Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faith-Based Initiatives

I remember reading somewhere that the LDS church refuses to apply for faith-based initiative grants from the US government for fear that the government will begin to have too much influence on the church. I couldn't find the reference now, so if someone can confirm this I'd appreciate it.

While watching the psuedo-debate put on by Pastor (or Reverend? I've seen it reported both ways) Rick Warren over the weekend, I began to ponder the concept of government funding of faith-based initiatives, and came to this question:

If the charitable cause cannot be funded by the efforts of the people sitting in the pews, and instead needs to be funded by tax payers, can it really be called "faith-based?"

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Gospel: Simple, but Subtle

Quote #1: "Christ knows better than all others that the trials of life can be very deep and we are not shallow people if we struggle with them." -- Elder Holland

Quote #2: "If we constantly focus only on the stones in our mortal path, we will almost surely miss the beautiful flower or cool stream provided by the loving Father who outlined our journey. Each day can bring more joy than sorrow when our mortal and spiritual eyes are open to God’s goodness. Joy in the gospel is not something that begins only in the next life. It is our privilege now, this very day. We must never allow our burdens to obscure our blessings. There will always be more blessings than burdens—even if some days it doesn’t seem so. Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”19 Enjoy those blessings right now. They are yours and always will be." -- Elder Holland

Now, I know those two quotes aren't necessarily contradictory (and it does help to read them both in context), but it certainly takes some thought to figure out exactly what is the "right" way to respond to life's trials, or even if there is a "right" way. The gospel is simple, but it sure does have some subtleties.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

What If Food Made You Sick?

When I started blogging I told myself I was never going to post one of those "I'm sorry" posts after a long period of time without posting. Saying I'm sorry implies that there are people that are offended. I'm assuming no one was offending by me not posting for over two months, so I don't feel the need to apologize.:)

As I've mentioned earlier, my son was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE), a rare (but increasingly diagnosed) disease which can cause people to be allergic to a wide variety of foods. Often, EE patients cannot eat any food or only a handful of foods. These patients, like my son, are kept nourished using special total nutrition formulas which usually need to be taken via a feeding tube. Fortunately, the disease is not fatal. However, it is chronic and can significantly impair quality of life. To learn more about it, view this video produced by the American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders. It is touching, and for my family it hits close to home.

This has been a trial for my family, and as things came to a boil I could no longer sustain regular posting here. I'm not sure what the future of this blog will be. For the few of you still reading this blog, let me tell you that I would not trade our trials for any of yours. I'm grateful to have a son that teaches me that you don't have to be "normal" to be happy. I try to keep a positive attitude, because I don't want my son growing up feeling like a victim. If we want him to be strong, we must show him how.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why Am I Me?

Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going?

These are the fundamental questions of life. Science and religion have attempted to answer these questions to some degree, and sometimes seem to be in conflict. For a long time, religion was the only means by which these questions could reasonably be answered, since science had no explanation for the complexity, or even the existence of, the world. Alma said:

"Yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator."

Up until relatively recently, the mere existence of the world was enough to prove that God exists to any rational human being. His existence also proves, by definition, that he is our creator. However, as science has advanced, it has increasingly been able to offer alternative explanations for the complexity of the world in which we live. The Big Bang theory attempts to explain the origin of the universe, and the theory of evolution attempts to answer the fundamental questions of life. I'd argue that the explanations that science offers are compelling, and I can see how someone, from a scientific point of view, might consider a "creationist" as a fool. However, there are still some unanswered questions related to how life began, such as... well, how life began. The actual events that led to the first living being are, from what I understand, still not understood by science. Still, from that point on evolution seems like a reasonable explanation; reasonable enough that some have tried to reconcile the two points of view, and claim some ground in the middle of the creationists vs. evolutionist debate.

My point here is not to rehash that old (well, actually relative new) debate. For the sake of argument, let's assume that evolution is correct, and that it fully explains where we came from, why we're here (for no particular reason at all, it would appear), and where we're going (6 feet under). Is that it then? Are there no more questions to ask? No, there's one more question that I would pose to the scientific and religious community alike:

Why Am I Me?

Seriously, why am I writing this post and you reading it, and not the other way around? Or why are we not some Borg-like entity? The idea of "consciousness" or "self-awareness" or whatever you might call it (some more intellectual types might be able to clue me in to the correct term for this) is still unexplained by science, as far as I can see. Hypothetically, I can imagine some explanation involving biological mechanisms and chemical reactions that make my brain think I am conscious. But that explanation, for now, is hypothetical. I've never heard any scientists even attempt to explain why I am a conscious being, and why am I only conscious of myself, and not others. Why, when I open my eyes in the morning, I see the world through the eyes that happen to be attached to this body, and not some other.

Philosophers have wrestled with this question. Descartes supposed, "I think, therefore I am." However, even this is questionable in modern times as medical scientists are increasingly able to explain how our brains work (although still far from completely). One could possible imagine our brain as just a very complex, biological computer. Yet even the most complex computer imaginable still would not be aware of itself (ignoring science fiction, of course). Yet, we are aware of ourselves. Where does this awareness come from? As far as I know, science has not come close to answering this question.

On the other hand, religion does offer an answer: Our self-awareness comes from our spirit, which is different than our physical selves, although the two are bound together to some extent. In the mainstream christian view, God is the creator of our spirits, and therefore the creator of our self-awareness. So the answer, according the mainstream Christianity, is that we are who we are because God willed it to be so, and science has yet to offer a reasonable alternative explanation to that.

Mormonism offers an even more nuanced view. Our understanding of the pre-existence teaches us that we have always been self-aware. Our "intelligence" has always existed, and always will. I am who I am because I always have been. Perhaps that's doesn't directly answer the question, but it is at least a partial answer.

To be clear, my intent is not the set science and religion against each other. I believe there is truth in both, and even when they seem to be in opposition, we do well to learn how each view can enlighten our understanding of truth. However, my point here is to raise the bar, so to speak, on the scientific community by bringing to light one question that still remains beyond their grasp, and help the religious community understand at least one question that remains uniquely theirs to answer.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Everyone Needs a Wife

An author was being interviewed on a radio talk show the other day. For a brief segment, she was talking about how she works from home part time while her husband works as a doctor. She expressed how this arrangement has been beneficial to keeping her home and family running smoothly. Here is the quote from my memory:

"Everyone needs a wife. I mean that 1950s kind of wife that bakes and cleans and takes care of all of that stuff."

Before I get to my point, the context was clear that she was not making a sexist comment (especially since she is a woman). She was using the term "wife" as a euphemism for "person who keeps your life running", and she was including women in "everyone".

Lately I've been thinking about how true that is in my life. My wife stays home with the kids while I work. This works for us and honestly, I have a hard time understanding how couples make it work otherwise. There are so many responsibilities that families have outside of work. How do dual-income families find time for these things? I'm talking about home maintenance, financial planning, shopping, taking care of kids (of course very important), doing research on decisions that need to be made, and a million other important things I can't possibly list. I realize that some of these things you can hire people to do for you, but there are plenty that you cannot, such as caring for a sick child. Our son has medical issues that have caused what seems like daily doctor's appointments. I think if we both worked, one of us would have had to have quit by now. But even without medical issues, it's hard for me to imagine that it could work.

So, for those of you who are in dual-income families, I ask you: How do you do it? How do you keep your life running? For those of you in single-income families but who are married, I ask: Can you imagine your family running otherwise? For those of you who are single parents, I can only imagine how hard your struggle is, as you have the worst of both worlds: a single income and no one to share the burden. My heart goes out to you.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Activist Judges At It Again?

A few nights ago I wrote up a post exploring some of the arguments against gay marriage from a purely legal perspective, in response to the California ruling. After writing it I decided not to post it, for three reasons:

1) I'm not an expert at law, so my attempts to explain things from a legal perspective are probably incomplete at best.

2) The issue of gay marriage has been debated at length in the bloggernacle, from both moral and legal perspectives. I don't really have much to add to that.

3) Even though my intentions were not to spark controversy, I had a feeling my opinions might, and the goal of my blog is not to rehash endless debates.

So in the end I didn't post it, but I would like to throw these questions into the mix of perspectives currently being explored elsewhere:

1) I agree with the church, from a moral perspective, in its stand against gay marriage. I oppose gay marriage and would vote for a constitutional amendment against it. However, given that currently there is no such amendment, is it going against the church to question the constitutionality of banning gay marriage? In other words, can we separate the moral arguments and legal arguments? Can I say: "X is morally wrong, but it is unconstitutional to ban it?". Or, if I want to be in line with the church, do I have to conclude that judges that side with gay marriage must be wicked?

