How Obvious Is It?

August 19, 2008

Apparently, some people think I’m sending mixed messages about Mormonism and how “reasonable” it is. Let me take this opportunity to clarify my position.

For a very long time, Mormonism was eminently reasonable to me. It made sense, and the things I had placed on my “shelf” weren’t serious deal-breakers to me. Book of Mormon anachronisms? Well, it’s the message of Christ that matters, not the historicity. Joseph Smith slept around with teenagers and married women? Well, we shouldn’t expect perfection from fallible humans. The Book of Abraham facsimile translations are gibberish? Joseph Smith was operating on an entirely different plane of consciousness. And so on. I really did convince myself of these things.

As I’ve mentioned before, it was a call from a distraught friend who practically pleaded with me to tell him that the stories of Joseph Smith’s trading teenage girls for exaltation and sleeping with his friends’ wives weren’t true. In that instant, I knew I had been rationalizing some horrible, awful stuff. So, if my conscience didn’t let me rationalize that, why would I rationalize the other issues? Everything unraveled in an instant, and when I went home that day, I told my wife I no longer believed in Mormonism.

But how obvious is it? Can a rational, intelligent person actually believe in the rather remarkable claims of Mormonism? It goes without saying that I think the problems of Mormonism are glaring and clear markers of fraud. But does that mean I think those who disagree with me are morons? Nope.

People arrive at belief in any number of ways, and what works for some people does not work for others. And what troubles me deeply about Mormonism doesn’t affect others in the least bit. And that’s OK. I have a lot of friends and family members who have considered the same issues I have and have chosen to maintain belief in Mormonism. I used to wonder why it was that some people can’t see what to me is so plain and clear. But then they tell me the same thing. Why, they ask, can’t I wrap my brain around certain issues that fall off them like water off a duck.

In the end, belief is subjective, and no one makes a purely rational and logical decision in matters of faith. I’m content to let others believe what they will, but I reserve the right to express what I think and what I believe. I’m convinced that the truth is on my side. Your mileage may vary.


Is There Something Wrong with Mormons?

August 19, 2008

When I left the LDS church, a friend of mine, a Ph.D. in mathematics, said to me, “That’s good. I always thought you were too smart to hang out with that crowd.” I thought at the time (and still do) that his statement was rather unfair and ignorant. I realized that he was going mostly by his interaction with a rather uber-Mormon guy we both worked with. This guy was the stereotypical Mormon depicted by Hollywood: naive, sweet-natured, and altruistic (and these are not all bad things). But my friend had the impression that we Mormons lacked critical thinking skills, that somehow the church had drummed out of us the ability to look introspectively at our own beliefs.

A year or so later, two coworkers and my boss at another company were stunned to find out I was a former Mormon. “Cult,” was all one of them said. Later on a trip with my boss, I found her approach to Mormonism interesting. She had, she said, a very good friend who is a Mormon, and she had attended various church functions with that friend. She generally had a good impression of Mormons and their “family values,” but she surprised me when she said, “Still, something just seems off about them. I can’t really explain it, but you never feel like you’re getting the real person when you talk to them.” She also said that she couldn’t quite square the white bread image with the “bizarre” (her word) temple rituals and “holy underwear” (again, her words).

Admittedly, these are just my own anecdotal experiences, but they don’t seem far off from the broader society’s impressions of Mormons and Mormonism. A Pew Forum survey last December showed that the church has made some progress in being accepted and even admired by others. 53% of Americans had a favorable opinion of Mormons, against 27% who had a negative opinion. 52% believed that Mormons are Christian, and when asked for a one-word impression of Mormonism, 74% said “family” or “family values” (though, technicall, that’s two words).

But there are still some significant problems. On the one-word impression question, “polygamy” or “bigamy” was most common (75%), third was “cult” (57%), and fourth was “different.” If I were to venture a guess, my former boss’s impressions would match most people’s assessment of Mormons: good, kind, devout people, but maybe a bit off.

I’m not going to argue about whether these impressions are correct (and please don’t think I believe Mormons are “a bit off”), but I will say that these impressions I’ve heard (and from more than just these two examples) conflict with what I was taught all my life in the LDS church. People are watching you, I was told. They look up to your for your standards, and when you don’t live up to your standards, they notice, and they judge the church by that.

