The Covid vaccines: science or miracles?

April 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I won’t go on about this execrable piece from the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon church, except to say that it’s a good example of mushbrained accommodationism. The writer, a staff member at the paper, is also a Mormon.

Click to read (and weep):

His schtick: yes, science can work wonders, but how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines? After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA. We all know, as Benson says, that you can’t prove there’s a god, but you can’t disprove it, either! He thinks that this means that it’s plausible that God was involved in our getting “shots in arms.”

Here’s Benson’s homily:

For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.

Yes, of course science and god are “congruent” if you’re willing, as is Benson, to admit that we can’t prove that there’s no god. (Well, as a superannuated scientist I’d say that there is not only no evidence for gods, but also that, given that theistic gods are supposed to interact with the world, we have evidence against Abrahamic gods). But science and leprechauns, Bigfoot, fairies, and all manner of supernatural beings are also congruent. Perhaps it was the leprechauns that helped create the vaccine.

But wait! there’s more! Below the writer echoes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Benson dimly realizes that relegating god to unexplained phenomena forces any deity into an ever-shrinking niche. Ergo, we can’t ask for any empirical evidence for God, as that could always be explained someday by science:

If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

But to echo the late Victor Stenger, the absence of evidence for God is indeed evidence for the absence of God if there should have been evidence. And there should be, for a theistic God. Often that evidence is in the form of miracles, which it surely is for the Catholic Church. But evidence does not exist outside of people’s revelations and will to believe ancient writings.

That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, [Alan] Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”

Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us.

Now above we have truly mushbrained statements by both Lightman and Benson. “Swearing allegiance to science” is not something we do, for there is always the possibility that science may actually turn up some evidence for a deity. Scientists don’t swear allegiance to anything; they use whatever naturalistic methods they have at hand to find out what’s true. And that’s the only way we know of finding out what’s true  (I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact.)

Science is not based on “faith” in the religious sense, but, as I’ve been hammering home since I wrote a piece in Slate eight years ago, what we mean by “faith” in science is “confidence that its methods will bring us closer to the truth”. “Faith” in the religious sense means, “Confident belief in supernatural things for which there is no evidence.”

Benson goes on:

Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.

Why, exactly, should we seek common ground? I’m willing as a scientist to say that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved, but I’d add that there is no evidence for the divine, so why should we accept its existence? As Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon, when the Emperor didn’t find any note about God in Laplace’s great book, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” I’m just as willing to admit that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved as to admit that the influence of the stars and planets on our behavior (astrology) can be present without being proved.

And, as Hitchens used to say, “All the work is ahead of him.” Does Benson think that the god whose existence we can’t prove is the Mormon God, the Catholic God, the Hindu God, or some other god? If he doesn’t know, why is he a Mormon?

Finally, there’s this:

. . . .I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

If you want to find out what is true about our universe, then the methods of science and religion in ascertaining reality are certainly mutually exclusive. That is the main point of Faith Versus Fact. We don’t find out what’s true about the universe through prayer, revelation, or reading ancient books of fiction.

h/t: Jeff

Mormon Church responds to allegations of rat-holing money and not paying owed taxes

December 18, 2019 • 12:00 pm

Yesterday I highlighted an article from The Washington Post in which David Nielsen, a former employee of a Mormon Church’s investment firm—an organization that supposedly to accumulates leftover tithing money to give to charity—accused the firm (Ensign Peak Advisors) of keeping the money and accumulating interest while not giving any to charity. That violates the tax rules for nonprofit organizations. Furthermore, the fund, which has now mounted to $100 billion—yes, 10% of a trillion dollars!—made only two dispersals (total $2 billion), both seemingly illegal donations to bail out a church-run insurance company and shopping mall (profit-making organizations, not charities!).  Nielsen stands to gain 10% of any taxes recovered from an Internal Revenue Service investigation, but he gets the money only if the IRS determines that the Church violated the tax code.

The Post presented a pretty damning report, not ameliorated by Mormon official’s statements about squirreling away money for when Jesus returns:

In a speech in March 2018, Caussé [Presiding Bishop of the Church] linked the church’s financial strategy to the “prophecies about the last days.” Just as the church maintains grain silos and emergency warehouses, Caussé said, so it “also methodically follows the practice of setting aside a portion of its revenues each year to prepare for any possible future needs.”

According to the complaint, Ensign’s president, Roger Clarke, has told others that the amassed funds would be used in the event of the second coming of Christ. Clarke did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Now the church has responded—if you consider evasion a response—as reported by the Mormon-owned paper the Deseret News. Click on the screenshot for the story, and go here for the Church’s official response.

