December 14, 2015

The Four-Letter “C” Word

Many critics of the LDS church opine that it is a cult, or at least cult-like. I have not heretofore referred to the Church with these terms, perhaps because the thought of having been in that kind of organization is so repulsive. However, I gave it more thought after I ran across one definition of a cult in a text that was unrelated to the Church. After an informal evaluation, I thought it may be an interesting exercise to more formally evaluate the Church with these criteria on this blog. I will first give that definition, in its entire and original form, and then add my thoughts about whether and how the LDS church fits.

According to the widely recognized skeptic, Michael Shermer (Why People Believe Weird Things, 2002), a cult consists of the following core elements:
  • Veneration of the leader: Glorification of the leader to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity. 
  • Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong. 
  • Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader’s beliefs and pronouncements on all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial. 
  • Persuasive techniques: Methods, from benign to coercive, used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.
  •  Hidden agendas: The true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans is obscured from or not fully disclosed to potential recruits and the general public. 
  • Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything they should know about the leader and the group’s inner circle, and particularly disconcerting flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances are covered up. 
  • Financial and/or sexual exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest money and other assets in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers. 
  • Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or the group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects. 
  • Absolute morality: Belief that the leader and/or the group has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished.

I will now assess whether and how the LDS church fits this definition. However, before doing so, given the numerous changes to Church doctrines (example) and practices (example) since the time of its founding in the early 1800s, arguably for the specific purpose of making it more mainstream and less cult-like (e.g., Official Declaration 1), I think it only practical and fair to analyze the organization in its current form separately from Joseph Smith, Jr.’s original organization.

Veneration of the Leader: As Joseph Smith, Jr. founded the LDS church, let us begin with him. On the one hand, Smith was/is explicitly not prayed to or worshipped (source). Yet it is certainly difficult to argue that he was/is not perceived as an especially sacred person doctrinally (e.g., D&C 138:53-57). Indeed, considering the oft-repeated statement that he “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world than any other man that ever lived in it…” (D&C 135:3), he is the de facto fourth member of the Godhead. In the LDS church, a testimony of Smith’s divine calling is as important as a testimony of Christ’s divinity. In practice as well, many members commonly have graven images and paintings (example) of Smith in their homes, just as beautiful and maintained as are their images of Christ. Several hymns literally “praise” Smith. If any doubt his virtual sainthood, simply read the lyrics to the popular LDS hymn, “Praise to the Man.” In every sense of the word, Smith was and is venerated by the membership.

Current Church presidents may be venerated to a lesser degree than was Smith, but I do not find it to be much less. Consider how many talks and Ensign articles plead with members to follow the prophet. The popular children’s song entitled Follow the Prophet, contains the lyrics, “Follow the prophet. Don’t go astray. Follow the prophet. He knows the way.” Even though the current leaders of the Church rarely speak of any personal revelations in the same tone as did Smith, it is official doctrine that he is the only person on earth who has the authority to speak on God’s behalf (example). It is probably safe to say that the average LDS member believes that the current Church president is the most important person alive (at least the office is the most important office). Therefore, I argue that this element has been toned down in the current practices, but for all intents and purposes, it remains just as present as it was in Smith’s day.
Inerrancy of the Leader: Interestingly, there is seemingly contradictory evidence on this topic. Joseph Smith, Jr. admitted to having flaws, and even warned followers about expecting too much of him. He is often berated in his “revelations” (D&C 3, for example). But at the same time, these alleged revelations continually upheld that Smith was God’s servant, and although there were sometimes threats of removing his authority, Smith got away with whatever he wanted in reality. Regardless of what he said about himself, though, Smith’s followers have essentially stated that he was without error in his leadership of the Church. For example, Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church at the time, said, “I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty” (Official Declaration - 1; Harold B. Lee said similar things in 1968).   
This statement, in essence, suggests that the leader, though human perhaps, is infallible at directing God’s work and, in turn, directing all people on earth. Indeed, even in the face of blatant error in judgment, the leaders are granted complete immunity. Consider the repulsive example of racist doctrines and treatment of persons of African descent—the LDS church has still never apologized for these. On the contrary, these errors are excused with statements such as, “limited understanding.” The Church never concedes and calls it what it is—complete and unbridled racism posing as revelation. 

