In this comment thread, I gave the following idea, on the topic of a method by which one might judge the Book of Mormon from a rationalist perspective:

Why not make this an online thing? Day-by-day, or perhaps week-by-week, post (somewhere, not necessarily on Less Wrong, so as not to clutter the site; though perhaps Less Wrong would actually be the ideal locale, due to familiarity, extant population, etc?) a chapter of the Book of Mormon and allow discussion of it, separately from the rest of the Book, using terms common to Rationalists.

I would appreciate feedback on this idea, for an admittedly selfish reason: I am trying to instigate in myself a Crisis of Faith. So, here are the questions I pose to you:

  • Would it be a Good Idea to subject the Book of Mormon, chapter by chapter, to a group rationalist judgement?
  • Would it be a Good Idea, given the above, to ask Less Wrong to host this discussion? On the one end, we want the maximum number of rationalists to input the maximum number of times, so we should host our discussion near the nexus of rationalist gathering. On the other end, if this discussion is judged to be frivolous and wasteful by the majority of active posters on Less Wrong, then we don't want to detract from the true meaning of the site.
Remember: This is a good chance to examine the best arguments of those who believe that the sky is green. If the sky is green, then you should want to believe that the sky is green, too!

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45 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:40 AM

I'm not sure if LW is the best place for this. Right now, it won't drown out any other discussion, but I fear that the whole atheist debate might creep in and then LW becomes just another skeptics blog full of science fanboys and trolls. A one-time post or advertisement of another blog/forum to have the discussion seems acceptable, though. There have been many cases of theists becoming useful rationalists.

Personally, I'm not interested in the whole Mormon thing at all. It's just way too silly. The mere requirements to make Mormonism even an idea worth thinking about aren't met in any way. (e.g., the world doesn't look supervised, Old Testament is entirely unhistorical nonsense, New Testament is at best the product of political propaganda and at worst Sai-Baba level myth, the texts aren't in any way compatible with each other ("god" in Amos, Deuteronomy, Mark, John and Revelation means entirely different things), "let's tell a small tribe and ignore the majority of humanity for thousands of years" is totally how a benevolent god would act and so on). I mean, try to step back, ignore everything you know about religion and history and ask yourself, if there were a very powerful and interested entity, predating all of humanity, what would it do? How would it act? Compare that to the much weaker variant of FAI and how it's typically depicted of acting. After you've made predictions based on this belief, does the world look anything like that at all? (Seriously, it tells a dude to write a book? And not even a good one?!)

(Also, if you have to write ancient mythology fan-fiction, please don't just rip off the Sumerians and claim it's original. I'm looking at you, Hebrews.)

(Also, if you have to write ancient mythology fan-fiction, please don't just rip off the Sumerians and claim it's original. I'm looking at you, Hebrews.)

On a tangential note, it seems that the author of that article is seriously confused about the chronology of the Ancient Near East. The earliest Sumerian cuneiform documents date from circa ~3100BC, and the earliest examples of Middle Eastern proto-writing are at most 300-400 years older than that. The literalist Biblical chronology used by the young Earth creationists places the date of the creation much earlier, around ~4000BC. So while creationism obviously has many problems, its alleged inconsistency with the Sumerian civilization is not one of them.

(On the other hand, there are extant examples of undeciphered proto-writing much older than 4000BC, most notably the Vinca,Tartaria, and Dispilio symbols, but none of these has anything to to with the Sumerians. However, the exact nature of these symbols, and how close they were to a real writing system, is unknown.)

From Encyclopedia Britannica:

Sumer was first settled between 4500 and 4000 BC by a non-Semitic people who did not speak the Sumerian language. These people now are called proto-Euphrateans or Ubaidians, for the village Al-Ubaid, where their remains were first discovered. The Ubaidians were the first civilizing force in Sumer, draining the marshes for agriculture, developing trade, and establishing industries, including weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, masonry, and pottery. After the Ubaidian immigration to Mesopotamia, various Semitic peoples infiltrated their territory, adding their cultures to the Ubaidian culture, and creating a high pre-Sumerian civilization.

I don't really understand how this is relevant for my point, especially since you cut off the quote right before the following sentence:

The people called Sumerians, whose language became the prevailing language of the territory, probably came from around Anatolia, arriving in Sumer about 3300BC.

