Sunday, March 6, 2011

Apologia pro vita sua

Today's post is about skepticism. Or rather how I extended my inherent skepticism to all aspects of my life rather than exempting the one aspect of my life perhaps most deserving of it. It's lengthy. And I don't recommend it to anyone who is comfortable with their worldview and prefers not to rock the boat. Which is not to say I'm irrefutably right or that anyone else is wrong. Much of what I discuss is verifiable (most of my links are to Wikipedia, precisely because it's crowd-sourced and by definition has to be the consensus view of those familiar with the facts), but much more of the bigger, cosmological questions are not. All you really need to know about today's post can be summed up in the following two minute song. So if you'd prefer not to buckle in for a long read, just watch this and call it good.

In ancient Rome, where few sweeteners beyond honey were available, grape juice, or must, was boiled in lead pots to produce a reduced sugar syrup called defrutum, which was concentrated again into sapa. Most lead salts are sweet to the taste, and this syrup, likewise, was used to sweeten wine and to sweeten and preserve fruit. Unfortunately, it's likely that lead compounds leached into the syrup, causing lead poisoning in anyone who consumed it.

In 1878, Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist working on coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University, noticed a sweet taste on his hand and connected it to the substance he had been working on that day. Fahlberg was awarded a patent for the substance, named it saccharin, and became wealthy from this sweetener with almost zero calories. In the 1970's, saccharin was linked to bladder cancer in rodents, leading to the United States government requiring a warning label be placed on all products containing it. However, as of 14 December 2010, the EPA stated that Saccharin is no longer considered a potential hazard to human health.

Aspartame was first synthesized in 1965 and is now commonplace as a non-nutritive sweetener. Though it has been the subject of various internet hoaxes and is dangerous to people with phenylketinouria, it is approved for sale by the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority. Nevertheless recent research suggests that people who drink diet soda sweetened with Aspartame are at greater risk of heart attack and stroke than people who don't drink soda.

Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia, and from there its cultivation and use spread to the Arab world, to Italy, to the rest of Europe, and eventually to the rest of the world. Coffee is rich in antioxidants and has been shown to reduce the risk of being affected by Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, diabetes mellitus type 2, cirrhosis of the liver, and gout. Researchers involved in an ongoing 22-year study by the Harvard School of Public Health state that "the overall balance of risks and benefits [of coffee consumption] are on the side of benefits."

So why, then, according to what I had been taught was God's law of health, would coffee be forbidden while consuming by the bucket full drinks sweetened with Aspartame, such as Diet Coke, was not? I don't have the healthiest diet in the world, but I am conscious of what I put in my body, and, as an athlete, try to put the best fuel I can into my system while avoiding those things that are most harmful. In the fall of 2009 this incongruity between what I had been taught was a divinely-inspired code of health and the best available medical research resulted in significant intellectual conflict.

Before I go further, let me state that I am well aware that one solution would be to not consume Diet Coke or any other artificially-sweetened foodstuff and to forgo coffee as well and that indeed, the LDS scriptures as well as modern teachings offer nothing in the way of exhortations to consume Diet Coke and that many of the members choose not to consume it or similar because it's not in the spirit of the canon. I commend anyone whose convictions lead to the espousal of this approach. Nevertheless, the conflict for me extended from the culturally-accepted attitudes towards consumption of these various substances. In practice, faithful church members, myself included, consume huge quantities of Diet Coke or similar, to say nothing of the rampant disregard for maintaining a healthy weight for which church leadership's only response was installing double-wide seats at the temple. Regardless of what an individual determines is in his or her own best interest, I found it odd that men who claim a conduit to the divine remained more or less silent rather than offering clarification, especially when the health of their adherents was at stake.

Let me go on a further tangent and state that the only reason I bring this up is so that anyone who cares to know can hear my story from the only appropriate source. Indeed, I would see no point in bringing this up except that it has come to my attention that certain individuals have been misinformed regarding my motivation to stop attending the LDS church. Worse, in some situations, those with no first-hand knowledge of the situation have spoken as if they had such and have offered explanations to others that were patently false. Therefore, in order that anyone interested might have a true account of events, I am offering an explanation here. If you are a believer in the LDS faith and happy as such, allow me to offer forewarning that the things I am about to describe were enough to completely destroy the faith of previously orthodox believers, and as Daryl said to Dwight when Dwight suggested going to a strip club at noon on a Monday, "you can't un-see that."

