Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christian Morality

Many Christians like to claim that atheists have no basis for morality. (And I would like to make clear, for the record, that I realize not all Christians make this claim. But those who do are very vocal. It's those Christians I'm writing about here.) In fact, they say, the only thing that holds those evil atheists in line is the threat of legal punishment. If it weren't for that, why, they'd be murdering, stealing, and raping all over the place. After all, without God, they have no reason not to.

The argument is, of course, ridiculous. God isn't the only basis for morality; God isn't even a reasonable basis for morality. But I won't address all aspects of the argument in detail here; that's been done before by those far more capable than I. (Such as, for instance, Plato, about 2400 years ago.) Besides, I'm not really interested in debate; there are plenty of atheists around who enjoy debate--I don't--and who are much better at it than I am, and I'm content to let them handle that.

I do, however, want to bring up one aspect of the argument that I haven't really seen addressed much. See, as absurd as this argument is in one way, in another way, it's absolutely right. God is the only basis for morality...provided you use a particular definition of "morality".

Murder, theft, rape? All of those are clearly immoral with or without God. Christians have no monopoly on goodwill for one's fellowman; as much as they may like to lay claim to the Golden Rule, it's been around a lot longer than Jesus. The Golden Rule--not in the same words as appear in the New Testament, obviously, but the same idea--was preached by Confucius, by Seneca, by Socrates. It makes up a part of the teachings of virtually every religion, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. It doesn't take the Christian God, or any God, to make people want to follow the Golden Rule--all it takes is empathy, and that's something that humans can have whether they believe in God or not. And murder, theft, rape...clearly those aren't in line with the Golden Rule. Those aren't treating other people as you'd want them to treat you. Those are all hurting other people. And those are clearly immoral, whether or not God tells you so.

But that's not what Christians mean by morality. At least, when they accuse atheists of being immoral, those aren't the charges they bring. It seems that almost inevitably, when a Christian accuses a non-believer of immorality, it's sexual immorality that's explicitly referred to. I've seen it on a certain messageboard (on a site not devoted to religious topics, though the post in question did appear in the anything-goes "General Discussion" forum), where a Christian poster made the usual claims that atheists had no basis for morality--and to make his case, presented a laundry list of immoral acts he wanted to know if his interlocutors considered wrong. Murder, theft, and rape appeared nowhere on this list...every single one of the immoral acts he named was sexual in nature. More recently, a particularly dunderheaded Christian troll on Rockstars' Ramblings accused Bronze Dog of having no "objective moral standard", and when he got to specifics accused him not of lying or theft or of having hurt other people, but of being a "fornicator" , and backed it up by asking if he had ever had sex outside of marriage.

By the standards of the Christian god, premarital sex is immoral. So, of course, is homosexuality. And so are a host of other like sins. Whether these are immoral from a secular standard, though, is much less clear. Do they hurt anybody? A case could be made that, say, premarital sex does pose possible harm, by carrying the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease--but it's not a particularly strong case, and certainly the potential harm is much less than that accompanying murder, theft, or rape. The case against other versions of "sexual immorality"--such as committed, monogamous homosexual relationships--is even weaker, if not nonexistent. I admit I'm not really comfortable with many of these concepts myself, but that's attributable to my not having entirely shaken off the effects of my upbringing; rationally, I know that there's no way to reasonably claim that these are immoral deeds nearly comparable with the aforementioned crimes.

So why is it that when the Christian tries to accuse an atheist of immorality, it's inevitably sexual immorality that he brings up? Even by a Christian standard, these aren't the worst of sins, but they're the ones that always get invoked when the accusations get to specifics. Why? One possible argument is that these sins of sexual immorality aren't illegal. The atheist only follows moral rules, remember, for fear of punishment; since premarital sex and homosexuality and the like aren't actually illegal, atheists can get away with them. But that doesn't really hold water. There are plenty of other things that are legal but immoral--things far more clearly immoral than these, things that do involve harm to other people--that never get brought up. Lying, for instance. Except in very specific circumstances, when it might get classed as fraud or libel, lying is not illegal. And lying can certainly be harmful to other people. So why don't Christians ever bring that up when they ask about someone's morality? What about taking advantage of people, or child abuse (illegal, but all too easy to get away with in moderation), or, heck, littering (illegal in many places, but not all, and even where it is the law's seldom enforced)? There are plenty of things that are much more harmful to other people than these sexually immoral acts, and that carry just as little risk of punishment. So why is it only these that get brought up?

There's one possible answer that presents itself. Maybe it's because those are the ones that the Christian knows he's most likely to catch the atheist on. It doesn't always work--Bronze Dog's answer to his heckler's question was "no"--but it's more likely for the atheist to have had premarital sex than it is for him to have lied about a coworker or hit a child. Maybe those are the acts the Christian asks about because--even if he's not totally conscious of his own motives--those are the ones he knows are most likely to hit home.

(It could also be, incidentally, that that's part of the reason why Christian sects are so keen on insisting these things are sins in the first place. Oh, of course there may have been other reason for that in the times the Bible was written, but there are plenty of other injunctions in the Bible that nowadays go unfollowed. Why hew so hard to these? Perhaps because that way, the Christian retains some point of "morality" on which he can be almost assured dominance over the non-Christian. Were Christianity only to consider immoral that which clearly hurt other people--well, the heathen is perfectly capable of considering such things immoral too, whatever the Christian may claim. But this way, there remains some point on which the Christian can still consider himself better. But anyway, that's all complete speculation, and not something I'm strongly convinced of...)

But that very fact completely belies the main argument in the first place. Because if the atheist is significantly more likely to participate in acts that aren't as harmful to other people than acts that carry equally low risk of punishment to himself but greater risk of harm to others, that demonstrates that fear of punishment isn't the factor keeping the atheist in line. It's the desire to not hurt others. It's empathy. It's the Golden Rule. It's the very thing that the Christian likes to claim (against all historical evidence) only God can give reason to follow.