In any case, the linked Onion article makes fun of creationists based on the premise that the Biblical literalist date of creation falls after the invention of the Sumerian cuneiform and the beginning of documented history. This is simply incorrect, as the standard creationist chronology leaves plenty of time between the creation and the earliest Sumerian writing. (Thus providing another data point for my observation that while creationists themselves are silly enough, most people who rail against them in the contemporary public discourse usually do it from a position of even greater ignorance.)

Thus providing another data point for my observation that while creationists themselves are silly enough, most people who rail against them in the contemporary public discourse usually do it from a position of even greater ignorance.

While I agree that some militant atheists overplay their hand, I think it's still a bit of a stretch to call them even more ignorant than creationists.

:3 Thank you for demonstrating your own point; it's well taken.

I expect this to be almost entirely a loss from a (personal) signal-to-noise ratio standpoint, if hosted on LW. It might be worth doing elsewhere, but please don't try it here.

Very much a good point, and consonant with the feedback I'm receiving from others. Thank you.

Mormonism in general can be a devastating anti-religious datum. Yes, the internet atheists try to point out the silliness of various aspects of religion via parody, but they're generally preaching to the choir, because their parodies are transparently too silly. "Kissing Hank's Ass", "The Flying Spaghetti Monster", etc. work as allegory but fail as persuasion.

But Mormonism? It's as if someone exaggerated the least plausible parts of many religions, but did so gradually enough and subtly enough that a significant fraction of a percent of the population really, truly believes it. If religious people are trying to tiptoe around landmines of irrationality and if you want to warn them about this, talking about the FSM is like showing them a crayon cartoon of an explosion, whereas talking about Mormonism is like showing them a gory video of a sympathetic victim.

But whereas exposing other religions to Mormonism (not just the Book of Mormon; you really need the whole context) can be enlightening, I think it's nearly worthless as an abstract rationalism-improving topic for LW. A room full of atheists is not the right venue for a wit-sharpening intense debate about any religion; what you'd probably get instead is a dogpile against anyone who took the minority view, interspersed with rounds of self-congratulation about how great our shooting skills must be to have hit nearly all the fish in that barrel.

If you're interested in irrational bits in the Book of Mormon for some concrete rather than abstract reason, on the other hand, you might as well skip ahead to the notes in the back of the book: Skeptic's Annotated Book of Mormon

LessWrong people generally don't have enough exposure to the LDS church or the Book of Mormon to have a reason to take it seriously, and their worldview is so different that it would be hard for them to even understand why Mormons take it seriously in the first place.

But as a former Mormon, who was born into the church and attended church almost every Sunday for at least 30 years, I'd like to summarize my journey (briefly, as this discussion died off long ago):

