An Inadvertent Experiment

July 23, 2008

As some of you know, I post (probably too often) on the Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board, which is a message board that is heavily biased toward the pro-Mormon side. I first published my “Stupid Critic Tricks” (wherein I pointed stupid anti-Mormon arguments) at 6:10 p.m. on July 21. It’s still going strong.

By contrast, I posted “Stupid Apologist Tricks” (which criticized dumb pro-Mormon arguments) at 9:13 a.m. the following morning. The thread lasted not even four hours, when it was closed by the moderators at 1:08 p.m. Of course, the reason it was closed was that someone had come perilously close to discussing LDS temple content, which is strictly off-limits. However, in the past, when someone has posted temple content, they are given a warning, and the content is deleted. With my thread, the whole thread was locked.

I’m not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I hate thinking that the moderators over there were so averse to criticism of their own that they closed the thread, but then I’m not sure there’s any other way to read what happened.

Oh, well. I guess this is just a reminder that when you post at MAD, you really can’t expect impartial treatment if you’re at all critical of Mormonism.


Stupid Apologist Tricks

July 22, 2008

In the spirit of fairness, here are some apologist arguments that ought to be retired:

“Oh, yeah? Well, the Bible is worse!” When someone points out an anachronism or other problem with the Book of Mormon, occasionally someone points out that similar problems or worse are present in the Bible. For someone who isn’t predisposed to believe the Bible any more than the Book of Mormon, pointing out absurdities in both texts doesn’t exactly shore up belief in either.

“Oh, yeah? Well, prophets in the Bible did way worse things than Joseph Smith ever did!” This one is closely related to the first. In response to accusations against Joseph Smith’s behavior, some apologists are quick to remind that Biblical prophets killed babies, engaged in various sexual escapades, and had obnoxious teens ripped apart by bears. Again, this doesn’t help anyone’s faith in Joseph or the Biblical prophets.

“Not all the discovery has been made.” When someone rightly points out that there is no conclusive New World archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, some apologists charge that the critics believe everything that is to be known about Mesoamerica is known, and nothing further will be discovered. This is an obvious strawman, it need not be said, as few critics would ever say something that stupid. But some apologists argue that the Nephite cities just haven’t been discovered yet, and most critics agree that it is certainly possible that some evidence will be discovered; however, it is odd that some apologists have identified what they consider strong candidates for Nephite cities, and yet these cities show no evidence of Nephites, either.

“If you can’t explain how it was done, you can’t opine on whether it happened or not.” This one is especially ridiculous. It’s normally used in the context of the Book of Mormon witnesses, but not always. The gist of it is that, if you don’t have a coherent theory to explain how someone convinced people that they saw plates or angels, you must accept that there really were plates and angels. This is like saying that if you don’t know how a magician does his tricks, you must accept that he really did cut that woman in pieces or make the Empire State Building disappear.

Stupid Critic Tricks

July 21, 2008

Over the years, a lot of critics of Mormonism have made some pretty stupid arguments and have adopted some counterproductive tactics. Here are a few of the highlights (or lowlights, maybe):

“Let me tell you what you really believe.” Often a critic will insist that some obscure, esoteric item represents core LDS doctrine. Usually, these “doctrines” come from some long-forgotten book, pamphlet, or address from the nineteenth century. And when the unsuspecting Mormon replies that Mormons don’t really believe such things, the critic will move in for the kill: “See? Your church has been hiding its true beliefs from you!” But rather than seeing the light, most Mormons will come away from such an exchange believing that, not only does the critic not know anything about Mormonism, but he or she isn’t interested in dialogue of any kind.

“You Mormons rely on feelings, and you can’t trust feelings.” This one is just plain ridiculous. If you talk to any religious person, no matter their belief system, you find that their faith is based in feelings. They believe because it feels right. A Calvinist who constantly berated “feelings-based” Mormonism explained that he had found God through an extraordinary spiritual experience in his car at a stoplight. Asked if his experience was not based on feelings, he said something like, “No, this wasn’t feelings. This was God speaking to me.” It seems like common sense, but if you’re going to tear down other people’s spiritual experiences, yours are going to be subject to the same kinds of attack.

Related to this argument is the suggestion, particularly by fundamentalist Christians, that their Bible-based beliefs have the factual and archaeological support lacking for Mormonism. Jerusalem and Egypt are real places, they argue, so obviously the events described in the Bible must have taken place. Where, they ask, is the evidence for the Book of Mormon? Of course, this argument completely falls apart when you realize that there is no archaelogical evidence for the spiritual and religious claims of the Bible. There’s no conclusive evidence for Adam and Eve, the Flood, or the Resurrection. On that score, the Bible has no more going for it than the Book of Mormon.

