Dear Jeremy Clarkson,

Look, mate, we all knew you were a bit of an arsehole, but that’s why we love you. You’re a twat, but an affable twat and you make us laugh. It’s your job and you are good at it. But given the appalling number of high profile middle-aged and elderly white men saying awful things about people of colour recently, you’ve really gone and cocked things up. The BBC is considering dropping you for your thoughtless use of the N-word, and if they go through with it I won’t feel sorry for you. Top Gear could get on just fine without you.

But I’m not entirely heartless. To help people like yourself, Cliven Bundy, Donald Sterling, and other privileged geniuses who think they have something to say about “the negro,” I’ve created this handy chart to help you know when it’s appropriate to say the N-word.

You’re welcome.

The Second Article of Faith

“We believe that men1 will be punished2 for their own sins3, and not for Adam’s4 transgression5.”

1. By “men” we mean of course “white people with penises.”

2. By “punished” we mean granted access to one of three levels of heaven. Even if you’re Hitler you still get to have very pleasant daily brunches with Gandhi, Stalin, and Mother Theresa in the Telestial Kingdom. Pretty brilliant deal, eh? Mormonism seems to be taking the honey approach over the vinegar when it comes to encouraging obedience, as threats of damnation seem to be so eighteenth century.

3. Once again we want to point you to the definition of “men.” Because if you’re female, dark-skinned African, or Native American you will absolutely be punished for the sins of your predecessors Eve, Cain, and Laman.

4. Men aren’t punished for Adam’s role in the fall. Women are absolutely punished for Eve’s role, although there are dozens upon dozens of mealy-mouthed platitudes attempting to quash the cognitive dissonance felt by Mormon women on this topic. Methods of coping with the knowledge of one’s inferiority conflicting with being kept on a confining pedestal include baking casseroles, wearing excessive make-up, assembling a horrifyingly large collection of doilies and silk roses with which to decorate church classroom tables, and transferring neuroses onto one’s children.

5. Mormons don’t believe in Original Sin. Lack of baptism doesn’t consign one to Hell so much as deprive one of access to the VIP room in the heavenly country club. This would almost be admirable if the rest of Mormon doctrine weren’t so utterly barmy.

The First Article of Faith

This is the first in a twelve part series analysing the Articles of Faith. I haven’t read any of them for a while, although I used to know them all by heart and could rattle them off on command just like a good little drone. I want to see how much value they have as ethical guides, or if they are mainly explanatory in nature. I’d also like to tease out the language and try to explain exactly what Mormons mean by these articles, as some of them could easily be seen as more ecumenical than they actually are.

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Article One: “We believe1 in God2 the Eternal3 Father, and in his son4, Jesus5 Christ, and in the Holy Ghost6.”

1. It’s safe to assume that this view of deity, referred to by the LDS as “The Godhead”, means a general Protestantish view of the Christian god that Americans brought with them from northern and western Europe. Under no circumstances should this be mistaken for an esoteric Catholic-style Trinitarian belief, which Mormons will scoff at as utter nonsense. Three gods in one? They think not. Three Nephites, however . . .

2. Elohim, former human and current denizen of a planet near the star Kolob, where he resides with his wives who give birth to souls that will populate the worlds he creates. Has a body of flesh but instead of blood Mormons believe he is “quickened by spirit” which is how a body stays immortal after resurrection. Most Mormons believe there is no doctrinal conflict between their concept of a flesh-and-bone, married, sexually active and physically procreative deity and the historic conception of God that mainstream Christians evolved out of Judaism, but the Christians usually disagree.

3. The God of Mormonism is only Eternal in the sense of going forward, but not eternal in the sense of always having been God. If possessing a physical body is problematic for Mormonism’s claims that they worship the same deity as Christians, the non-eternal nature of the Mormon god is a complete deal breaker. The conventional Christian view of their god is that of a spirit which was never created and always has been. Elohim isn’t eternal in the past because at one point he was just a human on a world created by the god that he worshipped. He only became eternal in the sense of immortal after successfully completing a life as a Mormon and becoming one of many gods that exist.

