42.75

It’s been nearly 3 years since I published “40” … Finding myself in a contemplative mood, I went back and re-read it after my son was baptized yesterday, acutely remembering just how terrified I was to actually hit the “publish” button that night. In retrospect, I see just how unfounded those fears were. I know, am all too painfully aware, that my experience is not always, or even usually, the case… but I have been treated with nothing but kindness, love, acceptance — really *no difference at all* by my family, friends, neighbors, bishop, ward members… Mormons all… almost every one. I am grateful. I’m aware of and sensitive to this not being the universal experience of those who leave religion in general, or Mormonism in particular and I am sorry for that… I can only wish everyone were surrounded by the kinds of loving, open-minded, accepting family, friends and neighbors I find myself surrounded by.

As I watched my son be baptized by his uncle, I had lots of different thoughts running through my head. I thought about my son’s uncle — dressed in white along with my son, standing in my place to both baptize and confirm him as a new member of the church. He is a good man. We have known each other since we were 6. He is one of my closest friends, confidants, and since marrying my wife’s sister — also my brother-in-law and my children’s uncle. I thought about when we were children ourselves. He was my only non-Mormon friend. I thought about my role in his conversion… talking to him about the church when we were kids, the late night discussions in tents on campouts, sending missionaries to his house when we were teenagers, his subsequent baptism… Life has a funny way of working out. Having recently resigned my own membership from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I sat there perhaps paradoxically grateful for this good man, my best friend, able to stand in for me now that I am no longer a member of this church. Given that I could not (would not) baptize my children myself at this stage of my life, in a strange way, I am glad I played a small role in he who did.

During the quiet moments between baptisms (there were four others), while we waited in the chapel, soft music at the piano accompanying the reverent mood of that place, I thought back to my own baptism when I was 8 years old. I remember bits and pieces of the day. My father. The white clothes. The other children being baptized. The beautiful spring day outside as we stood around outside afterwards, family, aunts and uncles, cousins, chatting and laughing with each other. I thought back to the many baptisms I performed as a missionary in Chile. I thought of my own children’s baptisms I had performed… even as my belief in what I was doing was following an increasingly downward trajectory.

I thought about where I am now compared to 2.75 years ago. I feel I’m in a better place. I thought back to attending the Christmas program in church a few weeks ago… the first time I had been inside a Mormon chapel since my resignation. It was my first time as a “non-member”, a non-Mormon. I sat next to my wife. We held hands. I sang the songs… I enjoyed the talks. I knew I didn’t believe the words I sang, I knew there were historical contexts, realities the speakers were unaware of… none of that mattered. I simply… enjoyed. I sat next to my sweet wife. We held hands. It was the best hour of religious worship for this particular atheist in decades, perhaps ever.

To be perfectly clear, I categorically, unequivocally and without reservation reject Mormonism’s truth-claims… but I am coming to embrace the good that Mormonism, and religion in general, can offer. And I need my children to know both of those things. Religion is not for me. Contrary to recent religious teachings, I do not believe “belief is a choice.” My own worldview is internally-driven, compelled, in fact, to be rational: based upon evidence, reason, and logic… in short — Truth. I cannot simply believe something for the sake of belief… I want, I crave, or rather I intrinsically  *need* to understand our world, our history and origins as a species, as close to reality as humanly possible. BUT… I no longer feel that my path is the ONLY path. Religion can provide tremendous comfort to human beings… a comfort and hope that the stark reality of an indifferent universe simply cannot offer. I feel no need to take that away from someone, if they want to believe.

Of course I do and will continue to push-back against those religious teachings or principles that I find harmful… but I generally see the leaders of the Mormon Church as sincere (albeit in my view, misguided) men, kind and loving, probably well-intentioned and genuinely believing in what they do, that they are doing good, and perhaps unaware of the fallout, the dangerous and great potential for harm when their followers unquestioningly believe that their words are “God’s word”, given the impact such can have, the breakup of marriages and families, or worse: the loss of life, particularly by the young, teenagers or young adults who do not yet possess the experience or knowledge, (or even a fully developed brain), the context to understand, that these are just men. Even one young person who takes his or her own life because of the despair and hopelessness caused by religious leaders “speaking for God” is one life too many. From a human history perspective, I believe any individual or group which claims to speak for and on behalf of a supernatural being, a “Deity” should be thoroughly and comprehensively investigated and examined, no matter if one was born into that religion or not. From a humanist perspective, any teaching or belief-system which results in the loss of human life should not, cannot go unchallenged.

