Saturday, February 26, 2011

Do Mormons Believe in Faith-Healings?

Even during my most faithful days, I always had a hard time believe that priesthood blessings could really heal the sick. In the blessings I remember giving to sick people, I would usually say something like, "You should seek the counsel of your medical doctors, and as you continue to be faithful, and trust in the Lord, taking care of your body, you may be healed if it be God's will." Notice all the hedging and qualifiers that I (and others I've heard give similar blessings) am listing: they need to see a doctor, they need to take care of their body, they need to have faith, and it needs to be God's will. If the person is not healed, then it was probably because of one of those things, not because the priesthood blessing didn't work.

I remember hearing stories of Jesus healing lepers and epileptics (people possessed with demons), or reading about Joseph Smith healing malaria afflicted Nauvoo saints. I remember being skeptical of these stories, just like I was skeptical of the anecdotal testimony-builder stories I heard over the years. I also remember reading stories about Joseph Smith trying unsuccessfully to heal fellow Zions Camp members who were sick with cholera (fourteen of which later died). Why could Joseph (apparently) heal malaria, but not cholera?

It seemed that Mormons today also know that Priesthood blessings don't really work; at least that's the way they act. Why else do LDS men usually only give blessings to people suffering bothersome cold and flu symptoms, or other minor illnesses that normally resolve on their own? Why wait a few days into the illness to give blessings - right at about the time the illness starts to resolve anyway? David Hume wrote about this sort of miracle, stating that "Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature." Minor illnesses naturally resolve because our immune system has evolved to eradicate them, not because a miracle has happened.

However, when illnesses are serious (cancer, heart-attack, stroke, chopped off limb, etc) Mormons get to the hospital fast, just like anybody else. We trust modern medicine and all the science and technology behind it to heal us - not magic priesthood blessings. Again, Mormons act like they don't really think priesthood blessings can heal people. Otherwise, we'd admister priesthood blessings first, and rush to the hospital second.

Also, people will pay attention to the times when their illness gets better, and chalk it up to God's healing power. However, they will quietly forget about all the other times when prayers and priesthood blessings didn't work. This is a common blind spot of human psychology called confirmation bias. Also, if prayers and priesthood blessings aren't answered, we can always blame it on our lack of faith, or perhaps it wasn't God's will that we should be healed. Maybe God is just trying to test our faith?

However, faith healing has been shown to be ineffectual time after time in carefully controlled studies of the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. It just doesn't work - even though people like to think that it does.

Even if you believe in God, I think it's pretty arrogant to think you can control God's actions by performing simple human rituals. Why do we think God will intervene for us, but not all the kids dying of malaria and AIDS in Africa? Why do we think it's fair for God to stop the course of nature for us, but not for others? Because we happen to put  olive oil on someone and say a prayer with out hands on their head!?

Deep down, I don't think a lot of Mormons really believe priesthood blessings work either. I'm not sure I did, even though I professed to. Again, our beliefs are revealed by our actions. If we really believed in faith-healing, then we'd act like those Christian Scientists, Jehovah Witnesses, Scientologists, and Amish, who eschew modern medicine, and put their complete faith in God when they get sick. They are the true believers (despite the fact that they sometimes let their children die of easily manageable diseases).

I'll end on a very personal note: My wife's sister died 9 years ago of cancer. She had a young baby and new husband at the time. They were in the prime of their young lives when a rare form of cancer was diagnosed. My wife's family, and just about every Mormon who knew them, were praying for her complete recovery. Specific priesthood blessings had been given to her that stated she would be healed.

She wasn't. She died despite all the prayers, the fasting, the blessings, and modern medicine. It was surely a blow to everyone to lose her. I struggled for a long time wondering why God didn't heal her. We had faith. She was righteous and faithful. She had priesthood blessings given to her promising her recovery. She had access to the best modern medicine had to offer. People were praying for her. And yet, the desired result wasn't achieved. The only other excuse left was that it was God's will that she be healed. I hated hearing people, usually her own family, say that. I thought it was made no sense. Why would God need her more than her own child? Why WOULDN'T it be God's will?

I came to the conclusion that God just wasn't as involved with our lives as I had previously thought. It was my first move away from a personal God who was aware of us, and who intervened in our lives - towards a God who let nature take its course, despite our efforts to control Him. This was the God of the Deists, who, although more consistent with nature than the interventional God of monotheism, was just not that satisfying to worship. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Excuses Mormons Give For Polygamy

In my third and final installment about polygamy (my polygamy trilogy), I want to challenge the usual answers people give when asked to make sense of polygamy.

1. It was part of the "restitution of all things." In other words, it was part of the restoration of the gospel. However, polygamy, as practiced in the Old Testament, was never a religious commandment, nor was salvation ever affixed to the practice of polygamy. It was simply a social practice of Middle Eastern cultures at the time - limited in scope to rich and powerful men who could afford to care for multiple women and their children. Levirate marriage, as outlined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, was to allow men to care for their deceased brothers wife and children. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball did marry some of Joseph's wives after his death, but Joseph had married them first while they were either young single women, or else young women married to another man. Joseph never married the widows of his brothers.

2. The most cited explanation for polygamy is found in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 2:30) where God says "For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people. . ." So, the justification is to have more righteous people. However, according to a new study just published, Mormon polygamy actually decreased the number of children born to women, rather than increased it. This is consistent with studies of other polygamous societies; polygamous females have less offspring than monogamous females. It's only the male polygamist who increases their genetic offspring (or evolutionary fitness) in polygamous societies.

Faced with such facts, LDS apologists are sometimes quick to explain that the Book of Mormon verse refers not to the quantity of seed, but rather the quality of it. Polygamist children, it is claimed, were somehow more faithful or righteous than their monogamist cohort. First of all, there is no evidence to this claim. Second, to me, this sounds like eugenics. Eugenics was a movement started in the late 19th century by Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, (sometimes called social Darwinism) based on the misunderstanding of Darwin's theory of natural selection. None of the eugenics movements turned out well for the master races involved; and its implementation usually led to nationalism, racism, imperialism, or fascism.

3. Another popular justification is that polygamy was instituted to take care of all the Mormon widows and immigrants in Utah, who couldn't find a husband otherwise. This explanation, however, doesn't explain why Joseph Smith started the practice of polygamy in the 1830's long before the saints migrated to Utah. It also doesn't explain why he married so many young girls, single women, or women who were already married. Also, if you examine Utah population demographics from 1850-1900, it was actually the men who consistently outnumbered the women. Mormon polygamists were not marrying financially bereft widows; they were marrying young girls. The average age of a second wife was 17, and the average age of the third wife was 19.

