Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rated R

I really don't think anyone who knew about my actions and lifestyle would have seen much reason to expect me to leave the church. Oh, sure, I'm a scientist--well, currently a science student and community college teacher--and I'm also a role-player (as in Dungeons & Dragons-type roleplaying--I'm currently running a biweekly Planescape campaign), two things that some religious people seem to associate with atheism and devil-worship, respectively--though much more so in the Jack Chick flavor of Christianity than in Mormonism; the LDS church is much more supportive of science and education than many other Christian denominations, and as for role-playing games as far as I know the Mormon leadership has never said anything about them one way or the other. All that aside, though, I've followed the commandments and recommendations of the church leaders more assiduously than most other Mormons I know, at least in some aspects. Not in every aspect; the regulation temple garments endowed members (i.e. members who have gone through a certain temple ceremony called the "endowment") are supposed to wear night and day, I'd gotten to the point that I seldom wore when I was home alone. But in other aspects, I was an apparent paragon of faithfulness. Such as, for example, with regard to R-rated movies.

The church leadership has said on several occasions that they recommend against church members ever watching R-rated movies. No exceptions because such and such a movie is harmless and only R-rated for innocuous trivial reasons; if anything, the policy went, it may be better to err on the side of caution and avoid PG-13 movies, too, especially since the bar has been sliding since the policy was first stated and what would have been rated R then might be considered only a PG now. To avoid corrupting influences and worldly thoughts that might drive away the Spirit, the church leaders strongly recommended that members avoid R-rated movies entirely.

Virtually nobody I know paid any attention to this.

Oh, maybe in Utah they do, where the church is a strong enough social force to impose enough peer pressure to get people to follow such strictures. (Though maybe not; come to think of it, Nathan Shumate of Cold Fusion Video Reviews is a Utahn Mormon, and he doesn't seem to have any compunction about the ratings, or lacks thereof, of the movies he watches.) But I don't live in Utah, and where I live Mormons are in the minority, and I don't know anyone who was as scrupulous as I was about avoiding R-rated movies. (Well, not that I make a point of asking everyone about their movie preferences; maybe more of the Mormons in my area avoid R-rated movies than I realize. But there are some I know for a fact don't, and I suspect, though I don't know for sure, that, while I may not have been entirely alone, I was decidedly in the minority.) Part of it was that I was brought up that way by my parents, certainly--but really, I surpassed even them in my sedulity in following these guidelines. My parents and siblings were perfectly willing to watch an R-rated movie on network TV. The objectionable parts had been edited out, they reasoned, and anyway the people who made the movie weren't making any money from their watching it in that venue, so they weren't rewarding them for their creation of the unclean film. This struck me, though, as just rationalization. The church leaders hadn't said to avoid R-rated movies unless they were edited for TV. Maybe the worst of the objectionable parts had been excised, but the attitudes probably suffused the movie, and if one could guess what had been removed, was seeing it in one's mind's eye really all that different from seeing it on the TV? Watching an edited-for-TV version of an R-rated movie didn't strike me as being much better than seeing it in a theater, and so I went beyond my parents' principles and eschewed even that.

(As a side note, there are companies in Utah--well, I know there's at least one; I think there are more, but I'm not sure of it--that sell edited versions of R-rated movies. They like to present themselves as defenders of the family and champions of wholesome entertainment, but even before my ascent to atheism I considered those companies rather despicable. Not only for the reasons outlined above, though they were certainly part of it. There was also the consideration that the fact the company was selling these edited versions meant, well, someone there was doing the editing. Which meant that someone was sitting through the movies in their unedited versions, probably several times. Which smacks more than a little of hypocrisy. Oh, these movies are too vile and nasty for you, but we can sit through them without being corrupted. Because, um, we're doing the Lord's work of taking out all the vile and nasty stuff, so He won't take His Spirit from us, and it's okay for us to be exposed to it all, under the circumstances. Right. And there's the very significant issue that they do their editing without the permission or involvement of the movies' creators, some of whom have objected to versions of their movie being sold that were modified in ways they had no say over. The companies made all sorts of noise about how the moviemakers' talk of artistic integrity was just a smokescreen to defend their infatuation with filth, or whatever, but really I think the moviemakers were probably in the right on this issue both legally and morally. Purveyors of wholesome family entertainment indeed. As far as I'm concerned, whether you buy into Mormon theology or not, those companies are pretty much scum. But I digress.

