I found your perspective as an outsider interesting, but as a former Mormon, I noticed that the historical and doctrinal information presented was riddled with inaccuracies. I’m as critical as the next guy of Mormon history and doctrine, but it’s a better education tool when it is presented as it really is. Otherwise, Mormons can justifiably charge that their critics are ignorant of the truth. Please fact check your memories and impressions before presenting a seemingly authoritative essay.

I admit that was quite blunt and confrontational. I had just finished reading Nonviolent Communication, so I knew a better way to dialog, but I was lazy and went the more familiar violent approach.

Somehow, I was mistaken for a Mormon apologist and challenged to provide proof of God and to produce the Golden Plates. Color me nonplussed. I then submitted the following comment (which has been removed from their website):

I regret that my comment didn’t make my position more clear. I’m not arguing that Mormonism is verifiable, but that the history and doctrine presented here are inaccurate. A believing Mormon (which I am not) could legitimately object to the inaccuracies of this series which aims to be an exposé. Allow me to give two examples from part 3:

they are white cotton underwear, somewhat similar to long johns, except that they are in two pieces, a “blouse” and pantaloons, which both men and women wear continually, after baptism, for the remainder of their lives.

This can be falsified by reading the Wikipedia article on temple garments. There seems to be some confusion in part 3 over whether the garment is worn after the receiving the ordinance of the Endowment in a temple or after receiving baptism which is received outside the temple. The garment is only worn after the Endowment.

Needless to say, only Mormons can enter any of three levels of Mormon Heaven.

This is an inaccurate and unfair statement of Mormon belief. Mormons are exclusive, but not quite that exclusive. The Celestial Kingdom is reserved for baptized Mormons, but the other two degrees of glory are open to all depending on their virute. In fact, vanishingly few people (no more than a dozen some have speculated) end up in Hell in Mormon eschatology. Even murderers end up in the lowest degree of heaven.

I worry that with inaccurate portrayals like these cropping up on the internet, believing Mormons will stop listening to the critics who do know what they’re talking about. I want them to hear the truth, but they might start to form the opinion that all critics are ignorant of the facts. I hope that all critics will inform themselves before taking up the pen.

Again, I confess to being in attack mode, and it had the ungratifying result of gaining me a place of dishonor: they took the trouble to devote an entire post to denouncing my theism, my Mormonism, caricaturing my statements, and refusing to allow any further comments until I could produce proof of God.

Mr. Blake, however, insists upon arguing about a few points of religious “history” and Mormon “philosophy” ad infinitum, apparently not understanding that we should not and do not care about the small points until the broad issues have been settled. As an example of a broad point I submit the following for Mr. Blake’s consideration: “There is no god.”

Yet Mr. Blake insists that we concern ourselves with the material out of which the magical Mormon royal undergarments are made. Now, Mr. Blake has sufficient unmitigated gall to tell me that I do not understand his point.

Well… that’s what I’m saying, yes. He misunderstood on a very fundamental level and then proceeded to argue against my nonexistent belief in God. I imagined him with his fingers in his ears saying “La La La La. I can’t hear you. There is no God. La La La La.”

Seeking to clear up this persistent misunderstanding (and being quite frustrated and disappointed at this point), I submitted the following comment which was never allowed to be seen on their website:

I am afraid that I haven’t made my position known clearly. Please let me be clear on this point: God is not great and Joseph Smith was not his prophet. No, perhaps I’m trying to be too clever. Let me try again to be direct: I believe that there is no God. If you read my comments again, carefully, you’ll see that I made that clear from the beginning. So requests for me to justify Mormonism or theism are equally misplaced.

The criticism that I offered came not from a Mormon apologist, but from a former Mormon/current atheist asking for more accuracy in the criticism of Mormonism. If you want to check my godless credentials, please feel welcome visit my personal blog, or take my word for it.

I realize that those posts were mostly in the spirit of memoir. That part was fine and interesting. The posts often however stepped beyond that role into exposition of what Mormons purportedly believe in an authoritative voice along the lines of “Mormons believe thus and such”. Mormons believe lots of crazy stuff, so there’s no shortage of silly things to highlight. This makes it not only irresponsible and unfair to publish falsehoods, but kind of lazy. And memoir doesn’t cover a multitude of sins, as James Frey discovered.

I regret that my comments have provoked such vehemently defensive posts, ad hominem attacks, caricaturization of my position, and censorship.

I don’t expect The Eloquent Atheist to be a debate club; that would run counter to its apparent purpose. I’m only asking for better editorial oversight. If I want to direct my Mormon friends to this site to show them how passionate and alive atheists can be (which I hoped to be able to do), I don’t want them to find half-hearted exposés in the guise of memoir.