Here’s what the Church says:

We take seriously the responsibility to care for the tithes and donations received from members. The vast majority of these funds are used immediately to meet the needs of the growing Church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world. Over many years, a portion is methodically safeguarded through wise financial management and the building of a prudent reserve for the future. This is a sound doctrinal and financial principle taught by the Savior in the Parable of the Talents and lived by the Church and its members. All Church funds exist for no other reason than to support the Church’s divinely appointed mission.

Claims being currently circulated are based on a narrow perspective and limited information. The Church complies with all applicable law governing our donations, investments, taxes, and reserves. We continue to welcome the opportunity to work with officials to address questions they may have.

This isn’t much of a response to the specific allegation that Ensign Peak Advisors sequestered the money and didn’t use it for charitable work, except that the response notes that a portion of money is “safeguarded” to build “a prudent reserve for the future” (i.e., for unspecific uses when Jesus comes back). There is no denial of Nielson’s claim about his specific investment operation.  And that accusation isn’t ameliorated, either, by further statements reported in the Deseret News:

The church offered no specific comment about the complaint or Nielsen prior to the Post’s story. Instead it directed the Post and other media to past comments by church leaders about church finances. Leaders previously have said the faith provides $40 million a year to address famines, respond to natural disasters, aid refugees, give medical care and training and more through its humanitarian arm, Latter-day Saint Charities.

Latter-day Saint Charities reported in February that the figure is even larger. Its 2018 annual report says the charity has provided more than $2.2 billion, or an average of $64.7 million a year, in 197 countries since its creation in 1985.

“Latter-day Saint Charities has provided more than $2 billion in aid to assist those in need throughout the world,” President Russell M. Nelson said two months ago at the church’s semiannual general conference. “This assistance is offered to recipients regardless of their church affiliation, nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender or political persuasion.”

Their “defense” is to say that they’ve donated $2.2 billion in 34 years, apparently through other charity funds. But that’s only 2.2% of the 100 billion held by Ensign alone, and with interest accumulating on that $100 billion, the Church is making money faster than it hands out in charity.

So what we have is a diversionary “response”, in line with the Church’s well known secrecy. But if the IRS does investigate (not a certainty) and the Church is found to be guilty, it’s not going to look good for the Mormons.

To me, Mormonism is the most bizarre major “religion” in the U.S. (next to Scientology, which is classified as  a religion but is really a scam). With its combination of secrecy, weird beliefs and accoutrements (i.e., magic underwear, mandatory tithing), and its clannishness, The Latter Day Saints just creep me out.  And they certainly aren’t being open about the latest accusation.

But one of the biggest problems in this whole mess is that the U.S. government holds different standards for different nonprofit organizations. Non-church philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have to give a yearly account of their holdings and dispersement, while Church “charities” don’t have to report squat. And that, it seems to me, violates the First Amendment. Whether secular or religious, charities should be treated the same. Why does the government exempt religions from a reporting requirement?

h/t: Wayne

Mormons reportedly stockpile $100 billion in donations, not using them for the designated charitable work but to buttress businesses

December 17, 2019 • 1:15 pm

A long report in yesterday’s Washington Post details some allegedly nefarious behavior of the Mormon Church: accumulating donations of members to the tune of billions of dollars, saying that they’re tax-empt funds, and then not using them for charitable purposes as that money accumulated interest and capital gains, which violates the law. You can read about it at the link below (click on screenshot). If you hit a paywall, try judicious inquiry.

This resembles the latest accusation that a Vatican Fund, Peter’s Pence, has also accumulated lots of money for charitable work, but then used almost all of it to reduce the Vatican’s debt (see my post here).

The new accusations come from a Mormon, David Nielson, who manages a portfolio into which the Mormon Church’s excess donations come. As you may know, the Church is extremely wealthy because Mormons tithe 10% of their yearly income to the Church, and many Mormons have a substantial income. The tithes amount to about $7 billion per year, and only $6 billion of that is need to cover the Church’s operating costs. The rest has been sequestered over the years in a fund called “Ensign Peak Advisors,” for which Nielson works as a senior portfolio manager.  The accumulated dosh in that account is over $100 billion, and of course grows because it’s invested.

The problem is that none of that money appears to have been used for charitable purposes, even though it should be given that Ensign is registered as a not-for-profit organization. In fact, the only disbursements that appear to have been made from Ensign were illegal: to two for-profit concerns. All of this is illegal. As the article reports:

Philip Hackney, a former IRS official who teaches tax law at the University of Pittsburgh, said the complaint raised a “legitimate concern” about whether the church’s investment arm deserved its tax-exempt status.

