Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Spiritual but not Religious, or Spiritual and Religious?

Adapted from,
LAUU Church Sermon,


“Come into the circle of love and justice.
Come into the community of mercy, holiness, and health.
Come and you shall know peace and joy.”
(Reading #418, Adapted from Israel Zangwill)

“You're an interesting species. An interesting mix. You're capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you're not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
(Carl Sagan--Contact)

The rise of the Nones, and the Spiritual but not Religious

In 2012 the Pew Religion and Public Life Project reported that nearly 1/5th of those polled were not religiously affiliated. They were “none’s”, not Catholic, Muslim, Universalist, Buddhist, or protestant. Among those, nearly 37 percent reported being “Spiritual but not Religious”. That’ was 7% of all Americans. This number had significantly increased by 2017.

This month, the Pew Research Center released a new report titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.” This survey compared numbers from 2007 to those from 2014, and found that the proportion of adults who consider themselves Christian fell nearly 8 percentage points, while the percent of those listing “Unaffiliated” grew 6.7%. Unitarian Universalist numbers were essentially flat, while there was a small uptick in those affiliating with liberal religion in general.

But what does it mean to be “Spiritual but not Religious”? People who have attempted to survey these people have found that they do think about deeply about issues surrounding theology, God, the afterlife, ethics, etc., but they are generally distrustful of formal religious institutions. And who can really blame them? Yet they participate in many “groups”. Meditation groups, health groups, yoga groups, online support groups, etc. It’s as if these “groups” have replaced the role of organized religion in their lives.

But why are so many people leaving organized religion behind? And what can modern Churches do about it?

Is it because of sexist or homophobic attitudes in traditional Churches? We might think so, and I certainly left my previous Church community because of homophobic attitudes in that Church. However, Churches that liberalize on these issues, ordaining women and supporting gay marriage, often see marked membership declines. Experience has shown that in such situations the religious conservatives among them leave, and then the social liberals do not join, many of them are already quite happy being “nones”. So while this might account for some of the decline in religious affiliation, it can’t account for all of it.

Is it that these religions teach fundamentalist and nonsensical things, like young earth creationism, that has been countered by science? It doesn’t appear that this is the case either. Nor are people leaving organized religion because they are no longer interested in believing in God. While atheism and agnosticism have grown in America, many of the “nones” and “Spiritual but not Religious” say that they believe in God. It’s belonging to CHURCH that they aren’t interested in doing. But why?

Is it because the Church services are too “formal”, and they just need to play better music? Hire a rock band or something? Again, I don’t think that’s the issue.

Is it that they need to stop teaching people about moral and ethical behavior? Perhaps people are offended, and want to do their own thing, sin without the preacher telling them they are doing something wrong? Again, I don’t believe that this is the issue at all. People are hungry today for moral teachings, for help in figuring out how to live a life of meaning and purpose.

Presumably those here find benefits in religious affiliation. You find value in Church, and in attending Church, or you would not be here, at Church! In that sense at least everyone here is “religious”.

I believe that the real issue here, the real problem (if religious un-affiliation is, indeed, a problem) is that we, as religious people, have simply failed to teach our children what value we find in religious community, in belonging to a Church. When our children ask us why we bother going to Church on Sunday, what do we say?

Why do Religious Conservatives Attend Church?

Why do we go to Church anyway? Some of us are atheists, and the rest of us tend to be rather liberal in our beliefs about God, heaven, and hell. So why would atheists, agnostics, and liberal believers, of all people, get up on Sunday morning to put our buts in a pew, sing some songs together, and listen to a sermon from a guy like me?

Well, why do conservative religious people attend Church? Clearly some percent of them do so because they fear the eternal punishments of Hell. Another percent of them do so because they want to receive the beautiful rewards of heaven. But is that it? Fear and selfish greed? Is it truly the case, that if you become a Universalist, Liberal, or Atheist, such that you believe that Church attendance has no direct role in our state in the afterlife, thereby removing these two motivations, that there is no reason left to attend Church?

I don’t believe so. And even for conservative believers there are other reasons people attend Church. Devotion to deity is an important consideration. Many attend simply because they love God, and enjoy feeling close to “Him”. Others love their fellow man, and therefore desire to belong to a community where they can be organized to serve others, by preaching their doctrine, (helping others reach heaven) or by attending to the more physical needs of others, such as feeding, clothing, and serving the poor. These are all reasons why conservative believers attend Church.

And then there is the reason that I believe is by far the most important. The building and shaping of human community.

The benefits of Community

Human beings are social animals. In this sense, we are more like bees, or a pack of wolves than we are like chimps.

For us, community matters. Economists call it “social capital”. We have monetary capital. This is the case we have at our disposal. But we also can have other resources, tools, machines, cars, houses. This too is capital, although not liquid capital. Each of these things enables us to do something we could not do without it. But then there is community. This is capital too.
Consider the community of marriage. This is an ancient human institution. And the evidence is that it can provide many benefits. This is not said to judge those who choose not to marry, but to simply point out the ways that a marriage (if it is a happy and good one) can benefit those who enter into it. They can now split the economic and social burdens of life. They pay one mortgage instead of two, and they can work together to produce economic stability and to raise children. But they also know that there is someone there who will care for them, even if they are ill, or disabled, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. The statistical evidence for the benefits this offers are clear and largely un-ambiguous. For whatever reason, the largest statistical predictor of poverty is, in fact, divorce, for either the mother (who usually ends up with the children) or for the children later in live.

That is one reason why it is so important for us to provide means to strengthen families, to help people make better decisions in choosing a partner, and to help people in these partnerships (that we must admit are NOT always easy), to learn how to interact with each other in better and more productive ways. And this is also the reasons that it is so important for us to fight for marriage equality, so that these benefits can be extended to a larger percent of the population.

