Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The LDS church and racial discrimination

I am hardly able to contain myself at the traction a recent article in the Washington Post on the history of blacks in the LDS church has been getting today. At the latest count (the time this post was published), there were 787 comments on there. First, I saw that LDS church apologist Daniel C. Petersen posted an entry on his blog (which has the same layout as mine...hmmm...well mine was up long before his ;-) weighed in on the article. Daniel appeared to attempt to distance himself from fellow BYU professor Randy Bott's comments in the article. Then the church came out with an "official" statement that reads:

"The positions attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott in a recent Washington Post article absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.

The Church’s position is clear—we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in His eyes and in the Church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.

For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent.  It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.

We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church."
Which is interesting because the page this statement is on also contains a link to an expanded quote outlining the church's official position on the matter. This statement contains the following paragraph:

Official Statement

"The Church and Race: "All Are Alike Unto God"

"The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone. The Book of Mormon states, “black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). This is the Church’s official teaching."
Hmmm. So I wonder what qualifies this scripture to be an "official" teaching of the church? If it is solely the fact that it is contained in the Book of Mormon, well, the Book of Mormon also says in 2 Nephi 5:21-23 that:
"21...he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.

23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done."
This would also appear to be an "official" teaching of the church. I don't know how the church can expect to have it both ways...unless they edit the Book of Mormon again to take out ALL of the racist teachings and beliefs. Because as far as I can tell, these things are still in the Book of Mormon plain as day. It's just too bad there is no real ability to hold the church leaders accountable for their duplicity in these things. So sad indeed.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nephi's broken bow

Last Sunday I didn't go to church (which is pretty typical for me these days), so I missed my 12 year old son's first talk in Sacrament Meeting. While I now wonder if I should not have just gone to show my support for him on the one hand, on the other hand, I feel that I should also continue to make clear my objection to the things the church does and stands for (let alone to keep my sanity). I can do this in principle by not going to church unless I am specifically invited to come. And while it is hard to go when I am invited, I will go and put on a smile if I know it will mean something to someone I care about. Since nobody invited me this last Sunday, I didn't go. I guess I figure if it is important enough to want me to come and show my support, it is important enough to extend some sort of invitation to me. Of course, I am now wondering if I shouldn't just budge on that principle a little bit so I don't miss the little milestones in the lives of my family members. I don't know, I guess it is just something that I have to go on based on what I feel at the time...which may change at any time. Sometimes I am more firm in my adherence to principle and other times I am more lax and more interested in being involved if I feel that something is important to the ones I care about.

At any rate, placing all my issues aside, I now have heard praise and words of congratulations from some that were able to hear my son give his talk. Not from my wife or children so much (although I think my wife did say something briefly to me about it), but I heard it from an outspoken participant (whom I would consider a friend) of our basketball practice at the church on Tuesday night (my one area of continued church activity is religiously playing basketball every Tuesday night with my son). I heard from this individual that my son was articulate, announcing each word clearly, but that he spoke kind of fast. I also heard that my son's talk came across as well rehearsed and was entertaining at times and made a good point. This man was laughing with my son about having a broken bow (or not having a broken bow...I'm not sure). I kind of wish I were able to understand what the joke was about, but I am not really sure because I wasn't there. Regardless, I am very proud of my son and that he did a good job on his talk. I am sure he would get his ability to speak well from me and his mother. I am glad he seems to have this ability since having an ability to speak publicly (and not be too terribly afraid of it) is a pretty handy skill to have in life. I know I always enjoyed the chance to talk in church and think that these opportunities have definitely contributed to my lack of fear (and enjoyment) of public speaking now.

Of course, while I was glad to hear that this friend of mine thought that my son did a good job on his talk, it also got to a point where I was wondering if some of the kind words were not designed to invoke a sense of guilt in me for not being there to hear his talk. Then again, maybe this is just me over-thinking the matter. I don't really care what it was actually. The point I want to make here is that it is difficult to be in the position I am in. I don't need people trying to remind me of that...especially when they really don't have any idea what my issues are or what kinds of things have shaped my decision to not go to church each Sunday. I really wish people would attempt to find those kinds of things out before pursuing their own agenda of trying to make people feel guilty for not believing the same as they do. Again, I'm not sure that was my friend's intent, but it kind of came across that way after about the third time the subject was brought up in some variation while playing basketball with him. I guess I am glad my son's talk made such an impression on him that he felt the need to bring it up so much during basketball.

