Thursday, 26 June 2014

Mormon visits: Episode 8 - The end

This blog post has moved here

Text messages since our last meeting

Me: Nice chatting with you yesterday!

Me: I have just sent a copy of one of your images to an Egyptologist named Joann Fletcher, who works in the archaeology department at the university of York. Do you remember you said you would be willing to consider the possibility that the Book of Mormon was invented by Joseph Smith? What do you think the implications might be if his translations turn out to be wrong?

Me: Are you getting these messages? I think we need to talk. Can you come around tomorrow?

Them: We can come tonight.

They turned up looking very dejected. I greeted them and invited them in, they declined, saying that they don't really have very long. "This isn't a five minute thing," I told them, "do you think you can come back another day?"

They looked at each other awkwardly, then French guy said "That's the thing. You see, we've been talking about this and we think we shouldn't come to visit you any more." I was quite taken back by this, not because I wasn't expecting it but because I wasn't expecting it to be the first thing they said.  I don't really recall what happened next. I do remember that I told them I had received a reply from the Egyptologist I had written to, and went to get it.

I handed them a copy each. It was the image that Smith drew and then the email contents. I had asked Joann to select A/B answers to indicate which of the two descriptions (if any) were most accurate. One would be the Smith explanation, and the other was the scholarly explanation. I even randomly shuffled them between A and B. French guy held his and just moved his hand to his side as if he wasn't even holding it, USA guy folded it in half, and then made the crease very precise using his nails, in a way that showed me he was folding it with deliberation. "We are not going to read this" the French guy said.

"Why not?" I asked.
"We already know what it says," USA guy said, "and we know it's not good in favour of Mormonism."
"I don't understand," I told them, "what do you mean?"
USA guy said "People say that it's wrong."
"So why won't you look at it?" I asked.
"Because we don't go by evidence" USA guy said. "Evidence is not important to us, we go by our testimony"
"But to do that you are willing to ignore evidence?" I asked.
"Have you done this research yourself?" USA guy asked.
"Yes," I said, "I looked up what Egyptologists say the meanings are, then I printed out the picture and sent it to an Egypologist and asked if she would indicate which was correct in each case, and the answers are on that piece of paper."
"I'll bet you money she has seen this before," USA guy said, "she knows what this is, she'll have heard of it."

I told him that it is obvious she will have seen it before because it is quite a common piece of evidence found in archaeology, "but that doesn't mean she'll know anything at all about it's links with Mormonism."

USA guy then asked me something about how I know she knew, or something along those lines. I told him "She can read hieroglyphs, she read it."
"Do you know that?" he asked?
"Yes," I told him. "I know because the black guy at the end, who Smith says is a slave, was identified by her as Anubis. She wrote that although the picture doesn't have the typical Jackal head she, was able to tell who it was because she read it in the text written above him. So are you going to look at it?"
"No" they said.
"Why not?" I asked.

French guy gave me the same old stuff about how he has testimony from the Holy Spirit. I was really frustrated. USA tried to say something and I started to talk over him. I realised I was getting wound up so I said "I just started to talk over you, my brain was racing away and I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry, please tell me what you was going to say" and I sat down on the floor.

USA guy started to tell me about how my approach was wrong. Because of my past experiences I wasn't willing to listen to the Holy Spirit and wanted to find proof. I told him I had found proof, but unfortunately it was proof against his position. He asked what I meant

"Evidence is something you collect," I told him, "at some point you might find you have enough evidence to feel that it proves something, that is when you have proof. In my opinion, what you are holding in your hands is not just evidence, it's proof!"

"Proof of what?" USA guy asked.
I told him "It is proof that Joseph Smith could not translate Egyptian hieroglyphs."
"But this is the evidence of men" USA guy said.
"No it's not," I said, "it's the evidence of A man. That man is Joseph Smith, the man you think is a prophet of God. It is a picture drawn with his own hands, and translation of the words on that picture that he also wrote with his own hands. This isn't someone later recalling what they think he said years earlier, this is physical evidence of something that we know has not changed. This is the first time we have the before and after evidence to compare."

"But any mistakes are the mistakes of men" said the USA guy.
"Sure, "I said. "We have already agreed that the original account was made by humans and so we can expect errors there. We have also agreed that the corrections made later were made by humans without divine instruction and that is why the same mistake elsewhere in the book was missed. The only thing we have left now tying The Book of Mormon to a divine entity is the claim that Smith could translate Egyptian hieroglyphs into English, and there in your hand you have physical evidence that he couldn't."
"No, we also have testimony" the French guy said.
I said to him "Are you really telling me that you are going to ignore evidence in favour how nice it feels when you close your eyes and think about something you like?"
"Yes" he said.

I asked if they knew that the document Smith said was written with Abraham's own hand had been carbon dated and was about 1500 years too young."
"What was dated? Where did it come from?" USA guy asked. I explained how the documents had been split into three scrolls and three sets of fragments of those scrolls. The scrolls burned in a museum fire, but the fragments were discovered elsewhere and dated.
"They won't be the actual scrolls," USA guy said, "the ones he translated from we don't have."

I told him that we do have fragments of the one Smith translated from, and we know this because of what Smith drew and what the Book of Abraham says about the contents of the scrolls. "I have spent some time collecting evidence, will you at least look at it?"

"No" they both said, shaking their heads with a mixture of what seemed to be a mixture of defiance, and pride in that defiance. I was honestly completely gob smacked.
"You actually won't even look at evidence?"
"No" they said.
"Why not?"
USA guy smiled and said. "I am here on my Mormon Mission, do you think I am just going to pack up now and go home or something?"
"I don't expect anything," I told him. "I have no idea what you will make of the evidence. You might read it and just outright disagree with it. I don't know what you will think. I am not interested in making you think things, I am only concerned that you won't look at evidence just so that you can keep thinking them."

French guy explained that the problem with proof is that it takes away our ability to have faith. "I think you are wrong." I told him. "Take evolution as an example. There is more evidence for evolution than there is for just about anything else we know of. There is an abundance of it, and it spans across all areas of science; yet there are still people who reject it despite the proof. In addition to this, even knowing that there is a God I still have the option to choose to do right or wrong. I know that killing babies is wrong, I don't need to believe or disbelieve in a God to know that."

USA guy went on to explain that with proof I would have no option other than to believe it is true. "Then you don't have the option of mercy," he told me. "If you do something wrong and then die, God can show you mercy because you didn't know about the mercy of Jesus. The only way to receive mercy when you believe is through the salvation of Jesus."
"I don't understand" I told him. "So if I don't believe in the salvation of Jesus and do something wrong then God will forgive me for my ignorance, but if I do believe in the salvation of Jesus and I do something wrong then God will forgive me for believing in Jesus?"
"Erm, not exactly" USA guy said. "If you sin when you know it is true and you sin then you get cut off, no mercy, the end. Even if you make the littlest sin like a thought then you can be cut off if you don't repent."
"I don't think anyone should ever be punished for a thought," I told him.

French guy said "We are not going to come around any more, and we are not going to discuss religion with you any more. If you text us anything then we will not reply."
"That's a shame," I told him, "because I like you guys, you are fun to talk to. I am okay with not discussing religion with you any more, but it would be nice if you could sometimes just say hello and we could ask each other how we are doing."
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We like you too, that would be nice" USA guy said.
"We would like to thank you for the time you have given us" French guy said.

"So," I asked, "are you willing to take these documents with you?"
"No" they said.
"How about this then?" I continued, "You don't know what the Holy Spirit is or is not going to tell you to do. So how about you take them with you. Don't read them, but just don't throw them away. If one day the Holy Spirit says to look at them then they are there for you."
"In that case I can just look on the Internet" USA guy said.
"No, I don't think that's a good idea," I told him. "There are a lot of emotional people on the Internet making arguments from their emotions. Not only is this not a good way to decide what is true you will find that there are people out there who will be outright offensive. I don't want you to be put off by it, and I wouldn't want you to get upset either. So why not take it, and if the Holy Spirit tells you to, then read it."
"I'll tell you what," USA guy said. "I will take your email address, and then if the Holy Spirit tells me to read it I will write to you and ask for it." I knew this was the best I was going to get, so I agreed.

USA guy said "Please continue to read The Book of Mormon, and please keep praying. But we will not answer any questions you have, you will have to find the answers yourself. We won't answer any of your text messages....well, unless you text us to tell us you have received your testimony."

"Okay," I said. "From this point onwards we shall not discuss religion, but will you do me a favour?" I asked.
"What is it?" asked USA guy.
"You believe you have this additional tool for discovering truth that for some reason I cannot access. So could you please keep praying for something for me?"
"What do you want me to pray for?" USA guy asked.
"You believe that Smith translated Egyptian hieroglyphs into English despite the original evidence of the plates not being available, and yet at the same time can see that he couldn't translate Egyptian into English based on the physical evidence you have in your hand. To me that's logically inconsistent, you have to believe two opposite things at the same time."
"Hmm," USA guy said, "I really don't understand why that is, but I know the Book of Mormon is true and Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.
"When we met I told you I was interested in your brains, and this is exactly the kind of thing I am interested in" I told them. "Holding two opposing facts as true at the same time is really interesting. So, no matter how long it takes would you keep praying for an answer to me? Could you pray for an answer which explains why Smith got the translation wrong for the facsimile he drew? Please keep thinking about it, and if in a year's time or something you get an answer that makes sense to you then please email me and tell me what it is. I won't use it as an opportunity to discuss religion with you, I just want you to keep thinking about it."