“You follow the wrong gospel, worship the wrong Jesus, and are inspired of the devil!” Nothing is quite as effective as telling another person that their beliefs are Satanic, but that’s what some ostensibly well-meaning critics (primarily of the Evangelical strain) tell Mormons. Some have actually said they’d prefer that Mormons lose their faith entirely and become atheists rather than persist in the diabolical religion Joseph Smith taught. Of course, most Latter-day Saints brush off these arguments as being unworthy of discussion.

“Mormonism doesn’t make sense.” Some Christian critics have argued that Mormonism doesn’t make sense rationally (see, for example, Frank Beckwith’s attempt to show the logical impossibility of eternal progression). The problem, of course, is that the logical arguments used to destroy faith in Mormonism are just as destructive when trained on traditional Christianity.

These are a few of the dumber arguments against Mormonism. Generally they don’t get critics anywhere, but it’s kind of fun to watch newcomers continue to bring such stuff up.


July 18, 2008

One thing I missed when we lived in Texas was having fresh fruit growing on trees in our yard. I had planted a couple of citrus trees in the backyard the winter before we left, but they were so small I had to take the green oranges and grapefruits off the branches so as not to damage the trees. So we never had any fruit from our trees there.

Here in Utah it’s a different story. In my yard, I have two apricot trees, a small peach tree, an Italian plum tree, red and green grape vines, and several Pottawattamie plum trees. And I have planted a small garden with melons, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. In the spring, the back yard was completely in bloom, from the pink peach blossoms to the stunning white of the apricots to Hostas and Asian lilies.

Now it’s July, and the apricots are nearly ripe. Everything else is poised to be harvested soon afterward. I’ll be getting out my canning implements and my steam juicer. For some reason, these looming tasks remind me of home and childhood and are somehow like putting on a comfortable old shirt. My parents always had something to can, from boysenberry jam to guava jelly to spaghetti sauce and mustard pickles.

Part of this urge to grow things and can them comes from my Mormon background. We were taught from early childhood to grow and store our own food items, to have gardens and emergency stores of food. But I think it goes beyond that.

Both of my parents grew up in relative poverty, my father having grown up in a government housing project in Ogden, Utah. Finding and growing food were essential for them to make ends meet. My father and uncle would go out picking wild asparagus along the Weber River in the summertime, and my grandmother would blanch it and freeze it for the winter. Dad would also take his trusty .22-caliber rifle (with short bullets) up into the mountains to hunt snowshoe rabbits for food. Naturally, they supplemented their diet with food grown in a large backyard garden.

My maternal grandfather was a grocery-store manager on a rather limited income, so they too grew food in a large garden. When I was a young boy, we would spend a week or two at my grandparents’ house in Spring Lake, Utah, where we would feed the lambs, gather eggs from the henhouse, and help my grandmother in her enormous garden at the side of the house. One fond memory I have is of picking and shelling peas with her in her kitchen. My mother was a little miffed that most of the fresh peas had ended up in our mouths rather than in the bowl. But Grandma just laughed and said, “What good are peas if you can’t eat them?”

When I was born, my father was working part-time and was in a Ph.D. program at USC. He had moved our family of 8 into a tiny house (barely 900 square feet), but the main attraction was the deep yard stretching behind the house. We used to sing a song in church that I thought had been written especially with our yard in mind:

In the leafy treetops, the birds sing “Good morning” …
In my pretty garden, the flowers are nodding.

We had two large fig trees in the yard: an old black mission fig tree that every year was loaded with sweet fruit, and a larger tree bearing golden figs. Dad had built a multilevel treehouse in the larger tree, and I would lie down on a pallet in the top of the tree, staring at the sky as the branch swayed in the breeze. The garden was in the back left corner, and there my father grew tomatoes, corn, squash, peppers, artichokes, and radishes. To one side were a passion-fruit tree and a large hedge of boysenberries. Canning produce from the yard was a part of my early childhood, and it continued on after we moved on to a larger house.

My parents bought a house out in the suburbs in 1971, and the yard was completely bare: no grass, no trees, not even weeds. Eventually, they put in a swimming pool, and Dad began building the yard around it. He planted boysenberries and raspberries along the pool fence, and they came in such abundance that my cousins tell me that their fondest memories of our house are of eating boysenberries in between trips down the pool slide. Each year the garden he had planted got larger, and the lawn got smaller.

