Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Okay, I'm back from the Comic-Con. Actually, I was back yesterday morning, and did intend to post then, but I ended up having too much to catch up on and being too tired to get to it. Truth be told, I still have a lot to catch up on, so I don't have much time today either, but I'll at least make time for a brief post.

I'm not going to say anything about the Comic-Con itself, because, well, that's not really relevant to this blog; that's something more appropriate for my LiveJournal. There is one thing I did over the weekend, though, that I don't really want to admit to in a non-anonymous context just yet. It's something I've long kinda wanted to do, but never did mostly because I knew the church would frown on it.

The Comic-Con ended around 5:00 on Sunday. I didn't want to drive back to L.A. during peak traffic hours, so I had decided to wait until later that night to head back. That left me with a few hours of down time Sunday evening to fill. And I'd found out about a nude beach near San Diego...

So, I figured, what the hey...

The most direct route to get there, apparently, involved following a spotty trail down a fairly steep cliff. When I got to the bottom, I was about to head north--I had read that the nude part of the beach was the northern half; the south part was city-owned and the wearing of clothing was enforced there--when I noticed that apparently that was unnecessary; this trail evidently led right to the nude beach itself, judging from the fact that, well, pretty much everyone around was naked.

True to stereotype, there was a volleyball game going on. I didn't join in; I only had an hour or two anyway before the parking lot at the top of the cliffs closed at sundown. I spent my time at the beach in the water, just swimming in the ocean and letting the waves wash over me.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, actually. I'm not sure why, but there was just something about being naked in the ocean, with nothing between me and the waters of the sea, that I really liked. Now, I don't go to San Diego often, and there aren't any nude beaches near L.A.--there is one, apparently, closer to L.A. than the one I went to, but still not all that close. So I don't know when I'm likely to visit a nude beach again. But I'm glad I went this time.

Still...this obviously isn't something I'm going to be telling my family, or the people I know at church, about...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Back In A Bit

Okay, like I said, there are things I've been meaning to post about, and I'd hoped to make at least one post yesterday, but I was busy enough it didn't end up happening. Unfortunately, I can't post today either. I'm about to leave for the San Diego Comic-Con, and I'm not likely to have internet access there. So...I'll post again on Monday.

Hey, I know this won't be the first time I've gone several days without posting, but it's the first time I've explained in advance why I won't be posting for a while...

See you Monday.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Temple Is Closed

I said back at the beginning of June that my visit to the temple for the Los Angeles temple jubilee was likely to be my last. My temple recommend wasn't going to expire until August, but I had no particular desire to go to the temple again, and certainly no longer feel any obligation to.

Well, turns out that prediction was accurate; my temple recommend was supposed to have been good until August, but it seems they're redesigning all the temple recommends--they have bar codes now, I guess so they can be scanned in instead of, or in addition to, being looked over visually. Since I wasn't planning on going to the temple between now and August anyway, it doesn't particularly matter to me that my temple recommend is invalid a little sooner than I thought. It has, however, led to a few awkward moments, when someone suggested the bishop was free and that now would be a good time to get my new recommend, or when someone else asked me if I'd gotten my new recommend yet. (My response, essentially: Don't have time today; gotta go.) I expect the matter will blow over, though, and in a week or two everyone will just assume I've done it--except the bishop, of course, but it remains to be seen whether he will remember that I haven't gotten my new recommend (or check his records to see), and if so whether he'll try to do anything about it. If so...well, maybe my coming clean about my atheism will be forced a little sooner than I'd planned.

(I could, of course, just go through the interview and get the recommend. But, as I've said before, I already feel uncomfortable enough essentially lying by omission by not telling the people at church that I don't believe; getting a new recommend would involve lying directly (to the bishop and a member of the stake presidency during the interviews), and I certainly don't want to do that. If that means admitting to my deconversion--which it may, if they ever ask me directly why I'm not renewing my recommend--well, so be it, I guess. Hasn't happened yet, though.)

Now, one might wonder, of course, why the church would feel the need to redesign the temple recommends. The addition of the bar code suggests that a reason is to heighten security. Which certainly makes sense; the church has always been very protective about what goes on in the temple, and takes pains to try to avoid any details getting out. Not entirely successfully--there are, in fact, transcripts of all the major temple ceremonies available on the web, and I wouldn't be too surprised if the video from the temple endowment ceremony was available somewhere too (though almost certainly not on the web, because the church's legal department would quickly move to have it taken down due to copyright violation)--, but they've certainly made the effort. The standard church response to questions about why the temple ceremonies are such a big secret is that they're not secret, they're sacred--they're so holy that they should not be tainted by speaking about them in unhallowed contexts. But of course "secret" and "sacred" aren't mutually exclusive, and even if church members do consider the temple ceremonies sacred, they're certainly secret as this standard response is really dodging the question.