By the standards of the Golden Rule, by the standards of not wishing harm to others, atheists are every bit as moral as Christians--certainly there are some immoral atheists, but then history has had its share of immoral Christians too. Certainly God has nothing to do with making people wish to avoid harming their fellowman. So, by that standard for morality, the argument that atheists have no reason for morality is complete nonsense.

Now, if you bring in the type of "sexual morality" Christians are fond of asking about, then things are different. Though I've seen no statistics of the fact, I suppose atheists probably are significantly more "immoral" than Christian believers, especially those of more fundamentalist sects--if one defines "morality" to mean adherence to these sexual mores: avoidance of premarital sex and homosexuality, etc.

The problem is, the Christian argument tries to have it both ways. They say that only the fear of punishment is keeping atheists "moral"--keeping them from murdering, stealing, and basically running rampant over society. But then, when they come to specific charges of immorality, they turn to the sex. The problem is, then they're not talking about the same thing. They're using two different definitions of morality. And they're making some odd choices as to which to consider more important.

You know, such a bait-and-switch argument seems almost like a form of lying. Which seems to be to be at least a bit immoral.

Gift Return

I'm afraid this post may come across as if I'm complaining about people doing something nice for me, so I want to reiterate at the outset that I have nothing against the church members I know, and that most of them both in my current ward and the ward I was previously in strike me as basically good and decent people, many of whom I hope to retain friendships with even after I eventually do "come out" as an atheist. I'm sure that nasty and hypocritical Mormons do exist; as it happens, however, I've been fortunate enough to avoid meeting many of them. My reasons for leaving the church, as I've said before, have absolutely nothing to do with any dislike of any of the members or church leaders; it's entirely a matter of my coming to terms with the complete absence of any factual basis for its doctrines.

That being said, while I know there were good intentions behind the events I'm about to relate, it still puts me in an awkward situation, and I wish it hadn't happened.

First of all, a little background--only tangentially related to the story, but still something I may as well explain at the outset. There is, in the LDS church, a concept known as "home teaching". To every active male member of the church is assigned a group of individuals or families they are expected to visit monthly, to check up on their welfare and share a spiritual message. (There's a similar program among the female members, called "visiting teaching", but they only visit the other female members--and, not being female and thus never having been involved in the visiting teaching program on either end, I don't know as much about it as I do about home teaching, though I gather it works more or less the same way.) Sometimes "less active" members are also assigned families to home-teach, but they're generally paired up with active members who will encourage their participation--home-teachers are always assigned in pairs.

In practice, home teaching is one of those principles that church members don't live up to as assiduously as they're supposed to. Pretty much every month, the last week or two before the end of the month, the priesthood leaders remind the men to do their home teaching, if they haven't already. Pretty much every month, a large proportion of the home teaching doesn't get done.

In fact, I don't remember the last time I had my home teachers visit me--if any of my previous home teachers ever visited me in the six years or so I've been in my current ward, I don't remember it, and it certainly must have been years ago. (Not that this is likely to have had any bearing whatsoever on my disenchantment with the church--after all, I was a regular church attendee with a fairly significant calling; it's not as if just because my home teachers didn't visit I didn't have plenty of exposure to the church. In fact, it may have been in part indirectly because I gave every indication of being a faithful member whose "testimony" was in no jeopardy that my home teachers didn't visit; generally the most diligent home-teachers are assigned to the families who are judged to need that contact the most, and faithful members may end up with unreliable home teachers, since they're not expected to require that contact as much anyway.) My current home teacher, however, has shown himself a bit more dutiful than his predecessors, in that last month he actually did make an appointment with me and show up--albeit without his assigned home-teaching partner, who was unavailable; he brought his wife to substitute. Said home teacher is also, incidentally, my successor as ward choir director, which really has nothing to do with the story that follows, and the ward clerk, which does.

That background being gotten out of the way, on to the story...

I answered a knock on my door Wednesday night to find nobody there, but a gift on the walk in front of the door; given that I thought I heard something fall just as I opened the door, I assume it had been balanced on the doorknob. Looking around but not seeing those responsible for having left the gift, I took it inside and took a closer look.

There was no immediate indication of the identity of the gift-giver. It was a smallish gift, with an envelope attached; the envelope bore my name (well, my first name and last initial), and the greeting "Merry Christmas!" Inside was a card (which, oddly enough, was more or less a generic holiday card that made no reference to Christmas, though among the imagery depicted on the card's front was a small Christmas tree), with no signature or writing inside. Enclosed in the card was, however, a gift card for Trader Joe's.

My curiosity as to the origin of the gift still unsatisfied, I turned my attention to the wrapped present itself. And I noticed attached to the present a Post-it note that more or less gave the game away. On the Post-it were my initials and the words "Adult Male".

So...this wasn't a personal gift; clearly it was one of a number of gifts given out by some organization, impersonal enough that they needed to be labeled with the ages and genders of the recipients to ensure an appropriate enclosure. I gave some thought as to who might possibly be behind this, but I could only come up with one reasonable possibility: the ward. It had to be from the church. But why give me a Christmas gift? I was sure the bishopric, or other church leadership, couldn't possibly just be giving everyone in the ward a Christmas gift. In fact, having been on the ward council before, as Young Men's President, I knew enough about how such programs worked to have a pretty good notion that this was probably something given to a handful of specifically chosen needy families. Which...I wasn't, really. Oh, sure, I've had my share of financial troubles; getting by on a student loan and the meager supplementary income I made teaching one class at a community college wasn't easy, especially with the credit card debt I'd managed to rack up over my time in college and was still paying off. But, while I certainly wasn't living in the lap of luxury, I had more than enough to get by. I didn't need this.

