Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Think about it" Thursday: Morality

For all you new readers, "Think about it" Thursday (I like alliteration) is a weekly feature intended to provoke thought and discussion. Questions are often, but not always, directed at theists. My hope is to get people to think about their beliefs in a way that perhaps they haven't before, and to make sure they have a good reason for holding that belief, other than just because that's what they've always believed. I'm always open to suggestions for future discussion questions. Email me if you have an idea.

This week's question was suggested by John. He asks:

The Bible is often said to be used as a moral guide in one's life yet there are many rules in it that were considered holy in the day that would be unthinkable to follow today. For example: Stoning adulterers. When presented with an example like this, most would say "Oh, you're just picking out the bad parts in Bible." So the question remains: What higher moral guide do you use that says this part of the Bible is good and this part is bad?
Discuss.  :-)


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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

At year's end, reflecting on what might have been

When I look at all the ways religion has harmed me, it's hard not to think about where I might be or who I may have become if I hadn't had that hindrance. 

What if I had been allowed to dream? I'm referring to teachings that restricted what I believed I should do with my life. I was never allowed to imagine a future that didn't include children. The First Presidency had this to say on the topic: "We seriously regret that there should exist a sentiment or feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. We have been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth that we may have joy and rejoicing in our posterity.

“Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity, it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by” (Ensign, May 1971). 

I was never allowed to consider not getting married. From Spencer W. Kimball: "No one who rejects the covenant of celestial marriage can reach exaltation in the eternal kingdom of God." Kimball goes on to quote from Doctrine & Covenants 132, where we learn that those who don't marry can't receive exaltation and instead are ministering angels. Lest you think this is a nice consolation prize, Kimball sets us straight: "Some might say, 'Well, I’d be satisfied to just become an angel,' but you would not. One never would be satisfied just to be a ministering angel to wait upon other people when he could be the king himself."

But missing out on the Celestial Kingdom was almost secondary in my mind as motivation for getting married. I never considered not getting married because getting married is the only way you get to have sex.

Not that I don't love my husband and my children, but I would have preferred to have consciously chosen to have a family instead of being funneled into it.

What if I hadn't spent my teen years feeling like I was worthless because I didn't fit the Church's mold of an ideal young woman. A few days ago, I came across this article about the Church's revamping of their Young Women's program, and I'm still reeling. This quote was truly nauseating:

The booklets are pink. "We are excited about the color of pink, because we think these young women are pink. They resonate to the softness and the femininity of that color. We want them to understand that they are soft, they are unique, they are feminine and that they don't have to be like the boys."

I was not soft as a Young Woman. I was not pink. I did not fit, and I thought it was because of something wrong with me. In my deconversion story, I talk about being tomboyish and not liking or relating to women in the Church. It wasn't until after I left that I began to realize that I could be feminine and not be stupid and weak. In recent years, I've been able to embrace my girly side and form some female friendships. What if I'd had that message as a young girl, that I was as good as a boy, that feminine doesn't have to mean timid or deferential or submissive or incapable?

I never got to dream about what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was already picked for me: wife, mother, that's it. Sure, Mormon women are encouraged to get an education, but they're also expected to sweep it aside as soon as a husband and kids show up, which is supposed to be as soon as possible. How was I supposed to get excited about any kind of career, knowing it would be "unrighteous" of me to actually pursue a career? Any career training a Mormon woman receives is "for emergency use only," a backup plan if your husband dies or for some other reason can't be the provider. Otherwise, the prophets have proclaimed: "Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children." And choosing not to be a mother is unacceptable.

What might have been? How much further along might I be in my education? How much more emotionally stable, had I not had to undo all the damage of my early years?

And yet...

Were it not for the LDS Church, a young woman from Florida would almost certainly not have decided to attend Brigham Young University, would not have met a young man from Missouri while there, would not have decided to get married and start having children right away, eleven in all, including me.

Despite all its evils, in a very real way, I literally owe my existence to Mormonism. Whatever else may have been, it would not have been me.


