27 Nov 2009

A visit from LDS Missionaries

Forward

A note to my LDS friends: Please understand that the purpose of this post is not to disprove or discredit your belief system or you personally. I have a deep respect for each one of you and only desire that the lines of communication that exists between myself and you continue to stay open. I only wish that the rest of Christendom were as open to discussion and as kind in doing so as you have always been to me. Even during the times when I made a fool of myself as a self-righteous Christian and if I have done so now as an atheist. Please allow this post to represent my care for mankind and not a hate for god or religious people. If something here is offensive it was not my intent, but I challenge anyone and everyone that does read this to consider the purpose behind it and the logic behind my own doubt.
 
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About two months ago I was browsing through my normal routine of atheist sites and blogs when I happened upon an advertisement for Mormon.org’s chat service which allows anyone to log onto the website and chat with a missionary from the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons or LDS).  I decided to log on and chat with the kind folks there to see why they believed what they did and so on,  being an individual that is not entirely unfamiliar with LDS beliefs I came in with a foreknowledge of the basic LDS doctrine and simply wanted to challenge these kind people to think about the origin of their belief – something I had to do for myself once upon a time.

Missionary One: Initial encounter

The first missionary I talked to was a very kind young man, if I remember correctly he was 19 and in training to go to South America to present their version of the gospel to the people there, you see, the chat center is located in Provo, UT at the Missionary Training Academy where all the LDS missionaries go for a time prior to being sent out. (Most LDS members go on mission at some point in their life usually in their early 20’s, the mission generally lasts two years and is part of being a holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood). I explained to him that I was an atheist and that I was at one time a Christian, he spoke to me about  his “relationship with god” and how he knew god was real because he felt him so strongly in his life and because he had seen god’s many blessings on him and his family. I explained to him a little about my past and how I too had a relationship with my own deity and that at one point I came to realize that this deity was merely my own mental and emotional interpretation of the god of the Bible and the god that I most wanted to serve. (aka, an imaginary friend that I molded after my own view of god). Eventually I gave this missionary my phone number and he and I talked about this subject on two different nights, he would also give me some verses from the Book of Mormon to read. I read what he asked each time that he did. During our last conversation he let me know that he was leaving to go on his mission and would therefore be unable to call again and asked permission to give my number to another missionary named Stephen, I agreed and issued one final challenge to him: I simply asked that he ask himself if he would be comfortable with even the idea of there not being a god and that if he could find a way to cope with that if he would then begin to challenge the idea of god that he had. He agreed.

Missionary two: Stephen

About a week or so later I received a call from Stephen, we essentially picked up where I had left off with the first missionary. We discussed at length on the mind’s ability to create psychosomatic reactions to stimuli that are often attributed to god which easily explains why LDS doctrine teaches that if you study the Book of Mormon and pray asking God if it is true there will often be a sensation in the chest (often referred to as the Burning Bosom). This sensation is nearly universal when it comes to religion, it is very similar to what I have felt while in worship or prayer to my former deity – this feeling is a psychosomatic effect of my subconscious desire to worship or experience the truth of god, it falsely confirms that “my god” is “the god” for almost anyone that needs it to. Stephen had no trouble understanding my viewpoint, but for some reason was unable to grasp that this could just as easily be the effect of Buddhist chanting as it is of praying to the Christian god – especially his god.

I can easily understand Stephen’s issue here, I was once the very same way, in fact it was my own time spent considering psychosomatic effects in religious conversion  that assisted me in the painful destruction of my own god more than anything. Initially of course the Bible itself proved to be a study in contradictions, but the emotional aspects of my faith had to be more well explained and understood in order for me to fully reject their implied source. It seems to me that the best method by which we can encourage doubt among believers is less about disproving their theology, but more about proving the capabilities of their own mind…this was ultimately my goal in my discussion with Stephen.

Stephen consistently made it a point to ask me to pray that god would show me that what he said was true, I consistently made it a point to explain to him that I didn’t think that prayer was an appropriate method of discerning truth because it can be so incredibly temperamental.  I’ll never understand why an individual can know that other religions experience the same exact feelings of god yet somehow they think that their experience is somehow more genuine than that of others…I was unable to get him to accept this hard truth despite his concession that I was not incorrect about that.

After our last conversation he asked me if I was OK with the local missionaries stopping by one day, I let him know that I didn’t think it was necessary but that I was more than open to it.

The Visitors

About a week after my last conversation with Stephen the sister missionaries from the LDS church came by. They came about 7 o’clock at night because I had to work late that night and they actually were driven to my house by a new member of the local congregation. The two sister missionaries were very cordial, both 24 or younger and quite intelligent. The driver was 26 and had only been a member of the LDS church for 2 months.