Maybe I shouldn't have unwrapped the gift; I suppose my reasons for doing so owed more to curiosity than any other motive. But I was curious what was inside, and I opened it. Inside was a wallet, which actually would come in handy for me, since I'd lost my wallet a few months ago (with my ID and most of my money in it, while I was two thousand miles from home and had to somehow catch a plane home the next day--but that's another story) and hadn't gotten around to buying a new one, but I was pretty sure no one at the ward knew about that, so it was probably just a coincidence. Especially given the well-known practice of giving wallets with cash inside--and indeed, inside the wallet was forty dollars in cash. There was also, atop the wallet, a Target gift card, though that was in an envelope the same color as the box interior and I didn't notice it on my initial perusal.

Anyway, now I really knew I couldn't keep this. Forty dollars in cash? From the church? I didn't need that, and I didn't feel I could accept it. Oh, of course part of it was feeling like I'd be taking it under false pretenses, that it was presumably given to me as a faithful church member (as magnanimous as it might have been to do so, I doubt the ward gave any such gifts to neighborhood non-members), and so, not being in fact a faithful church member, despite the part I was still publicly playing, it didn't feel right for me to take it. But even aside from that, I didn't feel entitled to this beneficence; somehow apparently someone at the ward had gotten the impression that I was more in need than I actually am, but I was sure there were people who'd need all this much more than I did.

I did have one suspicion as to how the ward might have gotten such an impression of my condition--from my home teacher. He'd seen my apartment, and, well, admittedly, my apartment is run-down and cheap (the rather obvious mold-surrounded leak in the ceiling, all the more conspicuous for the ice chest placed below it to catch the dripping water, is only the most blatant of its flaws), and might give an impression of hardship which, while perhaps not entirely unwarranted, I think was probably exaggerated--my means are limited, but not so much that I need forty dollars and a few gift cards to stave off severe privation. Still, he seems the most likely person to have brought up my name as that of someone in need.

Knowing who was probably responsible for the gift, though, wasn't of any immediate help in figuring out what to do with it. I really didn't feel right accepting it, but there was no obvious way to return it, especially since I didn't even know for a fact who had given it--even if I did have a very strong suspicion. But...there was one course of action it occurred to me to take.

My home teacher had talked to me on Sunday to try to set up a time for a home teaching visit in December. I'd told him at the time to call me over the next day or two, and we'd set something up, but as it turned out I wasn't home much over the next few days, and was remiss in checking my messages. Still, he'd wanted to visit me anyway, and, even if he wasn't the one who'd suggested me as a recipient of this gift program (and I was less confident of that guess than I was that the gift had come from the church), as ward clerk he'd know who was. So I called him that night to set up an appointment for him to come on his home-teaching visit the following evening. (Since he was the ward clerk, I also took the opportunity to make my appointment for tithing settlement with the bishop, which I had forgotten to do earlier--but that'll probably be the subject of another entry later.)

So, last night he came by (again with his wife, his assigned home-teaching companion still apparently being unavailable); we talked a little, and then he presented his spiritual message (which, as usual for home-teaching visits, was the First Presidency Message from the church magazine the Ensign). I waited till after all this, when it seemed the visit was otherwise about over, to broach the subject of the gift, stating my suspicion that it had come from the church and asking if he knew of any way I could return it--I didn't need this largesse, I explained, and I was sure there were other people in the ward who would need it more than I, and besides the gift cards were completely useless to me, since there was neither a Trader Joe's nor a Target near me and I didn't have a car to make it easy for me to get to one.

He did confirm my suspicion that the ward was responsible for the gift, but he wasn't too forthcoming with further information. Mostly, he encouraged me to just keep the gift. He said that there are two sides to gift-giving--the giving, and the receiving. He met my objections that I wasn't in sufficient need to warrant the ward's giving me forty dollars in cash by hinting that the money hadn't actually come out of the ward's budget, but out of private donations by members. I insisted that I didn't feel right keeping it, and I couldn't accept it. He suggested that perhaps I could pass it on (but to whom?), but finally said that, well, there was nothing else he could tell me, except that I could bring it up with the bishop on the seventh and see what he said.

So...I guess that's where things stand. I don't want to seem ungrateful, but, for the several reasons mentioned above, I really don't feel that I can accept this gift in good conscience. So I guess on the seventh I'll try to talk the bishop into taking it back, or giving it to someone else, or at least telling me who I can return it to--and if that fails, well, I'll just have to take things from there. (I admit there's a bit of appealing irony in the thought of, say, donating the money to the Richard Dawkins Foundation...but it seems a bit mean-spirited to do that with money that the church gave me, after all, with benevolent intentions. Hm.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Final Recommend

(Hm...comment notification doesn't seem to be working for some reason. I've opted in my settings to get e-mail notification when someone comments in my blog, but apparently it's not happening reliably; it was before, so I'd been assuming nobody had commented lately, but I just found out there were two comments on Tuesday I didn't get notified about. Huh. Anyway, moving on...)

My sister is planning to get married in the spring.

This came as a complete surprise to me. She's only a few years younger than I am, and is, well, very old for a Mormon to not be married (though not so much so outside the church), and I honestly wasn't sure it was ever going to happen. But apparently, she finally met someone she fell in love with, and she's decided to take that step.

Although my mother has certainly been hoping for years that my sister would get married, now that it's finally happening she thinks it's too sudden. My sister and her fiancé (whom I have yet to meet) have only known each other for a month or so, and, more to the point (according to my mother), marrying right now would be a big mistake financially. He's planning on going back to school, and his income is low enough that he'd be eligible for grants, but if he and my sister married, their combined income would be enough to rule that out, and they'd have to find a way of paying for his schooling on their own. It would be better, my mother thinks, for him to go back to school first, and then get married afterward; as glad as she is that my sister is finally getting married, she thinks there's reason to not rush into things.

