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.

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“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?

No True Christian

I’m willing to bet that any atheist who has spent any time discussing religion online has come across the suggestion that anyone who no longer believes, never truly believed in the first place. An ex-Christian was never a “real” Christian. Commenter al expressed this opinion about myself and Lorena over on Fallen And Flawed a few weeks ago.

… because Jesus Christ has promised that [1] whoever comes to Him He will never cast out, and that [2] no one (not even ourselves) is able to pluck us from His hand, therefore:
There can be no such person as a former Christian– only those who think they were once Christians but never really were.

This idea is not dissimilar to the perseverance of the saints – “once saved, always saved” thinking of Calvinism. Leaving aside the theological geekery, the obvious first response to this is that al is committing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, which can be expressed as:

220px-porridge“No true Scotsman would have sugar in his porridge.”
“My uncle Hamish is Scottish and he has sugar in his porridge.”
“Well, then your uncle Hamish is not a true Scotsman.”

The pertinent question here being whether the first speaker is trying to make a generalisation about true Scotsmen, or to define what a true Scotsman is – that is, someone who does not have sugar in his porridge. As most people already have a reasonable definition of what a Scotsman is, to redefine it here without saying so explicitly is misleading. If this is what the first speaker had intended it would be better phrased as, “The definition of a true Scotsman is someone who does not have sugar in his porridge” and perhaps some other criteria such as country of birth or parentage.

In al’s case, the assertion comes from the bible, which he interprets as “There can be no such person as a former Christian”. To a biblical literalist it seems, any conclusion – no matter how much of a stretch it is – is better than the bible being wrong. And yet there are plenty of people who changed their mind about Christianity. So, when faced with atheists who claim that they genuinely believed as Christians before changing their minds, apologists are left with few choices.

One is to say that these former believers are lying and only pretending not to believe because they hate God or want to live as they please.

Slightly more charitably, they can claim the ex-Christian was mistaken and didn’t have a genuine relationship with Jesus in the first place. This is what al does.

You both have obviously tried something– church, a belief system, the counsel of others, I don’t know what– but something that represents itself as Christ. But it was not Him, and you have discarded the baby with the bathwater.

Note the subtle shift here. We’re no longer talking about people “being Christians” as most of the world understands it, but the relationship with an invisible, intangible muslim-woman-at-prayer240Christ. Christians may complain that it is the same thing, but there’s a difference. The world at large does not define people as belonging to a particular religion on the basis of some invisible supernatural relationship. How could they? Nor do people look inside the heads of professed believers and see all their beliefs – they can only see the way people act and trust what they say they believe. If for example someone says they’re a Muslim, if they attend to Muslim prayers and regularly visit the mosque as other professed Muslims do, then it’s quite reasonable to call them a Muslim. The statistics which show there are around 2 billion Christians in the world are not based on observing whether they each have a genuine relationship with Christ. They’re probably based on what which box they tick on census or identification forms.

However, al says, with an air of authority, “But it was not Him”. I doubt he would claim any special insight into our former religious beliefs. He is inferring that our Christian belief was not a genuine relationship with his god by the simple fact that we no longer believe it. It seems he is making a new definition of what a true Christian is – that is, someone who does not lose their faith or change their mind about Christianity.

However, there are some interesting implications of this viewpoint. If this is not the only way to identify a true Christian, then there is potential for a contradiction. If for example professional ministry or daily prayer were considered proof of genuine Christianity, then there are already many examples of “real” Christians who have become atheists.

On the other hand, if there are no other certain indications of true Christianity that rather throws doubt on everyone. The effect is that there’s no certainty whether anyone, however enthusiastic they might be about Jesus, is a true Christian by al’s definition.

So, if we run with his definition, al can’t be certain that there are any true Christians. I’m sure his relationship seems pretty real to him, but even he could change his mind at a later date.

In one sense I’d agree – I was never in a genuine relationship with Jesus because, as far as I can tell, no such person exists. However, at the time, my belief was entirely genuine, as I would assume al’s still is.

