Friday, December 23, 2011

Faith, the Spirit World, and Tolerance

Occasionally I've heard a Mormon ask, “Why is so much faith required of us?” Generally he or she means “Why isn’t there more evidence?” The usual answer is that if more evidence was given, it would diminish our free agency, because then everybody would believe and be good. I think that’s a great answer for why such little evidence is given, but not a great answer for the harder question: “Why are we judged by our faith?” Judgment by faith is comforting to those who find it easier to believe than to follow all the commandments, but seems terribly unfair to someone like me. It’s hard to see how believing something without solid evidence is even a good thing, let only why it’s a qualifier for getting into heaven. If I live my life as a good person, and try and help other people not for an eternal reward but rather out of compassion, but am honestly skeptical about the gospel, then why should I be condemned for it? My good friend Gavin Jensen recently wrote a blog post that has a potential answer: maybe faith is really belief based on evidence, rather than belief without evidence. He observes that a willingness to believe without evidence disconnects the believer from reality, and decreases the chance of having correct beliefs. That concept of faith makes a lot more sense to me.

There’s still a problem, in my opinion: I don’t think there is enough evidence given to justify belief in the church. And that’s where the Mormon belief in a spirit world comes in handy. That’s not a criticism, it’s praise. An immediate judgment based on faith right after this life would definitely be very unfair, and the idea of a spirit world makes a lot more sense. The very fact that I’d still be alive as a spirit after my death would be sufficient evidence for me to change my mind about God. I think the belief in a spirit world should make Mormons much more tolerant of skepticism and dissent. So when Mormons are overly zealous about keeping people in the church, I don’t think that’s a necessary consequence of their doctrine, I think it’s a culturally-influenced attitude. I suggest that embracing the doctrine of the spirit world and the tolerance that it enables would be a much better idea.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Economic Research on Tax Rates

In a previous post I argued that a flat tax in not intrinsically fair, and that there's no reason not to tax the rich at a higher rate if it promotes the general welfare. I said those rates should be determined through economic research. There's been a couple of interesting papers lately about the optimal top tax rate that I'm reading, and although they're kind of hard to follow, there have been some good simple reviews: I liked this one and this one. The take-home message is simple though: taxes should be much more progressive than they currently are.

Christopher Hitchens

Today Christopher Hitchens past away. I've read only one of his books, but read dozens of articles and viewed debates, interviews, and documentaries about his ideas. He showed that people who think often do not fit into a simple position on the left-right political spectrum. He was a fascinating writer and a good man. I'll miss his articles and thoughts.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Beyond Religion

I was skimming the headlines on The Huffington Post this morning, and happened across a rather fascinating excerpt from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s upcoming book, Beyond Religion.

He finds that both religion and science (thus far) fail to provide for the universal morality necessary for inner peace and world peace:

“Science, for all the benefits it has brought to our external world, has not yet provided scientific grounding for the development of the foundations of personal integrity -- the basic inner human values that we appreciate in others and would do well to promote in ourselves. . . . Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.”

And what is the basis for the secular ethics? Compassion: “The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being. This is the spiritual principle from which all other positive inner values emerge.” The purpose/goal is also well-stated: “For it is these inner values which are the source of both an ethically harmonious world and the individual peace of mind, confidence and happiness we all seek.”

As I’ve mentioned before, since my abandonment of religion, I’ve been searching for a secular basis of morality as well, taking Sam Harris’ suggestion of seeking a moral basis in science. The Dalai Lama and Sam Harris seem like they’re on the same page. I expect that this book will be similar to The Moral Landscape, other than one of them is targeted specifically for atheists, while the other is more inclusive for all religions.

