Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Investigators

Phew. I have once again been absent from the blogosphere for a while. And when I say "absent from the blogosphere", I mean not only that I haven't been posting to this blog, but I haven't been reading the other blogs I usually read, either. I've been busy. About the only blog-related thing I've been doing (not counting my LiveJournal, which is a separate entity entirely) is replying to posts on this blog that I've received notification of through e-mail. Apparently a few Christians have randomly stumbled across past posts here and felt the need to reply to try to coax me back onto the path of truth--although they didn't agree on exactly what that path was. I will probably be making a post about that later.

For now, though, I guess I'll break my silence with an account of my Saturday morning. One of the organizations meeting at the Center For Inquiry West is the Independent Investigations Group, which "investigates fringe science, paranormal and extraordinary claims from a rational, scientific viewpoint, and disseminates factual information about such inquiries to the public." (Note to anyone who might have clicked on the link in the last sentence and seen their home page: yes, their home page is ugly and badly out of date. They are aware of this, and changes are underway.) Now, this kind of thing has always interested me; I have lots of books on these topics, like Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, James Randi's Flim-Flam!, and Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. So when I read about the IIG, it definitely sounded like an organization I'd be interested in participating in.

(One might well ask, if I've been so aware of how pseudoscience works, and how people fool themselves into believing things, I'd simultaneously been for so long a faithful Mormon. It's a good question; there was definitely a fair degree of mental disconnect there.)

The IIG's first meeting of the year was this last Saturday, and I decided to go--though, unfortunately, I got there rather late. As it turned out, this was--I was assured--quite an atypical IIG meeting, for several reasons. First, because the attendance was much lower than usual, many of the members being absent due to being in, or having only recently returned from, Las Vegas for Randi's "The Amaz!ng Meeting". Second, because a person who wanted his supposed paranormal powers investigated was present at the meeting. This almost never happens, apparently; investigations are supposed to take place outside the monthly meetings, and "investigatees" are not invited to attend the meetings--he apparently found out about the meeting time and place on the web and decided on his own to show up. (As for what his particular powers were...he actually wasn't very clear on that. Every time he seemed to be getting to the point of explaining it, he then clarified that what he was describing was something he could do, but hadn't actually tried. It seemed he was more hoping for people to help him develop his alleged powers than actually wanting to put them to the test...) Third, much of the meeting that day was devoted to discussing the first annual "IIG Awards", given to those shows that particularly exemplified the skeptical viewpoint--or its opposite.

So, I guess this meeting, being so atypical, isn't a good one to judge the IIG by. Still, the members there seem like a good bunch of people, and the whole thing still seems interesting, so I think I'll be back next month. Presumably then I'll get a better idea of how things usually go there.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

An Incomplete World

I was going to just tack this onto the end of the previous post, but it got long enough I figured I'd give it a post by itself.

While I'm on the topic of bringing up things from earlier posts, I also mentioned in another post that I had spent the holidays at my parents' house while my brother was in town. I'm not going to go into detail about my holidays, but there is one thing I thought might be worth mentioning.

I went with my family to Disneyland, and at one point--okay, actually at two or three points--some of us, at my brother's young sons' request, went on the Small World ride. The Small World ride was refitted for the holidays, and even temporarily renamed "It's a Small World Holiday".

I sat next to my nephews, and pointed out, especially for the oldest of them (six years old, turning seven in a few months), which countries the different scenes were supposed to represent. He asked a lot of questions, and in particular asked several times which country was the one where they celebrate Hanukkah, which he had learned about in school.

I actually wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't asked, but--you know, there was absolutely no hint of Hanukkah anywhere in the Small World Holiday ride, or for that matter of any other holiday except Christmas. Well, okay, and a bit about the New Year. (Though, in the fireworks display that night, the music did include the dreidel song, so I guess Disney isn't completely ignoring non-Christian holidays.) I'm certainly not one to get up in arms about focusing on Christmas--despite what impression I may have given in this post--, but the omission of acknowledgment of other holidays in the Small World ride seems particularly odd, since the ride is all about multiculturalism. That's the whole theme of the ride. So, while normally it wouldn't seem out of place for a "holiday" retheming to concentrate on Christmas, for a ride that's ostensibly all about celebrating different cultures, it seems...odd.