I explained to them all about how I had gone from extreme Christian to Atheist and how difficult that time period was for me emotionally. One thing that impressed me the most is that they, along with Stephen seemed to really understand the emotion that I was trying to convey. They seemed to understand because they felt like it would be intensely difficult for them to go through as well. I also made a point to explain that although the initial deconversion process was incredibly painful and that it essentially felt as if everything I had ever known had been ripped away from me that the end result was worth it because I gained a sense of self and a joy in being me. I explained that although I felt happy as a believer, it couldn’t compare to the happiness I feel now as a result of realizing my own potential and living a life without god. (Back when I believed God got a lot more credit than he deserved.)

After we talked for a while I let them know that I had decided to ask the Atheist community of Reddit if they had any questions that they would like me to ask the missionaries and I was overwhelmed with the number of questions I actually got (See them all here). I only got to read through the multitude of questions about an hour prior to their coming to the house so I didn’t get to really dive deep into these, plus the missionaries were running close to their very strict curfew.

Former Missionary:

One of the top rated responses from reddit was from Kadjar:

I was a missionary at that training center in Provo. I was one of the guys on the other end of that conversation.

I’m now an atheist, and I’d be happy to give you any advice or answer any questions you might have before they come.

I read this directly to the missionaries and they seemed perplexed and saddened by it, but offered no other comment. I am incredibly glad for Kadjar though, that he/she was able to reject god despite being so bound to him.

Genetics, DNA, Israel connection

Another popular question came from disturbd:

Ask them if they understand genetics and how do they feel about the recent debunking of the Mormon belief that native Americans are descended from a tribe of Israel.

Also, ask them why God would give humans and chimps such similar DNA sequences, noting that human chromosome 2 appears to be the result of the fusion of the great ape chromosomes 12 and 13, complete with identical insertion points for ERVS in both sub-telomeric regions. Don’t forget to remind them that numerous experiments have shown that ERV insertion points are random, and that the chances of the 16 ERV insertion point “coincidences” we find in humans/chimp DNA are about 1 in 2.057 x 10^138. In other words, damn near impossible.

References:

Unfortunately the missionaries refused the pages of evidence I offered to provide them on this, and since I am far from a geneticist I was unable to explain any further than the way the asker posed it. I do know that there is a group funded by the LDS church that claims to perform archaeological research in order to prove the claims made in the Book of Mormon. On that note, I could give this group no more credence than I could the Creation Museum or Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. Pseudo-science that attempts to prove one point of view is not science at all.

Mountain Meadows Massacre

One point of contention that I was unaware of was an event called the Mountain Meadows Massacre, this was pointed out by multiple redditors. My research shows a few conflicting views but from what I gather it seems that at one point  in September of 1857 in the Utah territory a militia group with ties to the LDS church and church elders massacred over 120 men, women, and children.

One of the sister missionaries had heard of this and said that all of the elders that were connected to this event were removed from their positions, excommunicated from the church, and many of them were imprisoned. The church has also officially stated that this event should never have occurred. This answer satisfies me, though it doesn’t bring back any lives, recognition of wrongs is something we have been begging the Catholic church to do for hundreds of years.

Conclusion

There were a few other subjects brought up by my fellow redditors but we ran out of time before we could cover them. Some of the other things I did mention the sisters had never heard of (nor had I) but regardless of that they refused to take the pages I printed out for further research if they were interested. This is really where the crux of this post lies: If you are a seeker for truth, whatever that may be, then I believe that regardless of your position or situation you owe it to yourself, your family, and to your “god” to dig deeply for it. It is inconceivable to me that any person of faith would reject pages of information simply because it may take their focus off of god or their mission. I should add, however, that the young convert that drove the two missionaries to my home did seem very interested in the things I was saying and was very eager to take the paperwork I had prepared. She said that she would definitely look through it and I hope that she did.

While the missionaries at the MTA and during their missions they were essentially not allowed to be involved with any sort of study that might be deemed secular. This is, above all things, my major gripe with the LDS church, missionaries are told not to use the internet for personal reasons, they are told that everything they do should be for the Kingdom during this time on mission. These instructions are ones that I find incredibly convenient when a young missionary may be confronted with reasonable doubt while talking to a prospect and be challenged to find resources, the systematic cut off from information that could be detrimental to one’s faith shows me that there is a possible lack of confidence in the gospel being presented and a fear that certain information may inspire doubt in the missionary – the seed of doubt that I attempt to plant may grow into a greater thing if only it is watered with a bit of research and critical thinking.

