This blog post has moved here
Read 3rd visit
During the week I had sent my Mormon proselytiser a text message letting them know how far I had read (I am about 25% way through now) and they were overjoyed. I mentioned that I was trying to find a verse in the 2013 edition of the book but was unable to because the chapter numbers have changed, what I see in chapter 4 in the 1830's edition might be in chapter 8 in the 2013 edition. They asked me what the text said and helped me to find it. I then wrote and asked what another specific verse said from earlier in the book, they replied that it says "Mary the mother of the Son of God", I replied that I found this confusing because in my 1830's edition it simply says "Mary the mother of God". They said they would look into it, so I was really looking forward to tonight's meeting.
I don't think I could have been happier with how things went today. The personalities that I like so much had returned, we were able to smile and chuckle and they didn't seem so much on guard as they did last week. Friendly smiles, and really willing to listen, think, and discuss. In the two hours we spoke to each other they only quoted one sentence from their book. I think this was a great sign, because it meant that everything they said was their own considered opinion; even when they gave the church's official stance on something they would also give their own opinion which in general was that they thought the Church's explanations were often not very good.
I don't want to guide them anywhere they aren't willing to go, I don't want to ruin their lives or anything. I asked them "If Mormonism was untrue would you rather not know about it?" They both said they would rather know, and when I delved deeper both said they thought their families wouldn't understand them losing their faith but would still accept and love them. The guy from the USA said they already have apostates living in their community and it is only some of the people who are hostile to the idea of having them around.
We started with the ritual prayer. After that I smiled at them and thanked them. I told them I was happy that instead of saying "guide Pete to the truth" they had instead asked god to "guide us to the truth". I explained to them that to ask only for the truth for me assumed that they needed no guidance, and pointed out that even if their religion is true they will still need guidance to understand it properly. I paraphrased a quote that I had read earlier today which said something like "To discover the truth at some point in your life you must try to disbelieve as much as is possible". I explained how we all come with mental baggage of some kind or another. I told them that their opinions will be formed by the experiences they had when they prayed, and that mine would be formed by me having the same experience which told me something completely contradictory (which I later rejected).
I think this is the point that resonates with them the most. They seem to think that receiving this rewarding feeling when they pray for guidance is some kind of internal spiritual evidence that what they believe is true. They are aware that I went through the same process and had the same experiences, which at the time I thought was telling me to expect to read the Quran and find it to be true, but I had then read it and concluded that it was man made. I said to them that I am certain my experience was the same as theirs, and to prove it I explained it to them.
I told them to imagine the prayers as kind of an analogue radio that is slightly detuned from the broadcasting frquency. There is a lot of static noise, which are your own natural thoughts, but now and again you can distinguish a few words from a voice breaking through that you can understand. Those words don't break through in the form of someone else's voice, but instead a feeling of euphoria spreads throughout your body to help you to identify which of those thoughts have been inspired. When they asked what the euphoria was like I told them that it was incomparable to anything. It would start at the top of my body and then spread down throughout my whole, both inside and out, as if something beautiful was passing through me. It would feel like peace, happiness, contentment and love; every positive emotion I have had in my life all brought back and once and mixed together in the form of something passing through me. I felt as though it physically lifted me, as though I was lighter, even as if I could float into the air. You don't think what you just thought was inspired, you know it is because of the way you felt it. "Is that about right?" I asked. They both smiled at me with that deeply religious look on their faces and then one of them said "I couldn't have worded it more perfectly!"
So at this point we had agreed that we had the same honest intentions to discover the truth and were willing to accept anything, we both tried equally as hard to obtain that truth through prayer, we both 100% believed we were guided to a conclusion, but that those conclusions are absolutely in contradiction to each other. Mormonism says clearly that there is a trinity, Islam says clearly that if you claim there is a trinity then you will go to hell.
We discussed what could have caused this. They suggested that I could have been influenced by an evil force. We discussed how 1.5 billion Muslims believe the opposite to them, and they agreed wholeheartedly that if this force can deceive 1.5 billion Muslims then it could much more easily deceive 15 million Mormons. I explained to them how the brain can release reward chemicals when we think of things that make us happy, so if we think about things that throughout our lives that we associate with happiness, comradeship and love then we are likely to experience this euphoric feeling. Especially when we close our eyes, relax, and thing of nothing else.
We moved on to the words that had changed from "Mother of God" to "Mother of the Son of God". They said that it was clearer after the changes and I agreed. I also suggested to them that I had the strong impression that the BoM describes a kind of trinity so the meaning of the words has not changed. However, why would God need to change the words? They suggested that it could have been an error. I pointed out that the change was quite uniformed and occurred in multiple places. At the very least the printer would have had to have misread the same text multiple times, or we'd have to accept that different scribes made the same mistake as each other, or that Joseph Smith had dictated it that way; they agreed that the latter was most likely. That brought us back to the question, why did God need to change the words?