Ah, well. I really don't think it's all that big a deal--like I said, I don't know that it even would have occurred to me had my nephew not specifically asked about Hanukkah--, and I don't want to seem like I'm blowing it out of proportion. It just struck me as kind of odd, that's all.

As for my nephew, I explained to him that there was no one country where Hanukkah was celebrated; it just depended on what religion you were. Though, conversely, in the last room of the ride--which contained a mélange of figures representing countries all over the world--he said that he thought two particular figures must be Americans, because they were dressed as angels. It took me a second to figure out his course of reasoning--apparently he figured that that they were dressed as angels meant they were celebrating Christmas, and if they were celebrating Christmas they must be Americans (despite all the Christmas paraphrenalia in the previous rooms representing different continents). So I told him, too, that Christmas wasn't only celebrated in America. I think it's interesting, though, that he assumed it was. I wonder if this is a common assumption among American children? (I really can't say I remember whether I thought that when I was my nephew's age or not.)

Present Accounted For

Well, I've once again let more time pass without an update than I intended to. But anyway, while I'm not going to make a really long post right now, I think it's probably about time I tied up an unresolved thread from a previous post.

In a previous post, I mentioned I'd received a Christmas gift from the ward, and that it seemed to me it must have been given due to some misunderstanding about my circumstances and that I was going to return it--and that I was going to talk to the bishop on the seventh and see about how to do that, since I didn't know exactly who in the ward or which ward organization had been responsible for the gift so I couldn't just return it directly. Well, although I didn't write about it at the time (I've been busy), I did indeed bring the matter up with the bishop after tithing settlement on the seventh. Or rather, he kind of broached the subject himself, saying he'd heard there was something I wanted to talk to him about--apparently the ward clerk had already apprised him of the situation.

I'd been apprehensive about this meeting; I was sure the bishop was going to try to talk me into keeping the gift, and, well, I've already written about my rather negative first impression of the new bishop, and I wasn't looking forward to meeting with him--this would be the first time I met with him on a one-on-one basis.

As it turns out, though, the gift wasn't given due to any misperception of neediness on my part at all. Apparently the Relief Society--the organization comprising the adult women in an LDS Ward--had decided they wanted to give out gifts, and when they approached the bishop he said they could go ahead and give them out to whoever they wanted. It's not that they thought I was needy; in fact, the bishop said, when the stake had asked him who in the ward was in need of aid (a stake is the next level up in the hierarchy, comprising a number of wards), he'd said there really wasn't anyone in the ward who he thought was in real need. I'm still uncomfortable taking the gift, but it seems it wasn't given under mistaken assumptions after all--except insofar as they still consider me a faithful Mormon, I guess, but even if I told them I was an atheist I doubt they'd take it back. So...I guess I don't have much choice but to accept it; I now know the Relief Society is behind it, so I could try returning it directly to them, but that would cause more problems and hurt feelings than it would solve.

As for the bishop...he was much less officious and unsympathetic than he'd seemed to me in his first talk. I still think the things he said in that talk were unjustified and poorly thought out, and I don't agree with some of what he's done since...but I don't think he's as bad as he initially seemed to me, and after all nobody's perfect, and maybe he just felt under a lot of pressure from his new calling.

Eh. Anyway, none of this has much to do with any broader theme; like I said, I just figured I ought to resolve that dangling thread left from the earlier post.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


I just got back from my second meeting of the Skeptics' Book Club. It was an entertaining discussion, and I like the people there; this is definitely something I'm going to continue going to regularly.

