Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Comparative Religion

I didn't mention in my original post what religion I was a member of.

That was intentional. It wasn't really germane to the point of that post, and I didn't want to distract readers with tangential information. However, given that if I don't at some point come out and say what religion I belong to I'm potentially going to have a pointlessly difficult task dancing around the topic in future posts, I may as well go ahead and say it.

I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I'm a Mormon.

(I guess maybe I should say I was a Mormon, since I no longer believe in the church--but I'm still officially a member.)

I certainly don't think that there's anything about the LDS church in particular, however, that soured me on religion. In fact, I think if it had been most any other Christian church, I'd have given up on it a lot sooner. For all the historical vagaries and idiosyncratic doctrines of the LDS Church that some like poking fun at (yes, church members did practice polygamy back in the 1800s; no, they don't do so today, it's cause for excommunication, and the "polygamous Mormons" living on the Utah/Arizona border are not members of the LDS church), in a lot of ways I think the LDS church doctrines make a lot more sense than those of any other Christian sect I'm familiar with. Take the question of what happens to those who die without having heard the gospel of Christ, for example. According most other Christian religions, according to my (admittedly possibly limited) understanding: tough luck; they're damned. Bam! See you in Hell. In LDS doctrine, though, they'll have a chance to find out about the gospel in the afterlife, and to convert posthumously before the Final Judgment. Everyone's provided for; God doesn't slap anyone with eternal condemnation just for the misfortune of having been born at the wrong time and place. Seems to me a lot more reasonable than the luck-of-the-draw business.

More importantly, though, the LDS church doesn't teach its members to just rely on the word of the church leaders and a blind faith that the Bible is true (along with the Book of Mormon and other LDS scriptures). It explicitly asks both members born into the church and prospective converts to find about the truth for themselves.

The problem is, of course, that it doesn't ask them to do so through skeptical inquiry and examination of the evidence. It asks them to do so by, well, praying to God, and receiving confirmation by the Holy Ghost. What form does that confirmation take? See, that's the sticky part. For some people, it's a "still small voice". For others, it's a "burning in the bosom". For others, it may be just a feeling of confidence and certainty. And for others...

If you're getting the idea that someone could just pass off any old thought or sensation as confirmation by the Holy Ghost, yeah, I think that pretty much nails it. But that's what it took me so long to admit to myself. That's why, as I say, that I think if I'd been raised in any other Christian denomination, I'd have fallen away from it a long time ago. If a church's leaders can give you no better reason to believe in their teachings than "because the Bible says so" (never mind all the books of other religions that say differently, or the fact that not everyone can agree on what the Bible says), or "because the Pope (or whoever) says so, and he's the mouthpiece of God" (how do you know he's the mouthpiece of God? Because he and/or the Bible says so?), well, those clearly aren't good reasons at all, and I don't think I would have been able to keep fooling myself this long that they were. But...because God Himself tells you, through the Holy Ghost, that the church is true? That's a pretty darn good reason.

It is, that is, provided you can be sure that "burning in the bosom", or what have you, is really coming from God. The problem is, you can't. But it's easy to fool yourself that you can. Oh, this is different from any normal feeling. No, you can't explain how, exactly. It just is. How do you know it's a message from God? You just do. It's not necessarily easy--particularly after a lifetime of indoctrination--to finally admit that no, you don't really know it's a message from God. The human capacity for self-delusion is truly extensive, and once you're told that you can get spiritual confirmation from God, it's not hard to convince yourself that you've gotten it.

It's frequently said that the LDS church is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world--although there's some question of the validity of that claim. Regardless, I can see the reasons for its being as a successful a meme as it has been. Besides its facility in convincing people they've received confirmation from God of its truths, it's got ways of making them second-guess their doubts, too. LDS teachings are full of mentions of letting things of this world overshadow the things of heaven, and of avoiding any environment where one might encounter criticism of the church--not simply to avoid that criticism, no, but (nominally) because such worldly surroundings drive away the Holy Ghost, and it's important to have the guidance of the Holy Ghost with you at all times. At the once annual and now biannual interviews for a temple recommend, one of the questions members are asked is whether they "support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints". So there's an inculcated part of me still trying to convince the rest of me that this all comes from reading blogs by atheists and not wearing my temple garments constantly like I should and hanging out with the wrong crowd and losing the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and that what I really need to do is to read the Scriptures and pray and ask God for the strength to overcome my doubts and regain the spiritual testimony I once had. The rest of me has, of course, thoroughly examined those arguments and dismissed them on very good grounds, but that one part of me still won't shut up about them.