Regarding more modern Church practices, in addition to the massive efforts aimed at public perception of the past leaders’ inerrancy, there is much evidence that it also applies to current leaders. Perhaps most telling is the requirement that members not associate with people who are critical of the leaders (among other things; source). To be worthy of entering LDS temples, members must deny associations with critics of the Church. At a minimum, then, it appears that much effort is exercised to preserve the perception of the leaders’ inerrancy.
Omniscience of the Leader: Because early Church members left behind everything they knew to join the LDS community, abandoning previous associations, trying out a new economic system, even giving up their political affiliations, and following Smith and other early leaders as mayors and even facing the prospect of making Smith the President of the United States, it is safe to say that early members viewed Smith as being correct in far more than just his interpretations of scripture. He was their leader in all things.

Modern leaders may be less involved in areas of members’ lives, but the foundation of this element remains. Because spiritual wellbeing is believed to be tied to virtually all other areas of life, there is little room for disagreement with a current church president on matters as diverse as diet, personal appearance (e.g., ear piercings), choice of media, associates, and so on.

Decades ago, leaders had stricter positions about topics such as family planning, gender roles, and so on. Although these latter positions have softened in more recent years with society’s views, it remains clearly held that members would do well to heed the Church leaders in all things.
Persuasive Techniques: Obviously, the missionary system for both the early and current Church fulfills the recruitment method element of a cult, not to mention the member missionary program and social media campaigns, as well as movies like Meet the Mormons. Naturally, this element does not a cult make per se, but it is certainly present within the Church.

Regarding reinforcement of current beliefs, the Church holds 3 hours of meetings on Sundays, in addition to firesides and other devotionals; Mondays are set aside for Family Home Evening, which includes reinforcement of Church doctrines; Members are taught that every day should include scripture study, guided of course by Church-publicized study aids and interpretations; High school students are almost required to attend seminary, where beliefs are reinforced each weekday; Home and visiting teachers must deliver a “spiritual message” to each family each month, and each member (above a certain age) must also make such visits to several families. Hours more of belief reinforcement may be added if one considers that members are encouraged to also attend the temple, do family history work, and constantly look for opportunities to share their beliefs. It is undeniable that there is a great emphasis in the Church on recruiting others and reinforcing beliefs.
Hidden Agendas: I argue that this was and is clearly present in both the early and modern Church. The phrase “milk before meat” encompasses this element. A social psychologist would call the same thing the “foot-in-the-door” phenomenon—if you can get someone to commit to something relatively minor, they are much more likely to commit to something bigger later. Following promises of spiritual cleansing and the personal guidance of a member of the Godhead, potential members commit to baptism, usually before having learned about all that will thereafter be required of them (e.g., the Word of Wisdom, tithing, volunteering in a calling, home or visiting teaching, temple attendance, etc.), and without exposure to the troubling doctrines and practices of the past, and sometimes present, Church (see this blog). They are later gently introduced to these subjects with assurances that faith and prayer will make everything alright in the end, and before they know it they are in temple ceremonies, dedicating their entire existence to furthering the Church’s agenda. A less cult-like approach would involve months or even years of education about Church doctrines before baptism, so that it is clear that the investigator understands the nature of the Church. Instead, it seems that a very basic understanding of the more popular doctrines is all that is necessary for baptism; the rest comes later. 
Furthermore, the secretive nature of the temple fulfills this cult-like element. Call it “sacred” rather than secret, but the practice is the same – investigators are sheltered from learning many vital agendas of the Church.

Deceit: Very much in line with the hidden agendas, even lifelong members are carefully kept away from information that might cast doubt on the Church’s divinity. In Joseph Smith, Jr.’s days especially, as he was quietly pressuring women into marrying him, but lying about it publicly and going to other extreme lengths to keep it secret (e.g., sham marriages; see Compton, 2001), deceit was an enormous part of the early Church. Smith even went so far as to destroy a printing press that might make his actions public. Only recently, as the internet has made it easier for the troubling flaws of the Church and its leaders to be made public, has the Church made attempts to address these issues. But even these attempts are largely superficial, without actually addressing the core concerns, and often they even contain inaccuracies to allow the deceit to carry on (example). In any case, the Church does not seem troubled that its members believe false things about the Church, as long as it keeps them faithful (more). Certainly, the LDS church meets this criterion of a cult, both in the past and the present.

Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation: The financial must be separated from the sexual here. Financially, tithing is the obvious application for the modern Church, although it arguably falls short of the severity of what I would consider a cult; All churches require some form of financial support from members. What I find bothersome about tithing in the LDS church is that consequences of not paying are severe to the point that an otherwise faithful and true believer is not in good standing with the Church without having paid an amount set forth by the Church. Considering “other assets,” such as the hours of time members are required to “volunteer” for callings, financial exploitation may be clearer. The LDS church does not typically pay for things that they can order (“call”) a member to do, such as cleaning Church buildings, babysitting children (“called to nursery service”), marketing (“missionary service”), and so on. It would be difficult to suggest that members do not invest a great deal of money, time, skill, and other talent in the service of the LDS church. Naturally, they would insist that they volunteer these things willingly, but all of these assets are given under the vague promise of “blessings,” for which there is no objective measure or proof. 