The book under discussion this month was A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, by Jonathan Kirsch. The "controversial book" mentioned in the subtitle is the Book of Revelation, and the book--that is, Kirsch's book, not Revelation--was all about the history of the Book of Revelation, its origin, how it got included in the Bible, and, most of all, the influence it's had on Western culture and beliefs.

To be honest, I found the book to be a bit repetitive, and I think in the last chapter Kirsch strains a bit too hard to try to connect any fictional works dealing with worldwide calamity to Revelation. (Worldwide disaster, and even destruction on a global scale, is certainly an idea that could arise independently, after all. I don't think it's plausible to insist (as Kirsch does) that the book of Revelation must have been a major influence on, for example, Dr. Strangelove.) Still, despite its faults, it was an interesting book, and I learned quite a bit from it.

One of the things Kirsch brings up that I found particularly interesting was the evolution of the concept of Satan. I had taken, as a freshman in college, a class on the Bible in Western Literature, taught by professor Bruce E. Zuckerman. The class, of course, was not religious in nature; as far as I know Dr. Zuckerman was an atheist. My reasons for taking the class are rather complicated, but at the time I still considered myself a faithful member, and while I did think some of Dr. Zuckerman's decidedly secular approach to the Bible was intriguing, I didn't let it sway my beliefs. Although I guess perhaps it did help do so indirectly, in that it added a little bit to the store of reasons for disbelief that at the time I was still managing to suppress but which eventually got too big to ignore...

(One of my favorite bits from the class was learning that in ancient Hebrew, "feet" was often a euphemism for the genitalia. I couldn't help but think of this in connection with Isaiah 6:2: "Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly." The image of blushing naked six-winged angels singing praises to the Lord while discreetly doing their best to cover their shame was one I couldn't help but find amusing. Coincidentally, at the book club meeting today, someone mentioned the image in Ezekiel of seraphim covering their genitalia, so maybe my interpretation of that verse is more broadly accepted than I realized...)

I don't recall being outspoken about my beliefs in the class, though. I do remember one instance when Dr. Zuckerman was talking about the Christian idea of people who sin being damned, and he asked rhetorically why, if God really preferred people to be saved, he didn't just force everyone to do the right thing--since, if he was omnipotent, that was certainly within His power. I mentioned to Dr. Zuckerman that, according to LDS doctrine, that was exactly what Satan had suggested be done, in the planning sessions before the creation of the world. Dr. Zuckerman had never heard that before, and found it fascinating. Still, I don't think I explicitly said that I was Mormon, although it could possibly have been reasonably inferred.

That's beside the point, though. The reason I bring this up is that one of the books in the Bible Dr. Zuckerman focused on was the book of Job. (Another was Jonah, which he said was probably intended as a big joke--but again, I digress.) In the book of Job, Satan appears in an interesting light--he speaks with God and suggests that Job be tested; in essence, Satan makes a bet with God about Job's faithfulness. This...doesn't seem to mesh with other presentations of the Adversary.

But what I didn't realize, even after taking Dr. Zuckerman's class, until reading Kirsch's book is that it's not the presentation of Satan in Job that's the anomaly. That's really all Satan was, originally. The Adversary, yes--that's what the name means--but more in a judicial sense. Not a being of evil, but just an accuser, responsible for testing humanity. And not really a terribly important being, either. In fact, the Book of Job is almost the only place in the Old Testament that Satan is mentioned! ("Almost", because, as I just found with a quick search he also gets a brief and pretty inconsequential mention in Zechariah, and a name-drop in Psalms 109:6.) Although I've read the Old Testament (yes, the whole thing, including the innumerable begats and the endless description of the original temple, though it was a long time ago), I hadn't really picked up on that--but of course, I'd been reading it from the perspective of a believer, so it was easy to take a lot for granted. Oh, sure, there are other beings in the Old Testament whom Christians hold to be identical with Satan--the serpent in Genesis, Lucifer in Isaiah 14--but this is after-the-fact conflation of what were originally separate entities. (Lucifer, for example, was supposed to be a metaphor for the King of Babylon--something which is clear enough that LDS teaching acknowledges the fact, but insists at the same time that the verses in question are simultaneously both a metaphor for the fall of Babylon and a factual description of the fall of Satan...)

