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“So You’re Going on a Mission!” Don’t forget to write! September 22, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Humor, Responses.
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Continuing my occasional series on the 1968 guidebook for Mormon Missionaries.

Chapter 17, Letter Care

So as I’ve mentioned before, these missionaries are thrown into a strange place, cut off from family and friends, and expected to sell religion door-to-door for many hours a week, and also expected to study, practice their presentations, go to church, and maintain perfect clothes and grooming, clean quarters, impeccable table manners, do all their own shopping, cooking, cleaning and laundry, as well as possibly needing to learn a foreign language on top of that.  And the added stress of being assigned to spend 24 hours a day with a stranger.

You’d think that would be enough to expect from these kids.  Oh no, we have to dump another expectation on top of the already impossible standards they are expected to meet.  They have to write home.  Every single week, on their one day off, the day when they are supposed to do all their shopping and laundry and any other errands, they need to add this too.

Our author says:

…it is up to you whether letter writing becomes a joy or a chore.  It becomes a chore when you don’t realize what your folks want to hear…” (pg 151)

Because you should be telling them what they want to hear instead of what you want to say.  and that makes it not a chore.  Right.

She first provides an example of a reasonable short, moderately newsy letter, which looks like it might be about one page longhand, but she says that is only “..fine as far as it goes…”  Then she gives an example of what she considers a really good letter home.  I won’t copy it here, because it’s in excruciating detail and takes up a full page of the book, single spaced.  Given that very few of these missionaries would have been able to type these letters in 1968, this would have been many many pages of longhand.

She does have some good pieces of practical advice.  Since they already are expected to write their parents every week, trying to write to all their friends too is really too much.  She suggests setting up a round robin to circulate letters among a group of friends, and that seems like a good solution in pre-e-mail days, since the missionaries aren’t allowed personal phone calls.  She discusses business letters, which she wisely recommends as being typed, and brief but clear.  Some other good resources she provides are some model notes for times when they have to write, like thank you notes, congratulatory notes, or sympathy cards.  Those are always difficult, so having a model to work from can help.  Well except for this one:

Dear Brother and Sister Brown,

I am so sad about Steve.  All the years we were growing up together I loved him as though her were my own brothers so I think I can guess what you are going through.  How very wonderful, though, that he left you such happy memories.

My mission is all that I expected it to be and more. The work is hard, but the rewards are unbelievable.  I shall be released soon, and once I get home I’ll be right over to see you.

Until then, may your faith sustain you in your sorrow and give you courage and strength to meet each new tomorrow,

Affectionately, (pg 158)

Well then.  Somehow this sympathy note turned into “Enough about your loss, lets talk about ME!”.  And then finished with a rhyming platitude.  Gee, I feel comforted.  This is what she gives as a model for a sympathy card?  Really?

Of course, she has to discuss love letters.  In the previous chapter about girls, her main advice was not to get involved at all.  So, if a missionary leaves a girl at home without breaking off the relationship for the duration of the mission, and since no phone calls are allowed, our author realizes that a missionary is going to want to write to his girl.  What to do about this?

“…you should have a frank discussion about the letters you will write to each other before you leave.  If your relationship is really serious, it sill be extremely difficult to turn love letters into friendly ones, for no one can say, “I love you” for two years in casual friendly letters.” (pg 154)

Because heaven forfend the letters are anything but casual and friendly!  Here’s as far as she’s willing to go on the non-casual love letter:

One elder and his fiancee solved this problem by agreeing that they’d keep their weekly letters newsy and friendly, using the word “love” only as a complimentary close but permitting themselves a little more freedom on holidays.  In this way, these occasions became even more special.  For instance, on Thanksgiving he sent her a card with a picture of a turkey on the front cover which said ‘Whenever I think of a turkey I want a drumstick.’  Inside the card it read, ‘And whenever I think of you I wanta neck!’ and then the elder had penciled in, ‘But not till next June’ (which was his release date).” (pg 154)

GASP!  Is this a slightly off-color joke?  I must clutch my pearls before I faint from the shock. She also addresses “Dear John” letters, and here the creepy cult brainwashing is showing again:

“It has been said that an elder is not a full-fledged missionary until he has had fleas, the missionary itch (a skin allergy which comes with a change in food and climate), and a Dear John.

Of the three the Dear John, surprisingly enough, is the most welcome to the majority of missionaries.  This is not to imply that all missionaries are eagerly and obviously waiting for such a letter with open arms and broad smiles, nor does it mean that a missionary ever receives one without being visibly shaken.  What it does signify is that most elders lose interest in writing to a girl as they become more intensely involved in their missionary work.  They forget what a girl looks like after being out for a year, after eighteen months, they don’t care that they’ve forgotten.” (pg 155)

Wow.  Are these young men really so engulfed by this “mission” that they lose interest in sex?  Or is that just the ultimate goal of the organization, that they are pretending is actually the case?  Now I want to talk with some ex-missionaries to see which is true.