4. Finally, when all justifications are used up, one final-gasp excuse for polygamy is that it was a "trial of faith" that brought increased testimony to those who practiced it. Sure - make any person sacrifice something to join (or remain in) some group, and they will like that group more strongly than a person who doesn't make a similar sacrifice.  It doesn't matter what the group is, or what they sacrifice for it - they will like it more.  This is true of any group, from college fraternities to UFO cults.  However, it should be obvious that this is a strange phenomenon of human psychology; not evidence that the sacrifice was justified.

This phenomenon has been shown in study after study. One of the first observations of this phenomenon was published by social psychologist Leon Festinger in his classic book "When Prophecy Fails."  Festinger had infiltrated a UFO cult that believed the world would be destroyed by a flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. They also believed their group would be rescued at midnight by an alien spaceship from the planet Clarion. How did they know this? Because their leader, a suburban housewife named Dorothy Martin, claimed to have received instruction from aliens on planet Clarion, and had written them down via "automatic writing."

So, on the appointed night of world-wide destruction, most of the cult met at Martin's home and waited for the aliens to rescue them at midnight. When the alien did not arrive at the appointed minute, they sat in stunned silence and began to feel nervous. By 2 A.M. they began to panic. But at 4:45 A.M., Mrs. Martin (conveniently) received a new revelation: The world had been spared because of the group's faith, and they were to go and tell others about the amazing miracle that had just occurred! (Interestingly, Dorothy Martin's husband was skeptical of his wife's prophecies, went to bed early, and reportedly slept well.)

Festinger predicted that UFO cult members who had sacrificed the most for the cult (some had given away all their possessions, quit their jobs, and left their families) would increase their belief in the cult, and would try even harder to convert others. This is exactly what happend. Those members who were with Martin went out and redoubled their efforts to convert others, and felt even more convinced than before of the truthfulness of their prophetesses abilities. However, Festinger also predicted that the cult members who sacrificed little for the cult (those who had stayed home on the evening of December 20th, and hoped the world wouldn't end as prophesied), would quietly lose their faith. And the majority of them did - quietly distancing themselves from the UFO cult since Martin's prophecy obviously failed.

Those who sacrificed the most needed to justify the great sacrifices they had made. Those who sacrificed very little didn't have as much sunken costs into the group, didn't feel as duped, and therefore they didn't need to rationalize the cult's beliefs as much. This is why successful groups (whether religions or cults or fraternities) ask their members to make large sacrifices to join, or remain in good standing. And Mormons are asked to make a lot of sacrifices: giving up coffee, tea, smoking, or alcohol, serving volunteer church missions, giving at least 10% of their income to the Church, taking busy Church callings (more like part-time jobs), wearing special temple garments, and sacrificing their individuality and conforming to what the group expects of them.

The claim that polygamy increased the faith of its followers, is undoubtedly true. But it's also true that giving away your possessions in order to join a UFO cult increases your faith in UFO cults. This, however, doesn't justify a mistaken belief in alien spaceships and UFO cult prophecy. Similarly, even if practicing polygamy increased the faith of early Church members, this doesn't mean that Joseph's revelation on polygamy was valid.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Implications of Polygamy

In my last post, I listed some of the troubling facts about the LDS practice of polygamy/polygyny. Some very smart people, such as faithful historian Richard Bushman, can know all there is to know about polygamy, but somehow the facts seem to bounce of them like birdseed. To them, the facts seem to have no implication regarding the veracity of Joseph's religious claims. When this happens, I think there is a strong desire on the part of the believer to continue believing in the validity of the Church, despite the facts that contradict its claims. This fideistic approach to Joseph Smith (belief in something despite, or in spite of, contrary evidence) is a common LDS approach to many of its illogical truth claims, such as polygamy.

Prior to leaving the Church, I devoted a lot of time to studying the history of Joseph Smith, because everything rises and falls with him. If he was a charlatan, then the Church (despite its more wholesome modern image) is not what it claims to be: the only true and salvific church on the earth today. If Joseph is a false prophet, then the scriptures he claimed to translate, the revelations and Priesthood he claims to have received, and the Church he claimed to restore, are only fabrications of his rich imagination.

And nothing belies the claims of Joseph and the modern Church, more than polygamy. This is why the Church today is so hesitant to tell the full story of Joseph Smith. When Boyd Packer said "Some things that are true are not very useful," he may have been referring to polygamy.

First, what troubled me the most was the deception involved with the practice of polygamy from its very beginning, until its bitter end.  Joseph repeatedly lied to his own wife Emma about his extramarrital affairs. He also lied to the women he seduced, claiming that God told him to marry them,  that they would gain salvation if they consented, and that consequences would befall them if they did not. He lied to the Church, repeatedly claiming (especially when rumors of polygamy circulated) that he only had one wife. He lied to the general public and repressed information that might destroy his power base, even if this meant excommunicating close friends, or destroying the evidence - as in the case of the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor when it was going to expose him.

About the only thing that makes the post-1852 Utah polygamy era tolerable, is that men were at least publicly open about it, and they took care of their wives financially. However, Joseph never cohabited with his wives and did not provide them with any financial support. This is one reason why he may have married so many women who were already married to other males. Any pregnancy that resulted could be attributed to the women's current husband (cuckoldry). Joseph sacrificed nothing, but gained sexual access to multiple women in return, while the women usually had to sacrifice much more, and gained very little.

The upshot of all this deception by Joseph Smith is this: if he is willing to lie to his wife, the Church, and the public in order to have multiple sexual partners, then what does that say about his honesty (not to mention his sexual libido and need for power)? What does it say about his truth claims that we have no way to verify, other than taking him at his word (such as the First Vision, translation of the Gold Plates, receiving revelation, and visitations by angels)? To me, it means he is unreliable and untrustworthy. Combine Joseph's penchant for deception with the impossibility of the claims themselves, and the most probable conclusion is that he made it all up.  There are obvious reasons why he would make up such claims - such as increased power, prestige, fame, sexual access to women, and money - all things that humans naturally seek for, and are willing to deceive others in order to obtain.