During the priesthood meeting last Sunday, the question came up of why new converts to the church had to wait a year before they were allowed to enter the temple. The response a church authority had given to this question was that that time was necessary in order for the convert to be prepared for what he will go through in the temple. The temple ceremonies must be experienced with the proper spiritual mindset. I think it's pretty clear that the real reason, though, is to weed out people who would otherwise join the church just to see what happens in the temple, and then disseminate that information. If they've stayed faithful in the church for a year, it's a safe bet they're genuine about their devotion. It's yet another way the church is protecting its "sacreds".

Or, on second thought, maybe that's not entirely the real reason--though I strongly suspect it is a part of it. Maybe there is an aspect of preparation necessary before one can experience the temple ceremony the way the church leaders would like. Because, frankly, considering the temple ceremonies now...I think to someone who hadn't had some level of conditioning or--at the risk of using a perhaps too loaded word--brainwashing before experiencing those temple ceremonies would see them as absolutely ludicrous. By the time a member has been in the church for a year, its supposed absolute truth has been drilled into his head enough he'll be willing to accept what goes on in the temple regardless of its silliness; maybe someone who hadn't been so firmly entrenched in the church yet is much more likely to be sufficiently disturbed or baffled by the temple ceremonies to be driven away entirely. In fact, maybe that's the main reason the church has to keep the temple ceremonies such a secret in the first place--because if they got out to members who hadn't been sufficiently "prepared", or worse yet to potential converts, they'd lose interest in the church.

Ah, well. Regardless of the reasons for it, I'm content not to get the fancy new bar-coded temple recommend. I've seen the secrets of the temple, many times, and I don't need to see them again.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Okay, so much, once again, for my attempt to post every day for another week. That never seems to work nowadays.

Ah, well. I do have more things that I want to post about, but I'm not likely to have time to get to them until tomorrow. In the meanwhile, though, The Humanist Symposium #5 is up at The Green Atheist. Go see, if you haven't already!

In the meanwhile, this is an open thread. Optional topic of discussion: What's your favorite transcendental number?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Family Friendly...ish

As usual when I've been behind on updating my blog, I've also been behind on reading other blogs, and I just decided to take a glance at some of the other blogs I like to see what I've been missing. After seeing this post on Pooflingers Anonymous, I decided to run my own blog through the site and see what its rating came out as.

And here's what I got:

Free Online Dating

Apparently the only things keeping me from a G rating were two mentions of the word "death" and one of "dead". Hm.

So, there you go! I'm a (reasonably) family-friendly gay atheist! Hooray!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Of Monkeys and Men

This month's selection for the Skeptics' Book Club was Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal. The book was about the behavior of animals related to humans--especially the human's closest relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo--and about the light this could throw on human behavior. (And regarding the title of this post, yes, I know that "ape" and "monkey" aren't synonymous. But "of apes and men" wouldn't have alliterated, and anyway the book did discuss monkeys too, a little. I claim artistic license.)

At one point during the discussion, the question was raised whether perhaps de Waal was going too far in anthropomorphizing the apes, and in imputing to them conscious motivations. Personally, I don't think so; I think he gives valid reasons for his conclusions, and that his arguments as to why certain actions the apes performed could only have been the result of conscious thought on their part are good ones. But then, I've always been less amazed by evidence for conscious thought in non-human animals as I am by the amazement this seems to evoke in others. Humans in general like to think of themselves as different from the animals, in some defining way. In fact, de Waal discusses that in the book, and enumerates how each defining characteristic that was supposed to set humans apart--tool use, language, and most recently empathy--was later discovered in animals after all, forcing those who still wanted to cling to an idea of humanity's uniqueness to come up with some new and narrower defining characteristic to last them until newer discoveries rendered it, too, obsolete. (I got a laugh at the book club meeting when I suggested that maybe humanity's real defining characteristic was its search for defining characterstics.)

That's not to say, of course, that humans aren't unique. But if we are, it's primarily quantitatively, not qualitatively. We may not be the only animals capable of rational thought, or even of self-awareness--there's good evidence for self-awareness in both apes and dolphins, and according to de Waal the jury is still out on elephants--but certainly we take these matters to greater extremes than any other animal. As is evidenced by de Waal's book itself, and other books about similar themes--what other animal could so closely question its own motivations and mental make-up?

