The Truce

According to the few records we have, way back in 1254 in the court of Mongke Khan at Karakorum, there was a debate (source, see also Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World). Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists gathered to argue their case before the Great Khan to plead their case and (hopefully) convert a few people to the one true faith. There was apparently quite a lot of lively debate, with the Christians doing pretty well (at least according to their own account), but one important thing was missing. No one was actually switching faiths:

They all listened without making any contradiction, but no one said: “I believe; I want to become a Christian.”

Faced with this impasse, the Christians and Muslims started singing and quoting scripture at each other, with the Buddhists just being silently Buddhist at everyone else, and when that didn’t win any converts either, they gave up on debating altogether and…

…And everyone got drunk instead, and then went their separate ways. (No really, check the original account.)

Notice what didn’t happen: they didn’t try to slit each other’s throats. Even though there was plenty of religious throat-slitting happening everywhere else in the world, they didn’t do that at Karakorum. They all put up with each other instead, and found a way to get along even though they couldn’t agree on matters that they all agreed were very important. They made a truce. Perhaps an unwritten one, but one that they all agreed to just the same.

I believe that this sort of unwritten truce is vital to pluralistic societies, such as the one I live in, and so I wish to discuss our own unwritten truce today. In particular, I wish to discuss the forces threatening its existence, and what might happen if we break the truce.

The specific terms of the truce are unclear and subject to constant change, but I think that the eart of the truce is constant and clear. Put bluntly: “I’ll put up with your bullshit if you’ll put up with mine.” A tit for tat, easily understood by almost everyone. You don’t want to lose the chance to say whatever you like, so you let the other guys say whatever they like. Fair’s fair, after all.

This is the spirit of freedom of religion. Your competing religions can’t both be right, but since you can’t come to an agreement on which one is right, you agree to disagree, and you let the other guy keep on living his foul heathen creed while you go about your pious duties. This is the spirit of freedom of speech. You know that the other guy’s opinions are wrong, but you can see that he is thoroughly convinced that your opinions are wrong and both of you know you’re not changing each other’s minds, so you let him spew his nonsense while you declare the truth. You’d like to shut the other guy up, but everyone can see that the only way to do that would be total war, and you’re not sure if you’d win that war at all, let alone score a victory that’s actually worth the cost. Besides, you’re not too keen on destroying your enemies, even when they’re really wrong. I mean, they’re still people, aren’t they?

Scott Alexander calls this truce “a timeless Platonic contract that doesn’t literally exist”, and he has a lot to say in favor of it, and against the people who would break it. That post of his was a large inspiration for the post of mine, especially since the people in favor of breaking the contract seem to be growing bolder and more numerous. Let’s have a look at some of the folks currently protesting the terms of the truce.

Not so long ago, a government official came to a university to speak, by the invitation of some of its students, but some other students weren’t so happy. They did their very best to shut him down:

After dozens of protesters filed into an event featuring House Representative Briscoe Cain, they wouldn’t allow Rep. Cain to speak, claiming he has ties to the Alt-Right and is anti-LGBT.

Rep. Cain was invited to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law by the Federalist Society to talk to the students about the recent legislative special session. Instead, the event was shut down before it even started.

“No hate anywhere, you don’t get a platform here!” protesters yelled inside the room.

The words echoed through the classroom.

“When a racist comes to town, shut him down,” they continued.

That was the mission of the student protesters: shutting down Rep. Cain, who was invited on campus by student Daniel Caldwell.

“It appears that many of you have comments, questions or concerns that you’d like to take up with him,” Caldwell said to the students while at the podium.

No comments, questions or concerns were ever voiced, however. Rep. Cain tried to speak, but his words were lost below the chants.

“No hate anywhere. You don’t get a platform here!” the chant continued.

The general sentiment was clear: we won’t put up with any more of your bullshit. Alright, fair enough. But tell me this: what happens when your opponent decides they won’t put up with your bullshit? Did you think that far ahead?

Some folks, of course, have thought that far ahead, but I don’t think they’ve thought well enough. Take, for instance, George Ciccariello-Maher, who is currently having some free-speech-related difficulties. In the face of a rather shocking injustice (a jury being unable to convict a police officer of murder for shooting a man in the back), Ciccariello-Maher advocates violent revolution (unless “the spirit of John Brown” means something else I haven’t thought of yet). But is this a fight that George and his friends can win? The source of the original injustice comes from people who are unwilling to convict a police officer. There are quite a lot of these people, and if George’s anti-police crowd tried starting a violent revolution, these folks just might fight back, and of course they’d have the police on their side. Do you like those odds, George? Because I don’t.

Of course, there’s at least one good reason to start a war even when you might not win: when the peace is no longer tolerable. If the terms of the truce are bad enough, then you have a good reason to gamble on breaking it. So is our current state of affairs bad enough to justify breaking the truce and making a bloody play for a better peace?

I really don’t think so. See, it wasn’t so long that we had some really nasty violence between factions here in the US of A. Consider:

– The Elaine massacre: A huge mob of white people kill over 100 black people, maybe over 200. Only 5 white people are killed in response, and none are arrested, unlike the 122 black people arrested afterward.

– The Tulsa riot: A white mob, with police assistance, destroys a wealthy black neighborhood, using planes to drop bombs on the houses and people. At least 300 innocent people were killed. No one was ever prosecuted for any of this.