“If you have a charity that simply amasses a war chest year after year and does not spend any money for charity purposes, that does not meet the requirements of tax law,” Hackney said in an interview. Hackney, who served in the IRS chief counsel’s office, has been retained by The Post to analyze the whistleblower documents.

IRS rules dictate that a nonprofit organization must carry out charitable activity that is “commensurate in scope with its financial resources” to maintain its tax-exempt status. No threshold for this test is specified, and the agency instead considers examples case by case.

Now this isn’t all for sure, as Nielson appears to have provided no evidence for lack of charitable spending beyond his claim that no money went for that purpose. However, there should be records if it was. And get this rationalization from other Mormons:

In a speech in March 2018, Caussé linked the church’s financial strategy to the “prophecies about the last days.” Just as the church maintains grain silos and emergency warehouses, Caussé said, so it “also methodically follows the practice of setting aside a portion of its revenues each year to prepare for any possible future needs.”

According to the complaint, Ensign’s president, Roger Clarke, has told others that the amassed funds would be used in the event of the second coming of Christ. Clarke did not respond to an email seeking comment.

They’re going to wait a very long time for that! Besides not giving money from Ensign to the needy, the Church is also sitting on billions of dollars worth of real estate. And, unlike other nonprofit organizations, churches are exempt from having to give public reports of their income and assets. That seems to be an unwarranted and probably unconstitutional coddling of religion. (In contrast, the Post reports the value of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s holdings at $47.8 billion—less than half of Ensign’s money alone).

So how was the money used? Nielsen says that $2 billion went to “bail out a church-run insurance company and a shopping mall in Salt Lake City that was a joint venture between the church and a major real estate company.”

You can read the rest for yourself, and of course caveat emptor since this is still playing out. (Also, Nielsen, as a tax whistleblower, gets 10% of what the government recovers in unpaid taxes.)

Just remember that the Mormons, like the Catholic Church, seem to be hoarding money designated for charity and using it for other purposes—or waiting to dispense it when Jesus returns. (Does this mean that all the saved are going to get Ferraris?). But when Jesus comes back—I’m just joking! He ain’t gonna!)—both the Vatican and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints will have some ‘splaing to do. There may even be lashing by the Savior in Temple Square!

Ensign remains mum, as does the Church itself. We’ll see how far a Republican government (if we still have one in 13 months) will go in prosecuting a church.

h/t: Muffy


A Mormon beefs about my anti-accommodationism

December 27, 2018 • 10:30 am

My piece on The Conversation about the incompatibility of religion and science continues to be the most-read piece of the week on that site, having reached nearly 100,000 views and 655 comments. I can’t say I’m not chuffed, but of course most of the comments take issue with what I said. Well, that’s okay by me: at least they heard me.

And I continue to get a lot of private emails from believers and loons (there is substantial overlap). I’ll show two of them today. This one came from someone called “Nobody special”, who was anonymous but apparently a scientist. I didn’t realize that my piece had been republished in Newsweek, but sure enough it was, just yesterday.

Here you go. “Nobody Special”‘s comments are indented, and my responses are flush left:

War between Religion and Science?

Nobody Special

Dear Dr. Coyne,

I read your opinion piece in the Conversation and in Newsweek about whether there is a war between science and religion.

I believe you are correct when both disciplines are incorporating the “philosophies of men”. And not open to new ideas or other vantage points.

Truth is universal, whether found in science or religion it is the same. The key is what basic principles you accept at the starting point. In science we accept basic truths about our external world, then we learn and test externally to see what hypothesis are true. Do you accept basic truths about the spiritual world, then learn and test internally to see what creeds of religion are true? No you do not.

Science accepts that this existence is real and what you see, touch, smell, and hear are real. There are truths in science that can’t be proved, but are accepted by faith (without proof), because we need a starting point. Yet many people experience dreams that are so real that they don’t know they are dreams until the wake up. This questions existence. You think, therefore you are. But you cannot prove to me that you think, you can only prove it to yourself. Sounds like religion. You can prove that you have brain waves that appear similar to mine when we each think of green, but there are still differences and you cannot prove that your experience of green is the same as mine.

No, those are philosophical questions, not religious ones, and they don’t go any distance towards proving the existence of God. And, of course, someday we may be able to see what other people’s subjective experiences are like, though we already have some clues from their behavior. It is, after all, empirical study and not the Bible that revealed that color blind people see differently from the rest of us.

Thus faith is required by you that your perception of green is correct. Yet we know this is not true for everyone. Color blind people do not see what you see, and vice versa. This experience we call life is very subjective, not objective. Science tries to remove much of the subjectivity, which is good, but it is never fully successful at the task.

