My belief in God has long been based on a personal relationship and not on anyone else's arguments about why I should believe in Him. I've prayed every night for years, and I've recently been managing to pray in the mornings too, after years of failing at that because my brain is a pile of mush when I wake up. God seemed to answer some of my prayers and to guide me at certain points in my life. Atheistic assertions that this was all in my head, that all spiritual feelings and impressions came from one's own mind and not any external source, were as laughable as claiming that all my co-workers are imaginary. But in recent months I've had to evaluate them more seriously after certain events in my life threw me for a loop.
First, something very important to me didn't turn out the way God had led me for a long time to believe it would turn out. It still could, but that would take a miracle and I'm afraid of being delusional if I stake my hopes on one. Of course there have been many times when God didn't give me what I wanted, but this was the first time I felt that he'd deliberately and repeatedly misled me. Second, I stopped believing in the church that taught me to have a personal relationship with him and let him guide my life in the first place. And third, I watched a video of people from several faith traditions bearing emotional testimony that they know their religion is true, including a plural wife in a polygamist sect and members of the Heaven's Gate cult a few days before they killed themselves because their prophet told them to. So it seems like "God" is giving different people mutually contradictory and sometimes terrible answers. And because these things are so personal and subjective by design, I can't say with much confidence that mine are more valid than anyone else's, or why.
I had already made a list of some of my alleged communications from God within the last three years or so - not all of them, but ones that I felt certain couldn't just be products of my own mind. I've found it useful to write these things down when they happen, before memory fades and I second-guess them. Now I decided to evaluate them and become even more certain - or not. I harbor no illusions that this was a scientifically rigorous analysis, but that would be impossible with something so subjective anyway. I did my best. Here are my results:
Items in green are less likely to be products of my own mind. Items in red are more likely - though still not necessarily likely, in my opinion - to be products of my own mind. In case you're colorblind, let me point out that there is significantly more green than red here. Let me also point out that the atheist straw man of all spiritual experiences is "You pray about something and get a warm feeling that confirms what you wanted to hear," but only one of these nineteen experiences (#16, the one all in red) falls into that category. Since this isn't scientifically rigorous, though, I'm not concerned about exact percentages. I will now explain the opaque terminology I used.
Unsolicited (green) - I got something that I didn't ask for when I wasn't praying.
Solicited delayed (green) - I got something in response to prayer, but hours or days later. I don't think it's likely that my subconscious would play such a trick on me. If it would, then there's really no point in me trying to accurately perceive reality at all.
Solicited immediate (red) - I got something as soon as I prayed about it.
Pro-bias (red) - I got something that I wanted or expected to hear.
Anti-bias (green) - I got something that contradicted what I wanted or expected to hear. The importance of this can't be overstated. Atheists always forget or ignore the fact that many people have reported God telling them things that go against their biases. For example, in #3, I was feeling frustrated and impatient that the something very important to me wasn't progressing very fast, when I got an impression that I can only describe as a gentle rebuke for not accepting the Lord's timing. I didn't expect this impression and I certainly didn't ask for it. Now, if something is what I wanted or asked for but goes against everything I know about how my emotions work, I still count it as anti-bias. For example, in #17 I was severely depressed about the something very important to me and I prayed for comfort and I got it. I know damn well that I don't have the power to make myself not depressed just like that. And to be honest, I usually feel little or nothing when I pray for comfort. So I felt like this situation was special.