Mormonism is often describes as being uniquely American in character, and I believe the multi-level marketing aspect of its doctrine is what makes this view accurate. Mormonism is a spiritual pyramid scheme. Adherents promise to follow the exclusive plan (available to you at the low low cost of ten percent of your income and all of your spare time). The American Dream is realised in Mormonism after an initiate to the Temple ceremony manages to make it through some appallingly dull amateur theatre to end up in the Celestial Room. While each temple has some unique features, the best way to describe a Celestial Room is to compare it to the lobby of a three-star hotel with a white and off-white colour scheme, or perhaps a more spacious version of the sort of sitting room that your grandmother will not allow anybody to use because the furniture will get dirty. All this can be yours, Mormons! Elohim achieved godhood and so can you!

4. That’s literal son in both the spiritual sense and physical sense. According to Brigham Young, God had sex with one of his heavenly wives to birth Jesus’ soul. God then had sex with Mary to produce a body for Jesus. A lot of Mormons balk at this, but what do you think the general authorities mean when they say that Jesus is the literal offspring of God and that the rest of us are too?. This presents the doctrinal necessity of polygamy. With billions of souls needed for worlds without end, one man would need quite the harem to generate the needed population.

Correlation ensures that only the most current manual is used, and all old teachings go down the memory hole, even teachings that are still necessary for the doctrine to work. When asked how souls are created, some advanced-level Mormons may be able to fish out a quote about “organising intelligences”.The reality is that past and present doctrine makes it extremely clear that God has a body, that he has multiple wives, and that they used their bodies to physically procreate spirits. What do you think they mean by saying souls are “begotten and born?” Orson Pratt certainly explained that souls are conceived and birthed in the same manner that physical bodies are. This provides a more or less logical basis for the doctrines of God’s physical body as well as polygamy being essential for the achievement of godhood. However, because this idea is odd or even distasteful, it has not been taught for some time. Mormons retain the idea that God has a body and that Mormons who reach the Celestial Kingdom will have bodies, and that polygamy factors in somehow, but most remain ignorant as to the explanations for why these doctrines are necessary.

And a question for the naysayers: if none of these things are part of Mormon doctrine, then what is an eternal body for? Why do Mormons spend so much time focusing on the physicality of God and the literal nature of the flesh-and-spirit resurrection if those bodies are not needed for sex and reproduction?

5. Jehovah, who created the world under Elohim’s instructions and became its Saviour.

6. A disembodied male personage whose only function is to give warm fuzzy feelings to Mormons behaving well and to run away like a squealing cartoon piglet from anyone who is naughty.

“Making” Mormons

One of the fun things about having a blog on WordPress.com is the statistics you are provided. Today I logged in and saw that one of the top search terms which led people to my blog was “how to make an atheist become mormon”.

This is an interesting phrase. Search algorithms are very well crafted but the more precise you are in your meaning when performing a web search, the more likely you are to get good results. So I’ll take that random stranger at their word when they say they want to “make” an atheist become Mormon.

Mormons and other would-be proselytisers are at a disadvantage, so I will lend them a hand. Really. No tricks. I’ll just explain it. There are two major categories of people who don’t believe in any kind of deities. There are those who were once believers and now are not, and there are those who never believed in any kind of deity. There are also two major problems with attempting to convince someone to discard their beliefs and adopt yours. There are probably lots of more nuanced categories in between my generalisations, but let’s just start from there.