While I would really just love to sit down with my son and air all of this and talk about my thoughts surrounding the subject of his talk (I did briefly see the printed version of his talk, but I didn't get to read the whole thing because it didn't get saved on the computer), I have decided that this is not such a good idea. My reason for this is because I have learned that my son is a type of person that does not enjoy any potential conflict at all. He will work very hard to just avoid or prevent controversy or conflict so, to spare him the intense discomfort of attempting to point out my issues with the subject matter, I have decided to just leave it alone with him. I think my wife is likely to feel the same way as my son, so I just won't go there with her either. While this makes me kind of sad, it also makes me happy that I can be wise enough to place their needs (to have peace and avoid conflict) above my need to talk about things and resolve the controversy. To me resolving the controversy would mean getting to a place where a conclusion can reasonably be drawn to some degree of satisfaction based on logic and considering as much of the evidence as is currently available.

I guess that is where this blog can come in for me. Here I can attempt to outline the issues that I have with the subject matter. That way I can get it off my chest and not have to inconvenience my family with my controversial (even if they are my attempt to be as accurate as possible) views and questions.

So, from what I read of my son's talk, he indicated that his favorite story from the Book of Mormon was the experience of Nephi when he broke his steel bow while his family was wandering around in the wilderness. He indicated that he admired the faith of Nephi to pray and ask for guidance about what he should do without a bow to hunt for food with. That is about all I saw of my son's talk. Since I didn't see much more than that, I am not comfortable commenting on much more than that. When I saw this, my first question was; did steel even exist at that time (i.e. 600 B.C.E.)? Let alone "fine steel"? My next question was; what kind of bow would steel make anyway? And finally, I wondered whether or not this story would even make any sense based on the expected time-frame and region of the world Nephi and his family were traveling through at the time?

For my first question, I decided to do a search on the internet for the history of steel. From that I learned a few things;

1. I learned that remnants of steel artifacts may be hard to find because usually steel will be eaten through and consumed by oxidation in a relatively short period of time (historically speaking, steel artifacts may not survive more than a few hundred years at the most). In other words, the evidence of anciently created steel tools or bows or swords may not survive to be found unless there are special natural or artificial means of preservation extant. This fact could be invoked to explain why we don't find any evidence of mass battles on the American continent involving large amounts of steel weapons of war - because all the weapons have completely oxidized and turned to piles of rust. However, the more impressive evidence that does remain for the existence of such things is found in the process used to smelt and create the steel itself. If steel is made in a place or time, there will be easily encountered evidence of the foundry. In addition, large amounts of dross (the by-product/waste from the steel production) would also be found at the scene. These things are easy to find and have been well documented to establish pretty firm dates for when steel came on the scene in antiquity. The earliest steel artifact has been dated to 1800 B.C.E. from the area of western Turkey. However, it is assumed that the secrets for smelting effective steel weapons would have been a very closely guarded secret. This is because you wouldn't want to give your enemies the secrets to make the best weapons of war. For that reason it is assumed that steel weapons and tools would have been considered very valuable and very rare. We don't find much other evidence of steel production until after around 300 B.C.E. which came from India and China.

2. I also learned that steel is actually an alloy of iron and some other substance or metal (usually carbon) which combine to make a much stronger and useful tool or material. Since iron, by itself is brittle and not able to be used for things that don't easily break, the addition of other metals adds to the strength and usefulness of the item made from steel.

As far as evidence that steel may have existed around the time of Nephi, while it seems a bit unlikely that he actually had a steel bow, I guess it is not outside the realm of possibility. Of course, when taken with the knowledge that the Book of Mormon speaks of bringing this knowledge of steel making to the Americas, this idea just becomes another absurdity in the long line of anachronisms that can be found in the Book of Mormon.