And the deception did not stop with Joseph; the Utah-based Church continued to lie about polygamy while trying to obtain statehood, even after the 1890 Manifesto. Mormons believed polygamy was essential for salvation and viewed lying to Government authorities (even while under oath, as during the Smoot Hearings) as a lesser evil than disobeying a commandment of God.

And finally, you have the modern Church, which obfuscates the issue of polygamy today. When I learned about polygamy, in all it's detail, from modern historians, I was shocked. That is usually the reaction of people when they learn about the troubling facts of polygamy. We're shocked because it's at odds with the faithful version of Church history we are taught. It's no wonder we feel deceived and duped, not just by Joseph Smith, but even by the Church today. The modern Church's obfuscation and deception was one of the bitterest pills for me to swallow.

In addition to the ubiquitous deception of polygamy, there is the inherent immorality of it. Polygamy is  at odds with just about any measuring stick of morality. Even the Book of Mormon prohibits polygamy, calling its practice "abominable." But perhaps Joseph, while writing the Book of Mormon, was thinking of a possible loophole to Old Testament style polygamy, since he was careful to add that polygamy was wrong unless God wanted to "raise up seed unto me" (Jacob 2:30). This idea dovetails perfectly with what Joseph told Nancy Rigdon, after she rebuffed his offer of marriage: "that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another." This is pure postmodernism and self-justification at its most ridiculous.

One of the best moral yardstick we have is Kant's categorical imperative, which states that we should "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." So, if a man is wondering whether polygamy is moral, he should ask himself if he would like for polygamy to "become a universal law" - or, in other words, flip things around and allow himself by be one of many plural husbands to a single wife?  I guarantee that men, especially the ones who practiced polygamy, wouldn't go for this arrangement.

The other great moral yardstick is the Golden Rule, which, when applied to polygamy, gives you the same results as when you apply Kant's categorical imperative: it's immoral since nobody would choose to be subject to polygamy's abuses.  Jealously among the the multiple wives was commonplace.  Also common was spousal neglect and loneliness - especially when the first wife became older, and younger wives were added to the harem. Daughters raised in polygamist communities have few prospects other than being married (at a very young age) to an older man in an arranged marriage. The daughters of polygamists have very little say in the matter, and are innocent victims. Also, since males and females are born in a 1:1 female to male ratio, there will always be a surplus of young men who are unable to find a wife. These boys are usually kicked out of the group for some minor trumped-up infraction. They are then known as "Lost boys" and have a very bleak future after being cast out of their tribe into a world they are ill-prepared to deal with. Therefore, polygamy is good for no one, except perhaps the dominant male who increases his ability to propagate his own genes - an incredibly strong driving force in human behavior.

As an illustration of how polygyny is a manifestation of male dominance, consider other animals who practice it: among polygynous animals, average harem size increases with the ratio of the male's body size to the female's body size.  So, the biggest harems belong to species where the male is much larger (and hence more dominant) than the female. For example, males and females are the same size among gibbon apes and penguins, which are monogamous; male gorillas, which are usually twice the size of females, have harems of 3 to 6 females; but the male southern elephant seals, which weighs 3 tons and dwarf it's 700 pound wife, have harems that average 48-wives. The reason males are larger than females is due to male-to-male competition for exclusive sexual access to females; bigger males are able to win the fierce male competition for exclusive access to females.  Similarly, in the LDS Church, men higher-up the male hierarchy (and there is male competition in ascending the Mormon-power-pyramid) had more wives than less powerful men. For example the average Mormon polygamist only had 2 or maybe 3 wives. More powerful LDS leaders had significantly more wives: Joseph had 33 wives, Heber C Kimball had 48 wives, and Brigham Young had 55 wives.

In conclusion, LDS polygamy is a sad chapter in LDS history that has implications. Those implications are that if Joseph was willing to deceive others about polygamy, then he is not a trustworthy witness of his other claims. Also, polygamy is inherently immoral, failing both Kant's categorical imperative and the Golden Rule. Why would God use such a deceitful and immoral prophet? Polygamy is more accurate as a measure of male dominance in society, than as a means for salvation, as originally taught. For all of Joseph's virtues (and he had many), polygamy strips his veneer of virtue away, and reveals the charlatan that he actually was.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Troubling Facts About Polygamy

Polygamy was THE THING that finally made me realize that Joseph Smith, and the Church (since it rises and falls with him) were not what they claimed to be.  Here are some of the troubling facts that convinced me why: (Note: despite the current Church's obfuscation, these fact are all available from official LDS sources).

1. According to Mormon historian Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith had between 28 and 33 wives.  Other historians put the number at 46 (D. Michael Quinn), 33 (Todd Compton), 48 (Fawn Brodie), and 24 (LDS Family Search website). Smith never cohabited with any of his wives (due to the need for secrecy) but, according to Bushman, “nothing indicates that sexual relations were left out.” Todd Compton agrees, saying "in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations." Where do you think Brigham Young, who had 56 children from 16 wives, got the idea from?

2. According to Compton, 11 of Joseph’s plural wives were under the age of 20 (Bushman cites 10 "wives"). His youngest wife was only 14-years-old. Of Joseph’s 33 well documented wives, only 3 were significantly older than Smith.

3. Eleven of Joseph's plural wives were already married to other men (polyandry). He was also married to 4 sister pairs of wives (Huntington, Partridge, Johnson, Lawrence), and a mother-daughter pair (Sessions). Interestingly - at least to me - I am related to the Huntington sisters; my mother is a descendent of their diarist brother Oliver.

4. Joseph began to experiment with polygamy in the 1830's; taking 2 wives that decade. In 1841, Joseph added another three wives. In 1842, quickening his pace, he added 11 wives. In 1843, safe and secure as the most powerful man in theocratic Nauvoo, Joseph added 17 more wives.

5. A number of Smith’s wives were dependent orphans or young women employed and living with Emma and Joseph, including a very pretty sixteen-year-old Fanny Alger, who was living with the Smiths in Kirtland, and became Joseph’s first “plural wife” in 1833.

6. Joseph would usually coerce his potential brides into marrying him, saying that he had received a revelation that they were supposed to be married, and that such relationships would ensure both hers, and her families, salvation. This offer of salvation usually was time-sensitive, and would expire if the girl or woman did not consent within a certain time - usually only 24 hrs. Joseph told Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Heber C. Kimball, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.” Helen  had only 24 hours to decide; a lot for a 14 year old to swallow.

