A Non-Believer in Church: Latter-day Saints in Oxford

I am learning about more flavors of the Christian faith. Yesterday morning, I visited the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints at the 9 AM service here in Oxford. The LDS has taken great strides to distance themselves from the insular polygamist cults that go by a similar name. Beyond this, I don't know much about the LDS church. I have never read "The Book of Mormon" or any of the LDS church's history. I walked into this service with a blind understanding of what to expect. If you are a member of the LDS church or been a member in the past, please leave a comment.

The LDS church is famous for knocking on your door at 9 AM on a Saturday morning, telling you all about Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith and won't leave until they've taken up 5 minutes of your time and handed you a copy of their "Ensign" magazine. For me, a non-believer, to walk into their church, I expected them to have their sales pitch ready and fill my pockets with all of their written materials. Instead, I got nothing. I shook hands with the young door greeter, but beyond that, I didn't say a word to anyone. There were no materials to learn more about this church. There was no bulletin to let me know the order of worship or the lesson topics. For a group that is known for not being shy about getting their message out, these people were shy to this visitor.

The first thing I notice is the kids. Lots and lots of kids. Every adult couple that walked in the door had at least one small child. I estimate that 40% of those in attendance were under the age of 15. There were probably just over 100 people total, but that's tough to tell with all the little kids. A guy was giving some announcements and then asked everyone to raise their right hand as if some sort of vote was taking place. He was talking so fast that I don't know what they were voting on. There were several songs at this service, and nearly all were patriotic American songs. Maybe it was part of a theme considering that Independence Day is coming up.

The service contained three lectures from different members of the congregation. The first was a young boy who spent 15 minutes reading a letter that someone else wrote about a troubled youth who's life was changed after meeting a member of the the LDS church. The boy read in a monotone voice. I saw several yawns and heads began to nod off and several children were fussy. After he read the letter, he sat back down. I don't think anyone was paying attention to him because they were trying to quiet their own children. It was a very noisy service.

The second lecture was the most revealing about the LDS church. The lecturer was a woman who spent some time working at "The Temple," (I think in Arizona). Her talk was all about how service to the temple is the most important service we can give. We must all strive to work at the temple and being allowed inside the temple requires much preparation. "Curiosity and interest are not qualifications for being allowed inside the temple," she warned us, which ruled me out immediately. You must be interviewed by a bishop and a president before qualifying to enter the temple. You are only allowed to wear a white robe inside the temple. You must pray before entering the temple. As she is going over all of these archaic rules for being allowed inside the temple, I begin to think that this sounds cultish. She told us about how our acts of service might be used to represent us in the afterlife, or our acts could be used to represent someone who has already died. She told us that one day while at the temple, she did some service for her afterlife and then she did some service to help an anonymous deceased person's afterlife. She hopes to meet this anonymous deceased person when she gets to heaven. That was just a little creepy.

The third lecture was about the holy trinity based on Joseph Smith's "revelations". The lecturer didn't cite from The Bible and only briefly mentioned The Book of Mormon, but it was common to site conference proceedings. I'm getting the impression that divine revelation isn't enough to support this religion. That does make sense: "divine revelation" isn't enough to support any religion. Every religion has commentary to make sense of the revelation.

The service ended and I waited around afterward to see if anyone would greet me. No one did, so I left.

Mississippi Voter Registration Day

Mississippi Voter Registration Day will be celebrated on July 2 at Medgar Evers Library in Jackson. With the Republican Party having a long history of disenfranchising poor voters, this is an important step to make sure that the results of the November election reflect what all the people want rather than just the richest tier of them. The press release from the ACLU of Mississippi is provided below.

