Final Thoughts: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

bbe0b-underthebanner2Before the break I’d been reading Under the Banner of Heaven and in the month and a half I was away I finished reading it. (Along with a few other books!) Here are my final thoughts on it. 

To recap, the book is an effort to present a set of murders perpetrated by Fundamentalist Mormons and use it as a stepping stone to explore violence in Mormonism. He shares the events that led up to the murders and their aftermath, while telling the story of how the Mormon religion began and developed. Krakauer weaves in stories about the life of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other important members of the religion throughout time. By the time you’re done with the book, you’ve gained quite a bit of insight into how the religion works and what Mormons believe in.

Of course, Krakauer’s story focuses on “the dark side” of religion, in this case the Fundamentalist side of the Mormon faith. This means that while you’re learning about Mormon beliefs, you’re also being told about countless rapes, incest within polygamous families, and what seems to be a pervasive lack of education. However, one does well to remember that these are stories taken from a small sample of the Mormon population. As I read, and as some of the initial posts on this book reflect, I was constantly amazed at what people believed and were willing to endure for their religion. This seemed especially true of the Fundamentalists in the Mormon faith. 

The text constantly interrogates itself and it’s characters on whether or not believing in god and following any religion is an act of delusion and insanity that drives people to irrational and sometimes violent actions. It’s a topic that resurfaces in a few chapters and the author seems to lean towards believing that’s the case. It’s imperative to point out that Krakauer is a biased party, with his own ideas about religion in general and Mormonism in particular. While I don’t doubt that there could be or had been instances of rape, incest, and the like in the Fundamentalist Mormon faith, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it was the case for everyone then or that it’s representative of what the religion is today.

If I’m being completely honest, what I knew from the Mormon religion prior to reading Krakauer’s account came from that one episode of South Park where a Mormon family comes into town. The book taught me a few things and, even though I staggered through it, I have to say it was an enjoyable experience. As with anything, it’s the kind of book that needs to be read keeping in mind that every story has two sides. That being said, I definitely recommend it. The author makes the narrative feel like all these characters who exists in different times and different places are all part of one twisting thread.

In the end, I sit back and think about what my takeaway from this book is going to be if I believe it’s a narrative that is completely biased and lacks a counterpart to make a balance. And I think, more than learning about the religion and finding out about the murders, to me what stands out is one phrase towards the end. Krakauer is writes about a man who left the religion and became an atheist because he could no longer believe in the things he’d been taught. This man says that the Mormon religion allows you to place blame and choice on god and the prophet, freeing you from the stress of navigating the world and making potentially fatal decisions. “If you want to know the truth,” he says, squinting against the glare, “I think people within the religion—people who live here in Colorado City—are probably happier, on the whole, than people on the outside.” He looks down at the red sand, scowls, and nudges a rock with the toe of one shoe. “But some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself.” He’s what I take with me as I close this book, a man willing to sacrifice happiness in order to have the freedom to seek what he believed to be true.

What would you guys choose happiness in ignorance or a pursuit of truth that meant being considerably less happy? Let me know below in the comments! As always, stay golden readers. Until Next time!

In Theory: Viral Memetic Infection and Mormonism

A few days ago I watched a TED Talk by Diane Benscoter who spoke about her time with the Moonies. What she was saying resonated with what I’ve been reading. This last chapter I read focused on Elizabeth Smart, a teenage girl who was kidnapped by a Mormon Fundamentalist. According to reports, her kidnapper manipulated Elizabeth and convinced her that Fundamentalism was the only true way to live. Her devotion was such that on several occasions she was left alone and unrestrained and didn’t try to escape. When they finally rescued her, at first she wouldn’t admit to being Elizabeth Smart, even after she did her only concern was for her kidnapper’s well being.

While Benscoter chalks the ease with which she became a Moonie up to being young and idealistic.She considers the whole experience to have been a “viral memetic infection”. This concept arose with an essay by Richard Dawkins called Viruses of the Mind, in which he likens the spread of a computer virus to the spread of ideas, particularly religious ones. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Krakauer quotes women who think that Elizabeth Smart’s upbringing played a part in her apparent submission to her kidnapper. To them, the fact that she already had a Mormon background, made the Fundamentalist ideals seem more reasonable than they otherwise would’ve.

In his essay, Dawkins says there are two necessary conditions for a system to become infected. The first is “a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.” (Dawkins, 1991) He also mentions viruses are more likely to thrive in a system that is already compromised, like immune-deficient patients.