Then they left, and I threw lots of printed paper in the recycle bin.

PS: TV programme has started on Channel 4 called "Meet the Mormons". The narrator said that during their mission work they are not allowed to use their first names, that'll explain why I always found it so difficult to get them to respond using their "real" names.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Mormon visits: Episode 7

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Read 6th visit

Text messages since last visit:

Me: Hi guys. Are you going to drop in this Egyptian stuff for me? Just thought, I can meet you and photograph it, that would take no time/effort at all. (June 24th)

(No reply)

My Mormon friends didn't turn up last Monday, it seems our weekly meetings may have come to an end. However, they turned up out of the blue tonight (June 25th). They apologised for turning up without arranging it with me first and reminded me that I said they could just turn up, I told them that I meant it and they are welcome to pop around any time they like.

USA guy took out a book and said he had something for me. I got excited and asked if it was the Egyptian stuff that Smith had translated. He told me that I shouldn't be too excited and that it probably isn't what I am expecting it to be. He showed me that he had a book called Doctrine And Covenants. I have no idea why he was showing me this, but he explained that it was a book of revelations on how to run the LDS church in the end days. I said I thought it was odd that it says "in the end days" rather than "until the last day" or something similar. I asked if that meant we are living in the end days, they said it did. I asked how long the end days will last, 5 years, 50 years, 5000 years? They said they didn't know, but what they do know is that when scripture is revealed to Moses etc it marks the start of what is called a "period of dispensation", and that we are now living in the last period of dispensation before Jesus returns.

I told them how I had read Islamic texts explaining how the first thing Jesus will do is to kill all the pigs. French guy was very surprised to hear that Muslims believe in the return of Jesus. I told him how they are essentially just another Judaism->Christian->Something Else variant of monotheism....just like Mormonism, except there are more of them. We had a little chuckle about how the anti-Christ was going to come a wreak havoc in wars etc, heralding the return of Jesus, but the first thing on his to-do list is to kill all the pigs.

We talked about how the scriptures of Abraham and Moses had come to Smith. USA guy said that he thinks the books of Abraham and Moses were divinely revealed. I told him that I had read something about finding some papyrus as part of a collection, along with some mummies. "Ah yes," he said, "that's right!" I forgot to say anything about how fragile this process of preserving revelation was, but in hindsight I don't think it would have carried much weight anyway and probably would have made me sound like a nay-sayer.

USA guy told me that it was the commandments (covenants) that had been divinely revealed, mostly during Smith's life-time but a few had come afterwards too. He said that it explains things like multiple marriages. I was surprised he brought it up to be honest. I had given up that subject as a lost cause, but he seemed to want some kind of approval or closure on the subject. I asked "What does it say about it? Do as I say and not as I do?" - I wonder if they feel bad later for laughing at the expense of their own prophet? I asked if they had talked to anyone about this subject, and they said they hadn't. USA guy said that he had heard something about people in the Old Testament marrying women if their husbands weren't worthy of them.

I said "I can't remember what her husband's name was. I remember her name was Zina, as I said, because it means something in Arabic. I think he was called Henry or something. Well, from what I read he was sent all over world or something doing missionary work."
"Was he actually doing missionary work?" USA guy asked.
"Yes," I told him, "he was representing the church."
"That doesn't make any sense" USA guy said.
"Well I suppose it does if you want to marry his wife and get rid of him" I joked. They laughed along.
USA guy said "None of that stuff makes any sense at all to be to be honest."

Next I brought up the subject of changes to the book. I told them that part of my job requires multiple people to work on the same text document and then to have to compare changes and deal with any conflicts, this means that text comparison software is really quite good these days. "What I have done is to take the text from the 1830's version and compare it to the 2005 version" I told them. "And it had loads of changes?" asked the USA guy.  "Well," I told him, "it's not so much that there are changes in the way words are written etc, but that there are entirely new sentences."  I looked up one of these, it was the 1st book of Nephi, chapter 20.

I said that the clause in the book in question had originally only included people who came out of the waters of Judah, but had later been changed to include anyone else who had been baptised. He explained to me that when they are baptised, Mormons consider themselves to have become part of the family of Israel. I said "That's fine. If it was originally written by humans as their understanding of things, and then later humans made their own decisions on what to change then it all makes sense. Do you still agree that is what happened?" They both confirmed that this is their position, I was surprised to hear this, and relieved that I didn't have to suffer the frustration of them back-peddling on their previous change of opinions.

I then said to them "Do you remember that you said none of the meaning of the book had changed?"
"Yes," they said.
So I told them "I found something in Nephi book 1, chapter 19. In the original book it says the Jews did not mock, but in the new edition it says the Jews did mock. Dropping the word 'not' makes it mean the exact opposite"
USA guy suggested "Maybe it means the same and that's just how they used to say things back then?"
"No," I said quite firmly, "did, and did not, are complete opposites. Either they mocked or they did not."

"I expect someone has already done all of this" USA guy said.
"Yeah," I told him, "but this is me. I don't like to accept other people's conclusions, I like to look at what led them to their conclusions to see if they lead me to the same place."

I brought up the issue of "doubt your doubts before your faith". I told him that doubting your doubts is a great thing to do because it makes you check them. It's suppressing your doubts that is the problem. There is nothing wrong with doubts, doubts help you to reach the truth. I then asked about the hieroglyphics.

USA guy said he doesn't think there are any. French guy said "Yes there are, it's the pictures".  "Oh, is it those things?" USA guy asked.  Then the USA guy opened his book to a specific page

I said it was really exciting that we know what the original image looked like, because obviously they didn't have photocopiers back then so we are fortunate a manual copy was made. I then non-judgementally read out what each part was supposed to be according to Smith. "Do you have something with hieroglyphs too?" I asked. USA guy showed me this.

I told him I had no idea whether or not those were valid Egyptian hieroglyphs but it would be interesting to find out. I said though that this isn't as exciting as I had hoped because in the first photo we have Smith's writings but no hieroglyphs, and in this photo we have hieroglyphs but no direct translation. French guy then showed me this

I must confess that I nearly did a little wee wee because of the excitement. I pointed out that this has Smith's explanation of what it is, and some hieroglyphs that might give us a clue as to whether or not he was correct. I read through each one, getting the Mormon guys to point to which part of the picture the note was referring to; just to make sure they were mentally involved in the process rather than just being told stuff by me.

As I read number two I had a genuinely massive grin on my face. "It says 'Whose name is given in the characters above his head'. This is exactly what I've been looking for!" Then I read on. "Number four and number five both also explicitly state what the hieroglyphs say".

"I don't understand" French guy said.
"Well," I told them. "I told you last time that hieroglyphs were cracked back in about 1822. By 1830 hardly anyone in the world knew how to read them, and none of those people would have known how to read them completely. There was literally nobody on the planet who could successfully translate the Egyptian hieroglyphs into English." They were in agreement, so I continued. "I always wondered why these brass plates were supposed to have been written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, it made no sense to me. They didn't write in Egyptian, they would have used an Aramaic alphabet or something."

French guy said "I heard Egyptian was probably used because it takes less space".
"That's incorrect," I told him, "Aramaic is far more compact than hieroglyphs. It's just little lines with circles and dots and stuff. Nowhere near as complex as a picture of a man or an eagle or something. Aramaic would not only take up less space, it would be much quicker to write and would have been what they were already familiar with."

They looked at me a bit confused, one of them said "Not sure why it would be in Egyptian hieroglyphs then".
"When it comes to God and prophets do you think everything happens for a reason?" I asked.
"Yes" they confirmed.
"Well perhaps the reason for it being in Egyptian hieroglyphs was precisely because nobody on the planet could translate them at the time? What if they were written with hieroglyphs because God knew that in the future we would be able to translate them, which we can, and then it would be obvious that Joseph Smith must have received divine help." They were nodding in agreement. Then I added "Of course, the other thing that occurred to me is that if you were making all this stuff up then using an alphabet nobody understood would be a good trick, because then nobody could read it and tell you that you are wrong" - we all giggled, but I could see they knew it was true.

French guy said "But whether or not this is right is not as important as if you pray and receive testimony". I was dismissive of this, telling him that it simply doesn't work. They might feel like it works for them, but people from all other religions also believe it works for them too. He told me "God knows how to convince you, if you pray then he will answer".

So I put this to him. "That is exactly what this is. I said I believe God would know how to convince me even if I don't know myself, and now I know what that is! This isn't just some picture that Cowdery or someone else drew from memory years later. This is a picture drawn by a prophet of God himself, copied directly from the papyrus he translated. Not only does the picture contain hieroglyphs but it we have an explicit statement from Smith himself telling us what those hieroglyphic words mean."
"But they are not translated word for word" French guy said cautiously.
"They don't have to be," I told him. "The hieroglyphs only need to say the names that Smith claims they say. Number two should be the name of the Pharaoh, number four should be the name of the prince, and number five should be the name Shulem. If this is what they say then we have a deal clincher."

"You would become a Mormon?" French guy asked.
"Yes," I told him.
"Even without testimony?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "The problem with testimony is that it tells so many people so many different things. Regardless of how real the testimony I previously had felt to me, I cannot accept it was real because of my subsequent investigations. I have no way of knowing what to listen to and what is to ignore because it is simply happening in my mind. Hindus are told they are right, Sikhs are told they are right, Muslims are told they are right."

