How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Goodbye Lonesome George – another noble species bites the extinction dust of human obliviousness

"If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos."
Edward O. Wilson

Last night, after a day of 100+ degree heat that broke all-time records, violent thunderstorms ravaged much of the northeastern United States. The toll in property damage and life is still being assessed, but millions are currently without power. Simultaneously, the air quality index hovers in the orange or “unhealthy” range for much of the same region.

We could do the right thing. We could make consumer goods with renewable resources and adopt cradle to cradle, rather than cradle to grave manufacturing processes. We could generate all of our electricity from renewable technologies and then build high-speed rail systems and drive electric vehicles. We could subsidize organically grown, healthy food, instead of obesity and diabetes-inducing franken-poison. We could be honest about the reality that people are responsible for the vast majority of the biosphere’s free-fall from stability and take a proactive stance on limiting human population growth.

But we don’t. While most of the above solutions would actually provide jobs, stimulate our failing economy and create the framework for a sustainable future, those who have been elected to manage the welfare of the nation, instead choose to argue about and distort the nature of reality. Meanwhile, a few political sponsors, comprised almost exclusively of the defilers of the planet and all living things, continue their murderous and ruinous rampage across the globe, as they line their exclusive pockets with the proceeds from the slaughter.

Last week, the last remaining Pinta Island giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) was found dead in his enclosure in the Galapagos National Park by long-term friend and keeper Fausto Llerena. Lonesome George, as the tortoise was known, was believed to be over 100 years old, and his tale, unfortunately, is another, all too familiar retelling of a legacy of extinction that follows the path of Western human civilization.

Like many peaceful island-dwelling organisms, George’s kind once roamed the Galapagos without fear of predation or harm. A slow, reptilian metabolism was perfectly adapted to the seasonality of available vegetation. George’s kind had all of eternity to feast, procreate, bask in the sunshine and then wait for the next feast. With lifetimes of up to 200 years, giant tortoise bodies are designed for leisure rather than speed. Once humans arrived in the Galapagos, they manipulated the islands to their own desires, leaving the original inhabitants to adapt or perish in the new reality. The steadfast, patient and enduring nature of the Galapagos giant tortoises proved to be no match for encroaching human ambitions.

George and his kind now join a long list of noble species sacrificed on the altars of human arrogance. Tasmanian tiger, passenger pigeon, Aurochs cattle, Quagga zebra, atlas bear, Cape lion, dodo bird, Javan tiger, great auk, Yangtze River dolphin, the list is unfortunately too long to reproduce. The frenetic obsession with convenience, speed and growth that characterize contemporary Western human culture plows straight into the future, rarely bothering to look at the wreckage beneath its complicit feet.

Why? The go-to argument for all the senseless annihilation is, “It’s the economy stupid.” As if the defense of an inanimate structure of human imagination is more important than all the living things on the planet and even the planet itself. So with our money where our brains should be, we bludgeon our fellow organisms into extinction, one-by-one, and 30,000 per year*. A holocaust of unprecedented proportion for the sake of a few plutocrats, while the human masses somnambulate in a television-induced miasma. Rest in peace George. Unless we wake up soon, we will be joining you.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Trivial Things You Probably Didn’t want to know about Mormonism: Part III – The differences between Mormon Christianity and other Christianities

Mormons are Christians. While many other sects of Christians dispute this fact, people are allowed to define themselves. Mormons insist that they are Christians; therefore, they are. It is true that Mormon theology differs significantly from mainline Christian orthodoxy in many aspects, but it is also true that prior to the deliberate and systematic purging of “heretical” doctrine by Emperor Constantine’s Council of Nicaea (largely for political reasons), Christianity was a much more diverse entity than it is today. I find the diversity of doctrine like all diversity to be healthy, as singular dogmatic authority of religion tends to lead to Dark Ages (see world for 1,000 years post-Constantine).  