– The Colfax massacre: White voters attack black voters to prevent them from gaining power. 100 black people killed, 3 white people killed in response, attackers arrested but never convicted.

There are more, of course. Many more. Notice which way the violence keeps leaning? But notice, also, that these sorts of things seem rather rare nowadays? To me, this suggests that our current peace is precious, because it used to be a lot worse, and if it was that bad once, it could be that way again. Or, if other parts of the world are any indication, much, much worse.

And just to make this all about me for a second, what about disputes that aren’t along racial lines? I started this post with a story about religion, and the various parties in that story are still fighting with each other in some parts of the world. They could easily come to blows here, too. And what about those of us who aren’t Christian or Muslim or Buddhist? My own religious preference, atheism, is pretty unpopular here in all sorts of places, including the USA. But right now, the truce still holds. Millions of Americans think I’m a monster, but I am still free to declare that there is no god and go about my business in peace. That freedom could go away. I really don’t want that to happen.

And there are plenty of other freedoms I enjoy that could go away, because there are people who openly want to take them away. Freedom to disrespect the government and its symbols, including the flag and the anthem. Freedom to disobey cops. Freedom to disbelieve and offend just about anyone. Sure, there are laws protecting those freedoms here in the USA, but those laws are only of force because the laws protect the great unspoken truce. If the truce goes away, people won’t care about the laws.

And so I am very frustrated when I see minorities threatening to break the truce. I know you guys have the short end of the stick now, but do you realize how much shorter it could get? You do not have the upper hand here. You may have legitimate grievances, but there’s a critical mass of people out there who think that they have legitimate grievances and you don’t, and you may enjoy making fun of them now, but if they pull out their guns and come for you, it will be of little comfort to you in your final moments to know that they are still completely unaware of how privileged they are.

Part of smart politics is realizing that you and the other side will never see eye-to-eye, but you can get along anyways if you compromise. I know it hurts, but it is better than the alternative. Put up with their bullshit, and if they don’t put up with yours, you can call them out for cheating. As long as a truce is in effect, this has force. But if you demonstrate that you don’t care about the truce, then no one else cares either, and it’s time to play hardball.

In fact, let’s dwell for a moment on the fact that cheating by one party gives other parties an excuse to cheat as well. Lots of people don’t like playing by the rules, so they’re constantly looking for an opportunity. Consider the Nazis and the Reichstag fire. Some credible people believe that the Nazis staged the fire to give themselves an excuse to seize power and suspend liberties. If that is true, then what we have is this: a powerful group wanted so badly to get away with cheating that they framed another group for being the first to cheat, and it worked. They got to set the new rules, and they retained the moral high ground because everyone thought the other guy started it. With that in mind, does it really make sense to be so eager to set aside politeness and get into fights, when doing so encourages your enemies to really fight back? When you were so eager to punch Nazis, did you realize that you were seen as throwing the first punch, and now everyone is okay with people punching right back at you?

The fragile peace still holds in the USA, but it can be destroyed, and a lot of us stand to lose big if it goes. With that in mind, I beg you to keep the peace. You may not feel like getting drunk with your ideological enemies, but you can still preserve the truce.

P.S. I have spent most of this post taking the perspective of the prospective loser in the event of a broken truce. But what about prospective winners? What if you’re in the majority, and your side might win in a bloody culture war? Should you go for it?

Well, I’ve got some bad news for you, champ. It turns out that when you win by killing your way to the top, it’s hard to stop killing, and you and your mates end up killing each other.

The French revolution, after having successfully overthrown the monarchy, soon turned on itself. Robespierre and his allies slaughtered their fellow revolutionaries for not being revolutionary enough, until they grew so unpopular that they, too, were sent to the guillotine. The Russian and Chinese revolutions were similarly cannibalistic; the Russians had a full-scale civil war, killing milllions, and in China, Mao launched his “Cultural Revolution”, which was less bloody than civil war but only because most people weren’t in a position to fight back. Even the Nazis got in on the act; not long after the Night of Broken Glass, they had the Night of Long Knives. Apparently, when you break the truce with the other side, you break it within your own ranks as well, and everyone starts cheating each other to death.

So just be careful before you go discarding the rules of civility and murdering your way to the top, for you may find that one day, when you least expect it, the ghost of civil society will have its revenge upon you, and you will have to pay for breaking the truce.


The faith of an atheist

I remember my first (and so far, last) attempt at cliff diving. I was at a waterfall, maybe twenty feet high, and there were a lot of other people there, happily jumping down to the pool below and then climbing back up for another plunge. Wanting to join in the fun, I walked to the top of the fall, stepped to the edge of the cliff, prepared to dive…

…And my resolve entirely failed me. I looked down at the water below, and it seemed so far away that I could not bring myself to go over the edge. My fear got the better of me, and if I hadn’t slipped and fallen off then I would have had to withdraw in shame. (Don’t worry, I landed just fine.)

What did I lack, at that critical moment? I think I lacked faith. I saw other people enjoying the plunge, but I had no faith in my own ability to follow their example. I rationally understood that the water below would absorb the shock of my landing, but I had no faith that it would actually save my life. When it came time to make a literal leap of faith, I couldn’t do it, and I still can’t.

