You Call That Religion?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments
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The Mormon Test

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider's Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it's hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven't been steeped in it.

Sometimes I've tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it's easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God's nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It's also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier's replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I've got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney's first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you're a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad "I Believe" from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream ("I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin") but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America...

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn't have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can't take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn't convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly ("I don't understand how...." rather than "Bet you can't explain...") could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

May 27, 2011, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments
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Open Thread: Secret Religious Teachings

This great comment by Rollingforest in another thread got me thinking:

When they go door to door, Mormons like to present themselves as Christians with minor but important improvements on Christian doctrine. These missionaries make sure to forget to mention or to gloss over the huge changes in dogma that becoming a Mormon requires (multiple Gods, belief that polygamy was Godly in the past and could be again in the future, absolute submission to the decrees of the Prophet, baptism of the dead, three levels of heaven, the belief that the Native Americans are descended from Jews who turned their back on God, the ability of believers to become Gods of their own, etc). These beliefs are only taught to a person after they've been sucked in, gradually becoming more receptive to drastically changing their world view. This process is called "milk before meat" and it is the church's primary method of conversion. Here is an article by a Mormon defending this practice and complaining that Google allows people to find out truths about the Mormon Church that it isn't ready to tell them yet.

http://www.mormontimes.com/article/15891/Jerry-Johnston-Milk-before-meat

I was incredulous when I clicked on the link, but it's exactly as the comment described it: a Mormon editorialist who's frustrated and upset that non-Mormons can so easily find out about the more secret and esoteric teachings of Mormonism without converting - which is, according to the author, "an easy way to do yourself more harm than good".

What this really means is that Mormonism has some ideas so off-putting, so outlandish, so bizarre, that the church leadership deems them too dangerous to teach to seekers and newcomers. It's only after a person has already become a Mormon - after they've already invested time and effort into the religion, after they've integrated it into their identity and personal life, after the cost of walking away has become much higher - that the church believes they can safely learn these things.

But then it occurred to me that Mormonism isn't the only religion for which this is true. There are other religions which have teachings meant only for the elect, teachings which they'd be highly embarrassed to see disclosed and discussed in public.

So, since we're all fearless, icon-smashing atheists, let's blow the lid off of them and let in the daylight.

This is an open thread to discuss and highlight these secret religious teachings. My intent isn't to list embarrassing episodes of hypocrisy in a church's past, or verses from their holy books that aren't widely known, but actual doctrines that are a recognized, accepted part of its teachings but that are supposed to be known only to those within the church (or just a subset of those within the church). If there are teachings or historical facts that aren't exactly secret, but which a church would prefer not be generally known, those would also qualify. Of course, the fact that a religion even has secret doctrines may itself be a secret doctrine.

I can think of a few, but there must be more I don't know about. What can you come up with? If you have them, please try to include references and citations - since members of these religions are probably going to deny that they believe these things!

April 7, 2011, 9:23 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink36 comments
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Gender Desegregation Wednesdays

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Kat and I were working on an English translation of a section of the French website for the women's rights organization, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives). We were struggling with the word mixité. We toyed with "the mixing of the sexes". But, that sounded like one of those speed-dating events. We settled on "desegregation". But, then we included the antecedent "gender", to distinguish our meaning from the more common American connotation of racial desegregation. "Gender desegregation" does capture, in English, the intended meaning of the French word "mixité". But, we were left somewhat dissatisfied. NPNS uses mixité as the last in a three-word chant representing the three ideological pillars of their movement. Laicité, Egalité, Mixité. Gender desegregation doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

As I plowed away, I came to an expression that made me roar aloud with laughter. Kat demanded to know the cause of my apparent mirth. As often occurs in such situations, a painfully literal translation had tickled my funny bone. It just sounded so weird and precious in English. I had translated "Mercredis de la Mixité" as "Gender Desegregation Wednesdays". When I told Kat, she laughed too. Then, we both laughed. Then, we laughed so hard we cried. It was one of those irreplaceable and singular moments of cosmic comic connection, otherwise known as, "you had to be there". It's ok if you don't get it.

But, then, after we had finally stopped laughing, we had a serious conversation about our reaction to my lacking translating skills. Obviously, it was the combination of the ostensibly esoteric with the ostensibly quotidian, like Theosophy Thursdays. But, why did "gender desegregation" sound so academic, so arcane, so removed from the populist vernacular that it incited uproarious laughter when "racial desegregation" or just "desegregation" does not?