It is incredibly refreshing to see a major religious leader try and build bridges to secular people, and be inclusive of atheists. It’s incredibly gratifying to feel that kind of outreach from a religious person in a world where atheists are about as trusted as rapists (seriously, google it). My desire to gain trust for us atheists was part of the reason why I decided to be as public as I am about my atheism. Hopefully I’m a good representative of the atheist community. My experience at Atheists of Utah meetings definitely indicates that atheists are generally good, honest people. Hopefully other religious leaders will follow the Dalai Lama’s lead in becoming more inclusive and accepting of everyone, even us godless heathens :)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Free Will

Until recently, I had considered the existence of free will to be a moral dilemma. I understood that free will, in the sense of transcending our prior experience and genetics, did not exist. But I also knew that we needed to act as if it did exist to hold people responsible for their actions and to have a functioning society. I was curious to see what Sam Harris would say about it in a book I’m currently reading, The Moral Landscape.

I expected that he would accept that free will does not exist (in the metaphysical sense), but what surprised me was that he embraced it as an advance in morality. He said that we shouldn’t be locking people up out of retribution, or punishment, but out of concern for what they might do. If someone has demonstrated that they are a threat to society, and might cause harm in the future, it makes sense to lock them up. Not out of punishment, but out of concern for the consequences of their future actions.

Recently, more people have begun to attribute misbehavior to disorders of the brain, rather than simply the choices of that person. This represents a step towards seeing the mind as the product of the brain, as the difference between a person’s idiosyncrasies or personality and brain disorders is more a difference of degree rather than in kind. The more we understand this, the less we feel a strong desire for retribution for undesired or even harmful behavior. Rather, we become motivated out of concern for the person or the consequences of their actions.

While writing this blog entry, I discovered that Sam Harris has a blog post summarizing some of what he said in his book. Since he’s undoubtedly a better writer than I am, it would be a great article to read if I didn’t convey this concept very clearly.

The bottom line, though, is that we need to be clear about the objectives of our morality. If it is to promote human well-being, as I think it is, then our better understanding of how our minds work may require a change in our definition of justice. I now agree with Sam Harris: that redefinition of justice would be a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Working out

This post is kind of a review of my favorite app.

I like being in shape. I feel good, I feel good about myself, I feel good about how I look. But staying in shape takes a lot of time. I used to drive to a gym, work out for an hour, drive home, and take a shower. It took darn near two hours a day, usually after work. Whenever I got busy, the workouts got cut.

I think I've now discovered a better way. First I found this book. It explains how to work out all your major muscle groups at home. It also explains why cardio is a waste of time: if you want to burn fat, the best thing to do is to build muscle and raise your baseline metabolism. Later, a companion iOS app was released. I immediately bought it too, and it's been slowly improving over time, and release 2.0 made it a ton better than the original. That's what I've been using for my workouts for the last few weeks. The iPhone app now has all the workouts and exercises listed in it, so if you just want the workouts, that's all you really need.

It's nice because I can hammer out a 30-35 min. workout in the morning, take my shower, and go to work. It doesn't take a lot of time, so I keep doing it even when I'm busy. I like doing everything from an app because you don't need to remember what you're supposed to do, it just tells you. It also keeps track of all your workouts so you can look back at your workout history anytime. I love it.

Sorry this sounds like a product promo, but I guess that's what it is. It's about a $2 app that makes it unnecessary to have a gym membership, saves a ton of time, and makes you feel good about yourself. If you have an iPhone or an iPod Touch, get it. It'll be easily worth it if you do it.

It's not perfect yet, I'm hoping the developer will continue to improve it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Competing on Corporate Taxes

This is an unusually nerdy post, so if you're not into economics, skip it.

I'm going to briefly discuss why it's unnecessary for the U.S. to compete with other countries on corporate tax rates.

Imagine you're running a country. Let's just focus on maximizing good for the long run first, then talk about short-term effects. The basic principle is that in the long run, the exchange rate will change to make your imports equal your exports. Now let's say that a company moves a plant from the U.S. to China. Presumably, they can produce, say, product A, more cheaply in China than they can in the U.S. That means that the resources (labor, etc.) that would have been used to produce product A can be employed elsewhere in the U.S. economy. Assuming that those resources can produce a product B, which is close to the value of product A, and product A can now be produced more cheaply, productivity has increased. If many things begin to be produced in China, such that China is exporting more than it imports, then the value of China's currency will increase until imports again equal exports. Now, realistically, China holds down the value of their currency by buying tons of our currency and stockpiling it. That basically means they're making their stuff artificially cheap: they're exporting products, we're exporting money (which we can freely print). So if they do this for the long-term, we're the winners, because we're getting the goods and services without having to produce anything. If this is done in the long-term, it doesn't create U.S. unemployment because wages will adjust to create full employment.

