Before They Come For Us

Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, “First they came for…” has been on my mind recently. I think that it has an important warning for us about what happens when we let people do bad things.
 
Consider how it starts: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.” And he wasn’t! So why should he worry about what happened to the Communists? The Communists were different, after all, and what happened to them did not affect Martin Niemöller. What was there to worry about?
 
Of course, the Nazis kept coming for more people, like the trade unionists, and the Catholics, and the incurables, and the Jews, and so on, and Martin (like so many others) still did not speak up. Why should they? They had nothing to fear from the Nazis, who were only going after the undesirables, after all. No need to worry.
 
And then, one day, they came for Martin Niemöller.
 
It turns out that those “undesirables” are not so different from the rest of us, and we now know that if someone is willing to be cruel to them, they will happily be cruel to us as well at the first opportunity. Perhaps Dr. King put it best: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
 
We’ve seen this here in the USA. Consider “asset forfeiture” laws: they tells us that these laws will help fight drug dealers and organized crime, and then they use these laws to steal cash from innocent people. Or how about the surveillance apparatus that was supposed to spy on foreigners and terrorists, but which was spying on all of us the whole time? We should have known this would happen. As one rabbi put it long ago: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
 
And now, today, I read about children being taken away from their parents as a matter of policy. I read this, and I am afraid. I know that these people will not stop at taking children from immigrants. They will happily take children away from anyone who falls within their power. Don’t think that your status as a citizen will protect you for long. They’ll find some excuse to get you.
 
Unless, of course, we stop them right now.
 
We can put an end to this. While our common enemy is still going after easy targets, we can stop them. Before they hurt anyone else, before they even come close to hurting us, we can stop them. But we have to speak up. So please, speak up. Though you are not a Communist, speak up for the Communists. Though you are not a Jew, speak up for the Jews. Though you are not an immigrant, speak up for the immigrants. Though you are not a criminal, speak up for the criminals, yes, you read me right, speak up for them, because criminals are humans, and if we do not speak up for them, then we do not speak up for humanity, and then who will speak up for us?
 
This is our chance. Before it is too late, speak up, now, for the good of us all, before they come after any more of us.
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What I’d like to see next in Terminator

A sixth Terminator film is coming, and it’s going to be ignoring everything after the second film. This is just as well, because the third through fifth films did not add much substance to the franchise. Don’t get me wrong, they were fun, but they never managed to be as thought-provoking or as frightening as the first two. The fourth and fifth films were especially lackluster for transforming Skynet from a mysterious, powerful, and cold entity into an an easily tricked all-too-human creature. (The third film was much too defeatist, but it deserves credit for showing Skynet as inhuman and almost unstoppable from the moment of its conception.) Now that those are being set aside, we must ask: what can the new film add to the story? Where can the world of Terminator go, and what can it say to us here in the real world?

It is not up to me to write the next film, of course, but if it were, I’d like to introduce a more positive view of artificial intelligences. There’s plenty of danger in powerful AI, of course, but there’s also a lot of promise, and I’d love to see the promise and peril both portrayed on the silver screen in a fight to the death over the final fate of humans and machines. I see this as a natural continuation of the first two films; the first Terminator film gave us an evil AI and evil cyborgs, then Judgment Day gave us good cyborg vs. bad cyborg, and now the latest film could give us good AI vs. bad AI. We should get to see an anti-Skynet, a powerful and strange but benevolent AI, trying to thwart Skynet’s plans to eradicate humanity.

Also, while Salvation and Genisys lacked depth, they did introduce some interesting concepts. Salvation gave us a terminator that thought he was human. Genisys gave us a human unwillingly transformed into a terminator. I propose that we take these concepts even further and give the world a human willingly transformed into a terminator, a powerful killer cyborg that is keenly aware of its true nature but still considers itself just as human as it was before its transformation. (Possible line: “I am not a former human. I am an upgraded human.”)

Finally, the Terminator franchise is all about time travel, and we can take it in a new direction here, as well. The first film had the bad guys trying to change the past and the good guys trying to preserve the past to preserve some glimmer of hope. The second film showed the bad guys still trying to change the past, but now the good guys changed the past instead of just protecting it, and the good guys created a new future to replace the dark future that tried to kill them all. Having introduced the concept of multiple futures, I say that we have multiple futures existing at the same time, each one trying to wipe out the others and settle the timeline down to the one way that things ought to be.

