Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Second Confession

Okay, I've still been too busy lately to post here as often as I'd like. But today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. And, as I said last month...I've decided to commemorate this one-year anniversary by, um, making another sort of confession.

This one's actually harder for me to admit to than being an atheist, even though logically I know it shouldn't be. But it's also something I've been keeping secret a lot longer. My atheism only dates back about a year and a quarter (I'd already rejected religion a few months before I started this blog). This, I've known about since I was twenty. And as hard as it is to admit to it, it's something I ought to come to terms with sooner or later, and I guess I may as well start by owning up to it here, where I can do so anonymously.

So here goes...

I'm gay.

By which I don't mean that I've ever had any homosexual relations. (I said in my first post that I was still a virgin, and that hasn't changed--and that includes relations with either gender.) But I don't have to have actually done the deed to know which gender turns me on. As I said, I've known I was gay since I was twenty--and had I been brought up in a less restrictive environment, I would no doubt have realized it much sooner. (Once I did finally realize it, it seemed in retrospect to be blatantly obvious.) Ironically, I realized it while I was on my mission for the church, but as tempting as it might be to speculate that being around other young guys prone to lounge about the apartment in their underwear contributed to the realization, I'm pretty sure the timing was just a coincidence.

(That last sentence perhaps requires a little elaboration. Yes, the missionaries on my mission did tend to strip down to their underwear when in their apartment--though I don't know how common this was in other missions (I served in Spain, and, well, it could get hot there), or whether church leaders have since found out about the practice and put a stop to it. However, there are several reasons I really don't think this had anything to do with my realizing that I was gay. For one thing, when I say "underwear", I don't mean boxers or briefs; I'm referring to Mormon temple garments, which are one of the most unsightly and unflattering articles of clothing ever designed. So if anything the missionaries were considerably less alluring in their "underwear" than they were fully dressed...)

I should add, by the way, that I don't think my homosexuality has anything to do with my atheism. After all, I knew I was gay almost fifteen years before my "deconversion". But LDS church leaders in the last few decades have acknowledged that homosexuality may not be entirely a matter of choice, that people may have innate predispositions toward it due to genetic or other causes. They have encouraged members with these urges to suppress them, of course, but at least they don't deny that those tendencies exist. So while I considered myself a faithful member, I just decided not to act on--or indeed, not to tell anyone about--my homosexual inclinations. I managed to go on that way for a decade and a half, and I honestly don't think it was a contributing factor to my eventual rejection of the church; I'd long made my peace with the matter as far as that went, and had reconciled in my mind my tendencies with church teachings.

When I say that I'd decided, as a faithful Mormon, not to act on my homosexual tendencies, I don't mean to say that now that I've "deconverted" I'm planning to go out and start trying to pick up guys. My conditioning has stuck to the degree that I'm still very uncomfortable with that whole idea--I may know that I'm attracted to other men, but the idea of actually acting on that attraction still strikes me as distasteful, even though intellectually I know there's no good reason it should. So...I really have no idea even where I want to go from here, and when I say I ought to come to terms with my homosexuality, I'm not even sure myself what I mean by that. I was helped to come to terms with my atheism by interacting with other atheists both online and in person at the Center for Inquiry. But as for my homosexuality...well, while I guess it wouldn't be hard to meet other homosexuals if I wanted to, at this point I really don't want to. Not that I have anything against homosexuals (that would be rather silly, considering that I am one myself), but...I don't know. I have no interest in trying to assume a typical homosexual "lifestyle", whatever that is, or if such a thing even exists. I'm more or less content with things the way they are.

(Well...except that I really would like to have kids someday. But, uh, it doesn't seem like there's any simple way for that to happen...)

So why am I writing this, and why do I feel there's anything I need to "come to terms with" in the first place? Well, because, while I don't feel the need to go out and find dates, or anything like that...I am kind of uncomfortable with living a lie. (Well, not that I've explicitly told anyone I'm straight, but even so I'm sort of lying by omission...and there've been times I've had to word things very carefully to avoid giving myself away without actually saying an untruth.) But...I'm apprehensive of the consequences of coming out as homosexual. Even more so than those of coming out as an atheist.

Like I said, I know it shouldn't be that way; a number of surveys have shown that there's more prejudice against and distrust of atheists in today's society than there is of gays. But...that's not my personal experience. I've heard from people I know in the church a lot more hostility toward gays than toward atheists. Now, I know that the surveys are probably more reliable than my own personal anecdotal "evidence"--and, in fact, I've got a pretty good idea why I haven't heard as much negativity toward atheists as toward gays. It's because to a lot of people I know, atheists...don't really exist. Or at least, they're not a part of their everyday experience. They've heard of them, but they don't fully believe in them, or at least they haven't known any themselves (or at least known anyone they know to be an atheist.) On their mental maps of society, gays may comprise a distrusted foreign country, but the godless are acknowledged only by some words in some exotic and unexplored corner, stating in an ornate script, "HERE BE ATHEISTS". So if I've heard more invective against homosexuals than against atheists, it's probably because I've been around people who are more familiar with the former than with the latter--but it doesn't necessarily indicate that they feel any less negatively toward atheists. If anything, it makes sense that they'd think even worse of atheists, because of the unfamiliarity; there are enough gays around that they pretty much have to be acknowledged as people, if "sinful" ones, whereas as long as atheists remain abstract and semi-mythical they can be demonized completely.

(This could be taken, incidentally, as an argument for atheists in general to become more outspoken about their atheism. After all, if gays have won some measure of tolerance by becoming better known (certainly not full tolerance, but much more than they had a few decades ago), it seems likely that atheists would be able to throw off some of their opprobrium if they were simply more visible; if people simply associated atheism with people they knew, and not with some semi-mythical people that exist to them only as concepts. In particular, this could be construed as an argument that I ought to fess up to my atheism, and stop trying to keep it hidden from my family and friends. Yeah...I know I should, but I call myself the anonymous coward for a reason...)

Now, all of that I realize intellectually, but it's one thing to grasp it on that level and another to really internalize it. As much as I may know, on an intellectual level, that my coming out as an atheist is likely to have larger consequences for my personal relationships than my coming out as gay, it's hard to overcome the feeling, based on all the digs I've heard against gays, that it would be the other way around. Of course, given that I have no immediate plans to come out publicly in either capacity, for the moment at least it's a moot point. (This, however, is another reason I was kind of reluctant to bring this subject up even here on this blog. I do intend to someday make my atheism public, after all, though I don't yet know just when that's going to be. And when I do, I'd planned to own up to this blog as well. But now, of course, doing that would mean also admitting that I'm gay. Well...I guess it has to come out sometime anyway.)

I do have an uncle who's gay, but I'm not sure, on balance, whether that bodes well or ill for my family's reaction when they find out about my homosexuality. On the one hand, he's evidence that they can, at least, show some measure of tolerance; he's still invited to family gatherings, and everyone in the family still tries to keep in contact with him. But on the other hand, it's clear that he's thought of as, well, a sinner, and a bit of a pariah. To make matters worse, he has a history of certain psychological problems. Those issues are in no way related to his homosexuality...but they mean that homosexuality and mental disorders are now connected in my family's eyes.