For my part, though, while my mother may have a point (or she may not--I don't think she's really as conversant with the workings of academic financial aid as she thinks she is), I do have reason to kind of hope they do get married this spring. The reason being, I'd kind of like to be able to attend the wedding.

It is, of course, going to be an LDS marriage, the ceremony, the "marriage for time and eternity", taking place in an LDS temple. And to get into an LDS temple, you need a temple recommend. I have one. But a temple recommend is only good for two years (it used to be only one, until recently) before it expires and you have to get it renewed. Mine expires in August. And when it does expire, I don't think I'm getting a new one.

To get a temple recommend, you see, you have to have an interview with your bishop and your stake president. They ask various questions to verify your worthiness (there are two separate interviews, but the same questions are asked in both). And...well, I already feel uncomfortable enough lying by omission by going to church and pretending to be a faithful Mormon without coming clean about my atheism. I really don't feel comfortable with the idea of deceitfully answering direct questions about my beliefs and activities, just so I can get a little slip of paper that's going to allow me to enter a building.

And to get my temple recommend renewed, I would have to lie in my answers to most of those questions. Starting with the very first question: "Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?" No, obviously, I don't. Next question: "Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?" Nope. "Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?" Nyet. "Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?"

"Do you 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?" Yes, that's really one of the questions. Guess I bombed that one, huh?

Now, once it gets to the questions about lifestyle and behavior, I'm on somewhat better ground. "Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?" No, I really don't think so, though not because of the Church's teachings--only because, as far as the intent of this question goes, the teachings of the Church happen to coincide with, well, basic human decency. (What the question is intended to get at--as I've heard clarified by some church leaders--is whether or not the interviewee is in any sort of abusive relationship.) "Are you a full-tithe payer?" At the moment, actually, yes, though mostly to avoid raising questions (and anyway, my income is low enough that the amount I'm contributing to the church's coffers is utterly negligible). Though after August I guess I may as well stop paying tithing, since my not getting my recommend renewed is going to raise those questions anyway. "Do you have financial or other oblgations to a former spouse or children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?" The answer to the first part of the question is no, which makes the second part moot. "Do your keep the Word of Wisdom?" As well as most Mormons do, I think--very few pay any attention to the part about "the flesh...of beasts and of the fowls of the air" being used "only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine." But I don't use drugs or drink coffee or alcohol, and that's the only part most Mormons worry about anyway.

"Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?" general, I think, yes, outside of the whole part of pretending to be a faithful Mormon. Does that count?

All in all, of the fifteen questions in the temple recommend interview, I think there are nine to which I could give the answers they want to hear--though some of those are iffy. But to the other six, the only way I could tell the bishop and the stake president what they want to hear is to out-and-out lie. And I'm not going to do that. As I said, I'm already sort of lying by omission by going to church and not speaking out about my disbelief, and I already feel uncomfortable enough with that. I'm not going to compound the issue by lying to church leaders' faces, just so I can go to the temple.

I mentioned some of this during my visit to the CFI, and some of the others there were surprised by the whole idea of the temple recommend interview. They'd come from religious backgrounds too, but from other Christian denominations, and in the churches they'd grown up in it was easy to just keep silent about one's disbelief; church leaders never directly tested you to make sure you still believed. I'd never really thought of the temple recommend interviews in that light--I guess I was used to the idea, so I'd just taken them for granted. But really, that is what they are, I guess. They're a chance for the church leaders to regularly ask the members directly about their beliefs, and make sure they're staying firm in their convictions.

I'm not sure what's going to happen when I don't get my temple recommend renewed. I know there are records kept of who has current temple recommends and who doesn't, but I don't know how assiduous the bishopric is in checking those records, and following up, and trying to contact those who haven't renewed their temple recommends to find out why not and try to cajole them back into line. I guess I'll find out in August. I'm hoping that nothing comes of it and that it's just allowed to quietly pass, but I'm not counting on that. I suspect that, at the very least, I'm likely to get some phone calls or letters to remind me of my remission. If it goes beyond that, and if more direct questions come up--well, then I guess the issue will be forced, and I'm going to have to come clean about my atheism. We'll see.

But in any case, it's not till August that I have to worry about that. In the meantime, I've still got the recommend, and as far as anyone in the ward knows I'm still a faithful member.

So, again, in a way I'm kind of hoping my sister does get married this spring. Because if she waits till after August, I'm not going to be able to attend the marriage. And beyond the fact that, of course, I want to be there--that's sure to raise questions of why I don't have a current temple recommend, even if the fact that I don't get the recommend renewed gets initially overlooked.

Hm. Well, we'll see what the coming year holds...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

In the Company of Skeptics

I don't remember exactly what link led me there--probably one left by a commenter on one of the blogs I read--but somehow a while back I found myself at this page: a very negative review of a certain play. The play certainly didn't sound appealing to me, though that might have been partly because of a bias in the way it was described, since the reviewer was a heavily-agendaed self-described "conservative behind enemy lines in liberal Hollywood" who was apparently obsessed with trying to prove that the film industry supported terrorism. However, there was one thing in the review that caught my attention: "The show was appropriately held at the Center for Inquiry, some kind of meeting place for the atheist crowd."

A "meeting place for the atheist crowd"? Hm...sounded like it could be interesting. And, conveniently, the phrase "Center for Inquiry" in that sentence was a link.

So I followed the link, and got to the page for the Center for Inquiry West. Which, as it turned out, was located pretty close to my apartment. I took a brief glance at the page, and it looked interesting, so, while I didn't really have time to look through it in depth right then, I made a mental note to get back to it and take a better look later.

