Good Reason

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Category: Mormonism (page 2 of 12)

The LDS statement on DNA and the Book of Mormon

The LDS Church dropped their latest Big Essay this Friday. Friday’s the day that PR organisations drop press releases that they hope won’t attract a lot of attention. And that makes sense, because I don’t think anyone at Church HQ was looking forward to writing this one. It’s on DNA and the Book of Mormon.

There have already been some takedowns and discussion on the individual points it makes, and I’m not a population geneticist, so I’ll just defer to them.

But from my perspective, here are the interesting bits. In the second paragraph, we hit this:

Although the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical, some people have wondered whether the migrations it describes are compatible with scientific studies of ancient America.

This was so jaw-dropping, I had to read it a couple of times. Are they actually backing away from the historicity of the Book of Mormon? It’s a very common tactic in apologetics to kick things a rung or two up the ladder of abstraction so they can’t be falsified, but this is a shift that I’ve never even seen hinted at. Weakening the historical case for the Book of Mormon is one step away from saying it didn’t happen. And that makes me wonder if church leaders even believe it anymore. Make no mistake, this is a meme to watch in the coming years.

Another tack I noticed is the Church’s retreat into obscurantism. Notice the kind of language they use:

Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples…

DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby.

Nothing is known about the extent of intermarriage and genetic mixing between Book of Mormon peoples or their descendants and other inhabitants of the Americas…

…the picture is not entirely clear.

One reason it is difficult to use DNA evidence to draw definite conclusions about Book of Mormon peoples is that nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas.

It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, clear information of that kind is unavailable.

it is quite possible that their DNA markers did not survive the intervening centuries.

…the evidence is simply inconclusive. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples.

As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed, “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”

Retreat into the unknown

What a lot of mealy-mouthed vacillation. Is this the same group that boldly proclaims that a god restored the everlasting gospel, and that we know for a surety of its truthfulness? But now, when there are questions about its foundational text, they sound like Hans Moleman. When you have the facts on your side, you state the facts. If someone’s trying to obscure things and retreat into uncertainty, you can bet they don’t have the facts on their side.

The phrase “Nothing is known about…” is repeated four times. Gee, it’s too bad they don’t have a… prophet or something to help them with that. It’s this kind of thing that made me realise that listening to a prophet is a really weird and unreliable method of getting information.


There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that “you can’t prove or disprove” the Book of Mormon story, with the implication that the probability of it being true or not is about 50-50. It’s not 50-50. The bulk of the probability that the Mormon story is true is vanishingly small, and shrinking. Yet some people will hold onto that tiny sliver of hope, as long as they think it’s still ‘possible’.

I call this possibilistic reasoning, by which I mean ‘a tendency to look only at the possible, holding onto one’s preconceptions until they’re conclusively disproven, one hundred and one percent’. This is how true believing Mormons hold onto their belief in the Church. God, Jesus, and the ghost of Joseph Smith could appear and tell them it was all a fake, and they’d write it off as the devil’s deception. They’ll ignore the bulk of probability, and hold onto the sliver. It’s the same way some of them reject evolution and climate change. The possibility that it’s wrong (and there’s always a possibility) is enough for them to reject it and keep going with whatever they like.

By contrast, probabilistic reasoning looks at the bulk of probability. How true is a thing likely to be, given the evidence we have? By this reasoning, evolution and climate change are extremely likely — not 100%, but close. And the Book of Mormon, with no evidence on its side, but a lot of strikes against it, is likely false.

When discussing this with my friend Mark Ellison, he remarked, “I think possibilistic reasoning is responsible for a great deal of intellectual evil,” and I’d have to agree.

So this DNA statement from the First Quorum of the Anonymous may be somewhat comforting to possibilistic reasoners who are trying to sustain their faith in the irrational, but it’s falling flat with people who are concerned with basing their views on the best evidence.

Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

I’m very pleased to announce a new blog project: Gospel Doctrine for the Godless.

You see, for many years in the LDS Church, I was the Gospel Doctrine teacher. That’s the meeting where you discuss the same four books of scripture over and over and over. (Can’t take the repetition? How do you think you’re going to handle eternity?)