I’m not sure that you can say “my perception of green is correct”. If 95% the world were blue-green color blind, it would be abnormal, but given that our perceptions are evolved, I’m not sure you can say that my perception of green is “correct” any more than you can say that a gay person’s romantic feelings towards of a person of their own sex is “incorrect”.

Does this make a color blind person’s experience of the world untrue? No, he has a different vantage point.

There are spirituality blind people also. And we know for a fact that what I experience when I seek the divine is not what you experience when you seek the divine.

Does this make one of our experiences untrue? No, we have a different vantage points.

Like the color blind person can’t see green normally. You, a spiritually blind person, cannot see the divine normally.

Okay, so HOW do you see the divine “normally”? Do Muslims see it normally? How about Scientologists, or Hindus? This person somehow is deluded into thinking that there are ways to judge the divine that are objectively “true.” The impossibility of that was my whole point.

So how did you get to your vantage point on Evolution? (Which by the way I believe is one of God’s methods of eternal progression.)

Thanks. Is that a truth?

You got there with much study, learned from masters, and tested the hypothesis for yourself. If I an unlearned evolutionist were to try to explain and criticize evolution, I would likely make many grave errors in my explanation and criticism. We scientists see this all the time in the “Divine Design” movement.

Is it not true that you an unlearned spiritualist will make grave errors and false understandings about faith and religion as you did in your hatchet piece?

It has taken me my life studying science to get to my current level of proficiency in my chosen field. It has also taken a lifetime of study, testing faith, seeking, and questioning God to get to my current level of spiritual proficiency.

Yet you, a spiritual nube, are criticizing that which you don’t know and haven’t studied or experienced. I have deeply studied many religions and found truth in all as well as error in all. This is exactly the same as science. All published papers have errors and truths in them. I would be castigated in science circles if I did the same thing with evolution that you are doing with religion.

Umm. . . I’ve studied religion and theology a lot more than the average person, but of course none of it gives even remotely convincing evidence for gods, much less religious “truth”. What this dude is doing is arguing from authority. He, apparently, has studied religion his whole life and is proficient in discerning “truth”.

But what IS that truth. Wait for it—it’s MORMONISM! He goes on (I’m assuming it’s male):

Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths”:

An interesting read, I recommend you pay close attention to the paragraphs after the heading “Teachings of Joseph Smith”.

Note, I am anonymous as there is a contingent of scientists who will make great effort to submarine my career if I were not. This is the worst kind of censorship and definitely not scientific. Shades of Copernicus.

Nobody Special

Well, here are the paragraphs of “truth” that he pointed me to:

The gospel of Jesus Christ embraces all truth; the faithful accept the truths God has revealed and put aside false traditions.

“Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft. …

“… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”

So there you have it ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters. Mormonism is TRUE! Other religions, by implication, are false.  This self-styled Copernicus has embraces one of the craziest religions in the U.S. (but it’s crazy only because we knew how it arose), and he says it’s rock-solid truth. Such a view deserves mockery and contempt, which I would summon up if I thought it was worth it.

I will let this person know that I posted the email (without identifying information), and you can feel free to respond in the comments.

Woman sues her Mormon parents to get medical care

October 6, 2016 • 12:00 pm

One of the most horrible and damaging aspects of religion is the tendency of some faiths to refuse medical care to children, relying instead on prayer and “faith healing.” The most famous such faith is Christian Science, but many sects do the same thing. As I recall (and I’m in the airport without my figures), something like 42 states confer civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure or kill their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds. If you withhold medical care on other grounds, of course, you’re liable to prosecution. Such is the unwarranted and harmful privilege of religion in America.

I wasn’t aware that Mormons were guilty of these crimes, but as The Guardian reported (and this is several months old), Mariah Walton, a young woman in Idaho, was permanently disabled because her fundamentalist Mormon parents refused to give her surgery for a hole in her heart when she was born, and so she’s left permanently disabled with pulmonary hypertension. This is what she looks like now:

Photograph: Jason Wilson for The Guardian

Mariah, sadly. lived in Idaho, where parents are immune from prosecution for this kind of neglect. (The last chapter of Faith Versus Fact discusses the execrable religious-exemption laws.)

Mariah, along with others injured in this way, are campaigning for an end to Idaho’s exemption laws. Amazingly, some state legislators (Republicans, of course), oppose the laws’ repeal because parents should have the right to treat their kids with faith-based medicine: it’s “freedom of religion.”

There should be no freedom of religion that allows parents to hurt their children in the name of their god. It’s bad enough that they indoctrinate their kids (which really should be illegal, too), but it’s out of bounds to withhold scientific medicine in the name of a fairy tale.

