Over the past couple of years, I’ve gradually withdrawn from my engagement in the Mormon blogging world (affectionately referred to as the ‘Bloggernacle’), but I’m going to take one last little dive back into it. Apparently my excommunication experience has been nominated in the write-in category for the Niblet awards, and it’s doing all right: it’s 4th out of 20 entries, and the top three places are counted. I like the idea that we could draw attention to a series of posts about excommunication that would stand alongside all the other Mormon-topical posts, blogs, and bloggers that will be highlighted by these awards. So, if you have a moment to spare, please consider scrolling down to the bottom of the post, and voting for “Most heartbreaking-wrenching-joyous-all-mixed-into-one: John Remy’s excommunication” in the Write-In category. And if you have one more moment, please spread (retweet) the word.
Also, my fellow ex-Mo atheist blogger Chanson is up for “Best Contribution to Interfaith Dialogue”, in the next category up. She’s been one my inspirations over the years, and I definitely think she’s worth supporting as well. Actually, now that I’m reviewing the list, there are a number of unorthodox Mormon bloggers worth supporting (including a serious skeptic or two), including Bored in Vernal, Kaimi, Kiskilili, ECS, Jessawhy, CrazyWomanCreek, Hawkgrrl and others I’m sure I’m missing. I hope I’m not damning them with my heartfelt praise.
And I have a soft spot in my heart for the feminist blogs, Zelophehad’s Daughters and The Exponent (co-founded by Jana), but I’m forever grateful to Feminist Mormon Housewives for taking me in, and letting me guest blog there.
Finally, there are some intriguing titles in there: “We Thank Thee O God for a Profit”, “My God is Clean-Shaven”, and “Joseph Smith’s Cane”, but I think I’ll resist the temptation to read them. Other horizons call. I just wanted to take one last, long glance over my shoulder.
If you want to read it, click through to the photo’s page on flickr, and choose “all sizes,” and go from there.
BiV wrote the poem back in June, and CWC was responsible for the calligraphy.
“Blessed” describes best how I feel, to be on the receiving end of such kindness from such singular creative spirits. Thank you again, my friends.
This post is mainly a recounting of my experience of being excommunicated. Mine was probably a strange situation, since I may be one of a handful of apostates who welcomed excommunication, who also chose to attend their disciplinary council. I may follow this post with some analysis in a day or three. Finally, this is meant to complement my partner Jana’s account of the same event.
First, let me address my choice of attire: wearing the “Legalize Gay: Repeal Prop 8″ shirt was carefully considered symbolic act. I initially was going to wear a white shirt and tie and suit, and then I thought, wait, these men wear these clothes in part as a symbolic gesture, to remind them of who they feel they represent (this was drilled into me as a missionary). I decided that I wanted to wear something to remind me of my community. I spent a long time in the Mormon Church, I didn’t want to just fall into old patterns of acquiescence to authority. I also wanted to let those who were going to excommunicate me to know that no matter how civil I was, I stood by my principles. I knew I risked caricature, but I was hoping that the combination of the shirt and my behavior would communicate something that would break through stereotype. Finally, the shirt logo represents the bulk of my critique against the Church for the past year, which falls into acceptable political speech. Members are not supposed to be disciplined for their stance on Prop 8.
I poked my head into the high council room. Maybe a dozen men sat sandwiched between comfy office chairs and the large table. “Do I come in now, or wait out here?” I asked. Shrugs and quizzical looks. Some of the men seemed as nervous as I felt. My anxiety dissipated and I stepped back into the foyer. This was Church. I operated here for years. I could do this.
There were smiles and firm handshakes with people I remembered fondly. One man mentioned his teen child and I reminisced aloud the same child as a toddler scratching his cornea. Jana refused to shake hands with anyone, which seemed to make a few men uneasy. She also addressed men by their first names. I’m too Japanese to get over titles. Maybe someday.
The Officiating Man (OM from here on) drew Jana and I into a meeting with him (I vaguely recall some of this happening in a very brief one-on-one with him before he invited Jana in, but it’s all muddled now). He glanced at my shirt and raised an eyebrow. I was told that this wasn’t a trial, but a council. He voiced his concern that I had a recording device. I told him that I considered that dishonest and had not brought one. He said that possession of a recording device would be reason to forego tonight’s proceedings. I nodded.