My second question is where things get even more interesting. Who makes a working bow out of steel anyway? I know bows are usually thought of as being made of wood and, in our day, it is common to find them made of fiberglass, but steel, really? I would think steel would be a terrible material to make a bow out of. Especially if the steel could break. But let's look at the statement from the Book of Mormon; it says, "...I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel..." seems to indicate that this was not anything other than what it says.

I read an article on by common consent about this question. It basically talked about how "bow of steel" is mentioned in the Old Testament as well, and tries to decipher what this phrase might mean exactly, since I gather others have made the same observation (that steel may not make such a good material for a bow). While the possible interpretations of "bow of steel" are numerous for what is referred to in the bible (and based on the translation of the original words - that it might mean a wood bow with brass parts, or decorated with brass or copper ornamentation or that it meant shaped to look like a snake), the interpretation of the phrase in the Book of Mormon is not so easily explained. The best comment I saw in response to the article was made by commenter #3 (a random John) as follows:

"I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel

This strikes me as a little more problematic than "steel bow", "bronze bow", or "bow of steel". The emphasis seems to be more on how nice the steel was than on how nice the bow was. Nephi implies that it is different from the bows of his brothers, and also contrasts it with the wooden bow that he makes.

Saying that Joseph was so influenced by the KJV that he rendered the phrase in a misleading way seems to indicate that we should reword a certain article of faith to include the BOM under the 'translated correctly' disclaimer.

It also implies a method of translation that relies on a curious combination of the text on the plates, Joseph’s inspired understanding of that text, and Joseph’s understanding of the Hebrew that underlies the KJV of the OT.

I don’t claim to understand how the BOM was translated, but I really don’t understand the mechanism by which Joseph would elect to use a less accurate KJV rendering."

At any rate, considering all the other anachronisms easily found in the Book of Mormon, I personally would just chalk this phrase up to yet another goof on the part of Joseph Smith in authoring the Book of Mormon. And, while I could say this to my wife and son, it likely would not make much difference to them. I guess I am alone in my questions and study for the answers. Thus it is. Life will go on. Bows of fine steel will continue to be mindlessly referred to without any thought to the historical implications of such a statement. Promote the faith. Disregard the facts. Any questions? I didn't think so.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

10 reasons to stay in the church

I have had a hard time getting up to writing about the reasons to stay in the LDS church. I guess I need to understand that while I don't find any reason tenable for me personally at this time, there are those that have reasons for staying and those reasons are perfectly valid. I hope their reasons fall somewhere on this list. So, without further ado, here is Mormon Expression's 10 reasons to stay in the LDS church:

10. Because enough of it is true. Since I am such a black and white thinker, the truth or falsehood claims of the church are very important to me. Even though I cannot indulge in church participation because of my characterizations of seeing the church as being mostly bad, I suppose some could say that there is some truth there. I guess they would say that it can be found in bland and non-specific counsels from the "brethren" to do good stuff and not engage in bad behavior. This is so hard to write because I just can't buy into it. However, the flip side of this is that if I attempt to hold any organization up to the standard I am demanding of the LDS church, would I ever be a member of ANY organization? This is a great question...and one I am not prepared to consider right now because it hasn't come up for me yet. But it seems to me that while any organization may have shortcomings or flaws, what should be of primary consideration is the mission or values of the org. If I want to be more involved in the education of my children, it would make sense that I would join the PTO or PTA. Certainly, I wouldn't demand perfection out of them, but that is not their stated purpose either (i.e. to make everybody perfect), but when an organization has as part of its stated purpose for existence, to make it's members perfect, there should be a right to demand some level of perfection on the part of that organization.

9. The church provides structure and direction for life. This one is actually the most appealing to me. The thing that I struggle with is wondering what my life might have been like if I had not been brought up in the church. As a believer, I would have readily confessed that my life would have probably turned out in the gutter. However, honestly, I don't think I gave myself enough credit when I thought that. Sometimes I envy those that were brought up in normal households, being taught normal worldviews, that were not so skewed by religion. But then I think about those that I know who were brought up under such circumstances, and, maybe I just don't know very many of them very well but, my opinion of them is that there is a large variety of attributes (good and bad) among them. I think much of the drive in my life to be a seeker of good things and have ambition and strive to become more was rooted in my LDS upbringing. Unfortunately, I saw those who did not believe as I did as inferior. The worldview that I am special and have limitless potential (to become like God after all!) was very appealing and caused me to want to excel...of course, it is just as likely that I haven't really excelled at much of anything but I believe that I have, and that feeling is at least a very optimistic one, right? So, even though it may have been self-delusional, it may have caused me to feel that my aspirations were above the curve, and that is at least noteworthy, I suppose. Of course, that just breeds more questions about the virtue of honesty leading to feelings of apathy and self contentment with mediocrity as compared to delusion that leads to inaccurate feelings of grandeur and self accomplishment...whilst alienating many in your social circle. I don't have any good thoughts on which is better, except that I am a strong leaner towards honest, evidence based, mediocrity.

