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A Tale of Two Polygamous Sects

Sam Harris made a provocative comparison between the FLDS and Islam:

A point of comparison: The controversy of over Fitna was immediately followed by ubiquitous media coverage of a scandal involving the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). In Texas, police raided an FLDS compound and took hundreds of women and underage girls into custody to spare them the continued, sacramental predations of their menfolk. While mainstream Mormonism is now granted the deference accorded to all major religions in the United States, its fundamentalist branch, with its commitment to polygamy, spousal abuse, forced marriage, child brides (and, therefore, child rape) is often portrayed in the press as a depraved cult. But one could easily argue that Islam, considered both in the aggregate and in terms of its most negative instances, is far more despicable than fundamentalist Mormonism. The Muslim world can match the FLDS sin for sin–Muslims commonly practice polygamy, forced-marriage (often between underage girls and older men), and wife-beating–but add to these indiscretions the surpassing evils of honor killing, female “circumcision,” widespread support for terrorism, a pornographic fascination with videos showing the butchery of infidels and apostates, a vibrant form of anti-semitism that is explicitly genocidal in its aspirations, and an aptitude for producing children’s books and television programs which exalt suicide-bombing and depict Jews as “apes and pigs.”

Any honest comparison between these two faiths reveals a bizarre double standard in our treatment of religion. We can openly celebrate the marginalization of FLDS men and the rescue of their women and children. But, leaving aside the practical and political impossibility of doing so, could we even allow ourselves to contemplate liberating the women and children of traditional Islam?

Update: Jesus and Mo’ weigh in on the issue.

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Blind Obedience

I never realized the origin of the idea that if you follow the counsel of your Mormon priesthood leaders, even if it’s wrong, you will be blessed:

President Marion G. Romney tells of this incident, which happened to him: I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home….Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [In Conference Report, October 1), p. 78]

This is as quoted in Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet which was quoted from during last Sunday’s sacrament meeting. I was actually shocked to hear someone say that. The idea is so bass-ackward that I thought I had just imagined it. “People couldn’t be that wrong headed. I must have been dreaming that up.” Never underestimate the power of religious fundamentalism, I guess.

Combine that with the belief that priesthood leaders of all levels are inspired and the following gem (via Talking to God) and you have a perfect recipe for blind obedience and another Mountain Meadows Massacre.

What’s the point of personal revelation then? Just follow the prophet. He knows the way.

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Open Letter to the Bishop

Dear Brother Dastrup,

On several occasions you’ve expressed a desire to speak with me. I’ve refused your offers because I don’t recognize the authority of your position as bishop in the LDS church and because I don’t see any good that could come from it. I understand your purpose is to help me see the error of my ways, but any discussion on this point could only end in continued disagreement, if the tenor of your public remarks are a true indication of your thoughts on the matter.

Your public remarks last Sunday are the occasion for this letter. Given my situation, I think you’ll understand why I feel that your remarks were directed partially to me, or at least to my situation. It is your job to warn your congregation against heresy, so I shouldn’t feel singled out, yet I do. Perhaps you have reasonably given up on me and this is just a sign of my self-absorption, but I feel like you’re still trying to have your say despite my refusal to meet with you.

You used your bully pulpit to preach against my beliefs, so I will use my modest platform to respond. I realize that you are aware of this blog, but I don’t know if you read it. I would be surprised if you did, but I write this letter so that if you ever feel the desire to speak with me on this subject, I can point to this post and you’ll have a taste of what that discussion would be like.

Please excuse me if I didn’t hear all of your remarks. I was busy single-handedly keeping my girls from typical childhood mischief during a long meeting. Even the fact that their mother was speaking didn’t distract them for long.