BUT, having said that, I am trying more and more to find and value balance. I have always remembered something I read long ago by J. Bonner Ritchie, a Mormon thinker, who said “All institutions are in some degree or another immoral. We must learn to use the institution rather than be used by it.” It is far too easy to slip back into a black-and-white paradigm and see the church as one dimensional when in reality… it is as diverse as the membership which makes it up. I have already mentioned the good people, my neighbors and ward members, who have taken my own “apostasy” in stride and treated me with unchanged kindness and respect (at least to my face.) 🙂 But I also sat and thought yesterday about my relationship with my wife — one that has certainly had its struggles, some of which have been quite serious; and my own struggles, some of which have been quite severe (perhaps a topic for another post). Anyone who has not grown up within the Mormon church probably cannot appreciate just what it means for a person to leave that church… particularly, what it means to a spouse, an eternal companion.

While no one can see the future, at this moment in time our relationship has never been stronger. Again, with awareness and sensitivity to how often this is NOT the case when one spouse leaves the church and the other remains, I am awed by my own wife’s reaction to this life-changing transition. I attribute our success these past years to her goodness, kindness, forgiveness, and long-suffering… to me, she is the epitome of “charity”… that elusive attribute that is often the supreme goal of religious devotion. Her unwarranted and unjustified action of unconditional love towards me has evoked and provoked what I would characterize as an escalating positive retaliation between us of authenticity, absolute acceptance, and a desire for each other’s happiness. I love her. If our children choose to be believers… I hope they will take after her and follow her example…  being “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12) Their mom is this. And I fully support her continued faith and activity in the church as well as that of our children who so choose. I have maintained that I support “informed belief”, and that remains true.

The climax of all these thoughts came after the baptism, while I sat there, looking at the circle of men who surrounded my son to confirm him a member of this church, a church which has played such a central and dominant role, for good and bad, in my own personal life. I noted the absence of my father, felt his loss again; the absence of my father-in-law, too sick to come. I looked at my brother, my brothers-in-law, examples to me of the best kind of believers. I hoped my son would observe and use these examples. When the ordinances started, and, as is the practice, my son’s full name was used, I heard my own name… I thought about one of the talks given moments before, that through his baptism he was covenanting to take upon himself the name of Jesus. In a way, I felt happy he already had my name, too. I reflected upon the promises of baptism that the speaker mentioned, but one in particular: to be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light… willing to mourn with those that mourn; … and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8).

This is the essence of Mormonism… I see it in my wife, my family, my mother, my mother-in-law, my extended family and friends… my neighbors and ward members. They are good people.
Ex- / post- / former- Mormons having come from the same background, perhaps it is unsurprising I find them to be among the very best of people I know, as well. Many have become my very best of friends, our shared experience of leaving religion has wrought a special bond between us that I am extremely grateful for.

Yesterday was a good day. I am proud of my son. I support him. I kept thinking of a quote I recently came across: “It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.” As they passed out cards for us write our “testimonies” on, to collect and give to my son on as a keepsake from his baptismal day, the only testimony I could offer was a true and profound testimony that I love him. That nothing can change that and my sole hope and desire for him is happiness. I will support him in choosing whichever path brings the most of that into his life.

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Quotes

Question with boldness even the existence of God. ~ Thomas Jefferson

If I saw no signs of a divinity, I would fix myself in denial. If I saw everywhere the marks of a Creator, I would repose peacefully in faith. But seeing too much to deny Him, and too little to assure me, I am in a pitiful state, and I would wish a hundred times that if a God sustains nature it would reveal Him without ambiguity. ~Blaise Pascal (Pascal’s Gambit)

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ~ William Clifford

It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it. ~ Edmund Way Teale

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it–the life of that man is one long sin against mankind. ~ William Clifford, “The Ethics of Belief”

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence. ~ Bertrand Russell

Even if we were to grant that one of our religions must be correct in its every particular, given the number of conflicting views on offer, every believer should expect damnation on mere probabilistic grounds. ~ Bertrand Russell

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. ~ Thomas Paine

Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication– after that it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it can not be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to ME, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him. ~ Thomas Paine

Any system of religion that has anything in it that shocks the mind of a child, cannot be true. ~ Thomas Paine

My country is the world, and my religion is to do good. ~ Thomas Paine

Thomas did not believe the resurrection [John 20:25], and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas. ~ Thomas Paine

He’s created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity… and the test is this: can you believe in this god on bad evidence, which is to say on faith. And if you can, you will win an eternity of happiness after you die. And it is precisely this sort of god, this sort of scheme, that you must believe in if you’re going to have any kind of future in politics in this country, no matter what your gifts. You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars, and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and are you going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God. ~ Sam Harris