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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

California Science Center sued for canceling intelligent design film

Los Angeles Times

The American Freedom Alliance says the center bowed to pressure from the Smithsonian. The science center says a news release hadn't been submitted to the museum, violating the contract.


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TED Talk Tuesday: Richard Dawkins on Militant Atheism

What's in a name? What took me so long to start calling myself an atheist? It's been at least two years since I've believed in any kind of personal God (or Goddess), but I had this stereotypical idea that atheism meant not believing in anything, and I still had spiritual leanings (though I've come to dislike the word "spiritual" because I'm inclined to disbelieve in spirits).

Realizing I was an atheist was similar to realizing I was a feminist. See, growing up in Mormonism, I was led to believe that feminists were bitter, angry, men-hating women who have abortions for fun and spit on stay-at-home moms. I recall on more than one occasion hearing my mother say that women who use the title "Ms." are ashamed of being married. Then a few years ago I took a women's studies class and learned that a feminist is simply someone who believes in equal rights and treatment for women. There's nothing in there about hating people who have penises or gratuitous fetus murder or eschewing marriage and family if that's what a woman wants. Once I learned that, I thought, "Oh, that's all it is? I guess I am a feminist."

We took a road trip this summer and listened to the audiobook of The God Delusion to pass the time. The more I listened to Dawkins, the more I found myself nodding along as he articulated conclusions I'd already come to on my own. Then he defined "atheist" as simply someone who doesn't believe in any deities. "Oh, that's all it is? Well, that's been me for quite a while now." Nothing in there about rejecting all spirituality and turning to hedonism or nihilism. 

Still, why label myself? Because I want to do my part to dispel the stereotype that not believing in God is a shameful, immoral, irrational thing. If you're an atheist and you haven't already, come out, come out wherever you are.


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Monday, December 28, 2009

I'm on Twitter.

I made my first visit ever to Twitter today and created an account. So stroke my ego and follow me! Also, help me figure out what the hell I'm doing.


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Welcome, new readers!

My blog's number of followers and Google subscribers has nearly doubled in the last week. So glad to have you all here! I'm also honored to have had my deconversion story featured on Main Street Plaza. I'm touched at the number of people who have commented or written to me to say, "Yeah, me too."

I hope you all had a wonderful holiday weekend. I enjoyed the break and will resume regular posting soon. 

In the meantime, I'd like to give a shout out to blogger Darren Wong. Darren's blog War for Science aims to dispel misinformation propagated by fundamentalists and pseudoscientists. His articles are well-written, clear, easy to understand and include lively illustrations. Darren is doing some important work in showing how accessible science can be for the lay person and I would you all to check out his blog.

That's it for now. I'm off to put my house back together after our weekend trip. Have a wonderful day, and as always, thanks for reading!


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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

Yes, I still celebrate Christmas and I still say "Merry Christmas," and I think Tim does a pretty good job of explaining why.

So, Merry Christmas, everyone.

I'll be taking a break from the blog to spend the weekend with my family. I hope you all do the same. See you Monday-ish.


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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Seek and ye shall find. Or not.

I've heard from several people that if I don't believe in God, it's because I didn't try hard enough, or I didn't try long enough, or I tried the wrong way. In other words, it's my fault.  

Here's a quote from Patrik on the Faith comment thread: "I believe that if you earnestly seek after God you will find Him." He backed up his statement with Hebrews 11:6: "Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him."

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend posted a link to Jennifer Fulwiler's blog. I perused it and found so much to refute, so little time! Perhaps some future post fodder. Jennifer is a former atheist turned Catholic. I read her story of how she came to believe in God , which seemed to boil down to, "Hmm, lots of people who are smart believe in God. Am I smarter than they are?" (Not a good argument, as I've discussed.) Then she decided to live her life as if there were a God and, Lo, and behold! Everything made sense! (Which is funny, because I had the exact same experience when I decided to live as though there were no God.) She ends her piece with, "I cannot speak to the experience of former believers who saw no fruits of their belief in God other than to say that, based on my own experience, I have to wonder if they were conducting the experiment correctly, approaching it with humility and an open heart." 