Oh, hey, wait, one note on the digression. I just was hunting down a link concerning the company in question for the above paragraph, and I found some good news...the legal action of the moviemakers has apparently paid off; a judge in Colorado has ruled that the sale of unauthorized edited versions of movies constitutes copyright violation, and these disreputable companies have gone out of business or changed their business plans. So hooray for that. That's one victory for good sense and ethics. At least for now; we'll see how long it lasts before some enterprising crusader tries to find a loophole or file an appeal. Anyway, digression over; back to the main topic.)

Why was I so, well, borderline fanatic about avoiding R-rated movies? Certainly not because I had a firm belief in the importance of the church leaders' injunction, or because I really believed that R-rated movies would poison my innocent little mind and turn me into a filthy-mouthed, debauched hedonist. On the contrary, I was pretty sure that seeing a typical R-rated movie wouldn't really have much effect on me. Maybe part of it was pride, telling myself that even if the R-rated movies wouldn't have an effect on me, well, maybe there were some weaker-willed people who would be corrupted my them, and by not watching them myself I was setting an example for others. But that certainly wasn't all of it, because if it was, why would that stop me from just watching R-rated movies at home alone and not telling anyone? No, I think really the main reason that I didn't watch R-rated movies was, well, at the risk of sounding terribly conceited, integrity. A desire to be faithful to my principles. And those principles included following church guidelines. If I was a member of the church, and if I believed in church doctrines, then I should follow the words of the prophet. The prophet said we weren't supposed to watch R-rated movies, therefore I didn't. End of story. That isn't, of course, to say I did absolutely everything the church leaders said--there's the issue of the garments I mentioned above; I'm not immunie to rationalization myself--but I really did try, and with regards to the R-rated movies there I succeeded. (It also isn't to say, by any means, that I think those church members who do see R-rated movies lack integrity--as I said, my parents brought me up to think this particular guideline was important; that may not have been the case for them, in which case it's quite understandable they didn't follow it.)

(Now, that's not to say there weren't temptations. I'm a big enough fan of Joss Whedon's work that when I heard about the advent of Serenity, I seriously considered if it turned out to be rated R whether I would make an exception and go see it anyway. But, as it turns out, it wasn't, so I didn't have to make that decision.)

So. I have never seen an R-rated movie. Not one. Not in the theater, and not on TV. (Though I have seen the beginnings of a few R-rated movies before I realized they were rated R and left, and I've seen bits and pieces of a handful of others when someone else in the room was watching them while I was busy with something else.) The thing is, now, now that I've come to terms with the fact that the church isn't true, that the prophet isn't inspired by God and that what he says carries no more weight than the words of any other nonagenarian...well, I have no more reason to follow the church leadership's advice about avoiding them. (Not that I think I've lost my integrity, by any means...rather, I've realized I've been allegiant to the wrong principles, and my previous fidelity was misguided. I'm certainly not going to be any less faithful to my moral principles; it's just that those moral principles will no longer include adhering to the arbitrary dictates of fifteen old men in Salt Lake City.) In short, I no longer have any reason not to see R-rated movies. Now, that doesn't mean I'm going to suddenly rush out and see R-rated movies just because I can. It does mean, however, that if there's a movie that I'm interested in that happens to be rated R, I'm no longer going to feel obliged to miss it.

The thing is, though, after going 30+ years without ever seeing an R-rated movie...I'd hate to waste the break of that streak on some piece of worthless junk. In short, I figure after having gone this long without seeing an R-rated movie, I want to make sure the first one I do see is really a movie worth seeing. Hmm. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Okay, so, once again a few weeks have passed without a post here from me. That's not intentional. As I said, there's a lot I want to post about, but I've been very busy, not least because I just started a new job last month.

Since I'm trying to preserve my anonymity, of course, I've minimized the personal details I've mentioned here. I haven't eliminated them altogether, though; I did, for example, mention in a previous post that I have a married brother and an unmarried sister. That's unspecific enough that I don't think it poses too much danger to my anonymity; there are no doubt plenty of people with a comparable count of siblings. And along similar lines, I don't suppose there's much harm in mentioning what I do, especially since it has to do with what I want to post about.