The uncle in question is a graphic artist, and my mother is convinced that he was turned gay because he was forced to sleep with another artist in return for introduction to a particular artistic technique. (I said earlier that LDS church leaders have acknowledged that homosexuality may be innate, but that doesn't mean that all church members have gotten that message.) She insists that he wasn't always gay, that he had a crush on a certain girl when he was a boy. He denies that, and, his psychological history notwithstanding, I tend to agree with him that he probably knows how he felt as a boy better than my mother does. In fact, I have a possible guess as to how my mother's conviction of his childhood crush may have come about. When I was in my early teens, my mother would continually press me about which of the girls in the ward I might like. I hadn't yet realized at that time that I was gay, but I did know that I had no interest in any of those girls. Still, my mother kept badgering me about the matter until finally just to get her off my back I picked a girl pretty much at random to tell her I liked. I didn't know the girl in question, and had no better reason for the choice than that her mother happened to be my Sunday school teacher; I don't think I ever said a word to her in my life, or vice versa. But my mother insisted I had to be interested in some girl, so I gave her a name. (I did try to convince myself that I liked her, but to no avail.)

Anyway, now that I'm getting into acting, my mother has a new cause for concern; she's been warning me that the acting business is disproportionately full of people with sinful lifestyles, and to be careful to avoid what happened to my uncle. If she's worried that acting is somehow going to turn me gay, well, it's a bit late to be concerned about that, since I've already been gay for about fifteen years. (Well, okay, I've been gay all my life, really, but first realized it fifteen years ago.)

Looking back at earlier posts, though, apparently I have actually made some progress in coming to terms with this, even just over the last year. Remember my post about marriage, back in August? I alluded then to some "other serious factors...that have stood in the way" of my getting married, but that "I d[id]n't feel like going into" right then. This--my homosexuality--was what I was referring to. But reading that post now, I'm a little surprised to see that in that post I said I still did want to get married. I certainly wasn't referring to gay marriage; I think at the time I had some sort of fantasy that I'd find a woman who would still want to marry me after I confessed to her that I was gay (I wouldn't want a marriage based on a lie) and told her I wasn't attracted to her sexually, but could perhaps still love her in other ways. Even supposing I could find such a woman, why would I want to? Well, basically, I think, because I want kids. But that's not the way to go about it (not, like I said, that there really is a simple way of going about it); even in the extremely unlikely circumstance that a woman was willing to marry me despite my homosexuality, that wouldn't really be fair to her--and wouldn't, in the long term, be a good thing for me either. So I guess I've accepted since that post that I'll likely never marry--that, at least, I've come to terms with.

But again, despite the fact that atheists may be more distrusted than gays, it's my homosexuality that I'm more reluctant to talk about. I have told people (non-anonymously) that I'm an atheist--not just those I met at the CFI, but friends I'd known from before that as well. I haven't told anyone that I'm gay, even my oldest friends, and I really wouldn't feel comfortable doing so. A few months back, someone I'd met at the CFI invited me to a party, where I met for the first time his wife, who, as I found out, actually made a vocation of helping out gay Mormon youth. Now, if there's anyone I should have felt comfortable telling about my homosexuality, it's her--granted, I'm a decade and change past really being able to call myself a youth anymore, but other than that I'm in a situation she's helped many people deal with in the past. But even to her, I couldn't bring myself to say anything about my sexual orientation. Even here, anonymously, I feel a little queasy about bringing it up. the end, this may not end up being entirely an anonymous confession after all. I have, after all, told some people at the CFI about this blog, which means that this entry may be read by some people I know face-to-face. I hadn't planned on that happening--in fact, I'd intended just the contrary--but maybe it's for the best in the long run. As much as it may trouble me to admit to being gay, as I said, it's something I do need to come to terms with sooner or later.

Eh. I don't know. I'm not really fishing for advice here (though that's not to say that it would offend me); mostly I felt it was about time I did admit to this, even if for the moment it's only (mostly) anonymously. Like I said, I don't like living a lie, and at the moment, between my atheism and my homosexuality, I'm living two of them. That's...not going to last indefinitely.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mormonism 101: Mormon Meetings

Whew. It's been another light blogging week, I guess, thanks largely to (what may be) my incipient acting career. (With regards to which, however, I should own up to a misunderstanding with regard to what I posted here. When the casting company called and said I "got the part"; I assumed they meant the lead role in the commercial, which is the part I had auditioned for; as it turns out, I'd been given a lesser role. Well, I still got a part in the commercial, which is certainly something, especially considering it was my first ever audition for a commercial part.)

But anyway, I said a ways back that, given the interest people seem to have in the workings of the Mormon church (as evidenced in part by the response to my post on Mormon missionary methods, and given how surprisingly little outsiders seem to know about it and how many misconceptions there are (I mean, I'm far from the first Mormon to have left the church; you'd think things would have gotten around more than they have apparently had), I was going to do a series of "Mormonism 101" posts, explaining the methods and practices of the LDS church. And I guess this is as good a time as any to start.

This post's subject: Mormon church meetings.

First of all, to clear up one common misconception, Mormons do not go to the temple for church meetings every Sunday. The temple is for certain special ceremonies, including (but not limited to) weddings and baptisms for the dead, and is visited (by most members) much more infrequently. I'm not going to go further into what goes on in the temple in this post, because there's enough to that to merit a post (or several posts) of its own, but suffice to say for now that Mormons meet on Sundays at church buildings which are much less large and ornate than the temples, but much more numerous. Density of church buildings depends on density of membership; in Los Angeles there aren't that many of them--the church building where the congregation that I'm a member of meets is about two and a half miles from my apartment, and the nearest other building that I know of is about four miles away. In Utah, of course, LDS churches are substantially more common, and except in spread-out rural areas few Mormons don't live within walking distance of their church. Furthermore, often more than one ward (congregation) shares the same building, meeting at different times (though the times may overlap if not all the rooms are needed by each ward at once).

There are two kinds of LDS members: "active" and "less active". The "active" members go to church nearly every week and participate in church activities. "Less active" is a bit of a euphemism, since most "less active" members don't go to church at all, and many of them want nothing to do with the church but are still officially on the church records. (In fact, formerly the term "inactive" was used, but this has been denigrated, presumably as insufficiently optimistic.) The line isn't as fuzzy as one may think; while there are some Mormons who only show up to church occasionally, there aren't really all that many. Most Mormons either attend church regularly or seldom attend at all, with very few in between.

Sunday church attendance in the LDS church actually comprises three separate meetings. These used to be at different times, with some gaps between them, so that members would go home between meetings, but in 1980 (long enough ago that I don't really remember the old meeting schedules myself), they were consolidated into a three-hour block meeting schedule. The order of the meetings varies, but the middle of the three is always Sunday School.

There are two main adult Sunday School meetings going on simultaneously. (This is not counting the children, who have their own classes, divided up by age group.) Most members attend "Gospel Doctrine", which covers the LDS scriptures and related topics. Which scriptures are covered rotates on a quadrennial basis: one year the lessons focus on the Old Testament (plus the Pearl of Great Price, a few additional chapters purportedly by Moses and Abraham and "translated" by Joseph Smith), the next (including this year) on the New Testament, the next on the Book of Mormon, and the next on the book of Doctrine & Covenants, a book of "revelations" of this "dispensation" (i.e. since Joseph Smith--actually, almost entirely by Joseph Smith; only three of the 138 sections aren't written by him. Although it's often said in the LDS church that the words of all modern prophets have the force of scripture, the vast majority of these words have not been formally compiled into a book of scripture). New members and "investigators" (non-members) attend "Gospel Essentials", instead, which goes over more basic doctrinal materials. Sometimes there are also other classes going on during this time (and/or during the Priesthood/Relief Society meeting time, described below), such as temple preparation classes or genealogy classes, but these are intermittent and involve much fewer people.

