View From the End of the World
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group
by Bob Lane
The May Discussion Group subject was a lecture given by author Sam Harris titled “View From the End of the World,” contained on an audio CD I was given. The group received copies of the disc, which contained a lecture that Harris has presented around the country at a number of venues. He begins by saying he is going to talk about belief, specifically religious belief, and acknowledges that he will offend some in the audience. He also understands that just being provocative or nasty is not useful and that discourse should remain civil.
Having made that disclaimer, Harris does proceed to criticize religion, quite harshly at times. But much of his censure is backed by strong examples, such as his analysis of the religious belief that condom use is immoral. He calls it “genocidal stupidity” when you map that belief onto sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS is an enormous problem and condom use is a well established means of prevention.
He spends a considerable amount of time on the subject of religious moderates. Harris agrees that moderates are better than fundamentalists because “they don’t fly airplanes into buildings.” But he also blasts religious moderates, saying that they give cover to fundamentalists by insisting that we be non-critical of religion, specifically religious faith. Noting that religious faith stops ethical debate simply because it is taboo to criticize someone’s faith-based view of an issue, he advocates that we develop a “conversational intolerance” and not allow religion to escape scrutiny.
Harris has much more to say in this lecture than can be listed here. I tend to agree with him when he says that much of what is going on in our society (controversies about stem cell research, intelligent design, etc.) represent a conflict between science and religion, and that religion has been successful in “eroding science.”
In the end, Harris advocates that we use reason. Again, I agree, Reason is a good M.O.
Ray Hult, with his engaging personality and sense of humor, spoke about his personal journey from the entrenched world of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to his current agnosticism. For those of us who have traveled a similar road, we could only nod in agreement as Hult related his story.
Beginning with a joke, Hult asked, “What do you get when you combine an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic? Somebody staying up all night wondering if there is a dog.”
Proceeding with how he became agnostic after years with an unshakable belief in God and Joseph Smith, his religious story began early. Born in Colorado, his mother was LDS while his father was from a long line of Swedish Lutherans. At first taking turns every Sunday alternating at each other’s church, his father converted to Mormonism. After moving to Salt Lake City, his parents and all the children became immersed in the LDS Church.
Beginning to have doubts about Mormonism during the time he was eligible to become a missionary, Hult stopped attending church. One thought he had during this period was that it did not make sense to him that God wanted to be worshipped, an admonition that seemed egotistical.
Continuing on, Hult said that when he and his wife were married, they were inactive Mormons, but became active and eventually married in an LDS Temple after participating in a six-month program intended to activate inactive people. Even though his family was elated with their temple marriage, Hult recalled how unsettling that temple experience was.
A roller coaster ride after that, he and his wife and children for the next twenty-eight years were also immersed in the LDS Church. With five daughters, a job with the FBI, and demanding positions in the church, Hult did not have much time to linger upon the doubts that popped up from time to time.
After more than twenty years in the FBI that involved working with numerous fraud cases of some of the most charismatic, creative charlatans one could imagine, Hult illustrated with the case of Josepf Papp.
Supposedly having developed an alternative car engine that used inert gases, Papp solicited investors for this invention. But during a demonstration of the engine when an explosion killed an observer, Papp blamed the accident on interference by a pseudo-skeptic, who was in fact physicist Richard Feynman. Although Papp never demonstrated another engine, he continued to accept money from investors.
Most of the time, Hult said, victims of con artists still sing praises of them “even as they were being checked into prison. They had a difficult time admitting they had been fooled and lost their investments.”
After his children started leaving home and he was involved in less demanding church positions, Hult began to think more objectively about the claims of Joseph Smith. “It occurred to me for the first time that he might be more like the con men I had been working on than I had been willing to admit,” he said.
With doubts also about the temple marriage ceremony, Hult was reluctant to share them with his wife, recalling how as a bishop in the LDS Church, he had witnessed divorces resulting from one spouse becoming an unbeliever and the other fearing not being able to attain the highest place in the hereafter; LDS doctrine espouses that both spouses must be believers to attain the highest place. Hult was terrified of a possible divorce from what he thought was his believing wife.
Luckily, his wife had the same doubts, also afraid of telling him for the same reason. That was a “major relief,” said Hult, which marked the start of “a multi-year investigation into the claims of Joseph Smith.” While traveling this journey, he decided that the best way to keep track of his research was to contain them in book form.
Hult continued, “I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but it suddenly hit me that I may have been brainwashed about the Bible too. I had never even considered that possibility before. I decided to investigate the Bible the same way I had investigated Mormonism and came up with a second book.”
The publicist for his books summed it up this way; “Using his twenty-seven years as a FBI special agent as a springboard, the author draws on his experience in deductive reasoning to justify the agnostic point of view.”
Still friends with LDS members and still harboring great respect for the LDS culture, Hult concluded in the first book with his ultimate life goal: “I hope to be a good person because I know in the core of my being it’s the right thing to do.”
For a detailed account of Hult’s deductive reasoning process responsible for his becoming an agnostic, refer to his books. The two volumes can be purchased directly from the publisher at Trafford.com where readers can also review several pages of each book. Both books are also available at a number of internet book sites including both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Agnosticity, volume 1 An Agnostic view of bothersome Christian Doctrine
Agnosticity, volume 2 An Agnostic view of bothersome Mormon Doctrine
Well, here we are at the beginning of our first summer recess. This is the first time that the chapter has taken a ‘seasonal hiatus,’ but I think we will all agree it is a good idea. People are busy with many different things this time of year: graduations, vacations, working in our yards and gardens, and the like. While we are tending to these things (or are just feeling really wiped out from the summer heat), attendance at the General Meeting and discussion group suffers during the summer months. The Board (which will continue to meet during the recess period) felt it would be a good idea to try the break and return to our regular meeting schedule in September. We do, however, have some summer social events planned that we hope you will consider joining us for.
Our first two “Movie Nights” several months ago were such a success that we have decided to hold another one, and what better time to do so than on a hot summer night? We plan to show The Gods Must Be Crazy at 6:00 PM. on Thursday, June 21, at the University of Utah Union Building. This is a great movie that will bring a smile to your face while raising some thought-provoking ideas. The movie tells the story of Xi, a bushman of the Kalahari who one day finds an empty Coke bottle in the desert. You might not think that this one small item could change civilization but it does, and in ways that will bring many a chuckle. Add to it jungle animals, a love story, and many important morals and messages, and it makes for one interesting and funny movie. I’ll be bringing some of my decadent popcorn (made with real butter and salt,) and hope to see many of you there. We will also hold the annual Summer Social in August, and again it will be another first for the chapter: a picnic/BBQ at the home of members John and Wanda Young. The Board has had a preliminary planning session for this special event and while many details are still being worked out, I can tell you that it will be a fun evening with great food, conversation and company. Please mark your calendars for August 9 (tentative time 6:00 p.m. but final details to be announced.) John and Wanda’s home is at 2127 South 1900 East, and we thank them for opening their lovely home to us for this event.
I will be leaving in a few days to attend the 66th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association in Portland, Oregon. It is always a pleasure to be around fellow humanists, and I am looking forward to many engaging activities and conversations with like-minded freethinkers. I am sure this will be a stimulating and informative few days, and will share my conference experiences with you in a subsequent newsletter.
Finally, please mark your calendars for September 13, at 7:30 PM-our first General Meeting after the summer recess and featuring your President! My presentation is tentatively titled “I Am Not Persuaded” and will be (mostly) about using science to prove the age of the earth as opposed to the biblical creationist view. I would love to see some friendly and familiar faces out there.