Family is at the center of most of our social lives. But humans often need more. Marriages sometimes fail, and even good marriages are not enough. That is where the wider community steps in, and it is where a Church community can provide important benefits.

Why do We Attend Church?

I know that I was so hurt by the lies I was told by my previous religious institution, that the idea of joining with another religious institution was a daunting thought. My trust had been shattered, and it was difficult to see how I could ever trust another “Church” again. What if they lied to me too?

But eventually, the hole in my life, left by the absence of my Church community grew too large for me, and I had to risk being hurt again. Benefits sometimes involve taking risks. This was a risk that I chose to take. And the benefits have made it worth the risk.

Recently I was having dinner with a member of our congregation who said that she was “Religious, but not Spiritual.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she said that the community was so important to her, that she joined just to find those benefits, regardless of her spiritual beliefs and feelings.

She also said that she believed that humans naturally seek out such communities of support. She worried that if a liberal faith family could not provide those human needs, then it left her Children vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. If they visited another faith, and found that that faith met their spiritual, emotional, and social needs better than their own isolated family life, the result might be a confusion between these social benefits, and the truth of the fundamentalist message. To prevent that, she had reached out to the Unitarian Universalist Church, hoping that we could provide those human needs for her family.


If we are truly Universalist, then religion can’t be thought of like some competition, where the number of people who affiliate with our particular religious community determines who “wins” the competition. Like some world wide basketball game, played with human beliefs, hopes, dreams, and lives.

Nor should we necessarily shape ourselves in such a way that we would win the most converts to our cause. How we define success matters. There’s a popular song sung in many Churches that says “Do what is right, let the consequences follow.” I believe this. And if we end up creating a religious community that appeals only to a relatively small percent of the population, that is not the end of the world, so long as we provide a service that this small percent of the population finds to be useful, that helps them to build a community of love, and that blesses their lives in constructive ways.

And who is to say that the nones are wrong to not affiliate with any religious organization? If they experience the divine in the proverbial sunset more than in the pews at Church, can we blame them? People are different, and different paths benefit different people. Certainly we did not fail them, if they find that they prefer a different path from the one we took.

But what if we are providing a service that might benefit these people, and they simply do not know it? Then we might truly be said to have failed. Or what if our children of the rising generation could be getting something of value from Church attendance, and simply don’t know it. Again, we might then say that we have failed.

I don’t think that this means that we should be going door to door proselyting our flavor of religious community. But it does mean that we should strive to offer useful services to the community, and to let the wider community know what it is that we offer.

For example, we offer meditation classes, yoga classes, dances, parenting groups, philosophy groups, educational forums, inspirational (hopefully) sermons. Our OWL program offers useful (and positive) sexual education for children.

I hope that we can share what we offer, and find those who will benefit from it, without pressure or judgment.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Meaning and the Broken Myth: Maintaining a Sense of Value and Purpose During a Faith Transition

(This paper was also presented at the 2016 MTA Conference, April 9th, 2016)
Traditionally, Religion was the vehicle that provided both a sense of truth, and a sense of meaning for mankind.

Hugh W. Nibley, the brilliant Mormon apologist liked to talk about what he called the “Terrible Questions”, namely:

-Who am I?
-Why am I here?
-Where am I going?

He proposed that without answers to these questions, life was essentially barren and meaningless. The brilliance of Mormonism, he said, was in providing answers to these very questions, answers that he thought could be attained in no other way.

Joseph Campbell famously thought that the myths of religion provided the vehicles whereby the psychological principles for how to live a good life could be conveyed. And, he thought that this could best be done when the myths are no longer seen as historical or literal realities, but are seen more like dreams, with symbolic and psychological import.

However, the literal interpretation of these myths can also be a powerful vehicle for finding a sense of truth and meaning in life. For example, the belief in a literal creator can cause us to believe that the world was created for a purpose, and thus, meaningful. Belief in a literal life after death and an eventual resurrection can also give people a sense of meaning and value by convincing us that this life, with its failures and imperfections, is not all there is. 

I grew up a member of the LDS Church (the Mormons). They are very good at using these ideas to generate a sense of meaning and purpose. A literal and fundamentalist belief in the LDS Church’s teachings seems to provide a set of answers to Nibley’s terrible questions

-Who am I?
A Child of God, heir of divinity.
-Why am I here?
To get a body, to be tried and tested, to see if I am worthy of becoming like our Eternal Father.
-Where am I going?
Into an Eternal Life of eternal progression, to live with our heterosexual cis gendered patriarchal families forever, and to grow to become a God, like God our Father, then to give this same opportunity for eternal progression to our own children, for eternity.
Modern psychological research has taught us just how important this sense of meaning and purpose really is for both our physical and mental health. Without it, people tend to suffer from lethargy, depression, disconnection, and sometimes suicide.

All indications are that we are living through a time when many members of the LDS are beginning to question the literal narrative that they have been taught. What happens to people who have based their sense of value, meaning, and purpose on a myth that they now begin to doubt? The results can be traumatic, and utterly devastating.

During my own faith transition, I reached out to a wide community of x-Mormons, hoping for help and solace. What I saw in their lives demonstrated just how devastating the loss of a fundamentalist religious faith could be. It seems that the more immersive and essential was the initial religious experience, the more severe the negative reaction can be when that faith is lost. While some few came out the other side of their faith transition in a much better state, almost all of them at first found themselves crushed by anger, depression, and even despair. Life suddenly seemed harsh, and often even absurd. Nearly all faced a crisis of “existential angst.”