I have, however, successfully made more metaphorical leaps of faith, which brings me to my main topic: my leap out of theism (more specifically, out of Mormonism).

I grew up in a fairly devout Mormon household, as did both of my parents and most of my grandparents. I served a mission and married in the temple like a good Mormon should, and while there was obviously lots of pressure for me to do so, I also really believed that it was the right thing to do. Like many Mormons, I had had profound spiritual experiences that really seemed to be from God, and Mormon theology seemed pretty cool, and the Church seemed like a good organization full of good people, and while some of the Church’s truth claims were pretty weird, they didn’t seem obviously false, so I could let those slide. Bottom line, I was a happy Mormon, and I thought I always would be.

Then someone showed me the CES Letter, and it rocked my little world. The Church’s truth claims really were false. The Church itself did bad things, and it sheltered and supported bad people. And those spiritual experiences I had? Meaningless! Lots of people had experiences like that, and they interpreted theirs in ways that contradicted mine, and no one had any way of saying which experiences were real, or what they really meant. There was no good reason left for me to stay in the LDS church, and plenty of reason to get the hell out.

But how could I? I had tied my whole life to the Church. It gave me meaning. What would I do without it? What would my family say? (And could they really all be wrong, too?) And all those times I felt the spirit of God – surely that all meant something, didn’t it? How could it all be wrong?

It took an act of faith to step away from Mormonism – faith in my own powers of reasoning and in the conclusions I had reached, faith in the information I had received, and most importantly, faith that it was worth it. Faith that I could be different from my family and still be happy. Faith that the truth was worth sacrificing for, and that I could find a new purpose for my life. But this time, I didn’t need to slip to go over the edge, and when I got to the bottom, I found that the water was fine. I made a leap of faith, and I’m never going back.

I was prompted to write this after I read this Atheist Pig comic in which the artist seems to be saying that being an atheist requires no faith at all. If that is what you’re saying, Winston, well, you’re wrong. It took a lot of faith for me to become an atheist, and I know that it took other folks a lot of faith as well, maybe more faith than I’ll ever know. Even now I have to have faith to stay an atheist: faith that rationality really is more reliable than the powerful feelings I still feel sometimes, and faith that science really does work, no matter how often my Christian friends denigrate it. None of this comes automatically.

So if you hear theists say something like “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”, acknowledge that they’re right! In spite of all the facts, they really don’t have enough faith. Perhaps they’re like me, standing on the edge, wanting to make the leap but unable. More likely, they’re so sure that the water’s unsafe that they never even go near the waterfall. They have a different pool to jump into, the poor bastards. But have some empathy for them. Following the truth, no matter where it takes you, takes more faith than some people have, even when it’s what they want to do.

The Murderous Savior: A theological dilemma

Imagine that you love some child very much. Imagine also, contrary to John Lennon, that there is a Heaven of endless happiness and a Hell of endless misery. You are probably going to be doing everything you can to ensure that the child you love goes to Heaven. Unfortunately for you, you cannot guarantee that your loved one will qualify for Heaven; you can raise them right and teach them all you know, but they still might make poor choices and condemn themselves to Hell. It’s an agonizing fact, but you try to live with it.

Then one day, a talking snake comes up to you and says: “If you act soon, there is a way to ensure that your loved one will never be damned.”

“How?”, you ask. “Children are naturally innocent”, the snake replies. “If they die young, then they die in innocence, and God will not fail to save them. So, the surest way to save someone’s soul is to find them as a child and kill them.”

“What?!”, you shout. “You want me to murder a child? You’re mad! I could never do that!”

“Not even to guarantee them an eternity of perfect happiness?”, asks the snake. “The pain of death only lasts for a moment, after all, but Heaven is forever.”

“But…”, you stammer, “but that’s murder! Killing a child is a terrible sin! I’d go to Hell for sure!”

“Ah, yes, I forgot to mention the price”, says the snake. “You’d be damning yourself, that’s for sure. But you’d also be saving your loved one. A fair trade, yes?”

“No! I’m going to let them live, and teach them right from wrong, and we’ll both do what’s right and we’ll both be saved!”

The snake laughs. “I suppose there’s always that possibility, if you feel like gambling with your loved one’s soul. But isn’t also possible that you’ll be saved and they’ll be damned? Surely you’ve seen good parents whose children went astray?”

“Well, yes, but – “

“And if you asked those parents if they’d be willing to trade places with their damned child, wouldn’t a few of them say yes?”


“Of course, you might both fail and end up in Hell together. That happens, too. But there’s a way out of all this uncertainty. Give up on yourself, kill them now, and they’re saved forever. And that’s not even the best part!”

“What? What is the best part?”

“You can do this for any child you meet! If you have any degree of fondness towards a child, you can guarantee them a place in Heaven just by killing them. You could save hundreds of people that way!”

You say nothing, unsure of how to reply. The snake begins to slither away, but it turns back to say: “You can start at any time. One soul lost for hundreds saved is not a bad trade-off, if you ask me. But maybe it’s none of my business.” And with that, the snake leaves you alone with your thoughts.

Now tell me, dear reader: what will you do? Will you slay your loved one? Will you go on to kill other children, sending them back to God? Will you preserve your own soul, and hope that your friends and loved ones can avoid damning theirs? What do you think God would want you to do?