From someone else (green) - In most cases, this means someone gave me a priesthood blessing and said stuff that ostensibly came from God - solicited (red) if I asked for the blessing, and unsolicited (green) if the guy offered it. I no longer believe in the LDS church's claim to exclusive priesthood authority, but I still see priesthood blessings as one way for God to communicate with people. Of course, the guys who give the blessings are also limited by their own biases and by whatever information I give or don't give them beforehand, but their input still provides a comforting check and balance on my biases. The exception to the priesthood blessing thing is #6, wherein I was thinking long and hard about the something very important to me and what was I supposed to do about it, when a friend texted me "James 1:5" and I was like "How did you know?" and she was like "Know what?" and she said she had been prompted to send it. Of course, I was well aware that this verse existed and of what it said prior to her message, but her being prompted to send it in this context meant something to me. I took it as God trying to boost my confidence in my ability to discern his communications on this subject. Which made me all the more bewildered when it didn't turn out like he led me to believe it would, but that's a whole other subject not suitable for public consumption.
Unknowable (green) - In both of these instances, #11 and #13, I followed a prompting to change my route and crossed paths with someone very important that I didn't know would be there. I almost never bother to change my route once I've decided which way I want to go, so this isn't just confirmation bias highlighting two instances out of several others where nothing happened. (Incidentally, if the person who followed a prompting to send me "James 1:5" were to make her own list following my criteria, that item would be "unknowable" for her.)
This is enough to restore my confidence that a higher power exists and communicates with me, though I no longer feel like I know much else about them, their character, their motives, or how I can trust them. I do feel like God cares very little about what people believe. That's a big shift from the emphasis on objective truth that I was raised with and clung to so hard for so long. But if there's one true religion that God wants everyone to join, he's failed spectacularly and appears to have not even tried. If there's one true religion that I have to join to escape from eternal damnation, then billions of people have already failed and my own chance of success is so low that I may as well not bother and instead contemplate how to make hell as cozy as possible, which I've had a lot of practice doing since 2020. I think God wants me to do the best I can with the circumstances and the advantages and disadvantages that I've been given. I hope that's all he wants, because otherwise I'm screwed.
If you somehow haven't yet seen the first photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope, I'm here to fix that for you. But also, if you're on a mobile device, get on something with a bigger screen. The bigger the better. I'll wait.
Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. The twinkly white lights are nearby stars; all the other lights are distant galaxies. To quote NASA: "This slice of the vast universe covers a patch of sky approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground." If that doesn't blow your mind, check to make sure you have a pulse.
After seeing photographs like these, people of culture and taste are frequently reminded of Calvin and Hobbes.
Of course, these pictures provoke all kinds of philosophical, spiritual, and/or theological reactions. Many are in awe at the scope and grandeur of God's creation. Joseph Smith trended on Twitter for a little bit because he taught that God created "worlds without number" and his followers see this as evidence that he was a prophet. Of course, he also taught that "the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God" and there is as yet no indication that any of these worlds is inhabited, but Calvin and Hobbes has an answer for that.
aPredictably, I observed rather different reactions from former Latter-day Saints and other atheists who opine that these pictures prove God doesn't exist because the universe is so big and humans are so insignificant. I saw snarky comments like "God created all this, but he's still watching you masturbate." So obviously people will read into massive distant celestial objects whatever implications they feel like reading into massive distant celestial objects. I was struck, though, by how old this particular line of thinking is. People in biblical times knew very little of modern science, but they were not oblivious to the fact that the universe is bigger than Earth.
When I consider your heavens,
To an extent I can relate to the snarky comments, because I have become quite convinced that God cares a lot less about some things than Latter-day Saints and other Christians think he does, and that Latter-day Saints and other Christians know a lot less about him than they think they do - but still I believe that the higher power who orchestrated everything in the James Webb Space Telescope photographs is omniscient and omnibenevolent to be as intimately aware of my life as he is every atom, and as concerned about my life as he is about the fate of solar systems. On the one hand, I just resonate with the idea of Alma 30:44, that "all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator." And with this idea, I do not look for a "God of the gaps" in the things that science can't yet explain, but rather I see him in everything that science can explain. I resonate with the God described in Joseph Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 88:41 who "is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever."
Personal philosophical inclinations aside, I believe that this Creator exists and cares about me first and foremost because I believe I've communicated with Him and that He's responded to me and guided me at several points in my life. And I was going to write a whole post on that subject this week but then these photographs came out and I wanted to focus on them instead because they're freaking awesome.
