Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Deadly Sin #1

Okay, when I title this post "Deadly Sin #1", it's not that I'm aware of any particular numbering system ordering the seven deadly sins. The whole concept of the "seven deadly sins" isn't really a part of Mormon theology anyway; I think it's more of a Catholic thing, and maybe some flavors of Protestantism. Still, though, if there's one of the supposed "seven deadly sins" that gets emphasized above all others, and that may be most important, it's pride.

Pride, after all, is what's said to have led to the fall of Lucifer himself. And it gets special place of honor in LDS teachings as a theme of the Book of Mormon. There's a cycle, supposedly, as the Nephites are faithful in God and become prosperous, then in their prosperity become proud and forget God, then are punished and brought low, then become humble and righteous and regain faith in God, rinse and repeat. But those are just a few examples. What brought this to my mind was in church last Sunday, when the Sunday School lesson went over the story of King Saul, and stressed again that the main thing leading to his downfall was pride.

As in the description of the Book of Mormon cycle, humility is often linked with faith in God. To devote oneself to God, to be righteous and keep His commandments, is to be humble, and to be free of pride. really isn't. Pride, I think, is one of the biggest reasons people are attracted to religions in the first place.

This manifests on several levels. First, there's the desire to believe that humanity is special. People don't like believing that they're just the result of natural processes, that the meaning of their lives is what they make of it, that they're not a part of any grand plan, and weren't created for any higher purpose. No, they prefer--understandably, but unfortunately--to think that they're children of God, that they are beings far greater than mere animals, put here as part of a grand design, and destined to return to their divine Father after death. And then they tell themselves that by submitting themselves to God they're being humble. No. Just the opposite. Insisting that they have this supremely powerful being looking after them, that they have this sublime destiny and meaning, is about as prideful as you can get.

That's one level. Then there's the level of moral superiority. This is more blatant in some sects than others; the Calvinistic belief that only a few are arbitrarily chosen for salvation is maybe an extreme example. Still, most Christians seem to think--whether or not they actually say so explicitly--that they're better than those of other religions, including other Christian denominations. In the LDS church, for example, people may claim just the opposite, saying that of course there are good people in every religion. But when it comes right down to it, it becomes pretty clear that's not what they really think--or rather, while they may think there are good people in every religion, it's obvious they don't think they're good enough. After all, if they were really good enough, if they were really faithful and open to the spirit, well, they'd have prayed to God and received confirmation through the Holy Ghost of the truth of the gospel, and they'd have followed up on it and been baptized. We, the members of the church, we've done that; we've had the faith and the humility to follow God's plan. If others don't--well, that just shows their weakness. Again, this isn't something that's explicitly said (not often, anyway), but it's definitely an attitude that's there, among most of the church's members, if not all. And it's a pretty prideful attitude. We're better than them. They didn't earn their salvation, which means don't deserve to be saved. We are the chosen people. Huzzah.

Then, among the modern ID crowd, there's another level, the level of intellectual pride, in which they smarmily put down "evolutionists" as dupes, liars, and/or morons. But there are others who are much better at discussing that than I am.

Then there are the appeals to individual matters of pride, not just the pride of church membership as a whole. This came into play in my case, for example, in the matter of the patriarchal blessing. A patriarchal blessing, for those unfamiliar with the concept, is a special pronouncement of guidance and alleged prophecy given to a specific member of the church by a priesthood official known as a patriarch. Patriarchal blessings are supposedly inspired documents, with the patriarchs speaking words given them by God. In addition to making predictions about the recipient's future prospects (predictions always contingent--if sometimes tacitly so--on the recipient's remaining in all ways faithful to the church and to his ecclesiastical duties, which makes for a convenient excuse if the predictions don't come true), and stating what tribe of Israel he belongs to, the patriarchal blessing also often tells what the recipient supposedly did in the pre-existence--as a premortal spirit before coming to Earth. My own blessing says (paraphrasing heavily, since I don't have it in front of me at the moment and don't remember offhand where I have a copy of it to refer to) that I was among those who labored most mightily to convince my fellow premortal spirits to choose God's plan. Now, that's something that it seems one can easily be proud of, and I have to admit that was something that was in my mind when I was trying to come to terms with my disbelief in the church. But--if the church isn't true--that means my patriarchal blessing wasn't really inspired, and I didn't really play this great, special role in the premortal life...did I really want to dismiss that? Well, I finally admitted to myself that it wasn't a matter of wanting to dismiss it; it was a matter of owning up to the fact there was no good reason to believe it--and just so I could tell myself I was this important being in my premortal existence really wasn't a good reason. So although I eventually managed to accept that it was just pride holding me back, still there was that temptation. I doubt I'm the only person who was tempted by similar inducements.