It appears that the bill to deep-six the exemption laws is still under consideration, so that children are still being injured (the Followers of Christ are notorious for this). There’s a petition to the Idaho governor to remove religious exemptions from prosecution, but, sadly, it has only 1,207 signers. It’s time to eliminate all religious exemptions for medical treatment: not just for deformities and diseases, but for vaccinations, too: 47 states allow religious exemptions for the requirement for school children to get vaccinated.

Big kerfuffle on Amazon over the Book of Mormon

March 5, 2016 • 12:45 pm

Talk about bimodality of opinion! I thought I had it for Faith versus Fact, but if you go over to Amazon and look at the reviews for the Book of Mormon edition published in 1981, you see this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.06.47 PM

That’s right: 631 reviews, with 96% being either five-star or 1-star—the lowest possible ranking. Clearly something strange is going on here. An article in Thursday’s Guardian explains it, pointing out that more than 300 of these reviews were produced within the last week.

What’s happening is a culture war, or rather a war between Mormons and everyone else:

The face-off on Amazon over the book follows an article from Salt Lake City’s KUTV, which claimed that students at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints University Brigham Young had been asked to praise the book online. The news source quoted a Facebook post, which told students that “many people against the Church have, sadly, written negative comments about the Book”, urging them to write a review in response, because it would be “a great opportunity to share your testimony to the world and do online missionary work”.

“Please accomplish this challenge by the end of the week,” said the post. “Thank you for serving the Lord!”

While KUTV pointed out that not all of those asked agreed with the request, reviews started to flood in. “Inspired! Jesus Christ on every page!” said one user on 1 March. “An absolute masterpiece of divine origin!” said another.

But the positivity was soon rebutted by non-believers – and by those who disagreed with the request – and deluged the Amazon page with one-star write-ups. “I was instructed to come here and leave a positive review. That was the last straw … I’m done with this cult, thus the one-star review,” wrote one. “Waste of a good tree,” said another, adding: “Besides the issue of ethics with the Mormon church urging members to post positive reviews, The Book of Mormon has about as much to do with religion as the demented writings of L Ron Hubbard. I actually give it zero stars… It DOES come in handy when you run out of TP.”

Well, it’s hardly a fair fight, or rather an objective one. The five-star reviewers are responding to a call to praise their holy scripture, i.e., proselytizing; and I strongly suspect that hardly any of the one-star reviewers have read the book. But I’ve read quite a bit of it, though not the whole, for the damn thing is the most soporific scripture I’ve ever read—and I’ve read the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Bhagavad Gita.

In fact, the Bhagavad Gita is well worth reading; it’s a real piece of literature, and quite absorbing.

The Bible is overrated: I’ve always taken issue with Dawkins’s claim that it’s “a great work of literature“. Yes, we should read it, at least in the West, because it’s so heavily influenced our culture, but don’t expect unadulterated beauty. There are lovely bits, of course, but I claim that if only a single copy of the Bible existed, and if that it had not been adopted as Holy Writ, and if it were found in a dusty bin in a Bloomsbury bookshop, someone reading it would find it tedious and uninspiring. And of course much of the beauty that is there was due to King James’s translators.

The Qur’an is far worse: it’s not only tedious but contains a lot more acrimony, violence, and hatred. I can’t remember any parts of it that were beautiful.

And the Book of Mormon is not only a ripoff of the Bible (Joseph Smith clearly cribbed its language), but is boring and repetitive: I can’t even begin to tell you how many times it contains the phrase “And so it came to pass. . . ”

You can amuse yourself by reading the reviews. I’ll put up just four: two positive and two negative. The negative ones are much funnier, but note that some of the five-star reviews were actually written by critical nonbelievers making fun of the book.

The Good News first:

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.34.44 PM Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.34.01 PM

Devine mission!

And the critics:

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.24.06 PM
Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 12.22.41 PMKnock yourself out. Although website comments are often tedious, I find these dueling Amazon reviews clever and inventive.


h/t: Ginger K.

Another Mormon deconverts, and we learn about the Church’s stand on evolution

May 1, 2015 • 8:45 am

A reader who doesn’t want to be identified wrote in with some information about how Mormons regard evolution (hint: not favorably). I’ll start with his/her “deconversion” story, which is short but emphasizes again the effectiveness of critiques of religion and paeans to reason on drawing people away from superstition.

I was raised a Mormon, but became an apostate at 17 and became an agnostic with religious yearnings until reading Harris, Dawkins and Pinker.  Your WEIT book has been the best reference for discussions I’ve had with both Mormon and God believing ex-Mormons who reject evolution.  The points you have made in the book makes their mental gears turn.
And now information about evolution (LDS stands for “Latter Day Saints,” part of the Church’s official name):

I thought you might be interested in an article published by the LDS Church’s newspaper:

The LDS Church has been saying there is no conflict between science and religion for years, yet there are few Mormons who accept evolution, and those who do reject speciation in favor of micro-evolution.  I have met only one Mormon who accepts that humans evolved from non-human animals.

