Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An outsider looking in

I doubt I'll ever be fully free of my Mormon heritage - it left its mark on me in a very heavy way. That said, I've found recently I no longer care as much about Mormonism and all its influence. Honestly, the religion is no weirder than a bunch of other cults out there: Scientology, Jehovah's Witnesses, Moonies (although I don't know what they'll be doing now that Sun Myung Moon: the "Reincarnation of Christ" died). At least in Mormonism you don't have all marriages arranged at random by the "great leader".

In many ways Mormonism is really not that different from fundamentalist christian cults in the south (barring, of course, the weird history and claims of continuing revelation. In that way, I suppose they're more like the Catholic church). And it doesn't even compare to the religious oppression that is rampant in the middle east (though I wonder what would happen if america actually became subject to a religious set of laws like that, no matter the sect).

But I digress. My time away from Mormon central (Utah) has given me some perspective.  Sure, my family still consists entirely of believers, and sure they likely don't approve of my decisions, but does that really change how I am as a human being? Do I really need some validation, or to prove them wrong, or anything like that to be satisfied in this life? No, I don't.

I find I'm having a hard time really getting mad at LDS Corp. Sure, I resent the time, money, and effort the religion took from me, but does it have to ruin my life entirely? No. I find the occasional religious comments I see on my facebook feed curious, but not angering. I guess you could say I've graduated from the rage phase.

I kind of like this "outsider looking in" position I find myself in now. This doesn't mean that I don't occasionally get miffed at overt religious salesmanship, but at this point that's a minor annoyance on par with the occasional pushy door to door salesman. With time, maybe I can look at Mormonism entirely objectively and with some faint amusement, like I would Zoroastrianism or the Jedi Church or Cubeaism. Here's hoping.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Random Rants

I received a decidedly annoying Facebook invitation today from a friend who is still a Mormon. General Conference. For some reason, mormons seem to think they need to save everyone, and the only way to save is through the mormon plan. I don't really think I'm in need of saving, but thanks for the offer. Actually, scratch that - no thanks for the offer, and please don't send me any more offers - you're being too goddamn pushy, dammit.

While you're at it, why don't you put me on your do-not-message-about-religion list? And why don't you do us all a favor and downsize your workforce? I mean, you don't pay them, anyway - in fact, they pay you for the "opportunity to" be your lackeys. (I wish I could find your secret, then maybe I could live it up like Don Draper, complete with the afternoon liquor...no wait, I forgot. I know your secret. I don't think I want a part of it after all.)

I can't understand how Mormons can justify casually attempting to woo me into their cult, then getting offended when I point out why I left in the first place.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The dark side of "losing yourself" in the work

My greatest fear before leaving on an LDS mission was losing myself. Every Mormon boy growing up hears how the mission changes you. One of the most often repeated platitudes was to "lose yourself in the work". They say you become less interested in "things of the world" and more in the things of god, you become more spiritual, and so on. Apparently, it is a mission that "molds" you into the good Mormon soldier you are supposed to be as a Mormon priesthood holder.

The thing was, I liked a lot of my hobbies. I was an avid anime fan and owned a number of series. I liked sports, music, and gaming. I genuinely liked these parts of myself and didn't want to lose them. Every story from the "good" missionaries I heard (later I heard other, more colorful stories) confirmed to me that I'd have to part with these hobbies. Being the uptight kid that I was, I couldn't conceive of a world in which I could keep them and still be a good Mormon. Clearly I could always be more spiritual, always spend more time with the "things of God". I could see how focusing on Mormon things would naturally take away my interest in the things I liked.

More than that, though, I realized most of the stuff I owned wasn't exactly Mormon kosher. Some of the series contained nudity (oh, the horror of boobs!), some of them suggested the possibility that God didn't exist (oh noes), some contained pretty graphic violence (though my moderately conservative family seemed not to mind the violence so much as the nakedness...as if a naked person is going to tear your head and arms off and use your body as a human shiel...oh wait, I forgot about THIS (NSFW)). A few of my guilty pleasure musicians swore pretty heavily. (Oh, the horrors of words (NSFW), they will destroy you, won't they?)

