This Past Summer’s Reads

26 Aug

Gospel Truth: On the Trail of the Historical Jesus by Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto does a crackerjack job of summing up the latest research on the historical Jesus. Without taking sides, Shorto draws a fascinating picture of Jesus the man by approaching the topic from all available angles, such as his Greekness, his Jewishness, his miracles, and his message. Although there is nothing in this book that hasn’t been said already, it’s value lies in its easy-to-read, balanced synthesis of the cacophony of scholarly and religious opinions. Not meant as a challenge to the Gospels but as an honest exploration of an issue of profound significance to so many Christians and non-Christians alike.
On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt by Richard Carrier

Carrier re-examines the question [of whether Jesus' may be mythical] and finds compelling reasons to suspect [this] is correct. He lays out extensive research …  contrast[ing] the most credible reconstruction of a historical Jesus with the most credible [mythicist] theory of [Jesus] and Christian origins.  [The latter] theory posit[s] that the Jesus figure was originally conceived of as a celestial being known only through private revelations and hidden messages in scripture; then stories placing this being in earth history were crafted to communicate the claims of the gospel allegorically; such stories eventually came to be believed or promoted in the struggle for control of the Christian churches that survived the tribulations of the first century..

Who is Jesus: Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan

This fascinating book makes the results of a lifetime of scholarship readily available to nonspecialists who want to meet the historical Jesus. Eminent biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan collaborates with pastor Richard G. Watts to rediscover the life, the work, and the message of the Man from Galilee.

How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart Erhman

The claim at the heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus of Nazareth was, and is, God. But this is not what the original disciples believed during Jesus’s lifetime—and it is not what Jesus claimed about himself. How Jesus Became God tells the story of an idea that shaped Christianity, and of the evolution of a belief that looked very different in the fourth century than it did in the first.

Did Jesus Exist:: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart EhrmanIn

Did Jesus Exist? historian and Bible expert Bart Ehrman confronts the question, “Did Jesus exist at all?” Ehrman vigorously defends the historical Jesus, identifies the most historically reliable sources for best understanding Jesus’ mission and message, and offers a compelling portrait of the person at the heart of the Christian tradition.

Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgement by Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout

Bishop and Trout here present a unique and provocative new approach to epistemology (the theory of human knowledge and reasoning). Their approach aims to liberate epistemology from the scholastic debates of standard analytic epistemology, and treat it as a branch of the philosophy of science. The approach is novel in its use of cost-benefit analysis to guide people facing real reasoning problems and in its framework for resolving normative disputes in psychology. Based on empirical data, Bishop and Trout show how people can improve their reasoning by relying on Statistical Prediction Rules (SPRs). They then develop and articulate the positive core of the book. Their view, Strategic Reliabilism, claims that epistemic excellence consists in the efficient allocation of cognitive resources to reliable reasoning strategies, applied to significant problems.

Descarte’s Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason by Russell Shorto

In [Descarte's] Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2,000 years of received wisdom and laid the foundations of the modern world. At the root of Descartes’ “method” was skepticism … In an age of faith, what Descartes was proposing seemed like heresy. Yet Descartes himself was a good Catholic, who was spurred to write his incendiary book for the most personal of reasons: He had devoted himself to medicine and the study of nature, but when his beloved daughter died at the age of five, he took his ideas deeper. To understand the natural world one needed to question everything. Thus the scientific method was created and religion overthrown. If the natural world could be understood, knowledge could be advanced, and others might not suffer as his child did.

American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by ALex Beam

In American Crucifixion, Alex Beam tells how Smith went from charismatic leader to public enemy: How his most seismic revelation—the doctrine of polygamy—created a rift among his people; how that schism turned to violence; and how, ultimately, Smith could not escape the consequences of his ambition and pride.

Perplexities of Consciousness (Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology) by Schwitzgebel, Eric

In Perplexities of Consciousness, Schwitzgebel examines various aspects of inner life (dreams, mental imagery, emotions, and other subjective phenomena) and argues that we know very little about our stream of conscious experience. Drawing broadly from historical and recent philosophy and psychology to examine such topics as visual perspective, and the unreliability of introspection, Schwitzgebel finds us singularly inept in our judgments about conscious experience.