In other words, if at the end of working out the equation, you didn't come up with the answer "Belief in God," it's because you did it wrong! It's your fault!

From Double A on the Heaven? thread: "A childlike acceptance of God is a fruitful thing."

Is it? 

Alma teaches something similar in *gasp* the Book of Mormon.  ("No! No! Not the evil cult book!") Alma 32:27-28: "But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me."

It's in the Bible too. John 7:17: "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself."

Just do the experiment! Then you'll know. How simple could it be?

I hear from a lot of Christians that because my background is in Mormonism, then I wasn't a "real" Christian in the first place and just need to try the "true" path to Christ and all will be well. I did try to be a "real" Christian. Once I left the LDS Church, Protestant churches were my first stop. From A Little Birdy on this thread: "If you were a Morman [sic] (a cult) I can see why you exited the religion, but why on earth would you ditch the Father altogether?" 

I get defensive at the assumption that I didn't try, or that I didn't try hard enough or long enough or the right way. I find it so fascinating that so many religious people are so adept at spotting the fallacies in every religion but their own. I single out Patrik a lot, because he is a friend and we go back a long way. (Also because he's a very active reader and thoughtful commenter.) There's a bit about that on this thread. I've said it before: Mormonism is no more a cult than any other religion. I looked at other religions after I left, many of them, and while they all have some good things to offer, they all run into their own brands of crazy sooner or later. 

Sure, if you look for God's hand in your life, you might see "little miracles," but I have a sister who's an ardent believer in fairies and sees their work  in the world every day too. This sister also thinks that people whose lives aren't going well just need to learn to "manifest right." If you're looking for God, you'll see God. If you're looking for fairies, you'll see fairies. 

Seek and ye shall find? Not so much. I did seek God. Why didn't I find him? Because I was doing it wrong? Why wouldn't a loving (not to mention omnipotent and omniscient) God throw a freaking bone to a sincere seeker? How long was I supposed to keep up the experiment? Till I'm dead? If I wanted to find God and God wanted me to find him, why didn't he help me out?

Either he's not omnipotent, or he's not all good, or he's not there.


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Monday, December 21, 2009

Atheists SECRETLY believe in Yahweh

He's done it again! I love NonStampCollector!


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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Rise and Fall of a Testimony: Why I'm no longer Mormon

The following is an essay I've written on my journey out of Mormonism. 

“Tell me about your testimony.” 

I was 24 years old when my bishop asked me this question and I thought back to the origins of my testimony. 

My parents were and are as faithful Mormons as ever you'll meet. They had raised me and my ten siblings in the Church. We went to church every week and read scriptures every day. When I was 14 years old, I decided that I wanted to know for myself that the Church was true instead of just believing. I decided to test the promise of the prophet Moroni, found in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10: 4-5).

I spent a weekend and shut myself up in my room and read all 531 pages of the Book of Mormon. I fasted during this time, interrupting my reading only to attend church Sunday morning. I finished the book late Sunday night and knelt beside my bed, giddy with anticipation for the testimony I was sure God would give me. “Father in Heaven,” I prayed, “Is the Book of Mormon true?” 

I waited. Nothing happened.

I looked at the verses again, scouring the instructions like a recipe; perhaps I’d forgotten an ingredient. Hmm, well, it says to ask if these things are not true. So I asked again, “Is the Book or Mormon not true?” Silence.

Again and again, I reread those verses and prayed, asking myself, Do I not have enough real intent? Enough faith in Christ? Is my heart not sincere enough? But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make any kind of revelation come.

I walked through the dark house to break my fast and wept alone in the kitchen, eating a peach.