Mormonism constantly teaches you to avoid things like these - they destroyed the "spirit", after all, and any time the spirit lacks in your life, you have no direction. You're in the "clutches" of the devil, they say. You will be deceived. Problematically, though, no one ever defined directly what was bad. We couldn't see rated R movies, but we could see PG-13 movies if they were OK. But what was OK wasn't defined, at least not concretely. In fact, Mormon scripture basically tells us we must always be looking for the bad stuff, because it is everywhere. Mormons are even counseled to "avoid the appearance of evil", which functionally meant that if someone else thought it was bad, you can't do it. If I was going to be a representative of the Lord, I had to be free of any blemish, as they say.

The social pressure of a mission is hard to ignore in Utah. In the face of my own doubts I decided to destroy anything that might "take away from the spirit" (which functionally meant anything that wasn't directly connected with the church in some way). Out went my anime collection, my non-church music, my games and my books. In came the Mormon Standard works, the "Missionary Library", the emotionally manipulative videos from seminary, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. My purging had begun.

Looking back after 10 years has given me a bit of perspective. Was I right to be afraid I would lose myself? In a word, yes. A High School friend of mine has told me recently I was a different person when I came back from Japan. I felt different, too. I didn't enjoy life as much. I was maladjusted and paralyzingly afraid of anything that could be construed as "bad" in the Mormon sense.

The silver lining in all of this is I eventually got back some of the things I lost, but not all of them. I've had to fight, tooth an nail, to regain what I could.

At least I now have a story to tell.

Title Change

I decided to change the title of my blog. Reality is strange, no matter how you look at it. I'm something of a stranger to reality (given my upbringing based in the fantastical). Thus I am the stranger in a strange land.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why I leave, part 5: The Aftermath.

Every year in April my BYU department's student association hosts a social. It had been a while since I spoke to Dave at length, but I now saw his position in a new light. While I didn't feel like I could announce my lack of belief to the world I at least wanted him to know I understood his position. At an appropriate time, we got together and I let him know of my struggles, my change in heart, and my new found lack of belief. He and another friend named Nate were then the only people I knew who didn't believe in the department.

A lot has happened since then. Dave and Nate introduced me to some new friends. I've made other new friends, lost some old ones (and even some of the new ones), moved to a new state (twice) and started graduate school. I've also had a chance to deliberately, slowly study and restudy the issues I ran into during the first four months of 2011. Part of me hoped that the evidence might bring me back, but that hope has been dashed to pieces, ground into a powder, and thrown to the wind. I've also run into further problems with claims made by the church. It seems that no matter where I look the myth I grew up with has been proven to be just that - a myth.

Now you might ask me if I'm more happy now than I was. To be honest, I don't know. The roller-coaster of emotion I've been through in the last two years hasn't been easy. Giving up over 20 years of belief doesn't come easily. I've discovered depths of despair and heights of joy I never knew were possible. I've learned a lot about myself in these two years, too. I've had to rebuild my moral world from scratch and have attempted as best I can to create something, at least for myself, of value. I don't know if I've yet succeeded. Maybe that will become clear in the future.

I've also learned what it means to truly tread your own path in the world. I now no longer have someone above me that can tell me if my decisions are right or wrong. I have to make that decision myself and live with whatever consequences that decision entails. I'm starting to see the world as less black and white and more gray. Not every decision has a clearly right, more right, or wrong choice to it. Treading this path hasn't been easy - but as they say in the church, I think it has been worth it...at least so far. In any case, I've met some good people along the way who have helped.

I must say any relationships I have now feel more real than they were when I lived under the yolk of Mormonism. I tend to over-think things quite a bit, and the Mormon tendency to assign a heavy weight to all decisions didn't help when I was a true believer. I now feel free to make mistakes and learn from them. I don't always beat myself up over things I perceive I've done wrong, and I often assume my acquaintances will act the same way. I also feel I can sometimes take my decisions lightly and see where they lead without worrying if the decision is right. This has been freeing for me.