Let me give you more of a flavor of the kind of misinformation that I object to. Here are the first passages of part 2 titled The History of the LDS Church:

Let’s begin with a capsule history of the Church. The founder, Joseph Smith, was born on a farm in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century. [Joseph Smith was born in Vermont.] That area later became known as The Burned-Over District, a nickname alluding to the many fire-and-brimstone preachers who roamed the area delivering jeremiads to the local residents in tent shows and so-called camp meetings, urging them to repent their sinful ways lest they burn eternally in Hell. In a time of great religious fervor, now called the Second Great Awakening, Smith allegedly searched for a system of religious belief that he could justify in his own mind as legitimate, and investigated a number of the Protestant denominations that existed in the region-Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and so on. None satisfied him as being The True Religion. [According to Smith's most widely known account (the 1838 account of the First Vision), he didn't go to the grove of trees to pray having made up his mind than no extant religion was God's true religion. He claims that he prayed to know which religion was true.] Then according to his account, in 1830, [The first vision is purported to have occurred in 1820.] while walking in a grove of trees on the Hill Cumorah, [The grove of trees reported to have been the site of the First Vision was not on the Hill Cumorah.] near the town of Elmira, [Both the grove and the Hill Cumorah are near Palmyra, New York which is over 50 miles north of Elmira.] he had a vision, in which an angel named Moroni (pronounced “mo-rōn-eye”) allegedly appeared, [While the purported vision of Moroni allegedly happened in 1830, an angel named Moroni plays no part in any account of the First Vision that I'm aware of. Perhaps I'm ignorant of one?] informed Smith that he came as a direct emissary from God, confirmed Smith’s opinion that none of the extant denominations or sects was The True Religion, [As noted above, Joseph claimed to have learned the falsehood of all religions in the First Vision rather than having a foregone conclusion.] and pronounced that Jehovah Himself had selected him (Smith) to found a church that would deliver the True Word of God to those who elected to follow him.

Smith later reputedly reported that he, like Moses, protested that he was unworthy of such a lofty and arduous task, but the angel insisted that he was to be the Prophet and that it was futile to deny the commands of the Almighty. Smith eventually acquiesced to his destiny, and Moroni instructed him where in the Sacred Gove to dig, [Another confusion of the First Vision and the vision of Moroni and also of the Hill Cumorah where Smith claimed to have unearthed the plates, and the Sacred Grove where he claimed to have seen God.] in order to recover the Golden Plates, on which Moroni’s father, Mormon, also an angel, had written, [Moroni is also the nominal author of significant portions of the Book of Mormon. Mormon didn't appear to Joseph as an angel, nor did he purportedly write the plates as an angel.] in an ancient and sacred tongue, the history of two of the Lost Tribes of Israel.…

It got much better after that, but this sloppiness was enough to appall me. Can someone give the man a Wikipedia search?

Once it was mistakenly determined that I was a theist, they didn’t care to read what I said, not carefully at least. Once they presumably realized their mistake, they seemed to cover their tracks by deleting the comments that made their mistake obvious. They weren’t open to nuanced discussion. I had expected better than censorship, dishonesty, and intellectual laziness from my supposedly enlightened fellow atheists.

Is this how some atheists treat theists? Alas, I think Sam Harris was right that labels like “atheist” are useless and probably harmful if they can cause people to turn off their critical thinking and circle the wagons like that.

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DNA Discovered while on LSD

Francis Crick discovered the secret structure of DNA while on LSD. He was accustomed to using low doses of the drug to increase mental function which reminds me of the juice of Sapho from the David Lynch film based on Frank Herbert‘s Dune. Mentats were human computers.

Unlike computers, however, Mentats are not simply human calculators writ large. Instead, the exceptional cognitive abilities of memory and perception are the foundations for supra-logical hypothesizing. Mentats are able to sift large volumes of data and devise concise analyses in a process that goes far beyond logical deduction: Mentats cultivate “the naïve mind”, the mind without preconception or prejudice, that can extract the essential patterns or logic of data, and deliver useful conclusions with varying degrees of certainty. (Mentat)

In the imaginary world of Dune, Mentats used the juice of Sapho to increase their considerable abilities even further. Perhaps LSD was Crick’s juice of Sapho allowing him to see the essential pattern of the DNA molecule by laying aside preconceptions and self-critical thoughts.

It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
It is by the juice of sapho that thoughts acquire speed,
the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning.
It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.
(Mentat Mantra)

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Mistakes Were Made

Does this scenario seem familiar?

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”

The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.

(Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), via The Situationist)

Quite a few prophecies have failed, yet people still believe. We’ve expected Jesus to come again for two thousand years, for example. It seems like people have been saying “any day now” forever, at least since the day he died.