He expressed concern about publicly discussing the events of the council. I balked and protested lightly. “What goes on here is sacred,” he said. I sat silently and probably glared. He did not forbid me from talking about them, but spoke in round-about ways, about the sanctity of the proceedings and wanting to avoid drama. I continued my glaring. He gave us a brief overview of what awaited us. I asked if Jana could be a witness on my behalf regardless of how I responded to the charges. He assented.
Jana and I exchanged pleasantries in a side room with a young official while the twenty or so men prayed and sang a hymn in the high council room. I was summoned. I sat down at a folding chair at one end of the table, and across an expanse at least six tightly packed men in big chairs wide, sat OM. He spoke softly, so at times it was hard to hear him. We opened with I Need the Every Hour, and I tried to sing bass, with mixed success. It had been a while.
With only a short introduction, OM moved right on to the charge of apostasy, and asked me how I answered to it. I asked for a clarification, and I got this definition, which is the first of four definitions of apostasy from the Church Handbook of Instructions (see page 110):
“to repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.”
(for you non-Mormons out there, there are four significantly different definitions of apostasy that I will go into in a separate post, and most members who are not men serving in central leadership positions are unaware of these definitions.)
My response to this was somewhat rambling. Basically I was being asked if I personally felt that my actions fit the definition provided. I thought some, and said that I thought the bulk of my anti-Church writing was political in nature, specifically, against Prop 8. Did this material fit this definition? (I asked this particular question mainly for the sake of other bloggers out there.) I was told, rather emphatically, that political writings were not included. This was the *only* clarification I received that evening. I said that I supposed that my other writings might fall under that definition, though they had decreased in frequency in the past year or two.
One aside: I still have no clue what writings fell under the above definition in the eyes of the church. I suppose I could’ve challenged the charge and then maybe I would’ve heard evidence presented against me, but that would’ve been insincere. I do feel that I’m an apostate by the above definition, but I’m interested, both for the sake of my own curiosity (I really must’ve gotten under someone’s skin) and for the sake of my Mormon blogging friends who care about speaking honestly and about their church membership. The only hints I have are from the visit from the Stake in June in which brief and vague references to my speaking about the temple and sacred things were brought up, and another protest from the previous bishop about an LOLReligion picture of the First Vision I posted. I also have a relatively recent post in which I say that Mormon Prophet Thomas Monson kind of a jerk, which is true, since he’s the prophet who made Prop 8 support a top priority.
Returning to the council, I was told that my honesty was appreciated. All the men in suits sat silent, some somber, some avoiding my gaze altogether, and some smiling in what I’d like to think was support, or at least compassion. I had a bit of a sense of being at a tennis match, with me and OM as the contestants, and everyone else in the stands.
You could do a great game of high-powered ping pong on that table.
After this, Jana was escorted in, and she was asked if she thought my actions (“actions” was not clarified in any helpful way) fit the above definition. Jana describes this in detail in her post. She said that the definitions were too broadly defined, and that she couldn’t answer the question. She then spent a couple of minutes talking of my character. It was both humbling and thrilling to hear the person who knows me the best to describe me as someone of sincerity and consistency in my desire to respect the truth.
Jana was asked if she loved me, and I was asked if I loved Jana. This was kind of a what the fuck moment. I think I stared in shock for a second, then said, “Of course!” It didn’t lead to anything. I’m not sure why it was asked.
Jana was led back out, and I think at this point I had an open mic opportunity. I didn’t have anything prepared, so I launched in, in good old Mormon Testimony and Quaker Meeting for Worship style. I felt both at ease and energized, and inspired. I said something to this effect:
I began by telling them that when I joined the Church my family disowned me, but X Ward became my new family. I’ll always be grateful to the many kindnesses shown me there. When it was time to serve my mission, Brother X gave me my dental checkup, and Brother Y did my medical exam for free. The ward paid for most of my mission, beyond my little savings.
The same spirit of seeking that led me into the Church eventually led me back out again. I tried to do every thing right, praying, seeking, working with multiple bishops (including at least one man in the room). It was a long and traumatic experience. I felt like I was two people, someone putting on a facade on Sundays and the authentic me underneath. Some leaders heard my questioning and still trusted me with teaching positions (I pointed to one of the younger leaders in the room, who had indeed been very generous with me, and who spoke kindly of me several times that evening). I realized, however, that this struggle was affecting my emotional health, and the health of my marriage.
