I've been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book well-received by the public and less well-received by scholars. I certainly don't agree with everything in it. I reject the author's assertion that everything not empirically verifiable is fictional, and I most emphatically reject his assertion that human rights are fictional. I'm not exaggerating. He writes, for example: "Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity....
"Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, 'We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.' I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by 'imagined order'. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: 'I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.'"
I hope the same obvious thought that occurred to me is occuring to everyone else: If human rights are fictional, then the Nazis did nothing wrong. It really is that simple. And in fact he later mentions them by name and presents their philosophy as no better or worse than any other philosophy he describes: "Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God. The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives were the Nazis. What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of 'humanity', one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman."
He goes on to point out that "Biologists have since debunked Nazi racial theory," but that hardly matters because in his worldview there's nothing wrong with Nazis trying to create a stable and prosperous society by persisting in their imagined order that certain races are inferior and should be exterminated. Ironically, he's from Israel.
But it's still interesting to read about the history of civilization. One of the most fascinating parts for me was the agricultural revolution. I've read about the agricultural revolution before in vague terms that jive with his description, so I doubt this is one of the parts of the book that scholars don't like. Those vague terms are that the agricultural revolution formed the basis of our progress as a species, at the cost of making most people's lives significantly worse. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had more leisure time, healthier and more varied diets, less disease, little or no tooth decay, less arthritis, less risk of starvation, less anxiety about the future, and longer lives than the people who decided it would be a good idea to settle down in one place and depend for their lives on a few varieties of plants that they may or may not be succcessful in growing. Agriculture was supposed to create more food, but thanks to the commensurate population expansion it really just created more work, and then the population expansion made it impossible to go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle even if people realized they screwed themselves over. But that's how we've ended up with cities and infrastructure and writing and technology, so, you know, I guess that's cool.
So I was reading about that and had an epiphany: Oh my gosh, this is totally the fall of Adam and Eve. Like many Christians, I reached the conclusion some time ago that Adam and Eve were not historically real people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still "officially" insists that they are. (I use scare quotes because as likely as not, thirty years from now the church will have quietly abandoned that doctrine and apologists will insist that it was never official.) As recently as General Conference a week ago, Jeffrey R. Holland said "that the saving grace inherent in [the Atonement of Jesus Christ] was essential for and universally gifted to the entire human family from Adam and Eve to the end of the world," and I wondered why all the humans who lived for two hundred thousand years before Adam and Eve allegedly lived are excluded from "the entire human family." Years ago in General Conference he was more blunt: "I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that, but I do know these two were created under the divine hand of God, that for a time they lived alone in a paradisiacal setting where there was neither human death nor future family, and that through a sequence of choices they transgressed a commandment of God which required that they leave their garden setting but which allowed them to have children before facing physical death." I marveled at this substantial backtrack from earlier apostles who knew exactly what happened on this planet before that.
So when I was a member, I tried to reconcile a literal Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden with the facts of biology and anthropology, and like many, I settled uncomfortably on some variation of the hypothesis that humans evolved like we know they did but then Adam and Eve were the first ones to be spirit children of God and be morally accountable. But as Holland's weak "I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that" suggests, this isn't altogether satisfying. It just doesn't make sense to treat this story as historical, and maybe it makes even less sense to treat some parts as figurative and others not, like the church does. Multiple leaders have taught that Eve being made from Adam's rib is figurative, and it's generally accepted that the talking snake is not really a talking snake (in the endowment ceremony it's depicted as a perfectly human Lucifer, which I'm sure would bewilder the authors of Genesis). But the tree with the magical reality-altering fruit? Apparently that's a literal historical event at the core of LDS theology. And if it wasn't, what does it even mean to refer to "the Fall of Adam and Eve" or to say that "we live in a fallen world?" I recall a quote that I can't find now of Brigham Young saying that the Garden of Eden was a fairy story and that we weren't advanced enough to understand the truth, but he taught that Adam was God so I'm not sure his alternative would be better.
