A Mormon No More

250px_mormon_spiresMy guest poster today is a friend of mine, “S” – a student from the San Francisco Bay Area. She was brought up as a Mormon but changed her beliefs in early adulthood. I found her story intriguing partly because Mormonism is unfamiliar to most of us in the UK and partly because of the parallels with stories from other belief systems.

….

“There’s a reason I’m anonymous with this posting, because there are family members I still respect who are in the religion. I’m not ready to confront them about the one thing in their lives that keeps them together. Someday.

I grew up in a Mormon family of eight in a central California town, a far cry from the stereotypical hippie land that California is made out to be. The Central Valley is about 42,000 square miles of culturally-conservative farmland. It’s called by some as the West Coast’s Bible Belt.

So as you can see, I was surrounded. I can’t blame myself for being mistaken, because it’s simply how I grew up. Though many of the Christian Central Valleyites thought Mormonism was a cult, we still shared the mindset of religion, and it was hard to give it up totally when it no longer served me.

I left the church when I was 20, and it’s hard to define what I currently believe simply because it changes from day to day. I can say that I still believe in a higher power. Whether you call it God or nature or the laws of physics, I’m not particularly picky.

It’s just easier to say what I don’t believe anymore, and I no longer believe Mormonism is the “one true church on the face of the earth,” like I thought it was.

There were the good, moral things Mormonism taught, and I credit my religious upbringing with instilling a sense of integrity and responsibility in me. But what level of deception was it worth?

I remember being at the library at my community college when I was about 18 and stumbling on a book about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

I wish I remember the name of the book, but it was an objective and fair collection of first-person accounts from people who interacted with him during his lifetime in the early 1800s.

It painted an entirely different picture of the man I grew up to call a true prophet of God.

I grew up believing that when the last direct disciple of Jesus died centuries ago, God took his true church from the earth until Joseph Smith restored it in the early 1800s.

I grew up believing the Book of Mormon was a holy scripture translated through Joseph Smith by the power of God, and it contained the truth about the original inhabitants of the North Americas and how Jesus visited them shortly after his crucifixion.

This book I found at the library told me that Joseph Smith was just a guy who thought some crazy things and was able to convince a lot of people that these crazy things were true.

I can’t believe I never saw him in that light before. I never thought it was weird that a 22-year-old man in 1827 could translate by the power of God some lost ancient script written in gold plates.

I mean, it’s GOD. He can do anything.

Right?

I saw this book, its references, its research, and knew it was more accurate than anything within my Mormon framework could tell me.

I later picked up a book called Conversations with God, a new-agey tome that had me hooked. It emphasized free thought and creative expression as what God really seeks, not man-made structures and controlling dogmas.

250px_LOGAN_TempleThough I no longer agree with many of that book’s claims – namely that we are each the center of the Universe – reading it was still pivotal for me. The book showed me another way to believe in God without having someone else’s laundry list of doctrines to follow.

It took me until I was 20 to finally confess to my parents how I felt, and I risked being disowned like other Mormon children who have become “rebellious” or “apostates.”

Luckily, my parents didn’t disown me, or my three other siblings who each left the church on their own.

Because just two years after I made my announcement to them, my parents made their announcement to all of us that they were leaving the church too.

This is practically unheard of in my Mormon community. Kids leave the church all the time, but entire families leaving the faith is a big deal. I know it happens, thanks to the Internet, but I haven’t heard it happen in my area before or since.

Today only one of my sisters remains in the church, as well as my cousin and her six children.

I don’t talk about religion much with any of them. I simply don’t know where many of them stand, and I don’t much feel like bringing up old complicated pains.

It’s just so difficult to realize that what you’ve been told all your life was no longer necessarily true.

I grew up believing that you couldn’t obtain the highest of highs in heaven unless you were married in the temple, and you could only enter the temple if you were a faithful Mormon and passed the interview with your local bishop.

I grew up believing that people existed as spirits in heaven before birth and wanted to come to earth, and that denying them that opportunity was the most selfish thing imaginable. (This is why Mormons have such big families.)

I grew up not only believing, but KNOWING – as it is encouraged in the Mormon culture – that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, and that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.

And we would all be encouraged to repeat these truths to each other once a month during “testimony meeting,” where members of the congregation are invited to speak at the pulpit as the spirit moved them and share all the things they “know.”

It was sort of an open mic, except the scripts never deviated from the pre-approved Mormon ideals.

Kids learned they would earn their parents’ love and other social brownie points if they rushed the stage and rattled off the typical basic script: “I like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true, I know Joseph Smith is a true prophet and I love my mom and dad and IsaythisinthenameofJesusChristAMEN.”