8. Hope of future rewards or to avoid punishment in the afterlife. This would be the reason of hedging your bets. The really sad thing is that if the believers have it all correct, then they will be able to gloat on for eternity saying I told you so (which I would hope would get old for them at some point), but if the atheists are right, they lose out on any "See, I told you so" gloating after we all die. Sometimes it just sucks to be right about stuff. My feeling is that if it is as believers claim and there is some final judgment that damns me to an eternal existence of servitude, then at least I will be at peace knowing that I truly cared for others and did not wish for certain (very large, I might add) segments of the population to be excluded from living in my mansion of eternal reward and glory. The whole thing sounds a little fascist to me and I will likely just opt for being cast out with all the other partying homies. At least it will be not as boring. Although having celestial sex all the time with multiple partners to populate planets with my spiritual offspring does sound pretty enticing. (Imagine, all the fun of sex all the time, without actual, physical babies being made with all the crying and feeding and dirty diapers...hey, that sounds pretty good alright! Unless they have spiritual crying or spiritual poo to clean up?) My approach to this is to just wait and see. And if Joseph Smith was right after all, there is hope for everyone since endless doesn't necessarily mean forever, but is just a title that is representative of God's punishment. At some point it will end and I will be able to make it to the top after a few millenia of suffering. So, I'll just arrive at the party when it is just starting to get good. But, it won't be good til I get there, so that's just too bad for those that are having to wait around for me to get there. I am a great life of the party, by the way.

7. Church is actually enjoyable. Not because of the social aspect, either (that's next up). The teachings, the feelings of being part of something bigger than yourself...these can all be reasons that people enjoy staying active in church. I personally don't find it enjoyable now, I find it boring and counter-productive, but that's just me and where I am at.

6. The social aspect. Friends, neighbors and community members are all there on a regular basis. Church is like a very regular meetup group for some. People can go to church purely for the social aspect and the church actually has a lot to be enjoyed in this respect. For some people truth or falsehood is not really important, but being surrounded by like-minded people in frequent social settings is what it is all about. I think this requires a certain personality type, of which I happen to not be. While the social aspects of church cannot be entirely overlooked, the cringing that I experience when thoughtless and potentially hurtful or damaging things are said is enough to keep me away. I actually think the church is much different in the social aspect than it was when I was growing up. The church used to be a vibrant and creative place where creativity could be expressed and appreciated in a myriad of ways. That is just not so any more. The stage in our ward chapel was replaced with classrooms during the renovation to the building that last took place, so there is no longer any emphasis on ward "productions", roadshows or talent shows. These things have just been correlated out of the church and this is just sad. This cultural shift makes it harder for people, in my opinion, to actually be fully in because of the social aspect. Much has been lost here in recent decades.

5.  The church helps people to live a better life or be a better person. Why is this so hard to type? It is like I am trying to say all of this with a straight face, but I just can't do it. While the church does provide a foundation for being an obedient child, good people can actually be better. I think growing up in the church is a groundwork for being good, but it is based on a model that does not encourage free thought or instilling true freedom of choice. It is one side of the coin, a fear or reward based outlook that cannot be sustained by those who think about their circumstances to any degree. While I guess some would rather stay child-like and ignorant, I think at some point people just need to outgrow that limited framework. But it is very hard for me to maintain respect for someone who wants to believe in something that is designed to stifle individuality and free thought and keeps everyone who believes it in a perpetual child-like state. I especially take issue with teaching people that certain behaviors are prohibited without ever providing a reason for it. I am very much an advocate of teaching the potential consequences of an action or behavior as a tool of prevention...and this makes sense, but when something is prohibited and the reasons often given don't jive with actual experience or outcomes (like masturbation leading to becoming homosexual, for example), the commandments just come out looking like foolishness in my opinion.