Racial equality has been cemented as an indispensable ideological pillar of liberal, constitutional democracy while women continue to struggle for full recognition as human beings and as citizens. While religious justifications for racism are considered barbaric and archaic notions of yesteryear and beyond the pale for a modern, civilized society, religion remains the foremost obstacle thwarting women's aspirations to humanity and citizenship.

The evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (popularly known as the LDS or Mormon Church) during recent decades illustrates this point perfectly. The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church broke away from the main sect of "Saints", because they refused to give up polygamy (so-called celestial plural marriage) as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine, among other complaints.

Imagine, for a moment, an even more strident version of the FLDS Church. Let's call them the Super Fundie Latter Day Saints (SFLDS) Church. Imagine this SFLDS Church breaking away from their Mormon brethren, because they refuse to give up racism as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine.

If you question whether either or both polygamy and racism were, have been or are foundational tenets of the Mormon doctrine, I invite you to peruse the LDS Church's own literature on their own website. It's quite eye-opening. Copious documentation indicates that generations of Mormons were taught that dark skin is a curse from God, as well as evidence of a less than entirely virtuous pre-human existence, serving to justify everything from racial slavery and segregation and discrimination to Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws. Only public outcry and condemnation and boycott, rising dissent among the rank and file, and the risk of losing federal funding for BYU's students provoked Jehovah into revealing a doctrinal change to the church leadership in 1978.

But, back to our imaginary Super Fundie LDS Church that is incensed with the original LDS Church for abandoning the foundational doctrinal tenet of racism. Imagine that this Super Fundie Mormon sect decides that the best way for it to propagate its originalist vision of Jehovah's intentions for mankind is to adopt as many black babies as possible. The goal of the program is two-fold. It will give these decrepit black souls an opportunity to redeem themselves while in their human incarnations, hopefully with the added bonus of turning their putrid black skins white. And, the black babies will be brainwashed into submitting to their divinely ordained, sub-human status, thereby furthering God's plan for differentiating amongst his creations, according to moral uprightness, by segregating them by race and geography.

Turns your stomach, doesn't it? Strikes you as pretty much the most disgusting, despicable agenda ever, doesn't it?

It was real. This actually happened, or something very similar. Except that black kids weren't the targets. Native American kids were. And, it took place during the latter half of the immediately preceding century.

It was called the Indian Student Placement Program. Mormon families took in thousands of Native American kids and brainwashed them into believing that they were the cursed Lamanites, the black sheep descendants of ancient Middle Eastern Jews. The program's creator and leader, Spencer W. Kimball, former President of the LDS Church, once bragged about the program participants' complexions turning noticeably whiter, as evidence of their having left savagery behind for a Mormon life and salvation.

Do you know what is even more disgusting and despicable? This is still happening. Every day. All over the US. Right now. To women and girls.

All over the US, in religious communities and families, women and girls are being brainwashed into believing that they are sub-human, meant only to obey and serve the men in their lives, meant only to birth and raise more adherents. They are brainwashed into believing that they are the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities. They are brainwashed into believing that they will either submit to God's divinely ordained plan and subject themselves to sub-human treatment, or face dire consequences in the here now, the hereafter, or both.

How do I know? Because, it happened to me. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. I was raised to believe that men dictate the lives of women, because women are inferior by design, by God's design.

If it isn't ok to adopt an African American or Native American baby and raise it to believe that it is sub-human on account of its race, why is it ok to take a girl baby and raise her to believe that she is sub-human on account of her gender? I don't care if you birthed her yourself. Your children are not your property to abuse as you please. They are human beings with rights.

How do they get away with this? By claiming this blatant abuse as a religious liberty. We don't let them get away with that anymore with respect to race, but we still let them get away with it with respect to gender. At least, according to Spencer Kimball, the dark-skinned kids can grow lighter as they grow more virtuous. But, what about the poor girls? No matter how much a little Mormon girl prays for her clitoris to grow into a penis, I'm guessing that wasn't part of God's plan. Instead of being so concerned with gay couples adopting and raising children, maybe we should be scrutinizing Christian Fundies who want to adopt girl children and raise them as sex slaves.

Where is the public outcry and condemnation and dissent and government response for gender segregation and slavery as exists for racial segregation and slavery?

Nothing exemplifies this cognitive dissonance as well as the global uproar over public burqa / niqab bans. In the U.S., it is far easier to craft a legal argument against the burqa / niqab as a simple safety measure and general prohibition against identity obscuring masks in the public space than it is to even begin to speak about addressing the ban as a women's rights provision, as an affirmative action provision, as a gender equality provision, as a prohibition on gender segregation in the public space, or as a prohibition on gender slavery in the public space.