The only other major gripe I have with the LDS church is that it, along with many other organized Christian organizations has funneled millions upon millions of dollars into campaigns against gay marriage in both California and Maine through Political Action Committee. The LDS and Catholic church are almost solely responsible for both of these states rejecting propositions to allow for homosexuals to freely marry (and adopt). You see, I have always had a lot of respect for my LDS friends. They have always been among the nicest and most knowledgeable people I have known. I always chalked this kindness up to understanding what it was like to be persecuted and being told that they were going to hell. The LDS church and it’s members have experienced the struggle of being a minority and having their rights challenged left in right, to go out and actively campaign against another minority in their struggle for rights is disturbing, among other things.

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written by
Matt is a former Christian who, through facing his own doubts found a life without faith. Now atheist he dedicates his life to helping people transition through stages of belief via private counseling. Matt is currently working on his first book - Embracing Doubt, and contributing to the dialogue between atheists, Christians, and skeptics.
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  • http://www.baedonwebz.com Henry Kessler

    It seems to be hard to ask Missionaries questions about the church. Usually they just want to give you the scripted lessons and when you do have questions, they sometimes are left dumbfounded in trying to answer. In my experience with the young men and women sent out by the LDS church, I have been able to have some deep discussion with them only when the Mission President or the local Bishop was present and they were the ones that would answer, when they could.

    Rev, you handled your conversations with these young people very well. I would like to see more if you have follow up materials.

  • Matt

    @Henry

    The purpose behind going into a brutal training regimen for months before going into the mission field is to provide all the scripted answers possible. I too have noticed that the younger folks are barely able to answer questions that I might have which is why i usually just leave those things alone. Through my deconversion process I realized that while I was a Christian I would perhaps listen to reasonable talk, but I wouldn’t allow myself to consider it…I find it more important now to appeal to that innate sense in everyone to attempt to find unadulterated truth and perhaps THAT will be the thing that allows them to break down the barriers created by their sincerest devotions.

    I could easily have attacked Joseph Smith or the church’s past history, but none of those things will make a difference in the light of their own experiences with what they think is god…that experience , for most, transcends logic and confirms their faith in light of all the problems with it.

  • http://atheists-and-christians.blogspot.com/ Mike aka MonolithTMA

    There was a 2006 movie about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, called September Dawn. I never saw it, but I just added it to my Netflix queue.

    As I understand it, LDS and Jehova’s Witnesses door to door missionaries are not allowed to accept literature from those they visit. Some of my Christian friends used to answer the door with tracts in hand, soon the missionaries would skip their house.

    Great post, Matt

  • http://monototo.wordpress.com monototo

    Good work fellow r/atheist.

    I’ve had similar interactions with Jehovah’s Witnesses in my neck of the woods and have been left equally impressed with the respect and positive demeanour that they bring to the conversation. I once considered myself a competent and kind christian, but I was nowhere near as respectful as they are. Perhaps it’s something they’ve had to adapt to get any results going door-to-door.

    Incase you didn’t see it, this submission presents an outline of what ERVs are about: http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/a8lgy/i_think_this_type_of_thing_is_the_best_evidence/

    And this video is also relevant to your discussion about human/chimp chromosome fusing

  • BenM

    Hi,
    I felt as a former Mormon missionary and currently active member I’d like to point out that the missionaries aren’t likely to be in a position to answer questions on DNA as they won’t have received any specialized training on it. That never stopped me though…

    To address the DNA issues you’ve raised your second reference contains the following quote which were some of my initial thoughts on this matter when I became aware of it:

    “The conclusions of these investigators may be meaningless. If God gave the Lamanites dark skin in such a way that they would pass the skin color on to their descendents, then God would have had to change the DNA of — as a minimum — all of the sperm and ova produced by the male and female Lamanites. Fortunately, for a God who is omnipotent, this would not be a difficult task. However, the change in the DNA might well eliminate all signs of Jewish DNA markers as an unexpected byproduct. So, if the Book of Mormon is true, then there is no real reason to expect to see traces of Jewish DNA among modern-day Native Americans.”

    I’ve come across more nuanced responses from LDS apologetics though, I’ve found the following to be a good starting point on the (unofficial) Mormon POV : http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/DNA.shtml

  • Disturbd

    In reply to BenM:

    That would be an interesting explanation is not for one subtle fact. The DNA tested to determine ancestry is not only the DNA that produces our physical traits.