Before or after Sunday School, depending on the particular ward's schedule, is the priesthood meeting for the men, or Relief Society for the women. (The youth, again, have their own meetings during this time--children younger than twelve are lumped together in "Primary" (which also extends during Sunday School), while older boys and girls have their own classes separated by age--though the boys twelve and older do have priesthood classes, they're separate from the adult men's.) What goes on in Relief Society, of course, I can't say from personal experience, but it's my understanding they generally cover more or less the same topics as the men do in priesthood, though usually with more visual aids. The Priesthood meeting (and presumably the Relief Society meeting as well), aside from whatever priesthood business may be briefly taken care of in the beginning, really isn't too different from the Sunday School meeting in format, though it differs somewhat in subject matter: instead of concentrating on books of scripture, the lessons in these meetings focus on particular topics within the gospel. In recent years, they've given the Priesthood and Relief Society lessons more of a theme, by focusing each year on the teachings of a particular modern prophet (though of course they omit all the objectionable or controversial things these "prophets" have said, often editing their words to render them more palatable).

Lessons in all these meetings are taught by ward members who are asked to do it by ward leaders--either called directly to the position by the bishopric, or asked to fill in by the Sunday School, Relief Society, or Priesthood presidency if the regular teachers are unavailable or felt to deserve a break. I've taught many lessons myself, including, as I mentioned some time ago, one even since my deconversion. There is even (on an intermittent schedule like the aforementioned temple preparation and genealogy classes) a class on teaching that the bishop often requests members recently called to teaching callings to take.

The final meeting--which depending on the schedule can in fact be the first meeting of the block--is the sacrament meeting. This is the longest of the three meetings, at around seventy minutes, and is considered the most important; if a member for some reason can't make it for the entire three hour block, it's the sacrament meeting he does his best to make sure he attends. After the opening hymn and prayer, and whatever ward business there might be to address (announcing new callings and releases, etc.), the first main order of business is the passing of the sacrament. This post is getting long enough without going into detail about that, so maybe I'll make it the topic of a separate post, but at any rate after the passing of the sacrament the bulk of the meeting is devoted to talks by the members, which may or may not have a hymn or a musical number between them. Members are generally asked by the bishopric several weeks in advance to give a talk on a particular day (and are usually given a specific topic to speak about), but it often happens that the request doesn't come till the week previous. In any case, while the bishopric (that is to say, the bishop--who presides over the ward--and his two counselors) conducts the meeting, as far as announcing what's going to come next and trying to ensure that everyone keeps to their alloted time, most of it's done by the general membership at the bishopric's prior request: the talks, special musical numbers, even the opening and closing prayers. A bishopric member may give a spontaneous talk if the assigned speakers run short, but this rarely happens; more often, the assigned speakers run long, and the next meeting, if there is one, starts a bit late (to the endless frustration of the Sunday School teacher in the local ward).

There are a few exceptions to the regular schedule. One is conference meetings. Twice a year is a "general conference", where the church leadership speaks to the church as a whole, most of whom tune in either by satellite broadcast or, more recently, by the internet. (In the old days, of course, church members who wanted to hear general conference had to physically attend--nowadays, though that's no longer necessary, pilgrimages to Salt Lake City to attend general conference are not uncommon.) Another few times a year is "stake conference", where a stake--a collection of nearby wards--meets together, under the direction of the stake presidency.

Furthermore, once a month--usually the first Sunday of the month, though it may be shifted because of conference meetings--is "fast Sunday", when the church members are supposed to fast for a day--abstaining from two meals, generally breakfast and lunch of that Sunday. On fast Sunday, the regular sacrament meeting becomes "fast and testimony meeting"--the ordinance of the sacrament still takes place, but instead of talks the rest of the sacrament meeting is left open for members to "bear their testimonies", coming up to the stand and proclaiming their belief in the church. Matt of Pooflingers Anonymous mentioned something that occurs during fast and testimony meeting as having been the "final point" that turned him away from possibly joining the LDS church: children "bearing their testimony" at their parents' insistence. Matt says it was obvious that the child he saw had been "taught what to say", but it can be much more blatant than that: very often, the parent is actually up there on the stand with the child, openly whispering in his ear. (Almost invariably, in addition to saying that he knows the church is true, the prompted child also adds that he loves his mommy and daddy. The fact that it's his "mommy" or "daddy" who's telling him to say this is...well, kind of off-putting.)

I have to admit I always thought this rigmarole of the child bearing a "testimony" fed to him by his parents was hollow and meaningless--even when I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, it was pretty obvious that the parent was just putting words in the child's mouth--, but I saw it as a failing of the individual members involved, not of the church. Still, Matt saw this as a species of brainwashing--"if this kid repeats this every month until he's in high school, he'll believe it"--and actually, he's right. It's not only for the children, either; older members are encouraged to bear their testimonies often even if they don't have a firm conviction of the church's truth, because if they bear their testimony and say they believe in the church, the Spirit will witness to its truth and they'll gain a testimony. Given the human mind's tendency to change its memories and feelings to fit circumstances, the fact that such a person will over time convince himself that he's had the witness of the Spirit shouldn't be surprising.

Anyway, I could go on, but I'm short on time today, so I think that'll suffice. So, now maybe you know a little more about what goes on at Mormon church meetings. If there's anything in particular about the LDS church that you'd like me to cover in future "Mormonism 101" posts, please feel free to say so in the comments.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Humanist Symposium #2

One of the many remarkable things about the natural world is the sheer variety of life it contains. So complex is the vast collection of organisms that biologists have devised an elaborate system for classification, known as taxonomy. The standard taxonomic system involves several nested levels of classification, starting with Kingdom at the top, followed by Phylum (or Division, for plants), then Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species, with occasional intercalations of suborders and superclasses and other intermediate levels. The genus and species are the two levels with names most familiar (no pun intended) to the layman: Tyrannosaurus rex belongs to the genus Tyrannosaurus and the species rex, for example, and we humans are Homo sapiens--genus Homo, species sapiens. (Not, incidentally, sapien: that final s is a part of the species name; it's not an indicator of pluralization.) But to a biologist, the higher levels are important in the classification as well: We Homo sapiens, for example, belong to the family Homidae, in the order Primates, class Mammalia, subphylum Vertebrata, phylum Chordata, kingdom Animalia. (Some of these no doubt ring a bell to the layman, as well; most people have certainly heard of primates, mammals, and vertebrates, but probably aren't aware of the technical names for these classifications at the order, class, and subphylum levels, respectively.)

(There was a mnemonic taught when I was in high school which I now remember only in part: "King Philip Crossed Over and Found something something." Not finding that mnemonic particularly engrossing, I came up with my own: "Kids Prefer Coke Over Flat Grape Soda". I much later found out that a distorted form of my mnemonic--combining it with the previous one--remained current at the school years after I'd graduated: "Kings Prefer Cans Of Flat Grape Soda". This may be as close as I'll come to making a lasting mark upon the biological sciences.)