When the speakers concluded their talks about the importance of education, you felt the need to fill a little of the extra time by warning against an education untempered by faith in Mormon doctrine. I’m sure you would have preferred for someone to quote 2 Nephi 9:29: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”

The first point of your remarks that stood out to me was your use of the phrase “educated idiot” to paraphrase Paul’s warning to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:7 against those who are “[ever] learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Your phrase, educated idiot, is nothing more than an ad hominem attack to distract and amuse the congregation. It confers no true understanding. I merely serves to circle the wagons by insulting anyone who doesn’t believe in Mormonism. Your congregation’s pride in Mormonism was increased while you taught them nothing. I wish I was surprised by such reactive anti-intellectualism, but am not. It has infected all levels of the church.

Perhaps there is one thing to be learned from your use of the phrase. I can infer that you feel that anyone who disagrees with your beliefs must be lacking in intelligence or character. Life teaches us that good, honest, intelligent people disagree with each other. The fact that I or anyone else who is intimately familiar with Mormonism would reject it does not mean that we are evil, dishonest, or stupid. It means that we see the world differently. Humility and civility dictate that we acknowledge that disagreements will happen, and that we can be wrong on occasion. I did not hear any evidence of this humility in your remarks.

On the other hand, on your side you have Paul who identifies the people you call educated idiots with people who are “lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures…” and who “creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts,…” (2 Timothy 3:2–4, 6) Do you truly think this of me?

Let’s leave the schoolyard insults to the children.

The second point that stood out to me was your use of the 747 argument, that old chestnut, to defend creationism. I presume you did this to demonstrate how education can go awry. You wanted to show how the educated conclusion (i.e. belief in the theory of evolution) is nonsensical. You wanted to foster the congregation’s dependence on the church for truth (i.e. creationism). There are a number of problems with this.

First, creationism isn’t an official doctrine of the LDS church. There was some controversy on the issue over the years, but the church has no official doctrine against evolution. The BYU Packet mentioned in the Deseret News article contains a few official statements showing that the church’s position is neutral.

So you should feel no compulsion by the requirements of your religion to abandon the evidence of science and reason. The First Presidency in their Christmas message of 1910 said:

Diversity of opinion does not necessitate intolerance of spirit, nor should it embitter or set rational beings against each other. The Christ taught kindness, patience, and charity.

Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found.

Many faithful members of your church believe the theory of evolution to be the truth, especially among those most familiar with the evidence.

Second, the 747 argument is based on a misunderstanding of how the evolution of species works. The basic argument is that assembling something as complex as a human being from raw materials by random chance is as unlikely as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a fully operational Boeing 747. We obviously don’t expect this to ever happen, so evolution can likewise not explain the origin of man. Or so the argument goes.

Unfortunately for this analogy, evolution isn’t a purely random process. It doesn’t create complexity randomly. It gradually fosters greater complexity through random mutation only if that mutation is conducive to enhanced survival and reproduction. Randomness may be evolution’s fuel, but the engine of natural selection is brutally non-random. The synthesis of the two builds up complexity over time producing a result which is not purely random.

For illustration, imagine dipping a jar into a muddy river and scooping out the water. Inside that water are many small particles randomly distributed. In the absence of gravity, those particles would remain randomly scattered within the water. On Earth, where there is gravity, if you leave the jar undisturbed and wait long enough, the sand and silt will settle to the bottom. Gravity acting on the random distribution and random movements of particles leads to a non-random result: water and sand in separate layers. Biological evolution similarly confers order on a random process.

Third, we could turn this argument on its head. Imagine walking to the junkyard, seeing a Boeing 747, asking the junkyard owner “Where did that come from?” Imagine your confusion when he answers “That has always been here. Since before the beginning of time it has been there.” You would probably doubt this man’s sanity.

Yet you ask me to believe that God—an entity much more complex than a 747 or even a human being—has existed for all eternity. You might counter that God hasn’t always been there, that he was once a man. (Are you sure that’s still official doctrine?) That only delays the problem. It simply replaces an eternal personal God with an eternal procession of Gods. Appealing to God or Gods to explain the complexity of the world doesn’t answer the question. It just leads to more complexity that still requires an explanation.

If you still want to discuss how the all things denote that there is a God, you can read how I imagine our conversation might proceed.

If you want to bear your testimony to me, I have also imagined how that conversation might go.