In fact, the book primarily responsible for building Satan up as the Devil and the main source of evil is...Revelation. Along with a lot of other things that Revelation contributes to modern mainstream Christian belief. Which is somewhat ironic, since Revelation almost got left out of the Bible entirely, and many prominent early Christians denounced it.

I won't go into further details repeating Kirsch's theses, but I do want to add a few small notes on the Book of Revelation from an LDS standpoint. (Kirsch only mentions the LDS church twice in his book--though curiously the second time isn't listed in the index (and the first time he gets the name of the church slightly wrong--oh well).) The LDS church's standpoint on the Book of Revelation is...intermediate, I guess. Certainly church doctrine, in common with that of other Christian churches, does hold that the book is true, and that it was written by John the Beloved. Heck, the very name of the church points to its millenarian doctrines: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints--the whole church's name alludes to the belief that we're living in the last days. But, on the other hand, the LDS church doesn't put as much emphasis on Revelation as some fundamental churches do. Yes, church members believe the book is true prophecy--but they don't claim to know exactly what the prophecy means, or precisely how (and when) it will be fulfilled. And, incidentally, Mormons don't believe in the Rapture, which is a fairly late elaboration anyway, only dating back to the 1860s or so.

In the LDS church, Sunday School lessons currently rotate on an annual basis between the four principle LDS books of scripture: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. This year, as it happens, it's the turn of the New Testament, and in light of what Kirsch's book mentions about the downplaying of Revelation by less fire-and-brimstone churches, I was curious just how much emphasis was going to be put on it, and how. So I checked out the study guide members were distributed last Sunday. There are two lessons on Revelation--and between them they don't cover nearly the whole thing. One lesson is on chapters 1-3 and 12, and has the theme that "He That Overcometh Shall Inherit All Things". The other is on chapters 5-6 and 19-22, and is entitled "He Will Dwell with Them, and They Shall Be His People". In other words, apparently we're focusing on the happy-ending part and not looking at all the graphic disaster part: the Great Whore, the six-headed beast, the seven seals and seven trumpets, and all of that.

But then, it seems lately the LDS church has been moving toward trying to become a kinder, gentler church than it was in the past, and maybe this is an aspect of that. In an earlier post, I'd said I had my doubts as to what extent violence played a part in the earlier history of the church, but since then I've learned about some changes to the temple ceremonies before I went through the temple for the first time myself, and it turns out those earlier versions of the temple ceremonies...well...maybe I should save that for a future post.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Holiday Season

Okay, I've gone a long time again without posting, but I've spent much of the last two weeks over at my parents' house. My brother was in town with his family, and given that I don't get to spend much time with my brother I stayed at my parents' house for the holidays.

I've mentioned my brother in my post about Utah, and I said then that he had become "rather sanctimonious". Actually, that was a poor choice of words. He's perhaps somewhat overzealous in some ways, but the definition of "sanctimonious" implies an element of hypocrisy, and I really don't think there's anything hypocritical about my brother's zeal. I may think him misguided, but I don't think him insincere. I may disagree with his berating my mother for the sin of shopping on Sunday--but after all, he was only sticking by what he believes in, and there's an admirable side to such integrity, however misplaced. Heck, I was much the same myself before my deconversion, in some ways--I've referred before to the fact that I'd followed the church leaders' advice in eschewing seeing any R-rated movies, despite the fact that this advice is widely ignored by most of the church members I know. There's something to be said for being faithful to one's principles, and I shouldn't fault my brother for that.

And anyway, despite his misguided zeal (and having only recently escaped from such indoctrination myself, I really can't hold that against him too much), my brother is someone who, overall, I enjoy spending time with. Which is part of why I kind of dread coming out with my atheism, because, while it's certainly not going to mean my brother will want nothing more to do with me, it is going to change our relationship. But anyway, I didn't intend to write this entry about my brother. No, mostly I guess I want to write about the holidays.

