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.