When the Church’s semi-annual General Conference convened a few weeks later, apostle Robert D. Hales related the story of how David O. McKay, the ninth president of the church, as a boy had wanted to know for himself regarding the truthfulness of the Gospel, and decided to pray about the matter:

“I dismounted, threw my reins over my horse’s head, and there under a serviceberry bush I prayed that God would declare to me the truth of his revelation to Joseph Smith” (New Era, Jan. 1972, p. 56).
He prayed fervently and sincerely with as much faith as he could find within him. When he finished his prayer, he waited for an answer. Nothing seemed to happen. Disappointed, he rode slowly on, saying to himself at the time, “No spiritual manifestation has come to me. If I am true to myself, I must say I am just the same ‘old boy’ that I was before I prayed” (ibid.).
A direct answer to this prayer was many years in coming. While serving a mission in Scotland, Elder McKay received a powerful spiritual manifestation. He later commented, “Never before had I experienced such an emotion. … It was a manifestation for which as a doubting youth I had secretly prayed most earnestly on hillside and in meadow. It was an assurance to me that sincere prayer is answered ‘sometime, somewhere.’ ” (Francis M. Gibbons, David O. McKay, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986, p. 50) (Hales,
This story comforted me. If even a man who had gone on to become the prophet hadn’t received a testimony the first time he had asked, then maybe there was hope for me too. I would have faith and patience and trust that God would show me the truth in His own time and in His own way.

When I was 18, I was hanging out in a Religion and Philosophy chat room when a user asked if there were any Mormons online. I responded that I was Mormon and he began sending me private messages, asking for help in clarifying some doubts he had. Although I hadn’t had any dramatic spiritual experiences, I now felt that I had a testimony. As I put it in an email message that I composed to this stranger, “I know because of the sweet peace I feel when I read the Book of Mormon. I know because of the happiness that enters my life when I abide by the Church’s commandments and the sadness that enters when I don’t. I know what it is to have doubts and to study and to seek and to ask God and have him show me answers that wiped all doubt from my mind. I know the joy and love and conviction that swells up in my soul every time I sing, ‘Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!’” (Hymns #27)

I repeated analogies I’d heard over the years. “The Gospel is like a jigsaw puzzle. When you’re working a puzzle and you can’t fit in all the sky pieces right away, you don’t toss out the puzzle and declare, ‘This puzzle isn’t true!’ Everything has to come in the right sequence and sometimes you can’t fit certain pieces in until you fit others in first.” Or, “I don’t have the slightest idea how a computer works, but that doesn’t change the fact that it does work.”

I ended my message to this man with: “Don’t feel alone in your doubts. They come to everyone but if you study and ask Heavenly Father he will give you answers as he’s given to me and millions of others. I know this Church is true and it will prosper and conquer any man or devil that attempts to hinder its progression. The Gospel of Jesus Christ will roll forth and fill the earth whether you go with it or not. I hope you will, because you’ll be happy. And I’ve yet to meet or hear of a happy apostate.” Our leaders taught that anyone who left the Church did so under the influence of Satan and that they spent the rest of their lives miserable, angry and tormented, and I believed it.

Ironically, even as I testified about the Church’s power to bring happiness, I was myself being treated for clinical depression. But I attributed my depression to one of the trials of mortality, part of the Refiner’s fire that would help me grow stronger, or because I was allowing the influence of Satan into my life, whose sole aim was to “[seek] that all men might be miserable like unto himself ” (2 Nephi 2:27).

I began college and remained faithful to the teachings of the Church. I attended services every week; abstained from coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco; took classes at the Church’s Institute of Religion and dutifully handed out Books of Mormon to my non-member friends. I was even preparing to serve as a missionary.

That all changed when I was excommunicated at the age of 22. My sin? I gave my virginity to the man who would become my husband three months before our wedding.

I loved the Church and had devoted my life to its teachings. To be stripped of my membership because of one mistake was devastating. D. Michael Quinn describes excommunication this way: "For a believing Mormon, one who sees Mormonism as the true church and believes in the priesthood and the revelations that have been published, Mormonism is their whole life. All their hope, all of their anticipation is connected with that. Now, to be deprived of membership in the LDS Church is to lose all of that. And for a Mormon who is an ardent believer, that is a kind of death."

       Yet even with the underlying trauma, the year following my excommunication was actually fairly happy. The letter from the Church informing me of the bishop’s decision to excommunicate me had said that it was the will of our Father in Heaven to release me from my covenants.