I resented having to care for the garden and the fruit trees, but somewhere along the line I absorbed my parents’ love for growing things and having food of my own creation. This year will be the first in a long time that I’ve had anything to harvest. But it feels good.

Manipulation and the Spirit

July 17, 2008

Last night we watched a Mexican film called La Misma Luna, which tells the story of a young boy’s attempt to cross into the United States to find his mother, who is working as a maid in Los Angeles. The film is shamelessly manipulative, from its angel-faced protagonist (who apparently can weep on command) to the downtrodden mother to the evil and parasitic smugglers, drug addicts, and rich housewives they both encounter. But, despite all of that, the film worked. You have to hand it to the filmmakers that their shameless emotional manipulation works that well, even on a cynic like me.

The experience reminded me of our missionary efforts, which were designed to get people to “feel” something, and then we would helpfully point out that what they were feeling was the spirit, or the Holy Ghost. We would encourage people to read the Book of Mormon and then ask them how they felt when they read. If they said anything remotely like “good” or “peaceful,” we would move in for the kill. “That feeling is the Holy Ghost testifying to you that the book is true.”

Not surprisingly, many of the LDS church’s publications and media presentations are designed to elicit emotions, which can then be tied to the Holy Ghost. Interestingly enough, the church’s broadcasting arm, Bonneville International, which produces most of the church’s media presentations, has actually developed a sales technique called “HeartSell”®, which is described as “strategic emotional advertising that stimulates response.” That could just as easily describe the LDS church’s missionary program.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the church produced a number of films that seem designed to prey on emotional response. Think, for example, of the weeper “Legacy” that attempted to cast Mormons as pure and righteous victims of evil and cruel murderers. But perhaps the zenith (or nadir, depending on your perspective) came in the film “Together Forever.” The film looks like a documentary, and centers on interviews with ordinary folks with ordinary problems and how the LDS church helped them overcome their problems. The most poignant segment concerns a couple whose daughter has been killed in an accident. The interviewees bear fervent testimony of the restored gospel and explain how the church has blessed their lives. The couple who lost the child tearfully express their gratitude that they will be with their daughter, “together forever.”

And then you find out that these people are actors.

I first saw this film at a missionary fireside in Utah many years ago. A non-LDS family sat next to us, and the wife had cried all the way through it. At the end, the allegedly dead child is shown playing with her family happily. In hindsight, it was probably intended to drive home the idea of together families. But it clearly demonstrates to the audience that this was all make-believe, a manipulative setup.

At that moment, the woman sitting next to me had suddenly stopped crying, and her face had clenched in anger. She and her husband left quickly without staying for the refreshments, and some church members expressed bewilderment at her behavior. But I understood. For the first time in my life, I had felt shame at being so overtly manipulated. I wasn’t so much angry at the film-makers for manipulating me as I was for having swallowed it whole.

And like it or not, we humans have an infinite ability to base our most fundamental decisions on emotion. “What is your gut feeling?” we hear all the time. But that gut feeling is subject to extreme manipulation. Con men cheat people all the time by using their trust and compassion; and some religions gain and keep adherents with the same tactics.

Joseph Smith and the Seer Stone

July 16, 2008

As many people know, before embarking on his career as prophet, seer, and revelator, Joseph Smith made a living by locating objects and treasures through his “seer stone.” Joseph would place the stone in a hat, and then put the hat over his face; apparently, the location of the lost object would be shown in the stone (see, for example, the record of Joseph’s 1826 “glass-looking” trial). This is the same method Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon plates, as described by David Whitmer, who was one of Joseph’s scribes:

“I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man” (Address to All Believers in Christ). 

Obviously, the two endeavors–treasure hunting and translating–are connected by the seer stone, which was the means for both. Thus, Mormon apologists must account for the transition from treasure-seeker to prophet. It’s a little tricky because the validity of the first occupation affects that of the second. Richard Bushman, perhaps the premier living biographer of Joseph Smith, puts it this way:

Although treasure-seeking was left behind, the magical culture of the stones played an important part in the development of Joseph’s identity as seer and translator. The Christianity of Methodism or Presbyterianism could not have readied him for translation. In conventional Protestant Christianity, learned men translated the Bible, and pious young people became preachers like [Charles] Finney or Lorenzo Dow, not translators.

