Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Excommunication of Ayla Stewart

Several religious organizations have officially condemned the violence, and the white national activity, that occurred this last weekend in Charlottesville Virginia. It is much more important that religious groups do this than atheists. Many of the white nationalists espoused their moral superiority (given to them by a Christian God) as part of their motivation to travel long distances to be violent in Charlottesville Virginia.  I suspect very few Atheists were amongst them; though I’m sure there were some. The Mormon, or LDS, church here in Utah issued two statements, and these have filled the press and airwaves; I’ve heard the statements repeatedly quoted on the local NPR station during my commute to and from work. The statements ring hollow in light of the way the LDS Church silently accepts active white nationalist Mormons; not to mention the very vocal way the Mormons repeatedly came down on the wrong side of race history.
“Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church.” – Official statement by Mormon Church issued on 15 August 2017

One of the speakers at the “UNITE THE RIGHT” rally in Charlottesville was one Ayla Stewart. She blogs and vlogs as “wife with a purpose” and “Nordic Sunrise” from deep in the heart of Mormon ideology . Over the past few years her followers have grown until they now number over thirty thousand (according to numbers given for her Twitter followers), and she is considered an important voice in the Mormon Alt-Right movement.
“My church just declared that I, as a white person, have no culture.” -- @apurposefulwife tweeting in response to Mormon Church’s 15 August official statement

Loosely corresponding with Ayla’s rise is the Utah Valley-based Utah Vanguard group. This group is identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is a full-on white nationalist-supremacist-neo-Nazi group. It recently put up posters on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City that promoted things like “controlling the Blacks” to reduce crime. I’ve asked AYD to get me pictures , or copies, of the posters if she sees them (classes start in a few days), but so far they have been taken down so fast that neither of us have met anyone who has actually seen one. Vanguard regularly retweets content from @apurposefulwife (aka Ayla Stewart).

I don’t spend a lot of time perusing what white nationalist groups have to say. I know it is important to understand the dark parts of my culture, but there are only so many hours in the day, and there are so many things more worthwhile than neo-Nazi crap; like internet kittens for instance. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that in a post about neo-Nazi crap, but I wanted to explain how it took me a little while to realize that an awkward symbol I kept seeing (on shields in Charlottesville, on flags, on the Vanguard websites…) was the very item from which Fascism got its name.

A “fasces” (fascis in Latin) is a bundle of sticks. As a symbol it is often shown as a bound bundle of rods with an axe attached to or bundled inside it. The idea is that a single stick is weak, but a bundle is strong. I once was treated to a demonstration by a job candidate who brought popsicle sticks to the interview to demonstrate this effect as a metaphor for his team-building management philosophy. He gave everyone a stick and we easily broke them, then he taped a dozen together and had each of us try to break it; I thought the demonstration was cute, even if it was contrived. This is an important engineering principle, and why plywood and OSB are so strong. This fascis symbol for “stronger united” was the symbol, and the origin of the name, for Mussolini’s political party (Partito Nazionale Fascista), and because of this eventually gave rise to the term “Fascist” that we are all familiar with. You can see the symbol accidentally used in a lot of places, like on the back of older dimes. However, these white nationalists are using it in order to advertise the fact that they identify as Fascists. It essentially means the same thing as a swastika to them, and that is why they use it.

Right now the Vanguard Utah neo-fascist group is the only hate group of its kind recognized in Utah. However, the interwebs suggest that it may only be a manifestation of mainstreaming Mormon white nationalist tendencies. The fantasy that the LDS church abruptly changes its stance on an issue like divine racial inequality and all Mormons change their beliefs is not evident in the openly racist flushing through the great pipes of the internets.
“Every nation is the gathering place for its own people. The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerien Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea and so forth” -- quote from LDS authority Russell M. Nelson that is used by white nationalists

Many radical religious activities coming out of Utah are part of this hate-web. In one Twitter conversation @purposefulwife presents to @gr8walloftrump (DeseretNnationalist) a list of 16 “core Alt right philosophy” points collected last August by Vox Day (he ironically has translated the list into several languages). Point 11 states that: “The Alt Right understands that diversity + proximity = war”. My readers should remember Vox Day from his activity undermining the Hugo awards in 2015. He succeeded in filling the Hugo ballots with his super-theist authors; many of whom were published by his Castalia House publishing operations. The Hugo attacks were part inexpensive marketing ploy by a small publisher and part theistic crusade. I reviewed many of the works that made it onto the ballots that year, and they were almost all too awful to be simply called unfortunate. Day collaborated with a couple Utah people on the Hugo attacks.