Anyway, I felt bad about having misled people for so long in Gospel Doctrine — even though my lessons were quite good, really — that I decided to revisit the material and do it right. So this is a snarky and skeptical ex-Mormon take on Sunday School. There will be videos, memes, and atheist resources to take Mormon doctrine down a few pegs. Also, I’ll reveal a few of the embarrassing things I used to say in class. (What was I thinking?)

The project begins as Latter-day Saints start studying the Old Testament, and we’ll cycle through the Standard Works, one volume per year, just as they do in church. There’ll be a new lesson just about every week, and the first lesson is up already. If you’re highly allergic to the kind of crapola they used to shovel out in church, this may trigger flashbacks. But maybe you’ll find it therapeutic. Either way, I hope you’ll join in, and I promise I won’t ask you to give the opening prayer.

Oh, and don’t worry — it’ll be business as usual for Good Reason.

On the Race and the Priesthood statement

The Mormon Church, in an effort to address its troublesome issues, has released a statement on Race and the Priesthood on their website (link here, snarky summary here), which is apparently how revelation happens these days.

Isn’t it interesting that prophets used to write on stone, but now they write on webpages? Perhaps that’s because webpages are easier to edit later.

Addressing the ouchy bits of Church history is a really terrible idea. As I’ve said before, the Church can’t get ahead of its issues because it’s issues all the way down. They can’t explain away the troublesome bits without first acknowledging the troublesome bits, and this is unlikely to lead to a result the Church likes. Here’s why: pretend you’re the Church, and you’re haemorrhaging members. What do you do?
a) Try and chase the questioning members who are leaving.
b) Try and consolidate the faithful.

With this statement, they’ve chosen b), but this will have two effects. It will satisfy the easily satisfied (who will stay in the Church no matter what it does), and it will spook some of the others. And, while this may prove wrong, I’ve read one true believer who says that Mormons are freaking out, inundating the Church Office Building with questions and complaints.

It’s a bad move on the part of the Church, and I’m sure they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t feel like they had no other option. Otherwise, they’d do what they’ve always done: maintain official silence, and allow the membership to invent its own opinions, guided by correlated church materials. The idea that the old strategy is no longer working gives me a warm feeling inside, which of course means it’s true.

So what’s in this statement? Here are the highlights, and for every highlight, there’s a problem.

First, the LDS Church utterly repudiates racism in all its forms.
Good for them. Unfortunately, to repudiate racism, they’re going to have to repudiate the Book of Mormon, which has as a central plot point the idea that dark skin can sometimes be a punishment for sin.

The Book of Abraham has its own problems.

Under the bus with Brother Brigham
The statement stops short of saying the priesthood ban was wrong (which is crucial), but it certainly traces it to Brigham Young. But it’s hard for the Church to take a ‘bad Brigham / good Joseph’ strategy. While Joseph Smith did give the priesthood to a black man once, he also thought that slavery was just dandy; check Steve Benson’s comments at the tail of this story. And the statement ignores the fact that other church leaders on down the line said the same thing for a hundred years.

It explicitly says the less-valiant theory is wrong
This is the crazy folk-doctrine idea that black people were less valiant in the pre-mortal life, so they were born with dark skin and no priesthood in this life. Can you believe it? Where do people get this stuff? Oh yeah, from the First Presidency.

Okay, so what are some of the implications of this new church statement?

This statement obliterates the Church’s claim that the prophet can never lead the Church astray.
They do teach wrong things, which then have to be corrected. Which means that the LDS Church looks exactly as it would look if it were just led by people.

Using a prophet as a guide is a bad idea.
They’re supposed to get it right, but ‘prophets, seers, and revelators’ got this issue dead wrong (by the Church’s own admission) for more than a century. So what are they getting wrong now, that will need to be repudiated in 50 years? (Hint: starts with LGBT.)

Isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that God, a transcendant being who exists outside of space and time, holds prejudices that reflect in precise detail the prejudices that are general among the human population? Until he gets updated — to match the exact prejudices of his modern human followers? Isn’t it a bit of a giveaway that Mormon prophets show no better moral judgments than ordinary non-prophets, but do significantly worse? You’d think there would be some kind of consequences for having a god at the head of your church, but if you talk to Very Sophisticated Mormon Apologists, then there are no consequences really; the prophets are imperfect men in a socio-historical context blah blah blah. Well, then what are they good for? And why should I listen to them? I can get loads of ideas from imperfect people in a socio-historical context — there’s no shortage of them, and some of them have quite good ideas. I don’t really need or want to listen to racists. Or sexists or homophobes, for that matter.