In fact, I know I'm not, because I have a friend who had a somewhat analogous experience with Scientology--though I realize Scientology is only very arguably a religion. He was given a test at a Scientology center, and was told he scored in some remarkably high percentile, and had truly impressive qualities--a result that I'm sure inclined him further to believe in the test, and by association in Scientology as a whole. (Fortunately, he ended up not sticking with Scientology, though I think it was more due to a loss of interest than any real examination of its teachings.)

Both as part of the group of worshippers as a whole, and often as an individual as well, religion--or Christianity, at least, if not every religion--teaches that you are someone special. You are a child of God. You are one of the righteous, with the faith and strength of character to serve the true deity. You are one of the intelligent and undeceived who recognizes and can face the truth. You are a person of extraordinary qualities and/or premortal history. You are great. And I think it's a desire to believe all that that's one of the things that keeps people in religion. And that's just a form--and a rather blatant form, at that--of pride.

Oh, I'm not saying the areligious are immune to pride, by any means. I've seen writings by a number of atheists (by no means all!) who lord it over the religious, belittling them for their foolishness and stupidity. (And sure, those atheists may have the weight of evidence on their side, but that's no reason to be a jerk about it.) And I'm certainly not nearly free of pride myself. Pride, I have to admit, has a lot to do with why I'm finding it hard to free myself from going through the motions of religion; why I have to hide behind cowardly anonymity for these posts, and still go to church on Sunday and pretend to be a faithful Mormon in my off-the-net life--I've said before it was because I didn't want to disappoint all those church members who think so highly of me, and that's true, but it's also because I don't want them to think less of me--and that's pride talking.

Pride's not unique to the religious, no. Not by any means. But it's the religious--well, again, I guess I'm mostly talking about Christians here; I don't know enough about most other religions to really comment--who go on and on about how humble true believers are, and how humility is such a cornerstone of their religion. It's not. Religion is, far too often if not always, built on a solid foundation of pride. I agree with Christian teachings that pride is a vice, and that it can lead to all sorts of harmful consequences. I just don't think the churches that teach that practice what they preach.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Power Of Prayer

Been a while since I updated, hasn't it? Well, I'd said I might not update often. Anyway, there is something I've been wanting to make an entry about, but the last week I've been out of town and very busy.

So. I'd mentioned a few entries back that I still found myself frequently praying, even though I've accepted that I don't believe in God. It's not a complicated prayer; it's not that I'm asking God to help me with daily tasks, or thanking him for anything specific. It's kind of a rote prayer that I'd sort of come up with and would often think to myself back when I did consider myself a believer: "Dear Heavenly Father, I love thee; I thank thee for everything; I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen." It's just a silent prayer I'd offer up from time to time.

And, looking at the times when I'd do it, I can see now why I keep doing it. I'd never offer up the prayer when I was in the middle of something that had my attention, or when things were going well. It's always when I was just walking from place to place and had nothing in particular to do, or when I was stuck in some tedious or vexing situation I was going to be in for a while.

In short, the prayer wasn't really much more than a way to keep my mind occupied.

And it had become a habit. Whenever I was in such a situation, I'd offer up the prayer. And it's a habit that stayed with me even after I'd stopped pretending to myself that I believed in the God I was praying to, and after the prayer had therefore ceased to retain what little meaning it had once had.

Well, there are better things I can occupy my mind with. I have enough else going on that there are plenty of other things I can be thinking about in situations like those. And I'm trying to make a point of thinking of those other things instead. Offering up that little prayer was just, well, a cop-out, a way to feel like I was doing something when I really wasn't.