To any would-be missionaries who find this blog using these search terms: you can’t “make” anyone become a Mormon (or a Christian, or a Hindu, or any. But you know this already. Even at church among yourselves you’d be wary of using these terms because it implies force and denial of free will. A forced conversion isn’t genuine and therefore isn’t valid, since membership in a religion is meant to be based on sincere belief. For someone who once had faith but then lost it enough to where they feel comfortable calling themselves an atheist, regaining the sort of absolute faith Mormons tend to idealise is so rare as to approach impossibility. Many people who never had any faith need to be persuaded to add invisible gods and demons where they have never seen any. This is also difficult because, tempting though the promise of eternal life may be, unless a person been raised to fear the punishment of Hell and the disapproval of an ever-watching Big Brother figure, there is little incentive to begin adding these fears to one’s life.

One major problem with proselytising is that forced or not, it is an attempt to remove a person’s current worldview and replace it with something else. This shows deep disrespect, even contempt, for the intellect and ethics of the target for conversion. Just the other day two Jehovah’s Witnesses turned up at my door. They tried to shove a tract into my hand. I smiled at them and said, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my beliefs and worldview, and I feel confident in the decisions I’ve made.” They were genuinely baffled, as if nobody had ever said this to them before. They tried to press their point, so eventually I had to be more clear. I told them that I knew who they were, I knew what they were trying to persuade me to think, and that I disagreed with it so much that even if it were hypothetically true, I wouldn’t go along with it anyway. I was not rude, but they seemed genuinely incapable of how rude they were to try to spoil my Saturday with showing up uninvited to show contempt for my beliefs by trying to supplant them with their own. They scooted off after that, and I doubt they will be back.

The second major problem with proselytising is that of the foregone conclusion. Mormons or Christians or evangelists of any stripe are not performing science experiments when they offer a pattern for conversion. Mormons have a parable that they call “experimenting upon the word,” which prescribes planting a seed of faith, nurturing it, and then watching it blossom into a strong testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. It’s laid out in language that strongly resembles the scientific method. Only here’s the problem — you can’t structure a scientific experiment by specifying a required conclusion and then working backwards from there to form a convenient hypothesis. Mormons see it like this:

Study Book of Mormon -> Develop Testimony -> Convert to Mormonism -> Remain Faithful

Except that isn’t how it works for every single human being. Lots and lots and lots of people have studied the Book of Mormon and not followed the sequential steps. Most people who have encountered the Book of Mormon have rejected it. I can base this claim on the LDS Church’s painfully low convert retention rates.

For a faithful Mormon, this failure of the faith formula is baffling. It’s supposed to work the same for everyone, but the reality is that it is not. A faithful person will say that this is because the unconverted are stubborn, ignorant, or thralls of Satan. A non-faithful person will say that they remain unpersuaded of the ideas being pushed at them, or that they actively reject the ideas being pushed at them based on sincere belief of their lack of validity.

Trying to convert people to your way of thinking is sometimes immoral and always problematic. But that’s only if you acknowledge the possibility that your worldview is not the most correct philosophy that has ever existed. People faithful enough to go out and try to disrupt the lives of others in order to alter their ways of thinking are probably not very likely to have enough humility to acknowledge this, but I still encourage them to try. Just say it to yourself: “I might be wrong”. Whether or not it ends up planting a seed of doubt, it will be liberating in in its honesty and will give you enough humility to treat the minds of the people you encounter with respect. It will remove your condescension and turn your attempt to make someone a believer into a genuine exchange of ideas in which you just might learn something yourself.

Explaining Privilege

The word “privilege” has gotten to be a problem because, while it is a very good word for describing the status people receive for possessing certain labels — in my culture those labels are white, straight, cisgender, male, affluent — it is a terrible word for conversations in which a privileged person is having difficulty understanding the obstacles faced by people who are not like them.

Today in a discussion about lack of female representation at the upper ranks of most companies, I engaged in discussion with a guy who recognized that women are professionally underrepresented, but didn’t seem to think that anyone had a responsibility to change it through the deliberate recruitment and advancement of women. This is a valid position, although it’s one I disagree with. Failing to keep women out of leadership isn’t enough. Unprivileged classes of people need an extra boost to get the same opportunities that privilege people have.