A million billion planets and they're spinning out in space
Regardless of the differing perspectives we bring to these photographs, everyone except the QAnons who think they're fake should be able to agree that they give us a healthy dose of perspective and remind us that we aren't such a big screaming deal. Maybe if Putin spent more time looking at pictures like this, he would realize the futility of trying to make himself important by invading a tiny little country and committing war crimes. That's kind of a tangent but I wanted to bring it up because I feel like most Americans have forgotten that Ukraine is still under attack and Putin still needs to die.
I've had a reddit account since I don't know when, but until the last few weeks I only used it once in a great while to speak up when I saw something egregiously stupid, so I ended up with negative "karma" from people downvoting my comments. But I got into the positive a few weeks ago and, as the designers obviously intended, it gave me a bit of a dopamine rush. Haha, I thought, I hope I don't get addicted to this feeling. Of course I did. Anyway, the other day I saw that bestselling fantasy author and Latter-day Saint Brandon Sanderson had done an AMA (Ask Me Anything) and I was very impressed with his most popular response to the most popular question, so I'm going to pass it along here and save myself some actual writing for today. The question was asked by someone calling themself RattusRattus:
How do you feel about the fact that queer people are treated better in your novels than on the campus you teach at? How do you reconcile donating to a church that promotes purity culture, homophobia, and anti-Semitism with writing books for the general public?
BYU is pretty awful to queer people. In the 1960s and 70s it conducted witch hunts against closeted gay students with the object of forcing them to undergo conversion therapy (which didn't and doesn't work) or leave the school. A couple years ago it removed a ban on "homosexual behavior" from its Honor Code mid-semester, then for two weeks told confused gay students that yes, they were now allowed to date and hold hands and kiss just like straight students do, before the church commissioner of education who apparently had been asleep for two weeks told them that no, they still can't. Many students felt that they had been tricked into coming out of the closet. Hence the semi-regular protests since then. Ignorant people often ask why they go to BYU in the first place, and the answers include but are not limited to family pressure, the cheap tuition for members of the church that owns it, and the fact that people in their late teens and early twenties are often still figuring out their sexuality in the first place. An entire tax-exempt charity, the OUT Foundation, exists just to help LGBTQ+ students escape from BYU. So anyway, Brandon responded in a livestream that was subsequently transcribed thus:
Thank you for a bold but not insulting phrasing of that question. So the church’s general stance on LGBTQ people is not where I, as a liberal member of the church, would like it to be. That being said, I have faith in the church, I have had spiritual experiences, confirming to me that this is where God wants me and that God is real.
This gives me so much to think about. I've recently become even more convinced by the movie Lightyear that neutral or positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters in media are essential. I thought the movie was pretty mediocre, but these people having aneurysms because two women in it love each other can get bent. Disney has produced scores upon scores of movies where men and women kiss each other (or men kiss unconscious women, or whatever). One same-sex couple is not "forcing their lifestyle down your throat." It is not "grooming your children." It frightens me that some grown adults in this day and age still believe their children will turn gay if they ever see anyone being gay. For heaven's sake, see a therapist if you're that insecure in your sexuality. I grew up with heterosexuality constantly being shoved in my face by all the straight people who flaunt their lifestyles without a second thought, and I still thought sex was gross from the moment I learned what it was. What these media portrayals actually strive to accomplish is to demonstrate that LGBTQ+ people are just normal people with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else, thus reducing prejudice and making LGBTQ+ children (and adults) hate themselves less. No one can make me believe that isn't a worthy goal.