The names of the various taxonomic levels, of course, are arbitrary. Oh, there are rules for their formation: they must be of Latin or Greek derivation (with the inclusion of proper names allowed); the scientist naming the taxon can't just string together any arbitrary collection of letters. But the names themselves aren't really important, except as labels. If we renamed class Mammalia to class Piloses, to choose a random example, nothing important would change; the classification system would remain the same, and certainly there'd be no reflection of the name change in the actual organisms the class encompasses. But while the particular names aren't really significant, the classification system is, in that the taxa are chosen in such a way as to accurately reflect the evolutionary and genetic relationships between the organisms involved. This means, of course, that as scientists refine their ideas about the relationships between different organisms, the taxonomic classifications may change, but in any case they reflect the current best understanding about their organism's relationships.

What does all of this have to do with the Second Humanist Symposium? Well, because I decided, just for fun, to arrange the posts according to a (pseudo-)taxonomic system. Of course, by the theme of the symposium, all these posts are about humanist themes, so they're all already related; let's say they're all in kingdom Scriptura (which, incidentally, is just Latin for "writing", with no particular connotation of sacredness), phylum Ephemeres, subphylum Cassium, class Philosophiae, order Humanistes. Beyond that, we'll get to more specific classifications. (It probably goes without saying that, unlike the biological taxonomic system, the taxonomic system used here is pretty much meaningless; like I said, it's just for fun. Also, I should note that my Latin and Greek are very bad, so many of these names may not make as much sense as they're supposed to...)

Family Notioatheidae: Posts of this family deal with specific words and concepts as they apply within humanism and atheism.
  1. Quorsum saepis--The genus Quorsum deals with the question of purpose, as it applies to a life lived without theistic belief. From Gospel of Reason, we encounter a post, Fence Theism--Kick the Habit!, which is at least a marginal member of this genus. Truthfully, I'm uncertain whether this species truly belongs in this genus, since the main nominal subject of the post is the discussion of "fence theists", those who sympathize with religious institutions even without holding to every aspect of their dogmas, but I think it may include enough discussion of the purpose of an atheistic life to justify its collocation in this genus.
  2. Visathei legati--Closely related to the genus Quorsum is the genus Visathei, which deals with the meaning one can find in a life without God--indeed, both genera lie within the subfamily Significationis. An example post from this genus can be found in The Executioner's Thong: a perpetual funeral, a musing on meaning apparently triggered by the writer's reading of Hebrew chants.

Family Atheiscriptidae: While all posts of the order Humanistes, of course, deal with humanism and to some degree with atheism, those of the family Atheiscriptidae deal most directly with what it means to be an atheist, and just what atheism is.
  1. Nullussuperae diacoptes--Atheism is not, of course, a belief system, per se, but rather an absence of certain beliefs, as posts of the genus Nullussuperae take pains to explain. In particular, The Control Group, from A Load of Bright, points out that the absence of some factor often plays an important role in analyzing the factor in question.
  2. Polyathea reapse--Since atheism isn't a single belief system, there's a lot of diversity among atheists and humanists; posts of the genus Polyathea discuss that diversity. The example currently under examination, On True Atheists, from BLIGBI, laments the fact that this diversity is sometimes denied even from within, by some who consider themselves, on fallacious grounds, to be the only "true" atheists.
  3. Atheamplexus calosorisma--Posts of this genus are distinguished from those of other genera in the family Atheiscriptidae not so much by their content as by who they're addressed to: namely, these posts are directed to those new to atheism, to welcome them and to explain just what it's all about. Letter to a New Atheist, from Atheist Revolution, is an excellent example.

Family Vitaesensidae: This family of blog posts comprises humanist takes on life and existence.
  1. Autoexetases holistes--Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living; posts of the genus Autoexetases examine this proposition. The post we find here, The Examined Life from Philosophy, et cetera, is a dubious member of the order Humanistes, in that it never refers explicitly to humanism or any associated philosophy, but its subject matter is sufficiently applicable to humanism to justify its inclusion here.
  2. Logotheo studii--Humanists often tend to embrace learning and knowledge--and in particular, may have an intellectual interest in religion even though they don't believe in it. This is what posts of the genus Logotheo are about, and our present example, Learn Something New Every Day from Spanish Inquisitor, also expounds on the importance of learning in general.
  3. Omninexus circuli--The world--on a human level--is more interconnected now than ever before, a condition that poses both opportunities and challenges, as posts of the genus Omninexus discuss. Our current example, Internetionalism and the Circle of Humanity from Humantide, brings up the promotion of the circle as a symbol for humanism, and what else this implies.
  4. Eumeioses chorou--In some sense, all objects and phenomena can be seen as a fantastically complex combination of individually much simpler particles and interactions. Posts of the genus Eumeioses note and celebrate this fact, and expound on the beauty of it, as exemplified in the post Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence in Greta Christina's Blog.

Family Prosopicidae: Most blog posts are, by their very nature, largely personal in content, but those of the family Prosopicidae especially so; these posts deal most intimately with the author's personal experiences and beliefs, as related to humanism.
  1. Apostasia evangelica--Many humanist bloggers choose to tell the stories of how they came to leave religion; the posts containing such stories pertain to the genus Apostasia. In Unhaunting 1: A Brief History of An Evangelical Life, from Candid Folly, we see an example of such a post, outlining the writer's departure from evangelical Christianity.
  2. Atheifides magnipretium--Atheists don't believe in God, but that doesn't mean they have no beliefs at all; posts of the genus Atheifides discuss just what the writers do believe in, in the absence of religion. What I Do Believe, from Sailing to Byzantium, is a particularly beautiful example.

Family Certodeidae: While this family could perhaps be considered a part of Etairiatheidae, below, insofar as it does deal with the relationship of atheism in society, family Certodeidae, which deals in particular with the interplay between atheism and religion, is perhaps distinct enough to form a separate family (though both are within the superfamily Etairiatheides).
  1. Antitheos neoatheis--Posts of the genus Antitheos contend that reason and religion are fundamentally opposed. This example, Support New Atheism from Phil For Humanity, exhorts the reader to support a variety of atheism that emphasizes this opposition.
  2. Patiordeus illusum--What does it really mean for atheists to be "tolerant", or is this plea really one-sided? That's the question addressed by posts of the genus Patiordeus, such as our current example, Tolerance, from Hell's Handmaiden.