I'm also more comfortable with doubt and uncertainty. I don't always know the answer, and that's ok. I don't feel I always need a ready rebut for criticism of my position. If my way of thinking is proven untenable, I'm more free to abandon it. To be honest, though, I still occasionally allow my human tendency for validation overcome my better judgement. I'm still human, after all.

I also see people differently now. I no longer look for what someone believes in my interactions, because I just don't think that matters. (Well, mostly. I still find myself occasionally putting someone in a category because of what I think they believe. That thought pattern seems to be the hardest to get rid of.) More important is how that person acts. A person can be a religious jerk or a religious saint, an atheist hypocrite or an amiable atheist, a self-righteous non-believer or a tolerant non-believer. People are people, not beliefs. It's that simple.

So what do I now believe? Well, I don't know. After dropping my Mormonism I briefly considered mainstream Christianity as an alternative, but that idea soon fell flat on its face. I also considered Buddhism. Buddhist thought was appealing, but I just couldn't accept the supernatural elements of the religion. I spent some time studying Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, Confucianism and Taoism, but I just couldn't bring myself to accept any of their creeds. It all just seems man-made to me now.

If I were to label myself anything now, It would be "agnostic". I can't really prove god doesn't exist, but I also don't think there's any credible evidence that proves  he/she/it is there. Maybe god started the universe and let it go, kind of like a computational physical simulation. Maybe god IS the universe. Or maybe there is no god. Maybe we are all part of a universe inside of a computer, living out our lives in fantasy. Who knows.

What I do know at this point, though, is that I now can never take claims of divine intervention without a dose of skepticism. Don't expect me to accept at face value your claims without some backup. Expect me to challenge your position. Don't think the challenge means I'm trying to slight you personally, though. After all, the only way we can figure if our worldview is valid is by testing that worldview against others. In the world of ideas, the best ones should rise to the top regardless of who conceives of it.

I'm excited to see what the future holds. I've always been curious - and now my whole life is an unwritten book. I don't know where it will end up, but I'll be happy to see the result when it's all over. After all, what fun is a story when you already know the conclusion?

Why I leave, Part 4: Loss.

I loved the Book of Mormon when I was younger, as did everyone around me (as far as I could tell). By my mission age I had done what was asked of me: I read the Book of Mormon (more than once), I prayed about it, and I got that good feeling that everyone told me later was the "confirmation" that the book was true (whatever that means).

I really let myself really get into the book, too. My favorite story was of both Mormon and Moroni, the final characters in the book. Mormon amazed me because of how strong, yet loving he seemed. He was a leader of an army at 16, and until his death was an untouchable, nearly unbeatable General. His always seemed the inferior force, yet he managed to squeak put draws from the jaws of defeat more than once. He didn't love war, though, and whenever he could he tried to stop the wars from continuing. I admired his courage, his conviction, and his willingness to step into danger for the sake of those he cared about, even when he knew his efforts were ultimately in vain.

It's somewhat embarrassing to admit this now, but I even created a fanfic of the story when I came home from my mission, though I never wrote it down entirely. In short, I was a Mormon fanboy in every sense of the word.

Moroni hit me even harder because of the clear loneliness he must have felt (or at least what I imagined he must have felt) after his father (Mormon)'s death. He spent over 30 solitary years wandering the wilderness after his people were destroyed. He was a warrior, too. I had in mind a picture of a lone wolf, who avoided fights when he could, but wasn't afraid to defend himself when the need arose. But he was filled with the same love his father had, so I was sure he would choose not to kill his enemies if he could avoid it.

I connected with him even more because of his clear weakness. He was a prophet, but he wasn't afraid to write down his struggles and difficulties. More so than Mormon, Moroni seemed approachable, human, not so different than me. I often thought that if Moroni could live alone for all the years he did, and yet grow during that time, certainly I could get over my problems, fears, and difficulties. Even now I still admire the character somewhat, though the story has since lost some of its luster for me.

Like I mentioned before, by mid-March 2011, I had found physical evidence that proves almost conclusively the Book of Abraham isn't what it appears to be. My emotional attachment to Mormonism wasn't really in that book, though, so I thought I'd be able to jettison my faith there while still remaining Mormon if only I could keep my faith in something else. The Book of Mormon seemed an obvious object of that faith.