7. Polygamy caused marital problems between Joseph and Emma (for obvious reasons). Since Emma was not OK with Joseph’s sexual indiscretions, he lied to her about his multiple wives.  Joseph also lied repeatedly to the general public and Church members about his extramarital affairs. Only his secret inner circle was privy to polygamy. Joseph's need for secrecy regarding polygamy was the main reason he destroyed the Nauvoo Expositor, the local Nauvoo newspaper, that was about to expose him.

8. After Joseph introduced the Temple endowment ceremony, Joseph refused to grant it to Emma until she let him take additional wives. Emma finally gave in to Joseph’s coercion, and allowed him marry Emily and Eliza Partridge. Unbeknownst to Emma, Joseph had already married them without Emma’s knowledge.

9. D&C 132 was the revelation given by God that commanded Joseph to practice polygamy. It also contained a warning that “if [Emma] will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed” (D&C 132:54). After Hyrum Smith asked Joseph to give him a copy of the revelation to give to Emma, in order to convince her of “the principle,” she took it, and promptly threw it in the fire.    However, Emma’s acceptance of polygamy was short-lived. Emma used her position as Relief Society president to oppose polygamy. Joseph retaliated by suspending the organization in March 1844. It was not reorganized until three decades later.

10. Oliver Cowdery had a falling out with Joseph Smith over the “dirty, nasty filthy affair of [Smith] and Fanny Alger’s adulterous affair.” On April 12, 1838, Cowdery was tried and excommunicated for “seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith, Jun., by falsely insinuating that he was guilty of adultery.” What do you call it when a married man has sex with another women, to whom he is not legally married?

11. Joseph may have gotten his idea of “Celestial marriage” from reading about Old Testament patriarchs, or from contemporary religious communities who practiced it, such as Emanuel Swedenborg’s Oneida Community.  However, nowhere in the Old Testament is polygamy related to salvation, nor does the Old Testament state that rewards in heaven increase linearly with increasing numbers of offspring.

12. Nancy Rigdon, daughter of Sidney Rigdon, is one of the few women who rebuffed Joseph's marriage proposal. Smith wrote Nancy a letter, following her rejection of him, trying to persuade her, saying “happiness is the object and design of our existence. That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.”

13.  The murder of Joseph Smith in 1844 is intricately connected with Joseph’s practice of polygamy (a fact that is conveniently obfuscated by the modern LDS Church, who chalk it up to another false arrest or practicing his religion). William Law, who was Joseph’s Second Counselor in the First Presidency, and a well respected man of integrity, was deeply opposed to Joseph’s doctrine of polygamy. He confronted Joseph and the Nauvoo police to stop their physical intimidation of him, (with the Danites) and also asked Joseph to publicly renounce polygamy. Joseph refused, and instead excommunicated Law. William Law then started his own newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, which printed only one paper - before it was destroyed under Smith’s orders because it would “destroy the peace of the city” and foment a “mob spirit.” It would also threaten Joseph’s power and control in Nauvoo if the facts of his polygamy came out. Joseph then went to prison in Carthage to stand trial for the destruction of a Law’s printing press, and was subsequently murdered on June 27th, 1844.

14. The US government tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to stop Utah polygamy. Their first attempt was the Morril Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862 which prohibited bigamy and adultery. Mormons claimed that “celestial marriage” was neither bigamy or adultery, so the law was ineffective in Utah, where Mormon judges refused to enforce it anyway. However, the Poland Act of 1874 placed federal appointed judges in Utah to enforce the law.

15. Polygamy lost it’s day in court in 1879 when the LDS church asked George Reynolds, a polygamist with two wives and First Presidency secretary, to volunteer for the case. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Reynolds, in United States v. Reynolds, saying that while laws “can’t interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”

16. In open defiance of US law, polygamists were sent to Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and northern Mexico to practice "the principle." In 1882, Congress responded with the Edmunds Act that made “unlawful cohabitation” grounds for criminal prosecution.

17. Church President John Taylor, who went into hiding in southern Utah, claimed to receive a revelation from God, who said “I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so amen.” While in hidding, he married twenty-six year old Josephine Rouche in 1886.  I'm sure he was lonely. He was seventy-eight years old at the time.  He died in hiding about a year later.

18. The Church was officially dissolved by the US government in 1887 under the Edmunds-Tucker Act which seized all Church properties and funds. Finally, in 1890, and under enormous pressure from the Government, Wilford Woodruff announced the end of polygamy.

19. However, Woodruff’s manifesto did not disband existing polygamous marriages, nor did it stop new polygamous marriages from occurring. D. Michael Quinn, who had unfettered access to LDS records in the First Presidency vault until 1982, (when they cut him off) states that more than 250 polygamous marriages took place between 1890 and 1904 with authorization from the First Presidency. The semi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism admits to post-Manifesto marriages, but avoids admitting First Presidency sanction of them.

20. In a sensation trial that mesmerized the nation for four years (1903 - 1907), Reed Smoot, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and newly elected US Senator from Utah, underwent Congressional hearings prior to his seating in the US Senate. In 1904 Church President Joseph F. Smith was called to testify, in which he perjured himself by lying repeatedly under oath about his knowledge and participation of post-Manifesto polygamy. Smith undoubtedly knew about the nearly 250 post-Manifesto marriages that were being performed and approved by Apostles under his own direction. In the first three years of Joseph F. Smith’s presidency, from 1901-1904 (and just before Smoot's hearings) President Smith sent Apostles to Canada and Mexico to establish polygamous colonies outside US borders. The last post-Manifesto plural marriages known to, and authorized by, Joseph F. Smith took place in 1906 and 1907 - after he was found guilty of perjury during Smoot’s Congressional Hearings.

These facts about polygamy have implications (even though they largely speak for themselves). What these facts mean will be the topic of my next post.


Todd Compton, "In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith"

Richard Van Wagoner, "Polygamy: A History"

Fawn Brodie, "No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith"

Linda King Newell, Valeen Tippetts Avery, "Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith"

Richard Lyman Bushman, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling"

D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 1985): 9-105.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Women's Role in the Mormon Church

My decision to leave the LDS Church had little to do with the traditional gender roles espoused by it (other than the fact that I felt strongly that polygamy was inherently misogynist). However, the smaller the LDS Church becomes in my life’s rear-view mirror, the more noticeable its distorted image of women appears to me.