All my life, I’d lived with the pressure that I must be a good example to those around me. Along with this wonderful blessing of the fulness of the Gospel came the responsibility to be a light to the world. If I slipped up, others might judge the whole Church based on my actions. Now I was no longer a member and no longer under covenant. I took the opportunity to see what it might be like to just be like everyone else. My foray into Babylon included taking a job that required me to work on Sundays and wearing tank tops on hot days. I didn’t look for ways to work God into conversations, hoping it would segue into an opportunity to share the Gospel. I rented R-rated Erin Brokavich and let cuss words slip.

One morning, I was sitting in the hall waiting for my French class to start, shooting the breeze with my classmates and I smiled as I thought, I’m not the weird one anymore.

My first year away from the Church was also my first year of marriage. Creating a bond with my best friend wove a security and contentment like nothing I’d ever experienced before. When I got married, I went off my anti-depressant medication by default; I couldn’t afford it now that I was no longer under my parents’ health insurance, but somehow I wasn’t experiencing depression anymore.

I recognized that I was happier outside of the Church, but deep down I still believed that it was true. What else could account for the peaceful feelings I had when I read scripture, or the happiness I felt when I sang at church, or the synchronicities that sometimes followed prayer? 

When I became pregnant with our first child, the question of what to do about God and the Church weighed more heavily. I believed that I’d be held accountable in the next life if I chose to ignore what I knew, and doubly accountable if I didn’t teach my son what I knew. I wished I could honestly say that I didn’t believe it so that I could be at peace about turning my back and walking away, but years of indoctrination ran deep, and no matter how much I wanted to uproot my testimony, I couldn’t.

So when the bishop asked me to tell him about my testimony, just weeks after my son’s birth, I replied, “I’ve had a testimony for years. I’ve tried to forget. I’ve tried to explain it all away and convince myself that it’s not true, but I can’t. I know it’s true.”

“That’s a pretty strong testimony,” he said approvingly.

I told him that I struggled to understand why excommunicating me had been necessary.

“Does that seem harsh to you?” he asked.

“Yeah, honestly, it does,” I said.

To my surprise, he said that he agreed with me. After reading through the proceedings of the disciplinary council, he couldn’t understand why my previous bishop had come to the conclusion that I must be excommunicated. Furthermore, he could see no reason for me to remain outside the Church any longer and he wanted to see me re-baptized as soon as possible.

It didn’t quite make sense. If it was going to be so easy to come back, why the violence of excommunication? So far as I could tell, the only penance I’d done was to start showing up at church again. Well, that and Ray and I had gone to the county offices and gotten a piece of paper, and this document somehow magically turned sex into a beautiful gift from God instead of an abominable sin. But I’d just had the biggest scare of my life. During labor, my baby had gone into distress and had to be born via an emergency c-section. That was all the wake-up call I needed. God had wrought a miracle and brought me and my baby both through that ordeal healthy, and as a token of my gratitude, I would follow the counsel of His appointed representative, take it on faith and try.

The morning after my re-baptism, I wrote in my journal, “I actually don’t feel very different. I’m disappointed because even though I’ve been given the gift of the Holy Ghost, I still don’t feel him and I thought I would.” But, I reminded myself, “I didn’t feel any different when I was baptized and confirmed at age eight, but I certainly did feel the Spirit during my life. I didn’t lose the Spirit all at once so I shouldn’t expect to regain it all at once.” The Book of Mormon teaches that faith is like a little seed. It takes time and nourishment to grow (Alma ch. 32).

So I kept going to church and started reading my scriptures again, though it reminded me of exercising or eating vegetables, something you do not so much because you want to, but because you believe that it’s good for you. Had church always been this excruciatingly boring? I hoped that if I kept going through the outward motions, eventually the inward emotions would return.

Every now and then, I did feel a familiar flicker inside, but my new awareness of all the flaws within the Church smothered any sparks of a re-burgeoning testimony. My two-year absence gave me my first opportunity to look at my religion from an objective standpoint. My beloved Garden of Eden was overgrown with thorns, and I wondered, Have these thorns always been here? 

