Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mormon deconversion

What is it like to be a mormon and doubt joseph smith and mormon doctrine? What is the mormon church doing about these doubters? They hold a "Joseph Smith and his critics" conference to figure it out.

Here is an  excerpt from the opening paper presented by Richard Bushman.

Increasingly teachers and church leaders at all levels are approached by Latter-day Saints who have lost confidence in Joseph Smith and the basic miraculous events of church history. They doubt the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, many of Joseph’s revelations, and much besides. They fall into doubt after going on the Internet and finding shocking information about Joseph Smith based on documents and facts they had never heard before. A surprising number had not known about Joseph Smith’s plural wives. They are set back by differences in the various accounts of the First Vision. They find that Egyptologists do not translate the Abraham manuscripts the way Joseph Smith did, making it appear that the Book of Abraham was a fabrication. When they come across this information in a critical book or read it on one of the innumerable critical Internet sites, they feel as if they had been introduced to a Joseph Smith and a Church history they had never known before. They undergo an experience like viewing the famous picture of a beautiful woman who in a blink of an eye turns into an old hag. Everything changes. What are they to believe?

Often church leaders, parents, and friends, do not understand the force of this alternate view. Not knowing how to respond, they react defensively. They are inclined to dismiss all the evidence as anti-Mormon or of the devil. Stop reading these things if they upset you so much, the inquirer is told. Or go back to the familiar formula: scriptures, prayer, church attendance.

The troubled person may have been doing all of these things sincerely, perhaps even desperately. He or she feels the world is falling apart. Everything these inquirers put their trust in starts to crumble. They want guidance more than ever in their lives, but they don’t seem to get it. The facts that have been presented to them challenge almost everything they believe. People affected in this way may indeed stop praying; they don’t trust the old methods because they feel betrayed by the old system. Frequently they are furious. On their missions they fervently taught people about Joseph Smith without knowing any of these negative facts. Were they taken advantage of? Was the Church trying to fool them for its own purposes?

These are deeply disturbing questions. They shake up everything. Should I stay in the Church? Should I tell my family? Should I just shut up and try to get along? Who can help me?

At this point, these questioners go off in various directions. Some give up on the Church entirely. They find another religion or, more likely these days, abandon religion altogether. Without their familiar Mormon God, they are not sure there is any God at all. They become atheist or agnostic. Some feel the restrictions they grew up with no longer apply. The strength has been drained out of tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and chastity. They partly welcome the new freedom of their agnostic condition. Now they can do anything they please without fear of breaking the old Mormon rules. The results may not be happy for them or their families.

Others piece together a morality and a spiritual attitude that stops them from declining morally, but they are not in an easy place. When they go to church, , they are not comfortable. Sunday School classes and Sacrament meeting talks about Joseph Smith and the early church no longer ring true. How can these people believe these “fairy tales,” the inquirers ask. Those who have absorbed doses of negative material live in two minds: their old church mind which now seems naive and credulous, and their new enlightened mind with its forbidden knowledge learned on the internet and from critical books.

A friend who is in this position described the mindset of the disillusioned member this way:

“Due to the process of learning, which they have gone through, these [two-minded] LDS often no longer accept the church as the only true one (with the only true priesthood authority and the only valid sacred ordinances), but they see it as a Christian church, in which good, inspired programs are found as well as failure and error. They no longer consider inspiration, spiritual and physical healing, personal and global revelation limited to the LDS church. In this context, these saints may attend other churches, too, where they might have spiritual experiences as well. They interpret their old spiritual experiences differently, understanding them as testimonies from God for them personally, as a result of their search and efforts, but these testimonies don’t necessarily have to be seen as a confirmation that the LDS church is the only true one.

“Since the social relationships between them and other ward (or stake) members suffer (avoidance, silence, even mobbing) because of their status as heretics, which is usually known via gossip, and since the extent of active involvement and range of possible callings are reduced because of their nonconformity in various areas, there is a risk that they end up leaving the church after all, because they are simply ignored by the majority of the other members.”

If you read the rest from the link, the presenter goes on with some recommendations about how to work with these doubters, followed by lots of comments from the readers of the blog.

It all seems eerily similar to the phenomenon of evangelical deconversion, doesn't it?

Here's a link to a blog written by a guy who went from initial skepticism about mormonism to final withdrawal from the church and all religion. You can read his whole process. Again, seems eerily similar to what many of us are going through.