There are systemic obstacles to female advancement in professional settings. One of these is the lack of qualified female professionals to begin with. Historically women have been shunted toward soft fields of study like literature, which provide extremely limited and low-paying career opportunities. (This is not to say that liberal arts don’t matter culturally, but rather that they are not economically valued and make for questionable educational investments in terms of payoff.) Economically valuable fields like law, medicine, and engineering are dominated by men, who go on to shape technology, politics, and corporate culture.

This is changing, and many companies are investing in programs that encourage girls to become engineers and scientists. But the payoff of these efforts won’t come for two decades, after these girls have finished their educations and entered the workplace. It’s going to take some serious changes in the short term to be sure that there is room for these women when they arrive and expect to be equally integrated. So yes, that means some affirmative action in the short term. A company that hasn’t bothered to put any women on its Board of Directors will not look attractive to a young female go-getter. It’s possible that a company with an all male board is not actively discriminatory; mere statistics should result in a few companies with mostly male or mostly female leadership from time to time. But the lack of women leaders and low female representation among the workforce means discrimination is a possibility. Women will naturally be drawn to companies that have offered hard proof of non-discrimination through proportional representation throughout the company. The same idea applies to other non-privileged people such as LGBT people and people of colour.

None of these ideas seemed to be familiar to the guy I was speaking to. I thought things were going so well. I didn’t think I would completely alter this person’s thinking because an intelligent person shouldn’t be easily swayed. But I did hope to plant some ideas.

I think my mistake came up when I tried to explain why it is difficult for some people in power to acknowledge difficulties they have never experienced. I said that white, straight men don’t often walk into an office and notice that almost everyone is different from them. It was at this point that he exploded with a canned diatribe about how all the feminists want to do is destroy white men and turn them into castrated slaves who are no longer allowed to contribute to society as retribution for millennia of perceived abuses.

Sigh.

Ten years ago when having conversations on feminist-related topics, the conversation usually quickly fell apart. The men in the room would begin making fun of the women, who usually had a valid point to make. The women would take offence at an ad hominem attack that had nothing do do with the material point of the discussion. The men would then accuse the women of being emotional (likely because we were all on our periods) and use this as evidence that we couldn’t be taken seriously to begin with. The ridiculousness of this logic shouldn’t require refutation, but it’s a battle that non-privileged people have to have every single time the issue comes up.

Happily men have really come a long way. Overt misogyny is getting rarer in my experience, at least among my circle of friends. The lingering problem is a lack of awareness of privilege and the resulting lack of understanding about how privilege perpetuates inequality in the workplace and in society. And it is oh, so, hard to have this conversation without having it all fall apart as it did today.

There has got to be a way to help privileged people (mostly white, straight, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual men) understand that by making room for others, they do not have to surrender anything for themselves. It’s not like there is a limited supply of happiness in this world, and elevating women to the status of men will somehow rob men of their happiness or relevance. White men aren’t the enemy; they are potential allies. Straight people don’t lose anything by accepting their LGBT brothers and sisters and non-gendered siblings. They gain a whole lot. Putting down privilege shouldn’t mean loss of advantage in life; it should mean gaining a whole lot of opportunities to network with all of humanity in all of its diversity. There’s nothing wrong with being white or male or straight, and don’t let anybody say otherwise.

How can we improve the conversation? How can we help the privileged become aware of their privilege so that they can avoid stepping on others and make room for everyone? How can we discuss the abandonment of privilege as a freeing rather than limiting process? How can we do this in a way that doesn’t trigger a negative reaction or create the false perception of a personal attack?

Guest Post: A Mormon-Atheist Marriage

The following is a guest post by “Lehi,” an ex-Mormon atheist who was willing to share his story here. My usual house rules do not apply to guest posts. I allow readers to be pretty nasty to me before I show them the door. I expect a higher level of courtesy to be shown to those who have been brave enough to make themselves vulnerable in a public space. Thoughtful inquiry and respectful analysis are welcome. Nastiness is not. Should any of you have follow-up questions for Lehi, please do leave them below as part of my goal for guest posts is to stimulate the exchange of ideas.