This statement is an indicator as to the bind the LDS Church is in.
Leaving the issue alone allows confusion and discontent to percolate through the membership. Addressing it directly exposes a mass of inconsistencies. Either way, it’s a lose-lose for the church.

Apparently this is going to be a series. I can hardly wait for the next ones!

Why apologetics don’t really help

With the Internet, more and more Mormons are bumping into the bits of LDS history that you used to have to dig for. As a result, the LDS Church is trying to — if not come clean about its history — explain its history in terms that will placate startled members. But how do you acknowledge the weirdness without freaking people out?

Here’s what can happen when a doubting Mormon goes to an apologist.

Issues all the way down

The LDS Church is in a flap over historical issues. People are leaving over historical issues! The typical one: Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives and very young girls.

I never had a problem with historical issues; I left because it wasn’t true. For me, that was a historical issue. That Joseph Smith fabricated a vision with a non-existent god — that was a historical issue. Making up a book about non-existent Nephites and Lamanites — that was a historical issue.

And I’m not saying my epistemological apostasy is better than someone else’s historical apostasy. In fact, it might be worse — I was clearly unfazed by polyandry and other blatantly self-serving doctrines, until I started to question the existence of gods themselves. I must have thought a god that would command those things would be worth worshipping, which is just horrible. What was wrong with me?

So if historical issues was what got you out, great! Whatever works. But as far as I’m concerned, the official story is crazy enough.

Okay, for some people even having a gay son doesn’t work.

Well, I was pretty critical of Ohio senator Rob Portman, who changed his mind about gay marriage when it affected him personally. But it should be noted that some people aren’t even able to get that far. Meet Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Arizona).

SALMON: I don’t support the gay marriage… My son is by far one of the most important people in my life. I love him more than I can say… I’m just not there, as far as believing in my heart that we should change 2,000 years of social policy in favor of a redefinition of the family. I’m not there.

Salmon the Elder is a nice piece of work:

Salmon’s son, Matt, talked to the Phoenix New Times back in 2010 about his sexuality and explained that his father is not nearly as loving or respectful as he may claim. Matt’s been with his boyfriend Kent Flake for over 10 years, but his family doesn’t allow Flake to be around, and Matt’s siblings defriended him on Facebook for promoting gay rights. He endured years of ex-gay therapy, but has since left the Mormon Church.

I suppose I didn’t have to mention that Salmon is a Mormon. There’s something about enrobing yourself in layers of pious priesthood sanctimony that makes everything you do all right, no matter how repellent. Any absolutist ideology can turn you into a hateful dickbag, but religion is especially good at subverting a normal person’s better tendencies. What a shame, for both father and son.

Which is why that quote from David O. McKay is so very wrong:

“The purpose of the church is to make bad men good and good men better.”

In fact, religion makes normal people worse if they really believe it, while good people can still be decent if they don’t take it too seriously.

You can quote me on that.

We hope to advance our bigotry in the spirit of tolerance and mutual understanding.

Slightly shorter Michael Otterson:

Ohai. I’m representing the Mormon Church. The prophet couldn’t be here for reasons of plausible deniability.

I’d just like to say that no one should be mean to gay people. Boy, do we know what that’s like! People were mean to us once, and it sucked! Amirite, gay people? or should I say fellow victims?

Anyway. No one should be having sex unless they’re married, which clearly precludes gays, for as long as we can help it. But Jesus loves gay people, and wants them to be celibate all their lives. This is hard, but we’re here to help, with endless church meetings about the joy of sexual repression.

Obviously, some will disagree with us, but they’re probably just misrepresenting our position.

LDS Church is offended by your taking offense at their offensiveness.

The LDS Church has filed a brief with the US Supreme Court, claiming that their involvement with Prop 8 wasn’t motivated by hatred.

“On the contrary, our members supported Proposition 8 based on sincere beliefs in the value of traditional marriage for children, families, society, and our republican form of government.

We don’t hate them! We’re just trying to protect ourselves from them!