The treasure-seeking stones from magic culture, by contrast, helped Joseph move step by step into his calling. The scryer of stones looked for the unseen, whether lost objects or buried treasure. Joseph’s first reaction when he brought home the Urim and Thummim was delight with the powers of the instrument. It was “ten times Better than I expected,” he told Joseph Knight. “I can see any thing: they are Marvelus.” Though amazed at the Urim and Thummim’s power, he knew from working with his own stones what to expect; he would “see.”

Although he had obtained one of his early stones from a hole dug for a well and not by a gift from heaven, practice with stones, looking for lost objects and probably for treasure, was an initiation into “seeing” that could be transferred to translation of the gold plates in the stones of the Urim and Thummim. In fact, as work on the Book of Mormon went on, a seerstone took the place of the Urim and Thummim, blending the culture of magic with the divine culture of translation (“Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth, 242).

But the reason the money-digging episode is a potential red flag is that using the seer stone to find treasure works as preparation for the work of translation only if Joseph could actually see and find treasure using the stone. Hence a FAIR article gives us cases where Joseph found objects with his stone. The three examples are Martin Harris’s account of Joseph finding a pin dropped on the ground in “shavings and straw,” the location of the Book of Mormon plates, and an account of Joseph locating a stolen horse. Apparently, the author of the article recognizes that, if Joseph Smith couldn’t really find treasure with his stone, you have a problem. Admittedly, it takes quite a suspension of disbelief to accept that people can find lost objects by looking at a stone, but the situation appears to require it here. But for the author, the 1826 “trial results … give support to the fact that Joseph did indeed possess supernatural talents.”

But even if Joseph couldn’t see things in the stone, maybe he really believed he could. The evidence is mixed here. In the 1826 trial, Joseph is said to have testified that he “had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were.” But Isaac Hale and Peter Ingersoll say that, when confronted, “Joseph wept, and acknowledged he could not see in a stone now, nor never could; and that his former pretensions in that respect, were all false. He then promised to give up his old habits of digging for money and looking into stones.” Joseph is then said to have promised to abandon glass-looking and instead “work hard” for his living. (Peter Ingersoll affidavit, 9 Dec. 1833; Isaac Hale affidavit, 20 Mar. 1834.)

It’s also interesting that Joseph downplays the moneydigging episode in his official history (JS-H):

In the year 1823 my father’s family met with a great affliction by the death of my eldest brother, Alvin. In the month of October, 1825, I hired with an old gentleman by the name of Josiah Stoal, who lived in Chenango county, State of New York. He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanna county, State of Pennsylvania; and had, previous to my hiring to him, been digging, in order, if possible, to discover the mine. After I went to live with him, he took me, with the rest of his hands, to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.

This statement leaves the reader with the impression that Joseph was just one of Stowell’s “hands,” a common laborer engaged in digging a hole. There is no mention of his seer stone, no mention of why it was that Stowell hired him, no mention of his treasure-finding powers. If Joseph had believed it was a divine gift that had been a preparation for his prophetic duties, why obscure it the way he did?

And finally, these money-digging practices are rarely mentioned, if at all, in lesson manuals and church magazines. And often they are downplayed, as in this 2001 Ensignarticle:

An enterprising farmer by the name of Josiah Stowell came 30 miles from his farm in Bainbridge Township, Chenango County, New York, carrying a purported treasure map and accompanied by a digging crew. The company took their room and board with the Hale family. On the crew were Joseph Smith Jr. and his father. Lucy Mack Smith records that Josiah ‘came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.’ The Smiths had initially refused Josiah’s invitation in October 1825. However, the reality of the family’s difficulty in meeting the $100 annual mortgage payment on their farm and Stowell’s promise of “high wages to those who would dig for him” finally persuaded them both to join in the venture.

The implication here seems to be that Stowell had mistaken Joseph’s prophetic calling for an ability to find treasure. Similarly, President Hinckley referred to the Stowell episode as a “mining operation” (“Keep the Faith,” Ensign, Sept. 1985, 3). Probably the most direct statement about the episode comes in a 1994 Ensign article about highlights of Joseph Smith’s life:

20 Mar. 1826: Tried and acquitted on fanciful charge of being a “disorderly person,” South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York. New York law defined a disorderly person as, among other things, a vagrant or a seeker of “lost goods.” The Prophet had been accused of both: the first charge was false and was made simply to cause trouble; Joseph’s use of a seer stone to see things that others could not see with the naked eye brought the second charge. Those who brought the charges were apparently concerned that Joseph might bilk his employer, Josiah Stowell, out of some money. Mr. Stowell’s testimony clearly said this was not so and that he trusted Joseph Smith.