When my internal conflict about the incongruity of the Word of Wisdom came to a head, I was already aware that in Joseph Smith's time, it was counsel rather than commandment and that moderation was emphasized over abstinence. I knew that Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, along with Willard Richards and future church president John Taylor consumed a bottle of wine in Carthage Jail on the day the Smiths were assassinated. And it was not sacramental wine but intended to improve their spirits. I also knew that when Brigham Young led the pioneers across the plains, he encouraged them to bring coffee and tea to help keep their energy up for the long journey.

Somewhere between then and now, however, the emphasis of the Word of Wisdom changed from moderation of potentially harmful substances and eating healthful substances to a more black and white approach wherein coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco were forbidden, but everything else was more or less fair game. This, even when the text states that "barley [is] for all useful animals, and for mild drinks," which certainly suggests that beer is encouraged rather than forbidden. Through a complicated series of political and organizational events, this somehow led to where we are today, where amongst so many church members, Diet Coke consumption begins first thing in the morning, overweight men with type 2 diabetes who require supplemental oxygen just to make it through church feel as if they are living God's law of health, yet someone who sips a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer is excluded from full participation and fellowship.

Alcohol is considered evil but the most Mormon state in the country also leads the nation in anti-depressant use. One of my friends told me about a particularly stressful situation when her mother suggested she "just take a Xanax" when a glass of wine would have been adequate. Is this really what the Almighty intended, especially considering Jesus's first miracle was to turn water into wine? I didn't think so, so I began to research church history to find out who clarified the revelation found in Section 89 and when this clarification occurred.

What I found was this:
"There is, however, no known contemporary evidence...that a separate new revelation changed the Word of Wisdom from a 'principle with promise' to a 'commandment' necessary for full participation in all the blessings of church membership. One author on the subject has argued that the vote in 1880 sustaining the Doctrine and Covenants as binding on church membership was equivalent to a vote making the Word of Wisdom a commandment. If, however, the members were voting on the words contained in the book, what they did was to agree that the Word of Wisdom was a 'principle with promise' and not a 'commandment.'"

Unfortunately--for my faith at least--finding this information, which would have led me to the simple conclusion that the interpretation of the Word of Wisdom was flawed even if other doctrinal claims may have remained sound, was not a direct course of action, and along the way I encountered other facts that Boyd K. Packer described as "true" but "not very useful." I guess that depends on how you define useful.

Not very useful truth #1: the "official" account of the first vision is just one of many somewhat inconsistent tellings of the most important foundational story in Mormonism. As former church president Gordon B. Hinckley stated, "All that we have, all that we do hinges on the truth of that account of the boy Joseph Smith. If it is true, then everything that we have in this Church is true and is more precious and worth more than anything else on earth. If it is false, we are engaged in the greatest fraud that was ever perpetrated on earth."

The question, though, is on which version of the story does "all that we do" hinge? The one where it was a single angel, a light, or both God and Jesus? Was it the version where Joseph was told not to join any churches (even though he subsequently attempted to join the Methodists), or the one in which he was simply told his sins were forgiven? It seemed to me that if someone experienced something so miraculous and profound that the telling of it would be significant (it wasn't emphasized for the first half century of the church's existence) and consistent and wouldn't become more spectacular with each subsequent credibility crisis.

Not very useful truth #2: polygamy in the early church was not a means of providing single frontier women who otherwise wouldn't have one with a husband. Were it so, Joseph Smith would have had no need to tell married women that God had commanded they become Smith's polygamous wives. I have read a great deal about polygamy/polyandry, and the only conclusion I can reach is that its purpose was to gratify the lustful desires of a leader with sufficient charisma to pull off the ruse.

Not very useful truth #3: the Book of Abraham is a "translation" of Egyptian papyri that were acquired by the church after Joseph Smith claimed that the scrolls in a traveling antiquities display were the Book of Abraham, "written by his own hand." The scrolls were donated after Joseph's death to a museum in Chicago and were believed to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire. In 1966, however, several fragments of the papyri were found in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Their discovery was a source of excitement for church members anxious to see their scripture validated with verifiable evidence. The scrolls turned out to be nothing more than common funerary texts known as the Book of Breathings, a guide for the deceased in the afterlife, and had nothing whatever to do with the contents of the Book of Abraham. Apologists are quick to claim that Joseph may have been inspired by the scrolls to receive a revelation that became the Book of Abraham rather than making a direct translation, but if that were the case, why make the claim "written by his own hand"?