How does reading about faith struggles like these in other religions affect your view of your own faith struggle?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Do we need religion to keep us in line?

In response to my post about being sexually starved and feeling horny s-p posted a comment wondering what his sexual behavior would be like without the moral boundaries provided by his Christian faith. The following is my response, a little embellished.


I think the germain issue here is one of "self-control," as in, how does one have a sufficient amount of self-control to keep from ruining their own or others' lives? I've been thinking about this the last couple of days since you posted your comment and here are my thoughts...

1) In my opinion, lack of self-control is largely a matter of maturity, not of religion. In other words, we all are born with radical self-interest. Nothing else really matters. A big part of any growing up process is learning that we can't always get what we want when we want it... either because it will hurt others or hurt ourself. Everyone in every culture has to learn that. Some do it better than others. Some do it earlier than others. Teenagers usually don't do it very well at all. Parents start out by imposing lots of "other control," but ideally do that less and less as their child learns "self control." Most people eventually grow up, and learn what the limits of their behavior needs to be. Life teaches them. It's simply a matter of what works.

2) Many people reach the point of maturity without the need for the "other control" of an invisible all-powerful justice-meting being (god) to keep them in line.

3) Most people throughout history have been able to reach this point of maturity without even knowing about the god of the bible. 

4) Many people who rely on the justice-meting god to keep them in line never seem to grow up. They seem to stay stuck in perpetual adolescence... trying to get away with as much as they can without getting in too much "trouble." They never develp an "inner" morality that is a part of who they "are," vs what they "do."

5) For those of us from our background, when we feel out of control it is very tempting to run back to the safety of the god-pen, where the rules are well defined and the consequences for misbehavior are dire. It feels safer. We are relieved. The chaos dissipates somewhat. From a psychological standpoint, however, this seems to be a retreat from the task of maturity that one had been facing. Obviously, this is preferable to running amuck, but is it the best choice? 

6) When we feel out of control and have made a mess out of our or others' lives the metaphors of the sinful nature, and the war between the flesh and spirit ring very true. However, in my experience, if I sent one person in this out of control state to a pastor to help them learn the dire consequences of their sin, and to help them learn how to be filled with the spirit and crucify the flesh... and sent another person to a psychotherapist to help them learn self-control... my bet is with the psychotherapist. That is, the person I send there will have a much better chance at truly growing and maturing as a person, vs simply "containing" their most extreme behavior via a perpetual dependence on an invisible and difficult to comprehend/access force. 

7) Leaving the god-pen can be very scary. All that freedom. What will we do with it? (Think young adults returning home.) Eric Fromm wrote a book called "Escape from Freedom," wherein he describes the tendency of man to succumb to authoritarian systems (including religion) to escape from the fear and complexities of freedom. But in so doing, they give up a piece of themselves.

8) It may go without saying, but because one finds comfort and relief and less chaos within a punitive religious system does not make it true. 

9) There are reasons for self-control, even in religion, that appeal to something higher than a fear of punishment... a desire to please god, to be like christ, etc. In religious and non-religious environments one can certainly learn "empathy," truly not wanting others to experience any unnecessary pain because of us. Treating others the way we want to be treated is a common teaching in pretty much all religions and is common in societies with no religion at all.

10) Self-control often has to do with delayed gratification. We have the impulse to do or have something, but we many need to wait in order to get it in a way that won't  hurt us or others. It has a long-term perspective on life; not just what makes us feel good in this very moment. Many things that would feel real good right now will lead to destruction down the road. So, a big part of maturity is learning to deal with a certain degree of discomfort now for better rewards later. 

11) In my upbringing the fear of hell was the primary motivation for not doing wrong. In my religious environment one unreprented sin at death would send you straight to the lake of fire. When I got older I encountered this strange breed of Christians who believed in "once saved always saved." That completely flummoxed me. If they're saved, and they know that nothing can change that, why don't they live like the devil?? Well, obviously they found many other reasons to live a moral life other than fear. In actuality, they probably lived better lives than those of us constantly cringing!

So what do you think? Do you need god or religion to help keep you in line? If you absolutely unquestionably came to believe that there was no god, how would that change your behavior?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Revelation vs Reason

I'm currently reading Religion for Dummies. It's a pretty thorough overview of the beliefs and practices of the world's religions. (I had to start somewhere!)