But the most difficult requirements that she lays down on correspondence are not on the missionary, but on the people writing to the missionary.  She has instructions for girlfriends, and for parents.  For girlfriends, they mustn’t write too often, or be too “gooey” or talk about how much they miss  their boyfriend, because that might increase his homesickness and make him less effective.  Likewise with parents, they need to talk about what is going on, but not talk about all the good stuff their son is missing:

“A parent creates a homesick missionary if he writes to say, ‘we had all your cousins to dinner today and I fixed stuffed pork chops – the way you like them – with mashed potatoes and gravy, creamed green beans, hot rolls, fruit, homemade ice cream and chocolate cake.” (pg 162)

(Just a few questions about this quote – our author says “if he writes” and then talks about this huge meal.  Is she implying that Dad cooked all this?  Or was that a typo?  And that was certainly a huge amount of work to go into one meal, I hope that was only for a special occasion and not the normal amount of effort Mom was expected to put into cooking every day.)

And parents, no fretting over your kid’s health in your letters, no saying you miss him, no talking about how glad you will be to see him again, nothing to make him the least bit homesick.  But be sure you write every week, but absolutely don’t tell your kid how you actually feel. (As the musical The Book of Mormon says “Turn it off!)  About the only personal topic she seems to allow is how proud the parents are of the work the missionary is doing.  It’s got to be really hard to produce an interesting letter every week when you are restricted to local news that would not make the missionary homesick, and “we’re so proud of you.”

And lastly she has this to offer parents:

“HINT: If your missionary has an investigating family he’s particularly interested in, offer to write them a letter….” (pg 162)

Oh yes, if I’m someone listening to a missionary, and considering changing religions, somehow I can’t imagine that a letter from his parents would be very likely to sway me.  I’m not sure if what this kid says is true, but if this kid’s MOM says so, well then it must be right!  I don’t think so.

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“So You’re Going on a Mission!” Communicating August 9, 2017

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Continuing with my chapter-by-chapter review of the 1968 guidebook for prospective Mormon missionaries.  I’ve been away from this series for a long time, let’s get back to it.  Chapter 16: Conversation Care.

So far, there has been a lot of bad advice in this book, a lot of condescension, and quite a few amusingly outdated attitudes.  But finally we’ve come to a chapter where our author actually has mostly good advice for these kids!  Apparently she has enough experience with talking to people that she knows her stuff here.  Mostly.

Her advice includes:

  • Paying attention to first impressions.
  • Avoiding bad grammar,  slang, and pretentious vocabulary.
  • Maintaining a tone of voice that is not harsh, loud, or monotonous.
  • Avoiding profanity.
  • Listening more than you talk, and not monopolizing a conversation.
  • Avoiding off-color stories, and long boring personal stories.
  • Avoiding gossiping or bragging.
  • Avoiding responding to insults to your home country in kind.
  • Not fidgeting or chewing gum.
  • Looking to the people around you for cues as to appropriate formality in speech.
  • Not embarrassing someone for not remembering your name.

This is all good stuff, and should be observed by anyone who is trying to persuade people through conversation.

However, sometimes her good advice comes crashing back down into preachiness:

“Keep an open mind and never be afraid to listen to another version of truth.  Learn to say, “I think” or “It seems to me” except, of course, when it comes to talking about the gospel and bearing your testimony; then you always say “I know.” (pg 147)

And she concludes with a complicated discussion about making introductions, and whose name you should mention first.  I remember seeing similar sets of rules for this when I was a child, and I don’t remember ever having occasion to use them.    Here’s her rules:

“Rule I: Introduce the younger person to the older.  This means you say the older person’s name first…

Rule II: Introduce the male to the female. This means you say the female’s name first…

Rule III: Introduce the less important person to the more important. This means you say the more important person’s name first.” (pg 149)

And then this:

“Unfortunately there will be a few times when these rules will have to be broken.  Perhaps you’ll need to introduce an elderly man to an important man, or an important man to a woman.  In such cases, rule breaking is based on respect.  The very old person’s name is said first to show respect for old age, and the person holding an important church or civic position is mentioned first to show respect for a man of his stature and office.” (pg 150)

I’m still confused.  What if you need to introduce a fairly important person to a rather old person?  Or an important woman to an elderly man?  (Oh, silly me!  This is Mormonism, there is no such thing as an important woman!)