I'm a scientist.

Well, sort of. Actually, at the moment I'm still a grad student working on my PhD, and I recently got a job teaching physics at a community college--this, of course, being the new job I mentioned above. (It's only two days a week, but between that and my work on my dissertation, it's been keeping me much busier than I expected.) I guess this shouldn't come as a surprise; after all, it's looking at religious claims from a skeptical scientific viewpoint, and admitting to myself I don't have any real reason to believe in them, that's led to my "deconversion". As reluctant as I am to feed the idea that science and religion are in conflict, and the stereotype that all scientists are opposed to religion--well, I have to admit in my case it was scientific modes of thought that led me to reject religion. Although not so much my scholastic studies as reading I did on my own; it's not that I found my studies in physics incompatible with science, so much as that I read about some of the more unusual details of the working of the brain and came to realize how little basis there was for being convinced that the supposed promptings of the Holy Ghost that are supposed to be the basis for my testimony ever really came from God rather than from my own self-delusion. Well, that, and seeing religious folk on the attack against science, most notably under the aegis of "Intelligent Design" (as seems to be the most popular term for it at the moment; we'll see what they call it next year), made me sort of feel like I had to choose a side, and the side of science and reason had much better evidence behind it and a much better track record.

So, anyway, yeah. That's what I do. I'm a PhD student in physics (and have been for way too long; I really need to get done with my doctoral research and get the heck out of school), and I'm currently teaching physics at a community college. Now, the people at my church, of course, know about my scientific pursuits, and occasionally they ask me something about it. The most annoying--even while I still considered myself a faithful Mormon--was a buttonholing motormouth who kept trying to tell me about this revolutionary new book he'd read that was going to overturn all the accepted theories of physics, and who refused to listen to my contention that everything he told me about this guy and his "theories" sounded like garden-variety pseudoscience to me, and that in fact there were a number of gaping holes in what little of those new "theories" he told me about.

But anyway. It's happened three times since I finally escaped from my religious indoctrination--internally, if I still haven't publically broken with the church yet--and each time it was a little different. And I think I'll relate those occasions here. Actually, this also has a lot to do with what I was going to write about Envy in my series of Deadly Sins posts, but since I haven't written the Envy post yet I really can't make reference to it here--I guess when I do write that post, I'll refer back to this post. (Eh, I'm kind of rambling, I know. It's late, and I'm tired, but I haven't posted in long enough I figured I ought to go ahead and post something; I'm not going to take too much care to try to edit this post for brevity.)

The first time was probably four or five months back, shortly after I'd finally come to terms with the baselessness of my religious convictions. Someone I knew from the ward, who had just returned from his mission and was planning to apply to colleges soon, asked me to help him get a better understanding of the math he'd need for his SATs. So I arranged to meet him near the university I attended, and we got together at the local institute of religion (an LDS "institute of religion" is a building near campus where the church teaches religious classes to LDS students (and, in the case of the institute at my university at least, to anyone else who may decide to take a class or two there to be able to park in their lot); in some cases, this one included, it's also the meetingplace for the local student ward. (I don't attend the student ward, being as I don't live near campus and as a doctoral student am rather older than the average student there, but I had attended it before and still had a key to the gate.) I went over some mathematical principles with the RM (that's LDS jargon for "returned missionary"), and tried to help him understand what he'd need for the SAT. And then, as we were just finishing up and about to leave, he asked me whether my understanding of physics helped me have a greater appreciation for God's work and increased my testimony. ("Testimony" is another LDS jargon-word, and refers to, well, roughly speaking, the level of one's "knowledge" that the church is true, as supposedly conveyed by the Holy Ghost.)

Now, even while I'd still considered myself a believer, it certainly wasn't because of my scientific studies. So even then, I don't think I would have said that my knowledge of physics increased my testimony. Now, of course, even more so. I knew what he wanted to hear, that yes, understanding the intricacy of the universe made me appreciate all the more all that God had done, and marvel at the wonders He had created, and led me into deeper conviction that all these complex laws could only show the hand of God. But, well, that simply wasn't true--again, it hadn't been even when I did consider myself a believer; even then I realized at least at one level that science was quite capable of showing how the universe could in principle have gotten along very well without God; and it was even less true now. And I certainly wasn't about to lie to him. But I wasn't ready to tip my hand just yet and reveal my atheism, so I just said, "Well, not really," and changed the subject.