Why? Because everyone is ready to bend over backwards to defend the burqa / niqab as the free expression of religious liberty. Because religious liberty still trumps women's human and civil rights in American jurisprudence. Because we still view women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities.

History repeats itself. Again and again and again. How quickly one forgets the Civil Rights Era. It boggles the mind how no one seems to realize that we already had this argument. But, it was about race. First, it was about slavery and then it was about segregation. And the opponents of progress and democracy made all of the same arguments. They denounced the Civil Rights Act as the federal government overstepping its constitutional bounds by regulating the behavior of private citizens in the public space. They said that the federal government was trampling on the First Amendment rights of US citizens. And, the proponents of progress and democracy made the same arguments. They said that separate never equals equal. They said that a liberal, constitutional democracy cannot sustain itself with a substantial portion of its citizenry disenfranchised and debased.

Recently, Rand Paul appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show. Rachel Maddow was shocked and aghast at Rand Paul's seeming suggestion that the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that touched upon the behavior of private citizens in the public space should never have been.

Rachel was eloquent when she replied, "The Civil Rights Act was the federal government stepping in to protect civil rights, because they weren't otherwise being protected. It wasn't a hypothetical. There were businesses that were saying black people can not be served here. And, the federal government stepped in and said no, you actually don't have that choice to make. The federal government is coming in and saying you can't make that choice as a business owner."

You don't get to make that choice, even if you are a member of the persecuted minority, and you want to segregate yourself from the persecuting majority. We are not going to allow racial segregation. We would no more allow a black owned restaurant to refuse to serve white patrons than we would a white owned restaurant to refuse to serve black patrons.

Why shouldn't you be able to segregate yourself? Segregation is not a choice you get to make in the public space of a secular, democratic republic. Segregation is the antithesis of democracy. Segregation is the antithesis of human rights. Segregation is the antithesis of equality. Segregation is the antithesis of equal protection. Separate but equal does not exist. I thought we already arrived at that conclusion in the US with Brown v. Board of Education.

What about the freedom of association? This is not about forcing people to be friends or lovers or cohorts of whatever variety. The woman in the burqa in public is not the black woman with her black friends entering a white owned store. She is the white storeowner putting up a "no blacks allowed" sign in her store window. She is saying, "I demand the right to participate in society fully, but I also demand the right to discriminate regarding with whom I will interact, with whom I will engage in the public space. I demand the right to treat other human beings and other citizens in a discriminatory fashion. I demand the right not to acknowledge the humanity of the other citizens in the public space while I also demand that they acknowledge my humanity."

This is unacceptable in a liberal, constitutional democracy. We must not tolerate gender segregation in our public space, even in the pursuit of religious liberty. It matters not if the "choice" to segregate oneself was coerced or no. It matters not if the woman wearing the burqa is a victim or no. We simply cannot tolerate gender segregation any more than we can tolerate racial segregation. Public segregation is not a choice you get to make.

This is not treating women like hapless and helpless victims, unable to choose their own style of dress. The anti-burqa ban argument is not only condescending to women, it is also contradictory. It is saying that women can and do and should be able to choose gender segregation and slavery of their own accord and volition, but that they may not be held accountable for the choices they make. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. If you can "choose" slavery, then you can be held accountable for choosing slavery.

Undoubtedly, the Civil Rights Act relied upon the Commerce Clause. While the Commerce Clause has been interpreted in an incredibly expansive manner, the Supreme Court has been narrowing the scope of this interpretation as of late. The questionable nature of applying the Commerce Clause to implement federal civil rights legislation could be avoided if we brought back the Privileges and Immunities Clause. But, regardless of the constitutional basis, our federal government acted to end racial segregation in the public sphere by regulating the conduct of private citizens in the public space. Is it really such a stretch to jump from racial segregation in public accommodations to gender segregation in the public space? I think you could make an even stronger argument that gender segregation in the public space impedes interstate commerce in the aggregate than you are able to make regarding racial segregation in public accommodations.

The fully integrated veil (the burqa or niqab) is more than segregation; it is effacement; it is dehumanization. It is slavery. This is not about morality. Morality has no place in the law. Desegregation, either racial or gender, is not the moral choice. It has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with democracy.

