Friday, May 20, 2011

Why the LDS (Mormon) faith is a logical choice but it’s still wrong: Purpose and heaven.

I mentioned in my first post in this series, that I came to the Mormon Church initially as a result of that faith’s ability to provide the best logical answers to the existential questions I was wrapped up in throughout my young adulthood. Once I was able to consider those very same questions in more depth and free of the constraints that faith put on me, I left the church and discarded religious beliefs altogether due to the failure of the church, (and all religions I knew of) to answer them after all.

The question that plagued me most, that wouldn’t leave me alone here I think, was the classic “What is the purpose of life?” or “Why are we here?” I think it’s a question that, for various reasons, confronts many people in that young adult stage of life, that is if they don’t just adopt a pre-packaged worldview provided by their parents.

It was the church’s answer to this question more than anything else the opened me to the idea that it was the “right” one. Ironically it’s the same answer that gets the LDS church in more trouble with mainstream Christians than any other.
First a little background on what answers my inquires had uncovered so far. “We were created to worship God.” Really? Good created an entire universe so that he could create a single planet so he could populate it with people that would praise him for their creation? What a vain being, not to mention an illogical one. Considering so much of the experience of life involves so much misery and pain it’s not really the best gift to inspire abject worship. There is a reason even those of us in privileged comfort understand and can empathize with the phase “I wish I’d never been born.” I never bought the “free will” argument for why there is pain in the world. There are natural disasters that drown toddlers ripped from the arms of their hysterical mothers, there are “acts of God that destroy lives and break hearts. Besides that, “free will” is a component of God’s creation. If God created all that is, than He/She is responsible for all of it, joy and sorrow. If our purpose is to worship, why the pain? Why the trial of faith? If God simply needs to be worshiped, or somehow it is for our benefit to worship him, what need is there for all the obstacles to that worship?

There was also the idea “We are here to be tested and to live a righteous life so we can go to heaven.” This speaks to God of a better character, if less powerful, than the first contention but isn’t much better logically. How is that a justification for our existence? Did this divine being decide how nice it would be for some folks to go to a heaven, and therefore create them? If so, once again, why the trial? If the goal was to go to heaven, why not just create us in heaven? Why create so many people that won’t make it into heaven? Why create a hell? Why create so many people that will go there? Are we to believe that God doesn’t have control over how He/She makes us? Are we the result of a production process with poor quality control? Considering how few are reported to be able to qualify for heaven, how much of “the product” is destined for the defect heap? It seems like His/Her production process could be bettered, percentage-wise, by almost every system us meager humans have managed. Perhaps that’s deliberate? Perhaps God intentionally created a heaven and then intentionally created a lot of people that wouldn’t be able to go there? Are we not at the same logical incongruity in the omnipotent/omniscient paradox and the problem of evil? It is no different to assert that there is pain and suffering in the afterlife. To say that the purpose of life is to allow a small minority of people to go to heaven is the same as saying the purpose of life it to ensure a large amount of people go to hell, which, of course, means God must be either incompetent or cruel or both.

Throughout the diversity of Christianity and other religions there are variations on these themes but most that assert the existence of a God place Him/Her as the central focus of creation. The central theme is the glory, edification, exultation of God. Sure we might get something out of it too. If we work hard, and prove ourselves worthy, we get to enjoy an eternal, spiritual, morphine drip administered by the ultimate drug dealer. This is heaven? If the purpose or even just the end result of life on earth is that we go to heaven (again if we are good enough.) What is the purpose of this heaven? What is the purpose of life if all we do is go on to this utopian holding tank for spirits forever and ever without end. This may appeal as an alternative to death but not as a justification for existence.

Now let’s look at the Mormon answer to this question. Firstly, according to Mormon doctrine, our spirits are eternal. They have always been. They existed before the world did. God created the world so that he could create a place where these spirits could grow and learn to become more, and where they could gain physical bodies (it’s never made clear why that part is important.) Already we are significantly apart from the common narrative. We are who we are – not because it is how God created us (individually) but because it’s how and more to the point - WHO we are, period. It’s outside of God’s control. Secondly we aren’t here to do anything for God. We are here for ourselves; God is facilitating our progression, with creation and the plan of salvation. Finally, “Heaven”. “Heaven” in Mormon doctrine isn’t a just static happy place. “Heaven” or “Exultation” is progression onto the next stage. It is the opportunity to be with God and to learn and grow further because, and this is where many “Christians” really start losing their minds, ultimately we can continue to grow until we ourselves could become God’s. Like the God of this earth, we participate in the eternal cycle as we create new worlds and facilitate the progression of the next “generation” of spirits. This seems unsettlingly bizarre to a lot of people, but to me it made the most sense. There is a constant, ongoing, progression. No cosmological argument needed to explain the origin of the universe. No problem establishing a first cause, or irreducible complexity (at least at first, superficial glance) because the logical extension of the concept is valid (watch out for yet another top popper for mainstream religious) meaning that the God of this world once was a frail fallible mortal like us. The LDS religion simultaneously aspires to place man on the throne of God, and pull God down to earth.