2) At what point to we recognize that we are fighting a losing battle? Is it obvious at this point that it is only a matter of time before we lose, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion? Is there still hope for victory, or are we only fighting to prolong the inevitable? If it's the latter, is it wrong to advocate a scorched earth policy (ie. get the government out of marriage entirely)?

(Note: If the subsequent comments get too controversial, I'll start deleting them and/or closing comments. As I've already stated, by goal is not to bring the debate occurring elsewhere onto this blog. I've already tempered my own opinions to try to avoid that. I'm really only interested in the specific questions I asked above.)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Revelation on Home Schooling?

A comment from Elders' quorum from a few weeks ago, when we got on the subject of over-protection of children (quoting from memory):

"Before I joined the church I wondered how we were going to protect our kids from the bad influences in the world. We considered home schooling. But then we joined the church and learned that the church is against home schooling because our kids need to experience the social aspects of school."

There was no reaction to this part of his comment and the lesson went on its merry way. If this comment had been made in Relief Society, I imagine the building would have gone up in smoke before the class period ended.

From what I can tell the church has no official position on home schooling, but if anyone knows where this person might have heard of this new revelation, I'd be interested. Of course, I could just ask him myself...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Am I Apostate? You Tell Me

Here is your assignment: Read this post and then tell me if I'm apostate. If I am, I will readily repent.

The bloggernacle (the term used for the Mormon blog community) has a reputation for being a little off-center from mainstream Mormonism. Of course I don't consider myself this way. I'm pretty mainstream, in my opinion. But, a little while ago I started to wonder if the bloggernacle was having a bad influence on me, like that friend you had in high school. You know the one.

What made me wonder is when I discovered ldsblogs.com, which is a blog site dedicated to more mainstream Mormonism. In particular, one of their blogs is focused on helping new members become accustomed to Mormonism and our culture. This is a noble and worthwhile subject, but as I started to follow the blog I started to feel some antagonism toward what is written there. Before I get into why, let me state your assignment:

Go the the New Members section of ldsblogs.com, read a few entries or more, and then tell me if I'm entirely out of line for thinking this is over-the-top. I don't mean to be critical of another well-intentioned blogger, so I'm completely willing to accept that perhaps I'm the one out of line, and not her.

My concerns are these, and are not limited to just the New Members blog: The blog seems to be written with the assumption that the new member is ready to accept all the aspects of Mormon teaching and culture. Most of the entries start something like this: "Now that you are a member of the church, you are probably wondering how your life should change related to X." Is it just me, or does that sound a little presumptuous? Also, it sometimes makes assertions about what we believe without linking to a source, such as general conference article. I sometimes find myself agreeing with the article, but still left with a bad taste. It kind of feels like I'm supposed to trust this blog in the same way I would trust a general conference talk.

Normally, of course, it wouldn't bother me to disagree with another blogger. But what concerns me about this is that many new members might read it and assume it is the sentiment of the entire membership of the church: You need to change if you want to be part of our group.

So you tell me: Do I need to repent? Or do you agree that there's something amiss?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lying for the Truth

(Note: If this post seems like too much rambling, I apologize. I've been thinking of this topic for a while but couldn't get it down quite right--probably because I was distracted by the global warming element of it. So I decided to put down my thoughts and let the chips fall where they may.)

Religious conservatives often speak of the moral decay in our society, pointing to things such as violent and explicit television shows and video games and many other evidences that our culture is heading in the wrong direction. However, there's one major component that is not talked about, perhaps because we have grown so accustomed to it: lying for the truth.

I first became conscious of this phenomenon while watching Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" a few years ago. He makes some good points and arguments mixed in with the emotional manipulation, but the apex of the film, as anyone who has seen it will remember, was when he showed the humongous graph that showed how carbon dioxide and global temperature were highly correlated. The implication is that as we increase carbon dioxide, we can predict how global temperatures will change based on the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere. And change it will. So much so that Al had to get on an elevator to show you the projected temperature graph. Stunning.

What's even more stunning is that this entire argument is a lie. The graph Al showed did not show that carbon dioxide causes global warming. In fact, it shows the opposite: historically, global warming has caused carbon dioxide to increase, which accounts for the correlation in the graphs. That means that the graph alone gives us no information that would allow us to predict what will happen to global temperature as carbon dioxide increases. Where did I get my information? Must be some global warming denying "scientist" funded by the oil companies? No, I got this information straight from the EPA website, which has a graph eerily similar to Al's, but with a more accurate explanation, and less humongous.

Was Al Gore duped? I don't think so. I think he knew very well what this graph really showed, but he used it anyway. In other words, he lied to support what he believes to be true. After realizing this, I concluded that if someone knowingly lies to me 10% of the time, I can't trust anything they say, even if 90% of it might be true. Even if global warming is a problem, I won't trust Al Gore to give me straight information about it.

Before you conclude I'm a global warming denier, I'm equally frustrated by comments from the right. How many times have I heard, "We can't even predict the weather next week. How could be predict it years in advance?" I cringe every time I hear this, since any thinking person must know the difference between weather and climate. I know that it will be cold next winter, even if I can't predict the exact temperature on a particular day.

There are many more examples in our cultural and political discussion--too many to list here. To relate this to Mormonism, I can see the same tendencies in our debate. Many rational people have concluded that the LDS church is not true. Fair enough, I can't prove it is, so if someone concludes it's false, so be it. However, the problem is when we start with a conclusion and then look at only the evidence (and sometimes make it up) that "proves" our point. Here's a good example of ridiculous evidence used to support the anti-Mormon argument. Isn't just not believing enough, without making up ridiculous claims?

But of course if we're pointing fingers at everyone else, we should look at our own house also. Are Mormons sometimes guilty of lying for the truth? The one example that comes to mind is the Mormon Meadows Massacre. To its credit, the church has recently made an effort to come clean about what happened there. However, for a long time, facts were hidden in an effort to avoid making the church look bad. In my mind, the incident has nothing to do with the truth of the restored gospel. It's a matter of people who did some very bad things, who also were members of the church. Still, for those of us who believe the church is true, it is tempting to disregard, or perhaps even cover-up things that make that church look bad.

So, for those of us concerned about what seems to be declining morality in our culture, let us fight against this moral failing that too often is overlooked: lying for the truth.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Is It a Sin?

Many discussions in the LDS community (and perhaps the Christian community in general), relate to the question: Is it a sin, or isn't it? Here are some examples of some such debates:

Is it a sin to drink caffeine? What about coffee if the person is not a member of the LDS church? What about eating meat in the summer?

Is it a sin to buy myself something that I don't really need once in a while, instead of using that money for more productive or charitable causes?

Is it a sin to go into debt to make what you believe to be a wise business investment?

Is it a sin to get a tattoo? How about a small one? What if you aren't a member of the church? (This is actually the question that inspired this post).

My purpose it not to debate any of these specific arguments, but rather to talk about the debate itself.

First, we should consider the question: What is sin? If you ask random people to define sin, you might get these two general responses:

1) Sin is disobeying the commandments of God.
2) Sin is doing something that God doesn't want us to do.

On first glance, these two definitions might seem like two ways to say the same thing. However, they are really very different. The scriptures tell us that there are many things God wants us to do, but which he has not specifically commanded us to do. There are also many things God does not want us to do, but which he has not specifically commanded us not to do. So we can see that there is plenty of room for debate between "disobeying the commandments" and "doing something God doesn't want us to do."

Another related issue is what we should do with "advice" or "encouragement" that we get from our spiritual leaders. Here's an interesting example from the LDS website (thanks again to the discussion from this post):

"Latter-day prophets strongly discourage the tattooing of the body. Those who disregard this counsel show a lack of respect for themselves and for God."

This is interesting since it seems to support both sides of the argument. On one hand, it uses the word "encourage," which suggests it is not a commandment, which some might use to argue that it is not sinful. However, it also says that by ignoring the advice, people show a lack of respect for God. Clearly, that is sinful, isn't it? But on the other hand, if ignoring the advice or encouragement of a prophet is a sin, then why make a distinction? Why not just command it?

Another example is the prophet's encouragement to get out of debt. This is usually communicated as advice, but if it is sinful to ignore the prophet, what's the difference?

So I've raised a lot of questions and shown how opposite views of the spectrum are reasonable. So what's my answer to this dichotomy? It's simple: We're asking the wrong question. The question should not be "Is this a sin?" It should be "What are the consequences of this action?"

All actions have consequences: good, bad, temporal, and spiritual. From this perspective, I would define "sin" as something we do (or don't do) which has negative spiritual consequences. In other words, we sin when we do something that separates us further from God and makes it more difficult to achieve his plan. The seriousness of the sin is proportional to the magnitude of the negative consequences. That definition is purposefully vague, because the word "sin" itself is a generality. Perhaps it would be more useful to talk in terms of consequences, rather than in terms of sin or righteousness.