In a section entitled, "Revelation versus Reason" the authors state...

Another way of fitting reason and revelation together is to think of them as two different ways of getting to different parts of the truth. Reason gets us to the religious truths that are universal, the truths that are for everyone whether they are a part of the religion or not. Revelation is a way of getting to universal truths, as well as truths that are deeply felt by the followers of a religion. The Mass is true for Catholics, the Hajj is true for Muslims, and Passover is true for Jews in ways that reason cannot describe. For those that think that the only truth is that which applies to all people all the time, a good dose of yoga or Eucharist or matzo (bread) may help them see the truth in a new way through the eyes of revelation.

Considering that the authors are a Catholic and a Jew (Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Harman, the "God Squad) I knew they would have to address conflicting religious beliefs in some way. This was it, I guess. Kind of a squishy, "If it's true for you" approach. This is not surprising, as it is a pretty popular viewpoint in our culture. We have taken religious truth and put it in a separate category that doesn't have to play by the same rules as regular truth.

This saddens and angers me on several levels.

First, it's such a cop out. All these competing claims, contradictory to each other, can somehow all be "true" for the believer in each of them. Obviously, the person believing them thinks they're true. Duh. But that doesn't make them true. On Christmas morning kids experience the truth of Santa Claus. For them it is true. But because they believe it is true, and even have an ecstatic experience because of their belief, that does not make it reality-based, or factual, or true. So, equating belief with truth is a cop out. It's mixing up terminologies and definitions.

Second, those of us struggling with our faith are wrestling with just this very dilemma... does what we believe to be true correspond to reality, to truth? Most of us are not going to be satisfied with an "It doesn't matter, as long as it's true for you" kind of response.

Third, this kind of distinction between regular truth and religious truth makes rational people scoff at religion. By definition they see it as something non-rational or even irrational.

Fourth, this kind of distinction between regular truth and religious truth gives religion a pass. Religion gets to  make fanciful truth claims with NO responsibility or obligation to back them up with any kind of evidence. Again, rational people just shake their heads.

Fifth, the seeker of religious truth is left afloat on a choppy sea without a compass. Any religious belief system has just as much value as any other one. There is no way to evaluate the relative validity of them. That's just nonsensical.

Sixth, it takes the historical, fact-based religions (such as Christianity) and mixes them in the same pot as Eastern esoteric religions. They are not cut from the same cloth. The God described in the Old and New Testaments, although he is a big promoter of faith, generally speaking encourages faith based on numerous historical events and actions that are supposed to have literally happened... not faith based on what "feels right to you in spite of whether or not there's any evidence." When you take a religion like Christianity and try and change it into this "subjective truth" mentality it quickly loses its character. (Note: This does not mean that Christianity is true. I'm just saying the "genre" of the religion it is doesn't fit well with this mindset.)

Seventh, in most of the areas of our life we rely on truth and facts and evidence in order to base our decisions. Now, when it comes to the MOST important aspect of our lives (whether there is a god, what he is like, what he demands, the ultimate meaning of life and existence), truth and facts and evidence don't matter! Whatever crazy thing you want to believe is fine, as long as it's true for you. It doesn't matter if it lines up with reality or not. It's just such a glaring and ugly dichotomy, which again, makes rational people cringe.

I suppose I need to clarify some of my thought by distinguishing between two types of religious truth claims. For example, was there a man named Jesus that lived in the first century? Did he die on a cross? Was he put in a tomb? Did he resurrect? Was he seen thereafter by hundreds of people? Did he rise bodily into the sky? Did Buhda lie under twin sal trees whereupon the trees burst forth into an abundance of untimely blossoms, which fell upon his body? Did coral tree flowers and divine sandal wood powder fall from the sky, sprinkling his body? Did music and song sound from the sky? These kind of truth claims are physical and material and either did or did not happen. They are NOT subjective to "personal truth." However, was Jesus the incarnate son of the one true god? Was budha's experience an example of what it means to reach the final Nirvana? These truth claims ARE of a different sort. They are interpretations of the data. Reasonable people may differ in how they interpret the same material experience. HOWEVER... that does NOT mean that each person's interpretation is equally true, as long as they believe it enough. Neither does it mean that that particular religion's claims about the meaning of those material events are true.