I eventually managed to see the fundamental flaws in these doctrines. There are plenty of issues with these doctrines that I don’t address here, I am just touching on the ones that stand out to me the most.

1. The world was created as a school and proving ground for us spirits, because it is an intrinsic requirement for spiritual progression, facilitated by God. While there are better arguments against this, the one I keep coming back to is how this concept is so revolutionary. If this was the plan from the beginning, as the church asserts, and all the prophets knew this (from Adam, to Noah, to Jesus, to Pres. Monson) why was it first understood when Joseph Smith introduced it in the 1800’s? If you get the argument that it was introduced further, carefully examine anything that is produced as evidence. The Book of Mormon can’t be considered here anymore than the Bible can be considered proof of the great flood. There has to be something else that demonstrates that this understanding was widely held, as it must have been had it been held as true by the populations the church claims it was.

2. The idea that God would create us out of some vain desire to be worshiped is so distasteful to me that the idea of a facilitator God that has created this world to facilitate something we needed to accomplish for ourselves seemed revolutionary and beautiful. The initial assumption of creation was never questioned. Regardless of how much better it seems as a reason for the creation of the earth, there is a still the idea that the prophets of the latter dispensation (Joseph Smith and after) have gotten HOW the earth was created, and man – Wrong. Very, very emphatically wrong. They have asserted with the full authority of a prophets, seers and revelators (these priesthood titles apply to the prophet and to the 12 apostles so the idea that some of the quotes of prophets from when they were “only apostles” is hard to swallow.) that the sciences of evolution and cosmology are not only categorically wrong, it is heretical and spiritually destructive to accept them. You might say that these spiritual authorities were confused about the science but how can we say that they misinterpreted the narrative directly revealed to them from God, or whether they received revelation or not? So while this doesn’t specially address any logical fallacies associated directly with the specific doctrine of the purpose of creation I think that the assertion of prophetic infallibility combined with young earth theory = they aren’t/weren’t really prophets, which is foundational to EVERYTHING in the church.

3. Heaven, vastly improved, yet still untenably eternal, still an illogically recent revelation. My issue with this doctrine is addressed better in the first post Mormon Logic #1 discussing hell. I would only add one thing to the points I made there. The thing that appealed to me within this doctrine is it’s inclusiveness, in comparison to the hard line so many Christian religions take this seemed to allow for “some degree of exultation” for almost everyone. It took me years to realize how it wrong that was. Just like “separate, but equal” was better than slavery, but still absolutely racist and cruel, so too is the eternal relegation to these different levels of exultation. To be assigned a place of spiritual captivity, however pleasant, while others are allowed to continue on and progress establishes an eternal punishment. It denies to idea that these less valiant (inside Mormon joke there) spirits will never deserve to progress. That we cannot learn and grow anymore. That no matter how much time passes some people are inherently, fundamentally unable to achieve the same level spiritual progress as others. We are talking about the vast majority of the spirits that have ever lived on earth. Most of us are stored like so much spiritual flotsam. The Telestrial and Terrestrial worlds are no different from the heaven that I rejected in mainstream Christianity. These spirits are left to pass eternity, happily or not, in stasis. This is so clearly a response to the fear of death, but not a functional one. There are none of those. This same irreconcilability (knowledge of death and the will to live) is one of the primary motivators for religious belief in the first place but ironically it is the complete failure of all religions to create purpose in death, that also works with our primitive ideas of justice, that fails every time. Heaven, hell, reincarnation, all these doctrines are expose, by their very tenets, their true source: Human fears and desires, not divine plans. The Mormon idea of the afterlife is no different.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The LDS faith (Mormon) is a logical choice: Hell

If any religion has it right, the Mormons do. This is a short series on why I think that statement is true, as well as few reasons for why I still am a firm disbeliever.

13 years ago, last September, I joined the LDS church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka – Mormons). My conversion started with a very logical consideration, which might come as a surprise to some of you, but it shouldn’t. I had studied religions for some time prior to my conversion. My “research” was very haphazard, casual and very shallowly done, comprised mostly of asking friends about what they believed and why. Even in my very poorly developed understanding I had uncovered some things that I really didn’t like which tended to keep me and religion at arm’s length up until I learned more about the LDS faith.
I think that if you are a critic of the more mainstream Christian religions you might be surprised to learn, if you didn’t know already, how cleverly the LDS doctrine side-steps some of the more problematic and insidious aspects of traditional Catholic/Protestant doctrines. In this post I will discuss one of the points, other will come later.