Imagine my shock in finding out that people aren’t really watching Mormons. Most people don’t care one way or the other if you are living up to the church’s standards; they understand what the church’s standards are, but they also recognize that people are human. Take, for example, the easily recognizable missionary uniform: white shirt, dark suit, conservative tie. Most of us believed that this dress code made our missionaries stand out and made them look like good examples (hence, the idea that bishopric members and other leaders should wear white shirts and should be clean-shaven). Many non-Mormons have told me that the missionary uniform is “creepy” and “cult-like,” which again was quite a shock.

I don’t know what the church will do in the future to improve their image; they have hired one of New York’s best PR firms, so it will be interesting to see what they come up with. But it’s going to be hard to overcome the stereotypes.


Meeting with the Bishop

August 18, 2008

My bishop asked me and my wife to come in and visit with him yesterday, so we went. He was just called as bishop a couple of weeks ago, so I didn’t really know what he wanted. My wife went in first, and she was in there a long time. She came out crying, holding a crumpled and wet tissue. I knew she would cry, as my unbelief has been unbelievably painful for her to deal with. All the while she was in the office, I knew what she would be talking about, and I knew it would hurt her, so I felt bad for putting her through that.

When it was my turn, the bishop asked me if I would be willing to accept a calling. It was a bit of a surprise, but I said it depended on what the calling was. Turns out they want us to volunteer one night a week helping migrant workers get health care. That I can do, no problem.

We talked about my family, my job, and whether or not we have health insurance (we do); apparently, the stake president wants to know who doesn’t have health insurance, for some reason.

Then he looked a little nervous and said, “I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds as bishop, but what can I do to help you get out to church more often.” I figured it was as good a time as ever, so I laid out my issues with the church in general and told him it was an issue of conscience for me. He asked if I had a temple recommend, and I said I didn’t. He asked if I would like one, so I told him that I would have to lie about having a testimony to get a temple recommend, and I wouldn’t feel right about that.

In the end, he said that he appreciated my integrity in standing up for what I believe in, and he said, “You can have a happy and productive family life without attending the temple.” I knew that, of course, but it was good to hear him say it. He gave me a hug and said he was glad we are in his ward and his neighborhood.

I’m glad we have a good bishop.


Humble Apologetics and a Desire to Believe

August 13, 2008

I’ve written about apologist par excellence Dan Peterson before, but this morning’s MormonTimes reports on a presentation he gave at the FAIR conference last week. The talk was about “humble apologetics” and the proper tone of apologists, particularly in online forums. I am frankly quite pleased to hear what he said.

First he says that it’s OK to admit when we don’t know something. He cites one of my favorite scriptures, when Nephi, in response to a question from an angel, said, “I know that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). Admitting that you don’t know everything is an act of humility, and humility is required of disciples.

Rather than insisting on finding answers to all the details of the LDS church’s theological and historical claims, he says, we should be seeking greater things:

The crux of the (final) judgment, it seems to me, is not our assent to certain specific theological propositions, (but) a revelation of what it is we really want — what we want to be. Do we hunger and thirst for goodness? Do we seek God?

My earlier, believing self could have written that, but even an agnostic like me understands the truth of this statement. What we know is far less important than who we are and how we act. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” I think that’s what Dan is getting at.

Of course, Dan recognizes that he hasn’t always lived up to this ideal, but then none of us does. But, as I’ve said before, I think much of the venom directed at him is the result of a misunderstanding on both sides. Dan generally tries to inject humor into the argument, and his particular brand of humor strikes some people as caustic and arrogant, though I don’t think it’s meant to be.

And of course, Dan repeats something I’ve often said: the discussion between critics and apologists is unlikely to affect anyone but those “on the edge,” meaning those who aren’t sure whether they believe or not. In other words, the real importance of the discussion is with the “lurkers,” who don’t generally engage in the discussion but who are looking for answers.

With that audience in mind, we have a responsibility to present the truth, not a distorted or polemical version of “our” truth. That’s what I have tried to do since the days when I was a rather ineffective apologist. Now I suppose I’m just an ineffective critic. Obviously, some detractors will question my commitment to truth, but, to quote Dan, in saying that my object is the truth, “I mean it.”

He does come up with something that I find interesting. These people on the edge, he says, can be reached if they “want the gospel to be true.” Indeed, the Book of Mormon tells us that wanting to believe is the first step in gaining a testimony:

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. (Alma 32:27.)

Critics, on the other hand, he says, are those who don’t want the gospel to be true (and I would disagree with that, obviously). But this is really the wrong approach. Truth should stand on its own. You shouldn’t have to want something to be true; you should seek truth, even if the truth is painful and uncomfortable. Surely, not everyone who has a testimony of Mormonism truly wanted it to be true; more than a few had to have approached it with an open mind, asking God in faith if it really was true.