Review: Godless by Dan Barker

Dan Barker is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but what makes his story interesting is that he was once an evangelical preacher. His latest book, published only last year is godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists. Barker’s earlier book, published in 1992 was Losing Faith in Faith and from the few online excerpts I’ve seen, it seems to have a lot in common with godless. However, as the more recent publication, godless appears more polished and up to date with plenty of additional content.

Godless is organised into four sections, the first describing his experiences as a preacher and his growing doubts. The second and third sections discuss the arguments for atheism and the problems with Christianity, while the final section covers some of his work with the FFRF.

Rejecting God

For me, the first section is the most interesting part of the book as it offers in insight into the mind of a sincere believer, detailing his lifestyle and thought processes during his five-year journey out of Christianity. What is notable from the introduction onwards, is that Barker was perhaps more rational about his reasons for believing than some. He didn’t believe it because he found it comforting, or because he wanted to fit in. He simply thought it was true.

I was always in love with reason, intelligence, and truth. I thought Christianity had the truth. I really believed it. I dedicated my life to it.

I seems to me that Dan’s desire for the truth was a factor in his de-conversion, as often seems to be the case. I am impressed by the honesty and modesty with which he describes his thoughts and actions as a believer. Some of these are no doubt embarrassing to him in retrospect, but he manages to have a laugh at his own expense. Of particular interest are the reactions of his Christian friends to his loss of belief. These range from total shunning through confusion, to amicable acceptance. My only criticism of the first section is that there’s not enough of it. At only 67 pages out of around 350, it is not the main focus of the book. This is partly because he avoids going into any theological arguments in the first section; it’s entirely about his experience.

Why I Am an Atheist and What’s Wrong With Christianity?

The largest part of the book is taken up by the two middle sections, in which the author covers in detail the arguments for atheism and against Christianity. I’m not entirely convinced by the approach of splitting the book up into personal story followed by the philosophical arguments. Sometimes I think technical, precise writing can become more readable when interspersed with human anecdotes – see for example Bill Bryson’s excellent A Short History of Nearly Everything. On the other hand, the volume of philosophy included would be in danger of drowning his personal experiences, so I can see why he did it this way.

Together, these two sections fill nearly 200 pages, which is perhaps justified. If they’d only been touched upon during the biographical first section, some of the finer points would have been lost. As it is, he thoroughly covers common theistic arguments, biblical contradictions and questions over gospel history in surprising detail. Additionally, one chapter titled “Dear Theologian” takes the form of a letter from God. This has a rather different style, asking questions rather than providing answers. At first this seems out of place, but I found it an interesting piece of philosophy and questioning things is exactly what free thought is all about.

In terms of arguments for atheism there is only a little in this section that will be new to a moderately well-informed atheist.  Nevertheless, he makes a comprehensive and convincing case for atheism which is as clear and relevant as any atheist book I’ve read.

Life is Good!

Appropriately, the book’s final section covers Dan Barker’s work with the FFRF trying to maintain the separation of church and state, fighting cases against organisations which use supposedly secular tax dollars for decidedly sectarian purposes. This is reasonably interesting, although there were no anecdotes which stood out as particularly memorable. Perhaps it would seem more relevant to those living in the US.

Overall I found the book an enjoyable and edifying read. I was a little disappointed by the briefness of his de-conversion story, but to be fair he probably wasn’t keeping a diary or holding a tape recorder during conversations, so it may be difficult to go into more detail without misquoting people. To some extent godless may be seen as a jack-of-all-trades – part autobiography, part philosophical debate, so may be unsatisfying to those who are not interested in reading both those things. For those who are however, it is both entertaining and informative. I would highly recommend this book to the recently de-converted or to Christians wanting to understand a different perspective.

Truth vs Comfort

While considering the beliefs of eccentrics like Garvan in his post “Right Not To Think“, yunshui recently questioned whether it would be morally right in every case to change the minds of those who believe falsehoods.

Most, like Garvan, have entwined religion so inextricably into their psyche that no amount of evidence or argument will ever convince them of their fallacy, but if one could unravel and break the faith-wire wrapped around their minds, would that be a kind thing to do?