USA guy was nodding in agreement, listening quite deeply, but French guy was still insistent that personal testimony through prayer is the only way to go and should come first. I said to them "We are in agreement that the book was written by humans, and later edited by humans based on what they thought should change without divine instructions, right?"
"Yes" they both said.
"Well in that case the ONLY point at which divine intervention can occur is the translation from hieroglyphics into English. If these translations are correct then I have objective proof that Smith correctly translated them when nobody in the world should have been able to. I have previously been in touch with an Egyptologist who makes TV documentaries, I can write to her and ask her what they say."

I could see by this point they both felt uncomfortable with this. "You might find some stuff that says it is right and some stuff that says it is wrong" USA guy said. "But that doesn't matter," I told him, "we have the original hieroglyphs and Smith's translations. We can know for certain if he was right or wrong. If Smith was a messenger of God then God has allowed this to happen. A picture drawn by the hands of one of his prophets has been allowed to survive until we can test if it is right or wrong. If it is right then it would be absolutely remarkable, practically on the miracle scale. In this case it's better than those other miracles, instead of us having to rely on historical accounts, which can morph into myths over time, we actually have physical evidence of something we can check."

They were still unsure, they both said how they have never really been that interested in looking for evidence. So I put this to them. "If you guys weren't Mormons and I was, and we had just discovered this together, would you be curious?"
"Hmm" they said.
"You would wouldn't you? You'd at least want to know if it was correct or not, not to check would simply be denial wouldn't it?" They both agreed.

Again French guy tried the personal testimony approach. I asked if they thought God would require anything more from people than to desire the truth and to genuinely ask to receive it. They both said they thought that was all that was needed according to their religion. I asked if praying in the wrong way or anything like that might annul the request for guidance, USA guy told me that God doesn't punish people for what they don't know, so if they were praying in the wrong way or something it wouldn't matter as long as they were genuinely asking him for guidance.

"Do you know what happens on Saturday?" I asked.
"No" they said.
"Saturday is the first day of the Islamic holy day of Ramadan." I told them. "Millions, if not over a Billion, Muslims will be fasting from sun rise to sun set as a sign of their devotion to God, the same god that you believe in, the god of Abraham, Moses, and all the others. They will be giving extra money to charity. Despite fasting some of them will still cook food in kitchens and then take it out to feed homeless people out on the streets. At the least they will be praying five times a day, some of them will pray for a majority of the day. They pray to give thanks and to request guidance. Do you think that is a valid way to ask God for guidance, even if they happen to be facing Mecca or something?"

"Yes" they said.
"So being born into a society that tells you to pray in a certain direction won't matter?" I asked.
"No" they said.
"So," I smiled, "how many of those Muslims do you think God will tell to look into the story of Joseph Smith?"
They both thought for a while. "How many of them will ask?" French guy challenged.
So I told them "There are possibly millions of Muslims in this world who have never even heard the name Joseph Smith. They can't be expected to ask about a specific person they have never heard of. I thought that all God required was for us to desire guidance and to sincerely pray for it?"
"That's right" they said.
"So," I repeated, "out of over one billion Muslims, how many do you think will be told to read about Joseph Smith?"

They thought for a while and then USA guy said "That's why we are here, to tell people about our prophet". I pointed out that God doesn't need humans to tell the story of Joseph Smith before he is able to give them some kind of experience with the Holy Spirit. They said that unless they know of Joseph Smith they won't know what the testimony is that the Holy Spirit is giving them. I pointed out that this is exactly the problem, this testimony from the Holy Spirit means whatever the person receiving it believes it to mean based on their social upbringing and life experiences.

I could see a lot of watch checking had now started so I shook their hands and told them it had been a pleasure talking to them as usual. "It will be really interesting to see what those hieroglyphs say" USA guy said with a smile. "Won't it just be fantastic if the translations are right?" I asked. "Yes" he said, grinning even more.

It was time to go. It occurred to be that again we had talked without an opening prayer. French guy asked if he could lead one to close the meeting. It consisted of the usual thanks for being born and for being able to spend time with me. I don't think he asked for guidance or anything, it was quite a quick prayer and I think I may have missed some of it.

Tomorrow I will dig out the contact details for that Egyptologist. I won't rely on what web pages tell me, I like to check things properly.

Read 8th visit

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Mormon visits: Episode 6

This blog post has moved here

Read 5th visit

Text messages since our last visit.

Me: Hi guys. I've been preparing for a debate on Islam/tolerance so not had time to read more of your book since we last met. Are we meeting tonight? I'm sorry I hurt your feelings last week.

Them: Hi Peter. We have a landlord inspection later tonight and our rooms are less than tidy. If we do get time then it won't be for as long as usual.

(They didn't turn up)

Me: Had an idea. Your story about Smith translating hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs were cracked in 1822 and investigation was still ongoing in the 1830's and 1840's so nobody at the time was an expert. I'll look for examples of Smith's translations, if he got them right that would be incredible! What do you think?

(They didn't reply)

Just as England started to play against Uruguay my wife told me she had just seen them pulling up on their bikes outside.  I went and greeted them at the door. "You really don't have a TV do you?" I said. "The England world cup match has just started!" They smiled, we said it was nice to see each other. This time it was me who said that we can't chat for long because I wanted to watch the match, they said they just wanted to share with me what their (mission manager?) had told them about the changing of the name Benjamin to Mosiah. We sat down on the door step, it is a nice evening :)

They opened the the Book of Mormon to some page at the front somewhere. It said something along the lines of "if you find any errors they are the errors of men, so don't judge the book by them".  I said that we had already agreed last time that they were errors of men. The men who left King Benjamin took years to reach their destination so might not have known about Benjamin's death and in error may have given the dead king's name rather than the name of his successor. However, this still doesn't explain the correction. Why correct it later? Why correct one instance 7 years later and then the other instance another 7 years later? Also, considering Smith was dead 3 years before the 2nd change, who made the change?

They agreed that it shouldn't even take humans 7 and 14 years respectively to proof read a 600 page book and correct the errors. Then the American guy said "Maybe it wasn't fixed by divine revelation? What if it was simply errors made by humans, which humans saw later and then fixed, and we have always just assumed it was divine revelation?"

"That's fine," I said, "I can accept that because it makes perfect sense to me. Humans wrote it in the first place and got it wrong. Then later humans spotted errors at different points in time and fixed them. If you don't have divine revelation in the equation then it all makes perfect sense". They were happy with our agreement, I was pleased that they had taken a step towards accepting their book was not divinely micro-managed.

They asked what I thought about the existence of God. I told them that I neither know such a thing exists or doesn't exist. If it wants me to know it exists then I will know, but if it doesn't want me to know or it doesn't exist then I will spend the rest of my life continuing to not know for certain. I told them that all I know is that if such a thing exists then I definitely want in! I asked "If we were contacted by aliens would that be exciting?" They both agreed that apart from the fear of being killed/eaten they would be very excited and would definitely want to know about it. I said I too would be excited, but that would be like seeing an ant on the floor compared to being contacted by the most perfect entity there is (God).

They went back to suggesting the process of praying to receive testimony. I pointed out again that my past experience gave a contrary answer to theirs, and more intense. They had hoped I might receive a different feeling about their religion. I asked how I could possibly know that this other feeling would be genuine? If I could be convinced by my last experience, then by using the same approach I could easily be convinced by a different feeling about anything. I told them I've been talking to a Sikh, what if I have this feeling about Sikhism, or perhaps Hinduism? They had no answer for me, but suggested that they had once been told they should doubt their doubts before they doubt their faith.

I then asked "What if I tried this same approach and experienced these feelings again but they were telling me that Islam was true? Should I just go with it because the testimony should take priority over my doubts? Should I pay attention to the doubts that led me to the evidence that convinced me Islam was man made, or should I trust in this emotional feeling I am experiencing and just put any doubts out of my mind?" They said "No".

They told me how they had seen people getting lots of happiness from Mormonism. I said "That doesn't make it true though does it? There are millions or perhaps billions of people in the world who are made happy by their religions, and that doesn't make them all true does it?" - They agreed it doesn't.

I told them that it is easy for me to recall my emotional feelings from my past experience. I am able to bring out those happy feelings I had as if recalling a beautiful memory. I told them that this doesn't mean that the claims of Islam are true, it simply means that I can associate certain memories of the time with positive feelings; such as how united Muslims seem to be when they pray together, and how hospitable they seemed to be to me and to each other. These are nothing more than emotional reactions to memories; not some kind of divine spirit guiding me to the truth.

They asked how someone uneducated person could find out which is the true religion, wouldn't prayer be the only method that have available to them? I first pointed out that the question should be "is there a true religion?" and they agreed. They then also agreed that if there was an all-powerful all-knowing entity that had a religion it wanted us to follow then there would be no doubt amongst the people of the world. We wouldn't all be depending on the same low levels of physical evidence, compensated with experiences of how we feel when we think about it. People of all religions have those experiences about what they believe, God should be able to do better than mistaken humans.

I went back to how I decided the Quran was man made. How I read things that seemed to look like common erroneous beliefs of the time. I'd read an apologist's explanation and at first be satisfied, but the more I saw this happening the more I needed in order to be convinced. Apologists' explanations alone were no longer enough for me, I had to investigate the history of what kinds of beliefs were common at the time. If the book reflected those beliefs, which we now know to be incorrect, then I must concede the book is man made. "Of course" they said.