It is an issue of democratic representation and power distribution. It is the same issue that inspired the framers of the Constitution to separate powers within a tripartite federal government to create a system of checks and balances and to leave the balance of power in the hands of the states and the People. If any one class or group or entity has too much power, discrimination and oppression are quick to follow. This is why diversity is a compelling government interest. This is what makes affirmative action policies possible. Gender equality and desegregation should be every bit as compelling a government interest as diversity.

Per the current state of American jurisprudence, religious liberty trumps women's rights. This is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is a violation of international human rights law. This is a violation of the principle of secularism. This places our liberal constitutional democracy in jeopardy. This is why we need the Equal Rights Amendment. Racial equality has had its constitutional moment, and now we need to enshrine gender equality in our Constitution in the same way.

I am a human being, not a whore, even if Jehovah or Allah or Yahweh or Jesus or Krishna or Mohammed or Buddha or Confucius or Rael says otherwise.

Maybe one day Gender Desegregation Wednesdays won't sound so absurd anymore.

We can dream.

September 9, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink115 comments
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On the Morality of: Polyamory

The comments in a recent thread on same-sex marriage have been heading in this direction, so I thought I'd offer some thoughts about polyamorous relationships and how we can view them from a humanist standpoint.

The reason I (and others) advocate full marriage equality for same-sex couples is straightforward. Marriage is a civil ceremony which confers many legal rights on both partners, rights which are either extremely burdensome or impossible to obtain any other way. At present, the law in many states denies certain couples the right to enter into marriage because of the gender of the participants. This is wrong for precisely the same reason as anti-miscegenation laws, which denied certain couples the right to enter into marriage because of the race of the participants. Both of these are discriminatory policies which deny people the equal protection of the laws by treating them differently based on which group they belong to (black/white, heterosexual/homosexual).

However, laws which restrict marriage to two partners are not discriminatory in the same sense, because those laws apply equally to everyone. Unlike with same-sex marriage, therefore, I conclude that there is no straightforward anti-discrimination argument for extending marriage rights to polyamorous partnerships. This is not a case of legal benefits being offered to certain partnerships but denied to others based solely on morally irrelevant characteristics of the partners, like race or gender. Instead, the law is consistent: no one can enter into a legal marriage with more than one partner. One can certainly argue whether this is the most rational policy for society to follow, but it's not a self-evident violation of anyone's human rights.

So far, so good. But now the further question: even if it's not discrimination, is it the most rational policy for society to forbid multiple-partner marriages?

The first thing to recognize, in my opinion, is that once we decide to allow polyamorous marriages, there's no rational cutoff point at which we can limit their size. Any argument which would permit a polyamorous relationship of N partners would equally well permit a relationship of N+1 partners. (In software engineering, my chosen field, a similar principle is called the zero-one-infinity rule: "When processing input, allow none of X, one of X, or infinity of X.")

But this presents us with some problems, because there are numerous rights and responsibilities that come with a two-person marriage that simply can't be extended in a straightforward manner to a multiple-partner marriage. Take the right not to testify against your partner in court, for example, or the death benefits paid to partners of federal employees, or the right to gain residency or citizenship by marrying someone who is already a citizen. Allowing such rights to be extended to an arbitrarily large group of partners could lead to chaos - but having permitted them for two-person marriages, how could we fairly forbid them to larger arrangements?

And then there are the legal issues, which would be orders of magnitude more complex than the already difficult dilemmas that arise in family law. How do you take a new person into a polyamorous relationship - must it be by unanimous consent of all current partners, or a mere majority vote? If such a partnership dissolves, how do we fairly divide up property, or settle on child custody or visitation rights? If you're married to two or more people and become incapacitated, who would have the deciding vote in matters of care? These problems aren't insoluble - but they would be extraordinarily difficult to grapple with. (This, again, contrasts to same-sex marriage, where the nature, rights and responsibilities of the relationship don't change just because we've removed one limitation on who can participate. Polyamorous marriage, on the other hand, would truly be a brand-new kind of relationship requiring its own set of rules.)

All these factors would seem to indicate that our current policy is rationally justified. And yet, the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people's private relationships. Mutually consenting adults should be able to enter into any kind of arrangement they please. I have to admit that I find considerable justice in this argument. If three people rather than two want to share household responsibilities, by what right can we deny them that? A larger family structure might even, arguably, be superior to pair marriages in terms of sharing childcare duties and other responsibilities, and more resilient against tragedies like the death of one partner.

On the other hand, these lofty principles, so clear and simple-seeming in the abstract, inevitably get snarled in the complications of the real world. And here's one whopping big complication that atheists and freethinkers should be especially sensitive to: in the real world, one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships is in religious cults that use polygamy as a way to keep women subjugated.