Here are some of the problems I see with women’s role in Mormonism. In other words, this is why I wouldn’t want my daughters to be a part of it:

1. A Male Dominated Hierarchy: 
Look at any leadership chart of the LDS hierarchy, and the thing that stands out is that it’s a hegemony of maleness; an all male club. The only leadership positions women have in the LDS hierarchy, are auxiliaries associated with women and children: The Relief Society, Primary, and the Young Woman's Program. And who chooses the women to serve on those auxiliary positions? Men, of course! The women leaders even have to get approval from their male chain of command when choosing their own counselors, and before making any important decisions.

Since women are not allowed to hold the Priesthood, they don't have prominent leadership positions; neither centrally in Salt Lake, or in local churches. Women can’t even serve as local ward secretaries, and are discouraged from holding positions in the Sunday School Presidency which oversees adult Sunday school instruction.

Even within the female Relief Society, women's independence has been curtailed by the male hierarchy. In 1970, the First Presidency issued a directive that ended the financial independence of the Relief Society. Too much energy was being devoted to fund-raising projects, so all financial assets were turned over to male priesthood quorums, “leaving the sisters free to perform their specially assigned tasks.”  The Relief Society was also told to stop printing its own magazine. Now, all adults would read the same official Church magazine: The Ensign. Even Relief Society lesson manuals would be provided to them by the Priesthood Correlation Committee.  It was basically a male organized shake-down of the only semi-independent female organization in the Church.

As late as 1946 women used to “be allowed” to give blessings to other women. That is, until Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote the Relief Society, saying it would be “far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the Elders of the Church to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.”

2. Subservient Gender Roles:
In 1995 the First Presidency issued the “Proclamation to the World” which says that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual pre-mortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Fathers are to “preside over their families in love and righteousness and are to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” The Relief Society was never consulted regarding the Proclamation. Women’s “sacred” and “divinely sanctioned” job description as homemaker, wife, and mother is also emphasized heavily in LDS lesson manuals produced by the Priesthood Correlation Committee. Under traditional LDS gender roles, men are to provide monetarily for their families (which entails obtaining an education and marketable employment skills), while women are encouraged to stay home and raise the kids. Since LDS couples marry so early, this often means that women must forfeit their own education and career, in lieu of their husband's. Without graduate degrees or marketable job skills, women are usually left financially dependent on their husbands, with few options if their marriage does not last into the eternities (as many don’t).

The Proclamation also states that within marriage, men and women are “obligated to help one another as equal partners.” However, one may question what this “equal” status means when considering how the LDS Church opposed the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment which would have guaranteed women equal rights in the US. In addition to Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, (states with a strong Mormon presence) southern Bible Belt states also opposed passage of the ERA Amendment, thereby killing the amendment. The Church even vilified and excommunicated Sonia Johnson, a part-time school teacher and mother, for her role in organizing Mormon support for passage of the ERA Amendment.

One of the newest manifestations of LDS gender roles is demonstrated in the Mormon Mommy Blogs, where underemployed but overworked Mormon moms blog about their picture-perfect-life as homemakers, trying to convince others about how happy they are in their stay-at-home mommy role. A hilarious spoof blog on the mommy blogs is called "Seriously So Blessed."

3. Patriarchal Doctrine and Practice:
Polygamy is, at its core, a destructive practice that demeans and objectifies women, yet the LDS Church taught that it was essential for salvation for nearly 60 years. However, the only other societies that currently practice polygamy are backwards Middle Eastern and African societies where women have few human rights, and are treated as little more than the property of their husbands. Polyandry is also the sexual norm in gorilla and chimpanzee animal societies, our closest genetic relatives. It’s also practiced by other non-primate animals where alpha-male contenders engage in competition for exclusive mating access to the females. This should give you some idea of the underlying motivations of the men - Mormon prophets from Joseph Smith to Heber J. Grant - who taught and practiced polygamy.

Once LDS polygamy was openly practiced in Utah, women and girls were doled out to high ranking LDS males as rewards for their faithfulness. During the 1856-57 Mormon Reformation - in which rates of polygamous marriages increased dramatically - Wilford Woodruff wrote fellow Apostle George A. Smith: “All are trying to get wives, until there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah, but what is married, or just going to be.” (Journal History, 1 April 1857)

However, polygamy is a LDS doctrine that hasn't been completely abandoned yet. In temple marriage women cannot be “sealed” for eternity to more than one man, whereas men can be sealed for eternity to multiple women. Why the double standard? Because Mormons still believe polygamy will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom. Therefore polygamy is still a doctrine of the Mormon Church, practiced in every temple today. I have a brother-in-law, who remarried in the temple after his first wife died, who plans on having two wives when they all reach the Celestial Kingdom together.

And marriage isn’t the only LDS temple practice where there is a double standard for men and women. During the LDS temple ceremony, women must raise their arm to the square and swear an oath of obedience to their husbands, while men only swear obedience to God.  This is a troubling practice, even for many active LDS women today.

What makes LDS patriarchy look so unenlightened, is the fact that our gender is determined by a single random act that occurs during conception. God has nothing to do with it, unless He is directing the swimming patterns of millions of flagellating sperm as they race blindly toward the female egg after ejaculation. If a sperm carrying the Y chromosome reaches the egg first, the embryo will develop into a male (XY). If a sperm carrying the X chromosome reaches the egg first, the embryo will become a female (XX). If gender existed in our pre-mortal existence, as Mormons believe, how does the randomness of human fertilization fit into pre mortal gender?

Part of the Y chromosome, called the Sex-determining Region Y, causes embryonic tissue that would normally become ovaries to become testes instead. The testes produce higher levels of testosterone in the developing fetus, which subsequently leads to the development of male sexual characteristics. However, if these hormones are not produced, or if the male lacks testosterone receptors (a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), the child will appear and behave like a normal female, even though, genetically, she’s a male (XY). Female development is therefore the default sex in humans, unless testosterone derails embryonic development towards male development.

And in the ultimate irony, there exists in every male, even the most chauvinistic and patriarchal among them, homologous sexual structures just like those in females. All males have an undeveloped uterus (part of our prostate), labia majora (our scrotum), clitoris (our penis), and breasts (our worthless nipples). Even our testicles, our most prized “jewels” of manliness, are nothing more than reconfigured ovaries.