Lehi’s Story

This is my story of the challenges of being an ex-Mormon atheist married to a life long and devoted Mormon. My spouse (let’s call her “Sariah”) and I are both descended from a long line of Mormons. We both grew up very Mormon –- regular church attendance, paying tithing, reading scriptures, and saying prayers. We both graduated from Seminary. I went on a full time mission. We met in college when I returned, and married in the temple. It was a very happy marriage. We almost never fought and rarely even disagreed. It was so easy to be together and we were happy.

The moment our marriage took a turn was in 2008 during the Prop 8 campaign in California. (Prop 8 was a ballot proposition to eliminate the rights of same sex couples to legally marry.) During sacrament meeting, our ward Bishop read a letter from the pulpit written by the First Presidency. It declared that same sex marriage was a moral issue of serious gravity and urged all members to do whatever we could (giving of our time, talents, and especially money) to pass Prop 8 and protect the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.

After church I mentioned to my spouse how troubled I was by the letter. She, too, was upset and agreed it was definitely not something she would like to support. What she said following this, however, has haunted me ever since. She said that even though we disagreed, we should make a financial contribution to the Prop 8 campaign. It was a test of our faith, she explained, and by doing what is asked of us, even when we disagreed — especially when we disagreed — we would be showing our trust in the Lord and His prophets. In many ways that was the beginning of the end of my Mormonism and our happy marriage.

It was at this point I realized I was at a crossroads. I decided that it came down to either the Church was true or not. If it was really true, then I needed to give in 100% and stop questioning things, and turn my life over to it completely. If the Church wasn’t true, well, then what were we doing? Since I didn’t have a nearby grove of trees to which I could go and supplicate the Lord for direction, I took the 21st century approach of anyone lacking wisdom -I delved into books and the Internet. For the first time in my life in addition to reading all the pro-Mormon materials, I also took the forbidden path of reading things that were not approved by the Church. It took less than a week for the Mormon Temple of Cards to crumble before my investigation. It quickly became apparent that an honest inquiry and willingness to accept that the Church may not be true was all that was needed to completely dismantle everything I’d been taught about Mormonism my entire life of nearly forty years.

From my research and pondering it didn’t take long to go from losing my Mormon beliefs to losing my belief in God entirely. With my new beginner’s mind, I looked at not just Mormonism, but religion and faith in general, and observed the absurdity of all religions. Belief in God became so obviously based solely on wishful thinking, following tradition without examination, confirmation bias, and a general lack of critical thinking.

Having made this incredible discovery I was eager to share it with those I loved and free them from this fraudulent religion. I was too eager apparently, as nearly everyone I talked to did not merely disagree with what I had to say, but they didn’t even want to hear what I had to say. The most upsetting to me, of course, was with Sariah. I had foolishly figured she would just evaluate the evidence I presented to her, be as astounded and enraged as I was, and together we would leave Mormonism behind us. That was my own wishful thinking. She had no interest in what I had to say, and in fact, felt threatened. She truly feared for my soul and for our family (we had three young children at the time all under the age of eight). A divide in our relationship was forged. It became something we could not talk about without it being argumentative or leading to hurt feelings. After many discussions and tears, we finally just stopped talking about it. That, in my opinion, isn’t healthy for a relationship either — having a huge issue that is important to both of you and that comes up all the time, but cannot be discussed without it turning ugly. But it seemed like a better alternative than to constantly be arguing. So we just slowly drifted apart.

I recently started attending an ex-Mormon support group led by a licensed clinical social worker and I also began meeting individually with the social worker for therapy in dealing with this issue. The therapy has been incredibly helpful. My wife and I are now to the point that we can discuss religion amiably. It is still difficult, however, and there is seemingly an abundance of compromise on both of our sides, especially with regard to our children.