Escapees like Carolyn Jessop and Elissa Wall have written grippingly of their virtual imprisonment in isolated sects like the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints - an extremist offshoot of the Mormons), which force girls into harem-like polygamous marriages with older males whom they're expected to obey absolutely. (See also this article, or my older posts on Warren Jeffs.)

This is an evil that no society should tolerate - but if we legally permit polyamory, how can we prevent it? Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws would help, but even so, this would not prevent women who feel they have no place else to turn from being coerced into these relationships of subjugation.

With all this in mind, my qualified conclusion is that society should not legally recognize polyamorous relationships. I certainly don't think consenting adults should be prohibited from doing whatever they want in their private lives, but the full range of legal benefits that come with marriage should be limited to two-person partnerships, at least for now. However, I'm open to counterarguments. Is there a way to treat all kinds of committed relationships evenhandedly without encouraging women's subjugation or opening the door to legal absurdities?

Other posts in this series:

November 16, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink84 comments
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Baptizing the Dead Is Not a Big Deal

Americablog's John Aravosis is up in arms over the news that the Mormon church reportedly staged a "posthumous baptism" ceremony last year for President Barack Obama's deceased mother:

What else to call the Mormon's laughable statement today that their posthumous baptism last year of President Obama's mother was a "rare" mistake that might have been done by "pranksters."

...Yes, all one big unfortunate "rare" mistake. Kind of like a clerical error. Except instead of giving you the wrong change, they just stole your mother's soul.

Look - as ridiculous and cultish as I find the Mormon notion of "baptism for the dead", this response is kind of over the top. "Stole your mother's soul"? Aren't we being just a little bit shrill here?

Yes, this belief is patronizing and offensive. It's especially insulting and clumsy when the Mormons claim to be baptizing Holocaust victims. But it's not as if they're kidnapping living people and forcibly converting them; all they're actually doing is staging a superstitious little ceremony and then claiming that the deceased now has the opportunity to enter Heaven. If the Mormons are guilty of arrogance for saying that they have the sole power to determine who is saved, almost every other world religion is equally guilty of arrogance for the same reason!

Absurd as this practice is, it doesn't do any real harm to anyone. The only thing the Mormon church is actually accomplishing is making itself a target for ridicule. "Baptism for the dead"? This reminds me more than a little of the cult leader Sun Myung Moon's claim that Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed have all posthumously converted and are issuing statements from the afterlife instructing their followers to become Moonies. It just makes them look silly and ridiculous. Who do they imagine they're fooling?

If we want to criticize Mormonism (or any other church), we should focus our fire on actions they take that cause real harm to real human beings. The Mormons' dumping $20 million into fighting marriage equality in California, for instance, is a much more serious misdeed that shows a disdain for the liberty of their fellow people and a regressive, theocratic belief that their religion gives them the right to dictate the course of other people's lives. As far as I'm concerned, whatever the Mormons do in the privacy of their temple is their own business - but they should learn to respect other people's choices to determine the course of their lives.

May 7, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments
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Anti-Gay Bigotry is Anti-American

The past few weeks haven't been good ones for religious bigots. First Iowa and Vermont legalized same-sex marriage in rapid succession; soon afterwards, the state legislatures of New Hampshire and Maine passed marriage-equality bills. (If you live in either state, contact your governor and tell him to sign them!) And now, this stunning poll result from Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com, Two National Polls, for First Time, Show Plurality Support for Gay Marriage:

...a new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post gives gay marriage an outright plurality, with 49 percent of adults supporting gay marriage and 46 percent opposed.

...a CBS/NYT poll put support for full marriage rights at 42 percent, versus 25 percent for civil unions and 28 percent for no legal recognition. This represents a significant increase from an identical CBS/NYT poll in March, where the numbers were 33 percent for marriage, 27 percent for civil unions, and 35 percent for no recognition.

Read that last paragraph again: support for marriage equality has advanced almost ten points in just a month, such that it now commands a decisive plurality. Combined with the civil-unions position, there's a two-to-one majority nationwide in favor of granting benefits to same-sex couples. It can now very plausibly be argued that the judges who've ruled in favor of equality are upholding the will of the people, not denying it.

We're on the verge of a sea change in American civic life, thanks to a gay-rights movement that's made far more progress than seemed imaginable even just a few years ago. And as history leaves them in the dust, the religious right is increasingly going into full meltdown mode. They've used absurdly overheated and hysterical rhetoric in the past, but this time they've truly outdone themselves.