You have to marvel at the invisible social controls in Mormonism. In my 20 years as a Mormon, I never recalled anyone using testimony meetings to openly question what was being taught.

When I was 20, I seriously considered doing it myself.

I wanted to ask them why any sort of loving, omniscient, all-understanding God would require some bizarre temple ceremony to find the secret password to the highest of heavens.

Or if they knew how Joseph Smith had three distinctly different versions of his first meeting with God – the “First Vision,” as it’s called. They don’t tell you that in Sunday School.

Nor do they tell you much about the early church’s polygamist practices. Any time someone would ask about it, the teacher would somehow avoid the answer or say “now is not the appropriate time to talk about that.”

Same thing with blacks not holding the priesthood until 1978.

They never mention the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857 either. Google that one for kicks.

I have half a mind to return to a testimony meeting and inform them of all the things the church leaders fail to tell their members about their own faith.

Now that I think about it, there wasn’t anything in my old congregation that would stop a random stranger from giving their “testimony” either. A former Mormon, an atheist, even a disagreeing Christian, could probably have everyone’s undivided attention on the first Sunday of every month.

london_mormon_templeAll they’d have to do is show up dressed in their Sunday best, pretend they are simply curious about the church (because if it’s a close-knit congregation, a new face will not go unnoticed), and when the time comes during the meeting, they would take to the stand and say their piece.

If they sounded Mormonly enough, they’d probably be able to hog the microphone for the rest of the meeting.

If it sounded too deliberately non-Mormon, they would probably be escorted out of the building in the middle of their “testimony,” but what they say could change someone’s mind.

Will I ever have the courage to do this? I don’t know. It’s possible, it’s nice to think about, but to be completely honest, it will be difficult for me to stomach another Mormon service. There are too many people who need a wake-up call, and it deeply saddens me to know I won’t be able to change everyone’s mind.

But I know it’s not futile. I could change one person’s mind. I just don’t know if I can face all the old anger, disappointment and resentment again.

The past is past, and for now that’s where it belongs for me. I have to save myself first. Then I can think seriously about being brave and confronting the faithful with truth.”

Many thanks S, for taking the time to share your story with us.

I hope you one day feel able to confront Mormons about their beliefs, although I appreciate it would be an emotional undertaking. I’m coming to the conclusion that people often do more to change other people’s minds by their actions, such as your leaving of the Mormon church, than with words and arguments. I wonder if your parents’ decision to leave the Mormon church was influenced by your own?

Counfounding stereotypes

Last Sunday I went to a friend’s Evangelical church. I know what you’re saying, “Eshu, what were you thinking?”. No, I didn’t go just so I’d have something to write about. I’m genuinely interested, although more in the people and why they believe what they do than the beliefs themselves. Perhaps weirdly, I don’t think I would’ve gone had I not spent the last year or two reading atheist blogs and articles; I would’ve felt unprepared. I probably would’ve just ended up disagreeing but not really being able to say why. Which would’ve been frustrating.

I was trying to step outside my comfort zone and I certainly felt pretty uncomfortable. Not that anyone made me feel that way. I get the impression most of them knew I was new there and not a Christian. However, everyone was friendly and welcoming, as I guess people tend to be when they’re trying to build a church community. It’s just that two hours of listening to people sing and pray and hold their hands in the air gets a bit tedious. So I stood there uncomfortably and observed.

It was mostly progressive, modern style religion. Forgiveness, love, healing – all that nice-sounding stuff. Praying handsSome people came up to the front to be prayed for. Periodically members of the band were passed the microphone to guess what ailments others in the church might be quietly suffering from before the audience was told, “If that’s you, please come forward and be healed”.  The guesses ranged from “A hollow feeling inside your chest” to “Stomach pain”. People came forward, but it wasn’t clear if the guesses were right or how much they were helped.

Feeling a little awkward after the service I offered to help tidy up and this gave me an opportunity to chat with people individually. They were all appreciative of my helping even though I’d never been there before. Apparently some church regulars had managed to shirk the clearing up rota for several years!

Notably, one woman whom I started helping asked if I’d enjoyed it and seemed concerned that I might have been bored or put off.

“I wouldn’t want you to leave here hating Christians or hating God!”

I replied, “No, everyone’s been very friendly and I could hardly hate something I don’t believe in – you don’t hate Zeus do you?”

(Laughing) “No, I suppose not!”