Every week the gender gap glared at me. I’d always known that women were expected to be mothers and homemakers and that they couldn’t hold the priesthood, but motherhood also held such a special place of reverence as the most holy calling of all. Men and women had different roles, but they were both equally valued. At least, that was the party line. I realized that the bishop or one of his councilors would sometimes sit in on the women’s Relief Society meeting, checking in and presiding, but knew that it would be unheard of for the Relief Society president to visit the men’s Elders Quorum meeting. Women were only allowed to preside over other women or children. The bishops, stake presidents, apostles and prophets--all of the positions that had any real authority--all had to hold the priesthood, and therefore all had to be men.

All my life, I’d been tom-boyish because I knew no women whom I wanted to emulate. Most women at church acted unintelligent, incapable and dependent, and it made me angry. A female religious instructor that I had admired and loved was an exception. The Church allowed her employment only because she wasn’t married and didn’t have a family. She was intelligent and charismatic, fit and attractive. Seemed any man with half a brain would have snatched her up, but she was in her early forties and still single, and I suspected that it was because she was too independent and confident. Most Mormon men want a wife who is more submissive and less questioning.

One incident in Relief Society particularly troubled me. A woman--I’ll call her Sister Jones--announced that her son and daughter-in-law were moving to the ward soon and she hoped we would be welcoming to them. “Now,” she said, with a smirk, “Susan’s last name is Bennett, not Jones, and she’s very particular about that, but if you can just get past that--” she threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes, as if to say, What can you do? “--she’s very nice.” Laughter erupted all around the room, and I felt sick at the derision for this woman who had the courage to keep her name. The middle-aged woman sitting next to me muttered with contempt out the side of her mouth, “She didn’t take his name?” What kind of sisterhood was this?

Talks and lessons about homosexuality now troubled me. I had believed it when I’d been taught that homosexuality was a perversion and a gross sin, but my younger brother had since come out. This person that I knew and loved did not fit the Church’s picture of a subversive deviant. My brother was one of the sweetest and gentlest people I knew. How was I to believe that he was among the vilest of sinners? 

The issue of same-sex marriage was just gaining steam in the media. I never dared say so at church, but I couldn’t oppose gay marriage. Even though our priesthood leaders--the appointed mouthpieces of God Himself--preached that gay marriage threatened the nuclear family and the very fabric of our society, I couldn’t see how allowing gays to marry would interfere with my right to be married to a man and to raise my children in a traditional family.

Ray and I are both intensely introverted, and we did not fit the Church’s social expectations. Mormons equate being friendly and outgoing with being Christlike, and becoming like Christ is the ultimate goal of our existence. Having to go to church and make meaningless small talk every week was torture. I knew the adage: “The members may not be perfect, but the Church is,” and so I tried to smile and be nice, but my tolerance for annoying people evaporated faster than rubbing alcohol without the warm, fuzzy “feeling the Spirit” experience that I’d had before my excommunication.

My depression returned. Others brushed it off as a postpartum symptom, but I recognized it as the all-too-familiar despair of knowing that no matter how hard I tried I would never measure up. I hadn’t realized how much the Church bulldozed me until I’d been out from underneath it for a while.

For almost as long as I could remember, I’d been aware of certain gaps in Church doctrine or history, but I wasn’t going to let the pieces of the puzzle that didn’t fit bother me. I had a testimony from the Holy Ghost and I had faith that one day, everything would be clear. For eight months now, we had been going to church and trying to do everything right, trying to have faith, and the pleasant, peaceful feelings on which I had previously based my testimony still would not return.

I made a decision: If I was going to devote the rest of my life to an institution that made me miserable, it had damn well better be true. So I began to write. Despite my current doubts, I knew that I had “known” it was all true before. I figured all I had to do was get it all out on paper so I could sort it all out and then everything would be okay.

But that’s not what happened. The more I wrote, the more questions I had and the less any of it made sense.