Consider the question: Is it a sin to go into debt for non-essential reasons? Debating this question glosses over the more important question: What are the consequences? Interestingly, when the prophet gives us this advice, he doesn't say "because God said so." He says, "because here are some of the bad things that might happen..." (I'm paraphrasing here, of course. See this talk for an example).

Perhaps the prophet is more concerned about helping us make choices that will have positive consequences in this life and the next, and less concerned about what we should place the "sin" label on. Perhaps we should be too.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Educating the Professor

Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes in her blog:

"Instead of us Obama supporters sweating, Romney and his supporters would be fielding calls all day to explain Mormonism, polygamy and the relationship of Romney’s faith to the cult compound in Texas. Does Mr. Romney believe that 14 year-old girls should marry? Does Mr. Romney plan to take additional wives in order to fulfill the moral requirements of his religion? If not why has Mr. Romney stayed affiliated and raised his children in a church with whom he so vehemently disagrees?

"Yeah, Yeah, we know he gave some big speech about this issue earlier in the campaign, but how does he respond to what those women with the long skirts and weird hairdos said on the Today Show this morning?

"Would Romney have thrown the Thomas Monson under the bus and even more provocative, would Monson have tossed Mr. Romney there?"

I'm still holding out hope that she was joking or doing some experiment to see how we would react to such mis-information. But unfortunately I think the more reasonable explanation is that she is completely misinformed.

For those who don't know, let me be clear: the FLDS sect has no association with the LDS church which is the mainstream "Mormon" church. While I have posted my opinion that the FLDS raise was an over-reaction, and also used the FLDS situation to ponder broader questions about parental rights, I have tried to make clear that I don't support many of the things the FLDS do such as polygamy and what seems to be frequent underage marriage and other abuse.

Thanks for Millenial Star for pointing me to her blog.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's Either True or It Is Not

President James E. Faust: "The gospel as restored by Joseph Smith is either true or it is not."

To me, this statement is both obvious and profound. As a missionary, the most frustrating thing was not those who rejected the message. It was not those who would not allow us to clarify misconceptions before judging. The most frustrating thing was meeting people who agreed that Joseph's story might be true, but just didn't care. They didn't feel it was worth the effort to find out.

This attitude never made sense to me. Given the gravity of Joseph's claims, it seems to me to be a matter of eternal significance to investigate whether they are true or not. Of course, we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, so ultimately the knowledge of whether Mormonism is true must come from God. However, the vast majority of those who are not Mormons would not say that they have received a witness from God that it is not true. Rather, they have just not found it worth investigating. Certainly I can understand this; I have not felt it necessary to seriously investigate Islam, for example. But those who don't feel Mormonism is worth investigating must at least reconcile with themselves some of the compelling evidences.

Those evidences include the three and eight witnesses, the acceptance of his family (who can con his own mother and father?), supernatural events witnessed by many, and many evidences from the Book of Mormon itself. In the last category, the most recent one that has come to my intention is Jacob 5, and how accurate it is in describing ancient horticulture.

Of course, evidence is not proof. Calling these things evidence is not the same as saying they prove Mormonism to be true. It is possible to find evidence for things that aren't true. And certainly anti-Mormons would counter with their own list of things they feel Mormons must reconcile, which organizations like FAIR attempt to do. And there are likely some questions that might remain unanswered.

But I believe it is valid, even with those questions unanswered, to ask then how we are to explain the evidences of Mormonism's truth. Both sides can argue that the beliefs of the opposite side are improbable, but that does not exempt either side from offering a more probable explanation.

If I had more time, and didn't fear being misunderstood, I think it would be interesting to write a book describing the most probably explanation for Mormonism, assuming Joseph's story is not true. But my book would not just cherry-pick the most supportive facts, but would attempt to explain all of the difficult questions. The result, I believe, would be a story at least equally as improbable as Joseph's. I hereby give my permission to anyone to steal my idea, and you will have a least one customer.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Limits of Parental Rights

No, this is not another post about the FLDS situation. There are plenty of those already, including my own. It's true that the issue I want to discuss was brought to my mind because of the FLDS situation, but it really is a much broader issue: parental rights.

Generally I'm a supporter of protecting parental rights, but everyone must admit that there are limits. Clearly, no one has the right to inflict abuse of any kind on children. Child neglect also warrants intervention. But the FLDS situation has raised our awareness to some shades of gray that our society is struggling to come to terms with.

I don't know if the number of children who have been victims of abuse or gross neglect in the FLDS compound is 0 or 400. I'll leave that for the court to decide based on the evidence, and I hope that they make the right decisions in each individual case. But the media isn't satisfied to report on the evidence (whether real or imagined) and allegations of abuse. In addition, they have launched into a full-scale assault on their lifestyle. The implication of many media commentators, and talk show hosts such as Dr. Phil, is that even without specific abuse, the compound is destructive to children, and therefore the removal of the children is justified. This is based on the opinion, which I agree with, that the world-view and culture of the FLDS are misguided and socially destructive.

Now I've already focused too much on the FLDS in this post. As I said, I want to talk about a broader issue. To bring this closer to home to the mainstream LDS church, to which I belong, let's consider this quote from The Family: A Proclamation to the World:

"By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."

Mainstream LDS accept this as truth. But the feminist movement would generally disagree. They would see this statement as old-fashioned, discriminatory, and destructive. They might even go so far as to say that it is irresponsible to teach such a distorted world-view to children. Why should women feel any guilt for making the same decisions that men often make: to work instead of staying home with family? This view that used to be limited to extreme feminists is now generally accepted by our society. The distinction between the roles of men and women is diminishing, and is likely to continue to diminish as times goes on, causing the position of the church to become even more radical.

So how long will it be before they come for our children? How long will it be before Dr. Phil interviews an ex-LDS about what life is like growing up believing that women have the primary responsibility to nurture children, and the audience gasps. After all, says Dr. Phil, parents at least need to have a basic understanding of right and wrong.

Perhaps I'm being too sensational, but I hope you get my point. Here's the question: Where do we draw the line? How wrong is too wrong to be parents? How many lies do you need to tell your children about the world before you become an unfit parent? And who gets to decide if what you are saying is lie or truth?

In short, where do the rights of parents end?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Obama: Misspeaking My Vote Away

It's not often that I get away from this blog's LDS theme. I do have opinions about things other than Mormon issues, but I try to keep this blog pure from them. However, occasionally I can't restrain myself. This is one of those times.

Let me be clear that there never was much chance I would vote for Obama. I try to keep my mind open, but in reality I've been leaning toward McCain since Romney dropped out. But it's fair to say I'm a lot less likely to vote for Obama than I was a week ago.

Why? Was it the "bitter" comment? Partially, although it wasn't so much the "bitter" as the "cling". I think the fact that most of the debate focused on the word "bitter" was the result of successful spin from Obama's campaign. I don't object to the word "bitter;" I object to "cling."

But that's not even the worst of what Obama has said this week. In the most recent democratic debate, Obama said something that should have set off a firestorm in the media, but instead the media coverage has decided to debate the debate.

So since apparently almost everyone in the media missed it, I'll summarize what he said:

Obama will raise capital gains taxes, even if it means less tax revenue!

Why? He went on to explain that he would do so to restore fairness to our tax system. So there you have it. If you need more explanation of why this is insane, please read this article which I came across while I was trying to figure out if I really heard what I thought I heard.

Also, leaving the door open to raising this tax, as well as considering raising the limit on the Social Security payroll tax, directly contradicts his promise to not raise taxes on those making less than $250,000.

Perhaps this is just another instance of misspeaking, and honestly I hope so. Speaking of misspeaking, I've been thinking about using the following line for my next performance review with my boss:

Boss: You're performance has been unacceptable lately. You really need to step it up.

Me: Oh yeah! Well you stink! I mean seriously, you really do. I should be your boss!

Boss: Wow. Well, in that case, you're fired.

Me: Oh, in that case, I just misspoke. What I meant to say is, you're right. I'll try harder and promise my performance will improve.

How do you think that would go over?

While I'm wildly off-theme, let me give you my predictions for the next 4 years: Obama will become the president. I think that's pretty obvious at this point. Even though polls with him vs. McCain are pretty even, once Obama wins the nomination, democrats will rally, and there are just too many of them to give McCain a chance. As it becomes clearer that Obama will become president, the stock market will go down, but of course Obama will successfully blame this on Bush, and not on the expectation of anti-business policies Obama has put forth. So Obama will raise taxes, as he promised, which will cause the economy to continue downward (again, Bush's fault), and increase the need for social welfare, which he will provide and claim to be the hero of the poor. If we're lucky, it won't take the people more than 4 years to figure out that it's all a scam, and Mitt Romney will be elected as President in 2012. But please Romney, grow a spine and oppose ethanol subsidies. You are too smart to really believe it's a good idea.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Obligation to Our Fathers?

