Because I read about near-death experiences recently, of course the omniscient internet brought to my attention the most recent development in that field. Four people hooked up to life support were having their brains monitored for whatever reason, and after they were taken off life support, two of their brains registered a surge of activity in the part responsible for dreams. Scientists speculate that these people were having NDEs, although they had a history of epilepsy, and nobody's ever shown a correlation between epilepsy and NDEs. The headline I looked at claimed that scientists had observed the brain activity behind NDEs for the first time, as if that were an established fact, but of course it isn't. They don't know what they actually observed. In order to know that, or at least be fairly confident, they'd have to observe something similar in the brain of someone who subsequently came back to life and reported on it. Science may sooner or later explain NDEs away as a purely neurological phenomenon, but it hasn't yet and we mustn't be premature about it. Journalists often take the nuance out of science, either out of sincere ignorance or the need to produce clickbait.
My roommate has finally moved out. He moved upstairs, meaning that he wanted to stay in this complex but not with me. The feeling is mutual. I didn't like that he left lights on he wasn't using (though I trained him by example to not do it constantly), I didn't like that he walked around without a shirt on when the weather was warm, I didn't like that he spent two hours a day in the bathroom, and I especially didn't like that he spent at least an hour a day practicing what can only be called "singing" under the most generous interpretation at the top of his lungs. It sounds more like an air raid siren. I had a friend over once and he laughed in disbelief at how bad it was. I sent a recording to another friend whom my complaints had made curious, and she wrote back, "PUT IT OUT OF ITS MISERY. WTF." Early on, at a public gathering, my roommate put me on the spot and asked if his singing annoyed me. Trying to balance tact with honesty, I said, "Only when it's really loud" (which was always). So he continued to consistently do it at the top of his lungs. Now I feel bad that I've been festering in resentment instead of asking him to stop, though, because I warned my upstairs neighbor about it, and I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that he hasn't been enjoying it either.
Recently the Temple City Sheriff's office invaded the wrong home without a warrant and illegally questioned and arrested two children who now, presumably, are traumatized for life but at least won't grow up to be bootlickers. I wrote some strong language in an online form somewhere and fully expected, based on previous interactions with law enforcement, that they would ignore me, but that the publicity would make them think twice (or at least once) about pulling such stunts in the future. I was quite surprised when someone got back to me earlier this week. Credit where it's due.
I've started wasting time on Twitter instead of reddit lately. I used to do essentially nothing on Twitter except share my blog posts, and I stayed at 38 followers for over six years. Now after a few weeks of interacting with people, I'm up to 53, so yay.
Twitter brings out the worst in people, including me, because it has almost no rules. Before Elon Musk took over, my account was suspended for wishing death on (checks notes) Vladimir Putin. And I still do and I'm not sorry. But now, I can say whatever the hell I want without fear of consequences. I've had some arguments. Even though I only follow ex-Mormons and liberal Mormons as far as Mormon stuff is concerned, I keep getting conservative Mormons in my feed, and they're pretty much the worst people in the world. Half their identity right now revolves around hating transgender people, and the other half is divided between hating apostates, hating liberals, hating scholars, hating gay people, and hating feminists. They're straight-up bullies more often than not, and because they think they're boldly standing up for truth and righteousness, they're quite incapable of attaining any self-awareness about how awful they are. Case in point:
I mean, wow. I used to have a hell of a persecution complex myself, but I don't think there was ever a point when I would have told someone "You are a demonic force and will be treated accordingly." It frightens me that people who think that way exist. Of course, guys like this think I'm a demonic force too. I try to be good. I don't set out to tear down Mormon beliefs every time I see them in my feed. I only get involved if they say something egregiously stupid and/or bigoted. And I try not to mock or insult them until they do it to me first, but that usually doesn't take very long. Personal attacks are usually their first and only response to critique of any kind. They really thought they were clever for pointing out that I had my pronouns in my bio and a Ukrainian flag next to my name. I had to block an account with the word "Christ" in its name that insisted Ukraine "isn't innocent" and basically deserves what it's getting, a claim that could be made with a little more accuracy (though it would still be victim-blaming) about the Mormons who moved into Missouri and boasted that the Lord would give them their neighbors' land. I added a Pride flag and a transgender flag to my Ukrainian flag just to bother these troglodytes, and then I added "If my flags and pronouns bother you, mission accomplished" to my bio to make sure they know that I'm bothering them on purpose, and now they don't bring that stuff up as much.
