The convalescent religious apologist

the "duty calls" xkcd comic
A little on-the-nose levity: the "duty calls" xkcd comic (which is a fantastic way to learn/waste time)

Between the infrequent updates of this blog and the sundry topics, many of the visitors are friends and family. However, i want to discuss an important event that occurred today for those readers that don't know me personally. I am not skilled in rhetoric, and this post is much more personal than most, but it's something I want to say.

I have found typing difficult for a couple months now due to a different tragic event that resulted in serious physical injuries, however, that event is not what i want to talk about. That's a story for a different day...

The event i want to discuss was precipitated by the publication, by the Associated Press (and therefore many online news aggregators), of an article detailing a potential action by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to excommunicate two outspoken and publicly critical activists (one for women's rights, and one for gays' rights) who maintain that they are still "Mormons" in spite of their destructive actions. The publication of this story was not the event: i'm not naive enough to think that the media doesn't find such stories deliciously crunchy.

The actions of these two individuals, and those who follow them, are also not the event. I do not know either of these individuals, and in fact had not even heard about their movements until just now. From the little I have read, it is clear that one of them is just doing what she has learned to do professionally: to use media, spin, and publicity stunts to try to apply pressure to change. It's sad that she has lost so much perspective that she thinks that creating negative publicity and disobeying warnings from the leaders of her own church to not disrupt a major church meeting (which she did by inciting her followers to trespass and disorderly conduct) is an appropriate mechanism for change; it simply shows she does not, in fact, agree with the religion she claims to believe in and should leave of her own accord or at least welcome excommunication, rather than claim she is shocked and dismayed. It's clearly all part of her act. No, as sad as that kind of thing is, it happens periodically and is not the event.

The event

The event is—and this is really going to sound pathetic coming from someone who claimed a certain lack of naïvete a moment ago— what i encountered as i waded, increasingly depressed, through the comments to the article. I'm aware that Web comments sections (e.g. Youtube) and forums are perhaps the most wretched hives of scum, illiteracy, villainy and ignorance that can be found. They feed trolls and asocial misfits. I normally don't even read comments to news, but i was curious what the "public response" was to that article (even being aware that this "public" obviously has a selection bias). I've been a moderator for a couple forums, including the official forum of a niche commercial phone operating system, and active in others, so i'm no stranger to trolls.

This was a perfect storm for the trolls. It drew the rabid atheists, the rabid antimormons, the rabid feminists, the nutty conspiracy theorists, and every forum-dweller that has ever managed to pick up some rumor about the supposed nature or origin of the LDS Church. It was the shear volume of the aggressive, rude, false, vulgar and even criminal comments that overwhelmed me. I resisted the urge to reply a few times. Not only would it be unproductive in such an environment, but i've observed in the last couple years an increasingly Twitter-pated [sic] culture of "share your most unrefined thought and forget it" — few of these people care to engage in a discussion, they just want to vomit up a half-digested thought and move on to the next junk [media] food. Discourse has become increasingly hard to come by: intelligent or even unintelligent conversations on the forums i occasionally visit are being replaced by streams of comments unrelated to the previous comments due to this phenomenon. But i digress (and prove my point?)

Rather than "cast my pearls before [those] swine" (and in the mire described above, no less), i'm going to reply here.

Full disclosure

First of all, let me be clear: i am an "active Mormon", which is to say that i both formally belong to, believe in, and participate in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We are commonly called "Mormons" due to a book of scripture we use along with the Bible, but we are in fact Christians (literally, regardless of what some Christians claim—we believe in the divinity and Atonement of Jesus Christ and recognize him as the head of our church).

I'm not perfect. No Mormon is perfect, and no one else on Earth is, either. I regret that my own imperfections may give a less-than-perfect impression of "Latter-Day Saints" to those I associate with, but an important part of being a Christian (and many other faiths) is acknowledging, living with, and striving to overcome imperfection. That can be a struggle for anyone... especially perfectionists.