I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine. ~ Joseph Smith

Perfect people would be awfully tiresome to live with; their stained-glass view of things would seem a constant sermon without intermission, a continuous moral snub of superiority to our self-respect. ~ David O. McKay

The more a man knows, the more willing he is to learn–the less a man knows, the more positive he is that he knows everything. ~ Robert Ingersoll

No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance. ~ Confucius

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. ~ Nietzsche

A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. ~ Leon Festinger

What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. ~ Christopher Hitchens

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. ~ Carl Sagan

Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined faith is not worth believing. ~ J. Bonner Ritchie

The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. I would not interfere with any one’s religion, either to strengthen it or to weaken it. I am not able to believe one’s religion can affect his hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life–hence it is a valuable possession to him. ~ Mark Twain

In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing. ~ Mark Twain

Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain. ~ Mark Twain

It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand. ~ Mark Twain

The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written, it has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor-bicycle and golf course. ~ A.A. Milne

The most detestable wickedness, the most horrid cruelties, and the greatest miseries that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most destructive to the peace of man since man began to exist. Among the most detestable villains in history, you could not find one worse than Moses, who gave an order to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers and then rape the daughters. One of the most horrible atrocities found in the literature of any nation. I would not dishonor my Creator’s name by attaching it to this filthy book.  ~ Thomas Paine

The inspiration of the bible depends on the ignorance of the person who reads it. ~ Robert G. Ingersoll

It will yet be the proud boast of women that they never contributed a line to the Bible. ~ George W. Foote

A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows. ~ Mark Twain

Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so. ~ Bertrand Russell

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. ~ Galileo Galilei

Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. ~ Seneca the Younger

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. ~ Anonymous

It takes courage…to endure the sharp pains of self discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives. ~ Marianne Williamson

Everything sucks. Might as well find something to smile about. ~ Greg House

Truth or happiness. Never both. ~ Cal Lightman

I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting. It destroys. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting. ~ Boyd K. Packer

The gospel works best if you are white and middle-class. ~ Anonymous

An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is one whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. ‘Can they be brought together?’ This is a practical question. We must get down to it. ‘I despise intelligence’ really means ‘I cannot bear my doubts.’ ~ Albert Camus

If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul. ~ Isaac Asimov

The best religion is the one that gets you closest to God. It is the one that makes you a better person. ~ the Dalai Lama

If there is a God, why’d He make me an atheist? ~ Ricky Gervais

The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality. ~ George Bernard Shaw

Faith means not wanting to know what is true. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is the belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. ~ Richard Dawkins

One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding. ~ Richard Dawkins

THE MAJORITY of children born into the world tend to inherit the beliefs of their parents, and that to me is one of the most regrettable facts of them all. ~ Richard Dawkins

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings. ~ Richard Dawkins

Of all religions the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men. ~ Voltaire

The less depth a belief system has, the greater the fervency with which its adherents embrace it. The most vociferous, the most fanatical are those whose cobbled faith is founded on the shakiest grounds. ~ Dean Koontz

Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept it’s every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever. ~ Sam Harris

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? ~ Epicurus

I refuse to prove that I exist, says God, for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing. ~ Douglas Adams

Every belief, every idea has an origin. Most beliefs would be easier to hold if we were unaware of their origins. ~ Me

Any organization or institution which endeavors to hide or suppress historical information or information of any kind from its members or from the public in general, ought to raise suspicion and should be regarded with a certain level of skepticism. ~ Me

You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. ~ Anon.

Wanting to know how the world is leaves one vulnerable to new evidence. It is no accident that religious doctrine and honest inquiry are so rarely juxtaposed in our world. ~ Sam Harris

How can any person presume to know that this is the way the universe works? Because it says so in our holy books. How do we know that our holy books are free from error? Because the books themselves say so. Epistemological black holes of this sort are fast draining the light from our world. ~ Sam Harris

We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them “religious”; otherwise, they are likely ot be called “mad,” “psychotic,” or “delusional.” ~ Sam Harris

Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible? ~ Sam Harris

We believe most of what we believe about the world because others have told us to. Reliance upon the authority of experts, and upon the testimony of ordinary people, is the stuff of which worldviews are made. ~ Sam Harris

Science is science because it represents our most committed effort to verify that our statements about the world are true (or at least not false). ~ Sam Harris