However, setting aside literal vs. figurative for a moment and looking at general themes, in my opinion the LDS interpretation of the story is superior to the mainstream Christian interpretation. Framing the Fall as a positive and necessary step in God's plan without which humankind could not progress introduces its own plot holes (why did God tell them not to eat the fruit if they needed to eat the fruit, why did Eve say the serpent tricked her if she knew she needed to eat the fruit) but it makes a lot more sense than God being like "Oh crap, I just started and these stupid people I created have already screwed up my whole plan for this world. You'd think I would've had a little more foresight. Why did I put that stupid tree right there where they could reach it? Heck, why did I even create that stupid tree? Ugh, now I have to come up with a Plan B to save them and all their descendants whom I'm going to hold a grudge against just for being born." So I still bring that interpetive lens to the story, and that's probably why the agricultural revolution jumped out at me. It was an irreversible disaster and it was progress, and the two cannot be uncoupled.
I figured this seemingly obvious correlation must have occurred to many people before me, but I couldn't find much about it. I found someone asking about it on the RationalWiki forum and on the atheism subreddit almost a decade ago. On the former, it generated some legitimate discussion. On the latter, the top comment was "Personally, I think you're giving illiterate, nomadic, middle-eastern goatherds a little too much credit." The unconcealed bigotry there is pretty astonishing. Illiterate does not mean stupid, and I'm not sure what them being nomadic or Middle Eastern has to do with literally anything. Also, why does this atheist attribute a writtten narrative to illiterate people in the first place? Derp. Anyway, I don't presume that the authors of Genesis possessed a lot of modern knowledge about anthropology any more than they possessed a lot of modern knowledge about geology, astronomy, or biology. I don't presume that there's an intentional one-to-one correlation between every aspect of the figurative accounts in Genesis and the actual history of the Earth and humans. But if there is any objective reality to the theological concept of the Fall of humankind, I think it's more likely to be found in the agricultural revolution than in a magical fruit tree. And I'm fascinated by the possibility that this part of the creation myth developed out of some communal or genetic memory of real events even if the authors didn't understand those events. Or, you know, revelation, but that's actually less fascinating to me in this instance for some reason.
The other thing I found was a paper by Harry White of the Department of English at Northeastern Illinois University on "Adam, Eve, and Agriculture: The First Scientific Experiment." I don't know that he's an anthropologist or a biblical scholar, and there's a case to be made that English majors should shut up about topics outside their area of expertise. (Note to first-time readers, if any: this is funny because I have a bachelor's and a Masters in English.) I have seen neither a corroboration nor a refutation of the specific correlations he points out - in true English professor fashion - between the Bible story and the realities of hunting-gathering and agriculture (explaining, for instance, why the forbidden food item is fruit instead of peas) and I think their meaning would be impossible to prove or disprove anyway. I'll just pass along some less specific quotes that surprised me by how well they resonated with my understanding of the story. "If we would actually read the Bible in place of listening to what others tell us the Bible says, we will find that Genesis depicts no fall by which humankind dropped from a higher to a lower state of being. There was no ontological descent. The movement was horizontal and not vertical: Adam and Eve were simply displaced from the garden where food was abundantly available: 'No more free lunch.'...
"Despite the difficulties and frequent dangers of trial and error research, there are many advantages to learning on one’s own. One of the most important has to do with the difference between knowing that and knowing how. One may know that certain plants are poisonous because God, her husband or her mother told her so, but that kind of knowledge does not give the person the ability to discern poisonous from edible plants, or if need be, knowledge about how to make plants grow that are nourishing and good to eat. Knowing that something is the case does not automatically imbue a person with know-how....
"The word knowledge which appears in the phrase 'tree of knowledge' specifically indicates knowledge of an experiential type. The Tree of Knowledge which Eve and Adam eat from stands for what we would now identify as practical, empirical knowledge. What they bequeath to all humankind is neither evil nor sinfulness, but an understanding of the significance of practical knowledge gained through experience. What Eve acquires is very much the same kind of knowledge that the ancient Greeks understood Prometheus to have given to humankind....
"In the end we really aren’t told because it does not really matter what if anything Adam and Eve find out about the tree itself, whether what God told them about it was true or, as the serpent tells them, not quite so. What really matters is that Eve and Adam become like God by acquiring the skill needed to know things without having to be told; and if that’s the case, well then, they might as well leave God’s garden - 'If that’s what you really want, you don’t need me anymore' - and start cultivating plants on their own - which in fact is what they do."