I said that for every person who is open like me, there are at least 10 to 20 men and women in their wards who struggled silently. I encouraged them to be compassionate and patient with them.
In closing, I said that even though we fundamentally disagreed on areas that were important to us (I think I pointed to my shirt), I felt no anger or hatred towards any man in that room, and that, in fact, I had warm feelings towards many of them.
I did not close in the name of Jesus Christ Amen. But I think my remarks were well received by some.
We were led back out. Jana spoke to the young official about her application for membership in the Quaker meeting while also emphasizing the many connections to Mormonism she maintained. Jana gets full points for gutsiness and being completely transparent.
I was gently kicked out again. I should add that at some point in the evening the young official went in with me, and he said some brave things about respecting my pursuit of truth and a few nice things even though he had only spoken to me and Jana for a handful of minutes. I’m not sure what Jana’s opinion of the man was, but I liked him.
When I went back in again, I hear a brief explanation or intro, and then OM pronounced the sentence of excommunication. It was barely audible–seemed almost muttered to me. I felt no different in that moment. I think there were some words about this being a merciful thing. He mentioned something very quickly about how I could seek baptism only through the permission of the First Presidency. If I didn’t smile outwardly, I did inwardly at that.
OM then proceeded to bear testimony to me. I had to suppress my natural inclination to nod showing that I was listening, because I did not want to indicate any hint of mental assent to doctrines he asserted with everyone watching.
And then, that was it. I think a couple of the closest people shook my hand, then Jana and I were in the foyer and then we were being ushered out. In all fairness, there was a family situation for one of the leaders that may have sped up things up, but Jana especially was disturbed by how abrupt things ended (to the point of ignoring a few points of protocol in the Church Handbook).
As Jana and I drove off, I let out a spontaneous “WOOT!” 12+ years of hellish social expectations were ended. I felt like I could begin fresh. We went and got some frozen yogurt to collect our thoughts, then called the friends we had on stand-by for the excommunication party. We knew this would be an emotionally draining experience, and I am deeply grateful for how they all rallied around us that night. Many people who get excommunicated lose their primary social support network.
This has been a different experience for Jana, which you’ll notice when you read our separate accounts. I’m grateful to everyone who has shown her kindness and who have comforted her. Thank you.
I should add a couple of caveats to this report: a lot happened in the space of 80 minutes. I’m sure that I’ve mixed up sequence, misremembered a detail or five, and left out items that others (like Jana) would find important. I own the imperfectness of this transcript, but I still present it as something of worth, since there are so few accounts out there. I had little clue what to expect. Maybe having this record online will help a fellow apostate or two.
In closing, I want to reiterate that I’m reporting this as my experience. I’ll write an analysis in the next couple of days, but I’d rather not argue my experience. If you do try to point out where my experience is wrong, I shall probably ignore you. Wait for the analysis, in which I will undoubtedly provide all kinds of convenient targets.
Apparently some aspect of the LDS temple ceremony will be portrayed on HBO’s Big Love (tonight?). Here’s a picture that was forwarded to me, apparently from TV Guide:
Mormons are decrying this as sacrilegious and disrespectful, of course, but as one of thousands who was hoodwinked into going through the ceremony and socially coerced into accepting its secret oaths and tenets, I think that just about any public airing will help to diminish the power of the ritual. While I would hesitate to characterize Mormonism as a cult, the temple is where it gets the closest to acting like one. So this airing is a Good Thing. And it may be the first episode of Big Love I actually watch.
It was sponsored by the J. Reuben Clark Society, who described its mission as exploring how religious belief influences practice of the law. Proposition 8, the student representative told us, is just such an intersection of religion and the law. I don’t know about you but that freaks me the fuck out.
After appropriate ego stroking (student saying how honored he felt to host this forum, Starr how honored he was to introduce Stewart, and Stewart how honored he was to be introduced by Starr), he began argument. One of the things that concerned me the most about his tone and some of his arguments was that it sounded exactly like my father. Overly calm but with an undertone that these are vitally important issues and that life as we know it will cease to exist if we don’t do [whatever they tell us to].
He started with an argument that the “man-woman” definition of marriage is completely compatible with the constitutional requriements for equality. He did not, however, expand this point, he merely asserted it. He did refer us to some papers he had written, which are conveniently available online! I’m not in any emotional state right now to read through them, but I’m calming down.