Without going into too many details, here's what we believe. I'll use the succinct summary contained in one of our canonical books, the Pearl of Great Price:

13 Articles of Faith

  1. We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
  2. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
  3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
  4. We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
  5. We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.
  6. We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.
  7. We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.
  8. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.
  9. We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
  10. We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.
  11. We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
  12. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
  13. We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul-We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

Reply I

There's a lot in there, but first let me point out that #11 is probably one of the most violated human rights around. Intolerance of others' liberty to believe what they wish is common (and yes, proving that everyone has beliefs is a simple exercise in philosophy and metaphysics). The majority of the comments i read would not have been made if everyone were respectful of the beliefs of others. I wish this weren't such a common problem. Some of the kindest and most ethical people i know don't share my religion or even my belief in God, but it doesn't change how i treat them.

Reply II

Any church that claims divine leadership cannot be amenable, by its very nature, to manipulations and demands from within the membership.

There were some wise commenters who pointed out that this is really an internal issue and that pursuing democratic (that is, popular) channels to force change in a religion that doesn't claim to be a democracy is silly and also not legal. They are correct.

Returning to the Articles of Faith, numbers 5 and 9 highlight one of the most important distinctions between what our Church claims and many others: that it was established and continues to operate under divine inspiration through a prophet who literally communicates with God, and that he received the authority to do so from those who first received it from Jesus himself during the church's previous instantiation. Past, present and future direct communication of God with a prophet called on Earth makes a lot of sense to those that accept that it was done in the past (e.g. the Bible), and the ire this idea raises in many other Christians seems strange to me. In any case, this is what makes the actions of the apostate (from Merriam-Webster: Apostasy: 1: renunciation of a religious faith 2: abandonment of a previous loyalty) members mentioned above so clearly contrary to what they themselves claim to believe. In a hierarchy that has God himself as the supreme leader, proposals, independent initiative and yes, even disagreements are welcome (at least by our conception of God, who is repeatedly persuaded to extend mercy by mortals in the biblical record), but when a member actively opposes the very structure and authority of that hierarchy, he is challenging the foundation of the belief itself. The lack of understanding of this point was the source of the most common comments that i wanted to respond to.

I was gratified to see a few considered comments from those who were not Mormons themselves but recognized that any church that claims divine leadership cannot be amenable, by its very nature, to manipulations and demands from within the membership.

Reply III

So this is typically when the rabble takes up the cry "cult, cult, cult", as if it were some kind of pejorative. I find this a silly attack, particularly because it often comes from those that belong to other Christian groups. Let's look at the definition of a cult:

a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous Merriam-Webster: Cult

If one examines the history of Judeo-Christian belief, the true believers were always a cult by this definition, because they defied the mores or politically expedient (i.e. PC) beliefs of the majority at the time. Are we a cult? Of course we are a cult. We are "a peculiar people" [1 Peter 2:9], as were the followers of Christ in his mortal time on Earth, and the Jews when they were following the prophets before that. The question then is not whether we're a cult, but whether we are The cult (i.e. the same as the original Christians). Obviously the answer to that is left to each person to find out. Accusations notwithstanding, we neither force people to join nor prevent them from leaving, but we do invite them because we have personal convictions that it will be worth it.

I feel i've either dismissed as simple trolling or responded to the majority of the comments with these three points. There were also assorted vitriolic comments with various degrees of accuracy or topicality, and i might address the bulk of those, at least in tone and timbre, if not specifically, in a follow-up post, so as to avoid any further wall-of-text effect. Plus, it makes for a substantive and interesting topic in of itself.

One thing i want to clarify before concluding is that neither the LDS church nor i are misogynistic nor homophobic, and that makes this whole situation all the more ridiculous. It's not really the point of this article, but bears repeating.

Thank you for reading. This has been very cathartic, even in its second iteration (i lost half the post due to a power outage). Unfortunately my second implementation is never quite as polished as the first, but i hope it adequately conveys my point of view.

I welcome considered comments to this post.