In Smith’s days, the financial exploitation of members was far more severe, especially during the failed Law of Consecration experiment (not to mention the banking fiasco). Members gave literally all they had to the Church, which then supposedly redistributed it in a manner it saw fit. Smith himself earned no income, but all of his property came from his followers. Thus, it is difficult to argue that this was not a form of financial exploitation.

Sexual exploitation is another matter entirely. I am aware of no such exploitation in the modern Church, at least certainly not sanctioned by the leaders or widespread in any way. Developing sexual relationships with leaders is no issue of which I am aware. Joseph Smith, Jr.’s leadership, on the other hand, was rife with obvious sexual exploitation. Not only did he take multiple wives, but many of them were very young, and many of them he took even though they were married already (Compton, 2001). That he consummated his marriages is supported by the historical records, and perhaps most damning is the fact that he kept these practices hidden for as long as he could. Despite attempts to explain this obvious sexual exploitation away, I am unable to find a reasonable purpose for these marriages (see the outline of my concerns). Clearly, sexual exploitation was apparent in the early Church. If I am wrong about this, please, someone explain to me how.

Absolute Truth: This element requires very little discussion, for this is precisely the Church’s claim. It, alone, holds the authority, knowledge, and inspiration that are necessary to pass this test that is earthly life. There are no substitutions (example of this position). It was so in the early Church, and remains so today. This cult-like element is indisputably present in the LDS organization.

Absolute Morality: Certainly related to the previous element, the Church leaders claim precisely to have the system for right and wrong that applies to all of humankind, without exception. Members who stray from this system (or even voice disagreement) are disciplined, including excommunication. They are, of course, invited to return, but only after they have adjusted their behavior and/or beliefs to again conform to the morality dictated by Church leaders. The Church undeniably purports to hold absolute moral authority. I know of no evidence to the contrary.

In conclusion, I argue that the early LDS church met all criteria for a cult. The modern Church has softened relative to many of the early practices, but these elements are still at the core of the organization. I, therefore, would describe the modern LDS organization as cult-like. Of course, simply because an organization is cult-like does not mean that it is necessarily a negative organization. On the contrary, the LDS church has done and continues to do much good. Even so, I argue that these cult-like elements are necessarily unhealthy for absolute truth. When transparency is the enemy, and illusion is needed so that people will remain loyal to a cause, that cause is not interested in truth. Such an organization is interested first in its own existence, and only secondarily to its other purported goals. Because the Church claims to be primarily interested in truth, but instead often works directly against truth for the aim of ensuring its survival, I argue that the good it does is overshadowed by the harm. There are far more healthy and appropriate ways to do good in the world than through pseudohistory, manipulation, and behavior compliance tactics with promises that cannot be kept.

November 17, 2015

Stirring Things Up

Earlier this month, LDS leaders made changes to the official handbook regarding the children who have guardians or parents in same-sex marriages. These children may not be baptized, prepare for missions, or hold any standing in the Church until age 18, and only after they have moved out of the household of their same-sex parents, and after having officially stated that same-sex marriage is a sin.

The Church’s official explanation for why they would do something like this is that they are protecting children from the uncomfortable situation that might arise when the child is on the records of the Church, but is not supported at home. See the official response here (by the way, notice how the interviewer hand-feeds these gentle and obviously scripted questions to Elder Christofferson).

I find at least three concerning issues here. The first is that it appears that the child is being punished for having same-sex parents, not protected from discomfort. Second, the Church seems inconsistent with this bizarre practice of barring a child’s alleged spiritual progress based on the parents’ beliefs. Lastly, why is gender more important than love?

First, the claim is that this policy protects the child from conflict. I cannot understand how the policy would accomplish that. If a child wants to be a member of an organization that believes his same-sex parents are committing a very serious sin, the conflict is inescapable – it will not go away at age 18 or ever. At best, this Church policy only makes the conflict worse by forcing an immediate choice – “Do I want the blessings of my chosen faith, or do I want to live with my same-sex parents?” Had the policy not been in place, a child whose same-sex parents did not oppose his decision could be baptized, go on temple trips, and so on. Now that it is in place, the child is forced to choose between his same-sex parents and his faith, even if the parents have no objections to his membership. Rather than reaching out to the same-sex couple by showing acceptance to their child, the Church has chosen to cut off the family for as long as the same-sex couple is an issue.