    If you know anything about cell biology, you no doubt have heard of tiny organelles in each of our cells called Mitochondria. These organelles are very interesting. Not only do they supply our cells energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), but they also have their own DNA. That is, their DNA is their own and independent of the DNA that shapes you and I. They do not replicate and divide at the same time as our cells, their DNA does not depend or recombine with our DNA. These mitochondria are essentially separate organisms that reside in our cells as a form of symbiosis.

    When humans reproduce and the sperm cell meets the egg, the mitochondria found in the sperm is marked with ubiquitin and is destroyed in the embryo. This means that by examining mitochondrial DNA, we can determine a distinct maternal lineage, since all mitochondria are passed from mother to child.

    So, while you may accept the explanation that the DNA evidence was accidentally erased as a by-product of God’s genetic engineering to mark the Laminites, that idea is quite irrelevant. Since skin color is determined by genes in our 23 pairs of chromosomes, altering them would have zero, no effect on the mitochondrial DNA that was also tested in determining the ancestry of Native Americans.

    Perhaps your god is a jokester? Or perhaps the story was a poor fabrication by a convicted fraud with no knowledge of DNA (DNA wasn’t isolated until 25 years after his death, and it wasn’t even known to be the basis of heredity until nearly 100 years later). If there is a god, I can’t see him giving us the intellect to examine the world around us and purposely gaming the evidence just to mess with us. I think the latter scenario is far more likely. Ockham agrees.

  • anonLDS

    Fwiw, I’ m an active member of the LDS church, as is my whole family, including my wife. I’ve been on a mission. I like the church in my life and it helps me be a better person. I’m well aware that metaphysical claims can’t be proven. I’ve been skeptical of pretty much everything since I was a little kid. I mean when my mom told me Santa wasn’t real, I asked her point blank about whether God was pretend too. I wasn’t satisfied with her answer then, and I’m not convinced now whether God exists. I’ve had what can certainly be called spiritual experiences and I choose to believe in God, not because I can prove it or disprove it, but because believing in God works for me.

    As for the truth of the LDS church, look into the “Book of Abraham”. Joseph Smith bought a mummy which had an illustrated scroll with it. He claimed the scroll was a lost book of scripture about Abraham and the creation. Modern Egyptologists have shown his translation to be completely incorrect and that the pictures reproduced in every LDS set of scriptures are from the Egyptian “Book of Breathings” which deals with the underworld and Egyptian gods. Therefore, Joseph Smith’s claim as a translator of ancient records in one instance has been proven false, drawing into question his claims about the Book of Mormon and speaking face to face with God. see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Abraham

  • BenM

    In response to Disturbd thanks for the info. As I noted in my original response that was my initial response rather than a settled acceptance. Wikipedia has some additional information on this topic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetics_and_the_Book_of_Mormon#Response_to_the_genetic_challenge_from_Book_of_Mormon_defenders

    For balance you could look at http://www.irr.org/MIT/southerton-response.html where the original author of the book that stirred up this controversy responds to some of the apologetics explanations.

    In terms of Faith I have a few core beliefs that are solid. Items such as which possible solution to the Book of Mormon DNA issue are not matters of Faith but of interest and such ancillary information may be faith promoting but is loosely held.

  • Dream Dr.

    Dream Dr. here: “Pardon me….Pardon me please?”
    “Pardon me please…? Did anyone think of all the irony involved here? An atheist meets with what I’d categorize false church members!” Here we go. We have an amiable atheist sitting down at the table with good natured well meaning people who happen to belong to a church which I’d never attend! Can any creative thing come of this?

    On first thought I’d have to say, “I don’t think so!” Gee..Here”s a guy who says, “there is no GOD,” speaking to miss-
    missionaries – who in my opinion; worship the false god… “Oops ! There it goes. I have said it now !” I am really in for it, aren’t I ? “Folks? This is the way its become here in our land. We have become so polarized to where we hardly have any free speech left.”

    I hope that these two party’s do not become enraged at me. I hope none of us begin foamiing at the mouth! Will you comment back and let your thoughts be made known? We need to relate. Understand the gravity of a thing. Instead of people allowing themselves to become ever increasingly more and more polarized; arise now, take hold of your abillity, and defeat the destruction of creativity in freedom of speaking out to one another. How can people form self opinions and remain individualistic if relating to one another becomes a thing of the past? Stay away from the Dark Age mentality.

    “The great enemy of Truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest; but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” – John F. Kennedy………

    One more important thing. Remember.. Its not just about people opening their mouths, “Listen! We must allow our ears to hear….” Is there no know? “What’s your ideologue? Or, do you even have one?”

    Yours truly, The ‘Dream Dr.’

  • Guy Vestal

    Epilogue.