Therefore, saying gender is an “eternal characteristic of individuals” that existed before we were born - and that determines who is allowed to hold the Priesthood, lead the Church, preside in the home, and who swears obedience to whom in temples - is not just misogynist and sexist; it’s uninspired religiously and scientifically ignorant.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mormons and Their Plan of Happiness

When I went on my mission to Australia, my ward (local church) had a tradition of hanging up a "Missionary plaque" with our picture and favorite scripture. I didn't have a favorite scripture at the time, so I searched through all the ones I'd highlighted during my seminary and personal study of the Book of Mormon. Finally, I found the one I wanted next to my picture, the perfect scripture to encapsulate my life-philosophy, hanging prominently on the wall of my Church for all to see and read:

And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. (Mosiah 2:41)

To me, it captures the essence of what Mormons believe will make people happy: Obedience to the commandments of God and faithfulness in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. This message is repeated over and over again in LDS scripture and official publications: see here, here, and here for some characteristic examples.

However, there is a dark side to God's Plan of Happiness: If you deviate from the plan, then you can't be truly happy.  And who doesn't want us to follow God's plan? "Could it be . . . Satan?" That's right. Satan, the father of lies, opposes God's plan because he "seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself." (2 Nephi 2:27) When tempted by Lucifer, good Mormons everywhere need to remember that "wickedness never was happiness." (Alma 41:10) If we disobey God (or, even worse, we don't even believe in Him) then unhappiness will be our lot in life.

If you could simplify this into some sort of happiness formula, it could be expressed like this:
Belief + Righteousness + the Church + Prophets + Priesthood + Temples + Enduring to the end = Happiness.
Wickedness  + Disbelief + Philosophies of men + Not enduring to the end + Minion of Satan  = Unhappiness.

The only problem with this idea is that it's absolute poppycock.  Really - this was one of the first doctrines that I noticed had gaping holes in it.   And yet, I hear intelligent Mormons bring it up all the time.  Just last week, in fact, my sister received an email from her concerned father-in-law about her lack of faithfulness. The email basically repeated what I have just outlined; happiness is gained through obedience to the laws and ordinances of God and through faithfulness in the LDS Church, so (you can sing along with the primary song here) "don't go a-stray."  I remember being subject to this line of reasoning  from concerned family members when I left the Church a few years ago. Therefore, the idea deserves a nice spanking.


1. There are many happy people outside the LDS Church. You see happy people everywhere. If following God's plan is the only way to true happiness, what are we to make of all the shiny happy couples in love, families on vacation together, or individuals enjoying themselves socializing after work? Well, maybe they look happy, but to be truly happy - to have a fullness of joy - you need the gospel. Just think how much more happy they could be as couples, families, or individuals, if they had the Church!

2. There are many unhappy Mormons. I'm not saying that Mormonism is incompatible with happiness. I am willing to admit that there are plenty of happy Mormons out there. To deny there are happy Mormons would be just as silly as to deny that there are genuinely happy people outside the LDS Church.  However, there are also many faithful members who are unhappy; perhaps wondering why they are so unhappy if they are following God's plan for happiness.

3. The happiest countries in the world, are also the most secular.  In Gallup's recent World Poll, the top 5 happiest countries were also some of the most secular and atheistic. In order of happiness, these countries are: Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands.  Rates of nonbelief in these European countries are very high - especially in comparison to the US.  And the trend of happy-secular counties continues, with 12 of the happiest 17 countries also having some of the highest rates of non-belief.  However, the Church hardly has a presence in Europe and Scandinavia. So why all the happy people?

4. Many other religious people (besides Mormons) are happy too. Buddhists are some of the happiest people on Earth. Buddhists are not Mormon (nor do they even believe in God like Western religions do). And the happiness trend continues for many other religious people in America, who are doing just fine in the happiness category without Mormonism. This Gallup survey of Americans showed that religious people are happier than nonreligious people (which seems to contradict my third point above).

However, according to a 2007 study by Liesbeth Snoep, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, there is no significant correlation between religiosity and individual happiness when researchers measured religion in the Netherlands and Denmark (where religious belief is not as ubiquitous).  Rather, what is important is belonging to the majority group. In the US, where atheists are one of the most despised minority groups, and where 90% of the population describe themselves as believers, it's not surprising how non-religious people can feel isolated from the majority. This "in-group" vs. "out-group" difference, rather than being religious vs. nonreligious, is probably what explains the differences  in happiness between religious people in the US vs. non-religious people in the Netherlands or Denmark.

However, this is a false dichotomy. Couldn't we both be happy? Couldn't lots of people find ways of living happy meaningful lives? Does our respective happiness need to be mutually exclusive? The evidence shows that lots of people, of divergent walks of life, can be happy.

In fact, psychologists, economists, and sociologists are now studying the ways in which individuals and populations live happy meaningful lives. The research in these happiness studies is finding that happiness correlates closely with the following activities:

1. Social Health: Connecting with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues in meaningful social ways.

2. Physical Health And Security: Being physically active and staying healthy improves your mood and well being. Also, people living without threat of physical harm are happier than people living in war-torn-regions. Some of the most unhappy countries are those involved in perpetual war in Africa or the Middle East.

3. Financial Health: People who win lotteries or inherit large sums of money are happier than people who don't. However, happiness studies show that there is diminishing returns on happiness after annual salaries of about $60-80,000 (where basic needs are met). Further pursuit of material assets, beyond meeting the basic needs, does not translate into greater happiness, and can actually detract from happiness if we neglect our families and friends in the process.

4. Finding Personal Meaning:  This is where religion comes into happiness because it can help others find personal meaning. However, there are other ways of finding personal meaning besides religion. Taking notice of our world around us, being curious, meditate, remark on the beautiful and unusual, savoring the moment, and reflecting on our experiences. Interestingly, religions that teach that only their religion can lead to salvation, and that all other religions are to be condemned, tend to produce lower life satisfaction.

5. Mental Health: Keep learning, read non-fiction, try something new, ask questions, search for answers, learn another language, get a new hobby, go back to school - if only to audit a few classes. Happiness levels and levels of education are related; the more education you have, the happier you will be.

6. Altruism: donate time, money, or volunteer for a charity or cause or person. Get outside yourself and try to make the world a better place. People who give of their means are happier than people who do not.