Hell - Eternal torture for those that do “bad things” and don’t repent, or by some doctrines for those that simply make the mistake of believing the wrong thing regardless of how, or when. they were raised. This is about as immoral a doctrine as exists, anywhere. I had friends that seemed like normal, friendly, caring people who could, with a smile on their face, tell me about how African tribes that never heard the name Jesus were doomed to hell which is why they hoped to go on a mission to help them some day. How cruel is this idea of God? How unjust? How illogical? Only recently has mainstream Christianity started to let go of this terrible doctrine, and not without some painful adjustments. (see controversy regarding the new book: Love Wins by Rob Bell)

If you don't look too deeply into it, the Mormon faith addresses this in a way that seems to be in harmony with both the bible, and the idea of a just and merciful God. Here’s how. Hell or “outer darkness” is very hard to get banished to - only truly horrible people, unrepentant, malicious murderers, and apostates (like me) go there. It isn’t a lake of fire like is said in so many passages of the bible, but a complete removal from the presence of God and the torment of knowing the full weight of your transgressions. The key point here is that the vast majority of people that are living or have lived on earth aren’t going there. How could this coincide with biblical accounts of how hard it is to get into heaven? Simple. With the Mormon’s it’s not binary. It’s not heaven or hell. It’s Hell (outer darkness)and then there is not-hell, not heaven, which is “Telestrial Exultation”. This is a lesser degree of “heaven” which still involves eternal life and resurrection with a perfect body but it’s not “heaven-heaven”. One level above that is “Terrestrial Exultation" which is like in between heaven-heaven and the Telestrial world. It’s got more God in it but it doesn’t get you to the ultimate goal. Finally is the Celestial world. This is the place (tee hee - inside joke). This is where families can be together forever, (all earthly bonds are broken in the lower worlds) This is where one can live fully with God, and this is where one can reach their full spiritual potential (more on that later.)

But wait, there’s more! Remember those poor unenlightened African tribes? What about them? Are they denied the option of the full exultation because they died never meeting a boy in a stiff white shirt? No! The will have an opportunity to hear the gospel in the afterlife, in the spirit world. The spirit world is a place where less righteous spirits will await the second coming. In the spirit world, missionary work continues. If someone in the spirit world accepts the gospel they are eligible to receive full exultation provided they participate in all the required ceremonies and make all the required covenants. Which is the doctrinal reason for Baptism for the Dead, by proxy and other ordinances for the dead by proxy that are performed in the temple. This is also the reason that Mormons are so engaged in genealogy. They are attempting to identify all the ancestors they may have that haven’t received these saving ordinances.

So there we go. No one is tortured unjustifiably. No one suffers for something beyond their control. No one is ever denied the opportunity to really make the choice. That makes much more sense, doesn’t it? That is undeniably just, is it not?
It took a long time for me to realize that this didn’t really fix much of anything. Here’s why.

Eternity is too long. Eternity is inescapable. If I am denied an opportunity to grow, progress, learn, change, be with my family without end., it is unfair. It is unjust. No matter how misguided I may have been prior to the Judgment. Just as the idea of anyone, no matter their offense, enduring endless torture is unjust, so is anyone being denied the opportunity to change their fate, to earn respite – no matter their offense. The idea of eternal consequences is a brutish social deterrent that is still rooted in our social infancy, and is only slightly improved in the LDS version.

Secondly. It’s not in line with the bible after all. It’s amazing to me now how few members are unbothered by all the passages that discuss hell and torment, for all the same offenses that have been there the whole time without wondering why it doesn’t contradict the teachings of the church. The introduction of more than two options totally works in some cases. Take Matt 18:3 “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” For someone that believes that there is Heaven and Hell only “Not-Heaven” is the same as Hell but an LDS member can read this and say that has nothing to do with Hell it’s only saying that that a contrite spirit is required to enter the highest degree of “Heaven”, not that without one you’re going to “Hell”. That’s fine but what about passages like: Matthew 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Or “Matt 25:44-46 “Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Mark 9:47 “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,” How can an eye participate in murder or apostasy?

I’ll take time for one more. Not that anyone is likely to have made it this far anyway. Inconsistencies: There have been changes in this modern dispensation regarding the conditions for exultation, and what will earn you a one way ticket into outer darkness. This shouldn't be possible with an unbroken line of "true prophets, seers and revelators" at the helm. I speak of, among other things, the abandoned doctrine of Blood Atonement. This doctrine stated that in the case of0 egregious transgressions (apostasy and malicious murder) the atonement of Jesus was insufficient to fully atone and that the shedding of the sinner’s blood was also required. This has been disavowed to some degree, there seems to be a caveat about when the church and the state are one. If you don’t know of this old doctrine you can find text of the 1954 edition (before it got cleaned up) Doctrines of Salvation online or you can try to find a hard copy of the old printing. They are around, I know know that much for sure.

These strengths and weakness come from the same place, Joesph Smith and modern day revelation. The church grew out the revival era and much of the distasteful, and illogical stuff in the Old and New Testaments had been mulled over for centuries by theologians and apologetics prior to and contemporary to, Joesph's time. In the "Burned-over District" these issues were being discussed passionately and constantly. This exposed him the everything he needed to start Christianity over, reinvent it, and do it in a way that resolved much of the problems that plagued traditional Christianity for so long.