My goal today isn’t to tell people what they have to believe about the truth claims of Mormonism, but to try and help people to establish a sense of purpose and meaning that can survive a faith transition if one should come, or to re-establish a healthy sense of purpose and meaning after a faith transition if you have already had one. Hopefully, what I say will be relevant whether or not you believe in the literal truth of the LDS Church’s teachings.

As someone interested in artificial intelligence, I have spent a certain amount of time contemplating how to mathematically formalize the concepts of truth, meaning, and purpose in order to impart them to an AI. I have found that such formalizations have enriched my own sense of truth, meaning, and purpose. I hope it won’t be too technical to share my thoughts from that mathematical perspective. 

Let me start with a formalization of the concept of truth.

You can think of the entire universe as a large state space, S, representing the quantum information fully describing each particle in the universe. There is also a transition function, T, that dictates how these particles will evolve into the future. You can think of the state space as the arrangement of matter in the universe, and you can think of the transition function as the laws of physics that dictate how that arrangement will evolve over time.

If we treat this transition function and state space as unobserved random variables, then we can use the laws of probability and statistics (which we sometimes call science) to infer how things were in the past (history), how things are now (reality), and how things will be in the future (prediction).

And that means that truth is, indeed, a knowledge of things as they really are, as they really were, and as they really will be. And it means that statistics and the scientific method is the best tool for determining truth. So while that quest for truth may be difficult, it seems to me that this element of the existential problem is comparatively simple.

But what of meaning and purpose? You will notice that in the above equations, there is no place for meaning or for purpose. Nor is there any mechanism for preferring any one possible state over another. With this formalization alone, a state where mankind flourishes is just one more state the universe might be in, while the state where mankind is exterminated is also just one more potential state, neither any more preferable than the other! Meaning, purpose, and value are so far nonexistent.

The philosopher David Hume noticed this problem long ago. He expressed it as follows: “You cannot determine ought from is”. What is doesn’t tell you what ought to be. It only tells you what is. In order to find meaning in life, in order to determine “ought” from “is”, we need some other assumption, another axiom, beyond simply the truth. 

One possibility for this additional axiom is to turn to God, and to appropriate His purpose and desires as our own. This approach proposes that “ought” exists outside of what is, because ought involves God’s sovereign will. God created the world for a purpose, therefore, the purpose of life is the purpose for which God created the world.

But if this is our source for meaning, then what happens if we begin to doubt? Perhaps even to doubt the existence of the creator? Whether or not you believe in God, it’s worth considering whether there really is any less potential for truth and meaning without the belief in God.

Again, I want to turn to an analogy from my work in Artificial Intelligence.

As part of my Master’s thesis in Reinforcement Learning Artificial Intelligence, I created an artificial world, this simple grid world, and I placed an artificially intelligent agent inside that world that my wife affectionately called my DOT. I had a purpose in this creation, I wanted to study which algorithms for transferring information from one type of problem to another would function best. From my DOT’s perspective, there was a God (me), one who had created the world for a purpose. This is the simulation hypothesis, and the creation principle of Lincoln’s New God Argument in action!

But does the existence of a creator solve the “ought from is” problem for my DOT? The answer is surprisingly no! My goals differed from those of my DOT, whose purpose and goal was to maximize its own reward structure, not to answer my meta questions about machine learning algorithms. And consider, if there wasn’t ALREADY a way for me to have purpose, then I couldn’t transfer purpose and meaning to my DOT, even if our goals had been more aligned.

If there is a creator, then it may be wise for us to align our sense of meaning and purposes with that of the creators. However, for that meaning to transfer to created beings, there has to be a way for meaning and purpose to already exist within the mind of the creator. Therefore, the existence of a creator does not produce meaning and purpose for created beings in and of itself, and it never did! Something else is needed.

But what?

Some derive a sense of meaning and purpose from their belief in life after death and eternal life.

When I was a believer, I gave the Mormon funeral sermons for both my mother and for my maternal grandmother. Back then I said that without eternal life, seeking pleasure in this life is ultimately meaningless because the memories of our temporary pleasures will fade, and our joys will all end at death. I said that even helping others cannot provide meaning without a belief in eternal life, because those others we help will also die, and eventually our influence will fade away into nothingness. A bleak thought indeed! Without eternal life, I argued, life was ultimately meaningless.

Somewhat ironically, I had already begun to lose my faith when I spoke those words at my mother’s funeral. And it is easy to imagine the depths of sadness and heartache caused by this simultaneous loss of life, love, and faith!

But is it true that life must last forever before life can be meaningful?

Simple reflection indicates the error in what I said then. If our lives are not already of value, then tacking “eternal” onto our lives does not create meaning out of nothing, it only creates an eternity of meaninglessness. It is also not true that marriages have no value if they aren’t “eternal”. An bad eternal marriage is hell. A good temporary relationship is bliss, even if it eventually ends. Love is of value in the moment, even if that love lasts no more than a moment.

Yet again, we find that something else beyond “eternal” is needed to create value..

And it always was!

Apparently, while fundamentalist religion seemed to provide the missing ingredient needed to produce meaning, in reality, it simply pushed the ultimate need for something else down a meta level.

Concepts of meaning have always been explored in myths. Near the end of one modern myth, (Marvel's Avengers, the Age of Ultron), Vision and Ultron briefly debate existential philosophy before predictably trying to kill each other. Their interaction illustrates some of what I have been saying.

Vision: You’re afraid.
Ultron: Of you?
Vision: Of Death. You’re the last one.
Ultron: You were supposed to be the last. Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.
Vision: I suppose we are both disappointments.
Ultron: I suppose we are.
Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.
Ultron: They’re doomed.
Vision: Yes. But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.
Ultron: You’re unbearably naive.
Vision: Well, I was born yesterday.