Family Etairiatheidae: It's said that no man is an island, and that goes as much for humanists as for anyone else. The place of humanism in a larger society is a subject well worth discussing, and it's this topic that is the focus of posts of the family Etairiatheidae.
  1. Arsathei iereus--Posts of the genus Arsathei deal with specific positions or occupations that atheists have made for themselves in society; the present example, A Humanist School Chaplain? from Five Public Opinions, discusses, well, a humanist school chaplain.
  2. Athealmus pyropneuma--Atheists have a reputation in some circles as being strident and angry; posts of the genus Athealmus argue for a gentler approach. The example here, Firebreathing or Soft-speaking?, from Atheist Self, takes up this theme in the light of the Virginia Tech shootings and other tragedies, and argues that atheists should be ready to speak about other things than atheism.
  3. Athealmus falwelli--A post of the same genus as the above, but with a slightly different emphasis, If You Can't Say Anything Nice..., from Fearless Philosophy For Free Minds, argues that, whatever damage the late Jerry Falwell may have done, atheists and humanists shouldn't callously rejoice over his death and impinge on the grieving of those who were close to him.
  4. Etairiathei adfirmationis--Etairiathei is the type genus of the family Etairiatheidae, and discusses broadly how humanism and atheism can or should relate to society. I intentionally saved this post, Reaching Out, for last, because--while there were certainly many good posts in this symposium--I think this was the one that maybe best represented what the Humanist Symposium is supposed to be all about. Though since this post came from Daylight Atheism, where the Humanist Symposium originated in the first place, I guess that's not too surprising.

Well, that concludes this edition of the Humanist Symposium. The next issue will be up on June 10 at the Black Sun Journal; feel free to start submitting!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ask Not, And Ye Shall Receive

Okay, as I think I've mentioned, I've been going through some financial difficulties recently. Well, in searching for jobs to remedy that situation, I've been spreading out my net rather widely. Since I'm still working on my doctoral dissertation, I've been looking for part-time jobs that would allow me to still put in time on my research, but I've been looking into just about any kind of part-time job I feel I might be remotely qualified for.

In particular, I seem to have stumbled into acting.

I say "stumbled into" because, well, I ran across a call for actors for a corporate promotional video on craigslist, and I thought, what the hey, no harm in trying. And, rather to my surprise, I got a part. Getting a part in my first audition ever encouraged me enough that I figured I may as well keep at it, and so I began to look into acting a little more. And a few days later I got an audition for a part in a commercial for a major company. I didn't think the audition had gone well, but apparently it went better than I thought, because I got a callback.

By this point, I was really wanting to get this part. Not only did it pay better than the part in the corporate promotional video, but it was...well, more visible (it may even be a commercial intended to air on national TV--I didn't ask, and I'm not sure), and it would no doubt look much better on my résumé if I decide to keep acting (and at this point, I'm pretty sure I will; based on the reactions I've gotten, I actually seem to be pretty good at it). I wasn't sure what my chances were--sure, I got a callback, but so did at least half a dozen others, and I had no prior professional acting experience (the corporate promotional video not having been shot yet at that point)--but I really wanted this part.

Now. As those who've been reading this blog know, I was raised in the Mormon church. I don't believe in it anymore, of course, but I was a faithful Mormon for more than thirty years (if you count my early childhood when I didn't really understand anything about it). And...even though I don't believe in it anymore, or rather I've accepted that I never really had any reason to believe in it in the first place, and even though on at least one level I've come to terms with that, thirty-odd years of indoctrination leaves marks that don't come off easily. At some levels, there's still a lot of deprogramming to be done.

One of the things that I was raised to believe, of course, is that if you really want something, you should pray to God for help. And somewhere in the back of my mind, in the areas that haven't fully overcome the religious brainwashing yet, part of me wanted to pray that I'd get this part.

With only a little dramatic license, I can cast my thought processes in terms of an argument with myself:

You really want this part. You ought to pray about it.

I'm not going to pray about it. I don't believe in prayer anymore.

Still, you feel like you ought to be doing something about it, right? Go ahead. Pray about it.

That wouldn't be doing anything effective. I'm not going to pray about it. I don't believe in God.

Okay, sure, you don't believe in God, but...why not pray about it, just in case? Sure, you may not believe it'll help, but it can't hurt, right?

I'm not going to pray about it "just in case". I don't believe in God. I have no reason to believe prayer can accomplish anything.

But even if God doesn't exist, prayer isn't going to hurt anything.

It's the principle of the thing. I have to try to get over old habits like that, and I don't need to feel like I'm doing something useful when I'm not. I'm not going to pray about it.

So, despite a bit of an inner struggle with my old self, I stuck to my guns and didn't pray about it.

I got the part.

I'm not saying this proves anything, of course. But I thought it might be worth mentioning.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mid-May Carnivalia

Okay, I'm a day late mentioning this (mostly because I wasn't anywhere yesterday where I had internet access), but Carnival of the Godless #66 went up yesterday at The Atheist Experience.

Also, I'm even later in mentioning that the 60th Skeptics' Circle is up at Infophilia. I'd intended to submit a post to it myself, but unfortunately I forgot how early the submission deadline was, so...I didn't. But I'll mention it anyway, because there's plenty there that's worth reading. Even if Infophile did employ a format that I'd been thinking of using myself for the second Humanist Symposium when I host it next week (though he did it in a much more elaborate fashion than I had been planning to do). Oh well.

Speaking of my hosting the second Humanist Symposium next week, I'm hosting the second Humanist Symposium next week. (How's that for redundancy?) There've been some submissions already, but there's plenty of room for more, so by all means feel free to submit a post! (And although Infophile beat me to the choose-your-own-adventure format I was considering, I've got another idea, so all remains well...)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Basis For Belief, Part Five: Angels and Aliens

(I'd hoped to have this post up Wednesday, but between job interviews and sundry other inconveniences, it's been a busy week. Well, anyway, here it is:)

Yeah, the Basis For Belief series was only planned to comprise four posts, but then I read a book that went with the material so well I figured I can include it as an honorary part of the series. The book in question was the May selection for the Skeptics' Book Club, Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, by Susan Clancy. (The book was suggested, incidentally, by Ross of The Skeptic Review; the book club's response was generally positive, though one woman did object to Clancy's mentioning being "dressed in purple" as characteristic of people who believe in weird phenomena. You can probably guess what color she habitually wore.) Clancy writes of her experience interviewing people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens, and of her conclusions about them: that these people aren't crazy; most of them are otherwise ordinary, well-adjusted people who happen to have one particular weird belief.

But the reason I think this book fits in so well with the "Basis For Belief" series is because it describes many of the same processes I was discussing in a religious context, only concerning a different (but equally irrational) belief system. I hadn't read the book yet when I wrote those posts, but the parallels are striking--especially with the third post, about the Holy Ghost. Clancy doesn't explicitly point out the similarities until the very end of the book, but they're obvious long before she mentions them. For instance, those who believe they were abducted by aliens simply know it's true, and refuse to be persuaded by rational evidence; there's no apparent meaningful difference between their insistence on their beliefs and what a Christian calls "faith". They want to believe in aliens, many of them, because it gives their life a purpose; even those who say the abduction was a traumatic experience also say they wouldn't want to avoid having it, if they had to do it all over again. Believing that aliens are abducting humans and performing tests on them lets them believe that there's something greater than mankind in the universe, and that humans--and the abductees in particular--are serving an important purpose. Sound familiar?

The abductees, at least the most "faithful" of them, are not unaware of the logical explanations. Sleep paralysis. False memories. But they discard them. Why? Because they just know what happened, through means they can't explain. "All I can say is that it happened to me; it didn't happen to you. I felt it." "I don't care that it doesn't make sense to you, or that scientists say it can't happen...I was changed, and I know it's true." "I knew it--I just knew it had happened. I felt it in my bones." Again, is all this different in any meaningful way from the way a Mormon who's supposedly received a testimony from the Holy Ghost knows the church is true? Or how any other Christian knows that Christ is Lord, or any theist knows that God exists?