Even seemingly safe discussions are often polarizing and unpleasant. For example, during the ten-year anniversary of September 11, 2001, Time magazine did a special issue regarding that tragic day. There was a story of a man who survived being in the World Trade Center when it was struck by the plane. He was able to make it down the stairs and out of the building before it collapsed. He credited the choices he made to escape as directed by God. My wife found this story so inspiring. I found it appalling. She said it showed how humble he was to not take credit for his escape, but to rightfully give the honor to God. To me it is not a sign of humility to think yourself so important that the omnipotent Master of the Universe guided your every footstep while allowing a building to collapse with thousands of other people perishing in terror and agony. This is just one of many times when conversations quickly and easily turn into conflict.

The greatest challenge to our Mormon/Atheist relationship, however, has been in regards to raising our children. We have two sons and a daughter that we love dearly and want the best for. Unfortunately, to Sariah that means growing up Mormon, and to me growing up Mormon is the antithesis of a happy life. I so desperately want to get them out of what I view as a toxic environment, but to her their entire eternal salvation rests on their Mormonism.

Because they were already attending church when I stopped going, Sariah continued to take the children with her each Sunday. Then one Sunday morning our oldest son lamented while getting ready for church that it wasn’t fair that they had to go to church while I happily stayed home. I felt guilty and like a hypocrite. He was right, I thought, ‘why did he have to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself?’ In an instant of self-righteousness, without consulting with my wife, I said, “You are right, it isn’t fair. You can stay home with me.” Realizing this also wasn’t fair, I quickly amended it, “You can have a dad Sunday and a mom Sunday rotating every week.” On my Sunday I allowed them to stay home with me or go to church with her, their choice. On mom’s Sunday, they were required to go to church. Like all compromises, neither my wife nor I were satisfied with it. I was unhappy because they were still going to church and being indoctrinated with all kinds of idiocy even if only at half the rate. She didn’t like it because 50% church attendance was unacceptable to the Lord and thus to her. And yes, on dad’s Sunday they never opted to go to church, no matter how much guilt their mom heaped upon them, and like a good Christian, she can lay it on thick.

Church attendance is just a small fraction of the potential conflicts inherent in trying to raise children with two drastically different worldviews. Do we have family prayer? Scripture study? Bless the food? Do we encourage the children to pray and study the scriptures on their own? Do they get baptized? Pay tithing? These are things we are dealing with currently. Upcoming battles include seminary attendance, missions, and temple marriages.

Our home continues to be a Mormon home. There are framed pictures of Mormon temples and Jesus hanging on our walls, and Mormon paraphernalia scattered throughout the house -– pamphlets, church magazines, photos, etc. She has the children pray every night. In an attempt to help our marriage and under the advice of my therapist, the children are back to going to church every Sunday. The oldest two children have been baptized, not by me obviously (nor by their worthy and believing mom, ironically, but the Church is NOT sexist), and our third child will almost certainly also be baptized when he turns eight. I’ve been forbidden to bring alcohol or even coffee into our home. In exchange, my wife would say that she is compromising by allowing me to have atheist and anti-Mormon books such as ‘The God Delusion’ and ‘No Man Knows My History’ in our home. The presence of such books in our home is very distressing to her.

I want to end this with a hopeful conclusion since this is my actual life I’m writing about. And the place I find the most joy and hope are with our children. Although the children seem to be the main source of our religious conflict, they are likely also what keeps us together. We both love them unconditionally and want what is best for them, including having a happy family life. We have come to accept that neither of us will accept the other’s position regarding God and Mormonism, but are striving to work on compromise with respect and love. We clearly have a long way to go, but it is certainly worth struggling for. I guess you could say I still have something that I have faith in –- our family.

Follow-up Q&A with Lehi:

It seems like you approached deconversion with the same sort of missionary zeal Mormons are so famous for. Have any of your Mormon acquaintances grasped the irony of them slamming the proverbial door in their face when you showed up unannounced to let them know about the truth you’d discovered?