Notice that Vision speaks of the fear of death. Also notice the very subtle reference to purpose in life. Vision and Ultron were both created to be saviors. Is Vision really a slave because he chooses to serve that purpose? Or is there value and meaning in his choice to fill the purpose for which he was created? Vision says he finds meaning and purpose not through what is, or what won’t be (what I called “truth” earlier), but through more subtle characteristics such as “grace”, “beauty”, and “privilege.” And it is because of these things that he chooses to enact the purposes for which he was created.

Notice also his explicit rejection of the philosophy that meaning and value comes from permanence: “A thing is not beautiful because it lasts.” A thing is beautiful simply because we find it so. My mother’s life, and my relationship with her, was beautiful, regardless of whether or not it will continue after death.
I believe that the transhumanist quest for life extension is of value. But it is only of value because life itself, in this very moment, is already of supreme value.

The so called Mormon “Plan of Happiness” is only of value because we already desire happiness. Eternal life, the resurrection, becoming like God, living together forever with our families, are all things that provide meaning for Mormons, because those are things that we, as humans, desire to make us happy. As the Book of Mormon itself says: “Men are that they might have joy.”

It is my belief that this is the actual axiom under which the Mormon plan of happiness determines ought from is, and thereby establishes a sense of purpose and meaning for Mormons.

Today, I argue that if this desire for joy could provide meaning before a faith transition (as it did for so many of us), then it can also provide it after! That means that there is no less potential for a meaningful life now than there was then!
What is needed is something more than what "is". From the outside of our minds, all states are equally desirable, because there is no desire at all.

But from the inside of the subjective experiences of conscious creatures, all states are not equal. Our own desires provide a value function, a “utility” function, that pulls an “ought” out of the sea of that which “is”. 

I believe that if we are to find an ultimate source for meaning, it will be found somewhere within our various subjective experiences. Subjective experience and human desires provide the solution to Hume’s dilemma. But because we may all have slightly different subjective experiences, we may come to slightly different mechanisms for establishing meaning and purpose in our lives.

Ultimately, that means that I can’t tell you exactly how you can find meaning in your life. However, as Richard Feynman famously said: “I would rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned”.

As I have said before, I no longer know for certain if there is a God. I have spoken here before about the transhumanist reasons why I think that there may well be. However, I no longer find meaning in my life to be directly connected to that belief. Meaning is something that I derive from living my life in a way that leads to humanities internal desires and preferences.

And while I cannot claim to have the final answers to the meaning of life, I can share with you a few of the things that I have found to provide my own life with meaning.

For example, take a moment to really feel your weight upon the char, to really listen to the sounds that surround us, to truly see the colors in the windows behind me! The miracle of consciousness is perhaps the least understood aspect of reality. And it is a miracle. I believe that there is sublime value and beauty in this very moment, despite (and perhaps even because of) its intrinsic impermanence.

As human beings, we all share some common preferences. For example, we all desire things like safety, security, pleasure, love, relationships, connections, compassion, joy, ecological sustainability, and social justice. Many of us will find meaning and value in striving to build a world that better matches those preferences. And we can find that meaning in the struggle, despite the imperfection and even pain that we encounter in the world around us. It comes from the struggle to make the world better, and to compassionately remove as much of that pain from others as we can. Far from inevitably producing despair, noticing these failings in the world can light within us a burning fire of purpose and motivation.

Finally, I am a finite being, but in forging deep and abiding relationships with the difference of the other, I feel like I touch the divine, connecting myself to something larger and more beautiful than myself. Loving others is thus the greatest of the sources of meaning that exist in my life.

The Buddha is said to have taught that if there is a life after death, then we can most likely attain a good rebirth by living a good and compassionate life here and now. However, if there is no life after death, then by living a good and compassionate life here and now, we would gain the advantages and joys that come from a life well lived.

There is peace, purpose, meaning, and yes, joy to be found, even after a loss of faith. I sincerely hope that I can play some small role in helping people to find it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Halloween and Worshiping the Devil

Jack-o'-Lantern 2003-10-31.jpg

Today is Halloween. Some people like Halloween, others do not. In my life, I have found that Halloween provides me with a wonderful opportunity to laugh at that which I fear, including my own mortality. As such, it has provided me with some great psychological and even spiritual benefits.

But, as is always the case this time of year, the fundamentalists are out in force, talking about how celebrating Halloween is actually worshiping the devil. But of course, that is not my intent when I celebrate Halloween... "this doesn't matter!" They reply. By celebrating Halloween, I am worshiping the devil, without even meaning to. As evidence for this, they cite the origins of the tradition among other, non Christian religions. But that would also be an accurate assessment of most Christian holidays and high holy days. It is also an accurate assessment of the Jewish holy days found in the Bible, which are borrowed/adapted from older Mesopotamian and Egyptian predecessors. 

A relationship to another religion besides your own does not make something demonic. Turning other religion's gods into your religion's demons is a relatively old parlor trick. For example, Zoroastrianism demonized the Gods of the Vedas... turning their Vedic Gods into Zoroastrian demons, and their Vedic demons into Zoroastrian Angels (See my first of two lectures on Zoroastrianism, time stamp 4342s). In fact, the English word "Demon" is related to the Vedic word Deva... meaning... Divine... which is also etymologically related.

Strange that the English word for Demon has the same origins as the English word Divine... Specifically because of our past history with demonizing other peoples divine beings.

Demonization of the religious beliefs and practices of others is an approach that I strongly dislike. I wrote back in 2009: "worship of God or the Devil must be intentional, some hidden meaning behind symbols can't cause you to somehow accidentally worship the Devil." See my post on "The Language of Symbolism" Part 1, and Part 2. At the time I wrote that, I was a believing Mormon, and my goal was to argue that Mormons are not "accidentally worshiping the devil" because of a pentagram on a building, if the builders of the building didn't think that was what the symbol meant. 