Second, I find this policy wildly inconsistent. Why implement this stance in families with same-sex marriages, but not in other families that do not fit the LDS ideal? For example, suppose a liberal LDS couple (yes, they exist) teaches its children that same-sex marriage is okay, even though the Church does not condone it. Why would their children be allowed baptism, if we are using the reasoning provided by Elder Christofferson? If the aim is to avoid children being taught things in the home that are contradictory to doctrines, shouldn’t thousands of children be denied baptism each year? Indeed, it sounds like the next question for the temple recommend interview should be, "Do you here and now condemn same-sex marriage as a sin comparable to murder?" I'd wager that a good proportion of members, particularly of the younger generation, would not pass the interview.

Children of parents whose lifestyles are not in accordance with Church doctrines are allowed to be baptized all the time. Indeed, suppose a teenager has alcoholic parents—do the missionaries say, “The Lord’s Word of Wisdom does not permit alcohol to be consumed. Because both your mother and father consume alcohol regularly, you are not eligible for membership in the Church.”? It’s ludicrous.

Lastly, I am an enormous supporter of the family. The family has become a hot topic in recent years as opposing views wrestle over what the family is and isn’t. On the one hand, some want to portray it as perfectly normal for children to be from broken homes, raised by nannies, by helicopter parents, and so on. On the other hand, others, like the LDS church, seem to suggest through policies such as this one that the family is primarily about genitalia, and the rest is secondary. The Church wants the world to think that children raised in same-sex households are in grave danger, simply due to the fact of the same-sex union. However, I believe that what is more important in a family is that the parents are unified in their love and support of the children: nurturing their interests and talents, and guiding them through life’s tough times. I argue that such characteristics are far more important than the sex of the parents. Perhaps same-sex parents are not the ideal situation, but if the child is loved and nurtured, then that's a far better situation than many children have whose parents are straight.

Naturally, as society becomes even more accepting of same-sex unions, and science continues to demonstrate that it is not an issue of choice, morality, or sin, but a mystery of nature, I am certain that the LDS church will be forced to follow the path it took regarding race and worthiness – either face mutiny or change doctrines. If history is any indicator, the Church will again choose the latter.

February 13, 2015

Formula for Faith

I came across this article a few days ago, and could not help but share it here. Reading the title, you might assume that it is the exit story of some disenchanted member of the LDS church who simply repeats all of the criticisms of Joseph Smith, Jr. Actually, it is a much more interesting story than that.

In sum, a young woman and her mother were convinced through the Holy Ghost that a charismatic man (who was not Joseph Smith, Jr.) was a prophet, and became willing to do anything he asked, even far beyond the point of it becoming uncomfortable and apparently immoral. He was able to gain their loyalty through a combination of confidence, flattery, and promises of certain rewards for their obedience to him.

Of course, I draw attention to the parallels of this story with that of the founder of the LDS church. All Joseph Smith, Jr. did was to confidently tell people that he had all sorts of supernatural powers, possessed ancient and sacred plates, and that he was the supreme authority of God on earth. He flattered his followers by claiming that they were the elect, chosen people. He promised them rewards of whatever they desired most - eternal families, mansions in heaven, eternity with their Heavenly Father, peace, and salvation.

Just as the man in the story, Smith eventually convinced many of his followers to do extremely uncomfortable and seemingly immoral things.

What I find disturbing is that so many people still cling to Smith for exactly the same reasons that the women in this story clung to "Adam". There is seemingly no difference between Smith and Adam. If my LDS friends and family members were in the position that these women were, it seems that they would still be following Adam, just as they are following Smith.

If I were to pray about Adam and get a sinking feeling, his followers would likely tell me that the devil is working hard to keep me from believing, that I lack the faith and confidence in God to receive the correct answer, that I don't know what the Holy Ghost feels like, that my heart is not prepared to receive the answer, that I am receiving the answer in other ways I do not recognize (source). They would tell me to read Adam's "translations", to sing songs that praise him, and then to kneel and pray aloud with "real intent" until I finally did believe in Adam (source).

In essence, there is no possible way of convincing an irrational human being that Adam was just a power hungry, manipulative, charismatic con artist. They have a hundred ways to explain away his deeds, most importantly their own conviction. There is similarly no way to convince some followers of Joseph Smith, Jr. that he was exactly the same thing.