The article describes the opening of a new Life Sciences Building at Brigham Young University (a Mormon college in Utah), and quotes Elder Russell M. Nelson, a former cardiothoracic surgeon and a member of one of the Church’s governing bodies, The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Nelson is quoted in the Deseret News: “This university is committed to search for truth, and teach the truth,” said Elder Nelson. “All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is compatible.”

Really? After all, the Book of Mormon says that Jesus not only visited North America, but that the Native Americans migrated here from the Middle East. The latter claim is completely refuted by the genetic evidence (Native Americans are genetically related to Siberians, as we expect since they came to the New World over the Bering Strait.) Of course Mormon theologians are busily trying to comport the genetic data with the book of Mormon, an amusing exercise I discuss in Faith vs. Fact.

And what about evolution? My ex-Mormon correspondent added this:

There’s a Pew article showing that only 22% of Mormons accept evolution.

In 1984, former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinkley wrote the following in the church magazine Ensign:
“I remember when I was a college student there were great discussions on the question of organic evolution. I took classes in geology and biology and heard the whole story of Darwinism as it was then taught. I wondered about it. I thought much about it. But I did not let it throw me, for I read what the scriptures said about our origins and our relationship to God. Since then I have become acquainted with what to me is a far more important and wonderful kind of evolution. It is the evolution of men and women as the sons and daughters of God, and of our marvelous potential for growth as children of our Creator.”
(The full article is here.) Hinkley was quoted in an article published in 2004 in the same church magazine.

A Mormon colleague told me that he took a human evolution class at BYU.  The professor spent some time trying to convince students that human evolution didn’t conflict with LDS beliefs and therefore wouldn’t harm faith.

Here’s the 2009 Pew graph showing acceptance of evolution among various faiths in America (the question asked is at the top). As usual, the question deals only with human evolution; I suspect that the numbers would be higher if people were asked about evolution of nonhuman life. But, as you see, Mormons, while above Jehovah’s Witnesses, who adamantly and explicitly reject evolution, are below Evangelical Protestants and have only half the evolution acceptance of Muslims. That’s pretty low for a faith in which religious truth is fully compatible with scientific truth!


There are 6.5 million Mormons in the U.S., and many of them are prosperous, upper-middle-class citizens. They are hardly the toothless Bible-thumping fundamentalists that come to mind when you think of creationists. The official position of the Mormon Church on evolution is that it takes no stand one way or the other on the process, but does affirm that humans came through Adam and Eve and did not evolve from other creatures. As far as I can see, the ongoing position of the Church, first articulated by the “First Presidency” in 1909, is still in force, and was reaffirmed as late as 1988 (my emphasis):

All [men] who have inhabited the earth since Adam have taken bodies and become souls in like manner. It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth, and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declares that Adam was “the first man of all men” (Moses 1:34), and we are therefore in duty bound to regard him as the primal parent of the race … all men were created in the beginning after the image of God; and whether we take this to mean the spirit or the body, or both, it commits us to the same conclusion: Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our heavenly Father.

True it is that the body of man enters upon its career as a tiny germ or embryo, which becomes an infant, quickened at a certain stage by the spirit whose tabernacle it is, and the child, after being born, develops into a man. There is nothing in this, however, to indicate that the original man the first of our race, began life as anything less than a man, or less than the human germ or embryo that becomes a man.

I wonder what the position of accommodationist organizations like the National Center for Science Education would be about churches that might accept evolution but not human evolution. At any rate, they’re going to have a hard slog convincing 5 million Mormons (the 78% that deny human evolution) that our own species evolved. (I wonder how successful that BYU biology professor was!) What they’ll have to do is to show those Mormons that the explicit statements about Adam and Even shown above are really just metaphors, and that humans evolved from earlier primates. Good luck!


Mormons finally admit Joseph Smith’s polygamy (and release bonus video on Sacred Underwear)

November 13, 2014 • 10:46 am

This is like the Catholic church finally admitting, after centuries, that yes, the Earth does go around the Sun (it took the Church 350 years to apologize for punishing Galileo on this issue).

Well, it took the Mormon Church only half that time—170 years—to acknowledge that its founder, the con man Joseph Smith, was a polygamist, having had between 30 and 40 wives. Not only that, but his wives were as young as 14 years old, and some of them were already married.

