Monthly Archives: May 2008

Some perspective on believing in “false” churches

It is my opinion, as an atheist, that everyone who is in a church is in a false one (false in the sense of “not true”, not false in the sense of “not really a church”). Religious people who subscribe to the “only one True Church/True Religion” idea should almost agree with me, because most other people who are religious aren’t in their particular church.

Given that at least most religious people in the world are wrong about their beliefs, I have said for a while now that apparently, being convinced in the truthfulness of one’s religion, and yet being wrong about that, is very, very easy.

You’d think that people would take that sobering fact with a little more introspection, and seriously question why they, of all people, should buck the trend and actually be right about their church, when so many others get it wrong. But they don’t. Why not?

Psychologists have long known that people tend to overestimate their own judgment, their own virtue, their own charity, their own wisdom, and underestimate these things in others. This could help explain why it is that so many religious people can take it as simply a matter of unremarkable fact that so many people around the world can be so comprehensively wrong, and yet not even consider that they might also be just as wrong about their own religious beliefs.

I’ll consider the LDS Church specifically, because that’s the church I still nominally belong to, and almost all of my family members on both my side and my wife’s are LDS. I’ve had many conversations with some pretty smart LDS people in my aquaintance, who simply cannot, or will not, see that the LDS Church is a manmade institution, like all the other churches out there.  And it’s not just that they don’t agree with me that the church is manmade – it’s like they can’t even fathom the very possibility that the church might not be right.

I am convinced that the approach that is required, from my side, is not to just present them with all of the unsavory history, all of the un-Godly things Joseph Smith did, the evidence relating to the Book of Abraham, etc. This approach is doomed to failure in many members, because they simply do not take seriously the possibility that the LDS Church is in fact not true, therefor none of the counter evidence can have its intended effect. I believe the approach most likely to succeed in the long term is to help LDS believers to see the necessity of considering the LDS Church claims with the same critical thinking that they would apply to everyone else’s church.

To succeed with many members, they will have to see how unlikely it is that they really are the exception to the rule that almost, if not everyone’s religious belief in the world isn’t really true. They will have to be brought to see, and recognize, the absurdity of assuming that their beliefs are so justifiable, and obviously true, while everyone else’s can be so wrong.

More later.

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A Nevermormons Take On Mormons

My interest in Mormonism has waned lately, but I’ll write a few posts for cinepro since he thinks my thoughts worthwhile enough to be included along with other luminaries.

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A Nevermos take on Missions

I’ll try to be polite, but the idea of going off to serve two years, without constant contact with family, paying for it yourself, is well to a nevermormon, crazy. It’s bizarre, weird behavior. And it’s one of the things that is fairly unique to Mormon culture.

It’s unique in several ways from an outsiders perspective. For one thing in nevermormon society the people who go off on missions are the most zealous and faithful members of religions. They’re almost surreal in their perspective because they’re sooo into their religion. In LDS culture the mission isn’t some bizarre thing that weirdos do. It very mainstream. In fact I would argue that it is a right of passage for men into LDS adulthood. This is what Mormons cannot understand about perception of Mormons by nevermormons. Odd behavior for nevermormons is mainstream and perfectly normal in Mormon culture. For this reason nevermormons will continue to see Mormons as a peculiar people.

Another way that the mission unique is that it is not an closed experience of a Mormon’s life. It is something that many people seem to build the whole front end of their lives around, and something that serves as a capstone on the LDS youth cycle, along with marriage and going to the Temple. I don’t include the baptism [which appears to be defacto mandatory at age 8] because it seems a formality squarely grounded in childhood. Sure it’s important, but is not a clear severing of the LDS youth away from the family such as marriage or the mission is. The mission is both a psychological and clearly physical separation period in which the men are taught self reliance and become the founding members of new family groups.

Furthermore, the mission is something that Mormon culture uses to judge men after they return, once again showing that the missionary experience beyond the mission, for once an LDS man has been a missionary, he will remain a missionary for life. It is a badge of honor for missionaries, and the lack of that badge is a permanent demerit within Mormon culture, much as people without college degrees might be looked down upon in American society. It works both good and bad. Having it is a plus, but not having it is a negative, as opposed to a neutral position. This positive/negative behavior which can lead to alot of passion over what nevermormons would consider voluntary behavior [religious missions] once again marks Mormons out as a peculiar people.