In conclusion, if religion helps people do the things that have actually been shown to be associated with happiness, then I would congratulate them and wish them well.  However, one does not need to be religious to live a happy, fulfilled, and meaningful life. Plenty of people manage just fine without religion in their life.  A little more well-wishing, and a little less preaching and condemning from religious people, would be appreciated by non-religious people like me. Mormons are some of the worst  offenders when they act like they have a lock on happiness, and try to convert (or reconvert) everyone.  Let's all just remember that happiness can be found in many different walks of life: both religious and non-religious alike. Surely, that would make the world a happier place.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Evolution of God

For our Bronze Age ancestors making sense of the world, the Creation myth, which puts human center stage in the cosmos, must have made a lot of sense.  It was the best they could do with the limited information they had about the world they occupied.  However, through the advancement of science and human experience, we have better information today.  Also, we know religion has been wrong about many many ideas in the past which tend to place ourselves front-and-center in the cosmos (think Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, & Hubble).  Therefore, religions need to evolve their beliefs and myths to more closely reflect reality.

Now wait just a gosh-darn minute! Did I just say that religions evolve just like animals and plants do?  Yes they do - at least in one sense of the word. Religions don’t evolve by the same physical mechanisms as species do, but they are just as interested in survival, and therefore just as interested in changing it's views from time to time.   

When you look at the history of religion, it is glaringly obvious that it evolves and speciates similar to any living species. Just observe how Pagan polytheism was replaced with monotheism during the Axial Age, or observe how Abrahamic monotheism has splintered into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Or observe how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have splintered into many different variations of themselves. Religions change. Religions evolve. And religion survives - and thrives - today. 

The other alternative to change is to become dogmatic fundamentalists; dangerously out of touch with reality.  As the gap between reality and belief becomes too great, fundamentalist religions increase their risk of extinction. Observe how 59% of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, but only 27% of Italians do. Why? Just look at the diversity of religion in America - how it speciates into new forms, new versions, trying to reflect the needs of it’s followers. Then contrast that with the hegemony of the Catholic church, lead by old white males, out of touch with the people they lead.  It’s no wonder that religion in Europe, where competition among different species of religion is stifled by State sponsorship, is dying out. 

And religions are just as prone to extinction as species are. Just ask all the other dead and discarded gods of extinct religions out there (not that you could). So, if they are interested in survival more than maintaining orthodoxy, religions will gradually evolve their dogma and doctrines to match reality; reality of the universe, and ourselves living in it, as revealed by science.  

So what religious ideas have still need to evolve? One religious belief that needs to change is the idea of a God who created us. Given the implications, a creator God is very problematic.  Here are some of the problems with this doctrine:

1. During the Big Bang, where was God? Was He inside the singularity? In the LDS conception of God, he has a corporeal body of matter like ours (presumably carbon based). But how can you jam a body of matter inside a singularity before atoms, and the physical laws that govern them,  even existed?

2. So if God wasn’t jammed inside this singularity, could God exist outside of it? No - since nothing existed outside the singularity that exploded in the Big Bang. There was Nothing. No space. No time. No matter.  Nothing!  No exalted human-like Gods either.

3. Why did God wasted so much time getting around to creating humans - his pinnacle of creation? Why wait nearly 10 billion years to get around to making planet Earth? Why wait over 14 billion years to get around to creating humans?  Seems like a big waste of time.

4. Why all the gratuitous death and destruction involved in the process? Why did he need to cause 99% of all species who have ever lived on the Earth to become extinct? Why did He need to go through 25 prototype hominid species before getting around to Homo sapiens? Why would God divide animals neatly into predators (optimally designed to catch and kill) and prey (optimally designed to escape being eaten alive)?  If the predator fails to catch it’s prey, then it, and it’s young, starve to death. If it catches it’s prey, then they prey is eaten alive and it’s young die.  A troubling fact to Charles Darwin was why would God design certain wasps that, in order to reproduce, attack and paralyze (but do not kill) their cockroach prey, and lay their eggs inside of them, which then hatch and eat the cockroach alive, until they finally burst out of their living hatchery, mercifully killing it?  Would God really design things this way?

5. And what about the destruction caused by a less-than-optimally designed planet Earth? For example, why did God design the earth so that fragile tectonic plates suddenly shift, causing catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis which kill hundred of thousands of people? Couldn't we do without these sorts of super-disasters?

Religion doesn’t have very good answer to these uncomfortable questions. 

I'll conclude with my own commentary on the religious dilemma with certain scientific facts. The reason why religion is so opposed to a natural explanation (sans God) of our origin is this: it bumps humans away from our special and central place in the universe. It also gives a Creator God nothing to do, since Big Bang cosmology and evolution occurs without any supernatural intervention required.

This was why religion was originally uncomfortable with Newton's explanation of gravity and planetary motion. It was assumed that planets moved according to God's power. Gravity, as elucidated by Newton, showed how planets moved all by themselves - without divine intervention. Religion also had fits following Galileo’s discovery that not everything orbited around the Earth. That idea challenged our notion that we were central in the cosmos. Religion eventually came to terms with Copernican astronomy and Newtonian physics.

However, most religions still choke on the idea and implications of Darwinian evolution.  Darwin seems to be a bitter pill that many religions can't swallow.  Even the mainline, progressive religions who claim to have no problem with human evolution, usually cling to some variant of Intelligent Design; or evolution that is directed by God. The problems with this unintelligent idea are discussed above.

Religion will evolve (eventually) finding a way to fully accept Darwinian evolution, because it can't continue to obfuscate the glaring truths we already know about ourselves. The alternative, for religions that don't evolve and adapt, is irrelevance and extinction.  Some religions will go extinct (as they always have in the past).  I entertain no delusion that all religions will go the way of the Neanderthal. However, those left standing will be the ones that continue to evolve.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Our Place in the Universe (Or How to Feel Really Small)

Everybody wants to feel important. But wouldn't we rather have the truth, even if it made us feel a little bit unimportant? If you agree, then let's go on a whirlwind tour of some of the most amazing science from biology and astronomy. It can be a bit disorienting at first, but that's the point of this essay.

We might as well begin with evolution. Always a good place to start. So, in short, evolution is a fact. Never mind that most Americans don’t believe in it. For any doubters out there, check out herehere, and here.  And despite our nation's collective ignorance of what has been known for 150 years, every living organism, including humans, have evolved from a common ancestor, and continue to evolve today. The reason people usually disbelieve in evolution is that they haven't been exposed to it, and the major reason for their lack of exposure to evolution is religious opposition. Given evolutions apparent religious implications for the grey-bearded God of the Bible, the reasons for religious obfuscation is obvious.