January 8, 2014


Apologists often state that the LDS practice of polygamy was a commandment from God, and that is the only reason that it happened. The Church would have us believe that Joseph Smith, Jr., in total innocence, approached the Lord in humble prayer to know if Old Testament prophets were justified in taking several wives (D&C 132:1), and that as a response Smith was commanded to begin taking more wives. In fact, in most of his proposals (of which we know much detail), Smith claimed that God had commanded him to marry these additional women. This applies even to many of the women who were already married to other men. For example, Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs was already married when Smith proposed to her. She wrote that Smith said he had been commanded to marry Zina, and that "an angel with a drawn sword had stood over [Smith] and told him that if he did not establish polygamy, he would lose 'his position and his life'" (Quoted in Compton, 2001, pp. 80-81; see also Bushman, 2005). Indeed, the current position of the Church is that the taking of multiple wives was a commandment (source), and never something that members sought out of their own accord.

These statements all make it seem as if polygamy was nothing but a trial for Smith and the early members of the Church. They seem to suggest that Smith was reluctant at best to take another wife, and perhaps that he pleaded with God to excuse himself from this commandment. On a few occasions, Smith publicly expressed disdain for the idea of multiple wives, and threatened others with excommunication if they practiced it (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 410-411; William Clayton's Diary, Oct. 19, 1843), even though he already secretly had multiple wives.

These images of a reluctant and humble instrument of God notwithstanding, there are several pieces of evidence that tell us more clearly what was going on in Smith's mind where polygamy was concerned. Firstly, I find it very strange that Smith would specifically inquire about the practice. With so much else to take up his time and attention, and so many other principles that were pertinent to the salvation of humankind, why was he thinking about multiple wives? I believe that Smith had had his eye on his first plural wife, and was wondering how he might justify his desires for her while keeping in line with the doctrine he was preaching. After all, Fanny Alger, Smith's first plural wife married him while she was living with Smith's family (source; see also Compton, 2001). It is not as if this commandment caught Smith by surprise, and he had no idea whom he would choose to be his Number Two.

The second hint as to his true motivation is the sheer number of plural wives he took. For a man who was reluctant to practice polygamy to take at least 34 total wives during his life is very strange. If Smith was commanded to take more than one wife, why did he choose more than two? If a man has moral hesitations about paying tithing, does he decide to pay 90% instead of 10% of his income?

The third hint that struck me recently is in the scripture where he dictated the alleged commandment. When Smith would recite a "revelation", it came fluidly, often uninterrupted. He would have us believe that that is because he was merely repeating what God had told him. Were this true, then the scripture should read exactly as God willed it. The more realistic and likely possibility is that he was speaking on his own accord, saying his thoughts as they streamed through his consciousness. Thus, mistakes would certainly be present, and he would often say things before having the chance to think them through. The latter would explain why the 132nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants (and so much other LDS scripture) seems to jump from topic to topic. More importantly, however, I think it also reveals some of his hidden motivations as he did not have the time and cognitive resources to edit his thoughts. What I find most telling is his word choice in verse 61. It states, "...if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another... then is he justified" (emphasis added). What a strange place for the word "desire"! If this truly was a commandment that Smith was so reluctant to follow, should not the passage read, "if any man espouse a virgin, and I command him to espouse another..."? The verse sounds less like a commandment from God, and more like a permission slip for Smith.

If this truly were a dictation from God, He is essentially saying, "Take as many wives as you like! No problem!" This is a strange statement from a deity whose followers are already hesitant to follow his edict. It seems even stranger considering the strict conditions under which polygamy was supposed to take place. Jacob 1:15, 2:23-35, and 3:5 make it clear that plural marriage is a potentially damnable practice, so why would God write a blank check for the LDSs at that time?

I see this phenomenon nowhere else in LDS doctrine. Nephi was supposedly commanded to kill Laban in order to fulfill the higher purpose (1 Nephi 4:10-11). Nephi was reluctant to follow this supposed commandment. Did God tell Nephi in that instance, "Slay him. In fact, slay as many people as you want."? Abraham was probably reluctant and heartbroken at the commandment to slay his son (Genesis 22). Did God tell Abraham "Offer your son for a burnt offering. If you desire to also burn your wife, or anybody you meet along the way, that's acceptable too."?

I know of no other "commandment" where God explicitly states that there is no limit. Tithing is, by definition, 10%. Why did God not add in, "Just to clarify, 15% is okay too."? Why is this law of polygamy the only place where the Almighty specifically says, "you can have as many wives as you want."?

The best explanation that I have is that it was never a revelation from deity, but this "New and Everlasting Covenant" was Joseph Smith, Jr.'s way of justifying his lust. He desired to marry many women, and that is exactly why he did it. This fact is stated in his own documentation of the alleged commandment. If there is a better explanation, please share it with me.

June 12, 2013

Supply & Demand

I recently watched an interesting documentary that is entirely relevant to this blog. The film is entitled Kumaré, and the idea behind it was to examine the role of a religious leader. In brief, the filmmaker is a fairly ordinary skeptic who decides that he will dress and behave like a wise and deeply spiritual leader, and simply see what happens (Netflix link).