In LDS theology, obtaining experiential knowledge is one of the primary purposes of life on Earth. Before our births we lived with God as unembodied spirits, and we were happy, but we couldn't make any more progress without being tested, making mistakes, learning from them, and yes, suffering so that we could learn to appreciate what it's like to not suffer. God, even with all His power, couldn't just download all the requisite knowledge into our brains. That's what I was taught, and of necessity I'm agnostic about it at the moment but it makes as much sense to me now as it did then. I don't know what to do with this insight, I just thought it was cool, okay?
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.
My English 2010 students this past semester had to write argumentative essays for their final assignment, in which they researched a current issue and took a stand on it. I told them multiple times that while they would probably start out with an opinion on their topic, they should keep an open mind and be willing to change it if the research led them in a different direction, instead of trying to make it conform with what they already believed.
I don't know how many took that advice in practice. But I had a student who started with the opinion that transgender athletes should be banned because of their unfair physical advantages, and then after he did the research he changed his mind. He found that there's a lot of misinformation on this topic. He found that when people complained about transgender high school wrestler Mack Beggs dominating girls' wrestling, they wrongly claimed or implied that Beggs' transition was male-to-female instead of the opposite and left out the part where he wanted to wrestle with boys and was denied by Texas law. He found that transgender women are not dominating women's sports to anywhere near the extent that people (specifically Republicans) claim they are. He found that their physical advantage is severely curtailed by the hormone treatments they're required to take, and that various cisgender athletes also have unfair physical advantages for the simple reason that people's bodies are different. Perfect parity in sports is impossible to achieve, but in his view (which I share, though I have less credibility since I don't really give a crap about sports), it's best served by letting the small number of transgender athletes participate with the gender they identify as, provided they meet the same physical requirements as everyone else. I'm so proud of his open-mindedness, and his essay was one of my favorites.
I'm not an expert on this topic by a long shot, but I noticed quite a while ago that people who deny the validity of intersex, transgender, and non-binary people's experiences are the ones who invariably end up looking stupid in online arguments, because they just repeat "There are only two genders" while their opponents cite scientific research. These people insist that they're the ones on the side of biology and common sense, yet their understanding of sex and gender remains at the elementary-school level of "penis equals male and vagina equals female." And at this point their ignorance is a deliberate choice. Lots of information is out there for anyone who cares to look at it, but they choose to pretend otherwise, obviously to protect themselves from the cognitive dissonance that the actual complexity of sex and gender causes with their beliefs. In my book this qualifies as lying. And it leads them to something that should cause even more cognitive dissonance with their beliefs - bearing false witness against their neighbors. This year I've been disgusted by members of my church and other so-called Christians lying about Lia Thomas' athletic record and lying that transgender athletes are overrunning women's sports and we should all be very afraid of them. I'm disgusted by the Utah Legislature's recent passage of an all-out ban to address the nonexistent problems not being caused by Utah's four transgender high school athletes. (But I'm proud of Governor Spencer Cox for jeopardizing his reelection by vetoing the bill on principle even though he couldn't stop it.)
My favorite lie about this topic is that gender dysphoria is caused by Satan's lies. Apparently Satan can just whisper in a girl's ear that she's a boy and that explains everything. This kind of thinking is about on par with diagnosing epilepsy as witchcraft. My second favorite lie is that all sex and gender anomalies can be lumped together and dismissed as "mental illness," not because these liars have one iota of love or compassion for people with mental illness, but because they don't. Anyway, the other day someone in the church's Newsroom group on Facebook mentioned transgender people and said "We need to show them love, and also have the courage to steer them in the right direction with a good loving advice led by the Holy Ghost." I saw an opportunity to speak up, but because I wanted to actually make a positive impact on people and not start an argument (I do switch things up once in a while), I limited my remarks to something so basic that no one seriously attempting to follow Christ could have a problem with it.