The leaders of the church don't appear to care that in a few years, people like this will be the only members they have left. Decent, intelligent, empathetic people are being alienated in droves. Of course, some of these jackasses also get alienated every time the church takes a position against bigotry or in favor of modern medicine - the other day one even confessed that he struggles with his faith and desire to attend church because a Primary teacher elsewhere on Twitter wore a rainbow pin - but overall, I think they're winning. Perhaps in fifty years, this church will make the Westboro Baptist Church look like a happy memory. Perhaps it will truly be The Church of Brigham Young, Ezra Taft Benson, and Donald J. Trump. (One of the guys I argued with had modeled his profile after Spencer W. Kimball, though. Kimball's a more nuanced figure in my book. If I meet him in the next life, I'll thank him for what he did to advance racial equality within the church, then kick him between the legs for the vile things he said about women and gay men.)
My sister Melanie asked me for advice on starting a blog like a year ago. It's a good thing she didn't ask for advice on making a popular blog, because I couldn't have helped her with that. But it looks like she now has a blog with two posts. It's called "Almost Canadian," an obvious reference to us growing up half an hour from the border of Quebec and watching CBC instead of PBS. If you enjoy my sarcasm, snark, anger, and scathing religious and political criticism, I don't think you'll get any of that from her. But she has a strong writing voice and a charming sense of humor. I think she's a better writer than I was at her age (23), even though she only just recently realized it's what she wants to do, but I'm not jealous or anything. Okay, maybe a little. I'm just going to focus on building up my relationship with her in case she gets rich before I do.
I read a few Psychology Today articles about near-death experiences yesterday. NDEs have increased dramatically since the mid-twentieth century as medical technology has advanced to be able to save people who are farther and farther gone. They confirm of one of two things: that our consciousnesses will survive death, or that spiritual experiences are a byproduct of our brains having evolved to screw with us in countless ways. Obviously one of these possibilities is comforting and the other is terrifying. I'm guessing NDEs were all but nonexistent for most of human history when people simply did not wake up after their hearts stopped, so I doubt they influenced religious beliefs. But are they evidence for religious beliefs or merely influenced by them? Many of their motifs are strikingly similar across cultures, but Hindus don't encounter Jesus and Christians don't encounter Hindu gods. So maybe a biological commonality of human brains is being filtered through cultural influences, or maybe the higher power that receives dead souls is manifesting itself in different ways depending on what people expect and recognize.
Many, maybe most neurologists and other scientists are skeptical. One hypothesis holds that NDEs are hallucinations caused by dying brains flooding themselves with the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine, but there is as yet little evidence that dying brains actually flood themselves with the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine. I should think that would be an easy thing to check for, but I'm no expert. Another, in my opinion more convincing, argument against the reality of NDEs is that similar experiences can be triggered by non-life-threatening conditions like fever or anesthesia. I'm not sure how a believer would respond to that, but any honest believer in any spiritual phenomena must be compelled to acknowledge that they have a significant neurological component and consequently can be set off by things happening in the brain. Hippies have recognized this for a long time. Why God would make spiritual phenomena so unstable and unreliable if they're meant to be a guide to divine truth, I can't imagine.