And then they whip out a little bit of “shame on you for demeaning our bigoted beliefs”.

Only a demeaning view of religion and religious believers could dismiss our advocacy of Proposition 8 as ignorance, prejudice, or animus.”

I’d say that only a demeaning view of gay people could view their marriages and relationships as antithetical to children, families, society, and government.

People operating under a sense of religious privilege, lifted up by the unquestionable righteousness of their cause, have literally no idea how offensive their actions are. They also have no clue about how ridiculous their umbrage looks to normal people.

Meme alert: Any good man and any good woman

“Do you think it’s true that any good man and any good woman can make a relationship work?” a friend asked me today.

“No,” was my immediate response. I’m a good man, and my relationship with a good woman didn’t work. I guess it depends on what you call ‘good’. But if you go there, the whole proposition gets untestably vague. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh,” she said, “I was in a relationship with a Jehovah’s Witness guy once, and that’s what he said.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s odd. They used to say the very same thing in the Mormon Church. Exact same wording and everything.”

Unless he was actually a Mormon guy, and she got mixed up. But she should know, wouldn’t you think?

Like I say, I don’t believe it. Maybe two good people can tough it out, but will they be happy? I think the extra effort is going to cost them in other ways.

But let’s not go too far the other way, and say there’s a “one” out there for you. I’m with Dan Savage: there is no “one”. But there are lots of .8s and .7s. Then you round up to 1.

And I think it helps if you can start as close to 1 as you can. My wife and I are about a .995 for each other. And that makes it so much easier and nicer.

But it got me thinking: Why would it benefit a religion to have this “any good man and any good woman” belief? I have one possible answer.

Religions operate well in a ‘bubble’ — an environment where only positive information gets in, and disconfirmatory information bounces off. People inside the Bubble continually reaffirm to each other that life inside the Bubble is good, and life outside the Bubble is dangerous and scary. It’s very nice.

For the concept of a ‘bubble’, this video is worth watching again.

There can be lots of bubbles. Utah is a bubble for Mormons, as are parts of Idaho. But when your religion doesn’t have a geographical majority, the most effective bubble is a family. Marrying outside your faith is a killer for religious bubbles. It helps you see someone else’s point of view too well. That’s why religions explicitly forbid it.

Now imagine that you’re a member of a minority religion, and you’re only supposed to marry within your faith. The dating pool is going to suck. (Mormon YSAs: amirite?) So the “any good man and any good woman” idea is a way to convince people to settle for someone of the same religion who’s not right for them. It’s amazingly effective at building bubbles — as well as miserable but occasionally functional relationships.

Mormon women plan ‘Wear Pants to Church Day’

We are in the latter days, people. The LDS Church is under attack. I’m referring, of course, to this:

Mormon women plan ‘Wear Pants to Church Day’

A group of Mormon feminists has declared Sunday, Dec. 16, as “Wear Pants to Church Day” and is calling on sister Saints across the globe to join the effort.
Female Mormon missionaries are not allowed to wear pants, except on their days off. Some LDS women do wear dressy pants to church, but social convention dictates that most Mormon women don dresses or skirts to their weekly services.

You realise that this is open rebellion against the unwritten order of things. If women wear pants to church, where will it end? Men not wearing ties? Bishopric members wearing blue oxford shirts instead of white? The mind reels.

Actually, I do have a story. Back in the Utah days, Erstwhile Wife and I were walking to church. On this particular Sunday, she had decided to wear pants. And who should we run into but Cecilia Konchar Farr. She was a BYU faculty member who had been in the crosshairs (and was ultimately fired) for her feminist and pro-choice views. Think of it — she’d taken on the system in a battle she couldn’t win. Tough person.

When she saw us, she remarked, “Wow, I’m not brave enough to try that.”

She might have been joking, but lest you think that this is a timid sort of protest, it’s worth pointing out that these customs of dress and behaviour are deeply ingrained, not consciously taught, and subtly but strongly reinforced. Women wearing pants to church would be viewed on a par with men wearing skirts. Still, I like to think that, even in my believing days, I would have been that guy.

EDIT: It didn’t seem like pushing the envelope to me, but some people’s envelopes are more fragile than others. A public Facebook discussion has some sensible people, and some people freaking out.

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