I was also particularly struck by the process by which these "abductees" received their false memories. Nobody, says Clancy, gets up one morning and suddenly decides he was abducted by aliens. He starts thinking maybe he was abducted, and it builds up over time into a certainty. Usually (though not always) this happens with the aid of a hypnotist or therapist who asks leading questions and/or asks the subject to imagine what could have happened. What we imagine enough can often come to seem real to us (and she cites a number of studies that have established this), and even if at first the subjects weren't sure they were abducted, the more they start to mull it over and imagine possible scenarios, the more sure they become.

This has a remarkable likeness to the process that missionaries are taught to use for conversion, especially the step of "identifying the Holy Ghost". They're told to ask whether the investigator felt anything as he was reading the Book of Mormon, and then tell him (pretty much regardless of what he answers, outside of responses like "nothing" or "a toothache") that he just felt the testimony of the Holy Ghost. The missionary explains further, and invites the investigator to remain open to receiving the Holy Ghost's testimony in the future.

Seems to me like pretty much the same process. Therapist: "How did you feel that morning? Well, it's possible you were abducted by aliens. Let's think of what could have happened, and see how you feel about it." Missionary: "How did you feel as we were reading these scriptures? You were feeling the testimony of the Holy Ghost! Let's read some more, and see if you keep feeling it." In both cases, they're identifying a feeling with a particular phenomenon, which tends to make the subject imagine that feeling as being more intense and significant than it had been, and to associate it with that phenomenon in the future. No wonder converts can get such strong testimonies of the church's truth--in exactly the same way that these "abductees" get such strong convictions of their abductions!

Clancy, of course, doesn't believe in alien abductions; she does a thorough job of tracing the history of aliens in popular culture and the roots of the belief. If anything, I think she's rather too pessimistic in her estimates that intelligent life could have evolved elsewhere--but even if it did, I agree that the chances that aliens, who happen to look remarkably humanoid (and even more remarkably like a fictional alien that had just appeared on a TV show a couple of weeks before the first abduction report!), have been regularly coming to Earth and extracting tissue samples from humans for no discernible purpose for the last several decades. I concur with Clancy that, however fervently these people believe they've been abducted, it's quite safe to say they haven't.

But if religious beliefs have the same kinds of basis as alien abduction beliefs--and they do; as I said, the resemblances are quite striking--then why should they be given any greater credence?

"Ten years from now," Clancy writes in an early chapter, "believing in aliens and in their presence among us will perhaps become as common as believing in God."

Maybe--but I'd like to hope that conversely, if not in ten years then perhaps in twenty, or fifty, disbelieving in God will come to be as normal and as fully accepted as disbelieving in alien abductions.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Upcoming Cinema

Well, huh; I just found out that there's a movie coming out in June in which Terence Stamp plays a great-great-I'm-not-actually-sure-offhand-exactly-how-many-greats-go-here-uncle of mine.

Granted, there are indications in the trailers on the movie webpage that the portrayal of said great-whatever-uncle may not be entirely positive. But that's okay. He may be a relative, but from what I've read about him it seems that the great-etc.-uncle in question was kind of a jerk.

Even if he did get a university named after him.

Basis For Belief

This is just a wrap-up post collecting the four parts of my "Basis For Belief" series so if I feel like referring to these posts collectively later I can just refer back here instead of linking to the posts individually. So, here they are:
Incidentally, as it turns out, this month's book selection for the Skeptics' Book Club--which I hadn't started reading yet at the time I made the above posts--relates very well to the theme of this series, and reinforces much of what I said here. So, even though this was originally intended as a four-part series, I think I'll add to the list:

Friday, May 04, 2007

Basis For Belief, Part Four: Avoiding the Evidence

This is Part Four of a four-part series of posts. If you haven't already, you may want to read Parts One, Two, and Three first to get the full context.

So, in the first three parts, I've pretty much covered the main point I wanted to explore, namely that it wasn't a conviction that there was evidence that disproved LDS doctrine that made me leave the church, but rather the realization that there was no good reason to believe in it--or in any other religious doctrine. But there's one more thing I wanted to touch on, related to the subject of the previous post in the series. I said in that post that the Holy Ghost, which according to LDS doctrine is what lets people know the gospel is true, is an invention of man--but as I said at the end of the post, it's an invention with at least two purposes. One of those is to give people a justification for believing in the church doctrine. But the other is to keep people away from contrary evidence.

Way back at the beginning of the first post of this series, I mentioned that the first commenter I quoted there was misstating LDS doctrine--that while church doctrine did state that the Holy Ghost testified of the truth, it also maintained that the Holy Ghost could be driven away by things uncongenial to it. What kinds of things? Well, sin, of course. But not just active sin. Anything that went against the principles of the church could drive the Holy Ghost away. For instance, R-Rated movies and other inappropriate entertainment. Impure thoughts. And--most importantly for the present point--"anti-Mormon propaganda". Which is to say, anything that reflected negatively on the church.

In the last few months, I've started looking around some sites that, while I considered myself an active member, I wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole. Sites that the church would consider "anti-Mormon", sites like and and Rethinking Mormonism and The Salamander Society. And I learned a lot about the church that I hadn't known. I had had no idea just to what extent the church had managed to whitewash its history. (And even to cover up some present-day matters that might seem unfavorable--I mentioned in a previous post (the same one I linked to in the first post in this series) the matter of the DNA testing that had established that, contrary to LDS doctrine about the origins of the Lamanites, there was no genetic link between Native American populations and Israelites, but this was something I hadn't heard about before my deconversion. Not that the apologists haven't been making the usual contrived attempts to reconcile the doctrines with this, naturally.)

Oh, there are some things, of course, that are so well known that the church can't possibly try to keep them from its members' ears. Most Mormons are fully aware, for example, that church leaders in the nineteenth century practiced polygamy. But they hear a sanitized, exculpative account of the story: that, well, the reason for it was that so many men died that there were lots of unmarried and widowed women left around who had to be taken care of, and that polygamy was practiced simply as a way to do that, and to make sure all those poor abandoned women had homes and providers.

But most Mormons don't know that some of Joseph Smith's "plural wives" were teenagers--who didn't want to marry him, and agreed to do so only because he told them it was necessary for the salvation of their families! (And that he had already been practicing polygamy in secret before he made it a revelation to the church.) Or that some of the wives Joseph Smith married were already married--and remained married to their other husbands as well, making the early LDS plural marriages both polygynous and polyandrous (and completely giving the lie to that justification about polygamy being instituted to care for poor abandoned women). Or that previous General Authorities of the church expounded on the "evils of monogamy" in much the same language that they use today to attack homosexuality!

I didn't know any of these things before, and I'd been a faithful member all my life, knew the scriptures and knew the doctrines. And all these details about polygamy are just one example of dark things about the church that most members are completely unaware of; there's plenty more where that came from. But these kinds of historical details never make their ways into church lessons; the church does a very good job of covering them up. To find out facts like these, you have to specifically seek them out--and that means delving into the kinds of materials that (gasp!) drive away the Holy Ghost.