As human beings, we’re certainly capable of replicating information, Dawkins mentions how we learn and replicate complex language patterns from a very young age. On the other hand, we’re able to obey instructions; we may not always obey them and we may not obey everyone, but there is still a large percentage of preexistent rules that we follow.

Then there is the compromised system. It is perhaps possible to say that Elizabeth Smart’s system was already compromised by her Mormon upbringing. When she came into contact with her kidnapper, it was easier for him to “infect” her because he already had a framework within which to build and expand. Benscoter speaks of her youth and so does Dawkins, young minds are more impressionable and likely to believe because they are designed to absorb large amounts of information in order to function in society. Elizabeth Smart still had that impressionable youth, coupled with already cemented beliefs that weren’t that far off from what she was being told by her kidnapper.

It’s certainly an interesting way of looking at the spread of religion throughout society, as an epidemic that constantly replicates itself. This is true of all ideas and concepts, good or bad, if given the right conditions to proliferate. I think everyone has a right to their own beliefs and religion, but it becomes problematic when those create situations like the one Elizabeth Smart went through. It’s problematic when you have people that will be easily convinced that it is ok to be raped and forced into marriage, that it is necessary to kill yourself like the people of Jonestown did.

Diane Benscoter admits that she can understand how she fell prey to the Moonies, how events like the Jonestown massacre occur, how girls like Elizabeth Smart are manipulated into thinking being kidnapped and forced into polygamy is an act of god. I was asking myself where self preservation went in the face of faith, maybe this theory of viral memetic infection has the answer. Maybe it’s not that self preservation disappears, but rather that it is hijacked by the idea virus that is religion, reworking the thought process until it seems like there is no need for your self-preservation instinct to kick in.

Any thoughts, readers? Until next time, stay golden.

Faith vs. Self-preservation with a side of South Park

Yesterday turned out to be a lazy, yet quietly productive day. It was a mix of South Park (I’m watching the whole thing for the first time) and admin type work for the blog and a group I belong to. It was pleasant, in a way, ticking things off my to do list, while also making some impressive progress on my South Park quest. A quest which I’m enjoying immensely, I have no idea why it took me so long to watch this show. I’m currently on season 9 and it’s still going strong. I can almost imitate Cartman, so I feel accomplished.

Want to know what else I made progress with? My reading. I spent a few hours today curled up on my couch, just me and an indecent number of Mormons. Which, mind you, isn’t too far away from the truth. The author is chronicling different situations that take place within the Fundamentalist Mormon religion through different people. He speaks of one such woman’s family tree and describes it as something that looks like a complex engineering blueprint. She married her stepmother’s father and became, not only her stepmom’s stepmom, but also her own step-grandmother. That’s pretty crazy, right?

I don’t have issues with polygamy, in general. I believe in the idea that adults should be able to have multiple partners, whether in an open relationship or a plural relationship between 3 or more people, if they so desire. However, reading these accounts of Mormon polygamy was bothering me and I finally understood why when I read this line: ” Girls are led to believe that such a relationship is the one way to salvation”. These girls, because some of them are as young as 13 and 14 years old, are brought up to believe that the only way to make it into Heaven is by entering into plural marriages and being fully obedient to these men.  It’s either polygamy or damnation.

The motto for the Bountiful community in Canada, a Fundamentalist Mormon town, is “Keep sweet, no matter what”. It sounds innocent enough, but when you take into consideration that this is a community where disobedience is discouraged and severely punished, it takes on a more sinister meaning. It stops being just cute a saying to keep posted on fridge doors and it becomes something much more threatening. Keep sweet, no matter what….or else.

The same woman who became her own step-grandmother is quoted as trying to “unravel where God stops and man begins”. That’s a question believers of every religion ask themselves at some point. People often forget that members of the clergy and church leaders are just men, even if their intent is to speak in god’s name, sharing what they believe god would want. However, they don’t have a direct line to heaven, they’re just working off History and scriptures written by men like themselves. This becomes especially problematic in the Mormon religion because they believe their leaders are actually prophets who speak for god. It means these men are given a divine license to do as they wish and place it all under god’s name.