Who said this?

"I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers - I will be true to them and to my beliefs."

If you follow politics, you probably know that this was Mitt Romney is his faith speech.

His phrasing makes me uncomfortable. Do we, as Mormons or people of any faith, have any obligation to remain in the same church as our ancestors? Are we not being true to them if we convert? Aren't we to seek out truth wherever it leads us?

Thankfully, I don't think Mitt's sentiment is endorsed by the church. From President Uchtdorf's conference talk:

"I remember when I was a young man, one Sunday I noticed a new family in our meetinghouse—a young mother with two daughters. It wasn’t long before the three were baptized and became members of the Church.

"I know the story of their conversion intimately because the oldest daughter’s name was Harriet, and later she would become my wife.

"Harriet’s mother, Carmen, had recently lost her husband, and during a period of introspection, she became interested in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After studying the doctrines, Carmen and her daughters knew the Church was true and made plans for baptism.

"When Carmen told her mother about this decision, however, her mother was devastated. 'How can you be so unfaithful to the faith of your fathers?' she asked.

"Carmen’s mother was not the only one who objected. Carmen’s strong-willed sister, Lisa, was every bit as troubled by the news. Perhaps troubled is too soft a word. She was very angry.

"Lisa said that she would find those young missionaries and tell them just how wrong they were. She marched to the chapel and found the missionaries, and, you guessed it, Lisa was baptized too."

This story (and the rest of this talk) makes clear that honoring the faith of our fathers does not obligate us to stick with it. Pretending that it does cheapens the definition of faith, in my opinion.

(For those of you wondering, don't worry, I'm not considering leaving the faith.:))

Monday, April 14, 2008

Boycott China? How About Texas

Let me be clear that I don't support polygamy. However, I do find it hypocritical that in our society it is political incorrect to oppose gay marriage, yet it is still acceptable to ostracize a polygamist family composed of consenting adults.

But even though I believe polygamy is wrong, I want to voice my opposition to what is happening in Texas. The latest news is that over 400 children have been separated from their mothers on the grounds that children are not allowed to stay with their parents when abuse is suspected. My question: Where is the evidence that each of the 400 children have been abused? I say prosecute the abusers, but leave the rest alone.

The blog Messenger and Advocate has been following this issue. It's certainly possible that things the women are saying aren't true, and that some of what we are hearing on M&A is one sided. There is certainly reason to believe there may be some manipulation going on. But as long as there is no specific evidence of abuse, that doesn't matter. Even if the women are lying, if there is no proof, Texas has no right to take the children.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Problem with Mormon Celebrities

Steve Young. Donny Osmond. Gladys Knight. Mitt Romney. David Archuleta. Brooke White.

What do they all have in common? If you're a Mormon and don't live in a cave, you probably know the answer: They are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We know it, and are proud of our own. I'm reminded of the once popular Adam Sandler song, "Chanukah", which proudly and humorously lists famous people who are Jewish. We even have a web site devoted to famous Mormons.

Admit it. You get a sense of satisfaction when you hear about someone who is famous and Mormon, or when you hear about someone you know is Mormon becoming successful and well known. This is perfectly natural. The smaller the group you belong to, the more likely you are to have the "one-of-our-own" mentality. But why do we care so much?

Is it because if there's a Mormon who is liked by a lot people, that makes us more normal? Does it somehow validate the Mormon position? Does it show that our lifestyle is superior since we produce such great people? Of course consciously we would reject these justifications. Surely the success or failure of a few Mormons should not reflect on the entire population in general, should it? Yet, subconsciously, somehow it does.

But what's the harm? Mormons have historically been a small group, and as any small group it is understandable that we should be proud of our own who have become successful. However, the membership of the LDS church has now grown to over 13 million. Our membership is large and diverse. As the membership grows, it becomes more dangerous to allow a few members to be put up on a pedestal. To illustrate this, let's look at a few examples:

I think it's safe to say that Mormons in general were rooting for Mitt Romney. I was myself, but I tried very hard to make sure my support was because I thought he was the best candidate, not because he was Mormon. Although I think I was pretty successful at it, I can't deny that it does appear that many Mormons supported him who perhaps would not if he was not a Mormon. The fact that Utah supported him so strongly proves this, I believe. It's pretty hard to argue with the fact that he would not have gotten such a landslide victory there if he had not been Mormon. We are proud of him.

But what would happen if it came out that he had been involved in some illegal business transaction, or marital infidelity. Don't get me wrong, from what I know of him I wouldn't expect it, but really I know very little about his personal life. I'm not trying to judge. In fact, that's exactly the point: We shouldn't judge too harshly, but we also should be too quick to judge favorably about someone we don't know much about. So if it came out that he had done something unflattering, how would Mormons look, considering we supported him in such numbers?

Another example is Gladys Knight. Some Mormons love to bring her up, especially when talking about race issues within the church. Does her membership somehow prove that race is not an issue in Mormon culture and that we have put our past behind us? Of course it doesn't prove that, but sometimes we act as if it does. So what would happen if Sister Knight decided she didn't want to be a Mormon anymore? Since some have used her name as an argument that the Mormon culture accepts all races equally, would her rejecting Mormonism mean that we have a race problem? We have given her way too much power in the realm of public opinion on Mormonism.

Today, the big names are David Archuleta and Brooke White, who have made the top seven on American Idol. From what I can tell, they are good people. But I know very little about them other than that they are Mormon, sing well, and their families clap for them vigorously. Do I secretly root for them? At some level, yes. I'm not immune. But what happens if it comes out that one of them has done something that most Mormons would consider out-of-line with what we believe, or if they do something like that in the future? Do I want my church represented to the world by two people who I know very little about? Of course I'm not suggesting they should quit, but the question is how we include their Mormonism in their frame of success.

The answer goes back to what our leaders have been telling us for years: Let's be good neighbors. Let's take care of our families, be good employees, and be honest and caring of others. Of course we should do this regardless of whether others recognize it, but it also happens to be the best way to improve the image of Mormonism. Pinning our hopes on celebrities is a short cut, and as my wife will tell you, short cuts sometimes don't get us to where we intend.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Complainer Culture

During my lunch break today I went to get my hair cut. I go to the place because they are quick and cheap, and don't usually try to make small talk, which I hate. This time, though, the lady felt the need to engage.

"I can't believe it snowed last night. This week has been all rain and snow. Can you believe it?" She said. I realized that she was just trying to be friendly, but she actually seemed upset about it. For the record, it didn't snow where I was, but apparently a few flakes fell somewhere nearby].

What I thought: "Yeah, that's called weather."

I returned to work and a co-workers walks into my cube: "Man, I'm so busy. My boss asked me to look into these two issues and now I'm stuck on them, and I'm going on some business trips over the next few weekends." Note: both the trips and the issues were voluntary.

What I thought: "Have you considered saying No?"

And then it hit me: complaining is part of our culture. We complain about everything. When it's winter it's too cold. When it's summer it's hot. When it's spring it's too rainy. You can always complain about work, whether you are too busy or don't have enough to do. It seems that complaining has become the way that we communicate.

Then I think about the successful people I know: Stephen Covey, President Monson, and others who are successful in various ways. It's interesting that they don't complain much, at least about insignificant things. Perhaps there is a correlation.

Of course some things are worth complaining about, and I don't pretend that I don'tdo my fair share. But today was a time for me to reflect and wonder if my life could be more rewarding with less complaining (from me, that is).

Is this one more way that I should be "in the world, but not of the world?"

Elder Oaks Reads My Blog

Or else great minds think alike. Some quotes from my favorite conference talk:

"Knowledge of outside temperature can be verified by scientific proof. Knowledge that we love our spouse is personal and subjective. While not capable of scientific proof, it is still important. The idea that all important knowledge is based on scientific evidence is simply untrue."

"When we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, we can be just as sure of that knowledge as scholars and scientists are of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods."

"We all act upon or give obedience to knowledge. Whether in science or religion, our obedience is not blind when we act upon knowledge suited to the subject of our action. A scientist receives and acts upon a trusted certification of the content or conditions of a particular experiment. In matters of religion, a believer’s source of knowledge is spiritual, but the principle is the same. In the case of Latter-day Saints, when the Holy Ghost gives our souls a witness of the truth of the restored gospel and the calling of a modern prophet, our choice to follow those teachings is not blind obedience."

Amen, Brother... err, I mean... Elder.