(And I suppose at this point, after having avoided mentioning it up until now, I've pretty much given away my location, since the address of the Center for Inquiry West is on the page I linked to above, and I've just said it's close to where I live. So, yeah, for what it's worth, I live in Los Angeles--in Hollywood, more specifically. Though the population of Los Angeles is large enough I don't suppose that narrows down my identity too much.)

It took a while, but eventually I did find some time to take a look around the page, and see what the Center for Inquiry was about, and what was going on there. I figured it might be interesting to drop by some time, and after looking at the calendar I found that the next meeting I would be able to make it to was the December meeting of the Skeptics' Book Club, which met the second Tuesday of every month.

Which, of course, was tonight.

The meeting was at 7:00, but I got there a little late. Nobody seemed to be bothered by this, though. The book under discussion was Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, by M. G. Lord--the author herself being present for the discussion. Not having known what book would be discussed ahead of time, nor having a copy of it (though I did purchase one there and have her sign it), I of course hadn't read the book, but I was still able to participate a little in the discussion, especially since the book was about rocket science and, well, I was a grad student in a physics lab where rocket science was performed.

The turnout was...a bit smaller than I expected. Los Angeles is, after all, a big enough city that I thought there'd be more people at something like this, but counting me (and not counting the author) there were only fifteen people there. Although M. G. Lord had to leave, most of the others stayed around afterward to talk. I felt a bit awkward at first, since, even if I now considered myself an atheist, I still attended church, albeit only for social purposes. But then someone brought up a question about Mormonism, and I volunteered the answer with the explanation that I'd been a Mormon myself for thirty-plus years...and then went on to say that I still attended the church, with an explanation as to why; I figured I might as well get it out in the open to begin with. To my relief, everyone there was very understanding, many of them having been in similar situations themselves. I was invited to visit the CFI again whenever I wanted...and I think I'll probably be going back this Saturday, when there's a meeting of the Independent Investigations Group, which "investigates fringe science, paranormal and extraordinary claims from a rational, scientific viewpoint".

So, all in all, that went well, and I'm glad I went. I'm still not ready to come forward with my atheism to my family and my friends in the church...but starting to associate myself with other atheists like this is I think an important step in the right direction.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Reasons for Disbelief

So. This is another of those posts I've been meaning to make for a long time, but haven't had time for. There are a lot of those. Things have been busy lately.

Anyway, one of the things I've been giving a lot of thought to lately is...why now, in particular, I've finally decided I'm an atheist?

I don't mean why have I become an atheist. That's a very different question, and one much more easily answered. There's just no evidence for the existence of God, and it's clear I never really believed in the church doctrines; I was just convincing myself I did. I ran across last week a review by Daniel Dennett of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, in which Dennett makes a distinction between belief in God and belief in belief--and asserts that the latter is displacing the former "as the pivotal force in organized religion". It's very clear to me in retrospect that the latter, belief in belief in God, is all I really ever had. I was sufficiently rational and open-minded to realize that there was no compelling reason to believe in God--but I was, I guess, enough a product of my upbringing to try to make myself believe I believed in God anyway. My recent turn to atheism is nothing more than finally being able to admit to myself of my longstanding self-delusion.

So the question, again, isn't why I have become an atheist. It's why now, in particular. I don't honestly know; it's not always easy to get to the bottom of one's own motivations. But it's something that I've been trying to figure out.

I addressed this question in my first post, and listed some possible reasons. "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," I said--but that explanation didn't really ring true to me. True, I'd been reading a lot of blogs at the time, including blogs by atheists--which I ran across mostly because of my interest in science (there's more I could say on that connection, but it would be off the topic of this post)--but it's not as if the fact that atheists could be reasonable was a revelation to me. I'd never bought into the stereotype that atheists were slavering, God-hating, amoral villains; I knew there were moral and rational atheists, and I knew there were small-minded and vicious theists. So, on further consideration, I decided that reading those blogs hadn't told me anything about atheists that I didn't already know. That wasn't the reason for my rejection of religion.

"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." This one might have a little more to it, and I think this may be a big part of the reason. Until recently, even if there was no real reason, outside of social pressure, to remain religiously active, it didn't seem there was any real harm in it, either. But it's become increasingly obvious that religions in America are doing real harm. They're working to retard or reverse scientific progress due to irrational objections based purely on "faith"; they're spearheading efforts to deny certain rights and protections to people whose lifestyles they don't agree with, even if those "lifestyle" preferences may be due to genetics or other factors beyond the individuals' choice or control; they're trying to impose their own religious policies and practices on everyone else. Maybe there was already some of that before, but in recent years it's become more and more prevalent and obvious. And I think, yes, that probably was a factor in my finally managing to admit to myself the baselessness of my religious beliefs.

But was that all of it? I don't know. I don't think so. Like I said, there was already some of that before; religion wasn't as powerful a force for social and scientific atavism in America previously as it has recently become, but the same goals and drives have long been there, just not as obviously. Maybe it's just that it's finally passed my threshold of comfort, that it's finally built up to the point I can no longer ignore it. Maybe. But while that's part of it, I don't think it's the whole answer. And's an answer I'm still not really comfortable with.

Though, really, I don't think there's any answer I would be comfortable with. The question I've been addressing is why it was now, specifically, that I finally accepted atheism, but the real question is one implied by that question, but maybe better stated explicitly: why not earlier? Why has it taken me so long? I knew there was no rational reason for belief in God. I knew religion was responsible for at least some degree of evil. Why has it taken me so long to reject it? Why has it taken me several decades to finally admit to myself that I didn't really believe? In short, why didn't I become an atheist a lot sooner?