(One might argue that the sites I'm getting this information from are biased against the church, and may not be reliable sources. There's something to that--but, on examination, not all that much. All of these facts are well documented, including in books (such as the History of the Church and the Journal of Discourses) that used to be officially condoned by LDS church authorities, apparently until it came to their attention how inflammatory some of their contents are. (Today, the church suppresses these books, not so much in that it explicitly tells people not to read them (that would, perhaps, raise too many suspicions), but in that they're mentioned as little as possible and the church doesn't make them readily available.) The documentation of most of these speeches and events seems so incontrovertible that the best Mormon apologists can muster against them are rabid ad hominems, feeble and obviously nonsensical complaints that they're being taken out of context, and the inevitable empty exhortations to appeal to the Holy Ghost to know the truth of all things. So, while it's true that many of these sites may be colored by an "anti-Mormon" slant and not wholly objective, it's also true that all the evidence seems to fall much more heavily on their side than on that of the official LDS accounts.)

I've run across in my readings many stories of ex-Mormons who left the church because they looked deeper into its history in an attempt to find answers to anti-Mormon allegations--and instead found, to their dismay, that those allegations were correct. That's not my story; I just stuck to the line and ignored all the anti-Mormon material like I was supposed to, secure (or so I thought) in the knowledge that the Spirit had testified to me of the truth. It was only when I finally admitted to myself that I had no real basis for believing that the Spirit had actually testified to anything, or existed at all, that I left. Still, that's not to say that I was completely unaware of some of the problems. I once found a book in my mother's house describing the problems with the Book of Abraham, a scripture supposedly translated by Joseph Smith from an Egyptian papyrus he had purchased--she had apparently mistakenly bought the book without realizing its "anti-Mormon" nature. I didn't read it all the way through--glancing through it was enough for me to realize this was something I shouldn't be reading--but even that brief glance was enough for me to see that there were some serious problems with Joseph Smith's "translation" of the papyrus. This bothered me a great deal, but not enough for me to seriously doubt the church, or at least not to come to terms with my doubt.

All of this may seem to contradict what I said in the first post of the series--that it isn't really having evidence against the church that matters; it's realizing that you don't have any good reason to believe, because there's always a way to rationalize away the evidence. I stand by that...but it's a matter of degree. The more evidence you have, and the harder you have to contort things to rationalize it all away, well, the firmer you have to be in your convictions of your reasons to believe before they stretch too far and you see them for the false construct they are. Had I known then what I know now about the church's history and practices, I'm sure I would have come to terms with my disbelief and left the church a lot sooner--the proximate reason for my leaving the church would still have been the lack of reasons for believing in it, not the evidence against it, but that evidence would have made me more readily see that lack.

There was an interesting thread on entitled "People Like Us Were Never Expected To Leave Mormonism", expounding on the observation that it seems to be the really good and faithful Mormons who end up leaving the church, while the "social Mormons" and "slackers" stay for life. I don't know to just what extent that's the case; I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions, and of course all the evidence put forth is anecdotal. Still, I think it makes sense that there may be something to it. Those who really care about the truth are going to be devoted to the church and do everything they can to follow its precepts as long as they believe it's true. But if they ever realize it isn't--and, since they do care about the truth, and are therefore seeking after more of it, sooner or later they are likely to realize it isn't--then they'll accept that, though probably not without some difficulty, and they won't remain in a church they know not to be true. On the other hand, those who don't care that much about the truth, who are content to accept the word of others rather than examine things for themselves, or who simply don't really care whether the church is true or not and just stay in it because it makes them feel good or because they like the social aspect...they're not likely to leave, because they're unlikely to examine things enough to realize the church isn't true, and because even if they do it doesn't matter to them.

In an earlier post, I'd expressed my surprise that someone could realize that Mormonism wasn't true--and then turn around and join another Christian church. Didn't they realize that if the testimony of the Holy Ghost that was supposed to form the basis for their belief wasn't real, if they hadn't really received any personal revelations from God, then they had no reason to believe in any other churches either? I've come to realize since then that, despite the church's nominal emphasis on the witness of the Holy Ghost, not everyone takes it as seriously as I did. I clung to it because I needed to know there was some basis for my belief--I knew the church couldn't be proven on rational grounds, so I accepted that I knew it was true because of the Holy Ghost's witness. I did eventually come to terms with the fact that I'd received no such witness, that I'd been lying to myself, but the point is that I couldn't go on in the church without convincing myself I have some reason to believe. I've since realized that--as alien as the mindset involved is to my own--it seems that many people are willing to go ahead and commit their belief to something without even the pretext of a real reason. To people like that, if they become disenchanted with Mormonism, it makes perfect sense to just go and join up with some other Christian church. To me, no; I have no reason to believe in it.

Of course, it's not an all-or-nothing affair, with some people committed to the truth and some people completely uncaring about it; I've oversimplified a bit, and there's probably more of a continuum. Which is why it would be so dangerous to the church if all its dark secrets were known to every member--even most of the more casual members would find it hard to stomach staying in an organization with so much clear malfeasance and mendacity in its past. The way it stands, though, most members are never likely to find out about those matters, and the church remains, for the moment at least, safe.

So I think that's definitely at least part of the reason the church teaches its members to avoid materials like this that drive away the Spirit--because it realizes that if its members knew about these things, they'd probably start to doubt the church (or doubt it more, if they already had some doubt), and be likely to eventually leave it. Of course, the church would like its members to believe that that doubt comes from the devil, but it's not doubt that's evil. It's unfounded and unexamined certainty that really leads to evil actions, because if one is unwilling to examine one's convictions, one can justify anything at all.

There's a parable often repeated in the church--there's even a primary song based on it. ("Primary" is the church meeting for young children--though actually some Googling shows that this song isn't unique to the LDS church, but is taught to children in other Christian denominations as well. I don't know if the parable is given quite as much emphasis in other Christian denominations as it is in the LDS church, though the omnipresence of the song suggests it is.) It's from Matthew 7:24-27:

24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

The point of the parable, as the church uses it, is that it's important to keep your belief in the church firmly rooted, by obeying the commandments and praying and maintaining your faith. Otherwise, when adversity comes along, you're going to fall away. But ironically, in reality, its the church that's really analogous to the house upon the sand. Belief in the church has no solid foundation, and when it's subjected to any real scrutiny--it falls. And great is the fall of it. Which is why the church wants to discourage people from carrying out that scrutiny. If they can't build their house on the rock, they'll do their best to keep away the rain. Ultimately, though, however much the church leaders may try to shield it from the metaphorical elements, trying to live in a house with such an unstable foundation just isn't safe.

It's important to really examine the basis for your beliefs--and if you find that they have no firm basis, to be willing to abandon them. Ultimately, there's no firm basis for belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--or in any other church that I'm aware of. It doesn't really matter if there's evidence against the church's teachings--as it happens, there is, and plenty of it, but that's not the most important point. The really crucial point is that there's no evidence of any kind for those teachings. And that includes faith, and the Holy Ghost, and all the other empty verbiage that's often trotted forth. They don't stand up under close examination; they're all puffery and pablum and circular arguments. It's not that I've found definitive, unanswerable reasons for believing that the church isn't true. It's that I've realized there's no reason at all for believing it--or any other church--is true.

And that's why I'm an atheist.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Do You Know What Day It Is?