Then I told them to take the tower of Babel as an example. I told them that in the past people believed the Earth was stationary and the stars/Sun/Moon orbited around it. I pointed out how human intuition fails because we don't sense the movement of the Earth; there is no wind in our faces from the movement, when we drop objects they fall straight down and not sideways etc. Amazingly they had never thought of these things and agreed that they could see why people thought the Earth was stationary before we found proof that it isn't.

So then I went back to Babel. "Do you remember I once asked you what the Firmament was that was mentioned in the Book of Mormon? When people believed the stars etc went around the Earth they believed it was covered by a kind of dome called a Firmament. So why do you think God would punish people for trying to build a tower to heaven?"

USA guy said "I think it was about arrogance. They thought they were so good that they could get into heaven with no need for God". "Exactly," I said, "they thought they could literally build a tower high enough to reach the firmament of heaven, and then smash through it and climb into heaven."

Big lit up faces from both of them as they suddenly realised something they had never noticed hadn't made sense to them. They now knew why the people of Babel built a tower to reach heaven.  Then I asked "But why would God punish them for that? They are doing no harm other than being arrogant. If I could talk to ants and I saw them standing one on top of each others' backs to try to reach the Moon I'd just laugh and tell them they are being silly. I'd tell them that they cannot possibly reach high enough, and after a certain number of miles they will run out of oxygen and die anyway. If they still didn't listen I'd just leave them to it and wait, eventually they would realise how futile their efforts were and give up with a certain level of humility". They were both nodding with understanding, so I asked them "What would you do? Wait for them to harmlessly discover the errors of their ways, or walk over and stamp on them?"

"Leave them to it" they both agreed. So then I said "What kind of a God would punish them? The one that makes the most sense is one created by humans who erroneously believed it was actually possible to reach the firmament of heaven. Meaning that there would be a valid reason for their God to intervene and stop it." They agreed, perhaps the same story is not in the Book of Mormon? I don't know.

I told them that doubts aren't a bad thing. If we had ignored doubts then we'd still believe the whole universe orbited a stationary planet Earth. Having those doubts made us realise we were wrong. However, if we really had lived in a geocentric universe then those doubts wouldn't have been a problem for us at all, we'd have had our doubts, investigated, and all we'd have found would have been evidence proving a geocentric universe. Reality cannot be altered by doubts, doubts are necessary for finding the truth.

So I said to them that if we look at the historical beliefs of the time we should be able to work out what people of the time might have written if their religion was actually deliberately/indeliberately man made. I told them that I had read an account of how people in America in the 1800's believed that the diversity of people around the world was a result of the events at the tower of Babel, and so the native Americans must have ultimately come from the middle east. They asked how we could know that this is what they believed. I told them there was a book called something like "The view of the Jews" which was published about 3 years before the Book of Mormon; it was written by the priest of the town that Cowdery grew up in, and was all about how the native Americans were people that had travelled by boat from the middle east. I told them that we now know for a fact that this is not the case because DNA analysis shows the native inhabitants of America were migrants from some part of Asia and not the middle east at all.

I pointed out that with the benefit of modern science and knowledge we now know that to be wrong, but nobody at the time could have known for a fact that it was wrong and so seeing such a claim in a religion would indicate it was made with errors by people.  They told me they didn't know what to say. They have heard something about that book but can't remember what it was, but someone had told them that it doesn't disprove their religion.  The French guy wanted to leave, he kept looking at his watch and saying how they had run out of time, but the American guy just wasn't budging, he seemed to want to stay.

The French guy asked if they could end with a prayer. It was at this point I realised that they hadn't insisted on an opening prayer. The American guy asked if it was okay for him to lead the prayer, I agreed, and he thanked God for the nice weather and good friends.

"Oh, about the Egyptian hieroglyphics," I said after the prayer. "There were four Egyptian mummies...." The American guy was nodding eagerly "Yes, yes" he was saying, to indicate he was familiar with the story. "I think there were three scrolls with the mummies which Smith was supposed to have translated." They were still nodding and saying this was true. I said I was going to try to find a facsimile or something on the LDS website, the USA guy was grinning from ear to ear "I have a copy in my bag!" he said.  "I would leave it with you but it is in a pile of other scriptures that I will need, but I can have it copied for you".

"That's great," I told him, "I am really looking forward to seeing that! Imagine if he has left behind either the original scrolls or a drawing of what he translated. Back then only a handful of people would have known anything about hieroglyphics and even then their knowledge would probably have been much more basic than we have today. If there are any hieroglyphics on there that we can compare his translation to then this is a real deal clincher. The whole claim of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is based on Smith's ability to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs into English. Now we can't check the gold plates because they are gone, but if we do have a copy of some hieroglyphs he has translated, and also the text he translated from them, then we can check if his translation was right or wrong. Do you agree that he should have got it right?" I asked.

"Yes" they both said. So I said "Obviously if we look at the translation and it is completely wrong then it will prove that he couldn't translate hieroglyphs into English and it would be strong evidence that the Book of Mormon is not genuine".  I could see they both knew this is exactly what it would mean. I could also see that they both agreed with me but were concerned that they might discover the translation was incorrect...for reasons that only God can understand, I'd expect.

"But imagine if we looked at the hieroglyphs and the translated text and it matched perfectly. That would be absolutely stunning, wouldn't it?" Wide eyed with awe both of them were smiling and saying "Yes!"

"Well," I said, "I'd like to go and watch the rest of the match now and (French guy) is much more keen to leave than you (USA guy) are. If you are going past my house at some point with little spare time, feel free to just post the copies through my door and I will see what I can find out about them. I have been in touch with an Egyptologist in the past who has made TV documentaries, so it won't be difficult to find out what the original text is actually saying."

We all smiled at each other, shook hands, and then I went inside to watch England lose to Uruguay, shitty football team!  I am looking forward to seeing how they deal with Smith's massively erroneous interpretations of the ancient papyrus he illustrated and translated.

Read 7th visit

Monday, 9 June 2014

Mormon visits: Episode 5

This blog post has moved here

Read 4th visit

A log of exchanges between our 4th and 5th meetings.

Me: Hi guys. Was nice to see you both again! I had a thought about something you said. It was that your church is monogamous but there were reasons for ancient prophets for having multiple wives. Does this include Joseph Smith or was he monogamous?

Them: There was a time in modern church history where polygamy was practiced. Starting while Joseph Smith was alive and finishing in 1890 ish only specific members participated including the Prophet Joseph, and a couple other presidents of the church.

Me: I'm surprised by that and a bit confused. Why did Joseph Smith have multiple wives when on Monday we read in the book it was forbidden? How many wives did he have? How long before it was outlawed, and who could have outlawed it?

Them: Hey Peter! Sorry we didn't get back to you last night. Plural marriage, I honestly do not fully understand it. I know that it was a commandment from God. He didn't just decide that he should have more than one wife. Throughout history God has given commandments, and sometimes he gives permission to do things that are contrary to what has previously been said. For example, He commanded the Israelites to take control of the land of Canan when he had previously given the commandment thou shalt not kill. When this happens there is always a reason. When Nephi killed Laban, the Lord gave the reason, it is better that one man die, than a nation dwindle in unbelief. Though I do not fully understand the reason for plural marriage, I know that God knows what he is doing and there was a reason for it. Thank you for asking questions, keep reading and pray about the questions you have.

Me: I have to ask because the leader of a group having special dispensation to have more women than others is very common in cults / man made religions, and I don't understand what benefit can come out of it that was worth risking it all look man made. How many others claimed god told them to do this, and were any of the women already married? Claiming god told you to have sex with someone else's wife is one of the biggest man-made-cult alarm bells there is. Nobody claimed to have permission to do that too did they?

Me: I am now 1/3 of my way through. Funny coincidence. When you told me about the name change of Benjamin he appeared in the story earlier this week. I looked in the new edition and it gave the same name. Just finished reading due to tiredness, as soon as I had put the book down it occurred to me that I was still reading about Benjamin. I looked in the new version and that is where it had changed! I will re-read the chapter again tomorrow to see if I can see any hints as to why it changed. PS: who is supposed to have written this part of the book (Mosiah 21:28) can you find out for tomorrow?

The meeting

Well it went both more brilliantly than I could have hoped for, and then quickly worse that I had expected. To the best of my recollection this is what happened.

I welcomed them in using a mixture of French and accidental Spanish.  We sat down and exchanged pleasantries. I asked if they had read my phone texts and they confirmed.  It was unusual that they hadn't replied to my one message for a number of days so I wondered if they had been put off. As we sat down my mind was put at rest, I mentioned that I had been reading the BoM about Benjamin in the 1830's edition and then compared it to the 2005 edition and both had used the same name, and then when I finished reading it was coincidentally something about King Benjamin (it actually happened). After closing the book I realised what I had just been reading so I compared it with the 2005 edition and indeed that is where it had changed.

Opening prayer: Happy again to hear it had changed from "please guide Pete" to "please guide us to the truth"

My BoM with notes is currently downstairs so my page numbers here won't be accurate. I told them I had re-read the chapter the next day to make sure I understood what was happening. I told them that on page 167 Mosiah had been made king and that on page 168 Benjamin had died 3 years later. Then page 200 describes about how King Benjamin has a device for translating. I joked that if it had been a script for a film (movie) it would have been a continuity error, a main character dies and then pops up later in the film with a line; only then to realise his mistake and say "erm, it's not me, I'm someone else....called Mosiah" while shuffling off scene.  They had a giggle while I went to get my book. I'm surprised at how readily these guys would laugh at jokes about their religion.