4. Makes up for mistakes made as a parent or re-enforces parental authority. It takes a village to raise a child. Having teachers and peers influencing your children can only be a good thing if you, as a parent, are less than valiant. While I do think children learn from more than just their parents (and they will regardless of how much we don't want that to be the case), I don't think using peer pressure to influence their thinking is exactly beneficial. In may case, I am insecure because I worry that my children will see my disbelief as abandoning them and eventually they will choose to reject me. In my case, having my children be encouraged to continue active and attend church feels like a rejection. I can then be seen as a very big mistake of a parent. In my case, having my children continue to attend church is a complete reversal of my parental authority. This reason really only works if both parents stay in the church together. And, even then, if one parent expresses doubts, they are quickly squashed for doing so since the decision has been made to stay active in the church. In the church doubting is discouraged and a sign of weakness - do not heed the doubters!.

3. To keep your job, get a job or maintain status in the community. If this were the case, I could completely understand staying in the church for that reason. All I can say is, I would keep my ears open for other opportunities within the company I worked for or, at the very least, a way to distance myself from LDS supervisors. At my work, my supervisor is LDS, but he came to me with his doubts before I ever even had any. Now that I am not a believer, it is something we are able to share in common every once in a while. I am very fortunate to be in the situation I am in and the job I am at.

2. To keep family relationships in tact. That is; with parents, siblings, cousins, etc. I haven't told my grandfather about my disaffection from the church for this reason. I really don't want him to know (although, I'm pretty sure he already does, but he hasn't said anything to me yet). I don't live close enough to him for him to be able to find out first-hand though, so that is a bonus. What continues to amaze me as I observe interaction among family members who belong to the church, is how little they talk about the church and its teachings. If church stuff does come up, it is just reciting what was taught in a sunday school class and then the conversation usually moves quickly to something else. Once I realized this, it made gatherings with believing family members so much more tolerable. Since difficult questions never really come up, let alone get discussed, I have been able to not worry about being in the room at such. If somebody wants to talk about some doctrinal question, they would quickly realize that I know more than most people they know. I have even been able to use my knowledge of the subject to help answer some doctrinal questions. I enjoy doing this because it, I hope, causes them to think about how somebody so knowledgeable can be so in error. I do enjoy increasing the cognitive dissonance in others, that is for sure.

1. To keep your marriage in tact. I am very fortunate that my wife has not said that I have to go back to church or she will leave me. I don't know if she has ever thought that, but I am glad she hasn't said it. I really feel for those that are not as fortunate as I am though. I know first hand of the ultimatums that have been received by spouses over church activity. It is so sad. I have also seen the families torn up by that thinking as well. It sure does seem ironic to me that members of a church that teach so openly about their interest in staying together as families in heaven would rather tear up their family than risk having a family member not active in church. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that families can be together forever as long as all the conditions are met. Seems to me that an asterisk should be placed after that phrase whenever it is used in marketing for the LDS church to make the advertising true. It's like the intention is really to break families up under the guise of keeping them together. To me, it seems like the Nazi's publicly declaring that they were not mistreating the Jews while they were secretly exterminating them. The LDS church says their teaching is wonderful and beautiful that families can be together forever, while secretly they know that this means many family members will wander and become lost forever. "Families" ought to mean distinguished and lonely guests who all sit around and "wonder" what became of their missing family members. This picture, however, is very different from the one they paint at church. This is just one of the many discrepancies that can be found in the church if people only look for them. Fortunately, I am more amused by these kinds of things than angry as much as I used to be. I am glad to be let go of so much of the anger, but when I think about these things I just get sad.

Well, I was hoping that I could be more open to the position of staying in the church by writing my thoughts on the 10 reasons people could give for staying in the church as presented by Mormon Expression, but obviously, I am just not there. I really want to come to appreciate faith for the virtue that I'm sure it must hold somewhere, but I am still searching for it. Until next time, stay thirsty my friends.