Contact: Nsombi Lambright- 601-354-3408, 601-573-3978
Brent Cox – 601-354-3408

Mississippi Voter Registration Day To Be Celebrated At Medgar Evers Library

Jackson, MS-- On Wednesday, July 2, 2008, the former State Representative Erik R. Fleming, along with the ACLU of MS, the state conference of NAACP and others will host the 4th annual Mississippi Voter Registration Day at the Medgar Evers Library, 4215 Medgar Evers Blvd., from 2:00 to 5:00p.m. Local radio station, WJMI, will host a live remote in front of the library.

July 2nd is the birthday of Mississippi Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers. While in the state legislature, Fleming authored a bill to have this day declared MS Voter Registration Day.

The purpose of this event is to make sure that individuals with felony convictions understand their voting rights. According to national surveys, over 140,000 Mississippians have lost their voting rights as a result of felony convictions. Most Mississippians who have been convicted of a felony do not know their voting rights once they’ve completed the terms of their sentences. This event will also educate citizens about the state law and legislative and legal processes to have their voting rights restored.

According to the state Constitution, ten felony crimes take your voting rights away. Those are: murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy. The Attorney General and the Secretary of State added 11 additional crimes in 2005 that expand the definition of theft. The ACLU is currently challenging the addition of these crimes.

“As we saw with the recent municipal, state and presidential elections, every vote is important. But even with such a significant demonstration of democracy, especially in 2003 and 2004, a number of citizens have still not entered this process,” says Fleming.

The NAACP, ACLU and Fleming are part of a coalition called the Mississippi Voter Empowerment Coalition, formed to ensure that every adult citizen in Mississippi can vote.

Banned Books Club Meeting in Jackson

The ACLU of Mississippi is promoting the first gathering of their new Banned Books Club on June 25, George Orwell's birthday. The meeting will be held at 7:00 pm in Hal and Mal's at 200 Commerce St., Jackson, MS. The first book to be discussed will be 1984. So if you are in the Jackson area and could use a break from the heat, come enjoy a cold beer and some good conversation.

A Non-Believer in Church: First Baptist in Oxford

It's been almost four weeks since my last post on a church visit. I can't make it to a new church every Sunday. I still have to frequent the church of my current membership in order to maintain certain illusions for certain people. I've been an active church goer since birth and deconverting from Christianity didn't change that. Last Sunday I visited the First Baptist Church in Oxford at their 8:30 AM service. It use to be intimidating to walk into a new church. I think they are going to smell the godlessness on me, but now I realize it is difficult for anyone to talk to visitors. I just put on my Sunday Best, carry my Bible (it has my name with gold lettering on it), put on a fake smile and I look like everyone else. I probably look like a reporter the way I scribble notes and quickly turn pages in my Bible to keep up with the lesson.

There were close to 250 people in attendance at this service. 16 members made up the choir and it was probably one of the better choirs I've heard in my visits. Last Sunday was Father's Day, so the preacher asked all of the fathers to stand for a prayer. It was an eloquent prayer, but I did note that the preacher prayed for all of the first generation of believing dads so that they may "end the cycle of disobedience." It is usually subtle the way non-belief is associated with disobedience, as if I am more disobedient than your average Christian. The idea is so pervasive that he probably didn't realize that it would bother anyone. Within the same prayer, he encouraged dads to be good givers, both in the nurturing parenting context and in the monetary context: the collection plate was being passed around immediately after the prayer.

The preacher began his lesson by directing everyone to 1st Kings 1:5. I found myself engaged in his lesson. I'm suppose to be critical of these sermons and this lesson was good. The story was of King David, a man after God's own heart who was also one of the most sexually deviant men of the Bible. His lesson focused on all of David's sexual sins and how this reflected poorly on him as a father. According to the Bible, David's children would commit some of these same sins. Everything he said he backed up with scripture perfectly. He wanted the men of the congregation to look to David as an example of what not to do. This preacher advocated responsible parenting, and I had to agree with every word of it. While many preachers want to fix society's ills by influencing legislation that effects everyone, this preacher was calling for parents to be more involved with their kids.