I can tell you what I would do: I’d reject the snake’s proposal, confident in my belief that there is no Heaven or Hell, and that killing someone is the exact opposite of saving them. Of course, I might reconsider my disbelief in Heaven and Hell if a real live snake started talking to me about them…

EDIT: As you might expect, other people have considered this question before me, and one of them was nice enough to say hello. Check out Justin Paul Walters’s piece, Whether or Not You Believe in the Age of Accountability, You’re Wrong Either Way. There, you will find further food for thought (and an appreciation of DOOM if you read his other posts).

Lies Are Bad, LDS Edition

I recently discovered, via this thread on r/mormon, an article on By Common Consent, titled Yo, Dre, I got something to say!, and I found it rather disturbing. The article seeks to make two points. Here’s the first one:

First, I think we need to carve out a space for people who are willing to accept the BoM as scripture, just not of the historical kind (i.e., a modern pseudepigraphon), to remain within the fold and be accepted as good members of the Church.

Only two sentences in to the article and we’re already on the wrong foot. You see, the Book of Mormon itself claims to be historical. While it may not try to be a complete history of its peoples, it still announces itself as a factual account of people who actually existed. If you’re willing to accept it as the word of God, why not trust its historical message as well? Joseph Smith, the man who brought forth the book, also considered it to be an actual history in addition to being a vital collection of scripture. Several other latter-day prophets and apostles share Smith’s opinion; read the statements collected in this comment and think of what they would say to you if you told them that the Book of Mormon wasn’t historical.

But it appears that the author, Kevin Barney, is fully prepared to contradict his own church leaders on this point. He starts by contradicting Gordon B. Hinckley. He quotes from this interview:

Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

And then he says this:

On the one hand I appreciate the vibe he was going for, and this it’s all true or all false stance does indeed pack significant rhetorical power. But note that this is exactly the stance anti-Mormons want the Church to take, because it makes their job incredibly easy. On this stance all it takes is one problem, one counterexample, one bauble that turns out on examination not to be as shiny as it seemed at first blush, to bring the entire house of cards down. Not leaving room for any sense of nuance at all for a religion as recent and messy as Mormonism simply is not a smart corner to paint ourselves into.

Kevin, why are you contradicting the prophet like that? I thought you accepted this guy as a prophet, seer, and revelator, uniquely qualified to speak for God. Are you saying that he fell into an anti-Mormon trap just because he wanted “rhetorical power” in an interview?

It’s worth noting that Hinckley was not the first to use such rhetoric when talking about the Book of Mormon. I’ve compiled a few similar statements:

“Either the Book of Mormon is true, or it is false; either it came from God, or it was spawned in the infernal realms. It declares plainly that all men must accept it as pure scripture or they will lose their souls. It is not and cannot be simply another treatise on religion; it either came from heaven or from hell. And it is time for all those who seek salvation to find out for themselves whether it is of the Lord or of Lucifer.” – Bruce R. McConkie, What Think Ye of the Book of Mormon?

“Likewise, we must make a simple choice with the Book of Mormon: it is either of God or the devil. There is no other option.” – Tad R. Callister, The Book of Mormon—a Book from God

“To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.” – Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon

“Finally, conversion to the Book of Mormon is conversion to the divine, prophetic calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is the divine evidence of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s calling. Either this is all true, or it is not.” – Joseph B. Wirthlin, The Book of Mormon: The Heart of Missionary Proselyting

“Nearby is the Hill Cumorah. From there came the ancient record from which was translated the Book of Mormon. One must accept or reject its divine origin. Weighing of the evidence must lead every man and woman who has read with faith to say, “It is true.”” – Gordon B. Hinckley, Testimony

As far as I can tell, the “all-or-nothing” view is the official position of the Church, and if that plays into the hands of anti-Mormons, so be it. But Kevin is determined to depart from this viewpoint, even if it means contradicting God’s mouthpieces and making Joseph Smith a liar. He even has an explanation for why Smith would lie, which is his second point.

My second thought is, taking the BoM as a pseudepigraphon for the sake of argument only, why would Joseph have created such a production? What was the pseudepigraphic impulse that led him to do it? Well, I see him as a young Ice Cube: He had somethin’ to say! And while for some purposes having a sharply closed canon can be a feature, it can also be a bug. If the canon is closed shut, tight as a drum, what is a new prophetic voice to do? Who is going to listen to the musings of an ignorant farm boy to the effect that, say, the Old Testament is not sufficiently and explicitly Christian? Maybe his family, but that’s about it. Not a soul would care what Joseph qua Joseph had to say about much of anything.

In other words, Smith lied because he had to. No one would have listened to his divine message if it was just Smith saying it, so he had to create a new volume of scripture, full of false history and false authors, to give his sayings more weight. Then people would listen and the work could move forward.

If this is how the work of God is supposed to progress, then God is a chump.

I am no longer Mormon, but I have not forgotten one lesson that I learned over and over in the Church: Don’t Lie. This talk by Marion G. Romney is typical of my instruction, and I thank the Church and all its members for pushing honesty so thoroughly. I would expect all the leaders of the Church to be exemplars of honesty, especially when it comes to matters central to the faith. Thus, to think that the Church’s founder could be lying in and about the Book of Mormon, the Church’s most important document, is hard to bear. It would mean that Joseph Smith had no faith in God’s power to carry the truth into people’s hearts, so he lied to manipulate them. It would mean that generations of Church leaders have been either liars, knowingly repeating a falsehood, or fools, unknowingly repeating a falsehood. It would mean that hypocrisy is built into the Church’s foundation. It would mean that either the Church is out of line with God’s will, since its members keep spreading a lie, or that God doesn’t really care about lies, since He allows a big lie to go unexposed.