I returned with my book and showed them the page numbers. I then told them that I had been to the LDS website to read about it, and they were very pleased with me for doing that. I told them that I had discovered that the error had been corrected in the 2nd edition of BoM released in 1837 while Joseph Smith was alive.

We agreed that the original name was obviously an error, and I told them that we shouldn't spend time worrying about how the error got there but instead just concentrate on how the error was dealt with. I put it to them that if God had decided to correct the error during translation then nobody would ever have known. "Yes," they said, "because we don't have the plates to compare it to". We agreed that we personally would have done that, but they said that for some reason God had decided it was better to leave the error in and then correct it, perhaps to teach Joseph Smith how to pray and receive answers.

I said to them that I had to put this bit of evidence on the side of "arguments against Mormonism" simply because I found it the most plausible of the two following scenarios.

  1. Mormonism is true. God allowed an error. This lightening-fast thinker then allowed 7 years to pass before the error was corrected, after one or more humans had realised it made the story inconsistent. God then told humans to correct the error that God had deliberately let through, so effectively God had changed his mind. God did all of this knowing that people would look at the book and think that the change made it look like human error and would cause people doubts, with no apparent benefit.
  2. Mormonism is false: A human wrote it. It's a large script. Humans make errors. Humans fixed the error.
I told them that I had read an apologist explanation for this.  The person saying that Benjamin had the translation devices could have left Benjamin while he was still a living monarch, but because they were lost for a long time (as it says in the book) they hadn't heard of Benjamin's death, so the plates were an accurate record of what was spoken by a human in error.

They were happy with this, their concern subsided and they started to look very happy. "However," I told them, "there's just something about that I don't understand". I told them that if God had decided the accurate error should go in then it still means God changed his mind and gave someone inspiration/permission to change it later. The error being there wasn't the problem, it was the way the error was dealt with.  

Thought as I write: The correct name Mosiah is given in another account of this story (the apologist account claims) elsewhere in the book so that would be evidence in favour of different humans writing different accounts at different times. It would show that some people knew things that other people did not know.

I then told them that as I read the explanation on the LDS website they explained how the book was changed again for the 1847 edition, again changing the name Benjamin to Mosiah in another part of the book. I put it to them that if leaving the error and then correcting it was the right thing to do then it should follow that God would have known about the exact same error elsewhere in the book and inspired Joseph Smith to fix that one too.  So now I painted two scenarios to them.

  1. God allows an error. Then after enough time for humans to spot the error God decides it is time to inspire someone to fix the error, but keeps quiet about the other occurrence of the same error elsewhere. Then in the 1847 edition the same error in another part of the book is fixed through some kind of inspiration.
  2. The book is man made, nobody spotted the same error had been made until after the 1837 print.
The questions is raises are
  • If having the correct name was the best thing to do, why include the wrong name to start with?
  • If having the wrong name was the best thing to do, why change it later?
  • If having the wrong name included and then corrected at a later date was the correct thing to do, how can it be the best thing to do for the first occurrence of the error yet at the same not be the best thing to do, considering it was permitted to exist elsewhere?
They were very perplexed, and really very much in agreement. Especially when I reiterated what we had agreed earlier, if only the correction had been done during translation then nobody would have known anything about it and it wouldn't cause anyone any problems.

I said that I found it very peculiar that a perfect all-knowing God would make it look like he didn't know about the same mistake later in the book; also it seemed odd that the first one would be corrected after 7 years and the 2nd occurrence be corrected after 17 years, 3 years after Joseph Smith had died.

They told me that they don't know why this is, but they do know that Mormonism is true and Joseph Smith was a prophet. I asked them "How do you know?" So they started to go back to how the Holy Spirit gives them witness. I pointed out that previously I had explained my own experiences with what they call the Holy Spirit and that it had told me something completely incompatible with what their experiences had told them. They then asked exactly what my experience was like, possibly so that they could check if it really was the Holy Spirit.  The short version of what I told them was that I had been praying for 3 to 4 hours a day for 2 to 3 months. 
  • They asked how the exchange took place. I told them that I would ask questions and then wait, my thoughts would become more and more clear and then when the clearest answer came through I'd get an indescribable sensation. 
  • They asked if I had asked clear questions like "Is this book true?" - I told them I had asked the question exactly as clearly as that. Is the book I am going to read true? Yes! Was Muhammad your messenger? Yes! Is the book altered in any way? No! Is it a human's understanding of your words? No! Is it your writing word for word? Yes!
  • So then it was time to explain the Holy Ghost. This is kind of what I told them.
"I would feel as though something invisible was passing through my body, from above my head moving downwards. It wasn't actually making contact with me as we would understand the idea of touching, but more like where it overlapped with my body it would in some way alter the atoms of my body. They felt like they had been transformed from a dark night into a pure sunshine, as if every individual atom was a tiny sun receiving infinite love, happiness, and every other good feeling, and that each atom was then radiating these feelings out out for everyone else to feel. It continued to spread down my body, it was so wonderful that it was all I could think of and I had no other thoughts at the time, as if my mind had been cleansed. As it passed to my heart I suddenly felt it shoot through my arteries and veins, flowing through my whole vascular system but not into the surrounding flesh. As it continued to move down it transformed the atoms in the flesh surrounding my veins.  It then continued down my back, like a tantalising shiver. Then as soon as it hit the base of my spine I felt an intensification shoot up my spine into my brain, as I enjoyed the ecstasy of this second hit I was aware of it spreading through my legs and feet. I then realised I felt weightless as if I could float up from the floor. At that point I felt as though every individual atom in the entire universe loved me. I wanted to give this feeling to everyone. I knew that if everyone in the world had this feeling then there would be love and peace everywhere, but I was also frustrated because I knew I couldn't just take a bundle of it and give it to other people, I could only teach them how to find it for themselves."

I gave them about 30 seconds, maybe a minute as they sat there with wide eyes and open mouths. I asked "How was that? Does it sound anything like the confirmation you receive when you pray for guidance and the Holy Spirit confirms you are right?"

The French guy refused to answer. He just said "I don't like to go into details about my experience because I consider it personal, but I know that when it happens I know it is real". So I turned to the American guy and said "(French guy) doesn't want to tell me his experience so I have nothing to compare with, was mine anything like yours?"

He replied "Yes, mine is exactly the same except it is nowhere near as powerful as yours".  I asked what they made of it.  The French guy said "Well how does this work? If we are all having the same feelings we can't all be right". I agreed and said to him that when Buddhists meditate they probably get something similar, maybe even stronger because they spend so much time practicing meditation. When people of other religions pray they too receive some kind of spiritual confirmation that the path they have chosen is correct. I told them that this month will see the start of the Islamic month of Ramadan, the month where the gates of hell are closed and the gates of heaven are opened wide. Many Muslims will spend hours reciting the Quran again and again, do you think they don't feel some kind of spiritual confirmation that what they are doing is good, right, and true?

"But what can cause it?" the French guy asked. I told him that it happens in your head. Muslims see the Quran as perfect because over the past 1400 years it has shaped the language and culture of its followers' societies; things they think are bad are bad in the Quran, things they think are good and pious are also good and pious in the Quran, so it just feels true to them. When they think about Allah, Muhammad, and the Quran they are contemplating everything they love about their lives and everything they hold dearly. It is bound to give them some kind of beautiful rewarding feeling.

Then I reminded them that my experience had included a revelation of some kind in the form of some Arabic that I didn't know. In my Arabic classes I was learning "Ana (I am) Min (from) Britaaniah (Britain). Ana (I am) Britaanee (British)" but during one of my meditation/prayers I heard the words (in my own voice/thoughts) "Mufrad. Ana Min Mufrad, Ana Mufradee". It wasn't a word I was familiar with so I ran to my living room to grab my Arabic/English dictionary to look it up. I was excited and at the same time paradoxically scared it would be right and also scared it would be wrong. I found the word Mufrad, it meant "Singular".

Throughout my months of prayer for answers I had come to the understanding that the universe had existed as a tiny point of unimaginably dense material, a tiny perfect ball, and that Allah had triggered an imperfection to the shape of this object by removing some his spiritual perfection from it, the imperfection caused the expansion we now call the big bang.  I am from the singularity, I am singular.  This was especially relevant because Islam refutes the idea of a trinity and claims that God is uniquely singular.  From this point onward I prayed even more, receiving even more clear answers to the same questions I had asked, and I knew at that point when I started to read the Quran I would know it was God's words so I started to read.

The more I read the more disappointed I was, I kept reading things that looked suspiciously like erroneous historical human beliefs. At first I would ignore them, but as I read more and more I couldn't put them out of my mind so I decided to look up scholars' explanations of those verses. At first I accepted the answers, not because they were particularly convincing but more because I felt that I already knew what was true and I wanted the answer to be sufficient. 

I said to them "If you believe there is this perfect God out there that created the universe and then you think you have found a way to be close to this God, you really hold high hopes that the way you suspect is true means that all your searching is finally over". They agreed completely.  I told them how the more I read the more I had to be honest with myself, this all-knowing God would know that these verses look like erroneous human beliefs that were common at the time; it would know that they would cause people problems, and if it actually cared about people believing those words were true then it would either use the correct wording or simply not mention anything that looked like an erroneous belief.  Again they agreed, but wanted to know how I could explain the Arabic.