Okay, the fourth and final part of the "Basis For Belief" series of posts should be going up tomorrow, but in the meantime I'd just like to wish everyone reading this a Happy National Day of Reason!

Not that my wishing is going to have any direct effect, of course...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Basis For Belief, Part Three: Whence the Witness

This is part three in a four-part series of posts. If you haven't already, you may want to read Part One and Part Two to get the full context.

In the last part of this series, I wrote about the fact that the claim that a supplicant could get an answer through prayer was completely non-falsifiable. But the fact that something can't be falsified doesn't necessarily mean it isn't true, and doesn't necessarily mean it can't be verified. Take, for instance, the claim that there is, somewhere in the universe, an emerald three feet in diameter. Since we can't search the entire universe for such an emerald, this is an unfalsifiable claim. But if someone digs into the Earth and finds an emerald three feet in diameter, the claim is verified immediately.

So it seems it could still be argued that, even if the assertion that you can find out the truth of something through prayer can't be falsified, it could still be true. And if it is, well, maybe it would still be worth trying. Wouldn't you want to know if God lived, and if the gospel is true? So mightn't it be worth your time to pray and find out? And then to keep praying if you don't get an immediate answer, because, hey, this is important enough to keep on about?

One problem with this argument is that, well, there's the matter of choosing which gospel to pray about. Mormon missionaries would ask you to read the Book of Mormon and pray and ask God if it's true. Well, in that case, should you do the same about the Koran? The Bhagavad Gita? Emanuel Swedenborg's Arcana Caelestia? Where do you stop? Surely you can't find the time to read and continually pray about every religious text in the world in the hopes that you'll get an answer about one of them--and even if you had the time, is it even possible to simultaneously be sincerely open to the possibility that each of these is true? So why choose the Book of Mormon, or any other religious text, in particular? If the principle is valid--if you can pray about something and get an answer from God as to its veracity--then how do you choose what to pray about? This isn't a problem only for Mormons, of course; there's no more reason to single out the Bible to pray about, for instance, than there is the Book of Mormon.

But that's not the biggest of the problems with the argument above. No, the bigger one is the question of how you know when you've gotten an answer.

When Mormon missionaries (and again, though I'm focusing on Mormons here, really the same basic principles apply to any claim that you can pray for answers from God, regardless of the religion involved) say that if you pray about the Book of Mormon, you'll get a witness that it's true, they don't mean that God is likely to come down in the flesh and personally assure you (they may believe that just that happened to Joseph Smith, but they don't expect it to be a common occurrence). They mean that you'll get the witness of the Holy Ghost. And how exactly does the Holy Ghost bear witness? Well, one common phrase used to describe the witness of the Holy Ghost is a "burning in the bosom".

But--the vagueness of that phrase aside--missionaries and church teachers will be quick to clarify that not everyone feels a literal burning in the bosom. Some people hear a voice testifying of the truth. Some people just get a conviction of it. Sometimes you just get a feeling of peace. In fact, it seems, there are so many different ways the Holy Ghost can bear witness that pretty much anything you feel can be seized on and claimed to be the witness of the Holy Ghost.

But, again, that's not the biggest problem with the whole claim. The biggest problem is the question of how you know that what you felt is the Holy Ghost, and not just some product of your own imagination. The human imagination is a truly remarkable capacity, and is capable of some surprising feats of delusion. People are very good at convincing themselves that they've sensed what they want to have sensed--this is true even with visual witnessing of events, let alone experiencing something as vague as a "feeling". So suppose you do feel a "burning in the bosom". Is that because the Holy Ghost is really testifying to you, or is it because you wanted to believe it would, and the burning sensation is supplied by your own imagination? (Or--if you'll permit me a moment of parenthetical flippancy--is it heartburn?)

Mormons might answer (as I probably would have answered myself, before my deconversion) that you just know, that it's a sensation qualitatively different from any other, or that your soul will recognize it deep down. Which, of course, is no answer at all; again, given the human brain's capacity for self-deception, it would be very easy for a person to convince himself he was feeling a sensation unlike any other, or that he seemed to recognize it at some deep level. There still has to be a way to know for sure that it's not just your imagination. And because the missionaries, or the bishop, or the prophet, or your parents, told you it was the Holy Ghost, isn't a good enough reason. They could be wrong; they could have deluded themselves the same as you're doing. (Or, of course, the more cynical might suggest that they might know perfectly well it's no such thing, but are intentionally deceiving you because it suits their own purposes. I'm inclined to think, however, that the majority of church leaders (though probably not all) are earnest, but misguided.)

But what about faith? That's one of the words most commonly bandied about in Christian writings (LDS included), and I haven't mentioned it at all yet. Can't you just have faith that the answer one is getting is from the Holy Ghost? Sure you can. But why should you?

First of all, what is faith? The most common definition for faith in LDS teachings comes from the Book of Mormon, specifically Alma 32: 21--that faith is a belief in "things which are not seen, which are true"*. (In fact, the actual wording of the scripture is that to have faith is to "hope for things which are not seen, which are true", though I've usually heard it misquoted as "belief". Still, either way, the same problems remain.) But that doesn't address the question at all of how you know what you're having faith in is true in the first place! Because the missionaries/the bishop/your parents said so? Again, that's not a good basis for belief; for one thing, you can find plenty of people who'll be just as fervent about other beliefs that are completely contradictory. Because of the witness of the Holy Ghost? But that just brings us full circle back to the question we were asking in the first place, and doesn't answer anything! Or do we believe in them just because--as the original wording in the Book of Mormon says--we have hope? Well, sure, it would be nice in some ways if at least some aspects of Mormon doctrine were true--heck, I'd like to have the chance to eventually become a god and design my own worlds--but that doesn't make it so. It would be nice if I had a million dollars, but ("The Secret" notwithstanding) wishing doesn't make it so. Hope and belief are two very different things, and the one is no valid basis for the other.

Naturally, other Christian denominations use different definitions of the word "faith", but I have yet to hear one that gives any answer to the question of how you know that the things you "have faith" in are true, and that doesn't reduce ultimately to one of the three options above: because your parents/a prophet/the Pope/whoever said so, because of the witness of God or of some other supernatural source (without addressing how you know said witness really comes from God and not from your own subconscious), because you "just know" (which isn't appreciably different in practice from the claim of a supernatural witness), or just because you think it would be nice if they were true. None of these gives any reason for concluding that faith is any sort of valid basis for belief--or any reason for regarding "faith" as any more reliable than (or even functionally any different from) any worldly kind of conviction.

(There are, of course, also those who claim to have proof of religious doctrines--who hold up accounts of miracles as evidence of God's power, for instance. But addressing that subject in depth is beyond the scope of this particular post; suffice to say that such claims never stand up under close examination, if in fact they can be examined at all (which merely anecdotal claims, for instance, cannot).)

So we're left with no way of being sure that a supposed witness from the Holy Ghost--or from God, or from any other supernatural source--is really that, and not just something you've convinced yourself you were feeling because you wanted to believe. If God exists, he's not very good at sending messages to his children. But--in light of the principle of the burden of proof, as discussed in the first post in this series--the more reasonable conclusion is that He does not...and that the Holy Ghost is not a witness of the truth, but merely a human invention.

It is an invention, however, with more than one purpose...and that will be the subject of the last post in this series.