Witness Orson Scott Card, a Mormon and board member of the "National Organization for Marriage" who's previously proclaimed atheists unfit to be president. But even that idiocy is nothing compared to the full-tilt frothing lunacy on display in an anti-gay-marriage screed he recently published in the Mormon Times (HT: Americablog). In it, he calls same-sex marriage "the end of democracy in America" and urges citizens to revolt against any government that permits it:

Why should married people feel the slightest loyalty to a government or society that are conspiring to encourage reproductive and/or marital dysfunction in their children?

...What these dictator-judges do not seem to understand is that their authority extends only as far as people choose to obey them.

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.

Card isn't the most prominent member of the religious right to call for armed rebellion because the government won't cater to his wishes. He's not even the first. (Rick Perry may have that honor, along with a substantial portion of the Texas Republican Party.) But it is frightening that, as society moves away from accepting their views, these calls for revolution become more and more common among them.

What this shows, I think, is that the religious right is unwilling to participate in the social contract: the understanding that we all have a voice in directing the course of the state, but the price of that freedom is not always having one's own way. The religious right has no interest in that bargain. If they don't get to win, they don't want to participate. And as soon as events are not going their way, they immediately begin calling for armed revolt and insurrection, determined to achieve their goals by violence if they can't achieve them by democracy. The most insane aspect of this is that no one is taking away any of their rights - their clamoring for rebellion is purely because they can no longer control the lives of others.

This is anti-Americanism in its purest sense: the refusal to accept the democratic bargain that is the very essence of our nation. And as the fringe members of their movement are increasingly tipped over the edge into real violence by their leaders' reckless words, the people who speak those words increasingly bear moral responsibility for the bloodshed they create.

The one bright side to all this is that, the more extreme and overheated anti-gay rhetoric becomes, the more moderate Americans will become repelled and will flock to the progressive side. We've already seen this in polls that show a continuing exodus from the Republican party. There may come a point where sensible Republicans realize how this issue is destroying them, cut ties with the religious right, and become a real opposition party worthy of being taken seriously again. Or they may continue to ramp up their rhetoric as they dwindle into permanent irrelevance. Either option suits me fine.

May 2, 2009, 10:07 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink42 comments
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The Moral High Ground

It's common for fundamentalist Christians to think of themselves as the moral guardians of our culture, a bulwark against the rampant sex and violence in the mass media. But this self-flattering caricature runs up against inconvenient reality: there is plenty of evidence which shows that Christians as a whole are every bit as drawn to sex and violence as everyone else.

One of the best examples of this is Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. This movie had a worldwide gross of over $600 million, of which we can safely assume most came from Christian viewers. Of the movie's two-plus hour runtime, nearly all is devoted to depicting the torture and execution of Jesus in obsessive, graphic detail, from brutal floggings to the hammering in of crucixifion nails, even adding extra tortures not mentioned in the gospels. Film critic Roger Ebert called Passion "the most violent film I have ever seen", and Slate critic David Edelstein suggested it should be renamed "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre".

Another example is the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind novels. In the game, players take the role of commander of the "Tribulation Force", an army of Christian believers, converted after the rapture, who must battle the forces of the Antichrist. In essence, the player's mission is to either convert or kill all non-Christians. U.N. soldiers are represented as minions of the Antichrist, and the player characters exclaim "Praise the Lord!" each time they shoot one of them.

And then, of course, there are the violent and gory scenes from Left Behind itself, where Jesus returns to earth to slaughter his enemies by the millions:

"Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ."

For deeply religious Christians, it seems that violence is acceptable as long as it's depicted in the proper religious context. When it's presented as God's righteous judgment, they find violence perfectly okay and often even praiseworthy. The Bible itself, of course, is the greatest example of this - considering the many brutal slaughters and wars of extermination it records the Israelites waging against their enemies at God's command, none of which ever seem to give fundamentalists any concern. (The sexual content of the Bible doesn't bother them either.)

Turning to the topic of sex, there's little difference to be found between Christians and non-Christians here as well - or rather, if there is, it's in the wrong direction. It's long been known that, statistically, socially conservative states and evangelical Protestants in particular have higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, and STD infection. The "abstinence-only" sex education programs and virginity pledges so beloved by religious conservatives have repeatedly failed to make any measurable difference in sexual behavior.