You know, though, in another way, I guess that's all any prayer is. It can feel satisfying, in a way, to pray for God to help us with things out of our control--assuming we believe in God, that is--because it makes us feel like we're doing something about it, even if that something is just asking some other (imaginary) entity for help. That still seems to give us some illusion of power, the feeling that we're not completely helpless; even if there's nothing directly we can do, we can still do something by indirectly by calling on Someone who can.

Is there any harm in that? It doesn't do any good, certainly, to call on some nonexistent Being for aid that won't come, but does it hurt anything? Well, there's the fact that belief in said Being itself involves a suppression of critical faculties, and an acceptance of doctrines that may have negative repercussions--but beyond that, taking that as a given, does praying to God for help do any additional harm? I suppose there's the danger that one might tend to rely on God too much, and to expect Him to do all the work and help even when there is something one can do oneself, but that's a danger that religious people do seem to be conscious of. A joke I've heard over the pulpit a couple of times gets at this point; it goes something like this:

There's a man who's caught in a flood. He's stuck on the roof of his house, and prays to God to let him escape before the waters rise too high.

Another man floats by, holding onto a log. He sees the man on the roof. "Jump over here and grab the log! I think it'll float us to shore eventually."

"No," says the man on the roof. "I have faith that God will save me."

The log floats away. The waters rise higher. Only the very tip of the roof is still dry.

Later, a woman comes by in a rowboat. She sees the man on the roof. "Hop in! I'll row you to safety."

"No," says the man on the roof. "I have faith that God will save me."

She tries to reason with him, but he remains adamant, and she eventually rows away. The waters rise higher, and cover the roof completely; he's still standing there on the roof, but the water's up to his waist.

A helicopter flies by. The occupants see the man on the roof, and drop down a ladder. "Quick! Climb aboard!"

"No," says the man on the roof. "I have faith that God will save me."

The people in the helicopter try to convince the man to accept their help, but he refuses to get on, and eventually the helicopter flies away. The waters rise higher...and the man drowns.

When he gets to Heaven, he comes face to face with God. "I prayed to you for help, and I had faith that you'd save me," he says. "Why did you forsake me?"

"I sent a log, a boat, and a helicopter," God replies. "What more could you want?"

As I said, this story is told by believers, so clearly they're cognizant of the danger of relying only on God and not working for themselves. Still, I suppose people do fall into that trap sometimes. But all in all, I guess, given that one believes in God, praying to God doesn't do any additional harm, as long as one does whatever one can on one's own as well. Of course, though, belief in God carries its own problematic consequences anyway, as I finally came to terms with much later than I should have.

Most of the discussion above deals with prayer asking God for things, but some prayers, including the prayer I'd been mentally reciting myself, are only prayers of thanks, for which the explanation that one offers them to give oneself a feeling that one is accomplishing something doesn't seem as obviously to hold. Why do people offer up those prayers, then? Part of the reason, I suspect, is just because they feel they're supposed to; they're taught in church that they should thank God for things. But I think there's more to it than that. Thanking God for something is acknowledging that you believe He was responsible for it, that He is actively interfering in your life--and, presumably, that you can persuade Him to interfere in the way you want. So, really, it's more indirectly still a way to reinforce the idea that you can do something about things that otherwise seem beyond your control. If you live righteously and find favor with God, He'll help you out in all sorts of ways! Hallelujah!

So...I guess really that's what prayer mostly comes down to. Giving oneself the illusion of power over things beyond one's control. Then again, that's a big part of religion in general, really, isn't it? Christianity, at least--convincing oneself that with God's help one could do things one would otherwise be incapable of?

The problem is, of course, that God isn't really oht there helping, and there are some things we simply don't have control over. That may not be an easy fact for a lot of people to face, but that's the way it is. And for my own part, from now on I'm going to try to spend my down time in more productive ways than reciting rote gratitude to an imaginary being.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Genetic Jam

There's a post I'd been intending to make for some time, but it's been a very busy week. This is not that post. Maybe I'll make that post tomorrow.