Not hating GodI continued to chat with her as I helped carry various bits of furniture back to the church’s garage. She was in her late thirties, friendly and apparently unconcerned with the details of her religion. She certainly didn’t come across as bigoted nor even suspicious and resentful, not that I expected her to be. I guess maybe I am lucky in finding the nicer Christians.

However, I was shocked that her opening greeting contained such a egregious misrepresentation of atheists – that we hate God and/or Christians. I doubt this was an opinion she came to through her own experience, so I guess it was suggested by others in the church group.

It seemed that she was genuinely surprised I was a thoughtful, decent non-believer who actually knew a few things about the Bible. I was a curiosity. Maybe I’m getting carried away with my optimistic speculation, but I thought that realisation – that I wasn’t actually evil – put some doubts or questions in her mind. Questions like, “Why is this guy nothing like the atheists I’ve heard about?”.

I suspect in the majority of cases, believers are more likely to have their minds changed by meeting decent honest atheists than the best of highbrow arguments. This seems to be supported by Kieran Bennett’s post on de-conversion based on a huge quantity of Christian de-conversion stories. In the list of reasons why Christians deconvert tied for first place was:

The realisation that religious dogma contradicted observable reality was the second most an equally common reason for de-conversion cited within the sample (also at 14.89%).

The illogical stereotype of atheists as misanthropic god-haters is so common it might be considered a religious dogma, at least one supported from the pulpit if not by scripture. Confounding this stereotype is important for many reasons. To establish dialogue, stand up for ourselves and especially to call into question the authority of those who spread these lies.

Not Scaring Them Off

I was visited a few months ago by some Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t actually introduce themselves as JW’s, perhaps because of the reputation they’ve gained as pushy porch preachers. Instead they simply ask if you’ve read the Bible and indicate how important they think it is.Watchtower Buildings in Brooklyn, New York

Most of the people I’ve told about their visit respond with imaginative suggestions for getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as pretending to be part of a completely different and obscure religion or opening the door stark naked. I can see some of these being quite amusing, but unnecessary. I think if I politely asked them to leave, they would. In any case, I’d like to try to understand what they believe and why. I don’t want to scare them off.  Luckily for me, JWs are only too keen to talk about their beliefs and debate theological questions.

They seemed a little surprised when I invited them in and offered them a hot drink. I noticed that while they are trying to get their message about the Bible across, they are also happy to make friendly small-talk and ask questions. It’s pretty clear they’ve been coached in witnessing (evangelism), so I found it interesting to try and work out the thinking behind their methods. My guess is that asking questions of the householder makes their visit seem less preachy and more like a conversation, which people are generally more responsive to than receiving a sermon.

Secondly, it allows them to assess their host to see what chance they might have of being convinced by the JW’s message. For example, it came up in conversation (I think they saw a photo) that my wife and I were recently married. Not long after, the woman asked if we’d lived here for long. I replied that we’d been here a couple of years. Only later did I wonder whether premarital cohabitation is something they disapproved of and that her indirect question might have been a way of working out how sinful we were. I could’ve been reading too much into it, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite professional and deliberate in their actions, so maybe not.Awake! magazine

We chatted for well over an hour about their beliefs. I tried to ask as many searching questions as possible. I expected to get somewhere as they are Biblical literalists. However they have a variety of justifications for the contradictions and immoral statements in the Bible. For instance the old testament law books are “Mosaic law”. Apparently this is not about the moral implications of arranging coloured tiles to form a picture, but the law from Moses’ time. Their reasoning is that when Jesus said, “I fulfil the law” he wasn’t mis-quoting Judge Dredd – what he meant was, “All that really nasty stuff from Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Mosaic Law) doesn’t apply from now on”.

How could anyone have misunderstood that? Well, quite easily. Which leads them neatly into their central doctrine that no one can properly understand the Bible without the official interpretations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Society. They are apparently the sole (self-appointed) authority on such matters, and their regular publications (Watchtower and Awake!) are seen as infallible.

Unlike Christians of many other stripes, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do know the Bible very well, and will quote their subtly reworded version at every opportunity. So my unprepared questions didn’t worry them. Likewise they seemed quite satisfied with their fairly unconvincing responses to the traditional arguments against religion such as the argument from evil or from religious confusion.

On a later visit, I was more prepared and had refuted an article from the Awake! magazine they had left with me regarding the respect for women as found in the Bible. They seemed to apreciate the effort I’d gone to, and while most of it seemed acceptable to them, I was satisfied that my questions about Genesis 19:5-8 (In which Lot allows a mob to rape his daughters) were something for which they’d have to get back to me.