Corroborating evidence comes from another study, by sociologist Benjamin Edelman, concerning access to online pornography. It turns out that of all American states, the one with the highest rate of subscriptions to adult sites is the socially conservative, Mormon-dominated Utah. The FBI also confirms that Utah outranks most other states when it comes to web searches for explicit content. Nor is this just a Mormon thing, as Edelman adds:

"Subscriptions are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality," Edelman writes. In the 27 states where "defense of marriage" amendments have been adopted, there were 11 percent more porn subscribers than in other states, he reports. Use is higher also in states where more people agree with the statement "I never doubt the existence of God."

Clearly, there's a great deal of sexual repression lurking beneath the surface facades of piety. When it comes to sex and violence, religious teachings may instill an outward attitude of condemnation, but they evidently make little difference in people's actual desires and behaviors.

March 27, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments
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Yes to Equality, Yes to Marriage: No on Proposition 8

I woke up this weekend to the extremely welcome news that the State of Connecticut has legalized gay marriage, joining Massachusetts and California as the only three U.S. states with full marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Although seven other states have civil unions or domestic partnership laws, as did Connecticut before this ruling, the state supreme court held that this was not enough.

I used to believe that civil unions were an acceptable compromise, but I don't believe that anymore. The Connecticut ruling cited the same argument that persuaded me: drawing a legal distinction between civil unions and marriage is the same reasoning as the "separate but equal" argument that was once used to justify racial segregation. The concept of marriage has existed for millennia, but the concept of civil unions has not. By barring gay couples from the former, the state is advancing an unsubtle claim that they are somehow different, not worthy of the same recognition as straight couples. This is the same attitude and reasoning that perpetuates discrimination in the first place. With its enlightened ruling, the Connecticut Supreme Court has recognized the obvious truth that the partnerships of gay couples are no different from the partnerships of straight couples, and deserve nothing less when it comes to legal rights. Way to go, Connecticut!

The religious right must be aware that the tide is turning against them on this issue. Polls have found increasing tolerance and support for gay marriage, which ensures that rulings like these are just the leading edge of many more to come. It's very plausible that America will have full marriage equality, at least in law, within a generation. Anti-gay bigots may be able to slow the tide of change, but they cannot stop it.

That said, one such effort is underway in California. Bigots of the religious right have successfully placed a measure, Proposition 8, on the ballot this fall. If it passes, this measure would overturn that state's supreme court decision and make gay marriage illegal - an astonishing blast of raw hatred that would tear apart the thousands of marriages already obtained by gay couples in the state. For the sake of marriage equality, and for the rights of all Americans, not just gay Americans, to direct their lives free from religious tyranny, this measure must be defeated.

Although most polls have found that Californians are opposed to Prop 8 by a slim majority, recent polling has detected a worrying uptick in support. Much of this can be blamed on the Mormon church, whose members are pouring millions of dollars into the state to outlaw gay marriage. If their efforts help pass Prop 8, it wouldn't be the first time the Mormons have successfully impeded moral progress. From Under the Banner of Heaven:

Over the years, the Mormon leadership has made numerous pronouncements about the "dangers" of the feminist movement and has excommunicated several outspoken feminists. But perhaps the greatest rift between Mormon general authorities and advocates for women's rights occurred when the LDS Church actively and very effectively mobilized Mormons to vote as a bloc against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment... Most political analysts believe that had the LDS Church not taken such an aggressive position against the ERA, it would have been easily ratified by the required thirty-eight states, and would now be part of the U.S. Constitution. (p.25)

Of course, more traditional Christians have joined the Mormons in their campaign of hate. A suitable example can be found at the Evangelical Outpost, which cites a video by the right-wing Family Research Council encouraging its members to vote for Proposition 8. The video purports to be documentation of the grave harm done in Massachusetts by the legalization of gay marriage. I was curious, since I've heard many religious right polemics against gay marriage, but never an explanation of what bad effects they fear would result if it were to be legalized.

The video features a Christian couple in Massachusetts who were upset that their elementary-school-age son was taught about gays and gay marriage. I watched the whole thing, waiting for them to explain how this would lead to greater harm, but there was no follow-up. In their eyes, that was the harm: that their son was merely made aware of the existence of gay couples. Evidently, they want to preserve their right to keep their children ignorant of ways of life other than their own. How dare the public schools teach our kids tolerance, was their message, when we want to teach them to fear and hate! Were there people who raised the same complaint after interracial marriage was legalized, that teaching about the existence of such a thing interferes with their parental right to teach their children racism?

Bigots like the Mormon leadership and the Family Research Council hide their hatred behind a smiling mask or dress it up with hollow slogans about "family values". But disguise it however they will, they cannot conceal its fundamental ugliness. What they want is not the freedom to lead their own lives as they see fit, but the power to reach into the lives of others to oppress, tyrannize, and enforce their own narrow and archaic views.