One of the biggest counterarguments in favor of the reality of NDEs is the profound effect they tend to have on people. Most people find NDEs very peaceful and pleasant, sometimes so much so that coming back to life is a disappointment. They lose any fear of death they previously had, feel more purpose in life, see more beauty in everyday things, and become less materialistic and more altruistic. Standard hallucinations don't do that to people. I find this point very compelling, though there's still a chance it could just be a twisted cosmic joke, like how the Book of Mormon has a real and powerful spiritual impact on many people despite being a nineteenth-century fraud. A small percentage of people have unpleasant, lonely, or frightening NDEs, and while this would be difficult to test scientifically and I don't want to make insensitive assumptions, I'm dying to know if they're bad people who have reason to fear God's judgment. It would make sense for them to be a small percentage because God is supposed to be merciful and I believe few people are truly evil in their hearts.
Anyway, this is cool stuff, and though none of it is conclusive, it somewhat assuages my anxiety about death, at least until science marches on and ruins it for everyone.
Carl Sagan and Life After Death
This week I read Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. It's a book about the need for scientific literacy and skepticism, but it's not an anti-God or anti-religion book like the ones that became popular a few years later, so it's interesting how he tiptoes around the elephant in the room that much of what he says could be used against God and religion. He does get into a few religious topics like the efficacy of prayer and claimed sightings of the Virgin Mary and the torture and murder of innocent women accused of witchcraft, but mostly he debunks alien abductions and psychic powers and stuff. He spends a lot of time on aliens. I came to the same conclusions as him when I wrote a folklore paper about aliens for graduate school. I was trying to avoid the question of their veracity altogether, since it's irrelevant to their role in folklore, but I still couldn't avoid determining that they aren't visiting Earth, they aren't making crop circles, and they aren't kidnapping and raping people. Which is good. But these experiences are still very real to the people who imagine them, which is almost as scary and just as worthy of study.
It's very frightening to me - and I'm not just going off this one book, which reiterated and expanded on a lot of things I had already learned - how deceptive and unreliable our brains are, how prone they are to cognitive biases, logical fallacies, false memories, and straight-up hallucinations. It takes great effort and more education than most people ever get to disentangle oneself from all of this and strive for what one can only hope is something approaching an accurate understanding of the world. Humankind's inherent irrationality has, in my judgment, caused more persistent and widespread problems than evil itself. Frankly, it threatens my belief in God because I don't see what purpose he could have for making us this way. I don't think it was to make us trust in him instead of ourselves, because spiritual feelings and experiences seem to be the least reliable of all. That is, when they're being used as a guide to truth. Simply having spiritual reactions to things is harmless. Sagan's opinion of spirituality:
"'Spirit' comes from the Latin word 'to breathe'. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."
On life after death, he writes, "My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about them, are - really and truly - still in existence somewhere. I wouldn't ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest news, to remind them that I love them. There's a part of me - no matter how childish it sounds - that wonders how they are. 'Is everything all right?' I want to ask. The last words I found myself saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were 'Take care'.
"Sometimes I dream that I'm talking to my parents, and suddenly - still immersed in the dreamwork - I'm seized by the overpowering realization that they didn't really die, that it's all been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over again. Plainly, there's something within me that's ready to believe in life after death. And it's not the least bit interested in whether there's any sober evidence for it."
He then segues into debunking mediums who claim they can talk to the dead. He doesn't try to debunk the existence of an afterlife itself. Of course he couldn't, because at the time of writing he'd never been dead. But if one does exist, how could we know? Maybe he's been trying to tell us about it for years but he can't find a good medium to talk to because they're all frauds. I used to be so confident that I knew exactly what would happen to me after I died. I would be compensated for every injustice I ever suffered and enter into eternal happiness. Now I wonder if instead I'll just enter an eternal dreamless sleep. I wouldn't mind that, except that I'd never get to listen to music again or see anyone I love again. Sagan missed his parents. His wife, Ann Druyan, misses him. She has said, "When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me - it still sometimes happens - and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl."