Day was one of the rabidly right-wing “GamerGate” fanatics who used his considerable right-wing media backing (much of which undoubtedly came from family connections) to ride the anti-feminist GamerGate flame wars into a more public spotlight. I don’t really understand GamerGate, and that might be due in part to just how infantile the whole thing sounds whenever I try to read about it. However, there are aspects of this white nationalist Mormon group that still cling to a GamerGate “gg” identification, and rehash it when not supporting their holdover racist Mormon ideology.
“The church is in apostasy when it contradicts the words of Prophet Joseph Smith who revealed we are form the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh” – Tweet from @comissarofgg )Commissar of GamerGate) to @purposefulwife and @EscapeVelo (EscapeVelocity)

If “the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh” sound like code to you then you have a reasonably good idea of what is going on in the above quote. Code is just one of the many apologist tools the white nationalist Mormons use to obfuscate their interests. They often use ever-popular-with-apologists of wishy washy morally relativistic false equivalencies. Each time they praise a racist or retweet a racist meme or saying they will categorically state that they are not racists; in fact, they will often point out, those people calling others racist are the real racists. This kind of purulent crap is intrinsically disingenuous and dishonest, and I don’t care if they have repeated it in the mirror till they believe it by rote.
“I don't consider myself a racist, I don't hate other peoples” -- David Duke podcast 25 August 2006

I have been amazed by the train wreck that has been the POTUS (President of the United States) responses to the white nationalist activities in Charlottesville Virginia, and I am not alone. I thought it was more than enough to be introduced to new terms like “neo-confederate” while watching clips of young white men bathed in the warm glow of torches chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us”. Then, in a stunning example of apologetic moral relativism, the POTUS equated the level of blame for each side in this weekend’s Charlottesville violence. He also pointed out that there were some “Very Fine People” who were there for a good purpose, and that the “alt-left” came ready for violence. I think he is honestly saying that things would have been fine if people hadn’t interfered with the objectives of the white nationals.
"I think there's blame on both sides. I don't have any doubt about it and you don't have any doubt it either. And if you reported it accurately, you would say it." -- Statement given by President Donald J. Trump 15 August 2017

“What about the fact that they came charging – they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?" -- Statement about “the alt-left” given by President Donald J. Trump 15 August 2017

The wishy washy apologetics that apparently permeates our culture from the president on down to racist mommy-bloggers in Utah serves to prevent action. It is important for public figures and institutions to not undermine their “base”.

A day or so before the POTUS made the statements I quoted above he read a more condemning statement that called out hate groups by name. Trump supporters like David Duke (famous KKK spokesperson) angrily shot back that he was being manipulated and false. They were pleased when the POTUS responded with the apologetic wishy-washy moral relativism I quoted.
“I have spoken all over the world and I have great respect for Muslims, I have great respect for the African people, I have respect for the other races.” -- David Duke podcast 25 August 2006

The Mormon neo-fascists responded angrily to the statements made by the Mormon Church. They felt betrayed, and that their church was caving in to political correctness. However, they probably have as little to fear from the rigid authority structure of their church as the various wings of the greater Alt-Right movement had to fear from the fleeting words the POTUS had called them out with. The Mormon Alt-Right movement is a significant part of the “base” for the Mormon Church. If the Mormon Church disciplined even the vocal minority of Alt-Right Mormons it would be like plucking out their eye to spite their face.