Oh, sure, I can list the things that have been keeping me in the church. The strongest, by far, is the social pressure. I have a lot of friends in the church, and I know they'll react negatively if I leave it. I don't think they'll disassociate themselves from me--not those who are real friends, anyway, and those who aren't are no loss--but they will think less of me. That shouldn't bother me, of course, but it does. And the situation with my family is going to be even more difficult. My parents and siblings are all members of the church, and--well, again, I know they won't want to disown me, or anything like that, but things are still going to be difficult. Those are the reasons I haven't yet gone public with my atheism--and it's clear those are the main reasons why I wasn't willing to face up to the emptiness of my "faith" before, because I knew that if I did, eventually I would have to go public with the matter. There were strong social pressures working to make me suppress my disbelief.

The thing is, it bothers me that for so long I let those social pressures "win". I've always considered myself to have a strong regard for truth. I want to know the truth behind things, and I want to make that truth known to others; I want to help stop the perpetuation of lies. Now...I'm feeling like maybe I didn't have that principle as strongly as I thought I did, if I wasn't willing to face up to what I knew, deep down, was the truth just for fear of the social consequences. I shouldn't have let those social pressures keep me in my self-delusion. But I did. And...I'm not happy about what that says about me. Oh, sure, eventually I did manage to break through my self-deception, and finally accept that my religion had no basis. But it bothers me a great deal that that didn't happen a lot sooner than it did.

And ultimately, I think I've come to realize, maybe, what it really was that made me finally able to accept atheism now. All those blogs that I dismissed earlier in the post as having not really told me anything I didn't already know? More recently, I've come to realize that they may have had something to do with it after all. The thing is, I may have known perfectly well that atheists could be decent people, but...I didn't really know any communities of atheists. Now, I've seen some glimpse online of atheist social networks, and maybe that's helped me to finally start to become ready to come out as an atheist myself. So, Matt, Bronze Dog, PZ Myers, and possibly a few others whose blogs I'd read early this year that I'm not remembering right now, thanks. Even if I didn't realize it at the time, reading your blogs, and knowing there were people like you out there, helped me finally face up to the truth about my religious beliefs. I don't think that was the only reason that I at last managed to break through my self-delusion--as I said, I do think the increasingly prominent role religion is taking as a force for oppression and censorship is also a factor--but I think it may have been the most proximate cause. I guess it helped to know that something resembling an atheist social network did exist out there. (And, of course, having since done more reading on such matters, I've found out about organizations like the Center for Inquiry, which as it turns out (I say at risk of jeopardizing my anonymity by giving some big hints as to my location) has a branch very near where I live, so I may be dropping by there some time in the near future...)

It still bothers me, though, that I needed to know that before facing the truth--that I was willing to fool myself for so long, and avoid coming to terms with reality, and that it wasn't until I knew that such social networks existed (among other things) that I finally broke free of those shackles. I feel a lot better now that I've finally discarded that self-deception; it was a wearying mental weight I wasn't consciously aware of until it was lifted. Still, the fact I was apparently willing to live with that self-deception for so long tells me I didn't know myself as well as I thought I did, and says things about me that I don't particularly like.

Friday, December 01, 2006

And Yet Another Ex-Mormon...

Okay. Two posts in one day I think is a first for me for this blog. But I just ran across something that, well, follows up nicely on my previous post. Said post was about a post in another blog by a couple who left Mormonism to become Quakers. Well, I noticed a comment to that post by someone who said she was "going through the same thing, though my journey took me away from christianity entirely." I made a note of the URL of her blog to take a look at later (okay, actually I opened it in a separate tab in Firefox to look at later).

Well, I just took a glance, and she's seven posts into a long relation of how and why she joined the LDS church--unlike me, she was a convert to the church--and in the latest post in the series, she tells about when she made the decision to be baptized. And she addresses in detail the very thing I noted the lack of in the post I last wrote about: the supposed spiritual confirmation that the church was true. Yes, she had it. Yes, at the time she really did believe the Holy Ghost had told her she needed to get baptized. But, as she says at the end of the post:

I believe I had a spiritual experience at the time. My definition of the spiritual has changed. Now I view it as my mind fully embracing something that sounded good which I really wanted to be true. The physical feelings I had when I prayed about baptism and many other times since weren’t isolated feelings. I’ve had some of those feelings at other times too, when meditating, when at a concert, even when frightened. I believe it is a physical response to certain stimuli that appeals to specific parts of our brains. I define spirituality as what triggers those responses as well as our biological desire to reach out and connect with others.

I bore my testimony several times over the years. I said, “I know this church is true.” These days, what I see as true is what is logical. There’s plenty logical about the lds church if you believe in christianity - the need for a savior. However, there’s little logical about christianity. Logic is employed by the religious when it suits their purposes but when it doesn’t you’re told you need faith - that it wouldn’t be a test without the faith part. That if god laid out all his cards you’d have no choice but to believe. I don’t believe that is true. I give people the benefit of the doubt and extend faith in them until the evidence against them and contradictions pile up.

Faith can bridge gaps but I don’t think it can patch structures in serious disrepair with multiple planks broken off. A well-known parable in scriptures is about building one’s foundation on sand. Faith in the face of evidence to the contrary is building one’s foundation on sand. Hebrews 11:1 used to be a favorite scripture though now I can’t see validity in the substance and evidence of things unheard and unseen when there’s substance and evidence which can be heard and seen that dont support them.

I’ve been thinking about this word, testimony. I didn’t lose it. When a lawyer’s witness get’s killed, that’s losing a testimony. My testimony isn’t lost, it’s changed. Today I would say,”I know this church gave me positive principles which helped me better cope with the challenges of life and serve others.”

Religion serves a purpose; it fills a void. The goal now for me is one of how to fill that void and feel confident and comfortable in the validity of the methods.

I don't know that I completely agree with her about the positive principles gained from the church. I don't think religion is necessary to give positive principles, and I think I'd have been happier without it. Then again, on second thought, she didn't say religion was necessary for those positive principles; she just said it helped her with them--and I guess I can't argue with that.