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Unusual LDS Youth Conferences in Texas(?!)

LDS Youth Group Scrambles to find Summer Activities
Scott Simpson, Rocky Mountain News
May 05, 2008

After completing a memorable four day handcart pioneer reenactment last August, the Young Men and Young Women of the Killeen, Texas Stake for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) were looking forward to another memorable summer youth activity. Their stake had been selected as one of the few youth groups to participate in the continuing “Know Your Ancestors” pioneer reenactment experience at the Yearning For Zion (YFZ) Ranch near Eldorado, TX. But now word has come that all youth conferences provided by the Ranch have been canceled, and they need to find a new activity.

Youth and leaders of LDS Church were looking forward to the five day experience, meant to teach youth about the early Utah pioneers and the trials they faced as a persecuted, isolated, polygamous sect. “I’m kind of disappointed, but I understand why,” comments teacher Bill Shapley of the Waco 2nd Ward. “The handcart campout was awesome, and it totally pumped up my testimony. I wanted to know what came next, and this sounded like a great activity.”

The YFZ Ranch, home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), had created the camp experience at the request of local LDS leaders, who saw the potential for an expanded learning and spiritual experience for their youth. In the last decade, reenactments have become popular activities for LDS seeking an understanding of the pioneer experience. Youth dress in authentic pioneer clothing and pull recreated handcarts over dusty roads, camping at night. Additional efforts are made to give the youth a dramatic experience, including giving young women “dolls” to care for as their “babies”. During the multi-day activity, the dolls are taken from the youth at random intervals to teach about the many young lives lost in the original migration. At other times, volunteers dressed in white clothing will assist the handcart-pulling youth as “angels”, to simulate the spiritual help often felt by their pioneer ancestors.

YFZ Ranch foreman Rulon Taylor shared similar feelings of disappointment. “It’s a darn shame. We had prepared a wonderful itinerary of frontier activities for the young people, along with activities to boost their spiritual knowledge and sensitivity.” Some of those activities included barn building, hand washing the laundry, digging irrigation ditches, and sewing long-sleeved underwear. Throughout the week, certain young men would be “called” to participate in pretend-sealings to simulate polygamous marriages. If youth were reluctant to participate in this aspect of the reenactment, volunteers dressed in white with “flaming swords” would visit the young men as they slept and “command” them to begin practicing polygamy.

“For the flaming swords, we got some really nice lightsaber thingamajiggers from the Wal-Mart Supercenter up in San Angelo. They make a dramatic swooshing sound, and it really drives the point home about how important it is to be obedient, even if you didn’t want to. Sometimes the best way to learn about using your agency to make righteous choices is to encounter a “sword wielding angel”, if you know what I mean,” Rulon explained.

The Young women would also have reenactment activities tailored for their interests. In addition to the laundry and sewing, some young women would be taken aside by their leaders throughout the week and be told they had been chosen to become plural wives to some of the adult male leaders. “Of course it’s all for pretend, and the modern LDS Church doesn’t practice polygamy. But it’s the doctrine that’s important, as well as the sacrifice of our ancestors” says Stake Young Women’s President Kelly Smith. “The Young women may become repulsed at the idea of having to marry one of the 55-year-old men in the Stake, and by the end of the week, they could be his fourth or fifth pretend wife. But think how Isaac felt as he was asked to sacrifice himself on an altar for the Lord. The girls need to learn that same kind of faith. After all, we tell them the salvation of their entire family might depend on it.”

A new addition to this year’s camp would shorten the stay for some of the young men in the group. Throughout the week, the camp counselors would select certain young men to be sent on “missions”, where they would be “called” to leave the Ranch and return home. The boys would be selected based on their spiritual development, or their popularity among the young women in the group. While they’re away on their “missions”, any girls they were pretend-married to can be courted and pretend-sealed to the older leaders and counselors at the Ranch. Additionally, camp counselors will privately interview young men and women as “couples” to see if they would be willing to pretend-seal the woman to the acting “Prophet” (in this case, Stake Young Men’s President Don Harwood).