  • I read the Book of Mormon three times, taking it seriously each time. I was often confused by parts of the book and other doctrines, but I generally assumed it was something wrong with me instead of the book or the doctrines. (edit: as I matured I was forced to see it as obfuscation by God or, in the most nonsensical cases, evidence that he was evil or did not exist, interpretations I was very reluctant to accept, of course; at most I would ask what the evidence compels me to believe. Remember also that even scientists do not throw out a hypothesis without a better one to replace it: the failed Michelson-Morley experiment did not cause everyone to suddenly decide there was no aether, because there was no Special Relativity to replace it; similarly, the theory of evolution was not a workable alternative to me, partly because I had learned about it only from those who were incompetent to teach me about it, and partly because I was quite sure that I had a soul, which evolutionary theory could not explain. Therefore I often thought about a third alternative, which was the idea that our world was some sort of experiment by 'researchers' who were messing with us for some reason.)
  • I prayed many times, hoping God would keep Moroni's promise but He never did. I have taken morality seriously since I was a child and always tried to do what was right; my only significant failure was my inability to stop masturbating. I tried for 20 years to fight my own sexuality. I supposed (hoped!) that this was the reason why God wouldn't answer my prayers. It was emotionally very painful that God wouldn't answer my prayers; in my depression, I would think of worthiness like a high-jump competition in which the bar is invisible, and you can't measure how high you or other competitors are jumping, and you just have to keep jumping and hoping that someday you will clear the bar. This felt unjust, but I had no way to be sure that God was just. I often met with my bishop, who could not answer my questions and often had to rely on backstop answers like "God hasn't revealed all the answers to us yet".
  • Edit: also, on rare occasions I felt a warmth in my chest, or sometimes a feeling of peace, that I hoped was "the Holy Spirit". However, there was no discernible pattern to it. It seemed to happen at random, and my mind received no information this way. Something that seems important, in hindsight, is that most other LDS people would "bear their testimony" by saying "I know the church is true", whereas I would say "I believe the church is true", which was both honest and in line with scripture. I was conscious of this before, but I also avoided thinking about what it meant. For me today, it symbolizes the irony and hypocrisy of cherishing honesty except regarding the most important questions. Many people in the church have trained themselves to talk as if they're the Brother of Jared after he saw the finger. You know, my brother left the church many years before I did, and the reasons he gave were things like being "tired of feeling guilty". I felt these were not legitimate reasons to leave. The only reason to leave would be if it wasn't true―and so I stayed. I believed.
  • I sometimes heard internet atheists talking about silly aspects of religion, but always in a dismissive way that preached to their own choir (I had not discovered Luke M's Their analyses were superficial and not persuasive to me. It seemed to me that I had to take evolution seriously, but I didn't realize how little I knew about it, and I found an "intelligent design" video persuasive (the video did not talk about God, did not support "creationism", was designed to sound scientific, and was ostensibly about scientists challenging the traditional "assumptions" of evolutionary theory).
  • I began to worry that if God was real, he sure wasn't very nice or trustworthy. I found the following quote, which resonated with me: "Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones." If God was just, he wouldn't condemn me for the legitimate reasons I might have for suspecting he was unreal or unjust, and if he was unjust, I shouldn't even worship him at all. This quote was crucial in giving me permission to follow the evidence wherever it led.
  • As I began to take seriously the possibility that God wasn't real, I engaged in a two-pronged strategy where I paid 10% tithing and also gave 10% to charities. If God wasn't real, tithing was useless and I would have to do good some other way, but if He was real, I needed to show Him I was willing to be his faithful servant. This lasted maybe two years, and then I reduced my tithing to 5% as my faith waned.
  • Somehow, I don't remember how, I came across the CES Letter in January 2015. After reading it, I understood that the church was false and I left the church immediately. Having done this, I quickly understood some other important things. First, I noticed that I wasn't willing to go back to church and share the CES letter in any major way. I wasn't willing to print copies and share them, or give a dramatic talk where the Bishop cuts off my microphone. When I told my best friend about the CES letter, he had no interest in reading it (and remains a Full Tithe Payer to this day). So now I understood survivorship bias—the reason I was surrounded by believers for 30 years, with no one seriously challenging my beliefs (see also evaporative cooling of group beliefs). Second, I noticed something about the evidence that Mormonism was false: the evidence existed only because Mormonism is recent; the church started in the era of the printing press, and there are many surviving records from the 19th century. Suppose for a moment that Christianity is false, and that in the time of Christ there was a lot of clear evidence it was false, just as there was evidence against Mormonism. What would have happened to that evidence? The believers would make many copies of their Holy Book, but the unbelievers ― having no printing press, and caring much less about fighting Christianity than the Christians cared to support it ― would not reliably preserve the evidence that it was false. 30 AD was a very different time, where even the truest of true believers, the disciples of Jesus Christ, seemingly didn't care to write the Gospels until "forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus". So, I concluded that Jesus was no more the messiah than other people whose followers called them the messiah.
  • I learned more about LessWrong/EA/SSC in the years afterward, became a regular visitor and read Rationality A to Z. I also discovered and signed the Giving What We Can Pledge at 10%, tithing level―an easy decision.
  • Edit: Since then, I've felt an amazing clarity of mind that I never enjoyed as a Christian. I used to feel confused and conflicted on a regular basis, understanding neither God nor Evolution properly; at long last I grok both, leaving behind only the mystery of the Hard Problem Of Consciousness. It would've been far better to learn about all this earlier in my life! My life has a new foundation now: Mature Consequentialist Utilitarianism built atop two axioms. It was an awful thing to gain the understanding that death is annihilation, but I also learned the Litany of Gendlin: What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. Not being open about it doesn't make it go away. And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn't there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it. Nothing actually changed: death was there all along; heaven was a myth. Surprisingly, I'm happier now, and a more effective person too.