This post is, instead, about an article I had just run across...about a study casting scientific doubt on certain claims within Mormonism.

Now, to their credit, the LDS church leaders, unlike those of many fundamentalist denominations, have not spoken out against the theory of evolution. On the other hand, though, they haven't spoken out in support of the theory of evolution, either. There are a number of things in church doctrine that appear to be in contradiction to the theory of evolution, and in my experience (though it's not as if I've taken a formal survey or anything), most church members believe that the theory of evolution is false--though, like most people who hold such beliefs, they've never bothered to study the matter enough to recognize what an enormous weight of evidence lies behind the theory, and their doubts are founded largely on ignorance.

However, though they may be in the minority, there are some devout Mormons who do appreciate the evidence behind the theory of evolution, and either try to reconcile it with the LDS account of creation or just decide that somehow they're both true even if they don't understand how. I fell into that category myself while I still considered myself a faithful member of the church, although I wasn't really content to just accept that somehow maybe two contradictory theories were both true without trying to figure out how this could be possible, and I did come up with what I thought was a tentative way to satisfy both. It wasn't easy, given LDS doctrine's insistence on a literal interpretation of the Genesis account (albeit with some leeway in certain matters such as the meaning of the word "day", and whether the creation story in Genesis represents the physical creation or a spiritual preparation), and the explicit statement by a past church leader that death did not enter the world until the Fall. Still, I came up with a scenario, albeit a rather strained and contrived one, that seemed to me consistent with both the theory of evolution and the known facts of geology and the LDS account of the creation; I was never convinced it was the real explanation, but at least I could be satisfied that, as a mathematician would say, a solution existed.

(Actually, creation wasn't the really hard part. The really hard thing to try to reconcile with scientific fact is the story of the Noachian flood. Never did figure out a way to get that one to work.)

I wasn't alone; another apparently faithful Mormon who was also a firm advocate of evolutionary theory was one Nathan Shumate, who runs a blog I enjoy reading at Nathan Shumate gives every indication of being a firm believer in LDS doctrine; fairly frequently in his blog he quotes LDS scripture or expounds upon his beliefs. (Considering the types of movies he reviews online, it seems Mr. Shumate (hey, I've never actually met the guy; it doesn't feel right to call him by his first name) doesn't follow the church leaders' council of avoiding movies rated R or worse, but then again that was never given as a strict commandment, and isn't something that gets asked about in temple recommend interviews.) However, he's also had extended debates with creation scientists via e-mail, in which he has--evidently in all sincerity, and not just to play devil's advocate--defended the theory of evolution. (I don't know how he personally chooses to try to reconcile it with the LDS creation account, or whether he's just content to assume it can be reconciled in some way he's not aware of--let alone what he thinks about Noah's ark.)

What it comes down to is that the LDS church is nowhere near as anti-intellectual as some of the more reactionary denominations. Overall, the church puts a high value on learning, including science education. "The glory of God is intelligence" is a scripture frequently quoted in LDS settings (Doctrine & Covenants 93:36), and the church owns and operates one of the largest private universities in the nation.

However...while the LDS church may not have an official position on the theory of evolution, there are other matters it does have a position on that are, in principle, subject to scientific verification. Such as the claim that the Native Americans, or at least a significant proportion of them, were ultimately descended from Israelites.

All of which is leading up to a newspaper article I just ran across, which described a Mormon scientist's performance of DNA tests to verify whether or not, in fact, there did seem to be a genetic link between Native Americans and Israelites. His findings were negative. And he was threatened with excommunication.

Curious to see how the matter had turned out, I started to do a little more searching around. When I looked at when the article had come out, I was surprised to see it had been in 2002--more than three years ago. I'd never heard about this before--not the sort of news, I guess, that the church spreads around.