Youth would spend their time performing chores, studying their scriptures (using authentic 19th century reproductions of the standard works), and leaders would conduct worship services by reciting passages from the Journal of Discourses, a collection of sermons from that era. The highlight of the week would be the final testimony meeting, where youth and leaders could share what they have learned, and how their testimonies had been strengthened. All public prayers during the week would be offered by the male leaders and youth only.

“When I finished the pioneer trek last summer, I just knew the Church was true,” said Trey Applegate, a priest in the Waco 1st ward. “I knew there was no way the pioneers could have crossed the plains and had their babies die if Joseph Smith hadn’t been a true prophet. And I was hoping this summer’s conference would help me to get the same testimony about my great-great-great grandparents in Utah. I’ve heard they’re going to have openings in the Colorado City programs, and we might be able to get into those.”

Rulon Taylor says all future activities are on hold, pending the onset of apocalyptic cleansing by fire and the end of times, ushered in by the anti-christ’s persecution of Zion and desecration of the Temple. “But if that doesn’t work out like we expect, we’ll start taking applications for summer of ’09 in February.”

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/may/05/LDS-youth-ranch/
v.1.01

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Loose or Tight translation? Please make up your mind!

When it comes to theories regarding the Book of Mormon translation, apologists find themselves basing their arguments on one of two different theories.

The first theory is best described as a “Tight” Theory of Translation, where it is believed that the text of the Book of Mormon was given to Joseph Smith through divine means, and he had very little ability to change or modify it.  Spelling, grammar, word choice etc. were all dictated to him.  He was a conduit.

The second theory is described as a “Loose” Theory of Translation.  In this method, Joseph Smith was given ideas and feelings, maybe images.  Based on these, he chose the words and grammar to describe it.  Thus, the words and phrases would be Joseph’s, and the text would be limited by Joseph’s knowledge and ability to describe and convey the ancient text.  Joseph becomes a very real limit placed on the process.

So which one was it?  Frankly, it would be a relief if apologists could take some time out from their next conference and vote on which theory they’ll support, and stick to it.  Because as it is, I’m getting whiplash from watching them ping-pong back and forth.

Here’s the problem:  both theories are needed to explain all the stuff in the Book of Mormon, neither is adequate by itself.

On the one hand, the theory of “loose” translation is necessary to explain 19th century cultural influences or instances where there is a limitation based on Joseph’s understanding.

But then, we must have theory of “tight” translation if there is going to be a reliance on Hebraisms and other evidences closely related to specific word patterns.

The idea that both were used at different times is a little odd as well. How would this even work? Sometimes, the exact wording appears for a tight translation, but other times Joseph gets to improvise? Why would some portions of the Book of Mormon warrant a tight translation, while others only merit general direction? And let’s not forget the third method of translation: the “Copy from the KJ Bible” method, which seemed to become extremely popular towards the end of the process.

Truly, God works in mysterious ways. Unfortunately, crackpots, frauds, and misguided gurus often work in mysterious ways as well, so “mysterious ways” are hardly a convincing argument for divine origin. It simply becomes a faith promoting cliche for “we have no idea how he did it, and we’d like you to believe it was God”.

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The Cinepro Theory of Origin For the Book of Mormon

When considering the origin of the Book of Mormon, there are any number of theories. Most readers will be familiar with the “Urim and Thummim/Power of God” theory, which demands a historical interpretation of the stories contained therin. Non-believers have their theories as well, from Dan Vogel’s “Pious Fraud” to various “Spaulding Theories”. Also the “Spalding Theory”, where it is believed Joseph used at various times a tennis ball, golf ball and Nephite-regulation size basketball instead of a seer stone.

While I rarely lay claim to having an original thought, I will be so bold as to put forth another theory to consider. This theory has the immense benefit of providing a more comprehensive overview of the process, without embarrassing holes or contradiction to answer for. The downside being a slight lack of detail.