What do you find exaggerated about Mormonism? It looks pretty typical to me.

You seem to say that you have seen exposure to Mormonism have an effect on other religious people. Is there a record of this somewhere?

Basically only religious people think it is interesting to go through a holy book chapter-by-chapter. It would almost be interesting to attempt to examine the archaeological record together, but it turns out that whenever anyone tries this with Mormons, the tiniest shred of evidence is treated as though it were thousands of times as powerful as it should be. A classic example of this is the Bat Creek inscription -- not as interpreted by archaeologists (who think it's a fraud), but as interpreted by a global-warming-denier economics professor.

The only way I can see this discussion being fruitful would be to actually build a Bayesian network for each top-level claim and then individually assign probabilities; this at least would be an interesting exercise.

The only way I can see this discussion being fruitful would be to actually build a Bayesian network for each top-level claim and then individually assign probabilities; this at least would be an interesting exercise.

An interesting idea, but in my opinion, the only way to build an accurate Bayesian network for the top-level claims would be to examine the context whence those claims come.

You could have one Bayesian network to show how likely Mormonism is, and a separate one for how likely it is for a holy book to say that otherwise. Alternately, you could just give the ratio of how likely it is if Mormonism is true and how likely it is to be stated otherwise. I suppose you'd have to calculate for a given religion, and then multiply by the number of religions.

Well really, that would be far to general. If we're questing for the One True Religion - or, rather, the One True Belief System, with atheism included in there as a belief in the Merely Real - then we'd need separate Bayesian networks for each religion. Otherwise one of the less wacky religions would have its score brought down by one of the more wacky ones, when in fact they exist independently of one another.

Sounds like a daunting project. Shall we get started? :P

A lot of them would share the same nodes. For example, any Judeo-Christian religion will adhere to the Old Testament.

Not "any". :3 Mormons, for example, consider the Bible to have become flawed over time. That's why we hold high the Book of Mormon; it's come to us more directly, and is thereby promised not to contain flaws.

Article of Faith 8:

We believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God.

The problem I have with the book of mormon is, jesus's death was not enough.

What I have read it has more hoops to jump to get saved

True, but it's largely just a few differences that they specified in the Pearl of Great Price. They do not believe, for example, that the story of Noah's Arc was caused by a mistranslation.

The bigger problems would be other religions that believe it may not have been literal, or that it may have been a mistranslation (I've heard it suggested that they had the same word for "land" and "world", and the flood was actually much more localized.)

Or that "40 days" is a linguistic construction meaning literally "a long freaking time". :P No, it's not just a few differences in the PoGP. It's basic errors that are quite evident - prolific, even - in the Bible. If every Christian sect read the Bible the same way, why would there be different sects? No, just because they all "believe the Bible" doesn't mean you can use "the Bible" as one node in your network.

The 40 days part is often considered symbolic, but the time period doesn't really matter.

Can you be the sole determinant about which pieces of information do and do not matter? Let me tell you: if I had to take that "40 days" literally, I would drop the whole claptrap and take up the atheist flag. That wouldn't be raining; that would be hydraulic mining. Nothing on earth would survive, not even an "ark made out of gopher wood".

You're not facing the problem. You can't write off any of the nodes and say "well, this one doesn't matter". You cannot know what other people know unless you ask them. This project of mapping the Bayesian networks of every belief system on the planet is difficult, insanely difficult, impossible. That doesn't mean you can skip over some parts and pretend they don't matter. Do you know what happens if you try to do that in quantum mechanics? You get the wrong answer. And considering what's at stake here, that would be devastating.


Is there a rule for which parts of the bible you're not supposed to take literally, besides "whichever ones would be evidence against the Bible"?

Is there a rule for which parts of the bible you're not supposed to take literally, besides "whichever ones would be evidence against the Bible"?

Of course, "None of the ones that interfere with whatever actions most benefit me in the forseeable future".

I know Mormons generally say that they take it literally, but I know of a few cases where they don't. Besides that number thing, they believe angels are resurrected people, and not four-faced hooved monstrosities. I suppose with them it's literal unless doctrine says otherwise.

With religions in general, you could try adding the probability that it happened and that it was written figuratively, and just do both.

