Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Church of Me

Membership: There is only one member (me). We are currently not accepting new members as membership is limited to one person. If you really want to join, you can start your own church, The Church of You.

Doctrines: Our doctrines are not written down or recorded anywhere since they are continually evolving. Learning new information results in changes to our doctrines. No committee meetings, focus groups, pilot programs, apologetics for our old doctrines are required. We can change our doctrines without concern for offending anyone or losing members. This gives us the ability to change quickly when we discover we are wrong.

Missionary Work: We don't proselytize or evangelize since we aren't accepting new members

Criticisms:

Isn't the "Church of Me" antisocial or isolationist? 

We still believe in the importance of relationships and community. We just don't feel that doctrines should interfere with the quality of a relationship. The consequence of tying doctrines to community is self-righteous attitudes and judgement.

Isn't the "Church of Me" selfish?

Currently selfish behavior is supported when self-care is needed. 

If your doctrines aren't written down, doesn't that just mean you can believe whatever you want?

Our doctrines are tied to evidence: personal, historical, scientific, data-driven. When evidence is limited or conflicting, then we allow for uncertainty. We strive to recognize many of the logical fallacies and cognitive biases that lead to false beliefs.

How much good can a church with only one member do?

Horrific acts have been performed by powerful churches in the name of righteousness. Limiting how much good we can do also limits how much evil we can do. Still, we delight in serving others for the purpose of reducing their suffering and increasing their joy.

The "Church of Me" is false because it doesn't agree with my beliefs

By that standard, all churches are false since a majority of the world doesn't agree with their beliefs. For example, Christianity has the most followers at about 31% of the world's population. But that means that 69% of the world disagree with Christian beliefs. Even inside of Christianity, there are disagreements on beliefs (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc.).

The "Church of Me" is more likely to be right since it corrects its errors instead of relying on apologetics to defend beliefs that are proven wrong with evidence (typically those beliefs cannot be changed due to being recorded in scripture). 

The "Church of Me" doesn't work for me. I want a church that's run by people smarter than me.

"The Church of Me" doesn't restrict anyone else from joining any church they want for whatever reason they want.

  

Thursday, June 3, 2021

What I Learned From Listening to My Mom Talk on the Phone

I learned some interesting things by listening to my mom talk on the telephone. She would be in the kitchen tethered to the nearest phone outlet and I would be sitting on the floor in the family room working on my latest Lego creation. My eyes would be busy looking for the right piece. My hands would be busy sifting and assembling. But my ears were idly listening to every word (Let this be a warning to parents with children within earshot of phone conversations). I became a bit of an expert piecing together a full conversation from only one half. Luckily my mom was animated and engaging so I could infer the other persons reactions.

Lesson 1: Where Do Babies Come From?

One common narrative was "Did you hear so-and-so is having a baby?". This helped me form an early theory about where babies came from. 

The information: 

  1. Different families had different numbers of children
  2. It was always a surprise to everyone when the mother became pregnant
 Conclusion: the parents must have been as surprised as anyone so therefore babies were something that just happened spontaneously, like a volunteer tomato plant in the yard. (Fortunately my mom corrected this lesson when I was the appropriate age using a fully illustrated book to explain where babies came from).

Lesson 2: What happens when a story is retold?

Another lesson comes due to the limitation of the phone technology of the time: you could only talk to one person at a time. Therefore, when my mom would come across a story, she would then call a friend and tell it. Then she would have to call her next friend and retell the same story. This would repeat many times. This could have been tedious and boring to me since I don't like repetition. Luckily I had a sharp little mind and I began to take notice in the subtle changes in each telling of the story. The "fish got longer" with each telling, as the saying goes. At the time, I was critical of her thinking that she was stretching the truth. Now I realize that she was just playing the dance of conversation. 

Why did she tell stories? For her own pleasure. 
What gave her pleasure? It was the emotional reaction of her friends.
How do you increase pleasure? You leave out the boring parts and "emphasize" the good parts.

Conclusion: copies of copies of something change the original. This is true for the stories we tell, our childhood memories, eyewitness accounts, and even Bible manuscripts.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Mormon Pie: What Happened to the Founding Members of the Mormon Church

I was curious what happened to the founding members of the Mormon Church. 

I selected 35 of what I considered to be the most prominent based on position:
  • Joseph Smith and his family (Emma, Lucy, Joseph Sr, Hyrum, Samuel, William)
  • Book of Mormon Witnesses (Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Hirum Page)
  • Early Apostles (William E. McLellin, Orson Hyde, Lyman Johnson, Brigham Young, Phineus Young, Heber C. Kimball, David W. Patten, Luke Johnson, John F. Boynton, Orson Pratt, Thomas B. Marsh, Parley P. Pratt, Willard Richards, Lyman Wight)
  • Members of First Presidency (William Law, Sidney Rigdon, Jesse Gause, Fredrick G Williams)
  • Early Bishops (Newel K Whitney, Edward Partridge) 
Subtracting for early deaths and "apostates", only 7 of the 35 went with Brigham Young to Utah. All of these 7 men were polygamous with at least 8 wives. 