This theory (which I humbly refer to as “The Cinepro Theory” is currently the most comprehensive and satisfactory theory for explaining the origin of the Book of Mormon in that it doesn’t resort to “god of the gaps” spackle to fill in the cracks, and it doesn’t require convoluted conjecture regarding the knowledge, experience and capabilities of Joseph Smith.

It’s the “I don’t knowtheory.

It’s the same theory we use when we encounter the millions upon millions of things and occurrences for which we don’t know how it happened, or where it came from. We don’t feel compelled to make up a supernatural explanation (or accept someone else’s), even if we can’t formulate a natural explanation. No, we just say “I don’t know” and withhold belief until more data and a better theory come along.

It is based on the following immutable truth:

People aren’t required to explain the origin of the Book of Mormon.

There is no law saying that you will be put to death if you don’t subscribe to a theory of how the Book of Mormon was written.

The universe will not end if you can’t prove how Joseph did it.

Some may feel that eternal salvation rests on your approach to the subject, and therefore you must chose a “side”, but they are mistaken. That belief is only held because they feel like they can be the beneficiaries of a black or white thought process on the subject. But that doesn’t truly make it a black or white process, not matter how hard they insist. It only means you don’t know something, and ignorance is the start of the process of gaining knowledge, not the end. The fact that I don’t know how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear doesn’t mean that I must adopt someone’s supernatural explanation. Or another magician’s explanation. It only means I don’t know how he did it.

The fact that someone doesn’t know how Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon doesn’t mean they must accept the supernatural explanation, or Vogel’s naturalistic one, or the Spaulding theory, or come up with their own. It only means they (I) don’t know. It isn’t a forced mulitiple choice test.

As in billions of other situations we encounter in this life, “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. There are countless situations in life where we don’t have enough data to support any theory regarding something. This does not mean that we are compelled chose between the poor theories. The obvious point of course is to withhold judgement until further data presents itself.

If you do venture into allegiance with a poor theory that stretches beyond the data, you will probably find yourself defending your theory in the best way you know how: by pointing out the holes in the other peoples’ theories, and insisting that since someone must chose, they should ignore the holes in your theory and choose it anyway. If they do so, they can then join you in backslapping support for your mutual wisdom in choosing the right theory (after all, look at all the holes in the other theories!).

But to someone who sees the holes in all the theories for what they are, and has decided to withhold judgement, the backslapping and hole-pointing on both sides looks silly and unconvincing (granted, it’s convincing to the point of not pledging allegiance to either theory, but not in support of the other).

So please stop insisting that someone has to come up with a better theory than yours if they choose not to accept yours. It is quite possible that there will never be an acceptable theory for some people, because the data in support of any theory might be insufficient. And, absent the invention of a time machine or the discovery of new data, that may be the case for quite some time.

I agree with those who argue that the theories of the different critics are incomplete, or in some way unsatisfactory in answering every question that may be formulated. Unfortunately, I find the theories of divine origin to be similarly lacking once they get beyond the simplistic phase of “God did it” and actually try to say something. The most obvious weakness is the loose/tight translation dichotomy.

So I am a strong supporter of the “I don’t knowtheory, and find pleasant company among the billions and billions of people on this Earth who likewise live a life in peace and happiness not having been forced to pledge allegiance with a particular theory regarding the origin of the Book of Mormon.

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A Critic Hath No Honour In His Own Country…

One of the oddest perspectives of being a critic of the Mormon Church is the weird idea that everything I might complain about could one day be changed. We hear the phrase “same yesterday, today and forever” so often that we overlook the huge shifts in attitude towards dozens of different doctrines, teachings and practices in the Church. If I were to list everything that even slightly bothers me about the Church, it is possible for every single one of those to be fixed via revelation and policy changes (maybe even within my lifetime).

Think about it. Suppose a critic made the following predictions/prophecies in 1955:

“I, a critic of the LDS Church, prophesy that in the next 50 years Mormon scholars will renounce the Kinderhook plates as a fraud. Many will propose that the Book of Abraham is not a literal translation of the papyri. Other scholars will propose that the Book of Mormon took place in an area mainly confined to a few hundred square miles in Central America, with none of the post-Lehitic events taking place in the area now known as the USA. I also predict that scholars will promote a theory that the face of the land was populated when Lehi arrived, and these people intermixed with both the Lamanites and Nephites. And, contrary to the statements of current apostle and future Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, most scholars will promote a two (or more) Cumorah theory.