You know, Kevin, for a guy worried about playing into anti-Mormon hands, you sure do give the anti’s a lot of ammunition.

Kevin tries to justify deception by appealing to history, and the difficulty of being heard:

This is the same dynamic that occurred in the formation of the biblical canon originally. There are almost certainly pseudepigraphic works within our biblical canon, because false ascription was simply the only way for those works to gain a hearing.

This doesn’t convince me at all. If there are pseudepigrapha within the Bible, it doesn’t mean that lying and impersonation are okay; it means that you need to take a hard look at the canonized books and figure out which ones are trustworthy and which ones were written by damned liars. The actions of men are not supposed to set precedent for ignoring the commandments of God.

To deny the historicity of the Book of Mormon is to deny its truthfulness, and the truthfulness of Joseph Smith, and either the truthfulness or the wisdom of the prophets and apostles that followed after him. Once you’ve accepted all that, you’re in a rather difficult position as a member of the Church. One option, the option I took, is to leave the Church. It’s not an easy option, but it’s a logical one; you can’t trust a liar or anyone who believes one, so if Smith is a liar and everyone after him is either a liar or a dupe, it’s best not to follow them at all. Kevin Barney does not want to take this option. Kevin wants to stay in the Church, but not really accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God, and not really follow the prophets, at least not when it makes it easy for anti-Mormons to make fun of him. He wants to think of Joseph Smith as a good man, but one who would lie for his own benefit, and the Book of Mormon as a good book, but not one that can be trusted on all points, and Hinckley and all the prophets as good guys, but not always aware of the best course for the Church. Kevin Barney is an idiot.

When Ice Cube had somethin’ to say, he didn’t pretend to be Dr. Dre in order to say it. That’s the route that Joseph Smith should have taken. But that’s not the route he took, and that’s why I don’t listen to him. I advise everyone else to do likewise, and yes, that includes you, Kevin Barney.

P.S. Atheists do not have the fear of God to motivate us to tell the truth, but we do have the good counsel of Sam Harris warning us about the cost of even tiny lies. Seriously, read the man’s book, and you’ll find renewed motivation to always tell the truth.

EDIT: I kept calling Kevin Barney “Kevin Conroy” for some reason. I’ve changed all the mistaken names to his correct name. Sorry about that, Kevin.

SECOND EDIT: I have realized that Kevin’s position is not quite as extreme as I have said it was. In his first point, he is not saying that we should believe that the Book of Mormon is ahistorical. He is saying that we should make space for those who believe that it is ahistorical. It’s an important distinction, and I apologize to Kevin for missing it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite enough to save Kevin’s argument, because the arguments I brought against this position still stand. Rejecting the historicity cuts at the very heart of Mormonism, undermining the trustworthiness of its scriptures and its leaders. Why would anyone want a space within the LDS Church while believing things that invalidate the Church’s claims to Godly authority? It makes no sense at all. Better to find a space on the outside, where you don’t have to make excuses for a lying Joseph Smith and a clueless Gordon B. Hinckley. Trust me on this one.

The Day of Miracles Has Ceased

In the Book of Mormon, we read of many Antichrists, and the fates that befall them. In Jacob chapter 7, we read of Sherem, trying to overthrow the doctrine of Christ. He clashes with Jacob and insists that Jacob show him a sign. In response, Jacob invites God to smite Sherem, which God does. This moves Sherem to repent and testify of Christ just before his death. Interestingly, Jacob was sure that Sherem would deny any sign he received, but Sherem did the opposite.

Another famous Antichrist from the Book of Mormon is Korihor, the atheist. In Alma chapter 30, Korihor denies not only Christ, but God and prophecy and afterlife as well. Alma the Younger confronts him, and Korihor demands a sign. He gets one: God takes away his voice. Korihor then testifies (via writing, of course) that God took away his voice, and never preaches against God again. He didn’t get a very nice sign, but like Sherem, he got a sure sign, and it convinced him and all his followers.

Some Antichrists don’t meet such bad ends. Alma the Younger was himself an Antichrist, along with his friends, the four sons of King Mosiah. In Mosiah chapter 27, we find them trying to destroy the church of God. But without their ever demanding one, they receive a sign: an angel appears and commands them to repent, with a voice that shook the earth. The shock leaves Alma catatonic for two days, but he recovers, and he becomes a powerful advocate for the church of God, along with Mosiah’s sons. It would appear that signs from God are very convincing.

So why is it that we don’t see these signs today? Why is it that I have never received one?

You may say that God is sparing me by not granting me such violent signs. It certainly is true that these signs, taken by themselves, are not pleasant at all. But when taken in context, the signs appear to be ultimately beneficial to the people who received them. Consider Korihor, who lost his voice but gained a certainty of God. Isn’t that worth it? Take an example from Disney: Ariel the mermaid gave up her voice to be with the man she loved. How much better a deal, then, to be with God in exchange for your voice! Yet no one has ever made me the offer. Why not?