If a testimony depends on really, really wanting it to be true, the game is over before it started. You’ll get the truth you want rather than the truth that is. And of course, if you really don’t want Mormonism to be true, you’ll probably confirm that particular truth to yourself. An open mind is good enough.

Finally, Dan reminds us that his goal is winning souls, and heated arguments rarely win souls: “Winning an argument can lose you a soul.” He shares an experience when he “annihilated” a Jehovah’s Witness in debate, but he recognizes that he “just humiliated the guy.” And there’s a difference between humility and humiliation, and I’m glad to see Dan point it out.

Dan considers himself an Internet board addict, and I have to admit I’m the same. I don’t know what keeps me coming back for more abuse. But like Dan, “I see myself as sweetness and light,” so why would anyone ever object to someone like me?


Wunderkind

August 8, 2008

I had lunch with Chris Smith yesterday. He’s out here for the Sunstone symposium, and he is presenting a paper on Mormonism as a response to Christian pluralism and Biblical ambiguity.

On his blog, Chris describes a rather poor beginning to his Utah experience, but hopefully our lunch was a step up from a hotel that smelled like dead animals.

I was late, so he had been waiting a while in front of the Sheraton when I picked him up. My first impression was that he’s so young. At 22, he’s slightly older than half my age. At 22 I was trying to decide on a major and attempting to overcome postmission awkwardness in dating. He’s working on a master’s in religious history and presenting at Sunstone, for heaven’s sake.

Anyway, he was with Don Bradley, who had given a presentation that morning, so we got in my crappy car and drove to the Red Iguana. To my surprise, another friend of mine was waiting for us there, so the four of us had lunch in a overcrowded restaurant.

I learned that Chris has been actively studying Mormonism and Mormon issues since he was 16 or so. That of course made me feel even shallower, as at 16 I was more interested in whoever I was dating and in going to the beach. Oh, well. Chris, on the other hand, knows as much about the Book of Abraham papyri and the issues surrounding the “translation” than just about anyone I know. He has repeatedly made BYU professor John Gee look either incompetent or dishonest with his thoughtful analysis of the issues. Not surprisingly, his interaction with Gee and others has made him some enemies among Mormon apologists.

Unfortunately, with four of us there, I didn’t get to pick his brain like I wanted to, but it was nice talking to him.


Just to Clarify

August 7, 2008

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I really am not on a mission to destroy the LDS church. That post was tongue-in-cheek. I am concerned that my children be aware of the issues behind Mormonism instead of being given the sanitized church version of history. But if my children want to participate in Mormonism (and so far, most of them do), I support them in their desires. I favor a “live and let live” approach. I do think the truth is important, but it is up to individuals to decide what they choose to do with the truth. Some will have faith in Mormonism, and some won’t.


Staying Up Late

August 7, 2008

So it’s 2:00 in the morning, and I’m still up, one eye on the Internet, and the other watching the BBC halfheartedly (though Graham Norton is pretty brilliant). Why am I up? My daughter had her tonsils out this morning, and she needs her pain medication at 2:30. I figured I had only one choice if I wanted to give her the medication: the pill I take at night puts me out completely, so I can’t take it until after she’s had her 2:30 dose. Then I guess I’ll be able to take my pill and go to sleep; I’ve learned that I’ve become dependent on it, as when I have forgotten to take the pill, I’ve stayed up all night.

I really hate being that dependent on a pill, but then the medication is working. A year ago I was coming off a suicide attempt and a stay in a psych ward that was something out of Ken Kesey or maybe Dickens or worse. The new pill has really helped keep the depression under control (though if you ask some people, I’m still dealing with severe paranoia–just kidding). But the side-effect is that it makes me sleep. Once I’m asleep I do not wake up for anything for at least 7 hours. Obviously, I take the pill before bed, and it works out nicely: I get a good night’s sleep, and the pill augments the prozac I take in the morning.

When I got home from work today, I sat with my daughter, and just put my arm around her and talked to her for about an hour. She came through the surgery pretty bravely and stoically, though I suspect the codeine had something to do with that. But really, I don’t think I could have had that kind of time with her last year. The depression had made me withdraw from pretty much everything, and I felt like I had nothing to give my family. So, I have traded that depression for a drug dependency. I think it’s a fair trade.