The message of the your remarks seems to be “Learn all you can, but remain ignorant of anything that contradicts what I, Brother Dastrup, personally believe.” In contrast, Elder Hugh B. Brown said:

Be unafraid of new ideas for they are the stepping stones to progress. But you will respect, of course, the opinions of others [but be unafraid to dissent if you are informed.]… Now I mention the freedom to express your thoughts, but I caution you that your thoughts and expressions must meet competition in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth must emerge triumphant. Only error needs to fear freedom of expression. Seek truth in all fields, and in that searching you’re going to need at least three virtues: courage, zest, and modesty. The ancients put that thought in [the] form of [a] prayer. They said, “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truth, from the arrogance that thinks it has all the truth—O God of truth, deliver us.”
(Man and What He May Become, BYU Speeches of the Year, 29 March 1958)

This blog is an open air marketplace of the truth. Anyone can peddle their wares here as long as they are respectful. I invite you to engage in the conversation here, in the light of day, where the truth can have a chance to emerge triumphant. Show me where I am in error, and I will try to show you where you stray from the truth, in the spirit of brotherly love.


Your Brother

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Why I Left

I’m going to tell a little bit about why I left the LDS church, but this time the gloves are off. I’m not going to be vicious, but I’m in a mood and I will be completely forthright. Don’t read it if you’re going to allow yourself to be offended (Elder Bednar’s got by back on this one). If you think that you will allow yourself to be offended, please content yourself with the more palatable recounting of my story. Be doubly forewarned.

As I sought a greater connection with God through study and prayer, I learned that the history of the Mormon church isn’t what it is portrayed to be. I have encountered anti-Mormon literature throughout my life like most members of the Church. It caused me some moments of panicked doubt, but through study and the help of others, I was able to see through the spiteful lies and return to faith.

Things were different when I read Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman, currently serving as a Stake Patriarch. This book wasn’t filled with lies from the anti-Mormon crowd. It presented what the historical evidence seems to say without bias for or against the LDS church.

It became clear from this book and others that the Mormon religion wasn’t founded by a heroic, almost god-like prophet of the last days, but by a deeply flawed human being. Brother Joseph may have had experiences which led him to feel a divine vocation, but I saw little evidence that the Church was actually led by the hand of God. Joseph lived as a human being, full of pride, anger, and lust. He fell victim to his own power. He seduced young women and other men’s wives into sexual relationships through charisma and the promise of eternal salvation for themselves and their families. Only after his first affair did he mention to anyone the doctrine of polygamy. In case it didn’t come through the first time I said it, Joseph Smith was married to other men’s wives while the men were still alive and married. In a handful of cases, Joseph Smith practiced polyandry. That was news to me.

There were missteps, blunders, and doctrinal reversals at every step of early Church history. Joseph’s inept leadership culminated in Joseph and Hyrum’s assassinations and the exile of most of the Saints into the Rocky Mountains. The Saints were not strictly innocent victims as we often see portrayed by the LDS church. They provoked some of their own troubles.

I next read Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 by Thomas G. Alexander. This was another scholarly work which presented a balanced history of the Mormons in Utah during this pivotal time. The book treated many themes, but the ones that stuck with me concern:

  1. the radical changes in doctrine during this time like the abandonment of the Adam-God theory which had been taught in the Temple Endowment for a time
  2. the continued, secret solemnization of polygamous marriages by members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve well into the twentieth century despite public avowals to the contrary
  3. the consolidation of centralized priesthood authority in the church which removed the autonomy of the Relief Society and the other auxiliary organizations (the Relief Society had been a parallel organization to the priesthood)
  4. the change in emphasis from worship centered around gifts of the Spirit to attendance at the temple (this change also further reduced the autonomy of the Sisters of the Church who were probably the most fervent practitioners of the Gifts, who for example, would often heal members of Church through their spiritual gifts)
  5. the nascent development of a literalist orthodoxy which changed the original, freeform, creedless Mormonism into the more authoritarian, exclusive religion we are familiar with today

I next read David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory A Prince and Wm Robert Wright. This book tells the story of how Mormonism was transformed into something that is easily recognizable to modern members. It traces the continued consolidation of power and authority and the continued creation of an LDS orthodoxy. It also portrayed the machinations and politics at the highest levels of the Church which betrays the image of calm unanimity which is portrayed to the public. It only added another damning witness to the previous two books in my eyes.