Now, let's consider the short term. During a recession, aggregate demand is too low, and it needs to be increased. Suddenly having a weak currency is very desirable because it increases the attractiveness of your goods overseas, and can increase your exports. That's why when we hit the recession, all of a sudden everyone is mad at China for keeping their currency weak. It wouldn't matter during normal times, but during recessions, everyone wants to be the ones with the weak currencies. Getting companies to build plants in your country is suddenly important because it increases expenditures. But it's important to realize that it's only important during a recession, not during normal times. So a temporary tax discount to get companies to come here makes sense right now, but long-term dropping of corporate tax rates to "compete" with other countries does not.

Economics is awesome.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cause of the Housing Bubble

I learned about this by reading "13 Bankers," a great book about the housing crisis that I'd highly recommend.

After the Great Depression, laws were put in place to keep the financial system sound. The FDIC was created to guarantee bank deposits and prevent runs on banks (a bank run is when depositors cause a bank to fail by withdrawing their money at the same time). Because the government was guaranteeing the deposited money, it also required banks to only invest that money in safe investments: specifically in housing loans. The housing loan could only provide 80% of the appraised value of the house, ensuring that the bank would not lose money on the loan. This is called the era of “boring banking” in 13 Bankers. From the close of the Great Depression until the 80s, these regulations kept the financial system boring, stable and sound. Economic growth was steady and the financial system did not cause any recessions (the major recession of the 70s was caused by skyrocketing oil prices).

Ronald Reagan believed that stronger economic growth could be achieved by deregulating the financial system. I will quickly quote from “The Evolution of the Subprime Mortgage Market” about how financial deregulation lead to the growth of the subprime mortgage market:

“Many factors have contributed to the growth of subprime lending. Most fundamentally, it became legal. The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act (DIDMCA) was adopted in 1980, preempting state interest rate caps. The Alternative Mortgage Transaction Parity Act (AMTPA) in 1982 permitted the use of variable interest rates and balloon payments. These laws opened the door for the development of a subprime market, but subprime lending would not become a viable large-scale lending alternative until the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA). The TRA increased the demand for mortgage debt because it prohibited the deduction of interest on consumer loans, yet allowed interest deductions on mortgages for a primary residence as well as one additional home. This made even high-cost mortgage debt cheaper than consumer debt for many homeowners. In environments of low and declining interest rates, such as the late 1990s and early 2000s, cash-out refinancing becomes a popular mechanism for homeowners to access the value of their homes. In fact, slightly over half of subprime loan originations have been for cash-out refinancing.”1

Although it took a fair bit of time for the housing bubble to build, I think it is clear that it either would never have existed, or would not have done serious damage to the financial system if these regulations had not been repealed. If subprime borrowing was illegal, borrowers that couldn’t afford to pay for their homes would never have gotten loans in the first place. I would also agree that some other things contributed to the problem, such as the “global savings glut,” Alan Greenspan continuing to hold interest rates down in spite of evidence that a housing bubble existed and additional deregulation that took place under Bush and Clinton (such as repeal of Glass-Steagall and allowing banks to leverage themselves too much).

Now I want to quickly dispel a conservative myth: that the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), passed under Bill Clinton, caused the housing bubble. The CRA required large banks to make loans in low-income areas as well as high-income areas. I feel confident that the CRA did not cause the housing bubble because the CRA only governed some of the largest organizations that could originate a loan, and 75% of of subprime loans were issued by institutions not covered by CRA.2 I’m not saying I agree with the CRA, I’m just saying it didn’t cause the housing bubble.