The current Priesthood/Relief Society manual says only this:

While he waited to receive the gold plates, Joseph Smith helped provide for his family’s temporal needs. In 1825 he went to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to work for Josiah Stowell.

To me, these are important issues. I understand that they don’t trouble some people, but they do raise significant questions about the character and calling of a prophet.

The Worst Job I Ever Had

July 15, 2008

Yesterday I received an email from a former colleague, who reminded me of how miserable I was at a particular job. I’ve done a lot of dirty and low-paying jobs in my lifetime. I pumped gas for 5 years as a teenager; I briefly worked as a janitor at a dialysis center mopping up blood and vomit, and I cleaned the “Cougareat” food court at BYU when I was first married. But the worst job I ever had was just a couple of years ago.

In the spring of 2003, I was working for a large software company in Houston, Texas, but it was rapidly shrinking. In the three years I had worked there, I had survived seven layoffs. The eighth time was the charm, and I found myself out of work for over a month. The economy was pretty bad in 2003, and the job market for technical writers was abysmal. For three weeks I tried hard to get a job interview without success. Finally, I found a company in College Station, about 70 miles northwest from my house, that was hiring. After a day-long interview and an editing test, they offered me a job with only a fairly small pay cut.

But the day I started the job, I knew I wasn’t going to be happy. After a morning of orientation and filling out forms, I sat at my desk after lunch with a large stack of printed web pages. I was given a red pencil and told that I wouldn’t be doing any “editing” online but rather would be expected to mark up the printouts and then give them back to the production person who would enter whatever changes I made into the computer. I remember heaving a big sigh and realizing that this was not going to be a picnic.

And it wasn’t. I was constantly overworked and underappreciated. They wouldn’t let me do any writing, and they expected me to do hours on end of proofreading. There was never any praise for good work, just odd bits of arbitrary criticism here and there.

But I worked hard over the next few years, perhaps too hard, as I was quite burned out by 2006. I had proofed and edited an 18-volume set of documentation and numerous books, had put in countless hours of overtime, and a couple of times had worked overnight. But the workload didn’t allow for being burned out and needing a break.

Then came a book by a fairly well-respected scholar at a large university, whom the company was courting as a proponent of their technology. So, when he authored a book, they gladly offered to publish it through their press. The book was dreadful, and I literally had to rewrite every sentence, every paragraph, and every page. It was, if I remember right, almost 400 pages long. I worked on it for about three months, but the bosses were getting anxious. They wanted it published, and they couldn’t understand why it was taking so long to get through it.

Things came to a head just before Memorial Day 2006. I was getting real pressure from both my boss and from one of the developers to hurry up and finish the book. My wife had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and was hospitalized that Monday in Temple, about 80 miles from our house. Despite the stress of having a wife in the hospital, I soldiered on at work, fighting off depression myself.

The Friday before Memorial Day, the developer came to my office to tell me I had to work over the long weekend so we could get the book out. I told him that my wife was in the hospital and would be coming home Sunday, so I wasn’t going to be able to work then. He became angry and said that he was forced to work over the weekend because I hadn’t finished the book in time, so it wasn’t fair that I shouldn’t have to do so, as well.  I said I was sorry, but I wasn’t in any position to work that weekend. A few minutes later I saw him in my boss’s office having a rather angry discussion with her.

On Sunday I drove to Temple and picked up my wife from the hospital. I spent most of Monday just trying to keep her comfortable, and then Tuesday I went back to work. Just after lunch, I was called into my boss’s office and told I was being fired for not performing up to the level expected of my position. I was of course devastated, but an hour later, I said out loud, “But I hated that job.”

Within a couple of weeks, I had landed a better-paying, more-challenging, and definitely more-interesting job in Houston. I had forgotten what it was like to enjoy going to work in the morning.

Now, two years later, I find that the person they hired to replace me has likewise been fired. Not only that, but they are alleging that my former colleague helped him cheat on their editing test in order to get the job. That means that, of the four people they have hired in the last five years to do writing and editing, three have been fired, and the other quit because he couldn’t take it anymore. Now he’s having to defend his integrity before the Texas Workforce Commission.

Not long after I got fired, I saw my boss and her husband (the CEO of the company) at the grocery store. I could see them trying to avoid being seen, so I walked directly to them, put out my hand, and in the most cheerful voice I could muster, told them that I had a great job and was quite happy in it. Sometimes I am tempted to write a thank-you note in appreciation of their firing me.

I’m glad I have a job I like and am challenged by. Things could be worse. I could still be in College Station at that miserable company.