As anyone who’s read Mormon history knows, Joseph Smith could not control his concupiscence, and had a revelation that Mormons (i.e., he) could have multiple wives. (This resembles the convenient revelation that Mormon elders had in 1978 that blacks could now be lay priests, a position that was previously forbidden to blacks.) The Mormon God changes his mind with alarming frequency!

But, as an article in Monday’s New York Times shows, Smith’s sordid history is not to be found on Mormon websites and, in fact, many Mormons don’t seem to know anything about his polygamy. That’s like Christians not knowing that Jesus turned water into wine. In fact, it’s worse, because this is a matter of history amply recorded in the last two hundred years. Most Mormons already know about Brigham Young‘s polygamy, but not Smith’s—even though Smith’s “plural wives” have been admitted by the Church since 1852 and even Wikipedia, for crying out loud, has a list of his wives. 

Are Mormons that ignorant, or are they willfully overlooking Smith’s behavior? (The polygamy is but one of Smith’s many stupid and unethical acts.) As the Times notes, many Mormons were surprised as well as grief-sticken at the “new” revelations:

The church’s disclosures, in a series of essays online, are part of an effort to be transparent about its history at a time when church members are increasingly encountering disturbing claims about the faith on the Internet. Many Mormons, especially those with polygamous ancestors, say they were well aware that Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, practiced polygamy when he led the flock in Salt Lake City. But they did not know the full truth about Smith.

“Joseph Smith was presented to me as a practically perfect prophet, and this is true for a lot of people,” said Emily Jensen, a blogger and editor in Farmington, Utah, who often writes about Mormon issues.

She said the reaction of some Mormons to the church’s disclosures resembled the five stages of grief in which the first stage is denial, and the second is anger. Members are saying on blogs and social media, “This is not the church I grew up with, this is not the Joseph Smith I love,” Ms. Jensen said.

Too bad. The Joseph Smith that Ms. Jensen loved was also a liar and a faker, with a history of run-ins with the law, and not just because he claimed to be a prophet.

You can find the Church’s admission on its official site in an article called, “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.”  As the essay explains, the commandment to have “plural marriages” (the euphemism for “polygamy”) came from God, who decreed it and then (as in the case of blacks) rescinded it:

After receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives and introduced the practice to close associates. This principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members. Plural marriage tested faith and provoked controversy and opposition. Few Latter-day Saints initially welcomed the restoration of a biblical practice entirely foreign to their sensibilities. But many later testified of powerful spiritual experiences that helped them overcome their hesitation and gave them courage to accept this practice.

Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment.

And oy, God was insistent that Smith have lots of wives! The Church essay explains:

. . . When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.

Does anybody believe this malarkey? What happened, of course, is that Smith was randy and fabricated a vision of God (and a divine threat!) that he’d better take some more wives. The threats were fabrications, designed to make people think that Smith’s evacuation of his seminal vesicles was done only under duress:

The conclusion of the Church in the essay is this:

The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate. A spiritual witness of its truthfulness allowed Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints to accept this principle. Difficult as it was, the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo did indeed “raise up seed” unto God. A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage.

Church members no longer practice plural marriage. Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to trust in our wise Heavenly Father, who loves His children and does all things for their growth and salvation.

But of course the real reason the Mormons renounced polygamy was not that God had second thoughts, but that the U.S. government pressured the Church to stop the practice. Polygamy became a Federal felony, and it became clear that unless Mormons abandoned the practice, Utah would not achieve statehood.  The U.S. government started proceedings to disband the church, and went after some of its leaders with criminal charges. This would not do, of course, and so, in 1890, a church leader had a convenient revelation from God that Mormon’s should obey U.S. law after all.  Render unto Caesar and so on. . . But of course some Mormon sects are still polygamous, with very young girls becoming betrothed and sexually violated, so the Times isn’t quite correct about that.

Finally, the Church, though vowing now to be open about its history, continues to keep it low key. As the Times notes,

The church has not publicly announced the posting of the essays, and many Mormons said in interviews that they were not even aware of them. They are not visible on the church’s home page; finding them requires a search or a link.

How anybody with brains can be a Mormon eludes me. But of course early brainwashing can overcome rationality.

There’s another interesting tidbit from the Times article:

The church recently released an informational video about the distinctive Mormon underwear called “temple garments” — and it received far more attention among Mormons and in the news media than the essays on polygamy.

Now how can you not want to watch a Church video about the famous Sacred Underwear (formal name: “Temple Garment”)? Well, I’m here to help you. The Church’s website on the garments is here, and here’s the video, right from YouTube, released in October:

It’s clear from the video that Mormons get really ticked off when people call the garments “Magic Underwear.”

Of course, Sacred Underwear (my compromise term) is in principle no more ludicrous than the shawl (tallit) and beanie (yarmulke) worn by Jews, or than other religious garments, but somehow it seems more ludicrous because it’s underwear. As the video says, “Not all such religious vestments are on public display.”