Inevitably, though, my struggle with Abraham had given me inklings of problems in other areas of Mormonism. The Book of Mormon wasn't immune. My other studies made it impossible for me not to investigate the claims.

I wasn't naive enough this time to go directly to an apologetic source like Fair Mormon, so I went first to the critics. It was refreshing for me to find that the good critical sites (such as MormonThink.com) did their best to present both sides of the argument. Rather that slogging through lop-sided dither like I found at Fair Mormon, I quickly understood both the official position of the church (where it existed) and the detailed arguments and evidence that challenged that position. Mormon Think even had links directly to apologetic information like Fair and Farms (now the Maxwell Institute).

I studied the evidence for some time (it was at least two weeks). Although the information was much easier to bring together this time, I was much more reluctant to give up my emotional connection to the truth of the Book. The evidence was clear, though. Let me again give the main points. I'll be a little more detailed here because of how important the book was to me. I'll try to start with the most damning evidence (in my view) first.

  • The Book of Mormon claims (or at least it did when I was on my mission years ago) that the Lamanites, originally from the middle east, are the principal ancestors of the American Indians. (since then, the introduction to the the Book of Mormon has been changed to say they are "among the ancestors" of the American Indians.) If this is actually the case, there should be evidence, in the form of mitochondrial DNA, that would show the connection between Middle Eastern and Native American groups. A detailed explanation would take too long, but in short there is absolutely no evidence of Middle Eastern mitochondrial DNA in any Native American populations ANYWHERE in the Americas. Their DNA, which fits with evidence from other sources, indicates ancestry from east Asia, not Europe or the Middle east. This has been confirmed by both Mormon and non-Mormon scientists.
  • If the Book of Mormon record is correct, we'd expect evidence of large scale wars with hundreds of thousands of deaths. Just counting the final battle in Mormon suggests over a million dead Nephites. That evidence just doesn't exist, though. This is in contrast to the campaigns of the Roman Empire, for example, where much smaller forces left easily identifiable evidence of the battles they fought. Even if, as apologists claim, the evidence has been lost to the more humid central and South American climate, that doesn't explain why clear evidence of the Mayan, Olmec, Incan, and Aztec civilizations exist. The Mayans even existed at the same time the Nephite-Lamanite civilization supposedly did, yet only evidence of the former civilization has come to light.
  • Even in Texas evidence of a small civilization has come to light, a civilization that is much smaller than the claimed size of the Lehite civilization. Yet still the sprawling Lehites are nowhere to be found.
  • The Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms. It suggests the existence of horses, wheels, wheat, barley, and steel, just to name a few, where none of these things existed in the Americas before Columbus. No mention of Native American staples like pumpkins, squash, or potatoes exist in the Book of Mormon, even though archaeological evidence continually recovers these staples, but never finds evidence of wheat or barley. 
  • The Book of Mormon contains many passages that appear to be complete quotes from the King James edition of the Bible. As the King James version is a translation of a translation of a translation (of many transliterations), it contains mistranslations and errors that clearly didn't exist in earlier versions of the text. Tellingly, the Book of Mormon contains many of these mistranslations word for word from the King James version.
  • The place names and people in the Book of Mormon bear an uncanny resemblance to names of cities, towns, and geological features that existed in upstate New York in the early 1800's. Some names are exactly the same, while others are just one or two letters away from the New York names. If only a few names bore this resemblance, we could chalk it up to coincidence. The problem is there are literally hundreds of these parallels in the Book of Mormon. It is difficult to explain this fact inside a Mormon context.
This isn't everything. The list continues like a bad dream. Only this dream was real. An apologetic response might be able to explain one or two of these points alone, but with each new point of evidence it became more difficult for me to reconcile my beliefs on the Book of Mormon with the evidence. By the beginning of April 2011, I had concluded to my own chagrin that the Book of Mormon was fiction. I felt like I had lost a good friend. I could no longer use Moroni as an example of a real person I could emulate - clearly that "real person" was only real in the eyes of the original author of the Book of Mormon.