I thought about this when I recently watched a video clip of Russian soldiers committing one of their many war crimes, in this case executing a Ukrainian prisoner of war. It was a short clip. He calmly smoked a cigarette and then they shot him and he fell to the ground so fast it almost looked fake. Were all his memories, his personality, and the very core of his identity permanently erased from existence in that moment, faster than the blink of an eye? In another instance I read about, a Ukrainian soldier sacrificed himself to protect his son, also a soldier, from an artillery shell, but it exploded near their heads and his son died with him anyway. I think of all the premature and undeserved deaths, the heroic sacrifices and the cannon fodder and the murders and the diseases and so on, and I think what a sick cosmic joke it would be for all these people to be erased, and for any species to have evolved to the point of having these existential questions and fears in the first place. But then, people of one kind or another have been dying for hundreds of thousands of years longer than any religion that teaches an afterlife has existed. So we're in good company. I shouldn't spend too much effort fearing or resenting the most universal experience in the world.
The only thing I would really need to worry about is the possibility that God exists but is not loving or good. Maybe I will be tormented for eternity for failing to discern the correct religion that God hid among a thousand other religions and/or for giving in to the sinful nature that God gave me. I don't care what anyone says, I don't deserve to be tormented for eternity. Maybe a decade at most. And I think a lot of my experience on this planet should count as time served.
I'm Kind of Almost a Deist Maybe
For several months of moderate existential crisis I've been trying to really figure out God, even as I recognize that it's futile because billions of people have their own ideas about God and most if not all of them are wrong and I'm not likely the smartest person in the world. I think God is too big and complicated for any mortal being to really understand. Charles Darwin put it thus: "A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can." I no longer believe there is one definitive "true religion," because if there is, God has done a terrible job promoting it and most people throughout history and still today have failed to find it or be attracted to it. I think religions represent people's best attempts to understand, and each of them approaches him from a certain angle and has certain insights and truths but really knows very little in the final analysis. Perhaps multiple seemingly contradictory teachings about God are all true, like the blind men's observations about the elephant, or perhaps they're all laughably wrong. I'm trying to keep an open mind. I try to take in a lot of ideas, but my current thoughts about God, which I hardly claim to be revelatory and hardly expect to be final, are mostly inferred from my own experience and my observations of this world he supposedly created.
(For now I'm going to keep using masculine pronouns for him because that's what I grew up with and what most people are used to, though for all I know he's more of a she, a they, or an it. I'm not going to capitalize them here because the frequency of that would become awkward and distracting.)
I've questioned, of course, whether God even exists or all my experiences with him have been confirmation bias and delusions. After an analysis I described a few months ago, I am fairly confident that confirmation bias and delusions can't account for all of them, and that some higher power has at times communicated things to me I couldn't know on my own, but I also feel that this higher power has recently been less than honest with me and let me down big time, so that's kind of torn my brain apart. I've wondered if God isn't really all good. Maybe he's more of a Chaotic Good or a Chaotic Neutral who isn't above lying when he feels like it. Maybe he's a capricious being who helps, hinders, or ignores people more or less at random. How could I know? If he tells me he's good, if he tells me he loves me, he could be lying. I don't know what's a more disturbing thought - that God doesn't exist, or that he isn't entirely trustworthy. It reminds me of a Legend of Zelda fanfiction I read once where the characters discovered that Hyrule's goddesses were just ordinary women who accidentally became immortal, then studied science and created the world with its eternal cycle of good vs. evil because they were bored. I loved that fanfiction and I wish I could remember what it was called because the site I got it from has hundreds.
This summer I also read The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart, which is available to "borrow" on archive.org. It outlines what looks to me like a pretty airtight philosophical case for God's existence, certainly one light-years beyond the paint-by-numbers anti-theism of people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Of course most of this philosophy isn't original to Hart or even remotely new, but he covers so much so well. I would hate to try to do his arguments justice by paraphrasing them in a few sentences. I'll comment on the title, though - the book is divided into those three parts, being, consciousness, and bliss, because he argues that despite their obvious theological differences, most religions really have the same concept of God as comprising the totality of those things. An Orthodox Christian, he liberally quotes from Hindu and Muslim as well as Christian thinkers. But this is, in fact, a very different concept of God than the one I was taught in the Mormon Church. I was taught that God is an embodied, exalted human being occupying a physical space on a planet somewhere with his silent, invisible wife or wives, not "just" a force that fills the universe. I think Joseph Smith made a point of rejecting all this philosophy to close the distance between people and God, to make him more relatable and accessible. Mormons would conversely argue that these "philosophies of men" led to the obfuscation of these truths and the corruption of the original Christian church. I know philosophy has its limitations, but if it's that useless, I don't know why God gave us brains in the first place.