These aren’t the only incidents of God displaying power in the Book of Mormon. We read of God destroying prisons, taming beast, lighting up the night sky as bright as day, protecting his servants with an angel or a ring of fire, and other signs. The scriptures seem to indicate that these signs, harsh as some of them were, had some power to convince people to believe in God and keep His commandments. So why don’t we see these signs today?

The Bible, too, is full of such signs. God sent plagues on Egypt to convince them of His power. He cursed the Philistines with mice and hemorrhoids for stealing the Ark. He sent down fire from heaven to refute the priests of Baal. He delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from a superheated furnace to show His power to Nebuchadnezzar. So where have these signs gone?

The Book of Mormon assures us that these miracles are still happening; when I searched for miracles+ceased in the Book of Mormon, I got six results that assured me that miracles have not ceased, and two results listing specific circumstances in which miracles did cease due to wickedness. There are millions of active Mormons in the world, so by Mormon standards, we’re not living in a time of great wickedness; in other words, the circumstances that prevent miracles do not apply. So, where are the miracles? There are plenty of hostile voices declaring the church to be false; why are they not silenced like Sherem or called to repentance like Alma? Why hasn’t anything like that happened to me?

This absence of the miraculous shows up even in church talks. Consider Jeffrey Holland’s 2008 talk, The Ministry of Angels. He begins by recalling angelic visitations to Adam and Eve, to Mary, to Lehi, and to Jesus, and then he moves to more modern times, recalling an experience of the late Clyn D. Barrus… but Clyn’s story has no angels in it at all! The closest we get is Clyn’s father saving him from drowning, which Clyn very much appreciated, of course, but what about the heavenly beings the scriptures tell us about? Where are they?

This problem is obviously not limited to Mormonism. Most of Christianity preaches the existence of miracles, and they are also unable to deliver the actual product. Faith healers are unable to heal (especially when it comes to amputees), prophets deliver false prophecies, and the wicked are not destroyed. The closest we get to a sign from God is Jesus appearing on people’s food.

I opened this piece with a series of negative signs – punishments from God, in other words – because I am willing to accept any sign from God at this point. If I am unworthy of signs like visions and healings, then give me a punishment for my sins, a divine spanking, and I will be satisfied, because I will at last have evidence that God cares. But I cannot get even that, and apparently, neither can anyone else. There are no signs at all. So does God actually care?

I won’t debate now whether there is a God or not (I tend to think not, but there’s room for disagreement). Instead, let’s assume that there is a God, and ask: what has God done lately? Where is the evidence that God interacts with us at all? As far as I can tell, the answers to these questions are, in order, “nothing” and “nowhere”. When we listen for God’s voice, we hear only divine hiddenness. When ordinary folks like us cry out “Oh God, where art thou?”, we don’t get a response. And what is the point of believing in God, even a true God, if God doesn’t care about us?

The old scriptures (which aren’t necessarily true) tell of God’s great deeds, but they cannot make up for the lack of God in the present. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may have had good reason to believe, but we in the present have good reason not to believe at all.

Archaeoraptor and Joseph Smith, Jr.


In October 1999, National Geographic unveiled the fossil of a new species of dinosaur. They called it Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, and trumpeted it as a new and exciting transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds. The excitement proved to be short-lived, because the fossil was a fraud. It was made out of pieces of real creatures: the upper body of a bird called Yanornis, the tail of a dinosaur called Microraptor, and the legs of something else entirely; there might be up to 5 specimens represented in the stitched-up final product. The original finder of the fossil pieces knew that complete fossils fetch higher prices, so they cemented the parts together, hoping that the real pieces would create a convincing fake.

On October 15, 2012, smartphone enthusiasts were abuzz over rumors of a new offering from Sony: the Nexus X. Photos of this new model had mysteriously surfaced, and tech reporters and commentators happily picked them apart. But some suspected that the photos were fake, and soon their suspicions were confirmed: the creator of the photos came forward and revealed that it was a hoax. The clever faker, Ti Kawamoto, had taken photos of features of other Nexus phones, including the Xperia Ion and Xperia TL, created a 3D model, and simulated photos using the model. Kawamoto used the traits of existing phones to make his pictures of a nonexistent phone seem more credible.

I mention these two examples because they have a common trait which, I believe, is found in many fakes and frauds: the fake object is made out of pieces of real objects, so that the false whole may borrow authenticity from its true parts. This is often successful, but the sources of the pieces, and the gaps between them, eventually become apparent, revealing the hoax for what it is.

There are many examples of this. Piltdown Man, made out of a human cranium and an orangutan jawbone. The Solid Muldoon, sculpted out of mortar, rock dust, clay, plaster, ground bones, blood and meat. Nick Simmons’s Incarnate, with panels and character designs copied from Bleach, Hellsing, One Piece, Deadman Wonderland, and other manga, along with pieces from DeviantArt. The Feejee Mermaid, with a monkey’s body grafted onto a fish’s tail. Quentin Rowan’s Assassin of Secrets, which plagiarized Ian Fleming, John Gardner, Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, James Bamford, and more. Over and over again, fakers have created Frankenstein’s monsters to sell to the world, but keen-eyed skeptics keep seeing the stitches.

This brings me to something which I spent many years accepting as a genuine article, but which I now see as a stitched-up hoax: the Book of Mormon.