I've been giving some thought to Christmas. It's pretty well known that most of the traditional trappings of Christmas--from Christmas trees to yule logs--are pre-Christian in origin. What we now call Christmas didn't start out as a Christian celebration at all; it was co-opted by early Christians to encourage the celebration of the birth of their Savior by tying it in with celebrations already existing. There's good reason to believe that Christ wasn't born anywhere near Christmas at all; if we take the Biblical account of his birth at face value (and of course if we don't the whole question becomes moot anyway), then the fact that the shepherds were watching their flocks outside, among other things, points to the event's having more likely taken place in the spring. (As a matter of fact, LDS doctrine is that Christ's birth has been revealed to have taken place on April 6, which fits in with the available evidence--though it also holds that it took place in the year A.D. 1, which raises some chronological issues involving Herod's death.) Christmas, as it's now celebrated, is a thin Christian veneer over a rich pagan core.

None of this was news to me since my deconversion; I'd known all of it when I still considered myself a faithful member of the church. Most educated Christians are, I assume, aware of the pagan origins of Christmas festivities. But only the most perfervid fundamentalists--and a few sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses--presume to forbid the celebration of Christmas because of these pagan roots. Most Christians who have some knowledge of the history of Christmas have much the same attitude as I did about it--that it doesn't really matter; that the point, from a Christian perspective, is just that the birth of the Savior be commemorated, and whether or not that commemoration happens to take place on the day he was really born isn't particularly relevant, nor are the precise customs that accompany it. Might as well stick with tradition.

But what I'd been thinking about this holiday is that, well, since virtually nothing about Christmas is really Christian, I didn't see any reason to feel uncomfortable still celebrating it. Which I'd like to, because I tend to have a certain fondness for tradition, and there are a lot of Christmas traditions I'd be loath to leave off completely. I'd still like to celebrate Christmas. Oh, sure, maybe not with all the religious hymns (not that I have any problem with singing those in a choir or anything--and some of them really do have beautiful music--but I'm certainly not going to take them as seriously as I used to), but for the most part I can still celebrate Christmas perfectly comfortably, without feeling like a hypocrite. Although it's sometimes claimed, in the furtherance of certain political interests, that Christmas has really become a fully secular holiday, the truth is that it hasn't...yet. Most people still regard Christmas as a Christian holiday. But it needn't be, and maybe that can change.

Except...then I realized that there was one important detail in which Christmas still had a strong Christian connection. Take out the overtly religious Christmas carols, the crèches, the angels or stars of Bethlehem topping the trees, and there's still one big thing left that betrays the holiday's religious connection. Its name. Christmas. Christ-mass. The mass of Christ. Yeah...there's really no turning Christmas into a fully secular holiday as long as it's got that name.

But...what to do about that? We can't just arbitrarily slap another name on there. And while the holiday does perhaps have other names, they're not much better. Xmas--no good; even if you pronounce it "eks-mas", it's still far too obviously just Christmas in a thin disguise. Noel--that derives ultimately from a word for "birth"; it refers to the nativity. It's another clearly Christian name. And going too far back to the pre-Christian roots just gets silly. Call me a traditionalist, but I'm not about to say I'm celebrating Saturnalia.

Ah, but then it occurred to me--there's one word that's often still used to refer to the Christmas season, but which doesn't have a Christian origin at all. Yule. Though Christmas is still often called Yuletide--and the most common word for Christmas in many languages even today is cognate to "Yule"--Yule was originally a pre-Christian festival, from which most of the aforementioned Christian traditions first stemmed.

So I think maybe next year I'm celebrating Yule. At least, that's what I'll be telling myself. If by then I haven't come out as an atheist yet, then as far as my family's concerned I'll still be celebrating Christmas.