Why don’t we collectively say “You know what, we were wrong. Christ really isn’t coming.”? Even if Christ really is coming (the big tease), disbelief would be a reasonable reaction after two millennia of disappointment. Why does the biggest failed (so far?) prophecy in history fail to cause widespread disbelief?

One reason is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when there are two conflicting beliefs fighting it out in our minds. For example, if I believe myself to be an honest person, but I cheat on my taxes, this conflicting information will cause cognitive dissonance. I will probably do one of two things: I could either stop cheating on my taxes, or I could rationalize my dishonesty, perhaps by saying that I worked hard for my money and I deserve it.

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways. (Ibid.)

In the case of the Second Coming, we don’t want to believe that we could be duped. “I’m not the kind of person who could fall for silly stuff like horoscopes, crystals, doomsday cults, and the like. But Christianity is different. Christianity is real. If it weren’t, I would see right through it because I’m not easily fooled.”

Personally, I have spent a lot of time in my life telling people that I knew that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, that Jesus loves us, and God has a plan for our lives. I spent two years doing this full time. I spent countless hours saying this and hearing it repeated in church services. Much of my life has been spent inside the walls of a church. I estimate that I’ve spent at least one full year of my life in church meetings. The church received 10% of my earnings before taxes, my whole life, every last penny. After committing so much time and energy to my beliefs, it was uncomfortable to think that I’d sacrificed all that for a lie.

I’m no fool, or so I like to tell myself. If my beliefs were false, then I’d have realized it a long time ago. False prophecies? You’re reading them wrong. Polygamy? It was God’s will. Racism? Talk to God ’cause I didn’t make the rules. Christianity borrowed from previous mythologies? No, the mythologies borrowed from Christianity. Contradictions in Holy Scripture? Errors in translation. Unanswered prayers? Maybe the answer was “No” or “Wait”, or maybe you weren’t faithful enough for God to speak to you.

I rationalized from morning till night. Evidence against my beliefs surrounded me. I constantly battled to preserve my self image as an intelligent, independent thinker. The truth was that I spent my intelligence in rationalization and followed like a sheep because I was too proud to admit that I didn’t see the Emperor’s clothes. I was the very thing I pretended not to be. I held on to my beliefs kicking and screaming until I was forced to see their absurdity.

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God Kills Compassion

When I try to step into the religious frame of mind, I get a deep urge to scream and run for the hills. Religious ideas feel like ill fitting clothes on a sweaty, sticky summer day. They chafe and confine. Their irksome restraint gives me no moment of peace. I want to leap out of my confining clothes and into a refreshingly cool shower.

Such has been my experience as I try to explain why we need compassion for people whose inclination and perhaps action deviate from cultural norms. I hoped to demonstrate the need for compassion by using religious ideas and doctrines so that my religious interlocutors could see the need. I don’t expect them to become atheist. I just hope to speak up for true compassion.

But God looms large over the shoulder of the faithful. They might want to be more compassionate, but they first check with God who gives a slow, stern shake of the head. The faithful turn back around and say, “Sorry. God says homosexuals can’t get into heaven.” God hampers our native inclination to compassion. God kills our humanity.

People think they know the mind and will of God. The arrogance! Then they justify their own bigotry in his name. Their false idols sycophantically echo the believers’ prejudices back to them with the appearance of authority. When the compassion of their views is challenged, they assume that since God is Love, his laws are loving. The believer is satisfied that all is well in Zion (2 Nephi 28:21, 25).

If anyone needs me, I’ll be outside tilting at windmills.

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Short Man Out

I must regretfully announce that I will not be running for President. I know this will disappoint my ardent supporters, but you should know that I’m the kind of guy to face facts. My political consultants tell me that I could never be elected President. There are many reasons why, but I want to focus on just one. I’m 5’6″ (1.68m).

The average male height in the U.S. is slightly over 5’9″ (1.75m). Only 11 out of 43 presidents have been under 5’9″. None of those short Presidents were elected after 1900. The taller candidate has won two-thirds of the elections since 1900. Only three presidents have been as short or shorter than I am. Based on my height alone, I will never be elected President of the United States, especially in the age of televised debates. I might as well be Dukakis.

To add insult to injury, I probably make less money and have fewer interested potential mates (if I were on the market) all because I’m short. But I guess I’m getting off topic.

Before anyone accuses me of harboring a Napoleon complex (actually, he might not have been that short), I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to elect me President, date me, or give me a raise because I’m short. I’m not bitter. (What’s a short guy got to do to get respect? Conquer Europe?)

You, my fellow Americans, can’t help it. You’re not thinking rationally. It’s biological. While you believe yourself to be making rational decisions about the candidates to support, you are subconsciously influenced to choose the one who feels more like a strong troop leader. We’re not as far as we imagine from our prehistoric existence as apes in Africa.

So rather than waste our time and energy, let’s all go vote for our favorite tall man with good hair.

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