They then suggested that after writing it down perhaps Smith thought it wasn't clear, prayed, and God answered him. I pointed out that the Trinity argument had been going on for hundreds of years already and that even I could see a need for clarity on the issue, again they agreed. I asked if Smith was inspired to understand every word of the source and then wrote down how he understood it, or if he had just written down each word that he was given, they told me it was the latter and we agreed therefore that it hadn't been human error on the part of Smith, and it would have been God who translated the words with Smith as simply the receiver of the translation.
So why did the words need to change? Either we have to accept that God did something imperfect on a subject that was totally obvious and had to fix it later, or had changed the text later without the authority of God. I sat for about 30 seconds and enjoyed the complete silence of their brains trying to come to terms with the obvious. Then they replied with "I don't understand it at all. All I know is that Joseph Smith was a prophet and he said....."
I said that is nice for them, but where does it leave me? They can start from the position of Joseph Smith being a prophet of God and use that to dismiss anything that makes no sense, whereas I am starting from the default position that just like every other man in the world I bump into, Joseph Smith was just a man, and that any information that makes no sense in the BoM simply reinforces that default position and takes me further away from the conclusion that he was anything more. I love watching them think deeply, they were really taking all of this in. They tried to go back to the idea of praying and being inspired by the Holy Spirit, and again I told them how I had been led elsewhere using the same technique, and that my only conclusion therefore is that this technique is flawed. In fact my experience trumped theirs because at the time I thought I had been given confirmation of my inspired words using words I was not familiar with in classical 7th century Arabic - which turned out to be correct (long story, but it only took a couple of days to realise how it had happened naturally). Did God choose a flawed method of guiding us, or are we simply not being guided?
At this point I asked if they were polygamists or monogamists, they proudly announced they were monogamists. I said that I thought Mormons were polygamists. They said that some churches are but theirs is not. I pretended to be surprised and asked "Are there different sects of Mormonism then?" They confirmed that there were. I asked if they thought the other sects had stopped praying for guidance? They said they didn't think that was likely. So I asked why they think that the sects that are wrong feel that the Holy Spirit is confirming they are right? Surely with the certainty that they know the other sects are wrong, followers of those other sects know that my visitors are wrong? So how can anyone tell who is right or wrong?
They explained to me how they have a leader of their church who receives divine mandates for the whole world, and he would tell them. I asked why he doesn't just get a divine mandate for the whole world and then all the Mormon sects would believe him. I asked if the other sects had heads of their churches whom they believe are given divine mandates by God, and they confirmed they thought that was the case.
So I put to them that either the Holy Spirit is lying to everyone (we all laughed this one off), or the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is easily imitated by a malicious entity which renders the whole process untrustworthy, or that it simply doesn't happen.
They asked me something about how might God let us know using any other method. I pointed out to them that they can believe in God without religion, an idea they seem not to have heard before. I reminded them of the quote earlier about disbelieving as much as possible, and told them that their belief that God wants to communicate with us is mental baggage from their past. A belief they have chosen to accept without having started from a neutral position and then found a good reason to think it is true. I explained how God could just love making universes, and we are just some cosmic fluff on God's massive universe and that he is more interested in the larger creation rather than being interested in each of us individually. Until we know that what they think actually is true we have no reason to suppose that it is. They went to go back to faith/prayer/inspiration but almost immediately stopped themselves and said "No, that's no good because it didn't work for you and we don't know why".
Then one of them looked sheepish, as if he was about to confess something. He asked "have you read about Benjamin?" I knew what he was talking about but didn't want to appear to know too much, so I simply told him that I haven't read that far yet, and asked him what it is about. It seems that in trying to find answers to my questions he has managed to find himself some Internet access and has been spending time on the LDS website looking for answers to my phone text questions; the ones about the words in the book changing, and the multiple accounts of the first-vision varying. During this time he stumbled across an explanation as to why the name of King Benjamin was later changed to (name he couldn't remember, so let's say "X").
I said to him not to tell me what the explanation was yet because I don't want to bias myself before I reach that part of the book, but please do tell me what this change is about. He told me that during Joseph Smith's time the Book of Mormon had talked about someone called King Benjamin. At some point later, he thinks after Smith had died, it became apparent that King Benjamin could not possibly have been the person in the story because he wouldn't have been alive at that time. I asked for their thoughts on this, both of them looked really quite suspicious of it. "I don't really know" they said.