He continued by stating that he was going to present an institutional, or “wholly secular” (which I thought was an interesting choice of phrase) argument, not because he believes that faith is illegitimate in the public square but because some people do believe that religious perspectives ought to be excluded from the public square and these people demand a wholly secular argument. He wishes to address these people in such a way as to influence them as well as to provide arguments that can transcend faith for supports to discuss with those against the proposition.
He began by defining his terms and discussing social institutions. The “big five” social institutions in all societies are: politics, including government, law, & elections; education; religion; economy, including markets & money; and, of course, marriage & family). They are constituted by a unique web of interrelated public meanings. They teach, form and transform individuals in the society in an unconscious manner. He gave the example of two pieces of paper: a $20 bill and a blank printer sheet; he then invited an audience member to the state in order to choose one or the other (of course, the $20 bill was taken). The point being, of course, that social institutions teach us what things society values over what other things—and people. Social institutions, however, can change or even end (with scary voice “end!”). For example sometimes money loses its social value (as expressed economically) or private property ceases to be an accepted social institution (like in Russia).
When he brought marriage into the equation, he said it with the same scary “end” voice and immediately linked it to scary Russia, who apparently made a conscious effort to delegitimize marriage as an institution but found that the social costs were too great. Social institutions, he reminded us, provide social goods (like money, like law, like marriage) and in “all societies” man-woman marriage is a “universal social institution”.
He then indicated that he was going to list some social goods provided by man-woman marriage (but presumably not by same-sex marriage). He only, however got to two and referred us to his articles for more.
The first was “the child’s bonding right”, an internationally recognized human right that “a child has a right to know and be raised by his or her own mother & father with exceptions made only in the best interests of the child (not in response to the interests or desires of any adult).” So now we hear a different child-centered argument against gay marriage. Rather than that only one man and one woman may raise a child, that a child has a right to be raised by both of them. Again, I would like to play the adoption card—given that same-sex couples cannot accidentally procreate, they must intentionally do so. If they choose to adopt a child who has already been denied his or her own parents, are they adequate parents? If not, why not? Given that the child has a chance now to have two parents who love him or her, what are the arguments against allowing a same-sex couple to be those parents?
The second social good provided by man-woman marriage were the words “husband” and “wife”. He did not expand what exactly is “good” about those words. But he seemed to think that it was extremely important that they would no longer be the parties to a marriage. I don’t know if the thinks that “husband and husband” or “wife and wife” are poor substitutes or if we will all start calling each other “spouse” (I can’t see anything bad about that).
In California, he said, we have the opportunity to decide whether the meaning of marriage will be “the union of a man and a woman” or “the union of any two persons”. He went on to say that it cannot be both at the same time: that one meaning necessarily displaces the other meaning. He claimed that “genderless marriage” is the correct term, as same-sex marriage is a misnomer—”marriage” is always defined as either of the above. “Genderless marriage” will be the same marriage entered into by opposite-sex couples as by same-sex couples. And again, I fail to see what’s bad about that…
There is another alternative, however, to the two definitions above: no normative marriage institution. He alleged that many proponents of genderless marriage hope that it will lead to “no normative marriage institution”. Once again, I’m part of that group & don’t see anything wrong with it. All that will be left for him and his hangers on to “traditional marriage” is “a motley crew of lifestyle options” which “are to marriage what a Monopoly bill is to a $1000 bill”. Of course, “genderless marriage is radically different from man-woman marriage. There is some overlap but the radical divergence is evidenced by a difference in social goods that each will provide.” For example, the child bonding right.
He stated that, on the day of his marriage, the law did not make him a husband, a social institution did. “Socially positive statutes and identities will be desiccated, turning a husband into any male party to a legal marriage” (although again he does not define what other meanings for “husband” might be might be “positive”). “Equality for homosexuals will not come about by allowing genderless marriage.” This is quite an entertaining assertion, especially, coming as it does with absolutely no evidence. Apparently, “there is a price tag for allowing genderless marriage” and harm will result to man-woman marriages if genderless marriage exists. Future children will no longer be able to understand what the difference between genderless marriage and man-woman marriages. And that’s…bad?
Since the law is powerful, the law will suppress the current meaning of marriage and “we will lose the social goods it uniquely provides.” We take the definitions given us by social institutions for granted. A genderless marriage regime will have three powerful messages:
Enshrinement of genderless marriage will have “very negative consequences for religious liberties”. A fact that is not widely disputed by either side—but the pro-genderless marriage proponents think that it is a price that we should all be willing to pay. He ended by hoping that none of us is so blind to choose a genderless marriage regime because it will have no cost.