So there you have it: the housing bubble and and this recession was ultimately caused by financial deregulation.



Sunday, November 13, 2011

In Praise of a Progressive Tax

I support a progressive tax because I think it’s fair. Fairness presumes equality of opportunity. Unfortunately, in real life, true equal opportunity does not exist. Some people get ahead by having rich parents get them into good schools, knowing the right people, cheating, or just by getting lucky. That doesn't mean you should give up. There are many opportunities available to all of us, and the harder we work, the more likely we are to be successful. But it does mean that just because someone makes more than you, they didn't necessarily work harder than you. That's okay, life doesn't have to be perfectly fair to be good, but the way to make it more fair is to provide more opportunity to everyone.

If rich kids go to better schools than middle class kids, they'll be better qualified for the most desirable jobs. We can provide opportunity by providing a quality education to everyone, and by keeping good colleges affordable.

Sometimes someone from a poor family will be pressured to get a job immediately instead of going to college because their parents need the money or because of an illness in the family. Without proper treatment, medical conditions can prevent someone from working or going to school. We can minimize these types of situations by providing social security, so that no children will have to care for their parents who didn't save for retirement, or became disabled, and through Medicare and Medicaid, so that poor families will receive medical care enabling each family member to go to school and work. Pell grants help make college affordable. Strong police forces can reduce the crime rate and gang presence in poor neighborhoods.

These things help provide opportunity, and we have to pay for them through taxes, but why should it be a progressive tax? I base my entire morality on promoting human well-being.1 If a multi-millionaire pays an extra 100,000 in taxes, that means ten middle class families can save 10,000 each. I think the increase in quality of life experienced by those families is more than would be experienced by the multi-millionaire, so we should do it because it increases the total quality of life, as long as the millionaire is still fairly compensated for his economic contributions.

How do we judge “fairly compensated?” I don’t think the market outcome is necessarily the fair outcome. Do CEOs get paid more than the workers because they contribute more, or because they have more control over how compensation is determined? It’s hard to say. I propose another method of determining what is fair compensation: if the tax rate is too progressive, then many people will lose the incentive to work more, and overall economic output will fall. Historical data shows that even a much more progressive tax than we currently have does not seriously impede economic growth.2 That means the high-earners are showing, by their actions, that they consider the additional compensation a sufficient incentive to work, even if it’s taxed at a higher rate.

I’m not anti-capitalism, I’m just saying that capitalism is the means, not the end. Capitalism provides incentives to produce, so it’s very effective at producing high-quality goods and services, and fairly effective at providing jobs. It also has its shortcomings. The structure of some markets leads to inefficient outcomes, so we need regulations. For example, we need to prevent monopolies from abusing their power to crush competitors, and we need financial regulation to keep banks from getting too big. The free market also goes through cycles, so we have a central bank to enact counter-cyclical action to prevent (as much as is possible) recessions and depressions. The basic point is that capitalism is a means toward providing goods and services and jobs to citizens, not an end in itself. People who have so much faith in the market that they think the market outcome is the fair outcome need to take an economics class and pay attention to market inefficiencies.

All the evidence I’ve seen indicates that a more progressive tax will create a society with more equal opportunity, and thus more fairness. Citizens would be, on average, better off than with a flat tax. A flat tax would lead to a society with a few super-rich people, and many poor people. I support a more progressive tax system.

1 I’m currently reading “The Moral Landscape,” by Sam Harris, on the subject. The basic thesis is presented pretty well here.

2 See Paul Krugman.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ode to Marie Stopes

The world is facing a lot of problems, but the one that concerns me the most long-term is overpopulation. The simple reality is that we will have to choose how to balance the total human population with the quality of life we’d like each person to have, and how much land we’d like to set aside for conservation and other species. It may be possible to have 15 billion people living quality lives, but that might be more of a toll on nature than I’d like to countenance.