In any case, I think she's absolutely right about the "spiritual confirmation" she received having been nothing more than a physical response to something she wanted to be true--I wish I had realized that earlier myself. And I think it's interesting that, of the people who wrote the posts I've written about in this entry and the last, the one who didn't address the issue of the spiritual confirmation he'd supposedly received as a Mormon went on to join a different church, whereas the one who actually confronted the issue and came to a conscious conclusion about its cause became an atheist. Maybe that's just a coincidence. Maybe it's not.

Someone Else's Reasons For Leaving Mormonism

First, to be clear about this from the outset: my reasons for disenchantment with the LDS church have nothing to do with any perceived shortcomings in the church's doctrines relative to those of other churches. It's just a matter of finally coming to terms with the fact that I really had no good basis for believing in God at all, whether that God is defined according to LDS doctrine or those of any other religion. As a matter of fact, I think it likely that had I been brought up in a different Christian religion, I would have left it a lot sooner, precisely because the LDS church at least gives a little more justification for belief: you're not expected to believe in the church because it has the correct interpretation of the scriptures, or because church leaders say so, but because you can pray to God and get personal confirmation through the testimony of the Holy Ghost. Of course, it took me a long time to finally admit to myself that said personal spiritual confirmation can easily be just self-deception, and really doesn't furnish any better reason to believe in the church than the other rationales mentioned above--but I think without that purported rationale, fallacious as it may be, it still wouldn't have taken me nearly as long to overcome my indoctrination. (Then again, maybe not; "what-if" games are almost always dubious, and, while I don't think I would have lasted as long as a member of a different religion, I certainly don't know for sure I wouldn't have. As a matter of fact, it bothers me a great deal that it's taken me as long as it has to finally reject this one--but there's another post I plan to write some time later where I'll have more to say about that.)

Anyway, my point with all this is that I don't think there was ever any real chance, at any point, that I was going to leave the LDS church for another religion. If I saw a reasons to reject my "testimony" of the LDS church, those reasons would apply at least as strongly to any other religion. So relations of people who've left the LDS church only to join some other Christian sect...seem a little alien to me. If you've decided that the Holy Ghost wasn't really testifying to you that the church was true, that all the reasons why you believed the LDS church was the true church didn't really hold...then, um, what exactly are your reasons for believing in your new church, and why are they any more solidly grounded? Still, a couple of weeks ago I ran across a post on another blog by a couple who had left Mormonism for Quakerism...and I thought it was interesting to at least examine their reasons for leaving the church, even if they were very different reasons from mine.

Quoting from the post in question:

In a nutshell, we left because the Church was suffocating our souls, stunting our spiritual growth. While we loved the people at Church, so much of the doctrine, institution and culture was in dissonance with what was dear to our spirits. LDS meetings often left us angry and emotionally exhausted. Quaker meetings, by contrast, left us feeling a deep, abiding peace (for you Mormons out there, President Monson has said that peace is the one feeling that Satan cannot counterfeit). We found our core values in sync with the Quaker testimonies:

They got on to list those core values, and why the LDS church wasn't harmonizing with them. Here are their statements about these values, followed by my commentary:

Simplicity: While Mormon teachings aren’t in conflict with the value of simplicity, the current Church culture in America most definitely is. We have felt very little support for our single-car, small apartment lifestyle from Church members (some have been openly critical).

Hm. Granting, for the sake of argument, that "the value of simplicity" is something worth seeking out, I find it a bit odd that the writer admits that "Mormon teachings" aren't in conflict with it but that he's troubled that "the current Church culture in America" is. But shouldn't you belong to a church because you think its teachings are true? Leaving the church because of its culture seems to imply that the doctrine wasn't why you belonged to the church in the first place.

Which, actually, I think goes a long way to explaining why so many people stay in religions against the rational evidence--because they're not there for the doctrine. For me, admittedly, it took a long time to finally come out and admit to myself that I didn't have any reason to believe in the church's doctrines--but while I did manage to fool myself into thinking I had reason for believing in its doctrines, I was always aware that if the doctrines weren't true, there'd be no reason to be a member of the church. (Well, okay, currently I'm still going through the motions of being a member for fear of the social repercussions, but that's another matter.)

Anyway, moving on...

Peace: There are few pacifists in Mormonism. There are few non-pacifists in Quakerism.

Again, whether strict pacifism is necessarily something to seek out may be debatable, but I can't really argue with the assertion that Mormonism doesn't exemplify it. I have a lot of doubt as to what extent violence played a part in the early history of the Church--certainly there's a lot of anti-Mormon literature claiming that the church had a very violent past, but the fact that I don't believe in the church doesn't mean I instantly believe that every bit of anti-Mormon screed out there is true; the church's own accounts of its history may be somewhat sanitized, but I'm sure at least some of the anti-Mormon accounts out there are exaggerated, or even falsified, in the other direction. I haven't done enough research on my own to know just where the truth lies, and how much exaggeration there is in the anti-Mormon accounts, and how much sanitization in the church's accounts; it wouldn't surprise me to find out that the truth lay relatively close to what the church's own accounts claim, but it wouldn't particularly surprise me to find out the opposite, either.

Certainly, though, in modern church culture, there's no apparent tendency toward pacifism. If anything, one could argue that since Mormons generally (though certainly not unanimously) tend to be fervent supporters of George W. Bush, they're by transference supporters of the Iraq War as well...though that argument may be going a little too far. Again, though, this could be seen as a reflection of church culture versus doctrine again...

Integrity: My personal experience of Mormonism is that it does not support integrity. It’s easy to be honest when you agree. The Church cares more for the health of the institution than of its individual members. It demanded my docile agreement, my silence, or my absence. It got the latter.