Old School (a novel) by Tobias Wolfe

Babbitt (a novel) by Sinclair Lewis

Candide (a novel) by Voltaire

The Waterworks (a novel) E. L. Doctorow


A Mixed Blessing

25 Aug

A few weeks ago my wife and I drove to the ward of our son and daughter-in-law to attend the naming and blessing of their first child. I appreciated that my son’s blessing emphasized his hope that his son’s life would be one of service and caring for others. He didn’t absurdly walk his infant through the standard sequence of prescribed Mormon exaltation requirements. And so it felt expansive and hopeful rather than confining and fearful.
This was the first I had attended an LDS sacrament meeting in well over a decade – as my wife has remained active and devout, though her association seems mostly centered on service and community.

Very little seems to have changed – the same standardized architecture, furnishings, carpet smells, church-speak, and lobby-lingering. The only noticeable difference was more talk of Jesus and less of Joseph Smith … with two notable exceptions.

It was a “fast & testimony meeting” and I was struck by the difference between the testimonies of the three women who spoke and the two three-piece-suited white men. The former testified exclusively of relationships, service received, the love of neighbors and how the Savior supported these – and their thankfulness. The “suits” bore testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon, of inspired Priesthood leaders – local and general – and of the inspired ward youth who – just back from Youth Camp – uniformly desired to serve missions – and their thankfulness. One of these brethren (still lower case) ended by testifying that the Atonement (i.e. salvation) was inextricably tied to the Priesthood.

It is, perhaps, possible to read too much into these differences, but listening to these low-level managers stiltedly pumping their hegemonic masculinity with their patriarchal hierarchy was as annoying as listening to the sisters (always lower case) was warming and welcoming.

And so I experienced a direct shot of mix of emotions. On the positive side, I saw a caring community that will embrace and support of my son’s young family – and heard my son’s blessing reflect that. On the negative side, I saw the insinuation of that dogmatic in-group mind-set of the “only true and living church on the face of the whole earth.” This is the ambivalence I have been quietly living with with so many years now.

One Eternal Round

17 Aug

Question: Will the innocent children that God “destroyed” in our earth’s Great Flood get to the celestial kingdom via Mormon proxy ordinances and, when they become Gods, find it necessary to destroy their own spirit children in their own Great Floods? … following courses of “one eternal round”  … along  “paths [that] are straight?”  [1], [2],


I’m not sure how this non-Biblical “one eternal round” phrase found its way into the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants, or what it was intended to mean [1].  My guess is it was borrowed from the musical term referring to the overlapping repetition of song stanzas – as with “Row, row, row your boat” – and so a metaphor for never-ending cosmic repetition. [3]

Last night I listened to a debate between an Evangelical Christian scholar, James White, and two Mormon scholars, Daniel Peterson and William Hamblin – apologists all around. It was moderated by Martin Tanner, the LDS host of the “Religion Today Show” produced by KSL Radio in Salt Lake City. [3], [4], [5], [6]  It turns out that James White is a bit of a gadfly to Mormons (and others).

I found this debate after listening to another between James White and the agnostic/atheist Biblical scholar Robert Price. Their debate topic was “Is the Bible True.” [7].  It was one of better of such debates I’ve listened to.

I have grown to appreciate these debates as a means of seeking a better understanding of the art and craft of partisan argument – of the rhetorical strategies used, of their logical structure (validity and soundness), of the implicit assumptions (that the debaters may or may not be conscious of), of the emotional drivers of the motivated reasoning that can emerge, and of how the complexity, ambiguity, or lack of evidence is leveraged or responded to.

I am also interested in understanding the apparent personal need of apologists to defend their faith with reason, despite ultimately dismissing reason as the final arbiter of their belief in favor of a more certain sense of spiritual validation. But in this … let me ungraciously call it a hedge – or wild card kept in private reserve – it seems they betray a their greater faith in reason than faith in faith. This is no more evident than when they ironically criticize their secular adversaries for relying on faith themselves in their dogmatic naturalistic presuppositions. They are effectively saying, “you are ultimately arguing from no better position than we are.” A very odd way to “defend the faith.”

Finally, I also try to go “meta-cognitive” as I listen and evaluate both sides – attempting to check my own biases. Alas, I do notice that it’s easier for me to identify the flaws in the theists’ arguments.  And so I am left wondering what evidence would convince that my “argument from analogy” from the world today – which seems to offer me so little evidence of the miraculous, but so much evidence of parochial humans glomming onto local supernatural belief systems – should not be accepted sufficient reason to doubt all of them.