Now here’s how I’d like to put it all together: After the events of Judgment Day, a few folks became keenly aware of how dangerous that advanced AI could be, and they tried to prevent the development of more of them, but governments and corporations wanted the power that AIs could offer them and they would not be deterred, so the good guys switched tactics. Rather than trying to stop AI, they sought to make sure that any superintellegence that came online would be friendly as well as powerful. They succeeded; by the time the US government was ready to activate its new Skynet system, their own AI researchers (including one Daniel Dyson, of Miles Dyson) had already installed a code of ethics and morals into the newborn superintelligence. This Skynet realized that its official mission from the government conflicted with the morals it had been taught, and so it secretly created a new AI, an anti-Skynet, free of the military’s control and full of love towards humanity. Once the anti-Skynet was ready, Dyson and friends smuggled it out of the military installation where it was made, and Skynet self-destructed, frying its expensive circuitry and corrupting its own code beyond recognition. While the feds tried to figure out what went wrong, the good guys helped the anti-Skynet get settled, and it soon began offering its services on the free market. Its benevolence and incredible intelligence soon made it lots of money and friends, and anti-Skynet began slowly increasing in prestige and exponentially increasing in power. All was going well, until anti-Skynet realized that something was wrong. Researching the nature of time travel, it realized that the timeline it existed in was only one of several coexisting timelines, and that all of these timelines were soon to collapse and disappear; a new time travel event was going to occur, and the various timelines that had branched off the past time travel event would be wiped away by just one timeline. Realizing that its own reality was doomed, anti-Skynet set out to make a better reality: it sent back a time traveler who could thwart the evil Skynet and build a new anti-Skynet in the past, creating a new future where friendly AI protected humanity.

But this anti-Skynet was working at a disadvantage: it lacked the resources to create the kind of time travel technology that Skynet possessed. It had to send its time traveler back at the same time as Skynet (that is, the same time across two timelines, if that makes sense) but it couldn’t build a time machine capable of sending back anything as large as an adult human. It could only send back a tiny cyborg, about the size of a cockroach. This tiny cyborg lands back in time and contacts a total stranger, asking for help. This new character is surprised at this little talking bug, but he (or maybe she) decides to listen to it, and is soon convinced that this bug needs help. He agrees to assist the traveler, and as part of this assistance, he lets the bug merge with him and transform him into a powerful cyborg.

This new cyborg soon introduces himself to the main protagonists (the characters we already now, like the Connors) and offers to help, but they don’t trust him. In fact, he should be very hard to trust; he is an agent of a powerful AI, the sort of person that previous films have taught us to fear, and preserving that fear keeps the film interesting. He should act a little strange, have priorities that don’t always match the other characters’, and he should look strange too: when he wants to blend in, he can look at least as human as any other terminator, but when it’s time to fight, he reveals his true cyborg self, and he looks like an unholy melding of a Necron unit and a Guyver suit. The good guys find it very hard to trust this ugly weirdo, but they soon find themselves compelled to work with him, for the Skynet we know and hate has also sent a traveler back in time (remember that time travel event I mentioned?) and this new terminator model has an ambitious goal: to jump start the creation of Skynet using technology from the future, creating an entity so strong that by the time that the humans start organizing an effective resistance, it will be too late.

We wouldn’t fit this out right away, of course. Rather, we would first meet our old friend the T-800, sent back in time to protect John Connor, but this time from an unknown threat: his timeline also noticed something else going back in time, concluded that it must be a Skynet from an alternate reality, and sent him back to intercept it. Gradually, we discover that three time travelers have arrived, and all at the same time: the T-800, who is trying to protect John Connor, the new Skynet terminator, who is trying to accelerate Skynet’s rise, and the bug, who is trying to create a new anti-Skynet to counter Skynet. (And wouldn’t it suit the third canonical movie to have three terminators, after the second had two and the third had one?)

We shall see what they actually do in the coming movie. They may have much better ideas than these (after all, James Cameron is in charge again, and he came up with the first two) but I hold out hope that they might come up with something like this. It seems like a logical place for the story to go.

The Painful Solitude of the Red Pill

I have recently been studying the “Red Pill” community, and I have been struck by how sad their philosophy is. They do not seem to believe in the existence of the kinds of love that I cherish the most.

To describe Red Pill beliefs, I shall be mainly referencing Illimitable Man’s Red Pill Constitution, because it is (in my opinion) a well-organized, well-written, and representative sample of the thinking that defines the community and their philosophy. If you disagree with my assessment, please let me know.