The second time was more recent, only a month or two ago. I was talking to someone new to the ward, who was trying to get into the movie business but also had some interest in science. And so, at one point in our discussion, he asked me how I reconciled my scientific studies with my religion.

Now, as it happened, this is something that I had concerned myself with to some degree even when I was a member. I was aware of all the evidence for, for example, the theory of evolution, and wanted to know how it fit in with the creation story. LDS doctrine is a bit more strict on its interpretation of Genesis than are some other Christian denominations; while church teachings don't claim that the "days" of creation are actual twenty-four hour days, they are insistent that the creation account is essentially to be taken literally, and one early "prophet" (president of the church) is on record as having declaimed, I believe ex cathedra, that there was no death before the Fall. Now, I did manage to come up with some way to reconcile the LDS creation account with current scientific theories--it's not a way I shared with anyone else, and it's not even a scenario that I was necessarily convinced was true, but I told myself I was content at least to know that, as a mathematician might say, a solution exists.

Noah's flood was more problematic. Never did quite figure out what to do about that one.

But anyway, so, here I was being asked how I reconciled my scientific studies with my religion. A fully honest disclosure at this point would really have been "I don't", but, again, I wasn't ready just yet to come out of the atheistic closet, so instead I said that well, I didn't really see that there was anything to reconcile--I don't know that I meant anything in particular by that, but I was just trying to get off something noncommital so as to not have him pursue the matter. He seemed about to pursue it anyway, but this was right before Sunday School class, and just then the teacher started the class, so he said we'd talk more later. Fortunately, to date, we haven't.

The third time was just this last Sunday, and was brought about by probably my closest friend in the ward. (Which doesn't make him really one of my closest friends overall; even before my deconversion, my closest friends were all non-members, a fact which my mother has long seemed uncomfortable about.) At one point during church, he nudged me to get me to look at what he'd just written, which was the following:

He looked at me as if to ask what I thought of this idea. I frankly thought it looked like meaningless gibberish--obviously not the E=mc2 part, but the "=eternity" tacked onto the end seemed empty of significance. So energy=eternity? What? Maybe he thought I might see this as the germ of a profound insight--but, while I didn't like to disappoint him, I also certainly didn't want to pretend to see depth in drivel, so I just whispered that I was sorry, but I didn't see what he was getting at.

I won't be surprised if further questions like this come up in the future. People seem to want science to validate their religious beliefs, and want me to say that my scientific studies have deepened my faith in God. Only...they haven't. Sorry.

Meh...I'm getting into now what I was going to write about in the Deadly Sin post on Envy. I'll try to get to that later this week. In the meantime, though, I just thought I'd share these experiences on the subject.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Temple Trip

Yikes. I said I was going to try to make a post every day of...last week. That didn't happen. Well, I did say "try"; I'm still very busy with my new job.

So let's try for this week instead, I guess. And the first thing I want to post about is...something that happened the day after the last post before my long hiatus. I went to the temple.

Among people not really familiar with the LDS church, there's often a confusion between temples and churches. Many non-members mistakenly call every Mormon church a "temple". No; there's a difference. The meeting-houses where the members go every Sunday are not temples. They're just churches, or chapels. Temples are much fewer in number--there are only about a hundred and thirty worldwide--and they're used only for certain special ceremonies: weddings, sealings to children, baptisms for the dead, and so forth. The typical faithful Mormon may go to church every Sunday, but only goes to the temple...well, it depends, in part on how close the nearest temple is. Where I live, there's a temple fairly close, so the typical faithful Mormon around here probably goes...well, the most assiduous may go to the temple once a week as well, but they're very much in the minority; most probably only go there once few months or so, if at all. For my part, I usually went on average somewhere between every month and every other month. I never just went there on my own, but whenever the ward or stake organized a group trip to the temple, I'd try to make it.

This was the case on the day in question; it was the day of another stake trip to the temple. Given that I no longer consider myself a faithful Mormon, why did I go? Well, in part because, even if it's not really the "House of the Lord", the temple is a beautiful building, and worth seeing. But mostly, I admit, because for the moment I still feel the need to keep up appearances, and play the part of the faithful Mormon even if I don't believe. This hasn't left my behavior entirely unchanged--I've been skipping church on Sundays more often than I used to--but for the moment I'm still keeping up the act, and that includes, at least to some degree, keeping up my temple attendance.