They proposed that only the translation was overseen by God and not the original writings, and that the name could have been wrong in the original writings; I thought that was quite clever really :) I suggested to him that because Smith was translating word for word, and because God knew the name was X and not Benjamin that it would have made more sense to fix the historical error during the initial translation.
I told them that anyone with shaky faith at the time of discovering this might abandon their faith completely. We all agreed that this was completely obvious and that an all-knowing God would obviously have thought of it too. I told them that when making a decision we do it by weighing the advantages and disadvantages against each other. We had already agreed on the disadvantages, and then went on to agreed that there couldn't possibly be a single advantage to leaving the error as it stood.
I reminded him of a story I told them in our first meeting, about how historians thought they knew the year of birth of Zoroaster due to written records, but that later we found written records dated to early than the year we thought he was born, which claimed he was born something like 1000 years earlier. History had been rewritten after his death for the purpose of forming political alliances to defeat a common enemy (Read "In The Shadow Of The Sword" by Tom Holland). Then came the good bit. I asked the following question.
"If the book was in error and said Benjamin, and then when it was realised it couldn't have been Benjamin the book was changed to another name, what options do you think you would have to consider?"
The silence was quite golden, I could almost hear the whizzing noise of their brains processing. Then the guy from Utah said it. "Joseph Smith wrote it". I asked him to be clear "Do you mean he authored the book?" "Yes, " he said, "I would say that Joseph Smith made it all up". His friend nodded and said "Well yes, of course". They were sheepish and very cautious, but adamant that if this is what had happened then it could only mean that Joseph Smith had made it all up.
I gave him a very positive response, I smiled and shook his hand. I thanked him for his honesty. I told him that if he hadn't said that then I would have known he was being dishonest and I would not have trusted him from that point on. He said "No, well I should be honest with you". I congratulated him on even entertaining the idea, and even more so for saying it out loud.
We brought the meeting to an end. We recapped the meeting by agreeing that it's not just me on the path to truth but all three of us. I reiterated my original point that I am only interested in understanding their religion better and that I really want to understand their brains. They agreed that they too had found it very interesting and eye opening, and were looking forward to talking again next week about theology in general.
I closed the meeting with a prayer thanking God for an interesting meeting, for helping us to abandon our preconceptions in order to find the truth, and to request that we receive more of the same. When I opened my eyes they were both beaming.
They proposed I came to their church to join in Sunday prayers. I declined. I told them (truthfully) that if I were already a convinced Mormon then I wouldn't have a problem with it, but until then I feel I wouldn't be able to sit and listen to things I do not yet agree with without responding. They told me that they are encouraged to share their views, but I explained to them that under those circumstances I tend to get over excited and it's not good for my health.
I suggested instead that if they recorded it I would watch it, and I really would too because I am interested in their rituals etc. They said that an important part of being convinced their religion is the true way to live is, in part, my willingness to live in a wholesome way. I told them that other than going to church I was willing to abide by the Mormon rules in order to increase my chances of receiving guidance. They told me the following
- No tea or coffee.
I explained I only drink water (as they have already knew).
- No alcohol.
I drink so rarely that this wasn't going to be a problem.
- No masturbation.
I am married and have great sex, I find masturbation does not arouse me.
- Be chaste.
In our 23 years together I've been chaste and have no intentions of changing that.
- Do not watch porn.
I am not really a highly sexual person so it's not something I do anyway.
Although I would be free to eat pigs, I don't anyway :)
I told them I will continue to read the book and contemplate it deeply (as I already am). I showed them that I make notes on facts the book puts across, such as how it is disgusting for a man to have concubines or more than one wife. They told me the earlier prophets had some exception or other, but even before Smith was born it had been clearly outlawed. I didn't mention Smith's multiple marriages because I do not yet have the evidence, and our meeting was over anyway. On the way out I asked about the brass plates. They said the last the BoM says on the matter is that they were given to someone's son, and that them disappearing is okay because the plates would have preserved the language for the people of the time rather than for the people of today...I let that one ride due to time.
So my plan for next week.
- Find out what the name Benjamin was changed to, and in which edition it changed.
- See if I can match this up to any archaeological discovery at approximately the same time of the revision.
- See if I can find any conclusive evidence that Smith had more than one wife. Perhaps a letter from someone trusted such as his first wife, rather than an account of someone who could be considered "an enemy of the church". There must be something convincing, does anyone know?
Again, I cannot express how nice these guys are. I insist they use their first names when sending me text messages, I think it helps to remind them who they are :)
Read 5th visit
Read 5th visit