Religious unreason should acquire an even greater stigma in our discourse, given that it remains among the principal causes of armed conflict in our world. Before you can get to the end of this paragraph, another person will probably die because of what someone else believes about God. Perhaps it is time we demanded that our fellow human beings had better reasons for maintaining their religious differences, if such reasons even exist. ~ Sam Harris

As long as it is acceptable for a person to believe that he knows how God wants everyone one earth to live, we w ill continue to murder one another on account of our myths. ~ Sam Harris

Religious faith obscures uncertainty where uncertainty manifestly exists, allowing the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over the facts. ~ Sam Harris

Surely there must come a time when we will acknowledge the obvious: theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings. ~ Sam Harris

A close study of our holy books reveals that the God of Abraham is a ridiculous fellow–capricious, petulant, and cruel–and one with whom a covenant is little guarantee of health or happiness. If these are the characteristics of God, then the worst among us have been created far more in his image than we ever could have hoped. ~ Sam Harris

Suppose there is a God who is watching us
and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god
really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably
select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to
discover the truth. For all others are untrustworthy, being cognitively or
morally inferior, or both. They will also be less likely ever to discover and
commit to true beliefs about right and wrong. That is, if they have a
significant and trustworthy concern for doing right and avoiding wrong, it
follows necessarily that they must have a significant and trustworthy concern
for knowing right and wrong. Since this knowledge requires knowledge about many
fundamental facts of the universe (such as whether there is a god), it follows
necessarily that such people must have a significant and trustworthy concern
for always seeking out, testing, and confirming that their beliefs about such
things are probably correct. Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently
moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven — unless god wishes to fill
heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy. ~Richard Carrier

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Useful Miscellaneous

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2.29 The Leap

A few weeks ago we had dinner with our friends Lon and Rebecca. Rebecca was the one who described the Labyrinth Walk at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and shared with us her take-away from it… which has stuck with me. I wanted to make sure to credit her as I attempt to completely botch her metaphor; if I discover she’s written about it, I will link to it here.

She said in Grace Cathedral there is a labyrinth. People can walk around this labyrinth with the intention of getting to the Center… which as a religious believer she identified with “God.” She noticed that as people travel the maze, sometimes they seem to be going away from the Center… away from God; when in reality, they were further along the path than she was.

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Her description created some strong imagery for me, it was a powerful lesson that sometimes it can be difficult to judge where someone is at from our vantage point in the maze… Perhaps what looks to us like someone distancing themselves from the Center, from “God”, (or whatever you want the Center to be) may in fact be quite the opposite. Maybe it’s best to… judge not.

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Now, of course, I currently hold no beliefs in gods or scriptures… (in case you’ve never read any of this blog before), but I still loved the metaphor. And I can still appreciate wisdom wherever it be found. I don’t care so much about the second clause in the verse above… but I’ll take the “Don’t judge” part and try to apply it in my life. I don’t know which way someone is going… I don’t know what path they are on. I don’t know their background or the details, the tens of thousands of variables or prior events that may have led them to where they are right now. Or, as I keep trying to remember, “It’s one thing to feel you are on the right path. It’s quite another to think yours is the only path.”

There is another scripture that has captured my thoughts throughout much of my life (“why does this guy talk so much about god and scriptures? Isn’t he an atheist?”) and that’s Matthew 5:48…

perfect

I like my version better. I sometimes wonder if whoever wrote these words close to 2,000 years ago had any idea the amount of potential harm he (speculative, but most likely a ‘he’) was creating. Perfectionism, scrupulosity, these are real things… serious and detrimental psychological conditions. [Of course, an irreligious, godless skeptic might simply view this and other teachings as a means of social control — convincing healthy people that they are sick is sometimes the only way to sell them a cure… ] but setting that aside, I am not arguing that individual development, goals, drive and ambition, self-improvement and betterment, that these are not good and necessary things. They are. (Like writing in a blog every leap year!) I would, however, argue that constantly comparing ourselves to an unseen human construct [from one point of view, at least] in the form of a Perfect God, can be quite damaging. Sometimes we crucify ourselves for being human… figurative self-flagellation (not to be confused with flatulence) can become a daily tear-down. Far better to just … be. I am trying to learn to just … be. Which, in one aspect, can mean forgiving myself just as often as I try to forgive others.