His entire talk can be found on lds.org.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Is President Monson a Chicken? (Or an Egg?)

In this morning's session of conference, President Monson mentioned that he was called to be a bishop at the age of 22. I knew he had served in a lot of positions at early ages, but this still surprised me. He was also called as a counselor in a stake presidency at 27, a mission president at around 32, and an apostle at age 36.

This made we wonder: Was President Monson called to such positions at such early ages because he is such a great man, or is he a great man because of his unique opportunities of service and leadership?

Perhaps it is some of both.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Unite Against Jay Leno

Jay Leno made a joke about homosexuals without malice. People are outraged. Leno apologizes.

Note to self: Next time a comedian makes a joke about Mormons, get angry. Demand an apology. Man, I've been such a pushover. All this time, I thought laughing or changing the channel were appropriate responses.

Wanted: Infantsitter

At my work we have online classifieds where people post questions and advertisements. Browsing this morning, I found this one (quoting from memory):

"Anyone interested in babysitting an infant? My wife is expecting soon, and will be returning to work after 8 weeks. We had someone lined up but that fell through."

Something about this concerned me. I've posted about the stay-at-home vs. two-income household issue before, but let me reiterate that I try not to judge the decisions of individual families. The point of that post was to show how the common argument (that changes in our economic world have forced families into needing two incomes) is bogus as an explanation for the general trend. Certainly, though, there are individual circumstances that might necessitate two earners, or personal reasons that make being a stay-at-home parent not preferable.

I've been following a post on this issue at The Simple Dollar. Although the post and several of the comments are somewhat advocating daycare for children, I think some of the points they make are valid. I especially appreciate that the post advocates finding the best childcare possible.

All that is well and good, but is fishing for random people on the intranet classifieds crossing the line? Perhaps I'm jumping to conclusions or judging too harshly, but I would hope few would ever consider placing their 8-week-old infant in the care of an unqualified stranger all day, every day. If I'm wrong, then the state of our society is worse than I thought.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

green2: My New Blog

I've started a new blog called green2 to discuss free-market environmentalism. Come join me in trying to figure out a way to save our planet.

I hope this new venture won't take me away too much from posting here, for all of my loyal readers. Yes, both of them.:)

Friday, March 28, 2008

Religious Rights and Responsibilities

Today I heard about two news stories involving the rights of the religious. Let's just say it's not a proud day for the faithful.

First, a pharmacist who believes birth control is sinful refused to fill a prescription, and then refused to transfer it to another pharmacy. This pharmacist was sanctioned by the Pharmacy Examining Board, and a court recently (and rightly, in my opinion) upheld the sanction.

Secondly, and tragically, a girl died as a result of untreated diabetes because her parents refused to take her to the doctor and instead relied on prayer alone.

The rational of the religious in both stories is that it was their religious right to do what they did. They were only following their conscience, and doing what they believed was right. We can't force people to do something they believe is morally wrong, can we?

No, we can't. In the United States, we have the right to practice our religion as we see fit, and part of that right is that we should not be forced to do things that we find morally objectionable.

However, some in the religious community, over-eager to solidify this right, seem to have forgotten that with rights come responsibilities. Although I think he was wrong, the pharmacist has the right to refuse to fill the prescription, and even refuse to transfer it if he truly had moral objections. However, in practicing his right, he also needs to be held responsible for his decision. He was responsible for making sure his employer understood his moral stand, and his employer should have had every right to terminate his employment as a result of it. If I take a job as a waiter, and then refuse to serve someone alcohol because I am a Mormon (and I don't think I would refuse, for the record), then I'd fully expect my employer to fire me, unless they were gracious enough to try to make other accommodations. It would be the responsible thing to do to tell my employer of my convictions before accepting the job, as the pharmacist should have done. I have the right to practice my religion as I see fit, but if my religious convictions conflict with my professional responsibilities, I should not have the right to remain employed.

The issue with the diabetic girl is a more sensitive topic. Did the parents have the right not to take this daughter to the hospital and pray instead? If I'm consistent with my previous argument, I'd say "Yes, and they are responsible for what happens as a result of that decision." But I just can't bring myself to say that a parent has the right to allow their child to die needlessly. Perhaps I could say: Yes, but they must be held responsible for their decision, which should have meant their legal custody over the girl should have been terminated, and social services should have taken her to the hospital.

Just as the pharmacist doesn't have the right to a job, these parents don't have the right to be parents if they make decisions that directly result in death for their child, whether those decisions are based on religious belief or not.

Religious people, including myself, should learn from these mistakes. Let us strive to learn true principles, live by them, and then take responsibility for them.

Matthew 26: 42. He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Do We Worship?

Driving to church today I couldn't help but notice the packed parking lots of other churches as we drove by. It's nice not to feel like a weirdo for at least two Sundays a year. The signs outside of most of them announced, "Easter Worship Service."

That got me thinking: what exactly do we Mormons consider worship? Before my wife was my wife, and before she was baptized into the LDS Church, I attended her church one Sunday. We all stood to sing a contemporary worship song, and I tried to follow along with the words as they flashed on the screen. After the song, I went to sit down when I noticed everyone was still standing. The band started playing again and off we were singing another song. OK, I thought, they really like their songs--they sing 2 opening songs! Err.. make that 3... oh wait... 4... We stood for well over an hour singing songs before the sermon finally began.

It seems to me, in my limited experience, that other churches mean something very specific when they talk about "worship." A quick search at LDS.org didn't yield much substantial in the way of what "worship" really is, other than the general "to give Him our love, reverence, service, and devotion". But if you were to ask the average member (by which I mean me) what the purpose of our church services is, he (I) would answer: "To bring me closer to God. To learn more about Him and Jesus. To help me learn the commandments and motivate me to keep them." None of that really comes close to what other churches mean by "worship." Worship focuses on God and us showing love towards him. But all of my responses seem to be about me and how church helps me. The only thing that resembles what others might see as "worship" is signing hymns, but that's only about 15 minutes total of the 3-hour block (maybe more if you're in relief society), and to be honest, the hymn signing usually is less than enthusiastic. The sacrament, which is the main purpose for our meeting, also comes close as sort of a personal worship, but even that also focuses on us remembering Jesus and repenting, rather than a simple expression of our love for Him (although no doubt that is a part of it).

I've quoted this before from Elder Hartman Rector, Jr.:

"You can tell what a man worships by what he does on Sunday—repent and start worshipping the true and living God, the maker of heaven and earth and all things that in them are."

So is this really all that we mean by worship: just spending time? Does worship, from an LDS perspective, include not only singing hymns but also reading scriptures, communing with others, learning and discussing the gospel, and spending time with our family?

Let me be clear that my intent is not to criticize the church's view of worship, just to contrast what seems to be our view with the rest of the Christian world. Such pondering no doubt will help in understanding the new investigator's experience attending our church. So do we worship enough in our services? Or do we just have another idea of what worship is?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tithenomics

When I was a 12 and preparing to go to the temple for the first time, my bishop interviewed me. At first I was nervous, but as the questions came it seemed I was acing it. Just when I started getting confident, this question came up:

Bishop: "Do you pay your tithing?"

Me: "I don't make any money." Come on. Is that all you've got, Bishop?

Bishop: "Well, do you get an allowance?"

Me (sheepishly): "Yes"

Bishop: "How do you feel about paying tithing on that?"

Me: "Well, my parents pay their tithing, so the tithing has already been paid on that money."

As a 12 year old, this made a lot of sense to me. But the bishop patiently explained that if I get any money, regardless of who gives it to me, I should pay my tithing on it. After I promised I would start paying it, I got my recommend.

But leaving his office, the wheels in my head were still turning. So tithing is more than just 10%? After all, if my parents had not paid their tithing, they could have given me a whole 10% more. So, if I'm receiving 10% less because of tithing, and then I pay 10% of that to tithing, then that means tithing is really 19%! (Yes, I was/am a geek and could do that sort of math in my head as a 12 year old.)

Thus began my obsession with the economics of tithing. Let me be clear that I don't criticize the church for the principle of tithing, but this experience launched years of pondering on the subject that eventually has led me to this conclusion:

Tithing is not a "lesser law." It is just a form of the law of consecration, modified to conform with the free-market society.

To illustrate my point, let's assume hypothetically that everyone in the world is a tithe-paying member of the LDS church. You're probably either very excited or horrified at this possibility, but please get over it and stay with me for a moment. Now let's say you go to work one day at Widgets Inc. and your boss pays you $100 for your day's work. Of course you pay $10 to the church and you are left with $90. You use that $90 to hire a company to take care of your lawn. Of the $90 you pay the company, it uses $50 to pay an employee who pays $5 tithing. The owner of the company keeps the remaining $40 for himself and pays $4 tithing. The employee, now left with $45, uses it to buy a widget from Widgets Inc. Of that $45, the owner of Widgets Inc. takes $10 or himself, paying $1 to tithing, and the remaining $35 he puts toward your next day's pay, and the cycle starts over again. And I won't even go into what Widgets Inc. pays to it suppliers, who of course pay tithing as well.