Mormon beliefs differ from mainline Christian beliefs in some significant ways. First, they believe that divine revelation continues to unfold and that the Book of Mormon and other Mormon texts are examples of God’s continuing revelation. Therefore, the Old and New Testaments are important theological documents, but they are augmented and revised by more recent revelation. Because doctrine is an evolving entity, it is changeable, making Mormon religious beliefs much more amenable to change than evangelical Christianity that insists on the infallibility of the Bible.

The head (known as the “President”) of the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is believed to be God’s living representative and prophet on earth. As such, through prayer, fasting and discipline, he may receive new revelation or revelation that revises previous doctrine. In this way, there is no theological inconsistency with major ideological reversals (i.e. stances on polygamy and allowing African Americans into the priesthood) in Mormon teaching.

While many would criticize Mormonism for this apparent lack of consistency, one could also consider that the evolving nature of the religion makes it open-minded and amenable to making changes to allow for progressing social ideals. In many respects, the ability to admit mistakes and to correct them is commendable.  A further extrapolation is that Mormons believe that their prophet is first and foremost human and therefore vulnerable to all of the limitations of the species, unlike the Catholic faith that insists upon Papal infallibility.*

Another point of divergence from mainstream Christianity is that Mormons believe God exists in actual physical form and that he is of the same species as earthly humans. God was once much like we are, but then through progression achieved his divine nature. Mormons believe that all humans are literally the children of God and his wife, that we were created in the celestial realm prior to our physical birth, and that each of us has within us the capability to achieve godhood. While God and Mrs. God are our creators, they are not static, perfect, infinite beings of undefinable ether, like the God of mainline Christianity. Instead, they continue to evolve in other realms beyond the human sphere of existence.  In this vein, Jesus, the son of God and Mrs. God, is a separate entity to Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit is a combination of their holy essences.

Significantly, Mormons do not believe in the concept of original sin. Adam and Eve “fell” from Eden in order to undergo the progression towards godhood that requires life in a human form, complete with free will, temptation and importantly, the ability to procreate. Unlike other Judeo-Christian faiths that stipulate that humans are irrevocably tainted with the stain of original sin, Mormons believe that we are only tainted and judged by our own, independent behavior. We are therefore accountable for our actions, and faith alone will not redeem us; nevertheless, we can strive for an achievable perfection. Rather than being condemned, Adam now holds the number 3 position in godhood in heaven, subordinate only to God and Jesus.

In addition to the above primary differences between Mormonism and other Christianities, The Book of Mormon and other Mormon doctrines comprise a complete anthology of additional and revised beliefs too numerous to elaborate on here.  Many of these additional beliefs, such as the notion that Native Americans are the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, are definitely at odds with scientific genetic evidence. 

Judging as an outside observer, Mormonism has much to recommend it for those who are so inclined. The emphasis on personal accountability rather than original sin seems to have observable results. The bigots down in the Bible Belt, who insist that we are all a bunch of dirty sinners who can be saved simply by placing our faith in Jesus, enjoy the highest divorce rates, highest rates of teen pregnancy, highest rates of illiteracy, deplorable rates of incarceration, juvenile delinquency, etc. Meanwhile, Mormons have above-average education levels, low divorce rates, low rates of drug abuse and other delinquencies, etc.  I find it interesting that other Christians are so quick to condemn their Mormon cousins. With open minds and hearts, perhaps they could learn a thing or two about themselves. Mormonism may vary in detail, but in substance is no different than any other religious faith. The fact that Mormons are willing to admit to theological error and correct it should be a recommendation rather than a criticism.

*I am currently reading The Borgias by Ivan Cloulas, an interesting case in point. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mitt and the Mormons: Part II – The Curious Life of Joseph Smith Jr. and the Birth of a Modern Religion

Joseph Smith Jr. was born into a family of poor sharecroppers on December 23, 1805. While the family were originally land owners, purchasing a farm with money from Smith’s mother’s side of the family, they soon fell onto hard times due to some bad investments and poor financial management. To supplement a meager income earned by farming, Smith Sr. also worked as a teacher. The Smith family also made a questionable living by divination and treasure seeking. Wealthy patrons were secured to fund treasure hunting expeditions with the promise of exponential returns on their investments. As far as can be determined, the Smiths never actually found any treasure.