Gay and lesbian couples are human beings and deserve the same rights as anyone else: the right to live in peace, to raise families, to pledge their devotion and spend their lives with the people they love. They deserve those rights, and it is up to us to protect them. If we win the vote in California - if marriage equality is affirmed not just by the courts, but by popular acclaim - this will be a crushing blow to the anti-gay bigots and will delegitimize their cause as no other development could. This November, much is at stake. Will you join in the fight to liberate human freedom from the prejudices of the past?

October 13, 2008, 6:19 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink116 comments
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Do You Really Believe That? (The Missing Pages)

Of all the major faiths in the world today, few surpass the bizarreness of Mormonism. The church was founded in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, Jr., who claimed to have been guided by an angel to a set of buried golden plates which he miraculously gained the ability to translate. These plates, supposedly, were the records of a lost American civilization, descended from a family of ancient Jews who had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and founded a large, advanced society in the New World. After disobeying the word of God, this civilization eventually tore itself apart in warfare and fell into ruin; the Native Americans are believed by Mormons to be their descendants.

This fantastic story, unsupported by archaeological or genetic evidence and contradicted by much of what archaeologists do know about pre-Columbian America, would provide material for many installments in this series all by itself. But today, I want to talk about something different: the process by which the Book of Mormon came into existence, and one of the most embarrassing events in the course of its composition.

One of Joseph Smith's earliest converts was a farmer named Martin Harris. Harris gave money to Smith to finance his translation of the golden plates (he would later mortgage his farm to pay for the first translation of the Book of Mormon, and lost it when the book was not a success). Harris also acted as Smith's scribe while the book was being written. With the two of them separated by a curtain, Smith would peer into a hat, which supposedly contained "seer stones" that gave him visions of the translated text, and dictate what he saw. (The physical presence of the golden plates was apparently not necessary.)

The incident in question came several months into the "translation," when Smith had produced about 116 pages of text. Harris' wife Lucy had grown skeptical of Smith and suspected that he was a con man seeking to defraud her husband. In an attempt to reassure her, Harris asked Smith for permission to take the pages home to show to her and other close friends. After several demurrals, Smith finally gave in and gave the pages to Harris.

Both skeptical historians and Mormon believers agree on the events so far. And they also agree on what happened next: when Joseph Smith finally asked for the pages back, Martin Harris confessed that he had lost them.

What exactly happened to those pages is not clear. In her definitive biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, the skeptical historian of Mormonism Fawn Brodie argues that Lucy Harris stole and destroyed the pages. According to Brodie, she also taunted Smith: "If this be a divine communication, the same being who revealed it to you can easily replace it."

And indeed, she had a point. After all, Mormon theology is adamant that Smith was not inventing, but merely translating by the gift of God. What would be so difficult about returning to the same place in the tablets and retranslating the parts that had been lost? A word-for-word reproduction of the 116 missing pages would have been powerful verification that Smith was actually receiving divine guidance and basing his work off of an actual text. He should have viewed the loss of the pages as, at most, a minor setback.

But this is not what happened. Instead, according to skeptical and believing histories alike, Joseph Smith went into an inconsolable frenzy, moaning that he had brought disaster on himself. Finally, sorrowfully, he announced that he had sinned by giving away the pages, and that God was going to punish him - although, according to the church's own history, it was God who granted Smith permission to give them to Harris. What was to be Smith's punishment? He would, he said, be forbidden to translate that section of the text again. Instead, he would translate a different section of the plates - one that chronicled the same events but was written by a different author, so the basic storyline would be the same but the wording would be different.

If you've just fallen over laughing, believe me, you're not alone. That was my reaction the first time I heard about this as well. What clearer proof could be imagined that Smith was just making up the Book of Mormon out of his own head? Possessed of only a normal human memory, he was unable to reproduce the story exactly as he first dictated it. Instead, he resorted to re-writing it from scratch and coming up with a contrived excuse for why it was different the second time.

Mormons who reject this most obvious of explanations are forced to believe that, regardless of whether Smith sinned or not, God passed up a perfect opportunity to prove his involvement with this new religion to the world, and instead forced his prophet to do the exact thing a fraud would be forced to do in that situation. That convoluted and contrived story is far less parsimonious than the alternative - that Smith was a swindler, and the Book of Mormon his own invention - which is why I ask Mormons: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

September 24, 2008, 8:32 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink41 comments
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