The good thing about the problem is that it’s possible to solve it without anyone having less kids than they’d like. It appears that our fertility rate could be dropped to a sustainable level simply by preventing unwanted pregnancies. Expanding access and increasing the social acceptance of contraceptives not only helps prevent overpopulation, it’s one of the cheapest and best ways of protecting the environment, fighting global warming, increasing the status of women, and promoting economic development. That’s because less people demand less natural resources and use less energy. If women are able to control how many children they have, they’re more able to pursue education and participate in the workforce (if that's what they want), which is empowering to them. The higher the status of women in a society, the less violent or prone to war that society tends to be.

Months ago, when I left the church, I wanted to find a charity I really believed in to consistently donate to instead of paying tithing. I looked for one dedicated to promoting family planning in developing nations. I found such a charity: Marie Stopes International. Their Global Impact Report estimates they prevented 4.8 million unwanted pregnancies last year, and spent about 83.3 million pounds. That means they only spent about $34 dollars for each averted pregnancy. It’s my favorite charity, and I just want to encourage everyone to find a charity dedicated to making the world a better place that you believe in, regularly donate to it. I believe it does make a real difference.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why I Don't Believe in God

Before I get to my reasons, I better address something else first: why I’m even posting this. Part of it is because it took a lot of time and research to get to where I am now, and by being open with what I’ve learned, it might help someone wondering about these issues. It’s also out of the hope that if believers see that there are respectable, logical reasons for coming to the conclusion I’ve come to, then maybe they’ll respect atheists like myself as being genuine and sincere in our search for truth, and as being good people.

The first thing anyone asks me when they find out I don’t believe in God anymore is: “So, what does your wife think about that?” She obviously wasn’t thrilled when I decided to come out as an atheist, but she loves me and wants to make things work in spite of our religious differences. She respects my views enough to let me publish them and represent them, and I respect her views as well.

Now to the meat of the post: why I don’t believe in God. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’m going to argue that the existence of God is a very extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence. To make that more clear, I’m going to put it in terms of Bayesian statistics:

Pr(God exists given evidence) = Pr(evidence given God exists) x Pr(God exists) / Pr(evidence)

“Pr” means probability. What I mean by “evidence” is the claimed evidence that God exists. Pr(God exists) means the pre-existing probability that God exists, prior to examining the evidence. Some people seem to think that this probability is entirely subjective, and personally determined. I believe that it can be determined more objectively.

The chances of something complex spontaneously self-assembling is very low. For example, you would not expect that junk thrown in a junkyard would just happen to form a Boeing 747. The traditional Christian view is that God has always existed, so atheists have considered the likelihood of His existing as being the same as the likelihood of His spontaneously coming into existence. Some Mormons, based on some statements of Joseph Smith’s, think that our God was created by a previous God, who was created by another God, and so on infinitely back through time. It’s basically pushing things back in time but doesn’t resolve the central question of how Gods first came to be, so I’d calculate the probability of the first God existing in the same way. The most reasonable suggestion would be that Gods originally arose through evolution, but then you’d still be unnecessarily postulating a whole lot of complexity in that case too.

The question then becomes: is God necessarily very complex? What we know about intelligence indicates that all intelligence arises from very complicated structures. We are the most intelligent thing we know of, and we do our thinking with our brains. Our brains are made up of something like 100 billion neurons, connected together with around 100 trillion synapses. Researchers have determined how individual neurons work, and which areas of the brain are responsible for which tasks.* We know this because when a certain area of the brain is damaged, it dysfunctions in a predictable way and because when people do certain things, electrical activity spikes in certain areas in a predictable way. We can also observe which chemicals tend to transmit a certain type of information, and how adding drugs can affect our thinking, even our moral thinking. This evidence leads me to the conclusion that our brain does our thinking, not a spirit, and that our intelligence is the result of the very complex organization of our brains. There is no example of intelligence that does not arise out of complexity. I conclude that if God exists, his intelligence also arises out of very complex organization.