The Mormon Church has been making empty statements about racists not being proper Mormons since well before the Alt-Right groups became a thing. Individuals, like Ayla, have risen in popularity while the great authority of the Mormon Church has excommunicated people like Kate Kelly for suggesting that some women could be given the same magical “blessings” reserved for eight year old boys. This leads the outsider to think that, to the Mormon Church, respectfully discussing aspects of magical wacky-woo is much more egregious than openly espousing neo-fascist ideology.
“‘No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.’” – Statement by late LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) as quoted in official statement by Mormon Church issued on 13 August 2017

This is not a small issue. I believe there are tens of thousands of Alt-Right Mormons. I do not think the Mormon Church can ferret them out with anything approaching the vigilance with which they might investigate potential Latte consumption within their ranks. Even disciplining a couple thousand Utah Vanguard supporting or #WhiteCulture promoting members might seriously dilute the influence of the Mormon Church.

They could, however, eliminate the most vocal neo-fascist elements and hope that scares the rest. This would not really be sufficient to cure the Mormon fascist problem, but it could dull criticism.

Maybe they will excommunicate Ayla Stewart sometime in the next few weeks?

That would put a surprised look on my face.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Atheists, as a community, have a problem with alcohol and drug addictions. The problem is twofold. The melodramatic portion of the problem is that prominent atheists keep getting drunk and doing stupid, sometimes morally repugnant and possibly illegal, things. The more significant issue is that an increasing number of studies are showing that spirituality, and even religiousness, are correlated to positive treatment outcomes for addiction recovery. In other words, by mixing anecdote and statistical correlations in just the right proportions, the atheist community appears too much like a bunch of drunken sods who cannot stay sober and remain Atheists.

The correlations found between spirituality and recovery outcomes are likely driven by the influence of 12-step programs on recovery paradigms. The influence is so pervasive that it may be impossible to adequately determine the efficacy of non-12-step-influenced recovery alternatives. In other words the correlations between spirituality and positive recovery outcomes is likely indicating a degree of investment in the recovery treatment and would not indicate that 12-step programs work better than secular alternatives. 12-step programs grew out of, and retain, distinctly theistic religious elements; six of the 12 steps mention a “God” or “Higher power”. It is very difficult for addicts or alcoholics to completely engage in a 12-step recovery treatment without a well-developed personal spirituality.

An interesting irony is that the “Spiritual Not Religious” identity promoted by many implementations of the 12 steps is viewed by a significant number of staunchly religious folks as synonymous with agnosticism, and only a few steps shy of full-on Atheism. “Spiritual But Not Religious” is a common identifier on dating sites, and an ever growing number of Americans identify their personal religious leanings to be this using the initialism SBNR.  Some atheists refer to SBNR as foggy woo. 

SBNR as a movement is sometimes attributed to Sven Erlandson’s (He is a TV personality) book “Spiritual But Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America” (2000). The defining core beliefs of SBNR are mostly negative; Scientism, Secularism, ecclesiastic ritual, and a huge chunk of theistic dogma are devalued in favor of personal experiential spiritualism. It is no wonder that Theists often deride SBNR as hedonistic salad bar spiritualism.

However, I think the formation of SBNR really began back in the mid-1930s when Bill Wilson was trying to create a recovery program that was much more accessible to all types of Christians than the Oxford program he was working from. Not one to be constrained by the task at hand Bill also wrote a hallucination-inspired chapter to the agnostics in his Big Book called “Alcoholics Anonymous”; here he suggested that even the non-religious might be able to stay sober under certain circumstances. Bill wrote to several religious figureheads to assure them that his AA was not taking over the job of religion or suggesting people stay away from churches; he proudly included letters in his Big Book that suggested AA would make people better Christians.

At least twenty years passed since Bill Wilson accidentally suggested proto-SBNR as a sufficient precondition for recovery before the core concepts of SBNR were written down as part of the canon for a new 12-step fellowship. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) specifically invited people with no religious affiliation to be full members, and is often referred to as a “Spiritual Not Religious” (no but) program; the idea that it doesn’t matter what type of Christian you are is replaced by not caring what type of God you might believe in. In the literature of NA the idea of “God the Creator” is largely replaced by tortured explanations of “God” that look as if they are designed to be inclusive to any kind of conceptual super identity.