I had the good fortune of being raised by a family that taught me that I had a right to speak for myself. They taught me how to identify abuse and what healthy relationships looked like, even if they didn’t have perfect relationships themselves. Reading this book I’m surprised by what these women go through for their religion and I can’t help but wonder how they cope. I don’t doubt that there are good times the author doesn’t show because it goes against the point he’s trying to make, but some of the accounts he shares are really baffling, in a way. He tells of women raped, men who marry both mother and daughter, young girls pulled out of school only to be married off and impregnated, it’s intense. I understand these women strongly believe that is the only true path to salvation, but I wonder where their sense of self preservation is? Is their faith so strong that it completely overpowers it?

What do you think, readers? Does faith trump self preservation? Let me know what you think. Until next time, stay classy!

Mea culpa!

Blogger faux pas, I fell asleep yesterday without posting. It’s terrible, I know. “When will you learn to schedule your posts beforehand!”, I hear you cry. You’re right, nameless, disembodied voice. You’re right! Attempts will be made to better organize myself.

On the bright side, yesterday was a pretty productive day. I’ve been working on fixing up an old table for my room, I’m still on the sanding stage because doing it without power tools takes forever and a day. It’s shaping up though, which makes me happy, especially because it means I’m getting closer to spray painting it! In the mean time I’ve been spray painting a few other things in my room partly because they needed it, but mostly because I’m a little bit obsessed. The sound a spray paint can makes when you shake it is oddly satisfying!

I’ve also been learning how to make stencils on Photoshop and Illustrator, to further expand on this whole spray paint thing I’ve got going on. I have a huge space on my wall and I’m thinking of filling it with one or two of my doodles.

Check out my first efforts. I give you Phone Head and Awkbbit (he’s still a work in progress).

Phone Head Testing (dragged)

Which one do you think would look better on my wall? I’m kinda leaning towards Phone Head, but I haven’t decided yet. I’ll show you the finished product when I do!

In the midst of all these random little projects, I’ve been reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I’m a few chapters in and getting a bit antsy to get to the actual story of what happened with the Lafferty brothers. So far he’s talked about Fundamentalist Mormons, their settlement on Colorado City, apostates, charges brought up against Mormon polygamists, and I’m starting to wish he’d get to the story already. On the other hand, I appreciate this slow roundabout because it gives me context that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s insanely helpful because, as I’ve said before, I really don’t know much about the Mormon religion – Fundamentalist or not, so having a bit of background helps when trying to keep things in context.

I’ve gotta say, I like this early morning writing thing. I might use last night’s missed post as an opportunity to switch my posting hours.

Will she change or keep posting at the same hours? What will she end up painting on her wall? Will she ever get over her spray paint obsession? Find out on the next episode of Destination:Reading! By which I mean, as time goes by because none of those questions will be answered by tomorrow.

Stay beautiful, readers. Until next time.

Rangent: Average (Joe)seph Smith

For today’s post I’d planned to talk about the origins of the Mormon religion and a bit about Joseph Smith’s life. I wanted to have a better understanding of where the religion came from while I read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. In case you’ve just joined us (Hello!), I’ve just made it to Utah and Krakauer’s book is my current read. However, I stumbled upon a very curious video which got me thinking. It showcased different people telling the story of how Joseph Smith came to be a prophet of God, as he is considered by those who follow the Mormon religion.

What struck me the most is how deeply connected these people felt to the founder of their religion, Joseph Smith. He wasn’t this far off concept of a person, but rather a flesh and bone human being who remained tangible, unlike the prophets from other religions. One after the other, the people in this video spoke about how they identified with his search for the truth, the need to know what was real and what wasn’t.

It’s interesting to me that the reason they connect with him is everything that makes him human, when that is also one of the biggest reasons that people criticize the religion and it’s founder. The Mormon  religion is based on a man who spoke to God and was given access to religious scriptures, along with the ability to translate them into English. There was no way to corroborate whether anything he said was the truth, I think there’s something very human in that, but human in a flawed way. Those who are skeptical criticize that very human tendency to lie and cheat in order to achieve what we want, but those who believe in Joseph Smith and his religion exalt that human quality of the every day man, the average guy.

Prophets from other religions are virtually unrelatable because they’ve ceased to be people to become tropes in a story. There is a fairly clear history of who Joseph Smith was, which gives people the opportunity to relate in terms of ideology, but also on simpler things like having lived in the same area, for example.In a way, I think the figure of Joseph Smith is appealing for so many people because it implies that everyone can have a direct connection to God if they are humble and honest enough. It seems like a much easier lifestyle to strive for, but, then again, I don’t know much. Yet.

Join me as I keep learning! Until next time, readers.