Then, during a period of time in the 1820s, in Upstate New York, Joseph Smith Jr. began to receive visions from divine sources. Smith was not alone in his revelations. The areas of Upstate New York at that time were known as the “Burned-over District,” a nickname attributable to the inordinate number of charismatic revivals that took place there.

The charismatic movement, alternatively known as “the Second Great Awakening,” was gaining momentum throughout the fledgling United States, as pioneering spirits challenged traditional Christian beliefs that divine revelation and prophecy ended in Biblical times. In revival tents across the frontier, Americans were overcome with ecstatic frenzy, receiving prophecy and visions directly from God.  Revelation told them that Jesus would soon return to establish his 1,000-year rule of a New Jerusalem in this Promised Land.

Smith was well-versed in the art and craft of charismatic revelation. His father and grandfather before him both professed to having received divine visions. Moreover, young Joseph’s informal education was based primarily on Bible and religious studies and what was then known about North American history. In Smith’s first vision, two divine beings with blonde hair and blue eyes (now interpreted as Jesus and Heavenly Father) appear to Smith and tell him that all of the churches on earth are teaching a great apostasy and that the Second Coming would transpire soon.

The exact time and content of the first vision are somewhat dubious, as Smith relayed several versions of the vision, differing as to when the vision occurred, who delivered it and what its content was. In spite of the apparent profound revelations of the first vision, it was not even discussed by Joseph Smith or his closest family members until the mid to late 1830s and didn’t become a significant aspect of Mormon doctrine until the 20th Century.

After the first vision, Smith was visited by several other visions and entities, most notably an angel named Moroni, who revealed to Smith the location of a set of golden plates upon which the Book of Mormon was said to be inscribed. The plates were translated by Smith using two magical divining stones that he named Urim and Thummim. Purportedly viewing the plates by looking at them in his hat, Smith dictated the Book of Mormon to scribes on the other side of a curtain. Transcriptionists included first his wife and then a few other associates. The largest portion of the book was transcribed by an early convert Oliver Cowdery.

Among other things, the golden plates tell a fantastic tale of the Lost Tribe of Israel being led to the Americas by Jesus and establishing a holy kingdom in the New World. The New World tribes eventually fell into apostasy, and God punished them by darkening their skin and condemning them to live in savagery, thus explaining the origins of Native Americans. Cowdery and Smith then claim to have been baptized into the priesthood by none other than John the Baptist himself, and the Mormon religion began.

If one is inclined to scoff at the seemingly incredible history of events central to the creation of the Mormon religion, to dismiss the entire faith as a hoax due to incompatibility with scientific facts or to be skeptical based on contradictory doctrinal details espoused throughout the church’s history, I would submit that the above agents of disproval are characteristics of all religions. Visitations by angels and God, supernatural events that defy and are disproven by the laws of science and nature and contradictory doctrine are hallmarks of the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon. Believing the unbelievable and scientifically untenable is the very essence of religious faith.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Demystifying Mysteries about Mitt and Mormons: Part I – The Mormon War on Women

For the first time in United States history, a practicing Mormon appears to have secured the nomination for President in a major political party. Mormons have always been politically active. Founder Joseph Smith ran as an independent candidate for President in 1844, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) readily overturned major doctrinal tenants on polygamy and a belief in white racial supremacy in the interest of political expediency.  