In this scenario, out of the original $100, the church now owns $20. As the cycle continues, they will own more and more until they own almost all of the $100. But of course the church doesn't just sit on this money; they use it to buy supplies for the church, which gets that money back into the marketplace where it can again be traded before eventually ending up back at the church.

So basically, in my hypothetical world, all of the money ends up going through the church and redistributed (by means of purchasing good and services) to others. This is essentially how the law of consecration worked when it was attempted in the early days of the church, with the exception that the church did not purchase things in order to redistribute the money.

But of course we don't live in that hypothetical world. In our free-market society where not everyone is a member of the church, the law of consecration would not fit. It violates the rules that make the free-market work, so it would essentially destine the members of the church to be outsiders, like they were in the early days of the church. But the law of tithing can fit in with the free-market society, and at its root it still allows the church to redistribute the money, proportional to the percentage of the population that are tithe-paying church members.

So don't tell me the law of tithing is a "lesser law." I believe it is the law of consecration incognito. But I'm onto it. And next time you give your kids their allowance, be aware that you might be condemning them to years of internal tension as they try to figure out just what tithing really is, in which case I recommend professional therapy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Iraq War: Worth the Cost?

Today is the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Now seems like an appropriate time to take a break from my typical LDS theme and make this very important political statement:

I'm sorry.

Don't get me wrong. I don't feel personally responsible for what has happened there. I didn't vote for Bush the first time (I was out of the country and my mind was far from politics), but I did mostly support his decision. Still, my personal responsibility is minimal when compared to those in charge of our intelligence, President Bush, and many others. But when I think of all the people who have died and the political mess that we have there, I wish we had not done it. I came to this realization gradually. Here's my conversion story:

In the beginning, it was all about WMDs (weapons of mass destruction, if you've been living in a cave). Our intelligence, as well as other countries said they had them, and Hussein's history made us think he might use them. If this were true, that would be good enough reason to invade, I believe. However, it turned out it wasn't true. In the beginning of the war, as each month went by with no evidence turned up, the administration's rhetoric gradually shifted away from WMDs and started focusing on the question, "Well, isn't it a good thing that we've ousted Saddam?" Well yes, but of course we must ask, "At what cost?" We have not historically, nor should we now, start using unilateral military action to get rid of leaders who do things we don't like, even criminal things.

Some still argue that Iraq might have had WMDs but moved them before the war to another country. That's possible, but speculation. If there were any credible evidence for that, the administration would still be using it and not talking about Saddam's crimes against his people.

The second argument, and the one I've held until recently, is that the war was justified, but we haven't handled it well. The execution was flawed, but the initial invasion was the right decision. I recently have come to the conclusion that we can't separate the two. If I bet a million dollars that I can kick a 30 yard field goal in a football game, and then I miss, can I then say, "Well, it was a good idea but the execution was bad." My point is that there is risk in anything that we do. The US did not judge the risk well, did not have a good plan for minimizing the risk, and did not have a good back-up plan for what to do if the worst-case scenario happened. Whether the motive was good going in or not, we should not have gone in if we could not manage the risk.

All of this, combined with the great human suffering caused by the invasion, has finally (some would say far too late), led me to the conclusion that we should not have done it. I say this knowing that for those who have served or lost family members and friends, such a statement is a hard thing. I don't wish to minimize their service and sacrifices, but I have to say what I believe is true. Now that we are there, what they are doing is very important.

With that said, I also don't support immediate withdrawal, nor do I think we have "lost". Words like "lose" and "win" don't make sense in modern warfare, in my opinion. We're there now, and we can't dwell on the mistakes of the past other than learning from them. Instead, we need to figure out what's the best thing to do now that we're there. The surge has brought some stability to Iraq and pulling out now would undermine that. In fact, my recent conversion changes very little on what I think should be done from here. We still have a chance to leave Iraq better than we found it, but again the question is: Will it be worth the cost?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wait, Who am I Sustaining Again?

Today was high council Sunday, and the high councilor stood up to take care of his stake business. Someone was called to be a high priest in a different ward. Yada yada, same old stuff. And then he said:

"Will all those who can sustain the stake president in this ordination, please manifest it."

Suddenly the monotony train went off the tracks and a torrent of questions came to my mind. Am I sustaining the stake president here, or is this just an interesting way to say that I'm sustaining the high priest? Do we always implicitly sustain the caller as well as the callee, or is this unique to the ordination of high priests? If I don't think the man is qualified and don't sustain him, am I not sustaining the stake president? Or does "in this ordination" sufficient to add specificity to how I'm sustaining the stake president in this instance?

All of these questions were left unanswered as I only had a split second before my vote would be required. So I put the questions on the back burner and "manifested it."

But now I'm left to wonder: who/what did I just sustain?

(Note: if you're not LDS you probably won't understand what I'm talking about. Sorry about that.)

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On Secrets and Lies: A Moral Dilemma

The following is a hypothetical situation inspired by true events. I apologize that it is purposefully vague--I don't want to get myself in trouble:

Let's say a friend comes to you and tells you a secret, and you promise not to divulge it. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a good reason for the information remaining secret from others. It's not anything bad, but if the information were shared, it could be damaging to everyone's interests. Not only must you not tell anyone The Secret, but also you must also not let on that you know anything more on the matter than anyone else. In other words, you must keep it a secret that you know The Secret.

At first all is well. You simply put the information in the back of you mind and don't talk about it. But the trouble is: information doesn't exist in a vacuum. Every decision we make is based on what we know, so over time this information starts to become useful to you in making decisions. However, because of the information you have that others don't, your decisions start to look foolish and indefensible from the perspective of those that don't know The Secret.

In one pinnacle moment you find yourself making a decision that you must justify to others (at least those to whom you are accountable), but which makes no sense at all with a knowledge of The Secret. You choose to lie and conjure up a story that justifies your decision without having to break your word that you would keep the secret.

So what started as a justifiable secret has just caused you to be dishonest with those around you. Where did you go wrong?

1. When you agreed to keep the secret? Is keeping a secret is just another way of lying and we should avoid it?

2. When you lied in order to keep the secret? Should you just have just come clean then? Once you have to lie to keep a secret, is it then similar to a "secret combination?"

3. You didn't do anything wrong? Was it justifiable to lie in this case?

4. It depends on what The Secret was, and how important it is to keep it secret?

All of these answers have problems:

1. So it's always a sin to keep a secret? What about Bishops keeping their conversations with members confidential? Or doctors and patients? And in the workplace, there is often the need for secrecy to preserve business interests.

2. If you can only keep a secret up until you have to lie, then essentially you can't promise to keep a secret. Then, in fact, it really is a sin to promise to keep a secret (see #1), since you know you might not be able to keep that promise.

3. So sometimes it is OK to lie? As long as it's a justifiable lie? Isn't every lie justifiable by the liar? Otherwise, there would be no reason to lie.

4. Same problem as #3? If the secret is important enough, it's OK to lie? Isn't every lie motivated by the belief that it is important not to divulge the truth?

Something to ponder.

Faith vs. Evidence: A False Choice

On the way to work the other day, I was listening to a show on public radio that featured Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and Oxford professor, as its guest. His fundamental argument was this:

Since religious belief is not based on evidence, it is foolish to believe in it, and irresponsible to teach it to children.

I knew exactly how I would counter this argument, but I didn't call in because I was driving in icy conditions, and when I got to work, well... I was working (which are both excuses for the fact that challenging a very intelligent atheist in front of thousands of listeners is a bit intimidating), so instead I waited for someone to call in and raise the argument I thought was obvious.

But alas, no one did, at least while I was listening. Some people called in to challenge him, but frankly their arguments were weak:

"How can you argue religion is bad when atheists like Hitler have done such bad things?"

"How can you say religion is bad when our society was based on it?"

"Do you really have no beliefs?"

"Don't you know that religious people have been shown to be happier in scientific studies?"

As I would suspect, he swatted all of these arguments like injured flies. They are all softballs to the intellectual atheist. To my surprise, no one brought up the most obvious rebuttal.

My response to his argument is simple. His premise is false:

Religious belief is based on evidence.

I suppose some of you might be saying, "Of course!", while others might be saying, "That's heresy, don't the scripture say that faith is something that is 'hoped for and not seen?'" Yes, but just because something is not seen does not mean that there is no evidence. We do not believe in blind faith, last I heard. And I'm not talking about archaeological or historical evidence here--I'll leave that to FAIR.