Just consider this fact: there have been 25 different hominid species. That is, there have been 25 different prototype human species that lived before Homo sapiens, the only living hominid species still living on the planet. We like to think of ourselves as the be-all and end-all of evolution, the pinnacle of creation. Religion has reinforced this view with creation myths and Savior myths and afterlife myths. Religion traditionally has taught that it was all created for us humans: that we are God’s most amazing creation. I will admit that we, and the universe we inhabit, are truly amazing and awe inspiring. But I don’t think God has anything to do with it. The facts tell seem to tell another story. Here is the real (and much better) Genesis story.

The universe was created from an explosion of unimaginable violence about 14 billion years ago. The Big Bang didn’t need any God to get it started, as Stephen Hawking describes in his new book The Grand Design. It happened spontaneously, and then gravity, created in the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang, takes over and does the rest. We live in a relatively ancient galaxy (some of the stars in our Milky Way galaxy are 13 billion years old). If that makes you feel special, consider that there are 200-400 billion other stars just in our galaxy. Our Sun is only one of these. Astronomers think there are as many as 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. That means there may be nearly 300 sextillion stars in the known universe. (For anybody wondering if 300 sextillion is a real number - it is. It's a 3 followed by 23 zeros: 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.)

Of these 300 sextillion stars, our medium sized Sun is just one star that is only 4.5 billion years old. Our own Sun is a second generation star; formed from the blown up remains of a first generation star that underwent a supernova explosion (when it died). Yes, stars are born, and stars die (just as ours will someday). The planets in our solar system were formed from the left over star dust that the Sun didn’t use up during it's birth. The planets were made from the minuscule left-overs, sorta like what is left-over in the brownie bowl after pouring all the batter into the pan.  And just remember, that for 2/3 of the universe’s existence, our Sun didn’t even exist! So our Sun, a relatively latecomer as stars go, is nothing special in the universe.

Neither, it turns out, are earth like planets. In September 2010, NASA announced the discovery of a rocky earth like planet orbiting the Goldilocks zone (not too cold, not too hot) around a star much like our Sun.  We will find many, many, many more of these types of planets as our telescopic powers grow greater and greater. And even if only one in a billion such planets supported life (a conservative guess) then the number of planets supporting life in the universe would be in the trillions. Therefore the number of planets on which life can evolve is pretty high: there is a lot of real-estate out there for it to exist on.

Once the conditions for life are met on these rocky planets, orbiting in the “Goldilocks zone,” then life probably begins fairly quickly. We know that on our own planet, life began about 4.5 billion years ago (the Sun formed 4.57 billion years ago, and the Earth about 4.54 billion years ago). So life began only a few hundred million years after the Earth was formed. Scientists have been able to recreate the basic building blocks of life, amino acids, from simple elements that were present when Earth first began. And once life began, it took off and thrived, formed different species who were more and more expert as gene-replicator machines, adapting in order to survive and reproduce in their different environments, thereby creating the incredible diversity of life we witness today.

Simple single celled life (procaryotes and eucaryotes) formed in the ocean, progressed to simple multicellular organisms, which changed into different aquatic animals, which evolved to various amphibious and terrestrial reptiles, which evolved into birds, mammals, and primates. Our hominid species, Homo sapiens, is just a small twig on the vast tree of life. If you trace each of the twigs and branches back over the billions of years of life’s history on Earth, we all share the same origin 4.5 billion year ago.

So life evolved on our planet. However, almost as soon as life began, it went through 5 major cycles of extinction.  The Permian-Triassic cycle alone killed about 83% of all life on Earth. It was only after the most recent cycle of extinction, the Cretaceous-Tertiary, that mammals - and then human like hominids - began to exist. To put this in perspective, 99.96% of the universe’s history had already occurred before the first hominids showed up on the scene! Another analogy that puts our existence in perspective is to imagine that the history of our planet is represented by the height of the Empire State Building. If Earth-time was represented in this way, the amount of time that modern humans have been on the planet would be represented by a postage stamp at the top. If we are the purpose of God’s creation, He sure took a long time to get around to making us (and He sure destroyed to extinction a lot of other species in the process: about 99% of them).

So after the 5 cycles of extinction, mammals and humanoid species show up on the scene. Somehow, Homo sapiens survived - but just barely.  Looking at the facts, it never seems that our place at the top of the species pyramid was a given. At one point between 195,000 and 123,000 years ago, the number of Homo sapiens plummeted because of a global ice age (known as Marine Isotope Stage 6) from about 10,000 individuals to just hundreds. Hundreds! That’s all that were left! These lucky hundreds of humans probably managed to stay alive by clinging to life in caves near the coast of South Africa (Curtis W. Marean in “When the Sea Saved Humanity,” Scientific American, August 2010). 

Now, despite the information I have just reviewed, some may still think that humans were the soul reason for the Universe existing; an act of special creation by God. In other words, despite the fact that there are 30-70 sextillion other stars out there; 100 billion other universes; 200-400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy; trillions of other Earth-like planets; 4.5 billion years of evolution that occurred before humans even arrived on the scene; millions and millions of other species (most of which are bacteria and small insects like beetles) of which humans are just a single species who are more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are to gorillas; with 25 other extinct hominid prototype species that came before us . . . . .  despite all this, many people still believe God created it all for us.

Now, as I’ve already admitted, I can’t prove that God didn’t create us in a crowning act of special creation.  However, given the facts, doesn’t this sound just a little bit arrogant?  The ethnocentric religious idea that we are specially created by God, at the peak of His creative prowess, runs into problems when it confronts the facts we know about the universe. (Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that astrophysicists think that our universe may just be one in a innumerable number of other universes: a multiverse. So even our universe isn't at the center of anything.) This is why scientific facts, when they bump into religious explanations, can seem threatening.

However, they don't necessarily have to. Religion eventually got over the Copernican revolution, and it is slowly coming to terms with Darwinian evolution (emphasis on slowly).  Religion can change as science expands our knowledge about our place in the truly amazing universe we live in. Just remember who is leading, and who is following.

I'll end, appropriately, with a thought from Carl Sagan:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked and science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?" Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.