Mr Deity lays into Mormon apologetics

November 11, 2014 • 1:06 pm

Many of you know that Brian Dalton (“Mr. Deity”) used to be a Mormon. Here, speaking from his nearly three decades in the faith, he takes the religion apart in a video that’s remarkably “strident” for Dalton. And much of what he says applies to religion in general.

He’s clearly ticked off that he wasted so many years believing in fairy tales. ~

Trouble in MormonLand: marginalization of women threatens Church

July 15, 2014 • 12:05 pm

I knew that in 1978 the Mormon leadership, which had previously barred blacks from being priests (Mormons have a lay priesthood, and blacks were allowed to be members but not priests), did a 180°  theological turn. Blacks were suddenly allowed to be priests because of a convenient “revelation” that was experienced by the elders. It happened when the exclusion of blacks was no longer tenable in a democratic egalitarian society, when the Civil Rights Act was already 14 years old, and when the Church was planning to expand into Brazil, ripe territory  for converts but one with a distressing number of un-priestable blacks. (There were few black Mormons in the U.S. before 1978.)  So God apparently changed his mind.

At any rate, I didn’t know until this morning that Mormons still prohibit women from becoming priests. That, too, is untenable, and it’s causing trouble in the Church. The details are given in an op-ed by Mormon writer Cadence Woodland in yesterday’s New York Times, “The end of the ‘Mormon moment.'”

Woodland details some of the embarrassing moments that caught the church with its pants down, exposing its Magic Underwear. One was its support of Prop 8 in California, banning gay marriage. Another was the excommunication of Kate Kelly, a Mormon lawyer who had called for the church to allow women to be priests. She was excommunicated for—get this—apostasy! Has Utah turned into Saudi Arabia now?

Here’s the Mormon position on women priests, taken from the official website of the Mormon Church (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”):

Screen shot 2014-07-15 at 8.53.55 AM

How nice that they have a pipeline to God’s will!  Of course this is going to have to change, just as the prohibition of priesthood for blacks changed, and then how will they rationalize that given the statement above? Did God change his mind? All the Sophisticated Theologians™ tell me that god doesn’t do that. He has no emotions (despite the wrathful and jealous God of the Old Testament) and he is steadfast and unchangeable (despite process theology).

Mormon women are demanding more equality and more participation in the church. One of them was Woodland, who signed up with Kelly’s “Ordain Women” movement. According to Woodland:

Like Ms. Kelly, I believe that the fundamental structural, cultural and spiritual inequalities Mormon women face can be rectified only if they are ordained as priests.

Well, that’s a non-negotiable demand, but it’s not going to rectify the inequalities—not as long as Mormon women are treated as breeding stock, as so many of them are.  When I was in high school I went out with a Mormon girl, who immediately tried to convert me (on our second date, she took me to her home and her family showed me movies on how great it was to be a Mormon). About a year ago I looked her up on the internet just for fun (the Mormons, you know, are great believers in genealogy), and found that she had nine children!

Woodland wasn’t excommunicated, but she was shunned:

Though I have not been disciplined, I have lost friends, and my views have strained more than one close relationship. I have been lucky to enjoy the unfailing support of my husband, but friends and some family members have cautioned me against my outspoken unorthodoxy. My faith, not just in the good will of church leadership but in the central message of Mormonism, has crumbled. In December, I stopped attending services. I have no plans to return.

But Woodland realizes something that the Church leadership apparently doesn’t: if they buck the tide of modernity, especially of the established view that women and minorities are not inferior to white men, they will lose members. This is what will kill the Catholic Church eventually, though they’re buying time with incursions into South America and Africa.

The lesson is that, in Western society, morality comes from Englightenment values based on secular reason, and the Church simply trails on behind, like a cat dragged on a leash, tugging against social pressures.  If the Church really were a force for good, they wouldn’t have waited until 1978 to allow blacks to be priests (the prohibition, of course, was based on Scripture), and they’d give women full religious equality—NOW. Woodland sees what will happen, though she doesn’t draw the lesson about where morality and gender equality really come from:

The church will continue to lose members like me until it realizes that messages about diversity and inclusion are hollow when excommunication and censorship are the responses to dissent. While the church invests in missionary work, especially overseas, an unwelcoming posture is likely to hinder its growth.

The true legacy of the Mormon Moment might just be that the church was given the chance that many religious institutions desperately need to stay relevant in the 21st century: the opportunity to open itself to criticism and inquiry. The church has chosen not to. And it has killed its own moment by doing so.

I await the next Convenient Revelation from the elders about women.