As an Ex Mormon, I still stand by what I wrote back then. And a very similar logic applies to Halloween. 

We cannot believe that it is possible to "accidentally" worship the Devil, without implying that God is an immoral monster, who will judge us based upon some legalistic definition, rather than upon the intent of our hearts. 

If there is a God, then I do not believe that God is an immoral monster.

Photo By Toby Ord - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Friday, October 26, 2018

Why Study Comparative Religion?


My idea of a good day off is to head to the swimming pool, pull up a reclining chair, and either read the Upanishads (that was my obsession last month), or settle down to read apocryphal stories about Daniel in Persia (which is what I was reading last week).

Ok.. Yes, I’m weird. I understand.

When I was teaching at the University, or writing as an apologist for my Church, my interest in all things religious made sense to everyone. It even made sense to those who didn't share my particular obsession. My goal must have been to “defend the faith,” so no one was surprised by it. Of course, even at the time, that was only a small part of what interested me about the subject.

Since my faith transition, my continued interest in comparative religion seems surprising to everyone.

My secular friends can’t understand why I would care to study things that are all just “made up”. My religious friends wonder if my interest isn’t just cover for some shady motive to discredit their faith. Both sides tend to react to my interest in the topic with either confusion, mild incredulity, shocked disbelief, or sometimes even outright hostility.

So why do I spend so much time and energy studying about and then educating people about the world’s different religions?

That’s a question I take rather seriously, but there is more than one answer to it.

Personal preference

The simplest answer is: “I like it.” Ok, fine, I love it. I love it in the way that a math teacher might love math, or that an art teacher might love art, or that a history teacher might love history. But that argument is somewhat circular. After all, it still doesn’t explain why I love the subject.

There really is no accounting for taste. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla. But saying that I just like to study religion because of my personal taste is a bit of a cop-out. The truth is that there are reasons I am especially drawn to this subject. I am a person who enjoys puzzles. And there are quite a few fascinating puzzles buried in this field. But the puzzles of religious history are not like the Rubik's cube that fascinated me for hours as a child, because the answers to these particular puzzles matter in the real world.

The Influence of Religion

Religion motivates the ascetic to live alone, and motivates the saint to charity. Religion builds nations, and moves armies. Religion drives our most intractable conflicts, and religion motivates people to seek peace.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is impossible to comprehend without at least some degree of religious literacy, and the nuclear armed standoff between Pakistan and India is explicitly religious. The civil rights movement in America was religiously motivated, as was the fight for independence in India. Gandhi's opposition to the oppression of the untouchables, and those who opposed him, were both motivated by religion. And throughout the world, the fight for equality for homosexuals finds itself opposed on nearly every side by religious traditions of one sort or another.

The American political landscape where the so called “religious right” wields incredible power and influence is even less comprehensible without understanding the influence of religion. The Bible is evoked both by those in power to justify their actions, and by those who view themselves as the resistance.

According to polls, nearly 4 in 10 adults in America believe that humans have existed in our present form since the beginning of time, an extreme form of creationism. This stubborn resistance to the truth can’t be understood without a rather sophisticated understanding of the Bible and Paul’s analogy between Christ and Adam found in Romans 5.

Claims that America is secularizing seem to be premature. In reality, liberal Mainline Protestant Churches are on the decline, while religious fundamentalism is as strong as ever. This is yet another form of the intense social and political polarization that is plaguing American life.

Source: The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity ofAmerican Religion: A Response to Recent Research.
For better or worse, we cannot understand the world in which we live without understanding religion. This is true of our past, is true of our present, and it appears that it will remain true for the foreseeable future. But as important as religious literacy is for understanding our geopolitical world, I believe that it is not the most compelling reason why one might be interested in religion.

The Human Condition

The religions of the world are far more than a collection of myths and dogmas, made up or otherwise. A religion is a complex combination of stories, texts, philosophies, practices, rituals, communities, and hierarchies, all bound up in an entire world view. Religions provide those who follow them with a way of contextualizing and perceiving the world around them.

Most people’s religious journeys begin with discontent. They start by realizing that there is something that is deeply and disturbingly wrong with the world. It is from this starting place that the world’s religions diverge, each to their own unique diagnoses of the problem, and then to their unique proscription for the solution.

Is the problem suffering? Buddhism provides an answer. Is it sin? Christianity had the cure. Is the problem wandering and exile? Judaism tells the story. Are we lost because we forgot our true place and calling? Yoruba can help you remember. Or is the problem chaos and death? The religion of ancient Egypt proposed a solution to that. Or perhaps the problem is pride? Islam can teach you how to submit. Or is the problem the illusion of separateness? Hinduism can show you how you are connected, and that all things are one. Is the problem found in the lack of social order and convention? Confucius will teach you how to become a sage. Or is the problem found in constraining social orders and convention? Taoism will set you free. Or is the problem the presence of religion itself? Atheism will purge you of your “silly” superstitions.

Or… perhaps, is the problem composed of all these things together? At least we know that something is wrong.

But is the solution faith in Christ? Or is it Buddhism’s noble eightfold path? Or is it Islamic submission to the one undivided God? Or is it perhaps ritual and ethical purity? Or is it return and reconciliation? Or is it obedience to law? Or is it rejection of law? Or is it the rejection of religious superstition? Is it the training of Confucian culture? Or is it the rejection of Culture for the natural way of the Tao? Or is it the realization born in meditation, that you are one with all that is?