So, anyway, I'm not writing this to attack the LDS Church. I'm only mentioning which church I'm a member of because I figure it's bound to come up at some point, and it might as well be now. But I have nothing against the LDS church specifically. I won't say the church does no harm--I know I'd probably have been a lot happier in several ways had I not been brought up with all that religious indoctrination--but I certainly think it does no more harm than most other Christian denominations, and less so than many. As I said, I'm pretty sure if I'd been brought up in any other Christian church, I'd have left it a lot sooner, so it's nothing about the LDS Church in particular that's caused me to lose my faith, or rather to own up to the fact I didn't really have it--quite the contrary; there are some things about the LDS Church that I think have probably caused me to hold onto that illusory faith longer than I otherwise would have. It was just time, or long past time, really, to finally allow myself to recognize that there was no firm basis for belief in the church or in God, and that I didn't have to keep telling myself I believed in something that I didn't--even if, to avoid disappointing the people I know in the church, I am going to keep telling other people at church I believe it, at least for now.

The odd thing is, I still frequently catch myself silently praying. Old habits die hard.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Who Is The Anonymous Coward?

Who is the Anonymous Coward? Well, if I said who I was, obviously I wouldn't be anonymous. But I can, at least, explain the reason for my chosen title.

For more than twenty years, I thought I believed in God. Maybe more than thirty; I'm excluding my very earliest childhood years when I didn't really have the capacity to consider what I did or didn't believe on the subject, but it's hard to pinpoint the age at which the counting should begin.

I was brought up in a religious family, and held to strict religious principles. I've followed, if not every single commandment of my religion or recommendation of my religious leaders, at least the most prominent ones. Not just the Ten Commandments (okay, maybe I've coveted a little, from time to time), but the other guidelines religious leaders have set as well. I've never drunk alcohol. I've never smoked. I've never seen an R-rated movie. I've never had premarital sex--which, as I'm not married, means I'm still a virgin. I went to church almost every Sunday, like I was supposed to, and outwardly at least was in almost every way a model member of my religion.

It's only recently that I finally came to terms with the fact I didn't really believe in my religion--or any other--at all.

That may seem like an odd phrasing, but that's the way I mean it. I don't mean that I stopped believing. I mean that I finally consciously realized that I hadn't really believed it in the first place. I'd been fooling myself, trying to convince myself that I believed, but deep down I didn't. That much is obvious now, looking back on some of what I've written, and some of what I've done. It's just that it took me this long to be able to admit it to myself.

Why now? I don't know, exactly. Maybe because I've been reading a lot of blogs lately, and I've been seeing not only how reasonable many atheists are, but how very unreasonable the religious too often are in their arguments; maybe that perspective is making me want to disassociate myself from the religious. Maybe it's the way that religions are increasingly trying to take over public discourse and forge laws of intolerance that's forcing me to choose sides. Maybe there's no particular reason it's now; it's just that it's been building up and now is when it happened to hit the breaking point.

It doesn't matter why it's happening now, though. It should have happened a long time ago.

Perhaps a more pertinent question is, if I didn't really believe in it, why did I convince myself for so long that I did? Well...I think mostly because of the people involved. There are a lot of good people in my church, people who I like and respect very much, and who have made it clear that they think very highly of me. I'd hate to disappoint them. It's not that if I left the church they'd despise me and want nothing more to do with me--if their friendships were that shallow and contingent, I wouldn't care about them anyway. (Well...not much.) But they would be very disappointed. I didn't want to do that to them.

And I still don't. So even though I've finally come to terms with the fact that I don't really believe in the church...I'm not really ready to do anything about it. So I'll continue going to church, avoiding harsh language, paying lip service to God...I'll continue to pretend to believe in my religion, even though I don't. Publically, I'm not going to change anything.

Part of me knows I should. It would be better for everyone. I'd certainly be happier no longer being fettered by the nonsensical strictures of my religion, and able to openly talk about my true beliefs. I might even be setting something of an example, in my own very small way, for people to leave their superstitions and be willing to accept the truths that may to some be more difficult to deal with than the comfortable fiction of a benevolent deity. But...I can't bring myself to do it. I dread too much the reactions of my friends at the church.

Hence the "Coward".

Still, I need some outlet. Some context in which I can discuss my true beliefs, admit to the atheism I've newly admitted to myself, expand on subjects I'm not ready to attach my name to. So that's why I created this blog, as a place I can do all that, but without revealing who I am, so I can still play the part of the faithful believer otherwise.

Hence the "Anonymous".

I don't know how often I'll post here. Maybe not often. I can't very well write about specific experiences here that might pose too much risk of revealing my identity. Things like that, and anything that doesn't touch on my "areligious conversion", I'll just post in my LiveJournal. (The address to which, obviously, I'm not going to give here, since that would reveal who I am.) But I might post from time to time about various musings, or interesting ideas I run into elsewhere, that don't fit in with my religious fa├žade.

I don't expect this situation to persist indefinitely. Sooner or later, either as the friction between religion and rationalism escalates in this country, or perhaps just on a smaller, more personal scale, something is likely to force me to openly choose sides. And when I do, I'm not going to come down on the side of religion. Or maybe the confrontation won't be forced; maybe someday I'll build up the courage to cast aside my religion, and face up to the consequences. And when that happens, I'll go ahead and admit my identity, and that will be the end of this blog.

But until then, I remain...

An Anonymous Coward.