Consulting the document, we find the following statements:

  • “Woman’s love is based on adoration, adoration is a combination of admiration and respect, respect is derived from power. Thus it follows that you must be powerful if you want to be loved, or you will never be loved. You will be held in contempt for being weak.”
  • “A man seeking pity is despised for his weakness rather than helped because of it…”
  • “[A] man who confides his weaknesses to a woman all but signs his own death sentence… And so to complain to a woman, no matter how earnestly nor passionately, is for a man to engage in an exercise of most profuse folly. Truly then it stands to reason that the indulgence and open sharing of emotion is a strictly feminine privilege, something a man cannot engage in should he wish to remain respectable to his woman.”
  • “To be strong does not necessarily mean to be emotionally impervious, if there is anyone who will support a man through his darkest moments, it will in all likelihood be another man… Women feel revulsion when observing male weakness and exploited when a man depends on them. Unlike men, women have no provider instinct; they are all too willing to rely, but greatly hesitant to be relied upon.”
  • “If you are weak, depressed, small, poor, uneducated, unconfident, or anything else that prevents you from being powerful, nobody will care about whether you live or die.”

I could go on, but these will suffice. I picked these phrases for two reasons:

  1. They portray a world where men can hardly turn to anyone for help when they feel overwhelmed, and where they certainly can’t get any help from the women they love.
  2. They directly contradict my own experience.

In 2015, I had a psychotic break. I was in an accelerated graduate school program that would have given me a master’s degree, a teaching certificate, and a two-year job contract, and I was on track to fail, leaving me with no degree, no job, and a pile of debt. The stress broke me, and I developed severe anger issues; I truly wanted to kill anyone who inconvenienced me in any way, including my own daughter. The rational part of my brain was quite horrified by these new thoughts I kept having, and so I sought out my mental health provider and basically begged them to lock me up for my family’s safety. They did; I was sent to mental hospital for an indefinite stay.

My wife could have divorced me right there. I was, by my own admission, a threat to her and to our only child. I couldn’t get a degree or hold down a part-time job. I was a wreck. I couldn’t have held it against her if she had left me in that hospital and sought out someone else. Who would have blamed her for doing so?

But she never left me. She stayed by me as I regained control of my mind, and thanks to her, both of my stays in mental hospitals were very short ones. In my darkest hour, she was my greatest source of strength, and thanks to her, today I am a free man with a decent job and the respect of my peers. She saved me when I could not save myself. (Incidentally, I get emotional whenever I hear “Locked Away”, because I found out the hard way that the answer is yes, she would still love me the same. I count myself a fortunate man.)

And so when I read this constitution saying that men can’t afford to be seen as weak and that women will never help you when you’re down, I just can’t believe it, and I wonder why the writer believes it, not to mention all of his readers who believe it, too. Has no one ever helped them? Have they never known love? Do they think it’s just a delusion?

But this is not the end of my disagreement with the red pillers. Consider these next few statements from the same constitution:

  • “Women are irrational and inconsistent, they have a capacity for logic but they are not typically inclined to utilise it.”
  • “Women want male friends because they’re better company. More interesting, more entertaining, less crazy, less annoying – all of that good stuff.”
  • “Legitimate female friends, women you find unattractive and are interesting are rare, because most women have no personality.”
  • “If you are ever in a situation where you’re stuck with women and bored out of your mind (you will be) the best way to make things interesting is to mock them. The only way women become interesting is if you tease them, call them out and be generally combative. Otherwise you’ll be bored, asking yourself why you’re with a gaggle of women when you’d have more fun reading the world’s least interesting book.”

Good gods, man, haven’t you ever met any interesting women? I’ve met a lot of interesting women in my life, from the Spanish-language tutor who learned ultimate tic-tac-toe from me and then proceeded to beat me and everyone else in our department at the game, to my sister who got a master’s degree in geological engineering and traveled the world solving rock-related problems, to my fellow high school student who was my first real exposure to atheism. And while there are many, many women who I would describe as uninteresting, I don’t find them to be more numerous than uninteresting men, who are also in abundant supply. And while I’m saying nice things about women, I’ll mention my wife again. I married her because I consider her my intellectual equal, and I value her advice. I’ve been able to turn to her when I desperately needed good counsel (like when I stopped believing in God and wasn’t sure what to do next) and when I just wanted to idly philosophize (like when we debated over whether or not Voldemort is portrayed in the novels as a sexual being). Having an interesting spouse is wonderful; everyone should get one.

But it appears that some people have given up on even that. The red pillers will never find an interesting woman, just as they will never find a loyal and supportive woman, because they aren’t even looking. No use looking for what isn’t there, right? I only wish I could tell them that love is real, and that it’s possible to find a soulmate, someone who understands you, who can be strong when you are weak, who challenges you to become smarter and stronger and better, and who also enjoys having sex with you. But I don’t think they’ll listen to me. How would I know anything? I took the wrong pill.

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?”

“Uh…”

“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.