Under the Banner of DIY

I love everything to do with upcycling, DIY, and crafts. Really, I just like working with my hands and being able to have a tangible product at the end. Something I’ve always wanted to do is play around with spray paint, but for some reason I’ve never found a project to use it in. Well, that changed today! I’m going to repaint a little patio table we have and I decided to go ahead and do it with spray paint. I’m probably more excited than I should be, but who cares! IMG_0100

I recently learned of a spray paint brand called Plutonium. According to the website, it dries faster, is more eco-friendly, and offers better coverage than other brands. It’s only sold in three places on the island, one of which is thankfully close to me. I bought two cans, red and black, to try it out, but I’m hoping this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I’ll keep you guys updated as the project develops, I’m excited to see the end result!

It hasn’t all been furniture and spray paint, though, I did some reading and spent some time on yesterday’s homework. I was trying to figure out how many Mormons reside here in the island, but I didn’t have any luck. Unfortunately, today wasn’t any better so I’m thinking of finding people who belong to the Church so I can ask. We’ll see!

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, my pick for Utah, is holding steady at concise, yet informative. I know I keep harping on it, but I think only a small amount of writers know how to condense their writing without making it into something tangled and convoluted. I know it sounds contradictory, but it makes a weird sort of sense, I promise! I think the fact that it’s so direct just makes what he’s saying seem that much more incredible. There’s no string of empty sentences to buffer or serve as padding, which means you’re reading one surprising bit of information after the next. It makes for high energy, dynamic reading.

Stay tuned for more thoughts and contradictions! Until next time, readers.

Of Droughts and Mormons

Good evening, everyone!

Today has been an insanely long day and not for any particular reason, the time has just passed very slowly. This was probably aided by the fact that it’s been an entirely uneventful day where all I did was watch tv, do a small amount of work for a group I belong to, and read.

On the bright side, today we got our water back! It’s possible you don’t know this, but Puerto Rico is experiencing one of the most severe droughts in the past decade, at least. Due to the infinitesimal amount of water, we’re smack dab in the middle of a rationing process. Initially, they would turn the water off for 24 hours, but as the water level decreased they increased that to 48 hours. Today marked the end of the latest 48 hour period and, for the moment, we have running water. According to the “experts” the water levels will take months to get back to normal, which means we will most likely be rationing water for a few more months.

If I weren’t already excited to go to Europe, escaping the drought alone would make the trip worth it. I can’t lie though, I’m stoked to finally visit Europe on my terms, without tour guides or a group to determine where I should be. The first time I set foot in Europe my mom and I went with a tourist group where everything was pre-organized. The second time, I went as part of an English course offered by the university; we traveled following in the footsteps of American writers who based themselves in Paris, like those of the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation. As a group we had more freedom to explore than I did with my previous group, but because it was a university course there were things we needed to see and places we needed to visit in order to complete our final project. This upcoming trip is a chance to finally visit the countries that I want, without the hassle of timetables or preordained stops to make. It’s quite liberating, if I’m honest.

As part of my absolutely lazy day, I’ve been getting acquainted with my new book, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I usually have a difficult time reading non-fiction because it takes me longer to dig through the facts and find the narrative. I haven’t had that problem so far with this book, it invites me to keep reading and I can’t help but feel excited about that. In the small amount I’ve read it’s already explored a few subjects in a really concise and direct way. I like that the writer found a way to explain things that could be potentially complicated and made them seem simple without dumbing them down. I’ve never read anything else by him, so I don’t know if that’s his style in general or if it has to do with the nature of the book itself. So far, the way he’s approached the narrative works with what he’s trying to say.

One of the first things he touches upon is the difference between Mormons and Mormon Fundamentalists. They both follow the same scriptures and believe Joseph Smith to be a prophet similar to Moses, for example. However, Mormon Fundamentalists firmly believe in polygamy, to them abandoning what they consider to be one of the religion’s pillars means that the rest of the Mormons have strayed from the true teachings of Joseph Smith.

According to the book, only about 1% of Mormons are Fundamentalists and yet, at least in my experience, we have a tendency to equate Mormons with polygamy. I’ve never really been exposed to the Mormon religion, so I’m not sure if it’s a general tendency to equate Mormonism with polygamy or if it’s just me. I’ve been trying to find out what percentage of Puerto Ricans belongs to the Mormon religion, but I haven’t found anything satisfying. It looks like I have homework!

Hopefully I’ll have some information by tomorrow. Don’t miss my continued journey into Mormonism! Until next time, readers.