At this point, the blocks just came tumbling down like the house of the foolish man in that primary song. President Gordon B. Hinckley said it best: "Each of us has to face the matter - either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing." He was and is still right. Problematically for the church, though, the evidence doesn't support the kingdom of God theory in the slightest, and I knew it. I had to acknowledge the fact at this point that I no longer believed. I could no longer consider myself Mormon in any meaningful sense.

Why I leave, Part 3: Cracks become holes, then broken dams.

The Book of Abraham. Oh, the Book of Abraham. Never did a religious innovator leave such clear proof of his fraud than Joseph's Book of Abraham. If Muhammad had been born in the 19th century rather than the 7th, I wonder if he might have been exposed as quickly or thoroughly as has Joseph Smith. I doubt any believer can come through an objective study of the book and still be the same.

The Book of Abraham was the real rabbit hole for me. Growing up in the church I was taught that the book was written by Abraham as a captive in Egypt, that he eventually escaped captivity (from his idolatrous father, no less), and that Joseph Smith got a hold of these papyri and translated them. The book contains large portions of the most important doctrine I was taught as a child, including the scriptures on the "noble and great ones" (Abraham 3:25, I think). While my testimony didn't stand or fall on the book, if the book was proven a fraud it would force me to abandon one of the core doctrines I had been taught: that Mormons are exceptional, better than the world.

Dave's first mention of this Book of Abraham was the first time I had even heard there was a problem with it, or at least the first time that the possibility there was a problem registered in my mind. I first looked to church sources for a discussion, but that proved as fruitless as listening to an average sacrament meeting talk. So I went elsewhere. My search eventually led me to the Fair Mormon website. The content has changed somewhat since then, but most of the original information I found there still exists.

Fair was my first exposure to real apologetics (although I've realized since then my position was that of an apologist for the majority of my discussions with Dave). It didn't take long for me to discover there were problems with my idea of the book of Abraham, but the Fair website was somewhat scant on the details. This is about what I was able to piece together from the fair information:

Joseph did, in fact, purchase papyri from a vendor that passed through Kirkland, Ohio in 1835, and did claim to translate it. Joseph said the papyri he purchased were the Book of Abraham and the Book of Joseph (son of Jacob). After he "translated" the papyri, he left them, along with some other Egyptian artifacts, in the care of his mother Lucy.

Following Joseph's death, Lucy decided not to follow Brigham west. When she died in 1855, Emma took custody of all the Egyptian artifacts, and about a year later sold them. It was thought that the artifacts were taken to the Chicago History Museum. In 1871, a great fire destroyed large sections of Chicago, and the History Museum was destroyed, and presumably so were the papyri.

In 1966, though, some of the fragments were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The papyri were given to the Church in November 1967 and reported they had them in the church's "Improvement Era" in January of 1968. The article mentions that 11 papyrus fragments were found, that one was signed by Emma Smith and was a common funerary document, and that "It is not clear at this time whether the 10 other pieces have a connection with the Book of Abraham". A later, frankly incoherent article from Hugh Nibley recounts some historical objections to the Book of Abraham made by non-Mormon Egyptologists, but what their objections were isn't immediately clear through his insulting rhetoric.

Further Fair reading revealed more, though:

  • Fair never puts it in their headings, and doesn't advertise the fact, but translations by both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptolygists reveal absolutely no connection between Joseph Smith's translation and the text of the papyri found in the Met.
  • While we can't be sure if all the text Joseph had when he "translated" are available (Joseph never actually says how many there were), but at the very least the first facsimile from the Book of Abraham was in the documents.
  • Fair acknowledges the lack of connection between the funerary texts and the Book of Abraham. They come up with a number of theories to explain this, but none of them are very plausible. Therefore, the opinions of the critics can't be lightly dismissed.
Fair's final statement provided little comfort to my increasingly troubled mind. The text is basically the same now as I remember reading two years ago:
We do not claim to know why the text of the Book of Abraham (or the missing Book of Joseph) is not in evidence on the fragments of papyrus that were recovered. Critics, of course, simply assume this to be conclusive evidence that Joseph was a fraud.
At this point I could no longer justify ignoring the critics. Although I had been cautioned by leader after leader not to dabble in research that isn't faith promoting, I realized these leaders were the same people that taught me Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham directly from papyri I now knew didn't contain that translation. I'm an adult, I reasoned. I can decide for myself whether their arguments are valid or not. I was willing to deal with the consequences.