I also prophecy that within 50 years, some “faithful” LDS will suggest that God did not change the Lamanite’s skin color, but instead the Book of Mormon is always speaking metaphorically of the matter.

Oh, and blacks will have the priesthood, oral sex and birth control will be permitted but undiscussed, the meeting block will be consolidated to three consecutive hours, and Christ will not return by the year 2008.”

I can only imagine the reception he would have received.

So next time you’re making a list of all the things that bug you about the Church, make it a checklist. Who knows what the future holds (and what role the critics may hold in helping to bring about that change?)

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What if the Golden Plates were found?

Well, obviously it wouldn’t change my views that much. But the more interesting question is what would the Church do?

The obvious initial reaction would be “oh, if they’re made in the 19th century, then these aren’t Joseph’s plates”, and life goes on. There are simply too many problems with “finding the plates”; they could have been manufactured by old tyme anti-mormons and forgotten. They could have been a prop in an early Palmyra roadshow (I believe the revelation restoring roadshows to the Lords Church was given shortly after publication of the Book of Mormon). It just wouldn’t stick.

The only way it would be a “problem” would be if the Church has had them all along, and finally produced them for testing. Then there could be no doubt as to their authenticity. But I would expect the Church to conduct such tests privately. If it were to do so publicly, and the result was negative, then this is how I would expect it to play out:

– 14% of active members would refuse to believe it. They would think God had changed the nature of the plates as a test of their faith.

– 9% of active members would be kind of confused, but continue to believe the Book of Mormon is a literal history revealed to Joseph as revelation using the plates as a conduit or prop.

– 77% would never hear about it, and would consider it an anti-Mormon lie if they did.

– 100% of inactive members would shrug their shoulders and return to their depraved, hedonistic, coffee drinking lifestyle.

Over the next 36 years, the Church would slowly shift it’s focus from a literal belief in the Book of Mormon. Eventually, there would be fewer mentions of it in conference and church magazines. The curriculum in Gospel Doctrine would be changed so we don’t study different scriptures each year. Missionaries would focus on the First Vision and modern revelation, with hardly a mention of the Book of Mormon. The Church would begin publishing a “condensed” version of the Book of Mormon in pamphlet form, and over time, this would become the accepted version, and folded into the Pearl of Great Price. Church movies would still show Christ visiting the new world, but they wouldn’t look like Mayans, but instead they would be bearded Caucasians again.

Hypothetically speaking.

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The Common Ground Between Critics and Apologists…

As any RM worth his salt knows, the best way to build a bridge to someone is to find a “common ground”. Find those beliefs you have in common, and build from there. It has been my joy to find that apologists have been successfully searching for common ground with critics and unbelievers for many years with the hilarious result that they are giving up ground to the critics at the same time they feel they are winning the argument.

Consider, if you will, Joseph Smith. Many consider him a charlatan. Others view him as a well meaning country boy who produced some interesting things and birthed a long-lived religious movement. And of course, believing LDS consider him the Prophet of the Restoration, a man who communed with God and restored the one true church.

You might think that discussions between these groups would be rancorous, with little shared belief to be divided among them. That was once my assumption, but I have been surprised to find this is not the case. For, in their eagerness to find common ground, or reasons I can’t understand, appologists have been moving to the middle ground almost as quickly as their fingers can type. “And how do they do that?” you may ask. By using the tools Joseph Smith gave them for an entirely different purpose than he intended.

Consider, if you will, the LDS attitude towards leaders of other religions. Generally, they would consider them to be the following:

-Well meaning

-Fallible

-Occasionally Inspired, but usually expressing their own opinions based on their own wisdom and learning

-Not speaking for God

From the Pope to Billy Graham, that’s how LDS generally see them. So let us consider that the baseline for a religious leader that isn’t actually a Prophet.

What if the critics and unbelievers in the Church were able to get LDS to reappraise Joseph Smith and other leaders, and get them to slowly move them towards this description of non-LDS religious leaders. What if LDS started to view their leaders less as “Prophets”, and more as prophets?