Reasons for apostasy (or leaving the church):
  • 1837 failure of the Kirtland Safety Society causing doubt in Joseph Smith's Prophetic Abilities
  • 1838 objection to actions by the Danites (a Mormon vigilante group)
  • 1845 succession crisis after death of Joseph Smith
  • Objections to polygamy (Oliver Cowdrey objecting to Joseph Smith's affair with Fanny Alger and William Law publishing the Nauvoo Expositor)
  • Unknown (Jesse Gause)
The following pie chart shows reasons these founding members "left" the church. Also included are the "Early Deaths" (people that died before the exodus to Utah) and those that "Went to Utah" (followed Brigham Young).
   


The following pie chart shows how many wives each of the 7 non-apostate, surviving, founding members had.  I was surprised to find that 100% of these men were polygamous. 

It's important to note that 4 of those that left the church later rejoined the church (Oliver Cowdrey, Martin Harris, Thomas B. Marsh, Luke Johnson). As far as I can tell, none of these men were polygamous.

None of Joseph Smith's surviving family (Emma, Lucy, William) went to Utah, staying instead in Nauvoo.  William and Emma both joined the RLDS church.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Revelations from the Statistical Reports of the LDS Church

 I decided to look at what the Statistical Reports for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints reveal.  I used reports for 2008 through 2020.

TL/DR;

  • The Church's continues to report year-to-year growth
  • The Statistical Reports hide the number of people being removed from the records
    • Resignations and Excommunications are estimated to average 46,000 per year since 2008
  • The Statistical Reports show the number of "New Children of Record" dropped precipitously in 2020
    • The activity rate calculated from the "New Children of Record" is following the same trend as a recent Gallup Poll showing falling church membership across all religions.

The Revelations

According to the reports, the membership has been growing year-to-year.

The report includes "Total membership", "New children of record" and "Converts baptized".  There's a hidden number, "People Removed from the Records". This accounts for deaths, excommunications and resignations. This can easily be calculated by taking the difference of "Total Membership" for consecutive years and then subtracting the "New children of record" and "Converts baptized". The average of "People Removed" is 98,000 per year.  This includes deaths, resignations and excommunications. 

The data isn't available for the number of deaths, but we can make some assumptions. If we assume that the deaths have constant growth, then the fluctuations are due to resignations and excommunications. The fewest  "People Removed" occurred in 2012 ("The Mormon Moment"). If we assume there were few resignations and excommunications that year, then we can use 2012 to determine a baseline for deaths. This results in a conservative estimate of 46,000 resignations per year on average from 2008 to 2020.

The final calculation of activity rate is a little tricky.  We start with the "New Children of Record".

Using the expected birthrate (annual US birth rate), we calculate how many "New children of Record" would be expected. Assuming that only active members would add their children to the records, we can divide the reported number by the expected number to get an activity rate. There are many reasons the activity rate could be incorrect (world-wide church birth rates are different than US birth rates, active members have a different birth rate than inactive members). Since it is reported that millennials are leaving in higher numbers than other members, it makes sense that since they are at child bearing ages the "New Children of Record" would be dropping more than overall activity might be dropping. Because of these considerations, the numbers only show trends and not absolutes (If you still insist on knowing absolutes, my estimates are active membership of the church dropping from about 9 million in 2008, to 7.9 million in 2019 and 5.5 million in 2020 (though 2020 is very unreliable due to the effects of the pandemic).

Still, there is a precipitous drop this last year, a trend similar to the "Church Membership" data from a recent Gallup Poll for all religions (in the chart below, only the data from 2008 to 2020 on the right side is relevant to this comparison).

Conclusion

I am drawing no conclusions and letting the data speak for itself. My summary is in the "Too Long, Didn't Read" (TL/DR;) section at the beginning.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

A Better Mirror

 In his book, "Waking Up", Sam Harris describes our consciousness as a mirror and asks:

When someone beautiful looks in the mirror, does their image make the mirror better?

or, when someone ugly looks in the mirror, does their image make the mirror worse?

I've been thinking about this and it has been a helpful metaphor.  I wondered "what does make the mirror better?".  The answer is a perfect reflecting surface, without blemish, that creates an image that most closely matches reality.  Our thoughts (consciousness) should strive to create an accurate image of reality, whether reality is good, bad, or both.

My contemplation on the mirror was interrupted by my own stories ruminating in my head. You know the stories that you tell yourself over and over again. Maybe it's a self criticism. Maybe it's a "I deserve better than this". Then my mind went back to thinking about the mirror.  I realized that these stories we tell ourselves are like drawings we make and paste to our mirror. We can look at these stories and try to convince ourselves that they represent the truth. But they aren't. We need to remove the drawings so that we can see the true image of reality.