To my mind, whether helping to de-convert someone is moral or not depends on the consequences of de-conversion for him and others. I think we can only guess at what they might be. If it was guaranteed to make him a happier and more tolerant person (as it does many people), then I’d say yes, of course.

But what extreme measures would be required to convert a devout and apparently deranged believer? Thoroughly educating them about the irrationality of their beliefs? Surrounding them by a community of non-believers? Isolating them from any religious influence? I suspect that in many cases a person’s beliefs are so deeply ingrained that the methods required to change their minds would be so extreme as to be immoral in themselves, never mind what the outcome might be.

Then again perhaps yunshui is thinking more along the lines of a thought-experiment. What if Garvan had grown up in a friendly, supportive and non-religious environment. What if he’d never heard of Jesus? What kind of person would he be? Again, I think we can only speculate.

It seems intuitively true that the world would be a better place if everyone believed only what was true. False beliefs lead people to bad decisions. That is why we should care about what people believe. But perhaps there are cases where delusions are helpful or at least have some beneficial effects. The superstitious rituals carried out by people in risky situations, such as gathering honey while dangling from a cliff, can make them feel safe when they’re not. That can have advantages and disadvantages.

One argument is to let people believe whatever makes them happy and not to challenge it. For instance, if they really need to go deep sea fishing in a small wooden boat or hunt wilderbeast so that their family can eat, then they might as well be made to feel comfortable while taking such huge risks. On the other hand, someone who has performed a meaningless ritual may be recklessly emboldened by the thought that they’ve done something useful to protect themselves. Far better that they are cautious and forced to look for practical ways to minimise the risk. For a start they could look at the weather before setting off.

But getting back to religious beliefs, in the majority of cases I see no reason not to question and challenge apparently false beliefs. Indeed, I think we all have a responsibility to work out what is true and to educate others as best we can.

However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental. As yunshui points out, psychologists have considered this question already.

Many delusional patients actually need their strange beliefs in order to function, so removing the framework of their worldview can be unproductive and even dangerous.

So was Colonel Jessep right when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”?  Those who’ve changed their minds in favour of atheism often report feelings of freedom and happiness as a result. However, de-conversion can be a traumatic process, even for those on a fairly even keel.

For those with a delusion related to mental illness the answer is more complicated and as a layperson I’d defer to the opinions of the psychologists involved.

An Atheist Meme

I was tagged recently by Lynet, so I thought I’d share a few details of my beliefs and how they’ve changed.

Can you remember the day that you officially became an atheist?

No, it was a gradual progression. I became bored and frustrated with the lack of answers from the church youth group I attended and drifted out of it, still probably more agnostic than atheist.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

I suspect I was always a bit agnostic, although there was a time I would’ve certainly described myself as a Christian. I could possibly have been described as a social Christian.

How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

Probably in my early teens, mostly motivated by personal anxiety. When I was younger I remember praying every day. I never got any answers but I certainly thought someone was listening.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

I don’t think I was exactly angry at God, but I was frustrated and fed up with vague religious lectures. I was also appalled and perplexed by the injustice of divine judgement.

Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

Only recently have I become properly sceptical about ghosts, when I was previously agnostic about them. This attitude didn’t seem to change at the same time as my religious beliefs. I guess I hadn’t got around to questioning those ideas properly. If people mentioned ghostly experiences I wouldn’t be sure what to think. I suppose I found ghosts exciting and liked to entertain some belief in them for that reason. These days I’d have no hesitation is saying, “Show me the evidence” and “No a smudge or speck on a photo is not evidence”.

Do you want to be wrong?

Partly.

On the one hand, I’m pretty glad that the world isn’t being watched over by a deity who allows great tragedies to occur without lifting a finger or judges people for making an honest mistake regarding their beliefs.

On the other hand, I would certainly like to live forever. The common ideas of heaven are quite weird and nonsensical and often sound like the kind of blissful tedium that would make a sane person long for oblivion, but I think a lot of people would like to live forever. I guess that’s the biggest part of religion’s marketing hype.