It was in one of my later Arabic classes that I realised what had happened. My class consisted of myself and lots of Pakistani Muslims. To an extent they all had a level of exposure to Arabic through social experiences and through learning specific phrases etc in the Quran. So at the start of each new exercise in our books the teacher would ask "Can anyone work out what the teacher's instructions say at the top of the page?" Now I had decided right from the start that I would ignore this part of the class. I didn't want to try to run before I could even crawl so learning the words intended for the fluent Arabic teacher were something I wanted to avoid. I also wanted to avoid accidentally learning an incorrect guess, in my previous Arabic classes one woman kept saying "Ahhh, in my language that's ......." (In case you are wondering, the Urdu word for potato is Alu).

So it was the beginning of the class and they were trying to work out what the instructions for the exercise were. It was labourious but they eventually worked out it meant "Draw a line from each word to a single picture".

"Hang on, " I said, "could you repeat that in Arabic?".  "Yes," the teacher replied, "blah blah blah Mufrad blah blah blah".  I looked for the word Mufrad on the top of the page and there it was. I turned back to last week's lesson, Mufrad! I looked back at the previous week's lesson, Mufrad! It was all over the place! Despite deliberately blocking out that part of the class each week the subconscious part of my brain had heard it and learned it. How good are brains at convincing us that something else happened?

It occurred to me by this point that we had been talking for ages and not once had either of them even given me sight of a Book of Mormon, let alone opened one or starting to discuss the writings within it.  They asked me "If there was a time when there was no religion why might people make them up?"

First I taught them about false positives. If you go for a wee in the Indian jungle in the night and you see something that looks like a tiger's face you run back to the safety of the camp fire. In cases where there is no tiger it was a false-positive, but that's okay because it didn't cost much in time/effort etc and certainly didn't prevent you from reproducing; these people tend to have brains physically wired to see visual patterns of things that aren't there (shapes in clouds etc).  In the case where the tiger is there these false-positive prone people are more likely to see the pattern, run away, and live to have children. The person who erroneously misses the pattern of the tiger's face (a false-negative) ais far more likely to get killed. Being dead does impact on your ability to reproduce, so people with hard-wired false-positive pattern matching wiring in their brains are statistically more likely to have children and thus that is what humans are generally like.  We see patterns, but we also see patterns that aren't there. We hear a noise and instead of thinking "how did that happen naturally?" we think "who or what made that noise?" We tend to attribute a hidden agency to things.

Again the personal testimony, and again I reminded them I had one too. By now they were both frowning a lot at their own arguments. "Ahh yeah (sucking teeth) that didn't work for you did it?".  They then told me that they know Mormonism to be true not only through the influence of the Holy Spirit but also because of their life experiences of things that have reassured them that Mormonism must be true.  I asked if either of them had heard of confirmation bias, and both replied that they had not.

I told them of an experiment I heard read about where there were two lights, each with a small lever beneath it. One of lights would come on, if the rat pressed the related lever it would be rewarded with food. It didn't take long for the rats to learn to always push the level beneath the illuminated bulb.  Another experiment I read about (which I only remember vaguely) was something similar but done with chickens. French guy asked what a chicken was, I proudly said "Poulet" :) Anyway, in the chicken experiment the levers and lights had no relation to each other at all. A random light would light up, and at the same time a random lever would connect to the food-reward mechanism.  The chickens would obviously get the correct lever randomly, but it was observed that they made false-positive pattern matches. If light X came on then a specific chicken was far more likely to activate a specific lever, and so on. The unexpected discovery was that the pattern matching didn't only stop at the lights. If one of the chickens had just turned around or done something else before seeing the light and then activated the correct lever it would then incorporate the that unrelated action as part of the procedure to get its reward.  Whenever it didn't work the chicken would ignore the failure, and every time it did work it would reinforce the link between a specific light, action, and a specific lever. Eventually there were some chickens who would do quite an elaborate routine whenever specific lights came on, say two turns clockwise followed by one turn anti-clockwise and then press lever 3. (This was explained in New Scientist if you want to try to find it).

I laughed and said "So you see, ignoring and forgetting the failures and only concentrating on the successes made them erroneously think they had some kind of truth, like a superstition. Not only had they come up with some kind of superstitious belief but they had also invented some kind of superstitious ritual to go with it".  They both laughed at the silly chickens, and said that they found their lesson on confirmation bias interesting.

Up until now everything was just going brilliantly, and then I think I spoiled it.  I reminded them that I had sent them a text message asking about Joseph Smith and his polygamy. I asked them if he had ever married someone who was already married to another man. They knew with 100% certainty that Joseph Smith hadn't done this because it was such an unquestionably wrong thing to do. They smiled confidently, there was just no way he would ever have done such a thing.

I showed them a 2 minute clip from a documentary "The end of the world cult" about Wayne Bent and his followers in Strong City, New Mexico. The part of the documentary shows Michael (Jesus's spirit in Bent's body) explaining how one day he got out of his chair and was forced to the ground by God and told that his consummation with was imminent with someone called Christiana. I pointed out that obviously this had been discussed among them before hand and this was some kind of culmination. It then cut to the woman he had named and she said that she had told her husband that she was going over to Michael's house, and if he invited her in then she would consummate with him because she believed God had been telling her in her prayers that she must. The camera then panned to her husband. His emotional pain was obvious, he leaned his forehead against the wall in despair in the next room as he listened. Her husband was Wayne Bent's son.

I pointed out that I had only asked about sex because people who start man-made religions/cults often have a God that is very concerned about who they have sex with. I said that in this case the guy had not only conned a community into thinking he was Jesus, but also his own son who would have known him better than anyone, who was an adult when his father made his claim to be the Messiah, and at the time of his father's claim was working for the police force so would have probably seen his fair share of people making untrue claims.  They were astounded that anyone could convince their own son of something so incredible. The French guy said "Well we know our church is nothing like this because Joseph Smith would never do something like that".

I asked if they knew about the website - they confirmed that they did and that it was run by the LDS. I told them that when I was looking at the information about Joseph Smiths wives I discovered that one of them was already married to another man named Henry Jacobs. They looked a bit doubtful, so I opened The Wives Of Joseph Smith webpage and showed them the column on the right. I told them "This column contains the name of the each wife's husband. Who she was married to at the time Joseph Smith married her, and was still married to because they hadn't had a divorce."

Shit hit the fan.

I think that this was too personal for them. The American guy just became this calm emotionless person and said something I can't quite remember, but it didn't sound like words he would have formulated himself, it sounded very official. It was something like "At this point I think there is no benefit in continuing this process". I recall thinking it was odd that he had called their visits a process.

I asked him "Where have you heard those words before?" and then just sat and looked at him for ages. He looked quite horrified, like he had just become his dad or something. Then he looked confused "What do you mean?" he asked. "That didn't sound like the kind of sentence you would make up, it sounds like you've heard the phrase before, at church maybe?"  He laughed and said that this was not the case.

They looked at their watches and said that they had to leave, indicating that our journey had gone as far as it possibly could because I had obviously made my mind up already and there wasn't much point in them coming back. I told them to remember that I had previously told them that even if up to the last page I thought the Book of Mormon was man made I'd continue to read it because I wouldn't make a final decision until I had read every word, because there might be something on the last page that completely changes my mind. They said that they remembered.

I told them that if they don't come back it will be a shame because I like them. I told them that if ever they are passing and want a drink they can come and say hello and if I need to I will promise to not discuss religion with them then I would honour that promise. I reassured them that I am only collecting evidence to help me to make up my mind, and I have only found evidence that the LDS website has led me to.

"Exactly!" they said. I took this to mean "If it was anything untoward about this then the LDS wouldn't tell you about it". I suggested this and they confirmed. I said "but that still doesn't mean it makes sense to me". The American guy was really frustrated "This is really frustrating for me. I just know it's true" he said. I told him "Yes, you feel it is true in a very special way but you are frustrated because you can't just take it out of your body and give it to me?"

"Yes!" he said. "How can I convince you it's true if everything I have ever believed've blown out of the water?"

They wanted to leave so we finished with a prayer that I led. I deliberately placed myself between them so that they would see me in the position of importance/authority (centre of the group) and prayed asking if there is a God to please let us all know what the truth is, to guide us to the truth and to not let our emotions get in the way; and if there is no truth you (God) are trying to give us then give us the wisdom to realise that we are only hearing our own thoughts and desires just like followers of every other religion do.

They started to make their way to the door. I repeated that I would love to see them again as friends if they have decided not to come back. Outside my house the French guy kept saying they had to go, but the American guy kept asking me questions. I will see what I can remember....