Religious traditions evolved in order to address the problem of the human condition in a compelling manner. Those religions that proposed solutions that were not compelling did not survive. Therefore, each proposed problem and solution provides a useful window into the human condition. Because the human condition is something we all share, we should not be surprised to find similar concepts repeated across the world’s religions from wildly different times and places. These similarities tell us important things about what all humans share. But the world’s religions are not all the same, and their very real differences and conflicts are illustrative of the conflicts within our own natures.

For example. Because we evolved as tribal entities, most humans have an innate desire to find and follow a powerful yet worthy leader who will save us from our enemies, our troubles, or from ourselves. Even the most anarchist among us can sometimes feel this desire pulling at us. It’s what makes great movie scenes like the coronation of Aragorn at the end of the Lord of the Rings so moving. And it’s one reason why movies like The Return of the Jedi, and The Matrix are so compelling. This is what the world’s monotheistic religions claim to offer, a deity that is both powerful, but also good and worthy of our respect, worship, and emulation.

But those same tribal origins have also gifted us with the conflicting desire for autonomy, individuality, and freedom. Speaking to this impulse is the genius of religions such as Taoism. And it is also why we feel so betrayed when we come to see serious signs of immorality in the way the religious texts of Monotheism choose to portray the supposedly all good and all powerful God. These are both inherent elements of human nature. And they are in fundamental conflict.

There is actual relief and release in letting go of our thoughts, preoccupations, frustrations, and lust for the material things we normally chase. Buddhism offers practical techniques for doing just that. Most people can instinctively feel the attraction of that sort of peace.

Similarly, we all want to be part of something larger than ourselves. This desire is perhaps taken to its most extreme in the traditions of the Islamic Sufis and the philosophical Hinduism of the Upanishads. There, we are told that the separate self is an illusion. In truth, the self is already eternal, immortal, and one with all things. God is thus the unity of all creation. And we are that unity. You are this. But you are also that. You are all things. And the unity of all things is God. Thus, we discover that We. Are. God. And the experience of this unity is the ultimate release from rebirth and samsara, enlightenment itself.

I still can’t tell if that is the ultimate expression of humility, or of pride. But I can see why the idea is so very compelling. And when something like this is experienced in meditation, the idea becomes even more compelling.

We are all sinful, and righteous, prideful, and humble, autocratic and anarchist, suffering, and free, isolated, and interconnected. To come to know the world's religions is an exercise in knowing ourselves. 

Cure for Fundamentalism

I have often wished that world religions and religious history were offered in our public schools. The separation of church and state is often cited as the reason why this is impossible, although I do not think that this is actually an insurmountable obstacle. After all, religious history is… well… history.

Either way, I wish we could give our children the window into human nature that the world's religions can offer.

But there is at least one more essential lesson we can learn from the world's religions. Most people approach the study of religion as an excuse to figure out why their own religion is superior to everyone else's. We don't study other people's beliefs in order to see what they can teach us, but in order to figure out why they are all wrong, and by extension, why we alone are right. Of course this is the apologist’s approach to religious studies. And it was therefore my approach for years.

But it is ultimately unsustainable.

Eventually, if we study religious history long enough, we come to see the evolutionary origins of our own beliefs in the parallels they share with the traditions that came before. And once that truth is seen, it cannot be unseen. That does not mean that your tradition, whatever it is, does not have a valid and even useful diagnosis of the human problem. Nor does it mean that it does not have a useful prescription for the solution to that problem. It does not even mean that there can be no God, or that your tradition does not bear a measure of inspiration. But what it does mean, is that there is no one religion that has a monopoly on the truth. The one true religion does not exist.

No one religion is true. They are all false. And yet, they are also all true.

If, like me, you believe that the world's religious conflicts are born less from the irrationality of religious “superstitions”, and more from the dogmatic and fundamentalist way in which some religious practitioners tend to approach those beliefs, then a knowledge of religious history is ultimately the cure.

Given all the hundreds of religious traditions that flourish today, and the thousands that have existed in recorded history, and the millions that have vanished without leaving a textual record, each evolved from the ones that came before them, it would be arrogant to assume that the single tradition we have embraced has the single perfect answer to the human problem, leaving us with nothing to learn from any other tradition.

There are many possible ways out of the trap of fundamentalism, but I believe that religious literacy is the best. Down this path, one does not simply trade one form of dogmatism for another, but dogmatism is traded for humility and an openness to being taught. When this works, we are no longer just open to being taught from our own tradition, but from them all. We are also more willing to admit the flaws in our own tradition.

We can trade our dogmatic pride, for teachable humility.

Is there any wonder that I find great value in knowing and studying the world's religious traditions? And is there any wonder that I find value in teaching these things to others?

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Something New

Something New
I haven’t made much use of my blog in many years. I have only posted 2 things since 2014. Where have I been? Well…

Beginning at an Ending

My shelf finally broke in 2009.

In Mormon circles the mental “shelf” is a common analogy. Mormons are encouraged to put intellectual questions that challenge their faith on their “intellectual shelf”. The idea is that we can't know everything now, so we should expect a few unanswered questions, which is an eminently reasonable position. But we are also told to not let those unanswered questions challenge our faith. Instead, we should put them up on a shelf. At least for now. Then perhaps one day we can take them down and there will be answers. In the meantime, we can have faith.

This seems to work very well until our shelves grow so heavy that they eventually break. This can happen suddenly, spilling an entire lifetime of problems and impossibilities onto our unprepared laps. The result is often traumatic.

It was traumatic for me. It felt like pieces of my life, of my identity, of my core self, had been ripped away, leaving large holes that seemed impossible to ever fill.