At the end, I thought this preacher did a perfect job with his lesson. He concluded his lesson with a prayer, and in that prayer, he goofed. He mentioned that although David was not a responsible parent, he still maintained the linage of Christ through his son Nathan. In the Book of Luke, the writer records the linage of Christ all the way back to Adam. There, the writer records Nathan in that linage. The Book of Matthew also records the linage of Christ all the way back to Abraham, but in that book, David's son Solomon carries the linage of Christ. Clearly, the Bible is in dispute with itself. Apologists have responded by saying that one linage represents Mary's family and one represents Joseph's family, but each gospel clearly says that its linage contains Joseph. Because one gospel (or both) has the facts wrong on this point it does throw the validity of the Jesus story into question. The only reason why I mention this is because the preacher used David, Nathan, and Christ as the focal point of his lesson without giving a word to the controversy surrounding his point.

The service concluded with a few songs (all of which I thought were performed well) and a few announcements. I was out the door in time to walk into a different church less than a block away. To date, I've revisited the Episcopalian church, the Presbyterian church, and the Church of Christ at least once just to make sure I'm not visiting a church on an overly good or bad Sunday. Soon everyone in this town will know me.

Atheist Blogs

Looking for atheist blogs? Then you need to check out the Atheist Blogroll, a collection of over 700 atheist blogs. For your convenience, I have included the entire list below. Happy reading!

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Science Education Threatened in Louisiana

Earlier this week, the Louisiana House of Representatives approved what is being called the "Science Education Act" (SB 733). SB 733 is being widely criticized by defenders of reality-based education for opening the door to teaching creationism in Louisiana's public schools. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is now hinting that a lawsuit will result if the measure takes effect.

SB 733, approved 94-3 in the House, permits public school teachers to use "supplemental materials" when teaching evolution. According to Americans United and other groups, these “supplemental materials” are likely to include anti-evolution material produced by fundamentalist Christian ministries.

This suspicion is fueled by the measure's chief proponents, the Louisiana Family Forum, the Discovery Institute, and other Christian groups with established histories of pushing creationism.
“It’s time for Louisiana to step into the 21st century and stop trying to teach religion in public schools,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Laws like this are an embarrassment.”
Absolutely! To this observer in neighboring Mississippi, this appears to be the last thing Louisiana and other Southern states need. The quality of our educational system is abysmal. We need more - not less - emphasis on reality around here. We need our students to learn real science instead of religion masquerading as science.

Like many Southern states, Louisiana has a history of degrading secular education by opposing evolution and infusing religiously derived falsehoods into the curriculum.
Lynn noted that Louisiana legislators have repeatedly tried to water down the teaching of evolution. In the 1980s, the state passed a law mandating “balanced treatment” between evolution and creationism. The measure was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1987. Some parishes in Louisiana have voted to paste “disclaimers” in science books, casting doubt on evolution.
This will be one to watch, as it is starting to look more and more like we may see a repeat of the Dover, PA, case. If it goes that far, I certainly hope we will see the same outcome.

For more, see Evolution - What You Need to Know.

Louisiana Coalition for Science

I'd just like to make sure all Mississippi atheists were aware of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, a new group devoted to promoting sound science education in Louisiana. I am not aware of anything quite like this in Mississippi, and that is really too bad.

H/T to Pharyngula

America Has a First Amendment, Not a First Commandment

Steve Schlicht, Biloxi resident and founder of the Great Southern Humanist Society, had a great letter in the Sun Herald recently. His letter, "Thank goodness, America has a First Amendment, not a First Commandment," challenges the notion that secularism is the cause of moral and social decay in contemporary American society and corrects many common misconceptions. Since I am not sure how long it will be accessible on the newspaper's website, I am including the full letter below.

Here is Steve's letter:
Thank goodness, America has a First Amendment, not a First Commandment

It is always interesting to read claims that secularism and relativism are the purported causes for societal decay and damaging independent, informed and critical thinking in our young citizens.