  • If there is no God then how could there even be evolution?
  • You are confusing "your god" with "some god". If your religion is wrong that doesn't mean that there is no God at all to create the universe and then start self-reproducing life.
  • You ask too many questions, I can't help you because we spend too much time finding answers.
  • We discussed how he feels he is on a mission from God. We kind of agreed that a mission from God would only involve finding THE truth, not being intent on convincing others that you are already right. He agreed, except he knew he was already right.
  • Why do you reject every answer I give?
  • I don't. When you told me the plates preserved the language only for the people of the past I realised I hadn't thought of that. I considered it and found it plausible so it was no longer an issue for me. When you told me that the discrepancies in Smith's accounts of his age during his first spiritual encounter were added later by a scribe I was really happy that not only did you find an answer but that you then went onto the Internet and checked the evidence before making up your mind. I don't reject everything you say at all.
  • So if there was a good reason for Joseph Smith to marry those women who were already married then that would be okay?
  • I don't find it good or bad. I just find it the same as man made religious cults. Who knows, maybe God wants men to have sex with other people's wives, and cults are only successful because they copy what God wants?
  • Maybe he was told to marry them because they were adulterous or something?
  • I hadn't thought of that. Although that wouldn't explain why they didn't get divorced first, it is at least something I hadn't thought of that could be investigated. I read that she refused a proposal from Smith, got married, and then when Smith claimed prophethood he told her that he was ordered to marry her at sword point by an angel.  I only remembered it because her name was "Zina", which ironically is the Arabic word for illegal sex. (Amazingly at this point we all laughed)
I implored them to never stop looking at the evidence. I told them that if God didn't want them to see some specific evidence then that evidence would not exist. It's not about finding proof for your belief, but instead making sure that you are being honest with yourself and knowing that you believe what you because you are convinced it is true rather than because you have refused to think about certain things.

He said that there are prophecies in the covenants that show Joseph Smith was a prophet. I said I didn't know that and would be very happy to read them once I had finished reading the Book of Mormon. I said to him "You can't just decide to stop looking at the evidence. That book in there (BoM) is evidence. If I stopped looking at the evidence it would mean I'd have to stop reading the book".

"Oh yeah," he said, "I hadn't thought of that."
So I continued, "But I can't be biased in what evidence I look at. I either have to look at as much as I can find or look at none of it and not make a decision either way."

I told him that I am sure he felt insulted at my questions about Smith and he said he was. I explained "your religion is like an embodiment of everything you believe to be good and love. When someone says something negative about your religion you take it as a personal insult, it is as if I am insulting everything you think to be good about yourself, as if I don't like you". He agreed. I said "Well, if there is one thing you guys should know before you leave it is that I definitely do not dislike you. I really like both of you and it will be a real shame if I don't see you again."

As they left I asked them to think about what we had said today, and if possible research the answers to those questions even if it just means asking someone else at their church a question.  The American guy stopped and said "What exactly do you want that question to be, about the changes to the book?"

I said "If it was best to change Benjamin to Mosiah, why was it best to fix one error after 7 years and the other 17 years later after, Joseph Smith had already been dead for 3 years?" He said "Okay" so perhaps he will still make an effort, I then said to him "Just imagine, if God has just used the word Mosiah in the first place instead of Benjamin then none of the conversation we had today would have happened, we'd have just read the next chapter of the book".

"Hmm, yeah" he said, then waved and walked away. My daughter said that as I shut the door he was walking away shaking his head. I will probably never see them again. I will give it a few days to give them time to think and have their doubts, then I will send them a text message saying that I apologise if I caused them offence.

Possibly the end....

Read 6th visit

Friday, 6 June 2014

The curious case of iERA and homosexuality

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The Council Of Ex Muslims recently wrote a report on the various statements of staff of the iERA, the report claims they are a far-right extremist hate group. This report coincided with an announcement from the UK Charity Commision that they are investigating the iERA for its policies on invited speakers and payments to the charity's trustees.

The iERA have on numerous occasions had to distance themselves from comments made in the past by employees and even its own directors and founders. Some have accused them of trying to appease the public whilst still holding the views that were originally seen as being so offensive.

Sometimes getting a straight answer to a direct question can be very difficult. In a recent Twitter exchange Mr Adnan Rashid claimed the Council Of Ex Muslims were like Nazis for misrepresenting the views of the iERA.  I asked him to confirm his views on punishments for consenting adults having same gender sex in the privacy of their own home by asking a specific, carefully worded question.

Getting an answer was going to be a tough job.

Indeed there were posts where Mr Rashid said that what he believes is clear, but is clearly refusing to state exactly what his clear opinion is.

And again...

And again...

Each time deflecting the questions with comparisons to secular society.

And now many self indulgent morally corrupt nights later I find my question still has not been answered. Well, not directly, but if I look at the Islamic books of law that Mr Rashid says he agrees with wholeheartedly I get a "clear" picture of his idea the perfect law he desires.

recent appearance at an Islamic conference by Yusuf (Timothy) Chambers, secretary of iERA, has raised questions about the stance of iERA representatives on matters such as homosexuality. Mr Chambers is clearly seen sitting at the front of the room next to the main speakers when one of the event organisers takes to the microphone and conducts a survey of the audience, asking how many believe in stoning for homosexuality and other Islamic crimes. The results of the ad-hoc survey are quite alarming, but more alarming still is the complete lack of protest from iERA company secretary Mr Chambers.

So here is the question, just in case iERA would like to give a straight answer.

"Under the laws you desire what would be the punishment if two family men (married with children) decided to get divorced and live together, and were happy to openly and repeatedly admit that they are having anal sex with each other in the privacy of their own home?"

I shall leave the last word to Mr Adnan Rashid.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Mormon visits: Episode 4

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Read 3rd visit

During the week I had sent my Mormon proselytiser a text message letting them know how far I had read (I am about 25% way through now) and they were overjoyed. I mentioned that I was trying to find a verse in the 2013 edition of the book but was unable to because the chapter numbers have changed, what I see in chapter 4 in the 1830's edition might be in chapter 8 in the 2013 edition. They asked me what the text said and helped me to find it. I then wrote and asked what another specific verse said from earlier in the book, they replied that it says "Mary the mother of the Son of God", I replied that I found this confusing because in my 1830's edition it simply says "Mary the mother of God".  They said they would look into it, so I was really looking forward to tonight's meeting.

I don't think I could have been happier with how things went today. The personalities that I like so much had returned, we were able to smile and chuckle and they didn't seem so much on guard as they did last week. Friendly smiles, and really willing to listen, think, and discuss. In the two hours we spoke to each other they only quoted one sentence from their book. I think this was a great sign, because it meant that everything they said was their own considered opinion; even when they gave the church's official stance on something they would also give their own opinion which in general was that they thought the Church's explanations were often not very good.

I don't want to guide them anywhere they aren't willing to go, I don't want to ruin their lives or anything. I asked them "If Mormonism was untrue would you rather not know about it?" They both said they would rather know, and when I delved deeper both said they thought their families wouldn't understand them losing their faith but would still accept and love them. The guy from the USA said they already have apostates living in their community and it is only some of the people who are hostile to the idea of having them around.

We started with the ritual prayer. After that I smiled at them and thanked them. I told them I was happy that instead of saying "guide Pete to the truth" they had instead asked god to "guide us to the truth". I explained to them that to ask only for the truth for me assumed that they needed no guidance, and pointed out that even if their religion is true they will still need guidance to understand it properly. I paraphrased a quote that I had read earlier today which said something like "To discover the truth at some point in your life you must try to disbelieve as much as is possible". I explained how we all come with mental baggage of some kind or another. I told them that their opinions will be formed by the experiences they had when they prayed, and that mine would be formed by me having the same experience which told me something completely contradictory (which I later rejected).

I think this is the point that resonates with them the most. They seem to think that receiving this rewarding feeling when they pray for guidance is some kind of internal spiritual evidence that what they believe is true. They are aware that I went through the same process and had the same experiences, which at the time I thought was telling me to expect to read the Quran and find it to be true, but I had then read it and concluded that it was man made. I said to them that I am certain my experience was the same as theirs, and to prove it I explained it to them.

I told them to imagine the prayers as kind of an analogue radio that is slightly detuned from the broadcasting frquency. There is a lot of static noise, which are your own natural thoughts, but now and again you can distinguish a few words from a voice breaking through that you can understand. Those words don't break through in the form of someone else's voice, but instead a feeling of euphoria spreads throughout your body to help you to identify which of those thoughts have been inspired. When they asked what the euphoria was like I told them that it was incomparable to anything. It would start at the top of my body and then spread down throughout my whole, both inside and out, as if something beautiful was passing through me. It would feel like peace, happiness, contentment and love; every positive emotion I have had in my life all brought back and once and mixed together in the form of something passing through me. I felt as though it physically lifted me, as though I was lighter, even as if I could float into the air. You don't think what you just thought was inspired, you know it is because of the way you felt it. "Is that about right?" I asked. They both smiled at me with that deeply religious look on their faces and then one of them said "I couldn't have worded it more perfectly!"

So at this point we had agreed that we had the same honest intentions to discover the truth and were willing to accept anything, we both tried equally as hard to obtain that truth through prayer, we both 100% believed we were guided to a conclusion, but that those conclusions are absolutely in contradiction to each other. Mormonism says clearly that there is a trinity, Islam says clearly that if you claim there is a trinity then you will go to hell.

We discussed what could have caused this. They suggested that I could have been influenced by an evil force. We discussed how 1.5 billion Muslims believe the opposite to them, and they agreed wholeheartedly that if this force can deceive 1.5 billion Muslims then it could much more easily deceive 15 million Mormons. I explained to them how the brain can release reward chemicals when we think of things that make us happy, so if we think about things that throughout our lives that we associate with happiness, comradeship and love then we are likely to experience this euphoric feeling. Especially when we close our eyes, relax, and thing of nothing else.