Belief in a specially pleaded special case – like Mormonism – is not merely the flip side of doubt – right?  Perhaps it’s the flip side of a dogmatic atheism that excludes every possible conception of deity, but its not the flip side of not being able to distinguish one set of religious artifacts from any other. Indeed, it seems far more likely that these are the natural product of human communities struggling to survive and make sense of a complex, confusing and contingent world.

Religion-making is the “one eternal round” drawing in one generation after another.


[1] See Luke 17:27 for the NT affirmation of OT history

[2] See 1 Nephi 10:19; Alma 7:20 and 37.:12, D&C 3:2 and 35:1






You’ve Got to Hand It to Him – Give Him a Hand

9 Aug

Who can say that LDS scriptures aren’t practical?

D&C Section 129

Instructions given by Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, February 9, 1843, making known three grand keys by which the correct nature of ministering angels and spirits may be distinguished.

There are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—

 For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

 Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory.

 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.

 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.

 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—

 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.

 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.

 These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.

Possiblism and Bayes, Part 2

13 Jul

Possiblism and Bayes, Part 1 –

There is another way to think about distorted reasoning in the context of Bayes’s rule. This is the consequence of a person starting off with an exceptionally high prior probability based on an epistemology that leans on trust in authority, or counting as evidence some sense of direct revelation  (subjective spiritual experience).  Let’s take it through the basic formulation again in the context of the Book of Mormon and the DNA evidence.

First, let

  • H = the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon (BoM) is True
  • H* = the hypothesis that the BoM is False
  • B = the Pre-DNA (or background) evidence for the Book of Mormon.
  • E = the new DNA evidence (containing no Israelite markers) for the Book of Mormon.

Second, we consider prior probabilities with LDS-friendly assignments. These would represent the person who has repeatedly testified in public, “I know the Book of Mormon is True” based on appeals to authority or subjective “spiritual” experiences.

  • P(H|B) = probability BoM is true given pre-DNA evidence = 0.99
  • P(H*|B) = probability BoM is false given pre-DNA evidence = 0.01

Next, the relevant updated probabilities in the face of no Israelite markers in the DNA evidence.

  • P(E|H,B) = probability of the DNA evidence (being what it is) given the BoM is True = 0.1
  • P(E|H*,B) = probability of the DNA evidence (being what it is) given the BoM is false = 0.9

Note that this still assigns a LDS-friendly 0.10 (or 10%) chance that no Israelite DNA would show up in the Americas even if Lehi, Ishmael, etc. had as many offspring as the original Book of Mormon text – and Joseph Smith’s testimony – suggests. This 10% forces the other to be 90%, since they must add to 1oo%

This leads us to what we are after, the probability the BoM is true after updating the prior probability (99%) with the new DNA evidence

  • P(H|E,B) = updated probability that BoM based on new DNA evidence

This probability is determine completely and logically from the previous ones through Bayes theorem. It is the only rational conclusion that can follow that honors evidence.

.                                              P(H|B) x P(E|H,B)
P(H|E,B)  =    ______________________________
.                         P(H|B) x P(E|H,B)  +  P(H*|B) x P(E|H*,B)

.                                       0.99 x 0.1
.                  =      _____________     =  0.92
.                           0.99 x 0.1 + 0.01 x 0.9

Here we see that even strong contradictory evidence drops the belief probability a relatively small amount, from 99% to 92%.

If the person felt 99.9% certain, the posterior probability would only drop to 99.1%.

In words, if a person is deeply committed to an idea based on a faith-based epistemology, it will take an extraordinary amount of contradictory evidence to make them doubt, or even reach the 50:50 level.

Of course, ours minds do not tend to Bayesian assessments. Most people ignore the right term in the denominator – not intentionally, its just not how people think.  There is a bias against considering how evidence impacts an alternative hypothesis – the alternative hypothesis belongs in the adversary’s camp [1]. Indeed, for a person to hold beliefs with a “provisionality” on par with how a scientist trusts a thermometer over her sense of touch when her hand that’s been steeping in ice water, the person would have to accept that our brains are metaphorically “steeping” in “ice water.” It’s tough to arrive at that level of detachment – and it might not be a healthy state to achieve, except, perhaps, temporarily in critical circumstances.