That's actually close to correct. Joseph Smith went through the Bible and corrected a few things; Moses is a refreshed version of Genesis chapters 1 through Noah or so; Smith also gave us a chunk of Matthew that was missing.... other than that, basically if we find contradictions, we shrug and say "must be a mistranslation". Also, Book of Mormon takes truth-precedence over the Bible, since it's been tampered with less. :P

So, covering the entire surface of the Earth and putting two of every animal on one boat is feasible, but raining for 40 days without destroying the boat isn't?

The issues here are that if this happened, God would be violating the laws of physics and committing genocide.

:3 Mwahaha. Marvel at my cognitive dissonance.

No, you're right, and the likelihood is that it was a localized event. Either that, or it took place so long ago that there were fewer types of animals. And then via *gasp* evolution, over the millennia we got, well, today's diversity.

But I think it's a tad more likely that it was a localized event. :3

I have little interest in discussing fantasy as though it were reality, and I don't think it's appropriate for or relevant to LW.

This perspective is classically biased, I'm afraid to say. :/ I agree with you (now, given other's comments) that it may not be an appropriate conversation to ask LW to host.... but if you write off the possibility of its veracity as "fantasy" before studying the material, you are exhibiting a preconceived notion independent of the data. It's like when Einstein wrote off quantum mechanics as "too weird".

The universe acts just as we would expect a mechanistic, material universe to act. I have seen the argument you made in other comment threads, and I find it too weak to be worth much consideration. You suggest that God exists (along with heaven, souls, etc.). The only direct impact those entities seem to have on the universe, though, is the presence of a few vaguely-stated tidbits in a book that can be charitably interpreted to have been uncommon knowledge at the time they were written down. Notably, they were written down in connection to previous books which contain vast historical and factual inaccuracies and are better understood as mythology rather than revelation. This simply is not very convincing.

Then be unconvinced. But if you write off an argument as "fantasy", instead of going through the mandatory "theory which exhibits an order-of-epsilon chance of being true", then it speaks of a bias in your mind.

I don't mean to fall into But There's Still A Chance, Right?; I believe that the LDS faith has exhibited much more than an order-of-epsilon chance of truth. But then, we have different opinions about the weights of our priors.

Religious texts are works of fantasy. That's just the most parsimonious description, currently. It fits the known evidence and pays rent much better than the postulation of an omnipotent entity that acts only in vague, constrained, idiosyncratic, and generally worthless ways (along with other entities that find just as little if not less justification in the evidence). It would be "writing off" if I declared it to be the case a priori, but as I said above, I've seen the opposing arguments.

Mulling over it for a few minutes, I'd be quite interested in a series of posts on why the sky is green. Literally.

Huh. Actually, that would be quite interesting.

I think a better first step for you would be to find fora on the web where similarly text-driven religious beliefs are espoused, discussed, supported, and apologized for. Beliefs of fundamentalist jews, fundamentalist christians, fundamentalist muslims, fundamental atheists. (I'm not sure if there are any non-judaeo-christian examples of this happening) I think you then need to determine whether any or some of these have equivalently excellent and miraculous bases for their beliefs, especially if they are at odds with BoM. At his point you have an increased ability to "calibrate" the meaning of your own magnificent structure around BoM. That is, if you can see your structure, and someone else's structure that leads them to conclusions inconsistent with BoM, then you need to resolve those consistencies.

Myself, I think there is plently apparent magic in the world, that it supports christians and jews and astrologers and communists and libertarians, and yes, even singularists. To all of it I apply what I call my "Siegfried and Roy" rule. I don't need to know how they got the tiger to appear in the empty cage suspended above the stage in order to know it is not magic. And I do need to know that whatever miraculous and verifiable knowledge they do have comes far from proving that they are a reliable source on the supernatural which can by definition I would imagine never be proved.

I think your place here is limited until the BoM seems no more special to you than the Bible or the teachings of the Dalai Lama or Kants critique of pure reason or Penn & Teller's magic show.

There's no way someone not already infected with BoM should ever devote the kind of resources to it that your proposal suggests.

Story resolution: Arandur and I will discuss the Book of Mormon together with an atheist columnist friend of mine, practicing Examining Your Belief's Real Weak Points, Crisis of Faith, etc, etc. Problem solved.

It's been a while, has this been carried out by now? If so, how did it go?