As an aspiring author myself, obviously not worthy to even mention myself in the same post as Brandon Sanderson, I never had much of an agenda to do this. My as-yet-unpublished novel references the same-sex relationships of a couple of very minor characters for no other reason than to acknowledge that this is a fact of the world now and in 2153 when it takes place. Just recently when I revised it yet again, I realized that my protagonist is a little bit bisexual. She's mostly into men but she flirts with women just because she can. I never planned for her to flirt with women. I don't even know how to flirt with women. She just went ahead and did it. Similarly, in a story that I wrote for a graduate school class and then incorporated into my thesis, the protagonist and her best friend developed a camaraderie that seemed like a bit more than just best friends, and the professor pointed it out, so I went ahead and made them lovers and barely had to change anything. It was neither essential to the story nor agenda-driven. It just happened because the characters wanted it to happen. So maybe I'll just continue along those lines in my writing career if I ever have one.
Brandon's response went over well. HandOfMaradonny said:
I'm just super impressed you answered and didn't ignore.
Brandon later responded directly to the original asker of the question:
Honestly, I'm really glad you asked this one.
Wow. Brandon Sanderson wants to wrestle with difficult ideas, difficult questions, and his own internal inconsistencies. A mind after my own heart. I think I'm in love.
RIP Brandi Weaver
I went to a small school where everyone in grades 7-12 knew everyone else's first and last name. When Kyle Cootware died in a four-wheeler accident in 2009, everyone mourned. A palpable gloom engulfed the entire school building. College hasn't been like that. Through the years I read in the news that a student I never heard of had died in a bike accident, and that a couple of students I recognized but never met had died by suicide, and that someone a couple blocks from my apartment had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. But there wasn't the same sense of community and the same universal mourning. So anyway, I didn't know Brandi Weaver particularly well and I'm afraid I don't have a lot to say about her, but I did know her a little and it is a bit jarring and sobering that she's suddenly gone from natural causes at such a young age. I think I was in ninth grade when I sat at the same lunch table as her. It's been so long that I don't even remember, but I remember that she was always nice to me. She was one of those older girls who treated me like I was super cool even though I was the biggest dork. She smiled and joked a lot and just seemed to have a great attitude toward life. My condolences to her family and especially to her fiancé and children.
A while ago, as I mentioned, I was moving through the interview process to be an FSY counselor until suddenly there were no openings because several sessions were canceled due to low enrollment. As part of that process I had to prepare a five-minute devotional based on a section of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. So I read through the pamphlet again for the first time in years. I think it teaches good values for people young and old people to live by, but as the cynic and skeptic that I am, I don't agree with every single thing in it, and now that I'm no longer trying to become an FSY counselor I'm free to say so. It's not like anyone should expect it to be perfect or timeless - the first edition, published in 1965, was very different and is kind of a laugh riot now. (My favorite part is "Pants for young women are not desirable attire for shopping, at school, in the library, in cafeterias or restaurants.")
Having said that, I can only remember six parts in the current edition that I disagree with and I'm not going to read the whole thing again, so this will be a short post! And again, it does contain a lot of good stuff. The pamphlet, I mean, not my post. Insert your own quip about none of my posts containing a lot of good stuff here.
"Young men generally take the initiative in asking for and planning dates."
This is true, of course, but it shouldn't be. Young women should be encouraged to go after what they want instead of passively hoping someone will offer it to them. This sentence is only descriptive, not prescriptive, but still it offers implicit encouragement to an uncool status quo and could be deleted without losing anything of value.
Dress and Appearance
"Young women should avoid short shorts and short skirts, shirts that do not cover the stomach, and clothing that does not cover the shoulders or is low-cut in the front or the back. Young men should also maintain modesty in their appearance."
The sexist double standard here is so obvious, it would be funny if it was funny. The reasons this section gives for dressing modestly are to "show that you know how precious your body is" and "show that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ and that you love Him." Yet this passage shows what the writers really believe: that dressing modestly is far more important for women because they have a responsibility to help men control their bestial urges. It's nice that they, unlike many people in the church, didn't explicitly state this toxic and false belief, but it needs to be scrapped altogether. Either make a detailed list of clothing that men shouldn't wear, or be equally vague for women.