At this point, I was done. Nevermind the Kinderhook Plates, Book of Mormon anachronisms, or the Kirtland Safety Society. For me, if these three issues gave the church's foundational claims such a credibility problem, I simply could no longer bring myself to believe many of the other claims, either. The spiritual experiences I had had in church had heretofore been enough to sustain me through the inconsistencies, but I also realized that many people outside the LDS church have had spiritual experiences, I had had them in a non-church context, and just because one has a spiritual experience at church, that doesn't have any bearing on the truthfulness of an organization--it simply means they felt good because they were doing good. Its claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the LDS church does not have a monopoly on spiritual feelings (which may, physiologically, be nothing more than an emotionally-driven release of endorphins).

I was left wondering what to do with what I had learned. Let me pause here and state that my wife and I were orthodox, believing members of the LDS church. Ours was not a particularly complex testimony--for better or for worse, we took the church leaders at their word, we trusted them, and were diligent in trying to follow their counsel. We were not cultural participants who didn't really believe but participated due to social expectations or family pressure. I was unsure how my wife would respond to my loss of belief and chose, initially at least, to keep it to myself.

This caused tremendous internal conflict, to the point that I had difficulty sleeping and was visibly stressed. Finally, one night in December 2009, my wife asked me what was eating at me. I unloaded on her. She was shocked, but the next day she began researching, hoping to prove me wrong, but ultimately concluded that I wasn't.

For the next several weeks, we persisted, attempting to find a "middle way" wherein we could participate in the church as active members even if we didn't believe the doctrine. (Incidentally, we have been shocked since to find out just how many people in the church don't believe some or even any of the doctrine but participate nonetheless.) Perhaps had this process been more gradual, we could have eased into this approach to church participation, but for us there were just too many situations where we didn't feel like we could do what was asked of us while keeping our integrity intact.

About the same time, certain experiences led us to the point where we were less convinced that exposure to the church's teachings was in our family's best interest. We asked to be released from our callings, a process that was effected after a meeting with our bishop one Sunday a year ago February. We did not return, a decision each of us reached on our own but agreed upon at essentially the same time.

Since leaving the church, I have not been struck by lightning, lost my job, nor afflicted with a horrible disease. My children have not been ostracized, and our friends who were our friends before are still our friends. Indeed, it's been among the best things that have ever happened to our social lives. We've found other families who have gone through the same thing (we are legion), felt isolated, wondered what life would be like on the other side, and discovered that especially after finding other like-minded people that life is pretty damned good.


  1. I could write something similar bout another religion, but, I won't,cause hell they drink mass quantities of alcohol. And cuss, and at some points in the middle ages they tortured and killed and attempted genocide. Which likely has direct correlation to the never ending turmoil in the Mid East.

    But, that was man, not God*

    *of your understanding........

  2. Great post. Never having been part of the LDS church (or really anything like it), I don't have anything particularly insightful to add. But having lived here 15+ years I can appreciate that these kinds of, uh, "church/status/perspective" changes are a pretty big deal. Having known you and Rachel during the transition, I've been impressed with how you've handled it. Throughout what must have been/be a stretch of fairly stressful social change, you guys have been upbeat, open-minded and level-headed. Nice going.

    Oh, and welcome to Planet Normal. (I'm so sorry- i just could not resist)

  3. I applaud your resolve to debate and research your long held beliefs. Regardless of whether you come closer to your beliefs or not, I think anyone who does comes out the better person by challenging what they know. I think most, if not all, religions have inconsistencies. For instance, the Old Testament and New Testament are so at odds with each other on many points, I find it hard to believe some groups claim it is the same religion (particularly those who read those books as the literal truth).

    I am sure it was very difficult to confront those beliefs, particularly with the risk of being outcast by neighbors, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc. But, as you have found out, spiritual feelings are not limited to any one religion and do not have to happen in connection with a religion at all. In any event, I am glad you resolved your doubts and now feel true to yourself.

    mtb w

    btw, I am not "for" or "against" your former church. In fact, I know little of it and have no informed opinion about it. I just believe that if you are going to hold some belief (or non-belief) and devote so much of your time and life to it, you should delve into it and get to know it, understand and agree with it.

  4. Bob: It's always convenient to have the fallback position of men acting on their own versus god telling them what to do. The problem arises when nobody can credibly distinguish between the two.

    Watcher: Thanks for the "welcome to planet normal." You and Sue have been great hosts.

    Walter: For me it doesn't matter what one concludes from the examination, the important thing is to examine beliefs. I'm a little embarrassed that I waited until my mid-30's to do it. My dad is aware of all the same things I am and remains a believer. The fact that he has examined his belief allows us to engage in open, frank discussions and also engenders a mutual respect because we each know that the other hasn't made choices haphazardly or out of habit, but as the result of a deliberate process.