At one point in the discussion, the host ask Dr. Dawkins, "So how would one prove the existence of God?"

His response: God himself could easily prove his own existence. He need only to speak from heaven and say, "I am here." Both guest and host chuckled.

So I would ask Dr. Dawkins: "So what if God, or an angelic messenger, appeared before you, and told you that God exists. Would that be enough evidence for you?"

Hypothetical Dr. Dawkins: "Of course."

Me: "So what if instead of appearing before you, he caused you to have a feeling in your heart that was so unprecedented that you knew it must come from some outside source. And at the the same time thoughts began entering your mind that you knew did not come from your own head. These feelings and thoughts worked together in such a way as to stimulate the same feelings and thoughts that you would have if God himself were standing in front of you. Would that be enough evidence for you?"

Mormons are familiar with this idea, as we believe that the Holy Ghost will teach us the "truth of all things." But an atheist would balk at it, since they normally counter such things by saying that these feelings are rooted in our own survival instinct--a desire to feel comfort--, not an external source. But I would argue that, even for an atheist, there must be some level of non-visual experience that would convince them to believe. After all, what is sight? It is only our brain telling us that something is in front of us. If our feelings can be deceived, then why not our eyes? If we can trust that our eyes are telling us the truth, then why not trust feelings that teach us truth also?

Me: "So let's suppose you had a feeling that was so strong that it was undeniable that it came from God. Would that be enough evidence?"

Dr. Dawkins: "Well, if I had such an undeniable experience, then by definition I would have to believe."

Me: "Would it then be irresponsible to teach it to your children?"

Dr. Dawkins: (silence)

Me: "Aha, so you see many who believe in religion do so because they have evidence, not in spite of it. But it is personal evidence. I can no more convince you that there is a God than I can convince you by words alone that the walls of my living room are green, but both are equally evident to me, whether it be by my physical eyes or those of my spirit."

It's fun to debate hypothetical intellectuals.

For more on how faith is based on personal evidence, see Elder Douglas L. Callister talk from the last General Conference entitled "Knowing That We Know." It's a good one.

And Doctrine and Covenants 6:23 "Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?"

But here's a follow-up question: Why did no one bring this up? Is Dr. Dawkins right that most religious people believe with no evidence, even personal evidence? Do they just believe because they were told to? This would be a surprise to me, but based on the evidence of that show, and it's lack of callers making my argument, I'd say he just might be correct.

Editor's Note: This was a repost, since the date on the original post was incorrect.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Our Allergy Story, Part II: Debunking the Food Allergy Myths

In Part I, I discussed how my son was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE) and discovered a little about what it's like to be abnormal.

What follows is either an important advocacy statement, or a personal rant, depending on your perspective.

Most people would consider living with a food allergy to be easy. After all, there are enough food regulations and labeling laws that it should be clear what foods are safe and which are not, right? Well, there are several myths surrounding this issue that even some people with allergies don't understand, and I guarantee that if you put yourself in the position of a person with severe food allergies, you will be angry by the end of this post. Yes, that's a money-back guarantee.

Myth #1: If a food contains a common allergen, it will clearly say so in the ingredient list.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) took effect in 2006. In theory, the act says that any food containing one of the eight most common food allergens must say so in plain English in the ingredient list or an allergy statement. This was a comfort to us when we first read about it.

But then we talked to some nurses at our allergy clinic and a nutritionist who told us that this is not the case. Apparently, companies can get around this law. The following is a list we were given of what could be in the ingredient list without needing to explicitly specify that it contains egg. All of the following indicate the presence of egg protein:

Albumin
Apovitellis
Avidin
Cholesterol free processed eggs (egg beaters)
Egg
Eggnog
Egg whites or yolks
Egg white solids
Globulin
Livetin
Lysozyme
Mayonnaise
Meringue
Ovalbumin
Ovamucoid or Ovamucin
Powdered Eggs
Silici albuminate
Simplesse (fat substitute)
Vitellin
Surimi

And all of the following could indicate the presence of egg protein:

Flavoring (natural or artificial)
Macaroni
Nougat
Pasta
Lecithin
Marzipan
Marshmallows

Yes, that's right: flavoring is on the list, which is in almost any processed food. How can this be, considering the law says they have to say that it contains egg in plain language? This didn't make sense to us, and at first we were skeptical of what the nurses told us. And to be fair, other competent medical professionals were telling us otherwise. So we thought some were just being overly cautious, but to be on the safe side we did what they told us, which means that we had to call the food manufacturer of every product that contained flavoring.

Most of the response was comforting. They would typically tell us "Yes" or "No" on whether the product contained egg, and this information was consistent with what was on the label. We learned to ask also, "What is your companies policy regarding food allergy labeling?" And the answer was normally encouraging, "Our packaging will always say 'egg' if the product contains egg." Great. That's what we thought. That is the law, after all.

But then we came across a notable exception. One representative of a company seemed not as confident as others we had talked to.

Company: "Well if it contained egg, I would think the ingredient list would say egg." (Tip off that they don't know what they're talking about: they use the words "I would think" or "probably").

We pressed further, and they confirmed that the product does not contain egg. As always, we then asked what their general policy was.

Her: "We follow the law, so it will say egg if it contains egg."

Us: "Well actually we've been told that sometimes companies don't have to say egg."

Her: "Let me confirm our policy, please wait a moment"

Her: "Yes, you are right. We use the following words on our packages which may indicate that they contain egg..." She then listed ingredients similar to ones I listed above.

We were both shocked and horrified. It turns out the nurses were right. Companies can apparently get away with it. Which means that if you're allergic to egg, or pretty much anything for that matter, you have to call every company that lists "flavoring" on their product to confirm that it doesn't contain egg.

You'll be even more shocked to learn which company this was. It must be some mom-and-pop shop that doesn't know what they are doing, right? Surely any respectable food company would follow the spirit of the law and be clear on their labels. So which company was this?

My wife says I should say the name, but suffice it to say that if you think of the first large processed food company you can think of, you might have it. If you need to know, post a comment with your email address and I'll email it to you.

(Note: Since we had this experience, our allergy doctor--who is now telling us that his nurse was wrong and that labels do have to say "egg"--told us that the food company representative must have been mistaken. I hope he is right, but who do I believe? We'll probably be putting another call into company X to see if I can confirm their policy again. And this leads me to my next myth.)

(Updated 3/30: We sent another email to the company and they assured as that the product will say it contains egg if it contains egg. So we've received conflicting information on this, which supports my conclusion regarding the second myth.)

Myth #2: If you call the 1-800 number on the package, the customer service representative will be able to tell you whatever food allergy information you need.

I touched on this in describing Myth #1, but there are other examples too numerous to go into here, but I'll mention a few.

Most companies are good, but we've also been made to feel like idiots:

Us: "Hi, we have a son with an egg allergy, and we'd like to know if this product contains egg."

Company: "Well, sir, do you know what the top eight food allergens are?"

Us: "Yes I do, but..."

Company: "Well, are you aware that it is the law that the ingredient list must say in clear language if the product contains one of those ingredients?"

Us: "Yes I'm aware that's what the law says, but..."

Company: "Well let's review the ingredient list together and we'll see if it contains egg."

Arg. I can read, people.

But worse than that, some company representatives have no idea what they are talking about.

Us: "What is your companies policy on food allergy labeling?"

Company: "Well if it contains a food allergen, it will probably say so in the ingredient list."

Probably? Since when to company policies contain the word "probably?" If I play Russian roulette, I'll probably be OK, but sorry, that's not good enough.

Myth #3: If the food contains a food allergen, there will be a food allergy statement on the package, such as "CONTAINS: WHEAT".

This one is just plain wrong, but I have no idea why it can't be true. Why is it so hard for food companies to put this on their label?

But even worse than that is that some food company representatives don't even know that this is a myth.

Us: "What is your policy on food allergen labeling."

Company: "If our product contains one of the top eight food allergens, there will be a food allergy statement clearly stating so starting with the word CONTAINS."

Us: "Really? Because I'm looking at one of your products now and the ingredient list has wheat, but there is no food allergy statement."

Company: "Oh, well that must just be because it's one of the first ingredients listed."

What we wanted to say: "OK. So how many ingredients do we have to read before we can be confident that your product doesn't contain an allergen? Five? Seven? Eighteen? So what you told me isn't really your policy at all, is it?"

Who was this company? Chances are you probably ate some cereal they sell this morning.

Myth #4: If the product contains an allergy statement, such as "CONTAINS: WHEAT", then you don't have to read the ingredients because all of the major allergens will be listed.