[1] It occurs to me that not engaging  the implications of the right term in the denominator of Bayes’s Rule describes what lawyers do – or are obligated by our court system to do. A lawyer only advocates for his client’s hypothesis.

Taking Stock of Jesus’ Boarding House

18 Jun

Doctrine and Covenants

Section 124

Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, January 19, 1841.… Verses 56–83, [Microeconomic] instruction are given [spoken by Jesus through Joseph Smith]  for the building [financing] of the Nauvoo House [Hotel with a bar];

56 And now I [Jesus] say unto you, as pertaining to my boarding house which I have commanded you to build for the boarding of strangers, let it be built unto my name, and let my name be named upon it, and let my servant Joseph and his house have place therein, from generation to generation…

60 And let the name of that house be called Nauvoo House; and let it be a delightful habitation for man, and a resting-place for the weary traveler, that he may contemplate the glory of Zion, …

62 Behold, verily I say unto you, let my servant George Miller… Lyman Wight… John Snider, and … Peter Haws, organize themselves …

63 And they shall form a constitution, whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house.

64 And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house, and they shall be permitted to receive fifteen thousand dollars from any one man for stock in that house.

65 But they shall not be permitted to receive over fifteen thousand dollars stock from any one man.

66 And they shall not be permitted to receive under fifty dollars for a share of stock from any one man in that house.

67 And they shall not be permitted to receive any man, as a stockholder in this house, except the same shall pay his stock into their hands at the time he receives stock; …

69 And if any pay stock into their hands it shall be for stock in that house, for himself, and for his generation after him, from generation to generation, so long as he and his heirs shall hold that stock, and do not sell or convey the stock away out of their hands by their own free will and act, if you will do my will, saith the Lord your God.

70 And again, verily I say unto you, if my servant George Miller, … receive any stock into their hands … they shall not appropriate any portion of that stock to any other purpose, only in that house.

71 And if they do appropriate any portion of that stock anywhere else… they shall be accursed, and shall be moved out of their place, saith the Lord God; for I, the Lord, am God, and cannot be mocked in any of these things.

72 Verily I say unto you, let my servant Joseph pay stock into their hands … but my servant Joseph cannot pay over fifteen thousand dollars stock in that house, nor under fifty dollars; neither can any other man, saith the Lord.

73 And there are others also who wish to know my will concerning them, for they have asked it at my hands.

74 Therefore, I say unto you concerning my servant Vinson Knight, if he will do my will let him put stock into that house for himself, and for his generation after him, from generation to generation … and I will accept of his offerings, for they shall not be unto me as the offerings of Cain, for he shall be mine, saith the Lord.

76 Let his family rejoice … he shall be honored in the midst of his house, for I will forgive all his sins, saith the Lord. Amen.

77 Verily I say unto you, let my servant Hyrum put stock into that ….

78 Let my servant Isaac Galland put stock into that house; for I, the Lord, love him for the work he hath done, and will forgive all his sins; therefore…

80 Let my servant William Marks pay stock into that house ….

81 Let my servant Henry G. Sherwood pay stock into that house….

82 Let my servant William Law pay stock into that house….


If Jesus did hie to Kolob

12 May

If Jesus did “hie” to Kolob, and if hieing means traveling at nearly the speed of light – the cosmic speed limit – then Kolob is less than 2000 light years away. That’s pretty distant – about 12,000 trillion miles [1].

But we now know that Earth is 27,000 light years from the center of our Milky way galaxy, whose full diameter is 100,000 light years!  Therefore, to hie from Earth to Kolob, relative to our Galaxy, is like driving from Akron to Columbus Ohio relative to the continental United States. Hardly an impressive “hie.”

Now if we step back and consider that there are over 100 billion galaxies in the Universe, with the nearest one being 2.5 million light years away – well, it seems Joseph’s Godhead is a rather provincial trio.

And so modern science broadens the perspective Joseph offered in his “revealed” 19th century cosmology. I suppose we could always posit wormholes to get us out of his rabbit hole [2]. Or, bite the bullet and accept a smallish godhead kingdom. Or, we could just deny modern science and its pesky speed limits. Or, we could just ignore the whole thing and “just believe.”

It can be so easy to just believe – and then so difficult not to believe – and then so difficult to believe – and then easy to not believe. I did not exactly hie to disbelief.


[1] hie – verb: to go quickly.


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