The first thing I noticed on entering the temple was that the entrance looked totally different from how I remembered, which surprised me, because it hadn't been that long since I was there last. True, it had been a few months, because the temple had been closed for a while--and then it occurred to me that that was why it looked totally different from how I remembered. It had been closed for renovation, and after the renovation it was totally different from how I remembered.

I'm not going to go into detail about what goes on in the temple. I don't see a need to do so, and after all temple-goers do promise not to reveal occurrences in the temple--and even if I don't believe that to really be any sort of divine covenant, or to have any more weight behind it than a promise I might make to my neighbor, it's still a promise, and I don't like to break a promise without a very good reason. If you're really curious about what happens inside a Mormon temple, I'm sure there are plenty of other places online where disaffected ex-Mormons have spilled the beans--and while I wouldn't necessarily trust the word of those sites, given that people with axes to grind may have a tendency to distort the facts (nothing against disaffected ex-Mormons in particular, especially since I guess I sort of am one myself now), they should at least give some idea of the goings-on.

Okay, one thing I will say, and I don't think this is revealing too much. Most visits to the temple are for the purposes of what is called an "endowment ceremony"--a member goes through the endowment ceremony once for himself, and on further visits on behalf of someone deceased. As a part of the endowment ceremony, visitors are given a "new name" (which matters for certain parts the endowment ceremony itself, and apparently not at all thereafter, although I've heard it comes into play one's wedding). Now, the "new name" is a name out of the scriptures, be that the Old or New Testament or the Book of Mormon, and it's the name of a scriptural individual who, well, wasn't completely one of the "bad guys"--I'm guessing people may be given "new names" of "David" or "Reuben" despite those individuals' misdeeds, but I'd be really surprised if the names "Cain" or "Judas" are ever used. I've heard that the new name is chosen based on the day of the year, that everyone going through a temple on a given day gets the same "new name". This may well be, and would certainly explain how they can tell someone his "new name" so quickly if he's forgotten it. But there's something that didn't occur to me until my last visit: what about the women?

See, male names in the scriptures drastically outnumber female ones. This is especially true in the Book of Mormon; there are only six women mentioned by name at all in the Book of Mormon, and of those six, three are characters from the Bible, and one is a villainous harlot. So...not counting the Biblical repeats, that leaves a grand total of two potential female "new names" to be drawn from the Book of Mormon, as opposed to--oh, several scores of male names, at the very least. The situation with the Bible isn't quite so dire; I can think of a good baker's dozen of female names from the Bible right off the top of my head without breaking a sweat, and I'm sure there are many more. Still, there are a lot fewer than male names, and I have my doubts there are enough to fill every day of a year. Are the women's names chosen on a shorter cycle? Or are they drawn from a bigger pool? The latter seems unlikely (where else would they draw them from?); I'm guessing they are indeed cycled through more quickly--monthly, maybe. Not that I suppose it matters; just something I wondered about.

So. Anyway. The endowment ceremony itself...was really, really boring. I knew that before. But at least now that I wasn't trying to pretend to myself that I was supposed to get some deep meaning out of it I could let my mind wander without feeling guilty about it. (My mind certainly wandered before during the endowment ceremony, all the time, but I felt guilty about it then.) One of the past prophets of the LDS church said he got some new insight every time he sat through the endowment ceremony, even after having been through it hundreds of times. I believe that, because I believe the capacity of the human imagination is enormous, and I believe it's certainly possible someone could draw some new connection between elements of any lengthy presentation he sat through repeatedly, if he was determined to do so. I'm sure someone would be able to "get a new insight" during each of hundreds of viewings of, say, Plan 9 from Outer Space, if he really believed that it was a profound spiritual allegory. (And really, to be honest, the movie shown during the endowment ceremony doesn't make much more sense and isn't much better written than Plan 9--though at least it has much higher production values.) Any insights to be had or conclusions to be drawn from the endowment ceremony come much more from one's own imposition of meaning than from anything in the ceremony itself.

Then again, I guess much the same could be said for religion in general, couldn't it?...