Let’s begin in the Book of Jacob, chapter 5, in which we find the prophecy of Zenos concerning the house of Israel. It begins with the narrator comparing Israel to an olive tree, with the master of the vineyard trying to save it. The master and his servants put a lot of work into the tree, grafting wild branches on, taking branches off and planting them elsewhere in the vineyard, seeking to gather fruit before the season is over and the vineyard gets burned. The whole chapter is a parable, describing the Lord’s effort to raise up righteous people before the end of the world.

Now notice the transition: the chapter began by comparing Israel to a single olive tree, but by the end, the narrator is talking about multiple trees, and discussing his plans for the vineyard as a whole. Why the change?

Like my previous examples, Jacob 5 is a composite, and the sources of its pieces are not too hard to find. The first part comes from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, chapter 11, where Paul compares Israel to an olive tree with branches grafted in. The second part comes from the Book of Isaiah, chapter 5, where Isaiah compares Israel to a vineyard that brings forth wild grapes. The rough transition between the two can be seen as Jacob 5 switches from comparing Israel to a tree (see verse 3) to comparing Israel to the whole vineyard (in verse 40, the tree is dying; in verse 41, the Lord weeps over the whole vineyard). They simply don’t mesh. Curt van den Heuvel provided an analysis where he finds more pieces copied from the Bible, such as Luke 13:6-9, where we find the Lord instructing his servants to dig about a tree, and dung it (compare Jacob 5:64). The pieces make up an interesting whole, but they do not truly belong together. The assembly is a fraud.

The rest of the Book of Mormon reveals itself to be full of stolen pieces. The WordTree Foundation did a thorough study that detected numerous quotations from The Late War between the United States and Great Britain, a popular educational text from 1816, within the Book. Stripling soldiers, bands of robbers, curious workmanship, pitching tents on the borders, freemen versus king’s men… Joseph’s first published work is peppered with snippets from the 1816 history book. Even the general style appears to be copied: The Late War was deliberately written “[i]n the Scriptural Style”, and the Book of Mormon has an obvious resemblance to scripture (meaning the Bible, of course). And speaking of the Bible: the Book of Mormon quotes the Bible many times, even when the alleged writer could not possibly have had access to the passage being quoted (or when the passage being quoted is actually a mistranslation). Then there are little pieces from other sources, such as a passage lifted from Josiah Priest and the famous vision of the Tree of Life being copied from a dream by Joseph Smith, Sr. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. The pieces don’t truly fit where they’ve been placed, and their source is too obvious. The Book of Mormon is a fraud.

Other works by Joseph Smith reveal the same problems. The Book of Abraham, for instance, contains ideas and excerpts from The Philosophy of a Future State, a work first published in 1830. Researchers have found pieces from other sources as well, none of which would have been available at Abraham’s time. Then there are the names, which are Hebrew instead of Egyptian, and the flow of the text, which is just too similar to the King James Bible, much like the Book of Mormon. We might also consider the facsimiles. The copies in the official text have features which puzzled Egyptologists, until they recovered the original of Facsimile 1 and a faithful copy of Facsimile 2 and discovered that Joseph had filled in the gaps in the originals with parts that didn’t match the wholes. Like the Archaeoraptor fossil, there is an illusion of completeness, but the parts do not truly fit together into a coherent whole.

Nexus X

Even Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible has some features of a patchwork fraud. We should first note that the Bible itself is partially fraudulent: the King James version (KJV) of the Bible has 48 scribal additions (unauthorized insertions by later authors into an original text). It is reasonable to expect that a true prophet of God would detect these rude additions and excise them, but, as this analysis shows, Joseph Smith removed only one of these additions! Then there are 350 more verses that include scribal alterations or mistranslations, and Joseph removed only 11 of them. Then there are Joseph’s translations of specific words: he defines “Golgotha” as “burial” instead of “skull” and “Cephas” as meaning “seer” in addition to meaning “stone” (wrong on both counts). He also introduced a new word “Rabcha”, which he defined as meaning the same thing as the Hebrew “Raca”, meaning “fool”. But “Rabcha” is not a Hebrew word at all; the only “Rabcha” I’ve been able to locate is this village in India. In short, Joseph failed to take out the false pieces in the Bible, and added a few clearly false pieces of his own. (Do read the analysis I mentioned for more explanation and even more errors, along with this compilation from MormonThink.)

As a field, archaeology survived the loss of Archaeoraptor, because there are other fossils that are internally consistent and that come from trustworthy sources; in fact there are thousands of fossils like that, giving us a wealth of reliable data to study the world with. But Mormonism cannot survive the loss of these three texts of Joseph Smith. Even the loss of one text is deadly to Mormonism, because we would not expect a true prophet to put forth any false scripture, so if one is definitely false, what about all the others? But when we have three frauds that Smith declared to be significant revelations, and that together constitute the bulk of Joseph’s canonized work, we can say beyond reasonable doubt that he was not a prophet of God. (Unless God is a liar, but I’d rather not consider that possibility.) It is no use trying to believe in Joseph’s claims anymore. Like the Nexus X, the true Church never really existed, and we must look for truth elsewhere.