I highly recommend watching the documentary, but here is my summary. The actor, Vikram Gandhi, advertises his services, and gains a few followers. With no real basis for them, he makes up some completely ambiguous chants and yoga-like exercises and meditations to use with his followers. Many of them are searching for answers, which he, "Kumaré" provides to the best of his knowledge as a completely ordinary person playing the role of a spiritual leader. Many of the followers express a deep connection to Kumaré, and sense his "purity" of intention. Many clearly put a great deal of faith in his every word, and even as he attempts to instruct them that everything he says and is is really an illusion, they continue to follow him and his ordinary wisdom. Something begins to happen as Kumaré connects with his dedicated followers and seeks to help them with their personal problems; He begins to understand the enormous responsibility that comes with his newfound power and influence. When the time comes to reveal to his followers that he is not, in fact, what he has pretended to be, and that he has no more knowledge or wisdom than any other person, he becomes intensely anxious, and is unable to tell them of the deception. After much more planning and soul searching, Vikram eventually reveals to his congregation that he is not Kumaré, but an ordinary person. His followers have mixed responses, but overall lovingly accept him and acknowledge that his works were valuable. One woman even insists that he does, in fact, have psychic powers even if he does not recognize them.

I wish to address several themes I gleaned from the film. First is the fact that the followers were searching for something - answers. Each of Kumaré's followers had some problem or need in their lives, and each believed that the problem could be solved or the need could be met through some "spiritual" methods. In other words, there was a clear demand for answers, and the followers believed they required someone to supply the answers.

Second, Kumaré had the appearance of a man who had answers. He had none in reality, or at least not any better answers than anyone else might have. What was important was that he supplied the illusion that he had answers, and that is all that the followers really wanted. He grew a long beard, put on a robe, carried a staff, and spoke in simple terms. The followers wanted to believe that he was wise and had an advanced perspective on the universe, so he simply met their expectations, however uninformed or faulty.

Finally, I find the interaction of the two positions fascinating. Kumaré hardly ever truly gave his followers advice, because he really didn't have any answers. He often redirected their questions back to them, asking them what advice they might give to themselves, for example. And yet, simply from the nature of the relationship, the followers needed him as some sort of symbol or direction, so remained dependent upon him. He, on the other hand, was told day after day that he was making a huge impact in their lives - the followers constantly remarked to him how he had changed their lives, how they admired him. By the end of the film, Vikram felt an overpowering need to be Kumaré for these people. Even though he had done nothing but provide some sort of superficial hope and safety for them, that was what they most needed. The meaning of what he had provided to them was far more valuable than the shallow words he had used. 

I argue that Kumaré could have used any manner of words or approach, but that as long as he provided the message of hope and validation, he would have gained followers anywhere. I believe that is what religious disciples seek first and foremost. The details are almost irrelevant. This is clearly evidenced by the deliberate ignorance of so many LDS at the significant problems with Church doctrines and history. As long as the LDS church offers a message of hope and tells them they are right to believe it, almost no amount of reality will deter them. I could name any number of other spiritual groups or cults where people seeking answers were caught up in a leader's charisma and hopeful message (no matter how strange); these followers sometimes become willing to do anything the leader asks, even if bizarre or unconscionable.

In the documentary, Vikram was just a curious skeptic. With a little imagination, it is easy to comprehend the real damage he could have done if he were a manipulative or corrupt man. By simply pretending to be a compassionate, wise man, with some perspective on life, he almost immediately had control of his followers. A manipulative or corrupt man could easily begin to take advantage of their vulnerability and trust to get them to do unbelievable things.

Through the documentary, I found new perspective on Joseph Smith, Jr. Perhaps I will spend more time on this in the future, but I have pondered Smith for some time now - why did he do what he did? At this point, I do not believe that Smith started the LDS church with purely evil intentions. I believe they were selfish reasons, perhaps to make a few dollars and have some entertainment, but not purely psychopathic. I think most likely he saw the huge demand people of that day and age had for religious guidance, and so he decided that he would step in and become a supplier. Maybe he knew that all religious leaders need is confidence and a message people want to believe. He had witnessed firsthand the methods that religious leaders of his day used to gain followers and he thought to himself, "I bet I could do that." He practiced his methods by claiming to be a scryer - confidently claiming that he knew how to locate buried treasures (more). All he needed was some demand for such services - and everyone wanted to find treasure - and he would confidently deliver the hopeful message of knowing its location. The problem, of course, is that he never once actually delivered treasure. 