Most often this disparaging mischaracterization targets our public school system while offering the cure of religious absolutism and theocratic imposition by mandate to provide the quick fix.

Oddly enough, even a cursory look into the comparative study of world religions (both modern and those that have slipped back into myth) reveals all sorts of moral and ethical standards that are conflicting and relative to the claims of the religious follower.

From dietary dictate, to slavery and to the treatment of women, children and non-believers these rules seem to change over time and through differing "divine" sacred texts written by men.

Even the most popular religions around today have evolved, changing moral and ethical standards over time.

There are ancient codes, Old Testaments, New Testaments and newer and newer testaments depending upon the cultural fractions derived from protests within the main group and dependent upon charismatic leaders claiming to be the special conduits of divine knowledge.

Each group posits their particular view as "absolute truth" and the "one way," often quoting their own sacred texts/mythic heroes as proof of their own claims in a circuitous argument that is supposed to convince others.

The bottom line is that our secular government is special in that it has a First Amendment that protects the views of all people and not a First Commandment which seeks to impose one view on all others.

The important thing to realize is that we humans are responsible for our own actions and are culpable for the results.


A Non-Beliver in Church: United Methodist at Oxford

I'm still exploring the numerous denominations of Christianity in the small town of Oxford. The more different churches I visit, the more I see the same template for worship. My last three churches were Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Catholic and this past Sunday I visited a United Methodist. If I had not known the name of the church on the outside of the building before hand, I would probably have confused all of these sects. I would like to understand at a deeper level how these groups are different enough to merit different names and different meeting places. They all had the same format of communion, same order to the service, and almost identical creeds were recited. I had trouble writing this week's column because of all the overlap from past columns. Even the bulletins have the same congregational responses. Here's a free tip to all churches: have less verbatim, boring repetition.

I attended the first service of the Oxford University United Methodist Church at 8:45 AM. There were about 80 people total. I estimate the average age of the congregation at close to 60. Just being young made me stand out. There were a few younger couples (by younger, I mean under 60) and a few children, but I did not see anyone my age in the service. As for the service's music, an organ was used and it was loud enough to overpower all the singing, so the music wasn't good. As for all of my negativity, the service was lead entirely by a woman, which was a pleasant surprise. She gave the announcements and the morning's lesson of a simplistic message of "Jesus is good. Follow Jesus."

The bulletin mentioned the church's increasing budget woes in some detail, so I engaged in a little math to occupy my time during the preacher's lesson. This church's annual budget is over $1.5 million. After 5 months, their 2008 contribution of $570,000 falls short of the to-date budget of $650,000. To meet the end of the year budget, the contribution needs to be $30,600 per week. The preacher mentioned that the total church enrollment had over 1000 people (that must be a huge second service if all 920 show up). We can estimate (crudely) that ever four people equals one family, so this church has 250 families. $30,600 divided among 250 families is $122 per family. Are the Methodist a denomination that practices tithing 10 percent of their income? If not, please forgive me of this assessment. At $122 per week, a family would need to make over $63,000 per year to fulfill that obligation. According to city-data.com, each hypothetical family would be (on average) in the 90% percentile of income for Oxford homes. At what point does a church change from aiding a community to being a stress on a community? Maybe some people don't go to church because they can't afford it.

Today was "Communion Sunday". As with the last three churches, the communion was prepared in front of the congregation during the service. At those services, the priest would hold up a cracker and break it into two parts, but at this service, the priest broke what appeared to be a loaf of Subway bread. (As you can tell, my mind was already drifting to lunch.) As people in the pews would come up to the front of the room for communion, the back doors of the church came open and more people started getting in line.
The service started with 80 people but ended with close to 100. These 20 or so people got to skip the boring lesson and the collection plate, take communion, be seen in church, and then be out the door for the dismissal. Now that's convenience and commitment.

Among the services that I have attended, I put this one somewhere in the middle. It wasn't bad. It was just dull.

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