There's a delightful circularity in all of this, in that of course in questioning how our minds work we're questioning the workings of the very processes that are doing the questioning in the first place. (It's not a vicious circle, of course--the fact that we can analyze how our thought processes came doesn't make those processes or their conclusions invalid.) The recursion involved in our using our minds to analyze our minds, in products of our biological and societal evolution studying those very processes that brought them about and by which they continue to be influenced.

And I think to fully appreciate this, we have to give up the superficially attractive idea of humans being qualitatively unique, of being forever apart from the rest of the universe. I think things become much more interesting and much more, well, fun, once we recognize that we're a part of it all, that we share much the same nature as the rest of nature. The idea that humans are different, that we occupy some special place in the center of creation, may have its appeal, but I think if you really consider it the idea that humans are as much a part of the material cosmos as anything else--as well as being more accurate--is much more profound in its implications and in a way much more uplifting. That we are animals, but animals with a(n apparently quantitatively unique, if not qualitatively) capacity for introspection and self-analysis, that we are products of and subject to the same physical laws that run the rest of the universe, but have the ability to understand those laws (not fully, perhaps, but more each day), and even to manipulate them--that's really marvelous. It seems almost magical that out of the processes of nature could come something with the capacity to study and comprehend the very processes that brought it about, and more still to study and comprehend--at least to a limited degree--itself. Science fiction frequently repeats the trope of a computer program developing intelligence and self-awareness; it's considered a weird and exotic idea. But, in a way, if we consider the universe, running according to physical laws, as being something like a computer (an imperfect analogy, certainly, but not altogether baseless), it's already happened, and the program is us.

We don't have to have some qualitative defining characteristic, something that sets us definitively apart from other animals and from the physical universe, to be special. Our capacity for thought, our consciousness, may differ from that of our relatives only in degree. But it's that difference in degree that lets us wonder about our differences in the first place, and lets us try to understand just what we are in the first place. We are, so far as we know, the only parts of the universe that wonder what we are. And that's wonderful.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Blessed Are The Geeks...

I'm not as avid a webcomic reader as many, but there are a few webcomics I read regularly, and others I catch up on once in a while. As I think I've mentioned before, I even have a webcomic of my own, though I'm currently (and really pretty much chronically) behind on the updates. Naturally, I'm not going to link to or mention the name of my webcomic here, since that would kind of go against the whole anonymity thing...I do the webcomic under a pseudonym, but even so it wouldn't be at all hard to track down my real identity from it. I will mention, though, that somewhat ironically the main character of my webcomic is a god...

Anyway, most anyone who's familiar with webcomics has heard of Keenspot, one of the most prominent webcomic collectives, and as far as I know the oldest such collective still extant. And anyone who's checked out any Keenspot sites lately might have noticed some...unusual advertisements there.

This was the part where I was going to link to an image of one of the ads, except they don't seem to be running anymore. Should have made this post last week. In searching, though, I find references to the ads having turned up in other places, as well, though, including a site called "Gamers with Jobs" (where, however, the ad was eventually turned off) and another called Still, the KeenSpot sites were the only place I'd actually seen them.

Even if I can't find the ads themselves anymore (though I'd guess they're still running out there somewhere), the current front page to displays much the same thing in a different aspect ratio.

Yes, that's right; the ads were for the LDS church. They depicted, on a white background, people looking pensive while questions appeared next to them in gold letters. (All right, on the current front page they're gray, but in the original ads they were gold.) Questions like, "What should I do with my life?" And then, after fading through a few of these images, it would settle into an image with the text "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" on the left and "TRUTH RESTORED" and the URL "" on the right. (The main church website is, but is also run by the church and is more focused on information for non-members (the idea being, of course, to get them interested in joining the church).)

That someone would see a church as supplying the answer to the question of what she should do with her life strikes me as, well, kind of pathetic. I mean, what, is the idea being that she's going to be devoting her life entirely to the church? Even Mormons (well, some of them, anyway) do have careers and goals and interests other than focusing on the church in every waking moment; that someone would be completely without any idea of what she wants to do with her life and then, on joining the church, would suddenly find the sense of purpose she was missing seems...well, sort of sad, actually. Then again, there is the fact that the endowment ceremony does require members to "consecrate [them]selves, [their] time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed [them], or with which he may bless [them], to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the Kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion." So I guess the idea of looking to the church as supplying your entire purpose in life does kind of go along with Mormon doctrine, as unattractive a prospect as it may be.