Given that posts in this group about how Covid exists or how we shouldn't be racist are regularly overrun by triggered right-wing snowflakes who make me want nothing to do with the church, I was pleasantly surprised by my comment's positive reception. Only one person argued with me, in fact, and she was very polite and capable of writing mostly coherent sentences. But she obviously misunderstood me because she went on about chastity and how we can call people to repentance without being unkind, when all I said was that telling a transgender person they're not the gender they think they are doesn't magically make them stop feeling like the gender you say they aren't. And she also brought gay marriage into it for some reason. So at that point I did bring up the fact that sex and gender are demonstrably far more complicated than the church tries to make them, and that unless you've examined a person inside and out and down to the cellular level (which would be gross), you don't know how much they biologically lean one way or the other, let alone what eternal gender their spirit is supposed to be, and should mind your own business. I linked to this article for more details - all of them physical, tangible realities of people's bodies, not even touching on the touchier subject of gender identity. As one would expect, she doubled down and responded to the details by not responding to them at all. Her non-response was the inspiration for this post.
If she wasn't saying that gender dysphoria is a sin, then she had literally no reason to start arguing with me. I hadn't said anything related to chastity or anything about sex reassignment surgery (or same-sex attraction for that matter). I hope this comment's lack of substance is self-evident enough that I don't need to analyze every sentence here. If this is the best argument you can come up with to defend your viewpoint when presented with substantial inconvenient evidence, then your viewpoint almost certainly doesn't deserve to be defended. In this case I mean the infantile and demonstrably wrong viewpoint of sex and gender, not the entire gospel, which I believe can stand on its own without lying about science - but if this argument represents the level of intellectual and spiritual rigor that God expects of me in defending the gospel, then count me out.
I will just say that accusing LGBTQ+ people of promoting division in this nation, as opposed to, oh I don't know, the straight cisgender people who have persecuted them for centuries, is really ignorant. Most of this comment is really ignorant, but I just felt compelled to point out that this particular part, like most of the parts, is really ignorant. It's like blaming racial minorities for the racial unrest in this nation. Oh wait, conservatives do that too. Anyway, "the Pride narrative" literally only exists because LGBTQ+ people have had to assert their right to be accepted as human beings and not hate themselves for the way God made them. Pride is the opposite of shame. Also, of all the things the Bible is good for, a science textbook is not one of them. Also, the Bible says God created day and night, but I don't see anyone complaining that scientists worship Satan because they've determined that various stages of twilight exist.
But again, in fairness, only this one person argued with me. A few others pushed back against her. People like this guy are the future of the church, unless they all leave because it's a toxic environment for them.
Ah yes, the laugh reaction (which came from someone else who didn't participate in the discussion) is also a standard fallback for people who can't refute facts and are allergic to empathy for anyone different than them. Dallin H. Oaks did state in late 2019 that "the intended meaning of gender in the family proclamation and as used in Church statements and publications since that time is biological sex at birth." But that was a few months before the church updated its handbook to acknowledge for the first time in its history that intersex people exist - albeit only one very limited kind of intersex people - so maybe it's different now. Or does President Oaks really mean to imply (in keeping with the family proclamation's vague statement) that people who are biologically intersex at birth were created with intersex spirits and will continue to be intersex for eternity? Somehow that doesn't seem like an idea he would accept. I apologize for the snark, but intersex people have been known to exist for the entirety of human history, so I feel just a little impatient.
On a related note, a few months ago BYU administrators directed the Department of Communication Disorders to cease providing gender-affirming speech therapy for three transgender students. This is a violation of both the HIPAA Privacy Rule and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Code of Ethics, and consequently BYU is under investigation (again) and its speech-language pathology Masters program will most likely lose accreditation if it doesn't reverse course. I won't lose a moment of sleep over BYU getting what it deserves, but I will feel awful for the faculty who, according to rumors that I have no reason to doubt, are not in agreement with this decision, and for the students who will be royally screwed over when the degrees they invested their time and money in turn out to be even more worthless than most college degrees. And then BYU administrators and church leaders will probably spin the incident 180 degrees backwards and portray themselves as the ones being persecuted.
Last week in Elders Quorum, the teacher asked us what things we wish we knew about Jesus. I chickened out of sharing my question because it was too weird. My question was this: since we know that the Atonement covers non-human animals in some way, because they will also be resurrected and inherit eternal bliss, did Jesus also experience their lives and all of their pain as He did for us?