There is another reason I think God must be complex: He must follow the Law of Conservation of Energy. You might assume that God can violate the Laws of Physics, but there’s a good reason to conclude that He can’t. Any existence with predictability has laws. In other words, a law can only be a law if is able to predict things, and it can’t predict anything unless it includes point-of-view invariance. Physicists can derive what laws must exist if point-of-view invariance is maintained, and they include Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Law of Conservation of Energy, and even the special theory of relativity. This means that these laws will exist not only in our universe, but in every universe with laws. It also means that God did not create these physical laws, but rather he is subject to them.**

Now that we understand that God must be subject to the Law of Conservation of Energy, let’s consider some of the things he’s supposed to be able to do. We’ll start with hearing and answering prayers. He would have to be aware of the state of each person’s brain. That is, he’d have to know the physical state of the 100 trillion synapses in each of the brains of the 6 billion people on the planet, and exactly how to change the state of those synapses to communicate the information he wants to communicate in order to answer a person’s prayer. That can’t be done with electromagnetic waves, so we have to assume he’s using a method of data transmission currently unknown (even theoretically) to physicists. The main point, though, is that it takes energy to change the states of people’s brains, and retrieving data, processing it, and sending it back by making those changes while observing the Law of Conservation of Energy would require a complex structure in the same way that our brains and bodies are complex structures.

Now let’s go back to that statistical equation I put at the beginning of the article, which I’ll repeat here for convenience:

Pr(God exists given evidence) = Pr(evidence given God exists) x Pr(God exists) / Pr(evidence)

All of the arguments I’ve stated aren’t about observing evidence, they’re about computing the likelihood that God exists before considering the evidence for his existence, Pr(God exists). I’ve concluded this probability is very low, something on the order of 1/(10^80). That’s a pretty darn small number. Now let’s say someone is able to predict something very specifically, say, the civil war and where it started. If God didn’t exist, the likelihood of their being able to predict that thing is very low. We’ll say it’s 1/10000. That’s Pr(evidence). If God does exist, the likelihood is much higher, say, 1. That’s Pr(evidence given God exists). When I plug these numbers into my equation, I conclude that given this evidence, the likelihood of God existing, Pr(God exists given evidence), is about 1/(10^76). In other words, it’s not even close. The alleged evidence isn’t even remotely close to the order of magnitude that would be necessary to justify belief in Him.

Update: As some people have noted, Pr(evidence) and Pr(God exists given evidence) are really the probabilities of every outcome of every experience that could have resulted in evidence for God, all multiplied together. Of course that makes them fairly subjective, so I respect the opinions that maybe they are far different than I've stated here.

The basic conclusion from this whole discussion is that if the nature of reality is what it appears to be according to science, then God almost certainly doesn’t exist. The alleged evidence isn’t even close to substantiating belief in a God that exists in the same type of reality that we exist in. So I conclude that all arguments that God exists have to center around asserting that the nature of reality is totally different than what science has revealed.

Now if you are comfortable with that, or if you think that some of my logic is shaky, or just plain would rather believe in God because you’re happier that way and just don’t care about these types of arguments, there’s nothing wrong with that. The whole purpose of this article is just to gain respect. I hope that I can at least convince some people that atheists have good reasons to not believe in God, even if they disagree with those reasons. I didn’t lose my faith in God because I was sinning. I was doing my best to follow the commandments and do everything asked of me by the church. It wasn’t because I found it more convenient (I didn’t), or was offended by someone at church (I wasn’t), or would rather God didn’t exist (I don’t), or wasn’t receptive to the spirit. I’ve had very powerful spiritual experiences. But I still lost my faith in God because I found the logic of standard atheist arguments to be convincing. So regardless of what you believe, I hope that you can accept me and my fellow atheists as genuine and sincere seekers of truth.