But that's not the main thing I wanted to write about here; no, the main thing is, well, how odd it was to see an ad for the LDS church come up on Keenspot in the first place. Keenspot...well...isn't exactly the sort of place you'd expect the kind of people who'd be likely converts to spend a lot of time. Oh, for what it's worth, there was a webcomic by a Mormon on Keenspot once upon a time, though it eventually jumped ship and later joined up with Blank Label Comics. But by and large, I don't think on average most of the comics on Keenspot are all that religion-friendly. One of the two founders of Keenspot that have their own comics there is quite openly "agnostic" ("agnostic" in quotes because, really, though he calls himself an agnostic, he actually seems to be more of an atheist). Then there's the comic where the two main characters are gay, the one where the main character is a demon, the one that seems to go out of its way to be offensive (especially toward religion) get the idea. Obviously, not every Keenspot cartoonist is anti-religion--at least one is a faithful Catholic--but all in all, Keenspot doesn't seem like the kind of site that's likely to attract a lot of people searching for answers in religion. It seems like an odd sort of site for the Mormon church to advertise on.

Not, of course, that that's the only place the church has advertised; like I mentioned above, there've been ads on other sites too. But, well, look at the nature of those other sites. One is a site for gamers, another is about game development. These weren't cherry-picked; those were the first two I found in my googling. It seems the LDS church is, for whatever reason, specifically courting a "geek" demographic, which seems like a very odd strategy. Well, either that or it's just that geeks talk online about the banner ads more, which is also certainly a possibility.

Either way, though, it seems...odd to see banners for the LDS church appear on such, um, worldly sites. I wonder if this might attract for the church at least as much negative attention--making it seem desperate, or associating it with spam or with some of the sites it's advertising on that have most "inappropriate" content--as it does positive. On the other hand, the church certainly has a lot of experience in marketing (a.k.a. proselyting); presumably it's done its research and knows what it's doing. But then back to the first hand, I'm apparently not the only one who sees the church's web advertising as having an odd flavor; I just ran across a blog post by a Mormon who saw one of the banner ads on Hotmail and was uncomfortable about it.

I dunno. Between web ads and Romney's candidacy--on top of the hosting of the Winter Olympics a while back--the LDS church is certainly getting an increasing amount of publicity. The problem is--well, the problem from the church's standpoint, anyway--that not all of it is good publicity. I'm not sure putting banner ads on gaming and webcomic sites is really going to help with that... Then again, if this does end up backfiring, well, that might be a disaster from the church's point of view, but from my viewpoint I can't really see it as a bad thing...

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Okay, yeah, once again I've been kinda sparse on the updates, but I have a pretty good reason for not posting last week. My parents are spending two months in Utah, and I'm housesitting for them while they're away...which means much time this last week was spent helping them finish packing, and then settling in. So...not a lot of free time. Even less than usual, I mean. (Well, I actually did have quite a bit of free time on Friday and Saturday, I guess, but after all I was dealing with earlier in the week I...okay, I don't have a good excuse for not posting on Friday or Saturday.)

My parents have gone on and on about how much they appreciate my help, and how they don't know what they'd have done without me...and in a way, it's kind of awkward, because I can't help wondering whether they'd see things differently if they knew I was an atheist. Probably not, in the long run, but I'm sure it would be a shock. I'm not ready to tell them just yet, though.

Incidentally, my mother is increasingly often asking me direct questions about whether or not I ever intend to get married. Being unmarried at my age is, well, for a Mormon, very unusual, and she's clearly not happy about it. She's even said that if I'm not seen dating soon people might "start to wonder" about me. I don't have the heart to tell her just yet that what people would presumably be wondering is in fact precisely the case. (I'm pretty sure, though, that people are not, in fact, wondering--aside from my mother, who I suspect is on some level wondering, but is reluctant to admit that to herself.)

Speaking of, well, the thing I've been alluding to all through the previous paragraph without ever explicitly saying it, which is kind of pointless since I've already explicitly said it in a previous post...I'm really feeling like I ought to be telling people about that. Not everyone; certainly not my parents or the people I know at church. But at least some close friends, who I think I can trust to, well, support me. My friend David, with whom I spoke about my atheism, maybe...though I don't want to make him feel like I'm just using him as a sounding board for my catharses. And my current role-playing gaming group, or now former gaming group...I consider them all good friends, and I've mentioned my atheism to them, and I'm sure they'd be supportive about this too, especially considering that, well, one of them is bi.