On this subject, there is certainly no lack of things for which I can forgive myself. The material is plentiful and seems to constantly self-replenish. But I am learning to, trying to… just… Be. Of incalculable help in this endeavor is a sweet and kind companion… patient and loving, full of charity. I am also (to use a phrase I dislike) blessed with a circle of close friends, a treasured group who I feel I can turn to in any crisis. They are partners in this thing called “life”, as we are each making our way through the maze. It has been interesting to me to observe my own instincts regarding those I have turned to for help. Those who (at least on the surface) seem to be doing pretty well in this whole “being perfect” thing, they are not those to whom I turned when facing some fairly severe problems in my life. (Because, let’s be honest, sometimes these folks can come across as judgmental. Let’s be even more honest — I often am and have been one of those folks.) Rather, there is something quite powerful about a friend who admits their flaws, cares more about people than protecting and projecting an image… to these I turned when I needed help. My gratitude for their friendship and support can never be accurately expressed or repaid. The best I can do is try to be me, therefore imperfect… I want people to know I am a flawed individual, in some ways deeply flawed, if only so any of my friends or family, should they ever need someone to turn to, someone that has no room to judge them, they can feel comfortable turning to me.

So. There it is. That’s my leap. I’m not perfect. (If there even is such a thing.) Far from it. I tend to smile a lot but each and every day is a struggle for me.  I will admit I sometimes (often) envy my former religious self. It is not easy to live in reality, forced to create your own meaning. It can be a very real, very daunting, and sometimes very dark struggle… But people are people… and for some of us, we’re all we’ve got. So don’t let the sardonic sense of humor, biting sarcasm, or dark cynicism (and these are my best qualities) put you off… if you need a friend, I want to pay it forward.

 

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40

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. – Dr. Seuss

I’ve written tens of thousands of words to try and express, to explain, what I’m about to say, but it’s no good. The task is impossible. I’ve given up. So let’s just cut to the chase.

I am not religious. Not in any way, shape, or form.  Call me an unbeliever, an agnostic, an atheist, a secular humanist, an ignorant fool, a complete idiot, whatever… just don’t call me late for dinner.

While I would simply define myself as “non-religious”, I know there are others who will not understand, who will need to believe I have been “deceived”, or “offended”, or some other such thing. And I am (remarkably) fine with that. It’s taken 40 years to get to this place, but I now fully realize that our human minds are simply too finite, too incapable of taking in the all incredible complexities of the universe we find ourselves in, for anyone to claim a monopoly on truth; and so I make no claim to have the inside track on it either. “I could be wrong…” is one of my favorite (or most oft-used) phrases.

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And that’s how the war started, Billy. But I’m pretty sure the circle-believers were right! (The squares just couldn’t see it.)

Sitting here, typing this, is not easy. But I’ve read dozens of times in the scriptures that, if possible, even the very elect will be deceived. So I guess if someone’s gotta fulfill scripture, it might as well be me. I’m willing to take the bullet. I know the disappointment, especially from family, especially from their perspective, that this will bring. And I’ve debated and debated the pros and cons of doing so. But it needs to be said, primarily so you will not be wondering why I no longer participate in the church, stand in the circle during ordinations or blessings, why I politely avoid or decline your invitations to pray, why I will not be baptizing any more of my children and, perhaps the hardest part, telling my sweet daughters and my son, why I will not be allowed to be present at their weddings, should they choose to marry in a Mormon temple. I foresaw all of this, as I told the Bishop I could not truthfully answer the questions of belief that one must answer in the affirmative to be allowed inside a Mormon temple. I couldn’t do it without lying, at least; knowing full well what telling the truth would cost me. It was a choice between personal integrity and becoming a second-class citizen where I live versus continuing to play the game, acting the part, while hating myself for the inauthenticity. Sometimes I’m not sure I made the right choice.

I’ve struggled with whether or not to share the reasons behind my loss of faith, my turning from the religious upbringing that I will forever be grateful for. (I mean that. I am grateful beyond words for my Mormon upbringing. Did you read that mom? Read it again.) I was raised to value truth, and developed a fundamental core motivation to seek after it, to follow it and ‘choose the right’ no matter the consequences. I was taught by good parents, by church leaders, dedicated men who inspired me, taught me through personal example what it was to be a good husband, a good father, a good leader, a decent human being. For an “emotionless robot”, I’ll confess I actually have tears in my eyes as I write this, knowing of the disappointment I must be to the village that raised me, that invested so much time and energy into trying to turn me into a good Mormon. Not only to them but to those I’ve served with over the years, to those I served with in the trenches as a missionary for the church, to those for whom I played a role in bringing into the church. I’m so very sorry.

I don’t want to hurt anybody, but I am guided, and have for years now been haunted by these words penned by Thomas Paine:

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.