He then opened the floor to questions. I didn’t really catch a lot of them, so I’m not going to get into that.
UPDATE: the video is available online but only to students of Pepperdine through iTunesU. If there is interest, I’ll create & post a transcript. However, his arguments are just as well (or poorly) laid out in the articles available on his website.
So here you go: “Orson Scott Card Wants YOU (To Rise Up Against The Gay Menace). Including such gems as
To those to of you who haven’t read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott card, warning: two spoilers follow.
Spoiler 1: Your childhood was incomplete.
You’ve spent your life imagining diverse races and cultures, and doing a hell of a good job. Yet your inability to imagine true love manifesting between two members of the same sex almost classifies you as retarded in my mind. It’s not even a moral issue. You’re just an idiot to me.
This will be old news for Bloggernaccle Mormons, but a relatively recent edition (1999) of the influential but much obscured Church Handbook of Instructions is available online via wikileaks. I can only say to this, “Hooray Internets!”
I have to post the link on principle, if nothing else. Transparency and open communication are two of my core values, and one of the areas that gave Jana and I the most grief in our struggles with the both the Church institution and its culture. There is a certain amount of power that comes from restricting information to leaders and limiting the access that rank and file members have to it–especially when that information can profoundly affect the happiness of those members and reaches into the most private aspects of their lives.
This culture of secrecy and selective sharing of information pervades the Church, from its slick PR operations, to its approach to its own controversial history (which, I am happy to say, seems to be opening up in the past couple of decades as academic interest grows), to its missionary program (milk before the meat, elder!), to its masonry-inspired temple ceremonies, to its leaders interaction with its members (including annotated records of disciplinary action and fringe group involvement that follow some members around and which can inform their leader’s opinions of them).
Because the LDS Church has an untrained, lay clergy, the Handbook serves as an important guide for Mormon Bishops and other pastoral and administrative leaders. It not only serves as a reference for Church policy, but also contains advice on how to counsel members in a variety of situations (such as asking adolescents about their personal sexual habits) and how to direct members to professional resources if necessary. Its guidance ranges from the mundane (the delineation of responsibilities for the various Church offices) to the extraordinary (e.g., policies towards elective sterilization, transsexuals, euthanasia and hypnosis).
I believe that airing these things out can only improve the situation of my sisters and brothers in the Church by bringing to light problematic policies and practices that should be phased out. Here’s one example from page 72, regarding the sealing (i.e. eternal marriage) of a husband and wife:
Sealing of a Husband and Wife
A living woman may be sealed to only one husband. If she is sealed to a husband and later
divorced, she must receive a cancellation of that sealing from the First Presidency before she
may be sealed to another man in her lifetime (see “Applying for a Cancellation of Sealing or a
Sealing Clearance” on this page).
If a husband and wife have been sealed and the wife dies, the man may have another woman
sealed to him if she is not already sealed.
You catch that? The LDS Church still advocates polygyny. I’ve seen this policy impact relationships between Mormon men and women negatively in this world. Here’s a bit more:
Applying for a Cancellation of Sealing or a Sealing Clearance
When a woman has been sealed and divorced, she may apply for a cancellation of the previous
sealing. The bishop and stake president submit an Application to the First Presidency form to
seek this cancellation.
When a man has been divorced from a woman who was sealed to him and is worthy and
prepared to have another woman sealed to him, he may apply for a sealing clearance. The
bishop and stake president submit an Application to the First Presidency form to seek this
Translated: men remain married (in the eternal, “sealed” sense) to the women they divorced. Women essentially have to apply for a spiritual divorce on top of the legal one. This can mean a period of ecclesiastical red tape and humiliating interviews that can cause stress in her relationship with her prospective eternal husband.
I doubt I’ll spend much more time reading this, but if any of you have a chance to read it (especially those of you who are looking at Mormonism from the outside), I’m very interested in your opinions.
Ironically, one of the few places in Mormondom where I still feel welcome is in the Mormon feminist blogspace. Three of them are listed in my sidebar under “Feminist.” One of my favorite sites, Zelophehad’s Daughters, is run by grad students (I feel a spiritual affinity to my favorite ZD blogger, Kiskilili, who studies Sumerian and/or Akkadian at Harvard), and Ziff has a recent post crunching 2007 Bloggernacle stats the way a hungry man crunches Grape Nuts.