    I am not "against" the LDS church in any way. Obviously, I don't agree with many of its policies, and I certainly wish it were honest with its adherents about its history. But I recognize that it's an organization that for the most part tries to do what it thinks is right. I would even say my current status notwithstanding, I consider my participation in the LDS church to be a net positive in my life.

  5. what i am trying to say is that religion is not by God, it is by man supposedly for God, but the God of my understanding thinks it is as a whole bullshit, regardless of the good of some of its parts. Capiche?

  6. A well written account. Hopefully it will end the misinformation.

    All I have to say is: To thine own self be true. I'm not being glib, I think you know me well enough to know that I'm sincere. I've tried to write more, but it keeps coming out clumsy and inarticulate so forgive my brevity.

  7. whaaaaat? i had no idea. i will no longer allow my kids to play with your kids.

  8. I began my own search for truth years ago when I decided to take a walk on the “other side of the fence” for quite a few years.

    The word skepticism contradicts the true spirit of inquiry—which you allude is the journey you are one. True research is approached not with skepticism but with the intent to find truth and/or to understand some phenomena. Most researchers would say that if skepticism is driving the search, you would be doomed to failure because we have already passed judgment rather than remained open to possibility and possible discovery.

  9. I love you Mark and Rachel! I didn't think it would ever come to be, but you are two of my BEST FRIENDS in the whole world.

  10. Wait... I'm confused. What does "Apologia pro vita sua" mean? I believe my faith might hinder delicately on the secret message you've included with the title.

  11. Topcat: "Most researchers would say that if skepticism is driving the search, you would be doomed to failure because we have already passed judgment rather than remained open to possibility and possible discovery."

    Really? And this assertion is based on what?

    Which is precisely my point. Skepticism is required to find truth. Without skepticism, one is too easily distracted by fiction. Skepticism is a reliance on verifiable evidence, the only real source of truth.

    Rabid: "A defense of one's life."

  12. Wait, you and Bob agree on something. That's shaking my faith to the core. Very troubling.

  13. An inquirying mind and creative curiosity are needed to find truth. This is generative. Skepticism is most often not generative. It can be semantics depending on the definition one chooses.

    Wikipedia is a free, user-compiled, open-edited, online encyclopedia and should not be used as a cited source for truth because it is not peer reviewed before publication—the fact that most people can edit its content is a major problem. It is also considered a tertiary source—a compilation of primary and secondary sources. No true researcher would validate findings sourced by Wikipedia as truth. I would not base your beliefs on what you read in Wikipedia.

  14. Mark, someone is telling you you are doing it wrong on the intrawebs.

    Daren, just call me the 'faith shaker'

  15. Topcat: skepticism is needed to weed out falsehood. But I fear at this point we are arguing semantics. As for Wikipedia, I cited it because it provides a balanced summary of the facts. Tertiary source notwithstanding, its accuracy is well-documented. That doesn't mean I based any decisions on what I found there; I simply linked there so readers would know I wasn't making stuff up. But thanks for being so extremely generous in sharing your ample research and truth-finding skills.

  16. Your link source was published 6 year ago—a few things have changed with Wikipedia in 6 years. Maybe, just maybe you could find a professor at the College of Eastern Utah to validate a Wikipedia source in an entry level 101 biology class...but I doubt it.

    Good post yesterday, I had to sign up for a Gmail account just to chime in. Now get to work, Symantec has a lot of code that needs to be written so we can over charge our consumers.

  17. I wish I could come up with something clever, but my brain seems to be moving in slow motion these days. Instead, I offer you nothing but love on your journey.

  18. Honestly,
    I thought.
    What took you so long?
    Planet normal? Forsooth, welcome to planet TOM!!
    Normal is so.....

  19. Kim: thanks for the well wishes. Same for you, Tom, I think.

    Topcat: "a few things have changed with Wikipedia in 6 years..." OK, such as? Please provide some evidence. After all, refusing to believe naked claims or arguments from authority is at the heart of what this post is about. Glad you enjoyed it, though.

  20. Mark, I really enjoyed and relate to this. I commend your courage and integrity. Here on the other side of the state line, my wife and I began an almost identical Journey just a few months after you did. I have compiled my own list of "not very useful" truths as well. I was shocked and deeply saddened to discover that I could no longer believe in the faith of my fathers.