And these by William Clifford:

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it–the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

The truth is, I would believe if I could. But I cannot. Not for lack of trying. And I can no longer pretend. I’ve really struggled, I’ve not known what to share (or not share) that led me to this point that might best explain how I got here, without injuring anyone else’s faith. How do you condense two decades of seeking, discovery, introspection, pondering and prayer into a couple of paragraphs on a screen? I’m at a complete loss. But I do know when and where the questions started. It was within a day or two of arriving as a brand-new missionary in South America. I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t.

Missionary journal, July, 1992.
Today we walked even further up the hill in our sector than yesterday. It was cold, but it gets hot in the afternoon. It seems to get poorer and poorer the higher we go. I wasn’t prepared for this. You can read about poverty, you can watch documentaries, but nothing can prepare you for actually experiencing it first-hand. The sights, the sounds, the smells… are overwhelming. I don’t know how to deal with this. As we got to the top of the hill, it was … bad. Elder O_ nudged me toward a woman standing outside her shelter. I made my first contact by copying what I’d heard him say to people: “Hola Hermana, cree ud. en Dios?” Do you believe in God? She just looked at me, completely incredulous. At first I thought she didn’t understand my spanish, but then she waved her arm all around us and said, pointing: “How can you see THIS… and ask me THAT?” I didn’t understand the rest of what she said, I barely understand anything, and I didn’t have an answer to give her. Elder O_ took over. I felt extremely conspicuous standing there in that place, in my new suit and tie and shiny shoes. This is really hard.

Her question stayed with me the rest of my mission… and beyond. A decade later, when I thought I had already personally witnessed the most miserable conditions possible, I wound up in India on a month-long business trip, and saw misery and human suffering to a degree and on a scale I will never be able to forget. The questions were only amplified.

I was already struggling with faith. My beliefs were in shambles after college. It all started soon after my mission when I saw (in my favorite hunting grounds — the History section of the BYU Bookstore), and immediately purchased, this book:

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The book that started it all

I won’t go into detail, but so startling was it, that it sparked and fueled what turned into a long (and ultimately unsuccessful) quest to understand, to put into context what I had read. Staying strictly within LDS sources, by the end of my sophomore year, I knew there were things I had never been told. By the time I graduated from BYU two years later, I had learned there are really two Mormonisms. There is the Mormonism most members are familiar with, the one we are all taught in church, in seminary, in Religious Education classes at BYU… from carefully correlated lesson manuals and from sanitized narratives of church history.

And then there is the Mormonism of the historical record, the Mormonism that historians have long known about, and many are now discovering at a rapid rate, causing an exit of greater numbers than ever before, thanks in no small part to availability of information on the internet. I think because I struggled so intensely, for so many years, I have to acknowledge an admiration I feel for those few souls who know the real history and origins of the church, they know all the problems, and still maintain belief… or if not belief, at least participation. I tried this “Middle Way” or “New Order Mormonism” for years. And years. Historians and intellectuals, scholars like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens became heroes to me. I read everything I could on how to maintain belief in the face of all this new disturbing information. I spent hours on end reading church apologetics like FARMS and FAIR. And to this day I do feel a sort of respect for those few who can make it work. It didn’t work for me. I found that forays into science, cosmology, the study of world history and the nature of the universe – and particularly neuroscience, the fascinating discoveries being made about the human brain – how the brain forms beliefs, processes information, its susceptibility to visual and auditory hallucination and delusion, how it resolves cognitive dissonance, the concept of Confirmation Bias and all its implications… all of this, combined with previous and concurrent explorations into the history and evolution of gods and religions from the beginning of human history, has rendered my mind simply incapable of maintaining the belief-set that was handed down to me in my youth. This roiled around my head, thoughts and questions ricocheted for years on end and then, one day… something just broke. I uttered one final prayer, which I will attempt to reproduce here.

[Note: If you wonder about the absence of the “thee’s” and “thou’s”, I quit doing that (in personal prayers anyway) a long time ago. Learning to pray in Spanish was the cause of one my first encounters with cognitive dissonance. The disconnect between what church authorities had (as it turned out, incorrectly) taught me to believe about the “respectful” nature of 17th century English personal pronouns was not only NOT the case with Spanish-speakers, who pray using the familiar/friendly ‘tu’, but was later completely turned upside down after a basic encounter with the history of the English language. As it happens, they had it completely backwards. Also, this might be where you want to stop reading, especially you Mom.]