The one thing I pointed out to them which really seemed to throw them was my commentary on their publications. One issue had said clearly that nothing in the Bible contradicts science, while a subsequent issue had a long article explaining how evolution was not compatible with the Bible. This seemed to worry them and they were at first uncharacteristically lost for words. After a few moments the woman said, “I wouldn’t call evolution science.”. I disgreed and told her that it wasn’t enough to redefine what you consider science to suit your argument, but they were unable to offer a proper explanation and seemed genuinely unsettled.New World Translation

So I think this approach might be the best one with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their publications are something very important for their beliefs. They are carefully worded and accessible if tiresome in their preaching message. They also contain enough factual errors or inconsistencies that a thorough read could pick a few out, particularly when compared against current scientific knowledge or previous publications.

They’ve now visited three times, and left me with a copy of their New World Translation of the Bible. Each time I’ve been better prepared and made more effort to show the problems with their beliefs. They haven’t returned recently, so I hope I haven’t scared them off. I have plenty more (awkward) questions for them.

An offer of prayer

I have a colleague who is a big fan of prayer. He’s an Evangelical Christian and regularly makes friendly offers to pray for people’s family and friends who might be sick. He seems completely sincere and I believe the gesture is well-intentioned.

However, many who receive his offers find them… not exactly offensive, but certainly irritating. Perhaps they’ve heard this kind of thing before and are anticipating the little sermon that so often forms part of the package of such offers. One person told me they felt like they were being “sold to”. I don’t know if anyone has actually taken him up on these offers, but I’m sure some were more receptive than those I spoke with.

My first thoughts were along these lines. The recipients of this kind of offer could be crudely divided into two categories:

  1. The ones who believe that intercessory prayer will work.
  2. Those who don’t believe it will work.

Now surely those in the first group would already be praying if they had a sick relative? It seemed strange to me that any god would be unable to hear a single prayer, but a chorus of prayer – well, that’s different, is it? Surely God doesn’t need a critical number of prayers before he’s willing to take action? As for those in the second group, well they’re not likely to take up the offer if they don’t think it will have any effect.

All of which lead me to wonder whether my Evangelical colleague’s motivation was rather more evangelical (small ‘e’). Perhaps he had that sermon up his sleeve ready to spring on a polite and unsuspecting enquirer. On the other hand it could have been an attempt to show (either to us or to his god) what an amazingly altruistic Christian he is.

Perhaps more likely is that he anticipated a third group, somewhere in between the other two. People who were perhaps desperate for the health of their loved-ones and willing to try anything.

So I questioned him about it and we ended up going for a drink and having a long discussion on this and related topics. Well, if I’m honest I mostly listened. Before that discussion I did some reading and thinking and managed to crystallize my thoughts on prayer. The main issue I had is outlined below.

(Disclaimers: IANAL (I am not a logician) and this might be full of holes, but I think my meaning is clear enough. Secondly, it borrows the idea from Ebonmuse’s thorough discussion of the Problem of Evil):

Assumption (1). The patient currently has a medical problem.
Assumption (2). Praying for the patient to be healed can cause miraculous healing of that patient.
Assumption (3). The god to whom the prayer to heal the patient is directed :-

a) Exists;
b) Is all-powerful (omnipotent);
c) Is all-knowing (omniscient);
d) Has perfect judgement;
e) Will only do what is right;

Conclusion (4). An omnipotent being would be able to heal the patient (from 3a, 3b);
Conclusion (5). An omniscient being would already know about the patient’s problem. (from 1, 3a, 3c);
Conclusion (6). Any patient whom the god deems it right to heal will already be healed. (from 3d, 3e, 4, 5)
Conclusion (7). It is not right to heal the patient (from 1, 6).
Conclusion (8). Praying for the patient to heal will not cause miraculous healing of that patient (from 6, 7)

Contradiction : ( 2 & 8 )

So I ask: What makes you think you (in your less-than-infinite wisdom) can change God’s mind about healing this patient?

That’s not the only problem with the idea of praying to a god to ask for things. As Greta Christina points out if a prayer doesn’t work the answer always seems to be:

“You did something wrong. You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you. There’s something wrong with you. It’s your fault.”

Even more perniciously, any unreliable offer of healing can cause those most in need to abandon genuine treatments which might actually help them.

I’m going to continue asking awkward questions and challenging my colleague’s ideas about prayer. He tells me he’s keen to question and test his beliefs, so I’m hopeful I may be able to encourage him to try some kind of formal test or experiment. Maybe I’m too optimistic…