At this point, I was on pretty shaky ground. I was a member of a church that I no longer recognized. I didn’t know whether to give up on Mormonism entirely or to become a fundamentalist Mormon in hopes of regaining something which was lost.

Enter the new crop of atheist authors, stage right. I never read any of Dawkins’, Harris’, or Dennet’s books, but I became familiar with their ideas through snippets of text and video on the internet.

I don’t think I’ve shared this anywhere else yet, but the following two sites were a central turning point when I became aware of how absurd a belief in God looked when observed objectively: Why Won’t God Heal Amputees and Kissing Hank’s Ass (video inspired by Kissing Hank’s Ass). The first asks a very provocative question. Had I ever heard of an amputee made whole through prayer? Why not? I thought I had a good answer to this challenging question, but as I read through that site, I realized that my answer was only a weak rationalization to preserve a belief which seemed more and more like simple superstition.

It all comes down to this: what the atheists said made sense on a level that all my religious training did not. My experiences, when I looked at them honestly, confirmed the atheists’ viewpoint much more than it confirmed the Mormon doctrines. I had never seen God or felt any special communion with Him. I never had a witness of the Holy Spirit that could be distinguished from a simple emotional response. I had never witnessed any miracles. Answers to my prayers had been sporadic and indistinguishable from natural phenomena. The leaders of the LDS church seemed like nothing more than sincere men who acted with no more insight than other intelligent managers in the business world.

My world under the burden of my religious faith had been filled with guilt, fear, and superstition. If you had told me this at the time, I would have denied it. The world was peachy keen from where I stood. I was a fish swimming in an ocean of water, ignorant of the true nature of my surroundings. I must say the following exactly as it is: the Mormon church laid a mighty awful mindfuck on me. It’s only now that I can see that.

Giving up on Mormonism, Satan, and God has made the world make sense. I was always struggling to reconcile my beliefs with what I saw in the world around me. I never dug too deeply into religious doctrines because it only ended in paradox and infinite regress. My mind is now unfettered by filial, cultural, or dogmatic constraints. I feel no obligation to believe anything that isn’t reasonable to me.

All the days of my life I had never known the pleasure of pure intellectual integrity. Now that I’ve tasted that fruit which is most precious and sweet above all that is sweet, I will not be easily persuaded to turn back to the pandemonium of the great and spacious houses of religious ignorance and pride.

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Fresh Faced Polygamy Compels Understanding

My wife and I watched an ABC Primetime program on plural marriage as practiced in Centennial Park. I was impressed with the coverage though it was a bit sensationalist in its promotional materials. The subjects came across as normal religious folk (if LDS are considered normal ;-) ) with just a slight twist on the traditional American family. I imagine that this would be how the LDS church would look if they reclaimed polygamy, right down to the testimonies of polygamy in testimony meeting and the Young Men/Young Women looking forward fondly to the day when they could marry plurally.

My only real concern is that, for the Centennial Park group, it seems that polygamy is still a requirement to get into God’s Kingdom. It just doesn’t work out sociologically if the number of boys and girls born are roughly equal. The show didn’t delve into the issue, but I don’t see how they can avoid the lost boy problem if polygamy is truly a requirement as it was portrayed.

I commented to my wife that it is only a matter of time before gay marriage and polygamy are both legalized. (She warned me not to put too much hope in marrying a plural wife.) Public opinion in this sphere is becoming much more libertarian. Even though it is still very polarized, the balance is tipping. Now if we could only get marriage completely deregulated. But that’s a topic for another day. :)

It would be interesting to see how the LDS Church would handle the situation if polygamy became legal in the United States.

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