Dear God,

Something happened today. Something of a crossing of the Rubicon. As I sat and watched men I once considered “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” exhort a crowd of onlookers with a message, a chant of “Let’s Go Shopping!”… I felt something break inside of me. I think the shelf finally broke, my testimony has finally snapped. Don’t get me wrong, Lord, it’s a wonderfully great and spacious megamall, top of its kind, perhaps worth every penny of the billions of church dollars spent to construct it. The retractable roof, the skywalk, the creek running through the middle, it is all indeed a marvelous work and a wonder to behold. But as I watched, I couldn’t help but think of the dirt floors and the cardboard and scrap-metal shacks where I had stood, and taught the poorest of the poor that the Lord wanted them to send 10% of their meager incomes to Salt Lake City, and to commit to doing that for the rest of their lives, as a condition for salvation… as I thought of those people, in those miserable conditions, and witnessed the opulent display now before my eyes, I tried to reconcile the image I had of Jesus, directing those who run his church to spend so many billions of dollars in this manner. It’s possible, I suppose, but it is difficult to reconcile, especially since I’ve actually read the New Testament. I know those billions (or the tens of millions the church spent before that, in a questionable effort to deprive same-sex couples of civil rights) could not have solved the problem of poverty. I get that, I really do. And I know the church has spent millions in humanitarian aid over the past several decades, which is commendable. But when I think of the self-congratulations, for the estimated $5 per member per year that is spent on humanitarian aid, out of the billions that are taken in? I’m sorry God… but I can’t help think of how SO… MUCH… MORE… could be done, especially by a church claiming to be headed by Jesus. And now, I think I am done.

I was taught to “Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened unto you.” I have sought and I have sought, I have knocked until my knuckles have bled. But in seeking, all  I have found has only further distanced me from you. Did you plant all this evidence against yourself as some sort of test? My motives were pure, God. If Your work and Your glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man… I thought what better place to study your work than in human history? I looked for You, only to find human fingerprints EVERYWHERE over EVERYTHING. Was it on purpose you placed so much evidence to cause one to wonder, Did you create man? Or did man create You? 

I sought answers in prayer, and only ever heard silence in return. Did I ask too many questions? I sought you in the scriptures, but learned enough about them, the history behind them, how they came into being, how they evolved, I learned enough to wonder if they were really revelation or human invention? I sought you in service – and thought I came the closest I ever came to finding you. But even there, the suffering was difficult to witness. How can you allow it to go on to such degrees? But you know, even those who don’t believe in you can, and are, found serving others, AND with no expectation of reward. Is not this even more to be commended?

I know I’ve asked these questions hundreds, thousands of times, but this will be the last. Will you answer? But really, I’m not sure what I would do even if I got an answer – I’ve spoiled it all by reading too much about the human brain. Why oh why did I have to stumble across the science behind its capability to produce spiritual experiences? And given that, how can I ever discern an answer as coming from you versus coming from my own mind? Oh well, it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ve wondered and I’m pretty sure I lack the structure in the temporal lobe where these experiences seem to originate. Nevertheless, here we go again, one last time, for old time’s sake…

First and foremost, Why do you rely upon such an obviously fallible, inefficient and demonstrably error-prone system of communication? What is the value in NOT speaking for yourself when you are an all-powerful Deity? What is the merit in choosing to deliver your messages through men (and the occasional woman) who contradict themselves and each other at every single turn? What is the benefit to be gained in forcing us to choose between every Tom, Dick and Harry who claims to speak for you? Doesn’t even a small application of critical thinking reveal the problem, the subjective nature of relying upon personal “feelings” to sort out the difference between divine revelation and human invention? Sometimes, glancing back over the course of “revealed” history – I have felt like it seems nothing so much as a cosmic game of “Telephone”.

Why is “Faith” something to be valued? Why do we admire someone who is willing to believe in things for which there is no external or objective evidence? If faith is believing in things we do not see, why then do we not afford the same admiration to those who believe in unicorns or leprechauns? Further, why is it a virtue to continue to believe in something even when the preponderance of evidence points to its being false? Is this really “What You Are Going For?” Is credulity a virtue valued above reason, evidence and critical thinking in the Heavens? If “faith is a choice” then why is any one choice inherently better than any other?

If Mormonism is really the “One True Church”©, then why do my Hindu friends receive the same spiritual confirmation of their beliefs, from their gods, as any Mormon does from the Holy Ghost? Why do Muslims? Catholics? Buddhists and Baptists? Why is it that geography is the single most important factor in determining a person’s beliefs? Why is it so easy for Mormons to have doubts or be skeptical of Muhammad, Allah, Krishna, Vishnu but denounce doubt and skepticism when turned on their own religion? Why are we so afraid of doubt or ideas or books that might challenge our beliefs? Would there even BE a Mormon church if Joseph had not first doubted the religions of his day?