This pain is not insignificant. It was a leading cause of Charles Darwin's faith crisis. He wrote, "With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I wish to do, evidence of design & beneficience on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
More recently, militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
Non-human animals deserve to suffer even less than most of us do. And in a way, their suffering is all the more cruel, because they lack the mental capacity that most of us have to contextualize and cope with pain. And yet God requires their suffering as an integral part of their mortal existence, just as He does of us. It seems reasonable to me, then, that Jesus was willing to go through everything that was required of them, just as He was willing for us. And as I contemplate that, I have another question: even though non-human animals are (probably) not accountable when they rape or murder each other, does Jesus still have to pay a price for those violations of moral laws, as He does when humans sin in ignorance?
This is all, of course, just a less considered subset of the problem of evil that everyone knows about. Daniel C. Peterson has said: "Consider... this supremely complacent remark, offered by a vocal atheist critic of Mormonism during a 2001 Internet discussion: 'If there were a God,' he reflected, 'I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me - perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.' Only someone very comfortably situated could be so marinated in smugness about the question of whether or not God exists.
"But the vast majority of the world’s population is not so situated, and, for them, atheism, if true, is very bad news indeed. Most of the world’s population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation, disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life. And such a future life seems to require a God.
"Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims; that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline; that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
"This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great number of other occasions."
First and foremost, I believe in the message of Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead and that all people and other animals will likewise rise from the dead, because without some compensatory afterlife, existence is as depressing and pointless as Richard Dawkins suggested in the rest of his quote: "In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Wanting to believe in a purpose doesn't mean there is one, but if I'm wrong, I've lost nothing. And faith and hope go together for a reason. (I do recognize that other belief systems about the afterlife exist, Christian or otherwise, and there are reasons why I believe mine makes the most sense, but I don't want to denigrate the others by getting into that.)
Ben Spackman, a scholar of religious and scientific history who's been very influential on my thinking in recent years, wrote a blog post last month on why you should ignore the 1980 (and current) Institute Old Testament manual for teaching Genesis. I have a personal grudge against that manual. I've never been taught from it, but I read from the copy that my parents had laying around, and between the General Authority quotes that it implies to represent an official stance of the Church, and the "scientific" arguments in the Seventh Day Adventist tract that it excerpts at great length, it persuaded me to become an evolution denier for a couple years. Despite not understanding how Adam and Eve could be reconciled with other early hominids, it had never occurred to me that there was any great unbridgable gulf between the Bible and modern science. This manual assured me that there was. And despite this kind of anti-evolution rhetoric disappearing from other church publications and venues, in this instance it hasn't been revised in forty-two years. I've heard rumors here and there that multiple attempts have been made to update the manual but people couldn't agree on what to say or hesitated to throw Joseph Fielding Smith under the bus.
Despite my strong disagreement with everything in this part of the manual, and my distaste for its lack of honesty in not disclosing any of the quotes more favorable or agnostic toward evolution that also exist in church history, I would have assumed that its author was a decent guy of reasonable intelligence. Come to find out from Spackman's post, which discusses research that he'll publish in a paper later this year, that its author was in fact the biggest crackpot church leaders could have found. He has some stiff competition for that title, but I bestow it because he thought women shouldn't vote, long after that debate was settled. So this guy was buddy-buddy with some prominent Apostles, he got to write a section of a church manual that would influence millions of people for decades to come, he got to remain anonymous so nobody could hold him accountable for his personal views - keeping church manual authors anonymous is standard practice, but it didn't used to be, and I don't think it should be anymore either, because it gives the erroneous impression that these manuals are all written by a faceless monolith known as "the Church" - and then Correlation let it through with just one change, and then it was left in place unchanged for four decades and counting. To be blunt, although Ben Spackman is in no way hostile to the Church, I hope his airing of these facts will be embarrassing enough to make it finally update the damn thing.
I shared his post in a group "where people may ask challenging questions with a view of expanding our knowledge and faith." This is a group specifically set aside for intelligent discussions, not faith-promoting memes and quotes, though those have their place elsewhere. So of course some people appreciated the post. But even here, I met with pushback from people who considered Ben Spackman an untrustworthy source, or just didn't like him, or wanted to know why he didn't share his own research and perspective on the quotes and issues raised in the manual even though within the body of the post he linked to dozens of resources doing exactly that, including some of his own blog posts. One apparently senile woman told me "Stop attacking the gospel and start living it!" but then I don't even know what she was referring to, and neither did she, because her comment (a response to my response to someone else) started with the words "What manual?" People will believe what they want to believe, obviously. And the issue here isn't even the validity of evolution as a scientific theory (which, spoiler alert, is enormous and not up for serious debate among people who have actually studied it), but epistemology, scriptural interpretation, and whether a guy who thinks that women shouldn't vote sixty years after they got the right to vote should be given free reign to write whatever he wants in church manuals.