The world doesn't look to me like the product of a divine plan where every detail is worked out with perfect foreknowledge. It looks more like the result of a science experiment with no ethical constraints. It looks more like God just set it in motion to see what it would come up with. Everything is just too complicated to fit into the little box my religion gave me to put everything in. If we humans are the purpose for which God created this planet, then I'm hard-pressed to understand why dinosaurs were here for 550 times as long as we've been, why more than two-thirds of its surface is covered with water that will kill us if we drink it, or why its sun's life-giving rays cause cancer, to name just the first three examples that pop into my head. I find it very difficult to believe that every living organism has a spirit designed by God before the world was formed. There are more microorganisms living on and inside my body than there are cells in my body. If God planned each of them individually, it makes more sense to believe that they're at the center of his plan and I'm just here to host them. The final straw for me was the incredibly hideous Demodex mites that live on humans' (and other mammals') faces and fill up with feces until they explode. I'll be nice and not include a picture that nobody asked for. I find it very, very, very difficult to believe that these creatures' existence was a conscious, premeditated detail of God's plan. I think he just didn't bother to stop them from evolving.
I'm increasingly inclined to attribute most of the circumstances of my life and others' lives to luck, good and bad, because I simply can't accept the disparities. I am so, so lucky compared to most people in the world today and most people who have ever lived. I've spent most of today sheltering from the awful cold in a decent apartment listening to Spotify Premium and playing Callahan's Crosstime Saloon while millions of people didn't even get enough to eat. I have education and hobbies and realistic career goals while countless people have never had a higher purpose in life than staying alive. Am I better than them? Am I more deserving than them? Did a capricious God arbitrarily decide to favor me over them? The only adequate theistic explanation I can think of is that God blessed me so I can bless others, but that still makes me special, chosen, entrusted with a responsibility that most people aren't. It still rubs me the wrong way. The solutions to the problems of evil and suffering that I've been taught still more or less satisfy me, but I'm growing reluctant to call God "Father" or conceptualize our relationship in those terms, because if a "real" father treated people the same way, he would go to jail. If my "real" father had withheld basic human needs from me as a "learning experience" that would "make me stronger" or whatever, or if he'd given me the silent treatment for months at a time to "test my faith" or whatever, we would call that abuse. I'm not saying God's methodology is abusive, I'm just saying I'm no longer satisfied to think of it as parenthood.
So I gravitate nowadays toward a deist vision of a God who pushed a button, set a bunch of things in motion, and sat back to see what would happen. I'm inclined to feel - even as I recognize this is a privileged view that people whose lives are living hells might not be able to share - that my existence is a miracle and a joy not because it was premeditated and inevitable, but precisely because it wasn't. And yet... and yet I know, or at least have more cause to believe than I can seriously doubt, that God has intervened in my life sometimes, in response to prayer or just because. He may well intervene more often than I notice and I wouldn't notice because I don't notice. It's my burning desire for further guidance and aid that drives me to put so much effort into knowing him despite the impossibility of the task. And I still sense in my heart what a lot of people sense in their hearts even though their religions don't teach it - that in some way I existed before I was born, and had some idea what I was getting into and why it would be worth my while. Many people's experiences have shown that they knew each other before this life and only had to find each other again to recognize it. I think God does have a plan and I think he has things under control. So I have these contradictory philosophies going on in my head. Or rather, they seem contradictory to me now but they may both be correct from a certain point of view when God's bigness and complexity are finally understood, if ever, which I doubt.
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 LDS 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?
"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."
- David Young
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.