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?

Review: 50 reasons people give for believing in a god

I stumbled upon Guy P. Harrison‘s book in an online bookshop, knowing very little about it. When buying some other books I added it to my shopping basket on impulse hoping that it would give some insight into the psychology of belief. However, psychology isn’t really what the book is about so in that respect I was disappointed. 50 reasons people give for believing in a god is instead a series of responses to the most commonly cited reasons for god-belief, intended to promote critical thinking. Despite the above misunderstanding, I’m glad I shelled out for it because it is, in many respects, an excellent book.

What 50 reasons is not is a book of complex theology. You’ll find little discussion of apologetics, no mention of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, nor any discussion of, for example, what text was or was not interpolated into Josephus’ writings. The author aims to treat all religions equally and so doesn’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on any one belief. Each chapter is prompted by the justifications that ordinary believers across the world have given Guy on his travels, so the book is accessible and relevant to the ordinary person. Examples of the 50 reasons include, “My god is obvious”, “Our world is too beautiful to be an accident” and “Without my god we would have no sense of right and wrong”. I’m sure these are all arguments that those of us who frequent atheist blogs or debate with believers will have heard before, perhaps many times. In which case, the brief discussions in 50 reasons probably won’t be particularly new. What is noteworthy is the tone of this book.

It’s not that Guy Harrison compromises with regard to evidence; he never seems to shrug his shoulders and say, “Well maybe your religion is true”. Instead he makes simple observations and encourages the reader to make comparisons with other beliefs from around the world. The book is clearly intended to speak to god-believers and to get them to think more critically about their beliefs. With that in mind the author goes to some effort to avoid insulting them. For example, when interviewing a believer who claims to feel his god when he prays, Guy describes the problems faced by a skeptic.

“I asked the believer who said he had heard a god how he can be sure that he did not imagine it. It was at this point that I began to sense his rising irritation and decided not to push any further. So how does one question this amazing but common claim of personal contact with a god?”

The answer he comes up with becomes a reoccurring theme in the book. There are thousands of gods that people have believed in. Those believers have had similar experiences and present the same arguments as you – so why should these arguments work better for one god than any other? By treating all religions with equal skepticism and making reasonable comparisons, the arguments for belief are shown to be weak and often flawed.

The book’s simple approach has obvious benefits – 50 reasons is very readable. Probably the most readable book I’ve read on religion or atheism. The author is an accomplished journalist rather than an academic and the style of language is as accessible as you would expect. There are some great insights in the book, many of which will be familiar, but they are expressed with such simplicity and clarity that I found them sticking in my mind. One of my favourite quotes is in chapter 41, “Science can’t explain everything”.

“Gaps in our scientific knowledge are not shortcomings or failures. They are shining examples of why science is better than religion. Science can’t answer everything because science doesn’t cheat by providing answers without evidence.”

Noting the simple style is not to say that the book lacks real content or research. To his credit, Guy Harrison has obviously done his homework and 50 reasons contains some good examples, research and anecdotes to illustrate his points. A good example is in chapter 10 – “Believing in my god makes me happy”. Guy cites research surveying some eighty-thousand people worldwide to discover the world map of happiness. As it turns out, some of the happiest countries are also the least religious.

Superficial?

Critics of 50 reasons have accused it of being superficial and lacking the detail of other similar books. It’s true that others can and have written entire books discussing the points which Guy Harrison covers in short, roughly 5-page, chapters. However, that’s not what this book is about. To thoroughly debunk all religions ever would require many volumes and probably amount to several lifetimes’ work. In any case, as the author points out, the vast majority of believers don’t believe because of convoluted apologetic arguments; they may not even be aware of them.

Conclusions

In my opinion, 50 reasons is the ideal book for a non-believer to swap with a believer as part of an attempt to understand each other’s points of view. I’ve previously taken part in book swaps with believers and found them worthwhile. So I look forward to lending 50 reasons to my religious friends; I’d even consider buying additional copies for this purpose.

But is it worth reading, even for the well-read atheist who isn’t planning a book-swap? Well, such a person may not learn much about the arguments against religion from the book, but the concise insights, style and tone are worth experiencing. It demonstrates a different approach to debating with believers – one which I think is more suitable to discussions with friends and colleagues, especially in person. In these situations it is more important to keep things simple and amicable, whilst encouraging critical thinking. I must confess that several times I’ve made valid arguments which were insensitive and relationships have suffered as a result. I think the approach Guy Harrison uses in 50 reasons is a good example which I’d like to emulate in future.

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.)