Lightsabers Considered Insufficiently Cool

The lightsaber: an instantly recognizable symbol of all things Star Wars. A blade of pure light, capable of slicing through nearly anything, and, in the right hands, of deflecting energy blasts away from the wielder and right back at the enemy. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age. It’s pretty awesome.

But it’s not awesome enough.


Let me explain. Like many socially awkward white males with a taste for fedoras, I am fond of many Japanese television shows and video games. Among these shows and games, there are very many people with magic swords, or with magic powers expressed through swords. Consider Link, who can whirl his sword about him in a glowing cyclone of death, cutting anything close to him, or else shoot his sword forward like a bullet. Pretty handy abilities, no? And he’s not alone. Chrono from Chrono Trigger can also spin about to slice multiple enemies at once, and he can also shoot with his sword, cutting anything in his way with a slash made of wind. (See also: Jubei from Ninja Scroll and Inuyasha from, well, Inuyasha) And those are just the guys who specifically use wind to cut up their foes. Ichigo from Bleach just slashes with spiritual energy. And while I’m on the subject of Bleach, how about Ichimaru Gin, whose sword can suddenly extend forward to incredible length, putting everyone within stabbing distance? (Related: Goku’s Power Pole from Dragon Ball, and the Monkey King’s staff from Journey to the West) Or Hinamori Momo, whose sword can throw fireballs, or Kuchiki Byakuya, who can split his blade into a thousand remote-controlled razor-sharp flying petals, or… I could go on about Bleach, but I’ll spare you. The point is that all these swords and swordsmen have excellent offensive capabilities, striking down enemies in a manner and efficiency usually reserved for machine guns. When these guys bring a knife to a gunfight, the gunners are afraid.

Now compare this to lightsabers. For the most part, lightsabers have equal or better defensive powers than the swords I’ve just listed, but they fall behind in offense. When Jedi get into a firefight, they have to wait for their foes to shoot them, so that they can throw the shots back, or for their foes to get close enough to cut, so they can cut them down one by one. This is a very inefficient and vulnerable position to be in, compared to everyone listed above. And these are supposed to be superior to blasters? If the Jedi in Attack of the Clones had used blasters along with their blades, they could have cut down their foes much more quickly (and reduced their own losses). If Finn had found a blaster in addition to his borrowed lightsaber, he could have shot TR-8R before the angry trooper tasered his former comrade. So why are the Jedi putting themselves at a disadvantage? Couldn’t they carry guns and swords, like Gundams do? Or how about following Squall Leonhart’s example, and using gun-swords?

(I might also note that there is one circumstance where Jedi exclusively use blasters: vehicular combat. Whether they’re flying space fighters or snow speeders, Jedi use guns alongside everyone else, and they seem to like it that way.)

I don’t wish to discount the many things that lightsabers do well. Unlike normal blades, they are all edge and no face, so whichever way you swing it, it’s guaranteed to cut. Plus, since the blade has no mass, you can swing it about with ease and never lose control, and when you’re done with it, the blade just disappears, leaving a light and compact cylinder that’s easy to transport and store. Then there’s the way they burn and cut at the same time, for extra destruction, and they’re really, really good at defense. But I still maintain that all this is not awesome enough.

Star Wars is not a hard sci-fi setting, but it is still subject to Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And the tech in Star Wars is magical indeed; handheld objects that can shoot blazing projectiles of pure energy, defensive walls that can hold off staggering impacts while remaining invisible, mechanical golems that think and act as humans do, vehicles that can float like balloons, fly faster than the wind, soar into the vacuum of space, and then rush faster than light to traverse the vast blackness between the stars… If actual magic wishes to hold its own against such powerful techno-juju, it’s going to have to up its game. We might as well start with improving our magical weapons.

First, lightsabers’ offense should be as good as their defense; if you know how to use a lightsaber, you’ll never want for a blaster. Second, lightsabers should be more unique. Notice all the different styles of attack I mentioned above? This variety is the norm in many fictional settings, especially those that involve martial arts, and it should be the norm in Star Wars. Not only will different lightsabers have different handles and colors, but they will have different attacks. Some will fire stabbing bolts, some will throw arcs like Guile’s Sonic Booms, some will flow like long streamers or dance like arcs of lightning, and some will do other things entirely. Ideally, the style of the blade will tell us something about the personality of the wielder. But whatever they do, they will be dangerous, and when soldiers anywhere see a stranger with a saber, they’ll be very, very careful about engaging them.

It’s too late to change what has already been written, but it’s not too late to change what will be written in the future. I propose that we all incorporate this more magical style of lightsaber into all Star Wars fiction. Leave a comment to let me know what you make of my proposal, and May the Fourth be with you. (It’s 11:25pm where I’m writing this, so this is my last chance to say that.)

P.S. I suggest that this same kind of change (making something more powerful and more individualized) should also be made to Force powers. Even without a weapon, a Jedi can wield the Force, and if it’s powerful enough to levitate X-Wings, it’s powerful enough to deliver deadly punches, and range attacks too. (Why should only the Sith get ranged attacks? Ryu’s a good guy, and he gets to throw fireballs.) And we’d never put up with a group of superheroes who all had the same powers, so why put up with it from a group of Jedi? Everyone should have different strengths and weaknesses, and some way of using the Force that’s uniquely their own.

P.P.S. While researching for this piece, I came across a fascinating item: the gun axe. The world is full of wonder.