(I say "now former" because, well, the group is splitting up; two of them are moving to Florida this week, and another (the bi one, FWIW) to San Francisco in a month. Today was our last meeting before the move. Though we're still going to be keeping in touch.)

It's just...yeah, I'd been keeping that secret for fifteen years, and I don't like living a lie that long. As I said, I'm not ready to tell everyone, but I feel like I ought to tell someone--and an anonymous confession to people whom I've never met and who don't know my real name or anything about me other than what I write here, while definitely a step in the right direction, doesn't completely fit the bill. (I had guessed that some people I knew from the Center For Inquiry whom I'd told about my blog might read that post--though I certainly hadn't written it with that intention--but as it turns out, I don't think they have. Both the people who had been reading my blog happened to be very busy with other matters at the time of that post, and I'm pretty sure they didn't read it--it seems likely they would have commented or said something if they had.)

Anyway. I've gotta go, and I guess there's not much of a coherent point to this post. Now that I'm settled in at my parents' house (well, more or less; I'll still be commuting to L.A. for school and acting and other things), I should have more time this next week, and I'm going to try again to make a post a day and maybe catch up on the backlog of posts I've been meaning to make but haven't. So, tomorrow, expect a post about webcomics. And Tuesday, a post about monkeys. (Well, really more about apes...but "monkeys" is just more fun to say for some reason.)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Carnival Time Again much for posting every day this week; I had a busy weekend. I've still got quite a few things I wanted to post about, but first, Carnival of the Godless #70 is up at Friendly Atheist.

I am tired, so the other things I wanted to post about will wait until (at least) tomorrow.

In the meantime, open thread. Optional topic of discussion: How in the word did "earwigs" get their name, anyway? (No fair cheating by looking in a dictionary...)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Life is Unfair

Yesterday, my mother had to drop off a dinner for a woman in her ward who lives down the street and was sick and bedridden. My mother, however, isn't doing too well herself--she'd recently gotten out of the hospital for a hip surgery--and isn't supposed to walk long distances without a walker or a cane. (Actually, she's not supposed to walk short distances without a walker or a cane either, but she does anyway.) This made it impossible for her to carry a plate of food, so since I was there visiting for the holiday she had me take the plate over for her.

She then sat and visited with the ill woman for a while. I didn't participate in the conversation, but I was there and heard it; they discussed things such as the evils of the world and the problem of theodicy (though they didn't use that term), as well as more down-to-earth topics such as her son-in-law's struggle with cancer. At one point, though, the bedridden woman said something that struck me as frankly appalling. (I don't remember her words verbatim, of course, but this is the gist of what she said:)

"I remember those commercials I used to see--ten cents a day could feed a child. All that starvation and hardship going on there [in parts of Africa]. And I used to think, how could God be so angry at an entire country? But then [a certain senior couple from the ward] got back from their mission to Africa, and they talked about how evil the people there are. They just have no feelings at all."

Yeah. Her basic conclusion was that people are starving in Africa because they are evil. They deserve it. God is punishing them for their wrongdoings.

(Something that, unsurprisingly, didn't come up: if the sufferings of starving Africans were God's punishment for to their sins, what about her son-in-law with brain cancer that she had just been talking about? What had he been doing wrong? Incidentally, my mother, to her credit, after leaving the house talked to me how dismayed she was at what the woman had said, and how much she disagreed with her remarks.)

This isn't a new attitude, of course. It's mentioned in the Bible. In John 9:2, Christ's disciples ask him, "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Of course, it's mentioned in the context of Christ debunking their assumption, and assuring them that the man's blindness wasn't due to sin, but a lot of modern Christians apparently haven't taken this particular lesson to heart. (I'm sure it doesn't help, though, that the reason that is given for the man's blindness--"that the works of God should be made manifest in him"--isn't all that comforting and doesn't have a broad application, given that after all most blind people nowadays aren't miraculously healed.) So we get various stalwarts of the Christian Right blaming liberals, single mothers, and homosexuals for everything from the 9/11 attacks to Hurricane Katrina.