Why are Muslims able to bear the same testimony of the Qur’an, or Hindus of the Baghavad Gita, as Mormons are of the Book of Mormon? Does this mean we should be reading everyone’s Holy Books and applying Moroni’s promise? Is it fair to expect others to read the Book of Mormon when we don’t read their books?

If the thousands of testimonies I’ve heard over my lifetime are to be believed, why do you help so many Americans find their car keys, or get an A on their test, or make a game-winning touchdown, while doing nothing to alleviate the indescribable horror of starving to death, suffered by MILLIONS — so many of them children – each and every year? Why can you heal cancer, but not an amputee?

And you know I have really struggled with this last one, I have mentioned it to you many, many times… is it really humility, or is it extraordinary hubris, for someone to stand and proclaim that you, the creator of the universe, orchestrated events to bless THEM, have selected THEM to be the recipient of your divine favor, while ignoring the plight of billions of others not so blessed (or, cursed, as the inverse of blessed implies!)

I’m sorry, but I have to let you go God. I have to let you off the hook. If Mormonism is right, then we are trying to become you, and I don’t want to be you. I don’t want your job. I don’t have it in me. I could not look down on my creation and see all the suffering and not do something about it. I know… the free agency argument. Harm, violence… it’s because you gave us free agency. But what about the free agency someone might have to NOT be harmed. Why is it that kind of agency is always trumped by those who wish to do harm? And what of the suffering brought on by natural disasters? Are you really doing this? To teach others a lesson?? Or are we nothing more than an evolved species of primates, living “on a cooling planet with a volcanic interior that is insecurely coated with a thin crust of grinding tectonic plates”, trying to figure out what’s going on.

No, I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be you. And I most certainly couldn’t banish my children from me, for *ETERNITY* for failing to guess the right answer inside a couple of years of mortality, splitting up families and couples over decisions made with such an abundance of contradicting evidence (and likewise, an absence of confirmatory evidence), for using the reason and intellect I gave them. Nope, couldn’t do it. Sometimes it would seem even our mortal justice system is more fair than yours. (And that’s really saying something.)

If it turns out I’m wrong. I’m okay with it. Really, I am. Worship. Love. These things must come from a place of sincerity. I want to feel those things for you, but for that I need to believe that you exist. And I’m afraid in a moment of pure honesty here, I simply can’t. At least not in the form of a personal, intervening, anthropomorphic ‘Yahweh/God of Abraham’ type god, I cannot. But it’s okay. I’d be fine getting stuck in the company of those other hellbound wanderers out there, those who value truth over tradition, discovery over dogma, inquiry over indoctrination, with those who are comfortable with and even embrace doubt and uncertainty, those who value behavior over belief and most importantly: Those who have a wicked, kick-ass sense of humor.

So long God. It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, it’s mostly you. But I’m confident if you do exist, you’ve got a sense of humor. (Who else could have created a Ricky Gervais? I mean, seriously.)

Instead of ‘Amen’, I hope you don’t mind if I simply end with Goodbye.

I’m sorry if anyone has actually read this far. One last word before I quit. I’m more grateful than words can express for a wife, kids and family who have been more understanding than I could have asked or dared hope. (Even from my very orthodox mother! With whom, I think we are finally understanding each other. And who, incidentally, made this particular job much easier by already “outing” me to apparently everyone she knows. Don’t worry mom, I was smiling as I wrote that.)

One last, last thing. I’ve been asked if this means I will be requesting that my name be removed from the records of the church. I have no plans to do that at this time. I am conscious of the pain this would cause to those I love. At the same time, I have to carry with me the knowledge that I still officially belong to an organization that has wrought tremendous suffering and pain in so many lives, that has broken apart marriages and families, and hurt so many of those I now consider to be friends. Although I acknowledge the good it does in the world, I am not ignorant of the significant harm it is capable of, either. I’m sorry for it. To leave my name on the records? Or to formally resign? I see pain in either direction.

Also, one final, last (last! I promise!) word of thanks to a close circle of friends, believers for the most part, who have allowed me to be me all these years and didn’t seem to mind. You know who you are. I’ve enjoyed our discussions of all things religious, political, historical, hysterical and even NASCAR. 🙂 I’ve appreciated the confidentiality and trust of those discussions, and above all, your true friendship. Thanks again.

There. It’s done. I’m out.

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