Jana mentioned that I was featured in some of the analysis. This surprised me, because my stint in early 2007 as a guest blogger on a Bloggernacle (i.e., the Mormon blogosphere) blog was a short one. I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m self-reflexive for a bit (after all, that’s what blogs are for!) Here’s where I scored well (as if this were a competition…):
Whose posts drew the most comments (highest mean)?
- JohnR, FMH: 124
- ECS, FMH: 85
- Steve Evans, BCC: 79
- John C., BCC: 75
It looks like JohnR really stirred up some discussion during his stint at FMH–124 comments per post–nearly half as many more as the #2 person (although ECS did write 27 posts to his 8).
Whose posts received the longest comments (highest mean)?
- Keller, M*: 191
- Kiskilili, ZD: 171
- JohnR, FMH: 158 (158.00)
- Wayne L., Mormon Mentality: 158 (157.64)
Keller of M* shows up on a lot of these lists. It appears that he writes very long posts that draw a small number of comments, but those comments are also really long. JohnR also appears high on the list here just as he did for number of comments. So he not only drew lots of comments, he also drew long comments.
This is validating for three reasons: 1) I really felt that the invitation to guest post at feminist Mormon housewives was a gift, for all kinds of reasons (it has a huge audience, a perfect balance of respect and controversy, and I was a friggin’ mostly unbelieving male posting on a Mormon feminist blog!). 2) I agonized over how to best use this gift to generate greater understanding and deep dialog. I often lament that controversy and shallow stereotypes generate more attention than careful examination and complexity, but these numbers suggest otherwise (but maybe that’s the nature of the fMh readership). 3) I’m listed with ECS and Kiskilili, two brilliant, brilliant women and two of my favorite bloggers! And Bostonians (loosely) to boot!
The topics that I ultimately decided on and which generated the conversation noted above included discussions of male feminism, the complexity of feminism(s), imagining Heavenly Mother, and eating disorders and self injury. I believe that the last one in particular was helpful to a few struggling souls. I know that I was deeply impressed by some of the stories I heard there, and hope that they either gained strength by sharing their suffering or that they helped others to feel less isolated.
I closed my last post on fMh with the following:
Last summer we stopped going to our LDS ward and began attending the local Quaker meeting. We are becoming more and more involved in that community, but at the same time choose to remain involved in Mormonism, through Sunstone, through supportive LDS friends, and through the Bloggernacle. For all the flak that the Bloggernacle gets, it’s one of the things that keeps marginal Mormons like our family feeling connected to (and valued by segments of) the LDS community.
…I am grateful that my path could intersect with the bloggers, commenters and lurkers in the fMh community. I’ve learned a lot from all of you and am deeply impressed with the respect with which you are able to discuss difficult topics from such diverse perspectives. Most of all, I’m grateful to fMhLisa for this marvelous opportunity to guest blog. I wish you all the best on your respective journeys. Namaste.
My journey over the past year has carried me further away from the Bloggernacle, but I’m still grateful to the women of feminist Mormon housewives, Zelophehad’s Daughters, and the Exponent. Thank you for your kindness to me, and allowing me to participate in your discussions. Thank you for continuing to foster the one space in Mormonism that I feel at home. Namaste.
For our latest installment of “Leaving the Garden” (a weekly series in which we ask someone to reflect on their encounters with religion and uncertainty) C. L. Hanson of the blog Letters from A Broad has graciously allowed us to share her post entitled How I Became an Atheist.
C. L. Hanson describes herself as a “Software engineer and mom by vocation, writer by avocation, C. L. Hanson mostly just likes to have a beer and swap funny stories with fellow exmos, atheists, and anyone else who has a tale to tell.” She certainly moves in many blogging circles, including the unbelieving Atheosphere, the Mormon Bloggernacle, and the ex-Mormon Outer Blogness and has a place of respect in each. Along with the Friendly Atheist, I consider her something of a blogging mentor.
Before my deconversion, I’d already identified atheism as the main alternate possibility (as explained here: If the church weren’t true I’d be an atheist, and other things I learned in seminary). Either the church is true or it isn’t. Either the spiritual witness is right or it isn’t. Since — if we wipe away what we learned from the spirit — what’s left?