* My understanding of Neuroscience comes from having read this book:

The point of the book is that there is strong evidence in the organization of our brains that they are the product of evolution, but the evidence it presents is equally applicable to demonstrating that our brains do our thinking, not a spirit.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Same Sex Marriage

A lot of my views on same sex marriage were formed while reading Brad Carmack’s book,“Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student’s Perspective.” It was very informative, but also very tedious and long. He makes a good case for legalizing same sex marriage, and then addresses every counter-argument I’ve ever heard. I’d recommend reading parts of it, like “A Case for Compassion,” and skimming through the section on Causation (especially if you’re not convinced there’s a biological basis for homosexuality). But this blog post isn’t about his book, it’s about my thoughts on the subject.

In my opinion, morality questions are really questions about the well-being of people. The question of whether we, as Americans, should legalize same-sex marriage boils down to a simpler question: Will Americans, on average, be better off or worse off if same-sex marriage is legalized? Homosexuals are the ones that will be most affected, and for them, I think the answer is obvious: better off. I don't think the rest of us will be very affected at all.

Allowing homosexuals access to marriage will increase their chances of obtaining a harmonious family life. Things like allowing one partner to receive health insurance benefits from the other’s job will allow them to split up responsibilities like heterosexual couples can. Joint ownership would mean that If one partner died, the other could keep the house they were living in. Unmarried people can have children, so homosexuals can too. If they do have children, those children would be better off if their parents were both legal guardians and able to work with their children’s teachers and school. It would also promote social acceptance of homosexuals, which would help deter discrimination and violence against them.

If light of the obvious and substantial benefits that homosexuals could reap from marriage, are there any definite drawbacks? Some people are worried that legalizing same-sex marriage would encourage homosexuals to have children, and those children would be worse off than with heterosexual parents. The research on the subject is not conclusive, but it appears that children raised by homosexual parents are fine. It’s not a clear drawback like the advantages are clear. In fact, I don’t believe there are any clear drawbacks.

Would legalizing same-sex marriage encourage homosexuality? Even if you think homosexuality is wrong, you should allow homosexuals the right to choose their own way of life. Our goal as a society should be to help everyone live better, happier lives, and that will not be accomplished by trying to force homosexuals to become straight. What if someone just doesn’t care about the well-being of homosexuals? Thieves don’t care about the people they steal from, but the more thieves there are the worse off we all are. A good society can only be achieved by caring for each other. I believe we have a moral duty to care for each other. Nothing in civilized society works if we don’t care about each other.

Notice that in making my case for same-sex marriage, I didn’t even consider whether there is a biological basis for homosexuality. I would strongly support legalizing same-sex marriage even if being homosexual was entirely a choice made by an individual. However, if there is a biological basis for homosexuality (and I think there is), then there is a legal case for Constitutionally-protected rights, including equal access to marriage. It is my prediction and hope that the Supreme Court will grant homosexuals full rights, including equal access to marriage, but in the meantime, I hope that you will join me in accepting and loving homosexuals by supporting their case for equal rights.

If you think you have a good argument against same-sex marriage, check and see if it's addressed in Brad's book. If it's not, feel free to email me. I'd be interested to hear it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mormon History

I’ve been thinking about doing this blog post for a long time.

I’ve read a lot of books about LDS church history, both controversial and non-controversial. Books about the church seem to be pretty polarized, and determining which sources are credible can be a daunting task. Although a lot reviews are already available on the internet, I decided to write this post because I thought maybe some friends or acquaintances might trust me and want my input on the matter.

The first myth to dispel is that books are split into pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon camps. Just because a book gives the best available secular explanation of the history of the church does not make it anti-Mormon. There are anti-Mormon books too, but then there are just good history books giving a reasonable secular explanation. And yes, Hugh Nibley, that IS history. I’ll go in order of most highly recommended to less recommended.

No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie.

This book was first published in 1945, and was one of the first books by a professional history to document the early history of the church with a secular explanation of events. Of course it was controversial because Mormons didn’t like the possibility that there was a reasonable secular explanation, but it’s really a pretty good book. It’s primarily a history book, not an attack on the church, so I don’t consider it to be anti-Mormon at all. If you’re primarily interested in the real history, and not specifically controversial subjects, this is a great book to read.

An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, by Grant Palmer.