But my real problem with these rules is that it forces the person making the introductions to make value judgments about people, and letting them know how you judged them.  You have to evaluate whether a person is more important than the other person is old, or whether someone’s importance or age places them ahead of women in introductions.  I hate this whole thing!  By the simple act of helping people get to know each other, you might inadvertently offend somebody!  And you sometimes have to make these snap judgement on the spot, too.  And there are things that you might have wanted to consider, such as which person you know better, or which person you arrived with, or who you are currently talking to, and none of these are allowed to be considered in this artificial system.  Let’s just have nametags and be done with it.

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Quotes worth stealing June 16, 2017

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I ran across a couple of amazing quotes recently, from a couple of my favorite bloggers.  They are too good not to share, plus making a post will help me remember them.

First, this is from the latest post at Neil Carter’s Godless in Dixie,

Our religions don’t make us who we are. We just are who we are, and we learn to tell different stories about ourselves. We simply change lenses through which we see ourselves. That’s all.

And then I found this gem from Captain Cassidy at Roll to Disbelieve:

When a broken system and a toxic worldview love each other very, very much, they create hypocrites.

These are worthy of T-shirts!  I wish I could write like that.

Box of Apologetics June 8, 2017

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Every Monday I listen to the previous Sunday’s broadcast of The Atheist Experience.  And generally the show is a lot of fun, lots of promotion of critical thinking and jousting with theists.  My favorite host is Tracie Harris, who just hits it out of the park, and it’s pretty satisfying when Matt Dillahunty hangs up on an annoying troll.  But lately I have been getting frustrated when some apologist calls in with their favorite clever twist on some tired old apologetic, and they proceed to argue in endless circles, because they just have to “get the atheist to admit that they are right”.  These calls tend to go on way too long and almost never accomplish anything.

I’ve realized that if I were hosting the show and one of these guys got going, that there is something specific I would want to say to them.  But since that’s unlikely ever to happen, I’ll just say it here instead:

“Hey Mr. Apologist!  Before you begin on whatever clever argument for god you are about to present, I need to ask you three background questions.  So, for the time being, instead of discussing it right away, we’re going to put your apologetic in a box.

This Box.

“We’re not going to unpack it just yet.  Not until I find out a few things about the person I am talking to.  First I need to ask you when you first started believing in god.”

(A typical theist will probably tell me that they have been a believer their whole lives, or from when they were very young.)

“OK.  And when did you first learn this argument you are about to present?”

(Let’s assume they tell us about the book they read in high school, or the class their church had recently, or some such.  It’s not likely that they learned a complicated argument in their earliest Sunday School classes.)

“All right.  And finally, suppose that your apologetics teacher (or Pope, or whoever is an authority for your sect) came to you and said ‘Dude, we found a flaw in this particular argument.  It doesn’t actually prove the thing it’s supposed to prove.  You have to stop using it.’  If that were to happen, would you still believe in god?  Would you have to reconsider anything about what you believe, or would you still believe exactly as you do now?”

(I would expect that a typical True Believer™ would declare that their faith would continue to be steadfast in that case.)

“OK, so let me review what we’ve learned about the argument in this box.

  1. It’s not what initially persuaded you to believe, because you didn’t have it at that time.
  2. It’s not what’s keeping you in your faith, because you would still be a believer even if you lost what’s in the box. 

SO, what that tells me is that we don’t actually need to open this box at all!  The question for callers is “Tell us what you believe and why.”  And we have just established that the argument in this box is not really part of your “why“.  So we can throw out this box unopened.  It’s not relevant.

“Here’s the box we ought to open up:

“What we should be talking about are the real reasons that you believe.   What initially persuaded you to start believing?  What things are so central to your beliefs that you would have to rethink your entire belief system if they were discredited?   I don’t know what’s in this box for you.  Maybe it’s things like ‘trust in your teachers,’ ‘personal experience,’ ‘clerical authority,’ or ‘biblical infallibility.’  Maybe it’s something else.  We won’t know until we start unpacking it.” Those are the interesting and useful discussions to have, not these circular apologetic word games.

If I ever were in the position similar to the hosts on TAE, I think that I would have to label some real boxes to use as visual aids.  Because, unless a caller says that their argument was specifically why they started believing, or that their faith would collapse without it, there’s no way that I would want to waste my energy listening to their endless philosophical wanking.  I have better things to do, like watching paint dry.

What’s the point of prayer? May 17, 2017

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I recently left this as a comment on Wondering Eagle’s blog post about prayer.  Since I haven’t blogged much recently, and I’m pretty pleased with the comment, I thought I should give it its own post.