Worse, I was one semester away from graduation at BYU. At the time, I was paying my way through graduate school by teaching courses in the Ancient Scripture department. My goal was to eventually teach religious studies at BYU full time. That was now obviously impossible. I couldn't bring myself to pretend to believe something that I do not.

I finished that last course, and did not teach religion at BYU again. The next semester I graduated from BYU, thankfully without needing to go through another of the annual “worthiness” interviews which spared me from being forced to choose between my integrity and receiving the degree I had worked for so many years to achieve.

I left Utah, and took a job near my wife’s family in New Mexico, and gave up on my hopes to teach religion at BYU one day. But this left another major hole in my life, because one of my central interests (religious studies) had no obvious outlet.

Despite my lack of belief, I continued to attend the local LDS church, where I taught Gospel Doctrine for several years, and was eventually made the Sunday School President. I informed my bishop at the time of my doubts, but he felt that God wanted me to serve anyway, so long as I could represent the Church when I taught, and not my own opinions. I hope that I did this well.

In 2012 I admitted to my wife that I no longer believed in the LDS church. This was a huge step, since it was something I could barely admit to myself. In January of 2013 I asked to be released from my calling as Sunday school president, and I had quit attending regularly. But this left me with another major hole in my life where the powerfully connected community of my Mormon congregation used to be.

The more involved you are with a given tradition, the more difficult it is to discover that it is not what it claims to be. I was all in, and so my loss of faith nearly destroyed me.

When I started this blog, the idea was that I would use it to share my thoughts about scriptural interpretation and ancient studies. But those thoughts were mostly directed at Mormon apologetics. With a broken shelf, what could I write? I have little desire to trade my Mormon apologetics for attacks on Mormonism.

So for the next few years this blog sat… mostly unused.  


Sometime near the middle or end of 2013 I visited the Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation that meets across the street from the Mormon church I used to attend. The UU service contains these lines: "As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here." The first time I heard those words I cried.

On December 19th, 2013, marriage equality finally came to New Mexico. The daughter of a member of our UU congregation is gay. She was married shortly after. The next Sunday, we all sat in the service, and they read from the Book of Joys and Sorrows". When our pastor read that she had finally been married to her long time partner that week...every person in the congregation stood up and cheered! We cheered! We clapped! We celebrated!

And I wept.

I felt what most Mormons call the feelings of the spirit more strongly in that moment than I had ever felt it in any Mormon context, and I knew that I had finally come home to a place where I was welcome, and where I could truly welcome others as they are.

I quickly found my new home and community here, and the holes left by my crashing shelf were filled.

Shortly thereafter I joined a Buddhist philosophy and meditation group that meets at the UU church. Buddhism has had a profound impact on my life for the better. These days, my wife claims that I am a more patient and a more loving person. I hope that she is correct.

In 2014 the UU church allowed me to begin teaching a comparative religions class as part of their adult religious education offerings, and they allowed me to design my own curriculum. At first, I borrowed heavily from the comparative religion class I had team taught with Stephen Ricks at BYU titled “Temples and Texts”. But the class quickly grew in scope far beyond this initial seed.

At first I recorded the audio from the classes for my own use in preparing better lectures on each subject. But soon, people began requesting the recordings for classes that they missed, or so that they could “attend” even though they didn't live nearby. So I began to share the recordings of my classes on YouTube.

In 2018 I began teaching a second class at the Church titled “Biblical Scholarship and Literacy”.

It feels as if the last major hole left by my crashing shelf is finally filled.

The Future of Amateur Scriptorians

These days I have no desire to write a blog about Mormonism. But I do want to write again.

I wish I could find a way to talk to people about why I love my new Church so much without constantly contrasting it with the LDS Church. But I'm not sure I know how to do that yet. Everything I see is still in contrast with my past. And the contrasts are large. Similarly, I still process the interesting things I discover about temples, texts, traditions, and religions in contrast to what I once believed. And Mormonism is an incredibly interesting topic of study from the perspective of anthropology and religious studies.

So while I have no desire to write primarily about Mormonism, I am sure that the topic will come up.

But if you are LDS, I would hope that you could stay. I will not be constantly attacking your church and your faith here. That is not what I want to write about. Part of the beauty of being a Universalist is that I don't feel like I need to convert my Mormon friends in order to save their souls. I think they can be “saved” where they are. If they are doing well where they are, then I don't need to convince them to believe exactly like me.

I want to write about the things I have been learning and teaching. I find great value in studying and understanding the world's many religious traditions. I believe that the story of where they came from is one of the most fascinating stories ever told. I am now free to explore that story, without any preconceived notions about what the conclusions must be. Richard Feynman supposedly said that “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned.” It has been a fascinating journey so far. And there is a lot more ground that we can cover.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here. I hope you will come exploring with me.


[1] When I initially left Mormonism, there was some motivation for me to try and explain my reasons for leaving, particularly because of the many false assumptions and mischaracterizations of the motivations of those who leave that are so common. At the time I began writing down some of my reasons. It quickly turned into a long catalog of all the things that were on my shelf. And after only getting about a quarter of the way through, it hit 60 pages! If anyone is interested in the reasons my shelf broke, they can read it, in its largely incomplete and unfinished state. But discussing reasons why I do not believe in the LDS Church will not be my focus in this blog.  

[2] This amazing quote is commonly attributed to Richard Feynman, but no firm source is currently known. Richard is known to have made very similar (if somewhat less pithy)  statements. For example: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live, not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong.”