Choosing the right belief for the wrong reasons?

Religious conversion stories often seem to be emotional affairs. I think many religious groups exploit this (whether deliberately or not), using stirring music, intense group attention and other techniques to provoke an emotional reaction. This probably helps to convert people, causing them to cry, faint or be otherwise emotionally overwhelmed with the feeling that something really special has happened.

There are sometimes also emotional reasons why people people de-convert as well as convert, although they are not generally cunningly choreographed*. Certainly many of us who end up as atheists also go on to read up on theology and the many atheistic arguments against religion – particularly those who are online reading and writing blogs. However, I think in many cases, the thing which triggers the journey into critical thinking is emotional, or at least, not a rational argument in itself.

When I was a Christian, the main argument that had always bothered me was the injustice of divine judgement – Someone makes the world and everything in it, then gets His knickers in a twist when some of it (specifically the human bit) doesn’t turn out as He wanted. I managed to mostly ignore this problem while attending church as a teenager, until I went on a youth group holiday. The sheer quantity of preaching I was subjected to during this time bored, puzzled and frustrated me. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I could no longer ignore the problem, so I drifted out of the church group in frustration.

I don’t think my reasons were especially carefully considered or rational – I only discovered proper atheist arguments later – it was frustration and boredom that made me leave. I wonder if the first step believers make is often something which in itself isn’t a damning logical argument against theism? Perhaps some fellow believers being unfriendly or cruel? An obvious lie told by their religious leader? Wanting to lie in bed on Sunday mornings? A personal disagreement with another believer on a non-religious matter? A close friend who believes something different? Or, as in my case, resenting boring lectures.

There are some great arguments against theism, but these are not amongst them. If a fellow Christian you know well deliberately ignores you when you happen to pass in the street that doesn’t make the existence of a god any less likely – they might just be having a bad day. Even if a religious leader is dishonest, he could still put this down to man’s inherent sinfulness. Sure, church hypocrisy doesn’t look good, and it even features at number 5 on Kieran Bennett’s list of reasons why people de-convert. The Church ought to practice what they preach, but if they fail to do so, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely wrong about God.

While none of these reasons are very rational, I think they might give people the nudge they need to reconsider their beliefs, hopefully with a view to what is rational. There are some examples of this in the comments by former believers on Greta Christina’s post asking what changed people’s minds about religion. For example, kc said:

Slowly I became more frustrated by my own questions, and more angry about hypocrisy and intolerance in my own church. That led me away from Catholicism.

A slightly different example is when events in a person’s life force particular atheist arguments into the foreground. Heather replied:

It wasn’t an argument that persuaded me away from my faith, it was a series of emotional experiences. One of the primary benefits of religion espoused by believers and non-believers is comfort.[…] But I hit a time of extreme distress, and I prayed and turned searchingly to my faith and found… nothing. No comfort, no warm fuzzies. I felt my pain exactly as it would feel were there no caring deity there to help me with my suffering. That was the crack in the ice that led to me to look at the situation through the lens of reason.

In a guest-post on de-Conversion explaining why she de-converted, DeeVee writes:

Watching my religious mother and both aunts die of cancer, while begging Jesus/god to save them, and he did not.  Not only that but I also worked in the pediatric ward of a cancer hospital in Houston and watched entire churches praying for god to save babies from cancer, and he did not.

The “Problem of Evil” was always there and a lot of religious people have probably heard it or even pondered it themselves. But when things are going well such worries can be put to the back of a believer’s mind. When personal tragedy affects a person, the problem of evil becomes large and unavoidable.

It seems anything from a subtle change in attitude to fellow believers to a major emotional upheaval can create a crack of doubt into which critical thinking and reasoned arguments can be inserted. This seems more likely if the believer is already aware of these arguments.

Well reasoned arguments against the veracity of religious belief are great for making a point or explaining atheist beliefs. However, we shouldn’t underestimate the part that non-rational factors play in changing people’s beliefs – in either direction.

(* Given the examples above, to choreograph the kind of emotional reaction that might lead someone to reject their religious belief would be an extremely vicious act.)