I also shared the post with a friend who left the Church a couple years ago, because we had discussed that section of the manual once. She had mentioned that she shared it with a friend who had questions about evolution, and then I kind of flipped out and explained all the reasons why it was wrong, and then she apologized for getting so heated but she wasn't mad at all. Now she doesn't remember that, but said she was glad she had shared something with her friend that would probably result in him leaving the Church. And then she called me and talked some more about her reasons for no longer believing in the Church. I just listened and didn't try to argue. Some of them, in my judgment, are good and understandable reasons; others not so much. Like "the thousands of changes to the Book of Mormon." You can count the significant changes on one hand. Most of them are punctuation. But she already knew that. Did I know, she asked, that the original manuscript didn't even have punctuation, and the punctuation was just put in by some guy who wasn't even affiliated with Joseph Smith? In her mind, this makes it impossible that the Book of Mormon could be "the most correct of any book on earth." I still didn't argue, but I was kind of baffled that she could think Joseph Smith was talking about punctuation when he said in the same sentence that "a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."
It was just so interesting to me to observe this kind of dogmatic and fallacious thinking on both sides, in belief and in unbelief. The kind of thinking that says "If the Church is true, its manuals must be written by the finger of the Lord" (yes, the senile woman asked me "If the Lord wrote with his finger on the wall, would you still doubt?") or "If the Book of Mormon is true, every comma must have been in the right place the first time." I probably still fall into that kind of thinking in some ways that I'm not aware of yet because if I were aware of them, I would change them. These are obvious examples. More subtle ones probably abound.
I also argued with a family member who was upset by my post about "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" a few weeks ago. It was a very Ben Spackman-influenced post, though I make no claim that he would agree with everything I wrote. But one of his big points is that revelation or scripture never just speaks for itself. People think they can just read something as is without interpreting it, but they're always engaging in interpretation, always bringing their own assumptions that the author may or may not share. He also talks in detail about how God's perfect truth vs. people's imperfect opinions is in some ways a false dichotomy, because, again, when a prophet receives revelation and then when a prophet writes down or communicates that revelation to others, the prophet is engaging in interpretation. He does not become God's ventriloquist dummy. Even if he did, God would still have to speak to us in a way we could understand. The example of these principles that Spackman talks about over and over again, as you might guess, is how Genesis and other parts of scripture state things as fact that are not facts - e.g. the Earth was created in seven days (and he explains why the "The Hebrew word for 'day' can also mean 'time period'" explanation, while accurate, doesn't work in this context) - but the authors had different paradigms and priorities than modern readers, and God worked within their understanding of the world instead of trying to correct it. Another Biblical example would be how He said "Be nice to your slaves" instead of "Slavery is wrong."
I think this is really important stuff. It was implicit to my post on the Family Proclamation. Perhaps I should have made it more explicit. Everyone else seemed to like my post, though, and I was frustrated that this family member alone interpreted it as an attack. I don't want to make it sound like she's is the worst sort of fundamentalist by any means. But we kind of talked past each other. She thinks I don't have enough faith and I think she's not using her brain enough. She acknowledges the imperfections of scripture, the mistakes of past church leaders, and the changes in church teachings, but tries to downplay their significance as much as possible while I don't feel that's warranted. On the other hand, it's probable that I sometimes blow them out of proportion. In any case, she cited the "line upon line, precept upon precept" scripture as a defense of changes to gender roles in the Church like changing the definition of "preside." I don't disagree with that scripture at all. It's exactly the sentiment I conveyed in my post. I just don't see a reason to assume, especially in light of my knowledge of history and current events, that the lines and precepts stopped in 1995. She also cited "Condemn me not because of mine imperfection," and maybe I am too condemnatory of past church leaders and members, but that verse also says to "give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been." So pointing out that Gordon B. Hinckley totally snubbed the Relief Society general presidency was still the right thing to do.
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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.