I remembered bits of doubt that had crept in since I had been excommunicated. One evening, I had watched a documentary called The Journey of Man. Geneticist Spencer Wells presented DNA evidence that proved that the native peoples of North and South America descended from a group that came over from northeast Russia about 10,000 years ago, not from the Middle East in 600 B.C., as claimed by the Book of Mormon. My seminary teacher had accounted for the lack of archaeological evidence by explaining that the Book of Mormon was not a history of all of ancient America, but rather the proceedings of the lineage of one family, but this DNA evidence troubled me. Right there in the book’s Introduction--written by the prophets of the Church, whose words are considered scripture--it stated that the Lamanites who remained at the end of the Book of Mormon were “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” (1981 ed.) (Though, interestingly, in the 2006 edition, this was altered to say that they were “among” the ancestors of the American Indians.)

The story of Adam and Eve is taken very literally in Mormonism and plays an integral part of the temple ordinances that they believe are necessary for salvation. Church doctrine teaches that the Fall occurred about 6000 years ago, and no human beings were on our world before then. I had heard of evolution, but we didn’t believe in it. I didn’t worry about all the fossil records because my mother explained that carbon dating was flawed and geologists and paleontologists had their dates wrong. Why wouldn’t I believe her? My mother is a very intelligent woman, and scientists get stuff wrong all the time. They’re mere men who used to think the world was flat, for crying out loud. Our prophets, on the other hand, were talking directly to God. What more reliable source could there be than that?

About a year after my excommunication I took an art history class. The paleolithic cave paintings didn’t faze me because I knew those were all misdated. But then a slide came on the screen of a human skull with restored plaster features found in the city of Jericho. It was a ghostly image, but it haunted me because of its date: about 6000 B.C. The next slide was of the Turkish city of Çatal Hüyük, dated between 6000-5900 B.C. I didn’t have any qualms dismissing dates that were too far removed, but it seemed less likely to me that a date that recent could be so far off. It didn’t fit with the Church’s official history, that everything had started with two people only six thousand years ago. Furthermore, Joseph Smith placed the Garden of Eden in present day Missouri. Here was an entire civilization on the other side of the world two thousand years before their first parents had supposedly walked the earth.

I put it in my notes: Çatal Hüyük, Jericho skulls, 6000 B.C., and I felt like I was driving a straight pin into a dam.

Later in the semester, we studied the ancient Greeks. I saw sculptures of Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena. I saw the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, temples to Hera, Artemis, Demeter and other deities. I had always thought of Greek mythology as just that: mythology. But I couldn’t imagine that the Greeks were building these structures just for fun. I realized that they must have believed in their religion then just as fervently as we believe in ours now.

I remembered further back to my first day of classes as a music major, just four months after I’d been excommunicated. In choir, we rehearsed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the same arrangement that made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir famous. It was the sopranos’ turn to come in with the “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” but tears welled up in my eyes my voice failed me. I hadn’t attended church for about three months, the longest absence in my life at that point. Nothing communicated the love of God to my soul the way music did. Never did I feel the Spirit more strongly than when I was singing. I loved singing sacred music and I missed it. “If anything can bring me back to the Gospel,” I wrote in my journal that night, “music can.” 

And yet, at the back of my mind crept the thought, The ancient Greeks must have had hymns to their gods, too, that were no less powerful and moving to them. Maybe I didn’t love music because of God. Maybe I just loved music because of music.

  I thought about what my current bishop had said about how he felt my previous bishop had made a mistake in excommunicating me. In a way, it had been a comfort, but it raised a disconcerting question: Is everything the bishop does subject to second guessing? If these bishops disagreed, they couldn’t both be right. Supposedly our priesthood leaders were all working under divine inspiration to carry out God’s will, but if that were so, how could my bishop have made such a big mistake? And if he could make a mistake, what made him any more special than any other man?

If you believe in Christ--and I did--then the premise of Mormonism that the true Church that Christ established when he was on the earth was lost and corrupted through the ages and needed to be restored makes sense. But I looked at the Mormon Church and thought, Can that really be it? Look at how they treat gays. Look at how they treat women. Is that really the way Jesus would have wanted things? 