For example, I remember a story from my childhood. As the youngest of 6 kids, I felt neglected. I decided to climb a tree in the backyard to hide. My reasoning was that when my family realized I was missing, they would be worried and come looking for me. When they found me they would give me the attention I desired. I stayed in the tree for what seemed like a long time but no one realized I was gone. I meekly climbed down the tree accepting that no one cared about me. This story was sketched out and pasted in my mirror. Recently I read the book "Running on Empty" by Janice Webb, I recognized this experience as emotional neglect. Fortunately, the book gave several examples of emotional nurturing, so I was able to revisit my experience. My new version of the story: My dad worked full time and then had obligations in the evening. My mom was busy caring for our large family. My older siblings were teenagers and most likely occupied with their own lives. My brother that I shared a room with was probably glad to have a break from his little brother. Yes, I felt neglected and that hurt. It was okay for me to feel that way, but I also needed to understand the conditions that lead up to my experience. 

As a result, I was able to remove the image fixed to my mirror and allowing it to reflect reality. Seeing reality is liberating. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Scarcity of Thought: Transitioning from Tribalism to Community

In the book "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much", by Sendhi Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, there's the example of two people packing for a trip. One has a tiny suitcase and the other has a large suitcase. The person with the tiny suitcase needs to spend more time optimizing their decisions on what to bring, not bring and how to pack.  The person with the large suitcase can quickly pack. This person thinks to themselves "I might want to go running", so they throw in their running shoes without further thought.

What if we apply this principle to thought: ideas, beliefs, opinions? Maybe your tiny "suitcase", or scarcity, is due to your religion, political party, education, or cultural upbringing. As a result, when you get new information, you struggle to fit it into existing narratives. This is why we have political attacks. This is where apologetics comes from. This is the root cause of cognitive biases. For example, confirmation bias, where we tend to find and remember information that confirms our perceptions (and ignoring information that doesn't fit). Our suitcases are just too small for anything else.

It can be very liberating upgrading your tiny cognitive suitcase for a larger mental space. This can happen through a sudden or gradual awakening.  This happened for me politically during the Bush/Gore election. When something benign like dangling chads became a divisive political issue, I realized that the political parties were more concerned about obtaining and keeping power than they were about truth and justice.  I become an independent.

I grew up in a time when it seemed that the villains in many movies where from Russia (or the former Soviet Union).  When my group hired 2 Russians, I had to check my reactions. I was able to learn their stories and turned suspicion into respect.

I have a coworker from Iran. The media tells me that they are one of our new enemies. He ended up inviting me to his wedding. It was one of the most beautiful, inclusive experiences I have ever had. The Persian culture is rich and I would be proud if I was Persian.

I got to know another coworker from Iraq. I've heard insensitive people say while we were at war with Iraq that we should just drop a nuclear bomb on them and be done with it. My coworker told his story. He lived in a village where all of the names were biblical. The towns, hills, mountains all had names from the bible. He lived near where they thought Noah's Ark landed. How he came to America was that he was a Christian refuge fleeing earlier wars. The government sent a notice "We are going to be bombing your city. Either leave or be bombed" 

Still "my" group was morally superior, right? As I got to truly know people outside of "my" group, I was surprised to find that they had qualities that I valued. Often, their qualities were more polished, refined and authentic than found in my group

Tribalism vs Community

In this post, Alan Weiss writes

Tribes are homogenous, communities are heterogeneous.

Tribes are exclusionary. They recognize their own members’ similarities and common background...tribes tend to be insecure, mistrustful of non-tribal relationships, and highly threatened by perceived attacks on their beliefs and behaviors.

Communities are much more elastic, since it’s almost impossible to insult everyone at once due to the eclectic nature of the community. They will embrace outsiders and interact with other communities readily.

Communities are inclusionary. They are characterized by common attitudes, interests, and goals. Religion, beliefs, kinship, and opinions can differ starkly in communities and, in fact, give them vibrancy and dynamism, allowing for continued experimentation and growth. They do not hold long-term animosities against other communities, and those within them shift in opinion and allegiance as time goes by and learning occurs.

I love this!

Scarcity found in tribes is not necessary. It's possible to make space for a larger community. As I travel through life, I'm grateful for a "larger suitcase" that allows me to make room for an expanded understanding of the world while on my journey through life. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Hereafter: A Thought Experiment

 Imagine you are buying a car and you have two salesmen trying to get your business.  They are both selling you the same car.

The first salesmen offers you a perk: buy from him and all fuel and repairs will be free in the hereafter (after you die).

The second salesmen offers you a different perk: buy from him and you get a free upgrade whenever a new model car comes out in the hereafter (after you die).

At first you compare the offers.  How much will gas cost in the hereafter? Will things break down and need repairs? For the other offer, you wonder how often upgrades happen in the hereafter?

Then you start to think more profoundly. How do people travel in the hereafter? Will you even need a car in the hereafter? 

Then you think more practical. How can I be sure the salesmen will deliver on their promises? What means do I have to hold them accountable?

Then you think skeptically. How can they possibly have any influence on the hereafter? What evidence is there that they can deliver on their promises? Do they maybe have a motive to make promises that can't be proven or unproven? 

What if you asked them these questions and they held two fingers up to their forehead and said "Hold on, I'm getting communication from my manager on the other side...wait...Yes, he said they can guarantee the deal"?

Conclusion

Every religion has made some claim about the hereafter. It's impossible in this life to know which religion has the best deal or even if the deal is valid.