    We have not been so lucky as to retain all of our friends. We have lost many friands and some family along the path who have decided that we are "just too dangerous" to their worldview despite our pleading with them and promises that we would not try to damage their own faith. My own father used to call me once per week; he has called once in almost a year at this point. He will talk to me if I call him but he will not reach out to me. Could this possibly be the fruits of Gods True Church On Earth? We are heartbroken about the loss but we really have no choice but to honor our own integrity. As a parent, I owe it to my children to pass on to them as truth only that which can be verified as such or, at the very least, not be easily demonstrated to be patently UNTRUE.

    For me, the most discouraging part of this journey is not the loss of my faith-based understanding of how the universe worked, but the willingness of those who I deeply love and respect to do anything (including terminating our relationship) in order to avoid accepting that someone they love and respect has come to a well researched and soundly founded conclusion that the church is not what it claims to be.

    Many of my loved ones have shown that they would quickly reject me rather than deal with that possibility. Being at the receiving end of this unbelieveably selfish betrayal, it is hard for me not to see this as a sign of great personal weakness/lack of integrity. Through a lifetime of such historically inaccurate and culturally biased stories such as Thomas Marsh and the milk strippings, members of the church have been deeply indoctrinated to believe that there can be no honorable dissention from the church and its version of all that is true.

    For many in this life, belief itself is much more valuable than the actual truthfulness of that which is believed in.

  21. To Topcat:
    Your initial response to Mark is one that is quite common on the part of believers when initially confronted with the fact that one of their own has determined that the churh is not trustworthy. I don't know if are a believer or not but it might interest you to know that attacking the source and even ad-hominem approaches are pretty much the standard initial attack of those who want to protect their belief systems.

    On a personal level, I know Mark to be nothingn if not an incredibly skeptical consumer of information from both sides of any issue. In fact, I find that to be a common characteristic of most who make this journey. I find it ironic that the church can produce some of the most incredibly gifted researchers and scientists who are capable of determining truth and taking a critical and objective approach to determine the truthfulness of any given issue except that which they claim to matter most in this life.

    Having read most of what FARMS/FAIR/MADB has to offer in the defense of these issues, I can see that there are valid points to be made on both sides. That said, blanket rejections of Marks very personal conclusion based on his links for more information is not very useful or (although about as useful than just about anything I have read from FARMS/FAIR). I suspect that you are actually familiar enough with the issues and the research skills of most in his position to know that Mark was not using Wikipedia as his primary source for such a critical decision. I suspect that such comments are really made to keep the believers believing and the doubters well outside of the circle of wagons (Red Herring).

    I am, however, very intested any well reserached conclusions you may have regarding any one of Mark's issues above. Part of the beauty of leaving the church is finally being able to admit "I might be wrong and am willing to follow truth wherever it leads". I don't think this is a statement most believers are very comfortable saying.

  22. My parents went through this process in the early 70's. My experience as a child was similar to Troy's. More recently I have come to the same conclusions as Stupidbike. I am a bit of a hypocrite because I still send my kids to parochial school. The idea of not allowing kids to play together was alive and well in my neighborhood as recently as 8 years ago. I know you are kidding dug. But seeing my wife stomp down the street to tell a neighbor want a closed minded idiot they were was very interesting to say the least.

  23. Blackdog: what was the catalyst for your parents? As for dug's joke about the kids, we haven't had much of that, but our oldest daughter has heard some comments here and there. By and large, our neighborhood is not as "devout" as down the hill (on either side), so we've got that in our favor. Good for Sue for calling the neighbor on being a closed-minded idiot rather than just suffering in silence.

  24. My parents took a comparative religion class at the U. I think the class and the way they were treated by family when they got married and had me 7 months later pushed them to examine their beliefs. They were both active until that point.

  25. Been there. Not fun but awesome. Isn't it crazy how big and amazing the world becomes afterward? I think it's something everyone should go through regardless of their religion and regardless of the outcome.

  26. Blackdog, I find people's reactions to be the most interesting thing about this process. Nobody really has any right to an opinion unless they have taken the time to thoroughly examine their own beliefs. Ironically, it seems as if those who have done the least examination have the strongest opinions.

    Brad, I agree about the world becoming big and amazing, and I'll add that every day becomes that much more precious. Also agree that both origin and outcome are far less important than taking the journey itself. The journey is what matters.

  27. Wow. Great post. Nothing else to say.

  28. I have never been to Utah, but from lurking on "dug" and your blogs I wondered if I chose the wrong place to settle down. (like going skiing during lunch break! No way.).

    I wondered how a non - Mormon could manage to live there.

    Now I see with people like you they could live very well.

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