This one is one that I think is supposed to be true. But it still isn't. Just today, I ran across this label (highlights added):



Notice that one of the ingredients is "Soybean oil", and it has an allergy statement, but the allergy statement doesn't say that it contains Soy, which is one of the most common allergens.

And this is one of the two companies I previously mentioned.

(Updated 3/30: After some more research online, we discovered that soybean oil doesn't actually contain soy protein, which is why they don't have to say it contains soy if it contains soybean oil. If you are allergic to soy, you may or may not also be allergic to soybean oil, so that's one more complication to add to the puzzle. Fortunately we're not in that boat.)

Conclusion

So why should you care? So what?

A law that is not enforced (or that has sufficient loopholes) is worse than no law at all, because it gives a false sense of security. If we had not done our research, we would have believed these myths.

If you have a food allergy, be aware of these myths and fight against them.

If you don't have a food allergy, be sensitive to those around you that do. It's harder than you think to live in a world that wasn't made for you, especially when you have to deal with competent medical professionals that are giving you conflicting information.

Thanks for reading my story. No, it doesn't have much to do with the main purpose of my blog, but I thought my experience was worth sharing.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Our Allergy Story, Part 1: Learning to Be Abnormal

Mormons like to think of themselves as abnormal. In general, we take pride in stepping away from the mainstream. In every other way, my family is pretty average. We're white; married with two kids; middle-class; paying off our 30-year fixed-rate mortgage; and have two legs, two arms, and two eyes for each person. Yet, I thought I knew what it meant to be abnormal because of my religion. I don't drink coffee or beer and don't swear. Wo is me, my poor persecuted soul! But in the last few months I've learned that I really had no idea what it means to be truly abnormal.

That was until my son was diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE for short), which is a somewhat rare chronic disease that manifests itself through inflammation of the esophagus. The symptoms are brought on because of exposure to allergens. Most people with EE are allergic to multiple foods and/or environmental allergens, so naturally we were concerned. Later we found out what he was allergic to: egg. Phew, what a relief. Just egg? We can handle that. Our life of normalcy lives on!

But who knew that egg is in a lot of foods, and many ingredients most people would not associate with egg are derived from it (see Part II). Our lives quickly changed as we became the "food police" to investigate every ingredient in every food that came even close to going into our son's mouth.

But of course there are worse things that could happen. Having a food allergy isn't the same as being blind, losing an appendage, or getting cancer. Yes, of course there are more difficult things. But this was our first glimpse of living life in a world not made for us.

So what? Our society looks out for the less fortunate, right? Every building is wheel chair accessible. Braille is everywhere, including drive-through ATMs (yes, drive-through). But what I've learned is that the things we do to help the less-normal are really just gestures to make everyone else feel better about being normal.

Stay tuned for Part II: Debunking the Food Allergy Myths.

No, it's not the hottest of topics, but I think after reading it you might be a little bit angrier, if that's what you're looking for.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Holy Ghost Personified

Of course the title of this post is an intentional misnomer since the Holy Ghost is, in fact, a person. As Mormons, we believe that the Holy Ghost is the third member of the Godhead, and is a person of spirit, usually referred to as a "personage", presumably because the word "person" might imply a physical body. But we rarely speak of the Holy Ghost as a person. Rather, we almost always talk of the Holy Ghost in terms of the "power of the Holy Ghost" or the "Gift of the Holy Ghost". The Bible Dictionary entry on the Holy Ghost hardly even mentions that he is a person. Recently I have been pondering why we don't at least sometimes speak of the Holy Ghost in the same way we speak of Jesus--as a person.

This is understandable when we consider that we know virtually nothing about the Holy Ghost as a person. We know some things about the Father, and much more about Jesus. But any history of the Holy Ghost as a person is absent from scripture, and I haven't been able to find any substantial statements from church leaders on the subject either (perhaps some LDS history buff can correct me).

Perhaps the history of the Holy Ghost as a person is not important for us to know. It is important that we understand a little about the character of God, since we pray to him, for example. It is also important that we understand Jesus as a person, since we strive to be like him and rely on the atonement, an act he performed as a person. Perhaps the Holy Ghost is only important to us because of his current mission, not anything to do with his personage.

That explanation is good enough for me, but the curious side of me still wonders what his story is. Did he volunteer for his role in the plan of salvation, like Jesus did? Did we know him in the pre-mortal life? What is he like as a person, beyond his role as the Comforter and a teacher of truth? I'm not expecting any answers to these questions, of course, but I'm just a little surprised that more people aren't asking them.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Faith Subverting Rumors

Every extended family has one: the person that forwards you the email with a "faith promoting story." I received one such email this morning relating the story of a construction worker who worked on the Nauvoo temple.

According to the story, as the statue of the angel Moroni was being hoisted to the top of the temple, a shaft of light shone down from heaven upon the statue. According to the story it was September 22nd, the anniversary of when Joseph Smith took the gold plates from the hillside.

Now if that doesn't give you a warm feeling inside, I don't know what will. Oh wait, maybe that's just heartburn.

The story seamed off to me so I did some research (my main motivation being to have some fun with this particular family member), and found a web cam that was taking a picture once every minute of the construction of the temple. Surely this camera would show the "shaft of light", right? Well no--there's no light. Of course, it's possible that the shaft appeared for only a short time and the web cam just didn't catch it. Ok, I'll give you that. But the other thing the picture from the web cam shows is a large crowd of people watching as the statue was raised. I searched online but couldn't find any other account of anyone else seeing the shaft of light.

Also, the statue was placed on September 21st, not 22nd. This wouldn't be important except for the story was detailed on why the 22nd was significant. The 21st is important in Mormon history also, and is related to the angel Moroni, but it was not when Joseph Smith received the plates. (But since it is also an important date, I suppose it's possible the author of the story was just confusing the dates).

To me it seams very likely that the light in the first picture is an over-exposed reflection from the metal cord holding the statue, or else someone who is mildly familiar with Photoshop was having some fun.

I proudly emailed back to this family member. Again, my intent was just to have some fun. But then my wife called me a "party pooper" and I felt bad. But pondering on whether I really should have rained on the parade, I realized that these sorts of things really could be harmful.

If someone who is trying to establish a true testimony were to stumble across this, they might use it to buttress their faith. Then what happens months or years later when they find out that it might not be true?

So the lesson is clear: If you're going to spread faith promoting rumors, at least make sure they are not easily proven false. I prefer my faith promoting rumors unverifiable, thank you!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Political Smorgasbord

This morning I voted for McCain. Then, as I was driving to a company-sponsored political forum/rally featuring Jim Doyle, governor of Wisconsin and an Obama supporter, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio (who hates both McCain and Obama).

As I realized this I fully expected my brain to explode because of the politically contradictory inputs it was receiving. But I lived to tell the tale. Either I'm exceptionally politically tolerant, or else I'm just an exceptionally confused individual.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Book of Mormon and the Free Market

Shortly after Christ taught the people of the Americas in the first century, The Book of Mormon says "And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor."

I'm a believer in the free market system. An important aspect of the free market is that people are motivated to be productive both by the dream of being rich, and the fear of being poor. Therefore, rich people and poor people are essential to the free market system.

But we must be careful to not assume that because roses come with thorns, thorns are good. Economic inequality is a necessary evil of the free market system. In general, people who work hard will be richer than those that don't, but this is not necessarily true at an individual level, which clearly isn't fair. If there were a way to eliminate this inequality, but still motivate people to contribute to society, that clearly that would be better.

So the question is, how did the people in the Book of Mormon achieve this state? I think this is an important question. The motivation is clear: they were wholly converted to the gospel and loved God and their neighbors. But motivation alone doesn't accomplish things. So the question remains, how did they do it? Here are some possible answers:

1) The government imposed laws that required a fair distribution of wealth. This is what some might call "The Welfare State".

2) The church instituted policies that facilitated a fair distribution of wealth.

3) The people voluntarily made sure the poor were taken care of to the point were they where no longer poor. Anyone who acquired wealth would immediately distribute it to those who were in need.

Some Mormons support funding various social programs on the basis that we, as followers of Christ, should help those less fortunate than ourselves. I wonder if people with such a view believe that The Book of Mormon people achieved a state of economic equality the same way.

On the other hand, some Mormons might assume it was entirely voluntary and personally-driven on the basis that the text does not mention government or church programs. However, just because it doesn't mention them doesn't mean they didn't exist. Mormon is summarizing several hundred years of history here.

So I'm left to wonder why Mormon included this and left out the means by which it was accomplished. Perhaps the means is not all that important. Perhaps it is the motivation--the pure love of Christ--that is important. Still, knowing the means would be very useful right now as I try to figure out who I'm going to vote for this Tuesday. I guess I'll actually have to think about it for myself.