What I found didn't help me much, though. In contrast to mainstream Mormons (who never seem to even think about these kinds of things) and apologists like those at Fair (who seem mostly reactionary), the critics had science, history, and logic on their side. In about two weeks of frenzied study (I was still taking my final semester of undergrad classes at the time, so I couldn't devote all my time to it. I probably spent more time than I should have with it, though), I concluded that the evidence sits squarely on the side of the critics. Since the information is readily available, I won't elaborate too heavily, but I will give what I see as some of the most damning points:
  • Although apologists suggest Joseph might have been receiving revelation, rather than translating the papyri, Joseph himself didn't agree with them. He stated in multiple accounts that he was "translating", not "receiving revelation". He even kept notebooks detailing his idea of Egyptian grammar - and the grammar was clearly taken from the papyri found in the Met.
  • Every Non-Mormon Egyptologist that has ever looked at the facsimiles and Joseph's Interpretation has rejected them in no uncertain terms. The scroll that Joseph clearly was "translating" from was none other than the common "Book of Breathings" for one Hor, who died over 1500 year after Abraham supposedly lived. There is no Abraham, no familial sacrifice, no escape from Egypt, communion with God, deep astronomical doctrine, or Abrahamic promises. The papyri are simply not what Joseph claimed.
  • Critics knew of these problems long before the papyri resurfaced on 1966, but church leadership at the time chose to ignore their objections, just like they have since the papyri resurfaced.
  • Anachronisms in the Book of Abraham (mentioning things, places, and objects that didn't exist when the the document was claimed to be written) suggest the "translation" can't be what it claims to be.
Beyond the physical and textual evidence, though, I was dumbfounded by the Mormon apologist tactics I saw over and over again during the course of my study. Back when I read the God Delusion, one of the more compelling arguments Dawkins made was against the "God of the gaps" theory employed by the average Christian (and Muslim, I imagine) apologist. As science finds more an more evidence for evolution and against a traditional Christian God*, apologists increasingly look for the gaps in the theory and claim them as proof of divine intervention.

For example, consider the debate on human evolution. Although the fossil record isn't the only, or even the most compelling reason to accept human evolution as fact, it does provide an easily recognizable piece to the puzzle - the gradual divergence of human and chimpanzee fossils from a recognizable common ancestor. As more and more intermediate fossil forms are discovered across the world, though, the Christians simply point to each new gap between an intermediate form and the original two forms and say "Hey look, now you have TWO gaps in your precious theory! Take that science". They just have no concept of following the evidence to the explanation with the most explanatory power.

When I read about these tactics in Dawkins' book, I took comfort in the fact that Mormons don't use them. The Book of Abraham destroyed this illusion for me. Mormon apologists were no better, nor less stubborn in their apologetics. Coming from that side, I can understand their position when a central point of scripture of theirs is under attack, but that doesn't justify the half-truths, misdirects, and in a few cases outright lies that apologists use to defend their position. Beyond destroying my faith in the Book of Abraham, the real damage the apologist tactics did to me was destroy my faith in apologetics. I could no longer trust apologists to look at a subject with anything more than a completely biased, self-serving eye. Objective information would never come from Fair Mormon.

It was mid-march 2011 when I came to this conclusion. In hindsight, my "testimony" of Mormonism was probably already dead at this point, but my upbringing wouldn't let me give up yet. I honestly didn't have the emotional attachment to the Book of Abraham that I did to other stories and scriptures, mostly in the Book of Mormon. My battered and bruised zombie of a faith still stood, although you could say it had lost at least one of its arms, both of its eyes, and at least a few toes.

* By traditional Christian God, I mean a god that created the earth, basically in its present form, 6000 years ago and designed all life on earth in its present form, as well.

Edit: May 21, 2013: Changed grammatical mistakes.