Until recently, Mormons were impeded from much political ascension due to a general public distrust of their largely secretive and apparently strange religious views. The difference now is that thanks to the Citizens United ruling, as Wisconsin’s recent recall re-election of Governor Scott Walker demonstrates, elections now go to the highest bidder. With Willard Mitt Romney as a Presidential candidate, and both Wall Street and the wealthiest religious institution in the United States to back him up, Mormonism may now realize Joseph Smith’s original Presidential ambition. Yet it would seem that some of Mormonism’s basic tenants are distinctly at odds with the basic values upon which the United States was founded, including but not limited to free thought, separation of church and state, respect for diversity of opinions, equality and transparency.

In an effort to shed a light on some of these conflicting values, this will be the first in a series of blog posts on the Mormon faith. I hope that Mormon readers will weigh in and correct or clarify any misrepresentations I might make. I am endeavoring to research the topic objectively, but efforts are somewhat stifled by the fact that the Mormon faith is shielded by a deliberate veil of mystery. Founder Joseph Smith was an active Freemason and modeled many aspects of his church on the secret rituals of that infamous sect. Temple admission is restricted exclusively to church members who have “recommend” status, a qualification that is awarded only to those who tithe at least 10% of their annual incomes and swear to absolute, unquestioning dedication to the church and its teachings.  Consequently, much of what transpires within the actual ritual of the church is unavailable to scrutiny.

Even with the restrictions on actual practices within temple walls, enough information is available to raise some serious eyebrows. Of particular concern is the Mormon faith’s blatant discrimination against women. Like the Biblical polygamists who preceded him, founding father Joseph Smith subscribed to the self-aggrandizing notion that polygamy exalted a man’s position in heaven.  The number of wives a man secured, he reasoned, reflected his favor with God. In reality, Smith acquired many of his wives through sadistic manipulation, telling vulnerable women as young as 12 that their eternal salvation was entirely dependent upon their coupling with him. Like David Koresh, Jim Jones and other self-proclaimed prophets throughout history, Smith used his position of power to gain sexual access to every woman he desired and then mutated his doctrine to justify his own perversions.

The tainted history of polygamy in the church is only the tip of the sexist Mormon iceberg. While the contemporary LDS church would like to gloss over this unsavory founding principle, the residues of polygamy’s anti-female values continue to permeate the church and its teachings.

In the Mormon faith, men alone are indoctrinated into a “priesthood” that involves stages of hierarchical advancement, achieved through a combination of commitment to the church and secret ritual. Ascension through the levels of priesthood on earth is for Mormons the ticket to admittance into a similar hierarchy in heaven. Men realize their heavenly reward via success in the priesthood. Women, on the other hand, are only granted admittance through the pearly gates as accessories to their husband’s achievement. In other words, if a woman isn’t married to a man, she has no means to access the heavenly afterlife.

When a young person reaches adulthood, they are given a secret name (a practice also observed in Freemasonry) that grants access to heaven. Women must share their secret name with their husbands, who alone hold the key to their salvation. Men, of course, are under no such obligation, since they are worthy of entering the celestial kingdom based exclusively on their own merits.
The second-class status of women in the LDS church permeates all levels of infrastructure. Ruling positions in the church, including in descending order the President (believed to be the living prophet and God’s representative on earth), the First Presidency (a three-member council including the President), the Twelve Apostles and the “Seventies,” are all held by men. These authorities are further only answerable to themselves and administer global church affairs from centralized authority in Salt Lake City.

The ultimate Mormon disdain for women is reflected in the fact that LDS doctrine teaches that God, who was supposedly once a human, also has a wife, and with her procreated the world. Yet She, the co-creator of the world, is not an object of worship. Feminist Mormons, who have suggested that both heavenly parents should be accorded reverence, have been excommunicated, and the sticky subject finally resulted in a public statement by LDS President Gordon Hinckley, stating unequivocally that he considers “it inappropriate for anyone in church to pray to our Mother in heaven.”

The day-to-day lives of female Mormons reflect the symbolic role of their Mother. Women are incubators of children and companions for men. They are expected to subordinate their own ambitions in the interests of their husband’s and be content to ride submissively and unrecognized on his coattails all the way through this life and into eternity.