But I was plagued by self-doubt.
Mormonism had convinced me that spiritual witness was valid as evidence for deciding questions about the way the real-world universe functions. So I put a massive amount of heart and effort and prayer into trying to receive that spiritual witness. And several times I managed to generate an emotional/spiritual experience that I hoped was God talking to me.
But “the spirit” always felt sickly and off. Despite what I wrote in my journal about it, I never fully convinced myself that my spiritual experiences weren’t wishful thinking and all in my head. That was why I continued to pray fervently for the “testimony” I didn’t have, right up to the day of my deconversion epiphany.
But my doubts about my own spiritual experiences didn’t extend to doubts about the reality of other people’s spiritual experiences. I though my own were possibly just in my head, but I assumed that it was just because I was unworthy to have real spiritual experiences. I believed that other (more righteous) people were receiving actual communication from God.
That was why it threw me for such a loop when I heard from some faithful Mormons say that people in other religions had spiritual experiences similar to those Mormons have (see my deconversion, part 3). My belief in God was ultimately built on the bedrock of believing trusted friends and family when they said they’d talked to Him. When the same trusted individuals admitted that Mormons didn’t necessarily have a monopoly on spiritual witness, I hardly knew what to think.
Then, when I had my grand epiphany that the claims of Mormonism are false, I didn’t entirely stop believing in other people’s spiritual claims. I merely determined that spiritual witness couldn’t be used to answer real-world questions or questions about the nature of God. I immediately saw the parallels among all of the myths and miracles claimed by all of mankind’s religions, and concluded that all of these details were inventions by people wishing to explain their experiences with the divine.
Thus I became a Deist. I believed that God or gods exist and created the universe and care about people (enough to commune with them), but that the divine powers don’t actually intervene or explain anything specific to anyone. That’s where I was at when I entered BYU as a freshman.
Sometime during my first year at BYU, I attended a devotional. My ward had invited one of the BYU religion professors to tell us the story of his conversion to Mormonism. He told an amazingly moving story that — as far as I could tell — touched everyone in the room, including me. That was the spirit for sure. Since I’d participated in the same spiritual experience with others whose spirituality wasn’t in question, I concluded that that must be the real thing, if anything is. I took the experience as evidence of God’s love and of the fact that God can communicate through Mormonism just as through any other religion.
But weirdly it was the beginning of the end. As long as I wasn’t sure I’d ever received any spiritual witness, I didn’t feel qualified to criticize that type of evidence. But once I had some spiritual evidence of my own, I had something concrete to question. And as soon as I started putting some weight on my evidence — to rely on it for my belief — the doubts started to squeeze out. That guy is a talented speaker. He’s probably given that same devotional hundreds of times. He knows how to tell his story in such a way that it generates an emotional response in his audience. No supernatural explanation required…
Around the same time, someone had posted a cartoon on a door leading to some offices inside the BYU library. I passed the cartoon all the time because the door was along one of the main stairways leading to some of the lower floors of the library. The cartoon was of a stern-looking man (dressed as a scholar) walking down a staircase. I don’t remember exactly what was written on the upper few steps — I think it was a series of things like questioning the literal inerrancy of the Bible — but I remember what was written on the last three steps: Deism, Agnosticism, Atheism.
I was annoyed by this cartoon because I felt like it was just an attempt to scare people away from doubting or interpreting the slightest thing for themselves. It looked like an obvious swipe against the “liberal” and “Sunstone” Mormons (today’s “middle way” people). I thought “Oh, please!! Just because you don’t buy the whole enchilada doesn’t mean you’re on the road to **shudder** atheism.”
But the more I passed that cartoon — and the more I thought about it — the more I thought, “Well, actually… Maybe this path does lead to atheism…”
I didn’t really have a moment of epiphany the way I did with my deconversion from Mormonism. I just gradually started calling myself an agnostic when I wasn’t sure anymore. Meanwhile, the evidence for God’s existence started looking weaker and weaker.
Then one day I was explaining to an atheist friend (probably my brother) about how I’m an agnostic because I don’t claim to have a proof that God doesn’t exist.
He then asked me “But which do you think it is? God exists or God doesn’t exist?”
Without hesitation I said “I think God doesn’t exist.”
He laughed and said, “Then you’re an atheist! Admit it!”
I thought about it a second and said, “You’re right, I’m an atheist.”
And I’ve been an atheist ever since.