"Young women, if you desire to have your ears pierced, wear only one pair of earrings."
I stopped believing that God cares about this when I read Leonard J. Arrington’s diary and learned that General Authorities in the 1970s disagreed among themselves about whether it was even okay for women to have one pair of earrings. My thoughts were a. why the hell was it any of their business and b. why should I believe what they said publicly about earrings thirty years later?
Entertainment and Media
"Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way."
Nobody in the church follows this ridiculously un-nuanced standard unless they eschew entertainment and media altogether. It would rule out any movie that depicts Jesus Christ being tortured and executed. It would rule out any movie that depicts Joseph Smith being murdered. It would rule out Star Wars, which the local Institute had no problem screening at an activity even though it literally has "wars" in the title. It would rule out any Peanuts cartoon where Lucy yanks the football away and makes Charlie Brown flop onto his back.
"Choose not to insult others or put them down, even in joking."
I could quibble about how Jesus insulted people all the time, but it's really the "even in joking" part I take issue with. This happens to be how I bond with my friends. Without my snark, sass, and sarcasm, few of them would notice that I exist. And in fact, multiple studies have found that romantic partners who tease or roast each other are happier. I observed this principle years ago when Dale G. Renlund and his wife Ruth spoke in the USU Spectrum. They roasted each other constantly and I thought it was way more romantic than the "My wife is a literal goddess and I am unworthy to kiss her feet" spiel I usually hear from LDS men. I wish I remembered all the specifics. I just remember that he teased her about the time she thought it would be nice to frame his stethoscope and then her mother almost died because he couldn't find his stethoscope, and he teased her a lot about being a lawyer, and then he said, "I know, I know, it isn't fair to judge the entire profession based on four... or five... hundred thousand bad apples."
"Homosexual and lesbian behavior is a serious sin. If you find yourself struggling with same-gender attraction or you are being persuaded to participate in inappropriate behavior, seek counsel from your parents and bishop. They will help you."
As I have recently explained, I don't believe that homosexual behavior is a sin because in my observations, for the most part, gay and lesbian members who pursue committed monogamous same-sex relationships against the church's wishes seem considerably happier than those who pursue lives of celibacy or marry someone they're not attracted to. I expect this passage will be reworded with a bit more sensitivity but not really changed for some time. Seeking counsel from parents and bishops is a bit of roulette. In the past, parents might have "helped" by throwing their child out on the street and bishops might have "helped" by arranging some kind of conversion therapy. Things have vastly improved by now but there's still no standardized training to ensure that parents or bishops in the church know what they're talking about. In a recent study, gay Latter-day Saints said the most helpful thing bishops can do is show love and empathy, and the least helpful thing they can do is remind them of church teachings and policies that they're already perfectly aware of.
I stopped going to Elders Quorum a while ago because of the occasional sexist comments that I didn't feel like tolerating, but I figured I should give it another chance. So of course this last week we had a lesson on marriage. I thought about walking out, but I figured God would bless me if I endured the pain. It started off with the obligatory acknowledgement that gay people exist before proceeding as if they don't. Then for most of it, the floor was open to ask questions of the stake president, the bishop, the bishop's second counselor, the Elders Quorum president, and a relatively new high councillor who's at least four decades younger than the previous one. And the first question asked was this: "How do we handle conflicts, like if my wife wants to work and I want her to stay home?" Really, of all the examples he could have chosen, he chose that one. I impulsively said "She should get a better husband" at what I hoped was the right volume for him not to hear but for the row between us to hear. I don't have a lot of patience left for this nonsense. Even before I became an angry feminist, there was never a point in my life when I would have seriously considered trying to stop my hypothetical wife from getting a job, unless the one she had in mind was prostitution or multi-level marketing. And of course I was set to walk out if I didn't like how this question got answered.