I’ve always been puzzled about the disconnect between what evangelicals say about god, and what they say about prayer. They say their god is all-powerful, all knowing, benevolent, and has a perfect plan for their lives. Then they spend time telling god things and begging god to change stuff. If god already knows what people need, why spend time telling him what you want? If god has a perfect plan, then why are they asking him to change it, just for them? And why do they think a request to change his perfect plan is more effective if they have more people doing it? Is god not going to “bless America” unless a bunch of christian politicians make sure to ask him to in their every speech? (This is why I laugh at the whole “prayer warrior” idea. It’s just magical thinking.) They say “trust god” and “let go and let god” and then they spend long hours in prayer not trusting him and giving him advice on what to do.

Back when I was a believer, the only kinds of prayer that actually made sense were things like “Help me understand. Help me be strong to do the things that I need to do. Help me cope with what I can’t change.”

Now the way evangelicals pray would make a lot more sense if they were talking about a limited god, like the ones in the Greek pantheon. Those gods didn’t have perfect plans, didn’t know everything you were thinking, and if you sucked up to them enough, and sacrificed enough cattle, they might be willing to take your advice about what to do. Modern evangelicals often sound like they are preaching about YHWH and Jesus, but then praying and tithing to Zeus.

Fun personal questions February 21, 2017

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The Shameful Sheep posted a set of questions that are pretty much just light and fun personal stuff. Since I can use some light and fun right now, I thought I’d do them.  If you like substance in your blog reading, you might want to skip this one.

(more…)

Dog ate his homework February 2, 2017

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At a speech about Black History Month, Hair Twitler said this:

“I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

So Frederick Douglass is still alive?  Wut?

And then I realized what this reminds me of.  This is the book report from the kid who goofed off and didn’t bother to read the book.  You know, this:

calvin-book-report

I’m not the first to have noticed this, though.  Back during the campaign there was a marvellous Twitter stream of Drumpf’s “hasn’t read the book book reports”:  https://twitter.com/antoniofrench/status/788928579086217216?lang=en

Of course, we already know that Il Douche can’t actually read.  So no surprise there.

Inner Demons January 19, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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Still reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.  I’ve just finished the chapter on what it is about human brains that leads us into violence that ought to be avoidable.  Again, this chapter really could be a whole book on its own.

He sums up at the end of this chapter by re-listing five “inner demons” and I think his list is a good summary.  He didn’t number the list, but I’m going to here:

  1. People, especially men, are overconfident in their prospects for success; when they fight each other, the outcome is likely to be bloodier than any of them thought.
  2. People, especially men, strive for dominance for themselves and their groups; when contests of dominance are joined, they are unlikely to sort the parties by merit and are likely to be a net loss for everyone.
  3. People seek revenge by an accounting that exaggerates their innocence and their adversaries’ malice; when two sides seek perfect justice, they condemn themselves and their heirs to strife.
  4. People can not only overcome their revulsion to hands-on violence but acquire a taste for it; if they indulge it in private, or in cahoots with their peers, they can become sadists.
  5. And people can avow a belief they don’t hold because they think everyone else avows it; such beliefs can sweep through a closed society and bring it under the spell of a collective delusion. (pg 570)

The chapter has a really detailed examination of each of these points.  This is a really interesting book, and I wish it was required reading for every politician before they were allowed to take office.

Self-delusion January 14, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions, Responses.
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I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  It’s an enormous and thorough work on the decline of violence.  Each chapter could really be a book on it’s own, and it’s taking me a really long time to work through it.

A day or so ago, though, this sentence jumped out at me.  It’s in a section where he’s discussing why humans tend to think they are more competent, smarter, and luckier than they actually are:

“… Positive illusions are a bargaining tactic, a credible bluff.  In recruiting an ally to support you in a risky venture, in bargaining for the best deal, or in intimidating an adversary into backing down, you stand to gain if you credibly exaggerate your strengths.  Believing your own exaggerations is better than cynically lying about it, because the arms race between lying and lie detection has equipped your audience with the means of seeing through barefaced lies.” (pg 512)

Hmm.  I’ve been looking for reasons why humans tend to be so good at self-delusion, and this idea could factor into the explanation.  But its validity would hinge on humans being reasonably good at detecting lies.  I’m not convinced that they are, especially given recent politics.

What do you think?

What she said November 21, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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I haven’t really been able to post what I think about the election, because I’m still too full of rage and despair to put it together coherently.  But I just found this video on Friendly Atheist, and I think Tess Rafferty puts it very well:

So for my own mental health at the moment, I’m going to keep avoiding newspapers, and newscasts, and pretty much anything political, because I need to cope with the rest of my life at the moment, and if I think about what happened I just shut down and can’t do anything.    Eventually I may be able to dig in and fight.  But, as Tess said “… I may scream when I do and if I start I may not stop.”