I don't usually say much in my blog about religions other than Christianity, mostly because I'm not as familiar with them, but in this case there's something I recently read about certain Eastern religions that goes right along with this theme. As research for one of the myriad projects I'm planning, I've been reading a book about everyday life in Early India. (In fact, as it happens, that's the book's title.) Now, the most prominent religions of Early India, which still survive today--Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, collectively (along with Sikhism) called the "Dharmic religions"--all have similar roots. And one of the concepts they have in common, and perhaps the one best known to outsiders, is that of karma. What you do in one life will affect the next. Live well, and you'll be reincarnated in a higher form. Live badly, and you'll come back in a lower. The karma concept has been appropriated by many people who don't belong to the Dharmic religions, but usually in a slightly altered form, that your good and bad deeds will bring good or bad repercussions on your head later in this life. No doubt we've all heard people talk of building "good karma", or of risking "bad karma", with their actions.

Karma may seem superficially like a warm and fuzzy, positive idea. After all, it should motivate people to do good, right? But the concept has its dark side, that I'd never really thought of before reading the aforementioned book (well, not that I'd ever given much thought to karma to begin with). Many people in early India felt justified in holding contempt for the poor and the afflicted (as presumably many members of the Dharmic religions still do today) because, after all, they earned their poverty and afflictions. If they were suffering so much in this life, it must be because they had committed terrible misdeeds in previous lives. They therefore didn't really deserve pity or compassion--or at least, not as much as would be merited by a righteous man. They were only reaping what they had sowed. Their suffering was fair.

Of course, it wasn't. Life very often isn't fair. But that's not a comforting thought. So religions--Abrahamic, Dharmic, and no doubt others--have established doctrines to restore fairness and justice to existence. The problem with this is that if you assume life is fair, that everyone does get what they deserve...well, that must mean that those who are worse off must deserve it. Ultimately, these doctrines, taken to their logical conclusion, lead to hard-heartedness and antipathy toward the poor and the suffering.

Life isn't fair. And it's especially unfair to the less fortunate to pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Church and State

Okay, this is a post I've been meaning to make for a week or two, but I guess in a way it's kind of appropriate that it's going up today, being that it touches on America and patriotism, and today is the day of a holiday that's all about that. It's the Fourth of July, Independence Day, when we celebrate the birth of the U.S.A.--or, more accurately, when we watch fireworks and have barbecues and maybe occasionally spare a fleeting thought to what the holiday is supposedly about.

Not that this post has much to do with Independence Day, really, but it does have a lot to do with politics. Politics are a subject I'm too thin-skinned to enjoy discussing; it seems a lot of people are very passionate about their political beliefs, and full of vitriol to anyone who opposes them. Which--actually--is sorta kinda what this post is about.

The book selection for last month's meeting of the Skeptics' Book Club was Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, by Justin A. Frank. This was the first book club selection so far that I actually disliked. And when I say I disliked it, I mean I thought it was complete baloney. The book was all about trying to pin all of George W. Bush's shortcomings on circumstances of his infancy and childhood. It strained to try to explain how Bush being the way he is can be blamed on his father not being there for him enough, and on his mother being cold, and on his younger sister's death, and on all sorts of other things all at once--the self-contradictoriness inherent in ascribing the same traits to several different causes at once apparently having escaped the author. Now, I'm certainly no fan of Dubya, but that doesn't mean I enjoy reading a work that turns to long discredited avenues of psychoanalysis to try to analyze his personality. He is the way he is, and there's nothing to be gained by blaming it all on his mother not having loved him enough.

It seems I wasn't alone in my opinion of this book; several other book club members whom I later spoke to agreed that it was nonsense, and shared my surprise that someone in the book club had recommended it. In any case, though, that was after the book club meeting; at the meeting itself, I wasn't looking forward to discussing the book for fear of offending whoever it was who had recommended it (I honestly didn't remember who) with my negative opinion of it. As it turned out, I was freed of this unpleasantness by the fact that by the time I arrived (somewhat late), everyone had already passed on from talking about the book to just talking about the Bush administration in general.

And really, all of the foregoing is just a mostly irrelevant preamble to a bit of an epiphany I had at said discussion. I wondered aloud at one point how so many other mostly sane and rational people could still wholeheartedly support Bush and live in denial of his misdeeds in the face of all the evidence--and even as I said that, something hit me.

It related, actually, to a discussion the preceding week in the mailing list of the Independent Investigations Group. Someone had brought up Christopher Hitchins' outspoken atheism, and someone else had raised the anomaly of Hitchins' support of the war in Iraq. This led to the following message (paraphrased because I don't have access to the original right now--I'll edit the exact words in tomorrow when I do):

I don't understand how he can claim to be an atheist and still support the Iraq War. It seems like a contradiction in terms.