The bishop's second counselor answered first. He's very quiet, and I've never had an opinion about him until now. I wish I could remember all his exact words, because in conveying the gist of them it sounds like he was totally shutting this guy down, but he wasn't, he was just sharing his perspective. He said that his wife has a passion for working in special education, and it doesn't bring in much extra income, but it makes her happy and it makes her a better person, so why would he try to stop her? He said it's important to treat his wife like a person and make decisions together and not just be like "I want you to do this" or whatever. He said she only worked while the kids were at school, but different families have different circumstances and just saying the woman needs to stay home all the time to change diapers or wash dishes or whatever (which is pretty close to an actual Spencer W. Kimball quote) is sexist. I was very pleased with his answer and politely pretended not to notice how much it contradicted what the bishop said almost a year ago. If what the bishop taught us about gender roles in his Family Proclamation lesson is true (spoiler alert: it isn't), then the second counselor's wife needs to repent for not being completely fulfilled by motherhood and homemaking. On this occasion the bishop shared how happy his wife was with only motherhood and homemaking, but he held back on saying that God requires all women to do the same. It's a good thing his second counselor spoke up first and that the stake president I complained to after his Family Proclamation lesson was in the room.
(Pic to prove I'm not lying)
Toward the 1:09:30 mark of this video, if you are so inclined, you will see me reading an excerpt from my story "Do Robots Dream of Electric Horse Debugger?" that won second place in the Graduate Fiction category of the USU Creative Writing and Art Contest. Ironically, the excerpt I read had been cut from my contest entry to fit the length restriction, but the contest director was my thesis chair and after my defense I mentioned this and he said he loved that scene and offered to get it reinstated for publication. My story and some other stuff can be read in the latest issue of the USU English Department literary journal Sink Hollow.
Despite my terror of public speaking, it was a really great experience except that I noticed a typo in my excerpt that I, my thesis chair and Graduate Fiction Writing professor, my eight Graduate Fiction Writing classmates, and the Sink Hollow editor had all failed to notice before, and also when an acquaintance in the audience said "Great job" afterward I responded "You too." I ran into Paul Fjeldsted, a bishop I had years ago who was there to support his niece. I love that man. I won big in bishop roulette with him.
On Friday another stalker came out of the woodwork.
The catalyst for this, I believe, was a meltdown on my Facebook timeline from someone I knew growing up who used to be a phenomenal guy but now has a pathological hatred of our the church we grew up in. I have many friends who have left the church, including the majority of peers who grew up in it with me and the majority of my graduate school classmates, but I'm not accustomed to someone on my Facebook timeline going ballistic about how the Latter-day Saint pioneers were the personification of evil and deserved to be persecuted. It was most unfortunate. I didn't waste much time addressing his thoroughly un-nuanced historical sound bites (other than pointing out that the pioneers did not "introduce slavery to Utah" because the native tribes were selling each other's children to Mexicans well before then, after which he moved the goalposts on the definition of slavery) but fortunately another friend was willing to engage with him more and call out his toxic behavior until he stopped. It really just reinforced my sense of where I stand, since I've become more critical of the church lately, but I still feel defensive when it's unfairly attacked, and I criticize it because I want to make it better, not burn it to the ground. I understand that he's angry because he learned a lot of things that weren't in the paint-by-numbers version of history he learned at church. I've been angry about that too. But he's merely traded it for a different paint-by-numbers version of history, one with the colors reversed. It's most unfortunate.
Last night I felt the Spirit pretty well during a session of stake conference, helped by a 19-year-old speaker who inexplicably was even funnier than I am. I went out to eat with some people afterward and we didn't get our food until 10:30, so I was up late and too tired to feel the Spirit today, but these things happen.
"Guys. Chris's blog is the stuff of legends. If you’re ever looking for a good read, check this out!"
- Amelia Whitlock
"I don't know how well you know Christopher Randall Nicholson, but... he's trolling. You should read his blog. It's delightful."
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.