[3] Some future blog topics I have planned include:
* “Why Study Comparative Religion”
* “The Origins of Monotheism”
* “Mormonism is Where it’s At!” (a discussion of the unique contributions that a study of Mormonism can have in Comparative Religious Studies)
* “The Evolution of God, What the Theory of Evolution Says About the Potential Existence and Nature of God”
* “The End of Religious Anxiety”
* “Meaning and the Broken Myth”
* A series of posts on religion and homosexuality
* “The Philosophy of the Self”
* “Lucifer and Isaiah”
* “Cosmology and Genesis 1”
* “Biblical Inerrancy and Sufficiency”
* “Agency and Free Will”
* ...and there will be many more...

Monday, June 22, 2015

Melchizedek's Priesthood in its Historical Context

Genesis 14 is one of the most fascinating chapters in the entire Bible. Ironically, it simultaneously provides both the best evidence for the historicity of Biblical figures such as Abraham, and for the fallibility of the later Biblical authors who failed to properly understand the historical background of the text.

Genesis 14 has a remarkably different theme and perspective on Abraham's life that is shown in other chapters. Here, Abraham seems less like a peaceful patriarch, and more like an important tribal warlord. The text also contains the primary reference to the figure of Melchizedek, who would become a favorite figure for the wildest of speculations from later religious leaders and authors.

The text shows no evidence of having been written by any of the more familiar Biblical sources, J, E, or P. Textually, it is filled with unique vocabulary and grammatical structures. Grammatically, the text itself hints at having been translated from an older Akkadian source, especially in verses 1, 7, 14, and 23. And there are other reasons to suppose that the text is the work of a non-Israelite outsider, (just as one example among many, Abraham is referred to as "Abram the Hebrew", a term most often applied to the family by outsiders).

The text also seems to hint of an authentic historical setting. For example, the cities mentioned all are authentic names from the correct time period and setting, not the sort of names that later authors would have realistically been able to invent.

None of this evidence by itself is terribly convincing, however, when taken as a whole, the evidence points to some startling implications for the historicity of Abraham himself. What we may have before us in Genesis 14, could be the next best thing to finding an independent external and contemporary Akkadian reference to the person of Abraham in the writings of Israel's neighbors!

Perhaps ironically enough, a historically contextual view of Genesis 14 also clearly demonstrate the fallibility of the later Biblical authors, who badly misinterpret this passage, especially as it relates to Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is presented in the text as an important Canaanite king/priest, the  ruler of the Salem city state, presumably Jeru-salem (literally, the city of Salem) before the Israelite conquest. In that context, it would make sense for Abraham, as a tribal war lord, waging a military campaign in Melchizedek's general territory, to assure Melchizedek that Abraham was not setting himself up as a military rival. To that end, Abraham appears to have shared a covenant meal with Melchizedek, and paid homage to Melchizedek as his political superior, giving him a tenth of the spoils of the conflict waged in Melchizedek's territory. As we would expect from a Canaanite city state king, Melchizedek invokes an authentic Canaanite deity in this exchange (El Elyon) that is well attested in both Ugaritic and Phoenician sources.

Later Biblical authors falsely assume that Abraham would not pay "tithes" to a pagan, and they therefore assume that El Elyon must be another name for Jehovah (this despite the obvious impossibility of turning the king of a Canaanite city state into a worshiper of Jehovah). This same argument is used by the late author of the New Testament book of Hebrews, who argues that Abraham would not be paying tithes to Melchizedek, unless Melchizedek held a priesthood that was both higher, and more ancient than the one that Abraham's descendant Aaron held. This is the foundation of the Book of Hebrew's argument for the existence of a non-Aaronic priesthood that Christ held, that allowed him to function as a "better High Priest" despite his not being a descendant of Aaron. Instead, Christ was thought of as a priest "after the order of Melchizedek." This "better" High priest was able to perform the functions of the Day of Atonement in a better (heavenly) temple, and thereby cleans the world of sin permanently, instead of having to repeat the ritual annually as the High Priests of Aaron had to. Unfortunately for the author of Hebrews, (and for those who cling to Biblical inerrancy) the entire argument is based upon a rather serious and fundamental misunderstanding of the text of Genesis 14!

This sort of misinterpretation of Genesis 14 is not just found in the Biblical authors. It is present in the writings of later religious figures as well. As just one example, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. includes a lengthy discourse on Melchizedek in his Book of Mormon (see Alma 13) that is based upon the same central misunderstanding of the nature of the meeting between Melchizedek and Abraham. That mistake is also found in the Joseph Smith's Translation of Genesis 14, and in Joseph's revelation on the priesthood which states that one order of the priesthood was called the Melchizedek priesthood "because Melchizedek was such a great high priest. Before his day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood" (D&C 107:2-4). This view does not make sense, once one realizes that Melchizedek was a Canaanite king/priest, and not a worshiper of the Israelite god Jehovah at all.

Further reading:

E. A. Speiser, "Genesis: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (The Anchor Bible, Vol. 1)"


YouTube lecture on this subject given at the UU Church of Los Alamos, January 20, 2019

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Religious Search For Truth

I believe that it's important to do our very best to know what will happen to us after this life (if anything happens to us). If we go somewhere, it would seem to be of paramount importance to know where that somewhere will be because eternity is a loooooong time. On the other hand, since there are many contradictory opinions about this subject, I find great solace and comfort in what the Buddha allegedly taught about this subject. He said:

"If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance [a man who follows the teachings] acquires.

"But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance [a man who follows the teachings] acquires." (Kalama Sutta, AN 3.65)

Thus, I have some certainty that if there is another world after this one, I will be blessed, because I do my very best to live a good and a compassionate life here, and because I search for the truth to my very best of my ability. If there is a God that is worthy of my worship, He or She will reward my efforts. If there is no life after this one then my efforts, and my search, are of value in and of themselves, because they help me to live a better life here and now, and because they bring me joy in the search, here and now.

Either way, the path, the journey, and the search are well worth the effort.