What an odd thing to say, I thought at the time. Oh, certainly there's some negative correlation between atheism and support of the Iraq War. Because (at least in part) of Bush's ostentatious religiosity, he has disproportionate support from the religious, and conversely disproportionate lack of support among the non-religious. But that doesn't mean that opposition to the Iraq War necessarily follows from atheism. They're two separate issues. I may think that Bush hurried the U.S. into war on shaky and even deceptive grounds, but another atheist may disagree and still be an atheist. Support of the Iraq War doesn't necessarily mean belief in God.

But then during the book club discussion I remembered that message, and saw a connection there I hadn't previously realized. Oh, I still don't think opposition to the Iraq War necessarily follows from atheism--or, conversely, that you have to be religious to support Bush, or vice versa. But...there actually is a common element there.

Thinking back about some of the more hidebound politically partisan people I know (including my own parents, strong kneejerk Republicans who'd never consider voting any other way--though even they have found reason to dislike Bush), I was suddenly struck by the similarities between their unchangeable political viewpoints and, well, those of religion. There's a lot of resemblance in the thought processes. In both cases, the person in question tends to discount any evidence against his particular views, while happily seizing anything, however tenuous, that seems to support it. Both the politically and the religiously faithful are characterized by a complete lack of skeptical inquiry about the subject in question--while remaining utterly convinced that their beliefs are well founded. And the word "faithful" in th previous paragraph isn't a misnomer--political "faith" is quite analogous, if not identical, to the religious variety. Just like the religious faithful, the political faithful, having chosen their side, are convinced of its rightness, and will not be swayed from it.

I'm not claiming this is unique to Republicans--even if certainly it's primarily the Republicans who are allied with fundamentalist Christianity. I remember, from my undergraduate years at USC, an old Thai woman who had similarly unshakable faith in the Democrats--Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton in particular, to the extent that when, after she lauded Bill Clinton for his support of the family, someone brought up his adultery, she literally refused to believe that it had happened. Even after she was told he had admitted to it, she insisted it had to be a lie. In her mind, Bill Clinton was an untarnished pinnacle of virtue; he could not possibly have had an adulterous relationship.

So, to return to the original example, is an atheist who supports the Iraq War really a contradiction in terms? Well, no. Maybe Hitchins hasn't turned to his politics the skeptical eye he's apparently used to look at religion, but then people aren't always consistent. But there's certainly a similar kind of mindset at work, in belief in God and in belief in the infallibility of certain men. Now that I think of it, this goes beyond just politicians; maybe there are times people have similar "faith" in other celebrities, in movie stars and writers and even in scientists...

Yeah, I know, this probably isn't really an original idea; I'm sure other people have noted this before. Still, I'd never thought of it in quite those terms before: that faith, even if we don't call it by that name in other contexts, operates in spheres far outside religion. That the mindset that leads to religion operates just as destructively in politics and in other spheres.

Ah, well. Happy Fourth of July, everyone! (What little is left of it by the time I post this...)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mormonism 101: Mormon Marriage

So, I've yet again been rather lax in updating this blog (and yes, I know I said the same thing in the last post). I still have quite a backlog of things I've been wanting to post about, though, so I think I'm going to shoot for a post a day all this week again. Anyway, though, on my last Mormonism 101 post, I invited readers to suggest what specific aspects of Mormonism they'd like me to write about, and I got a response: someone wanted me to write a post about Mormon temple marriages and sealings. So I guess I'll oblige.

I'm not going to just reiterate word for word what happens in the ceremony, for two reasons. First of all, because I don't have it memorized. And secondly, because it's available elsewhere on the internet anyway. (Granted, point two sort of invalidates point one, in that it means I guess I could just copy it from that site, but even without point one point two still stands.) What I will do is speak in general terms of what marriage means in Mormonism, and what the temple ceremony is supposed to signify.

"Family" is one of the LDS church's biggest selling points; I don't know how many times I've heard of someone converting to Mormonism because they liked the idea that families can be together forever. (That is, in fact, the title of one of the official church hymns.) "Till death do us part" doesn't apply to Mormon weddings; they are supposed to be eternal.

Well, with certain caveats. They're only eternal if both partners make it into the Celestial Kingdom. Don't worry if you don't know exactly what that means--the Mormon concept of the afterlife is rather complex, and could easily (and probably someday will) make for a lengthy post by itself. The short of it is that only those who stay righteous and attain a high level of salvation are united in eternal marriage. Still, those who are will, in time, become gods and goddesses themselves, ruling over their own worlds and having "eternal increase"--i.e., posthumous spirit children.