Regardless of Smith's original motives in making spectacular claims about golden plates and visions, the documentary calls another interesting point into question - could Smith have come clean? Perhaps the whole LDS church began as an experiment for Smith. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could pull it off. But, just as Vikram found it unbearable to let down his followers, who had come to depend on him so, could it be that Smith came to feel obligated to continue his charade? 

I am a doctoral student in psychology, and cannot help but consider some psychological principles here. Social psychology's theory of cognitive dissonance, for example, proposes that, when faced with such dilemmas, we typically mold our thoughts and feelings to match our actions. Perhaps at some level Smith really felt guilty for misleading innocent people, but felt that coming clean and admitting that he was no prophet would have done more damage to his vulnerable followers (or it would at least get him killed). Freud might have argued that Smith's polygynous practices were an unconscious attempt to be found out as a fraud so that he could finally relieve his conscience of its burden. Or perhaps after years of hearing his followers' praise, he eventually came to believe that he really was more than a man. After all, even palm readers and other psychics must believe at some level that they really have supernatural powers if they are not entirely malicious manipulators. People return to them, and keep paying their money. Smith may have seen his growing army of followers and their willingness to do anything for him as evidence that he must have been more than a mere man. 

There may also be something to learn about subsequent Church leaders here. I recently read an interesting opinion about the current leaders of the Church. The question is if they truly know deep down that the Church is not what it claims, but feel obligated to the members to continue to put on the show (or have they become the liars and manipulators Joseph Smith was?). I think that using the Kumaré experiment as a reference point, it is easy to understand how a normal member of the Church could rise to a position of prestige, learn more of the troubling reality of the Church's history, but as a combination of their celebrity status (which extends to their family), their promised blessings, the decades and dollars they committed to the Church, and, perhaps most importantly, the millions of members whose lives depend on the message, that these leaders cannot allow themselves to entertain the possibility that they were lied to and, therefore, misled their children and friends. Truly considering that thought is potentially painful, and may have serious consequences (as any of us who has left the Church knows). Friends will be lost, social status revoked, family relationships damaged, and perhaps even marriages broken (see my earlier post on this topic). 

And yet, just as Vikram wrestled with these questions and finally decided that, no matter how painful, the truth must be revealed, that is where I stand. It is because Vikram cared for his followers that he told them the truth. He knew the truth might be painful, but he believed his followers deserved to know, and that they were strong enough to no longer need the lie. Similarly, it is precisely because I care for my family and friends that I have told them the truth about the LDS church. Whether they still need the lie or not is their decision, but I refuse to perpetuate it any longer.

"Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" - Gal. 4:16

March 25, 2013

Mixed Messages Part II

Continuing my comments on the LDS church's latest edition of its scriptures, I would like to now address the new introduction to the second Official Declaration at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants. The introduction reads, in its entirety:

The Book of Mormon teaches that “all are alike unto God,” including “black and white, bond and free, male and female” (2 Nephi 26:33). Throughout the history of the Church, people of every race and ethnicity in many countries have been baptized and have lived as faithful members of the Church. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, a few black male members of the Church were ordained to the priesthood. Early in its history, Church leaders stopped conferring the priesthood on black males of African descent. Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice. Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance. The revelation came to Church President Spencer W. Kimball and was affirmed to other Church leaders in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978. The revelation removed all restrictions with regard to race that once applied to the priesthood.
While I completely agree with the leaders' decision to finally remove the racial restrictions, I will focus my comments on two of the claims made in this new introduction. First, the statement "Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice" is a complete lie. Consider the following:

In 1947 the First Presidency issued this Official Statement:
From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel. (Statement of The First Presidency on the Negro Question, July 17, 1947, quoted in Mormonism and the Negro, pp.46-7)
In 1949, The First Presidency issued the following statement:
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. (The First Presidency on the Negro Question, 17 Aug. 1949)
And an Official Statement of The First Presidency, issued on August 17, 1951, reads:
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes... Man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam's transgression.  If this is carried further, it would imply that the Negro is punished or allotted to a certain position on this earth, not because of Cain's transgression, but came to earth through the loins of Cain because of his failure to achieve other stature in the spirit world.
It is thus entirely clear that several Church documents outline the origins of the racial restrictions to the priesthood. They claim that it was direct revelation from God. The current introduction to the Official Declaration implies that it was somehow just a simple misunderstanding, but this is in conflict with the official statements by leaders that the restriction was doctrine because of God's direct communication of such. I find it repulsive that the leaders now easily disregard those past "revelations", and yet claim that Spencer W. Kimball's "revelation" was real. Which leads to my next point.