Nowadays, we think the Greek beliefs are absurd, but if I thought about it, were mine any more plausible? Even if I took Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates and the Lamanites out of the equation and just looked at the Christian story: A virgin conceived a child, who was God, and somehow when this child grew to adulthood and underwent a form of execution that was fairly common at the time, this act somehow saved all of humanity from...

Saved from what?

What about neanderthals? They were a separate species from humans, but still intelligent. Were they intelligent enough to be capable of sin? Were they among the children of God that Christ died to save, or mere animals?

The theory had too many flaws to any longer hold validity. I couldn’t justify the risk of a leap of faith across this ever-widening chasm. I couldn’t believe it anymore, and it was like I had taken off a corset and suddenly I could breathe.


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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Eradication or reform for religion? False dichotomy.

Over the next several days, I'll be attempting to catch up on the comment backlog.

First, the Religious Prohibition thread, since that's the one everyone seems to be in a tizzy about.

I stated up front that everything in that post was, for the time being, purely speculative. I was musing about the possibility of a losing battle in completely eliminating religion and wondering if encouraging healthier approaches might be more beneficial. Apparently, one commenter either didn't understand or chose to ignore the "speculation" disclaimer, because I got this comment:

The questions asked and tone set in this post is decidedly different than that of your post 'To the Lost Sheep: It's ok to run!'. 

A few excerpts from that post: "I have no intention of coming across otherwise [that is to come across as being derogatory towards religion]. "I have no intention of playing nice with religion." "to be blunt, I think it is poison and it needs to be eradicated if we're ever going to progress."

So, in the span of barely a month you have gone from 'live and let live' to 'we must eradicate religion because it is poison' to just needing a healthier approach to religion. I am confused. And it's quite feasable that all the lost sheep that you promised to help out are confused as well. So, are all the lost sheep now ok in their religion so long as they take a healthy approach to it? What is that healthy approach supposed to be? You came out of the gates early on in this blog sounding like this great liberator from religion to now saying "well, now I'm not so sure."

Are you even sure how you feel about religion?

I said this in my response on the thread, but I'll say it again here: I am not confused on my stance on religion for myself. I place myself at a 6 on "The Dawkins Scale." I can't think of any evidence that would convince me that an intelligent god exists, although I don't discount the possibility of some evidence outside the realm of my imagination turning up in the future. But, for the time being, "I cannot be certain, but I think God is very unlikely, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there." 

I do think an ideal world would be one without religion, and I will continue to advocate for an atheistic worldview, but I'm also a realist who sees the very real possibility that religion may never go away completely.

I'm highly dubious that the "lost sheep" that I'm aiming to reach were at all confused. These "lost sheep" are no strangers to doubt and speculation and reshaping their beliefs based on new information. For all of you who are so happy in your faith, not that I'm not glad to have you reading and being exposed to a new perspective, but I am a little confused as to why you're reading. My target audience is people who are unhappy in their religion and are searching for a better way. Most of them have already reached the conclusion on their own that something smells a bit fishy about their religion's truth claims. And it's not just those gosh-awful Mormons. I've heard from readers who are or were Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics who have said they were thankful to have found my blog. And it's not because I'm writing anything earth-shattering or new. Most of the time, it's just because they're happy to see someone else articulating publicly the conclusions they reached on their own privately.

Another commenter said, "Your 'healthier' approaches would just make religion a superficial hobby." Perhaps so, but perhaps that's the proper place of religion. I'm probably gonna go to church tomorrow, for no reason other than that I think Christmas carols are pretty and I really like singing them. I adore yoga and meditation, not because I think I'm communing with the universe, but just because it feels good. Religion has stumbled on to some valuable things. A. J. Jacobs pointed out some examples, like taking one day a week completely off from your work or cultivating an attitude of gratitude. By all means, let's keep what works, but please, let's jettison the bullshit. Thou shalt pick and choose!

So, my exciting conclusion after thinking about it: It's not an either/or proposition. My approach will still be to discourage adherence to religious dogma altogether. I'll leave reform to the religious moderates. My ideal world would be populated with atheists and religious hobbyists, but in the meantime, I'll take lesbian bishops over creationists.


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