This is a great one for questioning Mormons. It’s not primarily a history book, but it’s a pretty fair overview of the controversial parts of early Mormon history without being anti-Mormon. If you know the basic history taught in seminary, and want to read an unbiased (if that’s possible) review of some of the historical evidence ignored by the standard narrative, read this. It’s written by an active LDS member who was an institute president. He’s honest, and there’s no bitterness or anger in his book like in anti-Mormon books, but he concludes that the Book of Mormon may not be true. He hopes that members anchor their faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of whether the Book of Mormon is true history or not.

Church History in the Fulness of Times

It’s a textbook, but it actually makes for enjoyable reading. I read it cover-to-cover during the first parts of my mission. It does mention some controversial things very briefly, but doesn’t really delve into evidence. It’s not just early history, either. There’s a lot of very interesting things that happened after 1844 that I didn’t know about before I read them here. It’s amazing how quickly things are never mentioned in the church. I wasn’t even aware that the First Quorum of the Seventy was reconstituted in 1975, or that there were Assistants to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles before then, until I read this book. It amazed me that I was totally unaware of something that significant that happened that recently. If you want the basic, church-approved history, this book is well-written and interesting.

The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, by D. Michael Quinn

D. Michael Quinn is a very interesting guy. He is a believing Mormon, and one of the best scholars the church has ever had, but was excommunicated for publishing the truth about when polygamy really ended (at least I think that’s why). The Mormon Hierarchy throws down a lot of interesting facts, but sometimes it feels like it’s just a long list of facts. It can get difficult to remember all the details and sometimes you miss the big picture because it’s so focused on fact after fact. It does have a lot of interesting tidbits here and there though.

Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Bushman

It’s not irked Mormons that Fawn Brodie’s book is still considered to be the best history of the church by mainstream scholars, so Richard Bushman tried to write a fair and balanced history that would be accepted by the world. To do this, he just ignored any discussion of evidence for or against the church. He also (for some reason unknown to me) spent a lot of time comparing the church to other religious movements of the time period. The result is that this is some of the most dry, boring text I’ve ever read. I had to take a break for a year about halfway through because I couldn’t take it any longer, but I did eventually finish the book. That’s more of an accomplishment than you realize. It’s almost as bad as the Old Testament. But if you can handle the unbelievably dry text, and aren’t interested in controversial things, then it does give you a lot more detail than Church History in the Fulness of Times.

The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn

This follow-up volume has a great chapter about Ezra Taft Benson. It’s really eye-opening to realize how much is going on behind the scenes that normal members are totally unaware of. It’s great history.

The Changing World of Mormonism, by Jerald and Sandra Tanner

This one is definitely anti-Mormon. If you want to hear someone throw everything and the kitchen sink against Mormonism, then you can read it. But be warned: it’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth. Their facts are generally correct, and they know their stuff, but it’s not enjoyable to read. I still think they deserve some respect as good historians, good enough to recognize the Salamander Letter as a fraud, but they’re not the best writers. I decided not to finish this one after enduring about half of it.

The God Makers, by Ed Decker

It’s definitely anti-Mormon. I haven’t read this one, but I mention it because it attracted a lot of attention back in the day. It’s a crappy book, by all accounts. Don’t waste your time.

So there you have it, some of the best (and worst) books on Mormon history, and my opinion of them. If you want an online source for the controversial parts of Mormon history, I’ve heard if pretty good, and what I’ve read on it has been very good. Just remember: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of google, which giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given to him. Good luck in your search for truth.

I'm excited!

I've been thinking about starting this blog for a LONG time.

I read a lot, I study a lot, but I write very little. I feel like there's so much going into my head, and so little going out. So I'm going to try and change that. I'm going to blog :)

As a few of my friends have discovered, I'm always up for a good debate. I know a lot of my friends aren't going to agree with the liberal and progressive opinions that will be posted here, but that's okay. I know I won't convert many, but I do hope I can convert somebody to my way of thinking on some point or another. And that would be good enough for me.

Don't hesitate to comment, I'm always interested in a conversation :)