Now, to be fair, the whole thing isn't as dire as it first seemed. For one thing, the scientist in question, Thomas W. Murphy, wasn't threatened with excommunication only because he found evidence that seemed to contradict LDS doctrine. The main reason for the excommunication threat seemed to be his explicitly stated belief that "the Book of Mormon is a piece of 19th century fiction"--which goes directly against LDS doctrine that the Book of Mormon is an inspired piece of scripture that relates events that actually occurred. And beyond that, Murphy has apparently spoken out against the church in many other matters, which make the threatened excommunication seem much less unreasonable. Moreover, in the end Murphy wasn't excommunicated, or at least hasn't been yet--the disciplinary council that was supposed to meet to decide the matter was indefinitely postponed. Furthermore, rather than deny Murphy's results, Mormon scientists did eventually come up with ways to try to reconcile them with the Book of Mormon account--ways that, looking at them now, strike me as a bit unconvincing, but that when I was still willing to accept church doctrine as the word of God I probably would have found, well, at least as satisfactory as my own personal reconciliation of Genesis with evolution.

So it's not that I really think the LDS church has really done anything egregiously wrong here. But, as inconclusive as this particular affair may have been, it does still point out that, even if it avoided coming into conflict with science on the front of evolution, there are still other potential areas for conflict between the LDS church and scientific findings. Whenever a religion makes testable claims, there's always the chance those claims will one day be tested--and that they won't pass.

Especially with how they've been allying themselves with fundamentalists lately on other matters, I'm not entirely convinced that someday the LDS church leaders won't explicitly condemn the theory of evolution ex cathedra. If that ever happens, that will probably be the day I make public my breaking with the church.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Planned Peccadillo

So, now that I've finally owned up to the fact I don't really believe in my church. there's no good reason for me to follow its arbitrary rules.

I certainly don't mean rules like "Thou Shalt Not Steal" and "Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you". Even when I did consider myself a faithful Christian, I never put any stock in the argument that religion was the only reason for people to live a moral life. It's always seemed to me that if the only reason you're being a good person is in the hope of some eternal reward (or for fear of eternal punishment), you're not really a good person at all. You're just pretending to be for purely selfish motivations. Besides, it's all too easy to invent reasons for why some particular instance of intolerance could be justified; religious precepts don't really make people act good at all, because it's way too easy to rationalize one's way around them. This isn't to say, of course, that there aren't plenty of good people who are religious, but I'm confident those who among the religious faithful who are truly good and benevolent would be just as good and benevolent without their religious beliefs.

So I'm not referring to the basic foundations of ethics and morality. I think I've always been a basically good and honest person, and I don't think my religion ever had anything to do with that, so that's not going to change. But there are lots of commandments and recommendations in the LDS church that have nothing to do with basic ethics and morality. Such as the stricture to continually wear the official temple garments. (Which stricture, admittedly, I hadn't been following anyway; I never wear the blasted things at home alone.) And such as the Word of Wisdom.

The Word of Wisdom is a set of health guidelines that include some of the LDS church's most famous prohibitions: the forbiddance of smoking and drinking coffee, tea, and alcohol. I say "guidelines", but really they're stronger than that; smoking or otherwise violating the Word of Wisdom won't get you excommunicated, but it will prevent you from being considered worthy to enter the temple. Technically, the Word of Wisdom also includes the injunction to eat meat "sparingly"--even saying that it is pleasing to God "that [meat] should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine"--but that part's pretty much universally ignored. Heck, at my mother's house, it's de rigeur for just about every dinner to include huge slabs of meat of some kind or another.

Anyway, while my newfound atheism isn't going to change anything about my basic principles or my attitude toward my fellow man, I figure things like the Word of Wisdom I don't really have any reason to follow. That certainly doesn't mean I'm going to go out and start smoking; there are health reasons to avoid that quite apart from any supposed divine dictate. But it does mean I'm going to be a bit less scrupulous about avoiding some of the other items on the banned list.

So I decided today I'd order a Mocha Cappuccino shake at Burger King.

Hey, baby steps, man. Baby steps.

As it turned out, though, the local Burger King was out of every shake flavor except vanilla. So I guess I'll be keeping the Word of Wisdom for at least one more day.

Well, except the part about using meat sparingly. It's not winter, and it's definitely not a time of cold, and I did have an Extreme Spicy Tendercrisp.