We moved on to the words that had changed from "Mother of God" to "Mother of the Son of God". They said that it was clearer after the changes and I agreed. I also suggested to them that I had the strong impression that the BoM describes a kind of trinity so the meaning of the words has not changed. However, why would God need to change the words? They suggested that it could have been an error. I pointed out that the change was quite uniformed and occurred in multiple places. At the very least the printer would have had to have misread the same text multiple times, or we'd have to accept that different scribes made the same mistake as each other, or that Joseph Smith had dictated it that way; they agreed that the latter was most likely. That brought us back to the question, why did God need to change the words?

They then suggested that after writing it down perhaps Smith thought it wasn't clear, prayed, and God answered him. I pointed out that the Trinity argument had been going on for hundreds of years already and that even I could see a need for clarity on the issue, again they agreed. I asked if Smith was inspired to understand every word of the source and then wrote down how he understood it, or if he had just written down each word that he was given, they told me it was the latter and we agreed therefore that it hadn't been human error on the part of Smith, and it would have been God who translated the words with Smith as simply the receiver of the translation.

So why did the words need to change? Either we have to accept that God did something imperfect on a subject that was totally obvious and had to fix it later, or had changed the text later without the authority of God. I sat for about 30 seconds and enjoyed the complete silence of their brains trying to come to terms with the obvious.  Then they replied with "I don't understand it at all. All I know is that Joseph Smith was a prophet and he said....."

I said that is nice for them, but where does it leave me? They can start from the position of Joseph Smith being a prophet of God and use that to dismiss anything that makes no sense, whereas I am starting from the default position that just like every other man in the world I bump into, Joseph Smith was just a man, and that any information that makes no sense in the BoM simply reinforces that default position and takes me further away from the conclusion that he was anything more.  I love watching them think deeply, they were really taking all of this in.  They tried to go back to the idea of praying and being inspired by the Holy Spirit, and again I told them how I had been led elsewhere using the same technique, and that my only conclusion therefore is that this technique is flawed.  In fact my experience trumped theirs because at the time I thought I had been given confirmation of my inspired words using words I was not familiar with in classical 7th century Arabic - which turned out to be correct (long story, but it only took a couple of days to realise how it had happened naturally).  Did God choose a flawed method of guiding us, or are we simply not being guided?

At this point I asked if they were polygamists or monogamists, they proudly announced they were monogamists. I said that I thought Mormons were polygamists. They said that some churches are but theirs is not. I pretended to be surprised and asked "Are there different sects of Mormonism then?" They confirmed that there were. I asked if they thought the other sects had stopped praying for guidance? They said they didn't think that was likely. So I asked why they think that the sects that are wrong feel that the Holy Spirit is confirming they are right? Surely with the certainty that they know the other sects are wrong, followers of those other sects know that my visitors are wrong? So how can anyone tell who is right or wrong?

They explained to me how they have a leader of their church who receives divine mandates for the whole world, and he would tell them. I asked why he doesn't just get a divine mandate for the whole world and then all the Mormon sects would believe him. I asked if the other sects had heads of their churches whom they believe are given divine mandates by God, and they confirmed they thought that was the case.

So I put to them that either the Holy Spirit is lying to everyone (we all laughed this one off), or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is easily imitated by a malicious entity which renders the whole process untrustworthy, or that it simply doesn't happen.

They asked me something about how might God let us know using any other method. I pointed out to them that they can believe in God without religion, an idea they seem not to have heard before. I reminded them of the quote earlier about disbelieving as much as possible, and told them that their belief  that God wants to communicate with us is mental baggage from their past. A belief they have chosen to accept without having started from a neutral position and then found a good reason to think it is true. I explained how God could just love making universes, and we are just some cosmic fluff on God's massive universe and that he is more interested in the larger creation rather than being interested in each of us individually. Until we know that what they think actually is true we have no reason to suppose that it is.  They went to go back to faith/prayer/inspiration but almost immediately stopped themselves and said "No, that's no good because it didn't work for you and we don't know why".

Then one of them looked sheepish, as if he was about to confess something. He asked "have you read about Benjamin?" I knew what he was talking about but didn't want to appear to know too much, so I simply told him that I haven't read that far yet, and asked him what it is about. It seems that in trying to find answers to my questions he has managed to find himself some Internet access and has been spending time on the LDS website looking for answers to my phone text questions; the ones about the words in the book changing, and the multiple accounts of the first-vision varying. During this time he stumbled across an explanation as to why the name of King Benjamin was later changed to (name he couldn't remember, so let's say "X").

I said to him not to tell me what the explanation was yet because I don't want to bias myself before I reach that part of the book, but please do tell me what this change is about.  He told me that during Joseph Smith's time the Book of Mormon had talked about someone called King Benjamin. At some point later, he thinks after Smith had died, it became apparent that King Benjamin could not possibly have been the person in the story because he wouldn't have been alive at that time. I asked for their thoughts on this, both of them looked really quite suspicious of it.  "I don't really know" they said.

They proposed that only the translation was overseen by God and not the original writings, and that the name could have been wrong in the original writings; I thought that was quite clever really :)  I suggested to him that because Smith was translating word for word, and because God knew the name was X and not Benjamin that it would have made more sense to fix the historical error during the initial translation.

I told them that anyone with shaky faith at the time of discovering this might abandon their faith completely. We all agreed that this was completely obvious and that an all-knowing God would obviously have thought of it too. I told them that when making a decision we do it by weighing the advantages and disadvantages against each other. We had already agreed on the disadvantages, and then went on to agreed that there couldn't possibly be a single advantage to leaving the error as it stood.

I reminded him of a story I told them in our first meeting, about how historians thought they knew the year of birth of Zoroaster due to written records, but that later we found written records dated to early than the year we thought he was born, which claimed he was born something like 1000 years earlier. History had been rewritten after his death for the purpose of forming political alliances to defeat a common enemy (Read "In The Shadow Of The Sword" by Tom Holland). Then came the good bit. I asked the following question.

"If the book was in error and said Benjamin, and then when it was realised it couldn't have been Benjamin the book was changed to another name, what options do you think you would have to consider?"

The silence was quite golden, I could almost hear the whizzing noise of their brains processing.  Then the guy from Utah said it. "Joseph Smith wrote it". I asked him to be clear "Do you mean he authored the book?" "Yes, " he said, "I would say that Joseph Smith made it all up". His friend nodded and said "Well yes, of course". They were sheepish and very cautious, but adamant that if this is what had happened then it could only mean that Joseph Smith had made it all up.

I gave him a very positive response, I smiled and shook his hand. I thanked him for his honesty. I told him that if he hadn't said that then I would have known he was being dishonest and I would not have trusted him from that point on. He said "No, well I should be honest with you". I congratulated him on even entertaining the idea, and even more so for saying it out loud.

We brought the meeting to an end. We recapped the meeting by agreeing that it's not just me on the path to truth but all three of us. I reiterated my original point that I am only interested in understanding their religion better and that I really want to understand their brains. They agreed that they too had found it very interesting and eye opening, and were looking forward to talking again next week about theology in general.

I closed the meeting with a prayer thanking God for an interesting meeting, for helping us to abandon our preconceptions in order to find the truth, and to request that we receive more of the same. When I opened my eyes they were both beaming.

They proposed I came to their church to join in Sunday prayers. I declined. I told them (truthfully) that if I were already a convinced Mormon then I wouldn't have a problem with it, but until then I feel I wouldn't be able to sit and listen to things I do not yet agree with without responding. They told me that they are encouraged to share their views, but I explained to them that under those circumstances I tend to get over excited and it's not good for my health.

I suggested instead that if they recorded it I would watch it, and I really would too because I am interested in their rituals etc. They said that an important part of being convinced their religion is the true way to live is, in part, my willingness to live in a wholesome way. I told them that other than going to church I was willing to abide by the Mormon rules in order to increase my chances of receiving guidance. They told me the following

  1. No tea or coffee.
    I explained I only drink water (as they have already knew).
  2. No alcohol.
    I drink so rarely that this wasn't going to be a problem.
  3. No masturbation.
    I am married and have great sex, I find masturbation does not arouse me.
  4. Be chaste.
    In our 23 years together I've been chaste and have no intentions of changing that.
  5. Do not watch porn.
    I am not really a highly sexual person so it's not something I do anyway.
Although I would be free to eat pigs, I don't anyway :)

I told them I will continue to read the book and contemplate it deeply (as I already am). I showed them that I make notes on facts the book puts across, such as how it is disgusting for a man to have concubines or more than one wife. They told me the earlier prophets had some exception or other, but even before Smith was born it had been clearly outlawed.  I didn't mention Smith's multiple marriages because I do not yet have the evidence, and our meeting was over anyway.  On the way out I asked about the brass plates. They said the last the BoM says on the matter is that they were given to someone's son, and that them disappearing is okay because the plates would have preserved the language for the people of the time rather than for the people of today...I let that one ride due to time.

So my plan for next week.
  1. Find out what the name Benjamin was changed to, and in which edition it changed.
  2. See if I can match this up to any archaeological discovery at approximately the same time of the revision.
  3. See if I can find any conclusive evidence that Smith had more than one wife. Perhaps a letter from someone trusted such as his first wife, rather than an account of someone who could be considered "an enemy of the church". There must be something convincing, does anyone know?
Again, I cannot express how nice these guys are. I insist they use their first names when sending me text messages, I think it helps to remind them who they are :)

Read 5th visit