“Our concept of God comes not from dogma, but from what we believe and what works for us. Many of us understand God to be simply whatever force keeps us clean. The right to a God of your understanding is total and without any catches.” – Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous

However, SBNR is not a rational belief system. It requires that some parts of the human condition remain magical and beyond scientific explanation. It is sometimes anti-intellectual in its varied assertions that certain types of knowledge can blind people to certain kinds of truth. SBNR may have a limited dogma, but it has a varied confusion of dogma. There is no scriptural list of approved SBNR dogma, but it is not uncommon for the person who identifies as SBNR to believe in a soul, or an afterlife, or the power of prayer, or ESP, or divine revelation, or …. and the list goes on.

I hope that by this point in this essay that you are wondering how this decomposition of religious views could be quantified in such a way as to provide data of the form that could be used for a statistical correlation. If you are picturing a spectrum of SBNR people that includes crystal-gazing yogis and the mildly disinterested folks who feel momentarily in touch with some universal chi when the barista at Starbucks gets their Latte order correct, then you are still with me. How does this spectral distribution of belief get turned into a data set?

The way it is done is with a questionnaire. The measures of spirituality are still developing. I’ve included the question list from the “Daily Spiritual Experience Scale” (DSES) developed by Lynn Underwood as an example of a widely used modern spirituality measure. It is similar to others, like the Fetzer Institutes MMRS (Multidimensional Measurement of Religiousness/Spirituality for Use in Health Research) that were used in developing it. I am sure that future measures will borrow heavily from the DSES in their genesis. If you want to use the DSES in a study you may need to obtain a license from Lynn Underwood.

“The list that follows includes items you may or may not experience. Please consider how often you directly have this experience, and try to disregard whether you feel you should or should not have these experiences. A number of items use the word ‘God.’ If this word is not a comfortable one for you, please substitute another word that calls to mind the divine or holy for you.”
Many times a day
Every day
Most days
Some days
Once in a while
Never or almost never
I feel God's presence.
I experience a connection to all of life.
During worship, or at other times when connecting with God, I feel joy which lifts me out of my daily concerns.
I find strength in my religion or spirituality.
I find comfort in my religion or spirituality.
I feel deep inner peace or harmony.
I ask for God's help in the midst of daily activities.
I feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities.
I feel God's love for me directly.
I feel God's love for me through others.
I am spiritually touched by the beauty of creation.
I feel thankful for my blessings.
I feel a selfless caring for others.
I accept others even when they do things I think are wrong.
I desire to be closer to God or in union with the divine
Not close
Somewhat close
Very close
As close as possible
In general, how close do you feel to God?


One of the things that strikes me about the DSES is that it is impossible for so-called “Spiritual Atheists” to answer. It requires definitions to be implicitly understood that to a rational atheist are simply absurd. The admittedly few studies I have looked at that use the DSES have data that congregates towards the high end of the 1-5 scale most of the questions are scored with. I think this could be due to the fact that someone who, for instance, implicitly understands what “feeling God’s love directly” means would probably feel that love quite often. It might be more useful to have questions that worked for a wider spectrum of potentially spiritual people?

Alcoholism and addiction are diseases of the brain. The addicted brain is unable to rationally develop ways of combating the disease. Some directing force that is outside of the addicted brain is required for recovery. There are many treatment options that are correlated with slightly higher or lower positive recovery outcome rates. Spirituality, as defined in ways that exclude the participation of individuals with truly atheistic world views, is one of the most common worthwhile-looking treatment options. If the $16 billion dollars in annual addiction treatment spending is going to begin providing treatment options to Atheists we will need to address the deep-seated paradigms that exclude atheists from proper notice in treatment programs.

Unfortunately, in my experience, it is more common for Atheists to be skeptical of basic concepts in addiction treatment, like the disease concept of addiction, than to have the desire to address the problems with developing effective treatment options.