The new introduction states "Church leaders believed that a revelation from God was needed to alter this practice and prayerfully sought guidance." This statement suggests that leaders were anxious to end the Church's racist practices, when in fact the LDS church was the last major U.S. organization to begin treating Blacks and Whites equally. Even after dozens of requests and inquiries as to the possibility of removing the restrictions based on race, church leaders held stubbornly to the practice, and continually claimed it to be God's policy, not theirs. 

Rather than minimizing this disturbing, systemic racism in the Church's past, it is time that leaders acknowledge that those past "revelations" were inspired by racism and ignorance, and were never the will of God. This is why I can find no faith in any LDS leader who claims to know what God wants me to do. Past leaders commanded incorrect, arguably evil, practices to be carried out against innocent people for over a century, and now do not even acknowledge that it was a horrible mistake. They continue to insist that they are and were God's voice to His children. If they are, then that is not a god I choose to follow.

March 22, 2013

Mixed Messages

The reader may be aware that the Church recently announced completing a new edition of LDS scripture. The new edition corrects some typographical errors, adjusts information in footnotes and chapter headings, etc. For this post, I will comment on the new edition's introductory paragraphs for the Official Declarations at the end of the Doctrine and Covenants.

The introduction reads, in its entirety:
The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise (see 2 Samuel 12:7–8 and Jacob 2:27, 30). Following a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s (see section 132). From the 1860s to the 1880s, the United States government passed laws to make this religious practice illegal. These laws were eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the following Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.
First, is that LDS scripture states that monogamy is God's standard for marriage. I have a difficult time understanding the language of it being a standard, "unless He declares otherwise". All the research I have done about polygamy in the Church has shown that plural marriage is the standard, and that God only tolerates monogamy when His people are unable to live polygamy. 

Although I agree that the text of both the Bible and The Book of Mormon make clear the superiority of monogamy (1 Corinthians 7:2; Deuteronomy 17:17; Ether 10:5; Jacob 1:15, 2:24, 26-27, 3:5; Mark 10:11; Mosiah 11:2; 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6; also see D&C 49:16), LDS leaders and members have made clear their belief that God holds polygamy in higher esteem than monogamy. For example,
  • Brigham Young taught, "Since the founding of the Roman empire monogamy has prevailed more extensively than in times previous to that. The founders of that ancient empire were robbers and women stealers, and made laws favoring monogamy in consequence of the scarcity of women among them, and hence this monogamic system which now prevails throughout Christendom, and which had been so fruitful a source of prostitution and whoredom throughout all the Christian monogamic cities of the Old and New World, until rottenness and decay are at the root of their institutions both national and religious." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 11, p. 128) 
  • John Taylor (1853) preached, "...the one-wife system not only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people." (p. 227) 
  • The Doctrine and Covenants contradict the idea of monogamy being a higher law than polygamy. D&C 132:3-4, 6 state, when introducing the principle of polygamy, “Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same. For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory… And as pertaining to the new and everlasting covenant, it was instituted for the fullness of my glory; and he that receiveth a fullness thereof must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.”
These statements suggest to me that polygamy is the LDS God's standard of marriage, unless God allows otherwise. Now the Church has released the contradictory introduction to the Official Declaration, suggesting that polygamy was a break from the norm.
Are they implying that the decades-long practice of the "new and everlasting covenant" by early members was simply a temporary break from the higher law of monogamy? If that is true, the Ruler of the Universe must have had a very compelling reason for it. I, therefore, ask again, what was the purpose of polygamy?

Secondly, it is incorrect that "the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s". Joseph Smith had already married at least 3 women (including Emma Hale) by that time (Compton, 2001).

Third, the introduction suggests that LDS were legally practicing polygamy since its inception - as if they were simply appealing the practice thereof until the Supreme Court finally upheld laws against its practice. The claim is simply false:
  • The Illinois Anti-bigamy law outlawed polygamy. It was passed in 1833 (Revised Laws of Illinois) while the LDS were there. Most did not leave until 1846. Joseph Smith, Jr. took his first plural wife between 1833 and 1835. 
  • The introduction correctly cites the first federal legislation to outlaw polygamy, passed in 1862 (Embry, 2007). 
  • The introduction also correctly states that the Church finally issued the Official Declaration against polygamy in 1890, long after it had been made illegal, but the statement was not accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding; Polygamous marriages still took place until at least 1904 (Embry, 2007). 
  • In brief, everywhere the LDS practiced polygamy, it was illegal. This is the longest campaign of civil disobedience in American history (Bagley, 2007).
I am certain that church leaders went to great lengths to carefully word these introductions in order to appear historically plausible, while not too out-of-line with what the Church has taught for decades. It appears to me, however, that this is simply another attempt to hide the uncomfortable and disturbing details of the Church's past.