So, how do we know whether an interpretation of meaning of a particular material event IS the correct meaning or interpretation? Thus begs the question of the difficulty with non-material religious truth claims in general. Can we ever KNOW for sure? One could say that "most reasonable people would say that such and such religious truth claim is true, based on the material events." However, "most reasonable people" can sometimes be wrong. And there will be some individuals who passionately believe it means something else. They KNOW they are right. They know their particular interpretation is "true." And yes, for them it IS "true." But that doesn't mean it is true. Two individuals can have widely different passionate interpretations of the same data.

So, to go back to the original statement by the God Squad... "For Catholics, the Mass is true." By that, I assume they mean that the participants believe that by partaking in the eucharist they are actually eating the flesh and blood of christ and thereby receiving grace to help them live as he wants them to. This is true for them. However, it is a classic example of a non-material truth claim that can neither be proven or dis-proven. It requires an element of "faith" on the part of the believer, which means that they believe it in spite of its unprovability. And even if they are wrong, just for the sake of argument... even if they are in reality NOT eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood, even if grace is actually not being mystically imparted to them... because they believe it they will sometimes experience something that feels like it is happening, which will reinforce their belief, and at some point make it unassailable to critique. Thus explains myriad religious beliefs throughout the world throughout time.

No wonder the God Squad felt compelled to say something as stupid as "For those that think that the only truth is that which applies to all people all the time, a good dose of yoga or Eucharist or matzo (bread) may help them see the truth in a new way through the eyes of revelation."

Friday, March 25, 2011

The devil made me doubt

I was talking about my doubt with the guy who has been my prayer partner for the last few years.

One of the things I was trying to explain to him was the loss of fellowship I was experiencing because of my doubt. I said, "Like, if I was Mormon, and all my friends were Mormon, and then I started questioning Mormon doctrine, my social support network would disintegrate."

He said, "Well, the devil gets us to doubt, and that's why I surround myself with other believers, and Christian activities, to fight off that doubt."

I said, "Does the devil cause Mormons to doubt?"

"No," he said confidently.  "He already got to them."

Sex starved

For 10 years I haven't touched a woman. I have also done my best to abstain from masturbation and pornography. Since I haven't been married during these 10 years, I did my best to abide by what I thought God wanted.

I love sex. I love women. I love women's bodies. I love making love. It's part of my nature. In a way, it's kind of who I am. I know you're thinking most guys are sex crazy. But most guys I know would not be interested in 2-3 hours of sex a day. They want to bang and go. For me, it's the far most "spiritual" experience I have ever had. If I have denied myself these 10 year for what turns out to be a delusion, I'm gonna be pissed!

At the moment I'm about ready to bang anything that moves.

And it does raise interesting questions. Like, if I don't have to abide by the bible's sex rules, does anything  go? Will I simply feed this passion of mine unabated until it consumes me? In some ways I am afraid of myself. Afraid of that freedom. Insecure about my self-control. I had a period of wanton promiscuity about 15 years ago and I'm not sure I want a repeat performance.

But it sure would be nice to have a sensual night with a good woman.

Some would say, aha, you are abandoning your faith so you can get laid. I swear it didn't happen that way. However, if I abandon my version of the faith, it certainly opens up the possibilities.

Speaking of possibilities, one thing I thought about but never did (during that period of wanton promiscuity) was sexual exploration with a guy. I'm not gay. I have no interest in men romantically. I don't want to make love to a man. But damn, I'm curious what a penis feels like. Sue me.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Snake Oil

My friend kept bugging me to go this place to get free massages, so I finally went.

The massage was good. They put you on a bed and it sends hot rollers up and down your spine for 40 minutes.

(Stay with me... There will be theological implications!)

For almost the whole time the dude there told me about all the wonderful products they have there to heal just about anything. One that particularly got my interest was the "Foot Detox."

I had seen large signs out front showing pictures of a foot bath that had started out as "clear water" and that had become a disgustingly colored mass of something. The promise was that it would draw the toxins out of your body through some kind of ionic osmosis.

Who wouldn't want to rid their body of toxins?? I was all for it. Plus, I wanted to see this amazing change in the water that would come from all the gunk in my body. I was intrigued. I asked him specifically what toxins it would draw out, and he was like, "You know, all the stuff we breathe and eat."

Part of me thought I should go home and do some research first, but I sprung for the $30 to see for myself what this was all about.

I sat in a chair and put my feet in the clear water. He hooked up some kind of electrode to my wrist. And then he put an "array" in the water. It was some kind of coil, attached to a cord that was plugged back into the detoxification machine.