This is already happening, and it seems to be the apologists leading the charge. The grease on the wheels is of course the statement of Joseph Smith, wherein he was caught wrestling some youth and explained that his wrestling wasn’t representative of him as a “Prophet”; after all, they shouldn’t expect him to walk around in coat and tails all day reciting scripture. He needed his downtime as much as the next uneducated farm boy. It is recorded in this way:

This morning, I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet;” but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such. [History of the Church, 5:265]

If Joseph could see the future, I wonder if he still would have said it. Or maybe clarified it a little more. Certainly, we can see the distinction between Joseph’s day to day activities, and his duties as a prophet, a seer, and a revelator.*

But now we have seen that offhand comment grow to become an oft used apologetic “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Since Joseph didn’t expand on how to tell, exactly, when a prophet is “acting as such”, subsequent Church members over the decades have had free reign to concoct convoluted and nonsensical conditions to identify exactly when Church leaders are acting like Church leaders. If those conditions aren’t met, all bets are off, and their words can be taken as the vain ramblings of a senile old white guy if you choose.

And here we meet at the common ground between critics and apologists. Because while apologists may feel a rush of triumph every time this trump-card is played (certainly, it shuts up the critics!), the critics shut up only because they have won that battle. Because the ultimate testimony of the exmormon or nonbeliever is that Joseph Smith was never “acting as a prophet”, and the ultimate goal is to help LDS understand that. So everytime a teaching or statement is moved from the “acting as such” column over to the “best guess of an 19th century farmhand” column, that is one less thing to worry about.

*Does anyone ever stop to think about what Joseph Smith actually meant by this? Could it ever have occurred to him that there would be a time when Church members doubted that when he was speaking in a Church meeting or conference on doctrinal subjects, and those teachings were later published after he reviewed them, that he might not be “acting as a prophet”? I mean, c’mon!

I doubt many current GA’s have any question about whether or not they are acting as Prophets when they speak in conference, but to hear the apologists describe it, prophetic speaking, even in conference, is a rare event.

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Cinepro’s Six-Step Plan for Living the Miraculous Life

Cinepro’s Six-Step Plan for Living the Miraculous Life

Often times in Church, we discuss miracles. Some have expressed disappointment about a lack of miracles in their lives, when others seem to be doubly blessed in this regard. I therefore offer everyone this easy, six step program to increase the incidence of miracles in your life. As you find more and more miracles in your life, remember to share these experiences with fellow Church members, that they may be strengthened as well.

The six-step program is as follows:

1) Learn as little as possible about statistics and probability.

2) Learn as little as possible about the natural causes of things. Don’t study pathology, epidemiology, physics, engineering, history, or any other field that may promote a scientific, skeptical, or natural world-view. If you don’t know about physics, who’s to say cannonballs don’t float on the wings of angels?

3 ) Whenever you encounter something unusual and for which the cause isn’t clear, make up an explanation that fits your religious worldview (RW) and supports your particular view of God and His doings.

4) Search for secondhand (or thirdhand, fourth-hand, fifth-hand etc.) accounts of miracles that support your RW. Take them at face value, and use them to support your belief without question. Assume that all accounts that appear to describe “miracles” in religious literature are accurately and literally reported, if they support your RW. If they don’t support your RW, ignore or doubt them.

5) If someone does something that is unusual and of mysterious origin, and they offer an explanation that supports your RW, take it at face value. There’s no harm in trusting someone who means well.

6) As you find an increase in miracles in your life, find others who share your RW and share your experience with them. Publish your story in magazines and websites that cater to such people. Remember, they wouldn’t publish it if it weren’t true. When you share the story, be sure to speak slowly, with a low voice. Stare at the person or audience. Try and muster a tear, but don’t sob uncontrollably.

If you can decrease your ability to understand and explain things, and increase your ability to ascribe a religious and/or supernatural origin to these same events, you’re on your way to increasing the frequency of the occurrence of miracles in your life.

Millions of people have followed my program with success, with satisfied customers in every dispensation and every continent. Try it today!

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