(There's another thing, incidentally, that will no doubt be brought to many readers' minds by "Mormon marriage" but that is beyond the scope of this post: Polygamy. Yes, polygamy certainly was widely practiced in the early days of the church, and yes, it still is by some splinter sects, though it's no longer condoned by the main LDS church. There's a lot I could say about its history and about its doctrinal implications...but not in this post. I've got enough to say without opening up that can of worms here.)

The eternal family extends beyond just the man and wife, however. Children are likewise eternally sealed to their parents, in a chain that supposedly links all the way back to Adam. (The apparent idea, though it's not really clearly spelled out, is that if one link in the chain proves unworthy, any worthy children of that unsaved link will be "adopted" by a worthier individual.) Any children born to a couple who have been married in the temple are considered to be "born in the covenant", and automatically sealed to their parents. If the parents marry after one or more children have already been born, however (or if a child is adopted, or under certain other special circumstances), the children may be explicitly sealed to the parents in a ceremony that goes along with the marriage.

Not only is marriage eternal for the exalted, but it's a requirement for exaltation. Temple marriage is, in fact, the fourth and last of the major ordinances that, according to LDS doctrine, are necessary for salvation. In short, in the LDS church, marriage is considered a really big deal.

At least, that's the theory, though you wouldn't really know it from the way it's actually carried out.

Anyway, as such a holy ordinance, the marriage (and the sealing) takes place in the temple. Church members can get married outside the temple, and that of course qualifies for legal purposes--even in the eyes of the church, in the sense that the married couple can have sex without it being considered fornication--but for the marriage to be eternal, and for it to count toward salvation, it has to take place in the temple. This is actually rather a big deal; outside of the ordinances performed for the dead, the only other ordinance that takes place in the temple is that of the endowment, which, again, could make for a post of its own.

One drawback, though, is that this means that only "worthy" members of the church--those with current temple recommends--are able to attend the wedding. If the bride or groom has close family members who aren't members of the church--or even who aren't active members of the church and don't have current recommends--they can't go to the wedding. In fact, in practice, generally the only people present at the wedding are the bride and groom's immediate relatives and perhaps two or three very close friends.

Not that there'd be much room for more spectators anyway--the sealing room in the temple isn't very large. It's a small square room with a few chairs on each side, with mirrored walls that ham-handedly symbolize eternity. Outside of the chairs, the only furnishing in the room is an altar--essentially just a big rectangular block of marble or some other material. The bride and groom clasp hands over the altar as a temple officiator speaks the words of the ceremony. If there are children to be sealed to the parents, they then take the parents' hands and that ceremony is done. The whole deal is very short and rather impersonal, and although the officiator does have the opportunity to speak a few words of counsel and encouragement, given that said officiator is usually a complete stranger to everyone else present this comes across as fairly meaningless. (I related a rather ill-conceived example of an officiator's banter here.)

However, it mustn't be thought that since so few people are present at the actual wedding, a Mormon couple misses out on having a big celebration and receiving presents. No, what happens is that in addition to the wedding, the couple has a wedding reception--which takes place after the wedding, but before the honeymoon (generally just before, in that the couple goes straight from the reception to the honeymoon). It's at the reception that numerous guests are accommodated, that gifts are received, that cake is served and the bouquet thrown. The fact that the wedding itself has already taken place by this time and the reception is purely a social affair (well, a social and gift-receiving affair), though, makes it seem (to me, at least) kind of empty. Not helping the case, either, is that (in my experience) Mormon wedding receptions are generally tacky affairs held in hastily redecorated church gymnasia--impersonal locations that don't really lend themselves to imparting due gravitas to a special occasion that's supposed to commemorate an important milestone in a couple's eternal progression.

So, in short, that's how the Mormon marriage goes. A lot of talk about its eternal importance and spiritual significance, but, in my opinion, with the actual proceedings ringing a little hollow. Still, however unexciting the wedding and the reception may be, it's supposed to represent two people being tied together for all eternity--and I guess that's maybe the main point where the Mormon marriage stands out from that of other Christian denominations. Of course, the divorce rate among Mormon couples remains high enough that many marriages turn out to not even make it to the end of mortality, much less beyond it.

Anyway, so, I hope some readers have found this post informative. As before, if there's any specific aspect of Mormonism you'd like me to write about, let me know in the comments. (Though I won't promise to get to it this week, given that I've already got a backlog of posts I've been meaning to make...)