    So now you are reduced to banter with religious cults that are on a “spiritual even par” with Atheists?

    Is that desperation I smell? Or just another chapter of the “Yahoo Answers Troll Handbook” being applied? LOL

    • Matt

      I don’t think I’m the one trolling here Guy, I’m simply having discussions with people…and I think that it was done in a respectful tone.

  • http://www.roguesun.com Raymond

    A woman once told me that she'd commit suicide if Jesus didn't exist because there would be nothing left to live for. I thought about that from time to time after becoming a Christian and came to the conclusion that if the whole thing went pear-shaped I would live for myself.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/RevOxley RevOxley

      I nearly did during my own de-conversion. It was rather traumatic.

      She couldn't be more wrong though.

  • Morgan

    I found your post very respectful, Matt, and I’m appreciative of that. I myself am a Protestant and have thought about how I would react if there were no god. Simply put, I’d be afraid to go out and actually live life. Whenever I’m scared, I pray to God and when things turn out ok, I give him the credit. He’s my body guard, my security net, etc. Knowing no one was there to look out for me would absolutely devastate me. Because of this, and because I’m actually pretty scared of deciding Jesus has no divine connection to God and then ending up going to hell, I try to not let that thought cross my mind. It’s just something I don’t want to think about. But to me, God is real, though I don’t exactly view him as the Bible does.

    Since I’ve decided not to consider that there is no god, I’ve decided to try to figure out exactly who God is. That sensation you were talking about in the chest with the missionary makes sense, because I’ve recently stopped while worshipping and realized that the feeling I got came from my imagination, which is still such a curious idea to me. So then I realized that God isn’t interactive in certain ways as a lot of people think. And even if it were to come from God at times (I’m not saying it never does, you see), it would make sense for a Buddhist or Hindu or some other religous follower to experience it too, because in my opinion, we all worship the same exact God; We just worship different forms of him. He’s more like a huge ball of creative energy that controls so many things, and is nothing like humans at all, except for the fact that he, like our souls, never dies.

    As for the Bible having contridictions, I have two ways of thinking about it. First of all, the Bible when it was originally written may have been the true word of God, but I find that there are a lot of translation mistakes, like the “put the witches to death” thing. I also know an Israeli Jew that once told me about a whole chapter in the Old Testament that addresses the issue of self defense and suicide, and I can’t find the darn chapter! It’s not in the English Bible! The second way I think of it is that God is litterally everything, the whole, the right and the wrong that is unaldurtered in a way that does not distinguish right from wrong. Only when humanity screwed up this system did he start setting down rules that we could comprehend. Maybe we can’t properly see how something done is right, but it doesn’t particularly matter, since it’s all part of the whole. Although, I am relatively new to this idea and haven’t really mulled it over enough. I’ve just been reading Chuangtse a lot lately, and I really like his ideas :)

    And also, I found out about this site on your facebook, and also saw a comment you put on one of my friend’s statuses about maybe having a secular Bible study. If that Bible study is as respectful as this blog entry, I would definitely want to attend. It would be nice to go to one that is solely about learning the facts and now about how to interpret them.

  • joe

    Truth have it, one can not discover the meaning/purpose of life with intellect alone. If it were possible, it would have been done so already with countless people/philosophers/scientists who have already lived and died. Without God, one is left to live by the cliche "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die", and cease to exist, and be swallowed into an oblivion of nothingness. As for me I can't accept that philosophy.

  • joe

    I feel that I was meant to learn, through study, experience and faith to become greater today than I was yesterday. I believe that this endeavor does not cease at death. The spirit within us lives on. How do we know what the purpose of life is? Faith. God grants the knowledge to specific individuals at designated times to declare unequivocably "I know, because I have seen." There have been people who have documented their near-death or return-from-death experiences. But more importantly God has granted certain individuals to gaze into the heavens, and to talk with Him face to face. These individuals are prophets like Adam, Elijah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Nephi, Jacob and Joseph Smith, who give scriptural accounts of these experiences. This KNOWLEDGE isn't necessary for everyone. God doesn't use a floodlight, when only a flashlight is needed.

  • joe

    How do we know that God exists? Because He speaks to our spirits (not to be confused with emotional sensationalism, or psychosomatics). Our spirits existed with Him before we came to earth. Truth resonates with our spirit, and it brings light and peace of mind. Always questioning will never bring enlightenment, but only more confusion and doubts concerning anything and everything. Asking the right questions with a teachable spirit will take us further than anything else. God has given us the way to know, through study, prayer, experience, and FAITH. This is the test. One which I'm afraid many are failing right now. He speaks to our spirit if we allow Him. I know this to be true.

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