He told me to sit still, and try not to move my feet. Then he turned it on.

Within seconds I could see the water starting to change color, particularly around the array. He said, "It's orange, which means it's starting by pulling the toxins from your joints."

As I sat there I read the pamphlet they had about it. One side showed about 8 different colors, and what each of those colors meant... each one representing a different part of the body or medical condition being treated.

The color in the water became darker, and shifted from one color to another to another. With each color change I checked the chart... yup, I have immune problems, muscle problems, obesity, etc. I started to believe. How does it know that's the problems I have?? The dude would come over periodically and look at the colored water and exclain, "That's so cool, isn't it?"

By the end of the 40 minutes it was a dark brown/black mess, with lots of particles floating around. He took out the array, took the strap off my arm, took my feet out of the water, one at a time, cleaned them off (from all that gunk), and massaged them with lotion (part of the "service").

He told me to pay attention to how I felt the rest of the day, and I left, hopeful.

Of course, in the skeptical phase I'm in right now, I went home and immediately jumped on the internet to do the research I should have done before shelling out the bucks. I quickly found out that this is a scam... This site explains that the discoloration and gunk is rust that happens quickly when the current reacts with the salt water and iron in the array. If I had taken a sample of the water with me and had it analyzed I would have gotten water, salt, and iron.

Stay with me.

If I had been less skeptical, I might have remained fairly amazed at the experience, begun to tell my friends about it, and begun looking for any improvement to my health. I would have begun budgeting for how many treatments I could get, since they recommend a treatment every other day for the first month. Or, I would have taken the plunge and spent $270 for the machine so I could do it at home. Wouldn't it be smart to save money, be able to use it for years, and let my family get the benefits as well?

The longer I invested in the experience, the more likely I would have been to find some positive health benefits. I would have joined the community of other true believers who had gone to Ceragem and experienced the miracle of foot detox. Our positive anecdotes would have reinforced each other's belief in this wondrous treatment. We would be the "in club," we would "get it." I would be grateful for having found something so amazing, that not even my doctor knew about.

I would have looked askance at anyone or anything suggesting that this had no scientific basis, and was nothing but snake oil and sugar pills. "They don't know, like I know. If they would only try it, they would believe." If I did have doubts from time to time, I would fight those doubts... "I've already invested so much money. I've already told my friends how great it is. I'll be embarrassed." I would look for anecdotal stories to confirm my belief that this works and is worth the investment. I would try to have "faith," and keep a positive mental attitude about it. I WANT to believe. I WANT to get the toxins out of my body. It MUST get rid of at least SOME toxins. I DO feel better. The people at Ceragem are SO nice. And, by golly, look at that colored water!!! You can't deny that.

As disconcerting as it may be to think about, is this not way too much like religious faith and church?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Who Stole my Hebrew Heaven?

I was listening to a podcast about heaven today where the author of a book about heaven said that until 167 BCE there was no concept of a heaven where the dead went to experience conscious eternal life in ANY religion, including the Hebrew religion.

A quote describing Hebrew thought on the afterlife... "...if you were dead, you slept in a cave with your ancestors. If you were good like Abraham you rested comfortably. If you were bad, you might wander restlessly." Transcript of podcast

I'm so embarrassed to say that having been in church most of my life, reading the bible consistently for decades, having gone to bible college and seminary, and even having been a pastor... this struck me as NEW information!

Where have I been?

Wow, it gets me thinking, or rethinking, many of my views on heaven and hell, salvation, and Jesus' teachings on the subjects. Even though the notion of eternal conscious existence after death became quite popular in those 2 centuries before Christ, it was still an unsettled matter... as we see in the conflicts about it between the pharisees and saducees.

If this new doctrine had not developed, it leads one to wonder what Jesus would have taught on these subjects, or whether he would have brought them up at all...

Also, If "heavan and hell" were not such a big deal for the 2,000 years of Hebrew history, why has Christianity made it the ONLY deal?

And what was the motivation for the Israelites to obey the covenant? Was it solely for the this-worldly benefits??

I continue to be surprised by how much my biblical education has primarily served to reinforce previously held beliefs. (Like recently studying annihilationism and finding very strong biblical support for it. I was shocked.)  I'm definitely in a state of "humility" about my so-called bible knowledge. So much to learn, so little time.