Hm. The allegation that the church "does not support integrity"--that it encourages dishonesty and lawbreaking when it suits the church's purposes--is one I've seen before. But it's not something I've witnessed for myself. Maybe I've just been lucky, or maybe there are malcontents exaggerating their experiences. I don't know. In any case, the writer admits that in this case he's just talking about his "personal experience"; my experience differs, so I don't have much else to say on this one.

Compassion: Many Mormons are wonderfully compassionate. Many of its teachings, however, are exclusive. Quakerism is both compassionate and inclusive. Quaker people are pretty cool, too.

In contrast to his analysis of "simplicity", here the writer finally does get at something he disagrees with in the church's teachings. Actually, I don't know that I'd agree here, completely; overall the church does teach compassion, even if its members may not always live up to those teachings. I'm not entirely sure what the writer means about its teachings being "exclusive"; my best guess is that he's referring to the doctrine that people have to go through LDS ordinances to attain the highest reward in the afterlife. Well, it's true that the church has that doctrine, but I'd say it's actually far more inclusive in that regard than most Christian sects, since it also has the doctrine that everyone will get a chance to accept such ordinances, even if they don't in their mortal lives. The whole doctrine and practice of proxy ordinances for the dead is too involved to be worth going into in detail right here, but the gist of it is that no one gets excluded; everyone who lives or has lived on the Earth will get a chance to accept the true gospel and have the ordinances performed for him if he didn't have the opportunity to go through them in life. So the fact that the church believes those ordinances are necessary for salvation isn't as exclusive as it first seems.

Equality: Men and women ARE NOT EQUAL in the Mormon Church. Any suggestion that they are is short-sighted bullshit. Women confess only to men; men sit in ecclesiastical judgment over women; fifteen men control the coffers, policy-making, doctrine and wield the bulk of the symbolic power in the Mormon Church. Also, the LDS Church has a well-defined hierarchy. Quakerism, by contrast, is radically egalitarian, and this is definitely visible in our local meeting.

Okay, I had my disagreements with the writer on some of his other criticisms of the church, but I've got to give him full marks here. This always bothered me, too. Oh, the church has its rationalizations for why even though women can't hold the priesthood they really are men's equals, but it's pretty clear they really aren't, as far as the church goes, and that never did sit well with me. Of course, as long as I was still telling myself I had received the testimony of the Holy Ghost that the church was true, I could rationalize that well, maybe there was more to it than I was seeing, and while there sure seemed to be a pretty clear inequality there, maybe in eternal terms it did end up being balanced somehow...but no, men and women in the LDS Church are by no means equal. Not even close. Obviously, this isn't an issue unique to the Mormon church, and there are some Christian sects that are even worse in this regard...but there are quite a few that are better, too, and even if the LDS Church isn't alone in this problem, it's still a problem.

In broader terms, outside the purview of gender, though, I'd say the LDS church is more egalitarian than most Christian churches. There's no paid clergy, and on the local level there are no church officials (save the patriarchs, who have a special function and don't preside over any congregations) who are called to positions for more than a few years' duration. However, I don't know much about the Quakers, and how "radically egalitarian" they are; probably they are more so than the Mormons. Other aspects of egalitarianism aside, though, the--well, sexism, not to put too fine a point on it--of Mormon doctrine is something that's always made me uncomfortable.

Anyway, there are a few more paragraphs at the end of the post, but the above points seem to cover their main reasons for leaving the church. What most strikes me about the whole thing--going back to something I was saying near the beginning of this entry--is the complete lack of any mention of the supposed spiritual confirmation of the truth of the church. The writer's wife does mention in a comment "the confirmation of the Spirit"--but not the confirmation that the Spirit was supposed to have given her of the truth of the Mormon church. That is, after all, one of the main things that's stressed in LDS doctrine: that the Spirit is supposed to testify to you of the truth of the church, and that when you get baptized it's supposed to be because you've received that personal confirmation. does that get left out here? It seems especially odd because, according to another comment, the writer was himself a convert to Mormonism...from someone who grew up in the church, who was baptized without ever really questioning what he was going through, I could better understand the omission, but the confirmation of the truth of the church through the Holy Ghost is a central theme of the missionary lessons given to potential converts, and converts are in fact specifically asked if they've received such confirmation before they're baptized.

Yet the closest the question of whether the Mormon church, or any other church, is really the true church comes to being raised is in an opinion expressed in some of the comments that "the Mormon church, despite its flaws, has more truth than any other church". Later on, another commenter says that he has the feeling that "while religious doctrines, their objective truth or falsity, does matter to me, God doesn’t feel the need to correct our errors immediately, but uses them as teaching tools for whatever people happen to respond to them."--in other words, if I'm interpreting correctly what he's saying, sure, particular doctrines may be true or false, but either way God can use them to teach us, so in the short run it doesn't matter.

Huh. It seems to me there are three possibilities. Either he never really thought he had the spiritual confirmation in the first place (but then why get baptized? Especially since you had to say you had received said confirmation?), or he has realized it wasn't genuine (but then what makes his feelings in the Quaker church any different?), or he just doesn't want to confront the question, perhaps because at some level he realizes that if he really questions the "spiritual confirmation" he received about the LDS church, he'd have to question his belief in God in general.

I don't know which of those three is true. Any of the three would raise further questions, but none strikes me as terribly implausible. And without knowing which of the three is the case, there seems to be little point in delving too deeply into the questions each possibility would raise.

In any case, I thought it was interesting to see someone else's reasons for leaving Mormonism...even if they were very different from mine, and even if they left it for a very different destination. Certainly, even if I obviously don't agree with their decision to go join a different church instead, their leaving the LDS church took a good deal of courage, and they deserve to be applauded for their fortitude. As for why they felt to need to just go join up with another church...well, right now I'm not going to go into too much speculation on that.