It is interesting to think of myself preaching against Mormonism with Mormon Missionary zeal. It didn’t feel like proselytizing when I was doing it, however. I was just so shocked at what I was finding about Mormonism that I felt compelled to share it. It was like I was sitting at a gourmet meal with people I love and discovering maggots in the food. Not just a few maggots either — it was maggot ubiquity. I naturally wanted to tell everyone I was sharing the meal with, ‘hey, this food is not the healthful meal we were told. In fact, it is rotten’. I guess I was naïve to think that my family and friends would listen to what I had to say, observe the maggots, thank me, and we would all get up and leave.

As to if they ‘grasp the irony of slamming the proverbial door’ as you so eloquently put it, well, I doubt it. If they have, they don’t give any indication of it. It is frustrating because I know what they know about Mormonism because I was a Mormon my entire life. They know I know what they know, and I still left. That they aren’t the slightest bit curious as to why I would leave it all behind and endure all the heartache and life-quakes those changes have brought is both perplexing and disappointing to me. Frankly, I feel as if they never even opened the door to slam it in my face. They heard me knocking at the door and ran and hid under with the food storage.

You mentioned that therapy has been beneficial to your relationship and has enabled you to have conversations about religion that are no longer traumatic. Would you say that your spouse now understands the rationale behind your loss of faith and subsequent transition to atheism? If she understands your reasons, what would you say is the main reason she does not consider them valid reasons for leaving Mormonism?

I presume she understands my rationale as well as a true believer possibly can without giving up being a true believer. I think it comes down to wishful thinking and a fear of change. She once said to me that she tried to understand my perspective, but it was too scary and upsetting and that she finds great comfort in the Mormon doctrine and the Mormon lifestyle and she cannot let it go. I don’t think she is foolish though, in fact, she is a very intelligent and highly educated person. I do think, however, she possesses heroic amounts of cognitive dissonance. She would refute that of course.

Your therapist advised you to require that your children attend church every Sunday, even if this is against their will. Has this benefitted your relationship with your spouse without any cost to your conscience or your relationship with your children?

My therapist didn’t advise that I require the children to attend church, he just recommended that I reevaluate if it is worth destroying our relationship over this one issue. When I gave in and allowed her to take them every Sunday things between us improved immensely, but it is always tricky when the children are caught in the middle of our disagreements. I hate for them to feel like pawns in a game of chess between their parents. As they get older I will certainly reassert their ability to choose for themselves. Putting the choice to them, however, is still placing a burden on them: Do they continue to live as Mormons and risk their dad thinking they are making a huge mistake, or do they stop and risk disappointing and upsetting their mom? Not great options.

Letting Sariah take the children to church every Sunday has benefitted our relationship in that she is much happier and doesn’t resent me every other Sunday when the children would opt to stay home and she had to go to church by herself. You are correct that it has taken a toll on my conscience, but I rationalize it by reminding myself that they are smart kids, and they can figure things out for themselves. I admit that I’m banking on the probability that they aren’t thoroughly brainwashed in the meantime. I think back to when I was a child, and especially a teenager, and I wonder if things would have been different for me if I had one person in my life, just one single person, that offered a bit of critical thinking in the ocean of faith I was swimming in. If I had one person that gave me the option to leave, or validated any questions or the doubts I had, I think that would have made a world of difference for me. That is what I want to be for my children.

I should confess that on Sunday mornings while they are getting ready for church, I tell them to not believe everything they are told at church. I actually think it is good advice for life in general –- don’t believe everything you are told. When it comes to church though, sometimes I wonder if instead of saying ‘don’t believe everything you are told ’ I should say ‘don’t believe anything you are told’.

My relationship with the kids hasn’t suffered appreciably since they restarted attending church regularly. They recognize that it makes their mom happy and has brought peace to our home, and so they dutifully go with her. I’m not sure how long it will last though.

For now while your children are young their participation in church does not presumably receive much financial support from you. Down the road, if your children serve missions or wish to attend BYU, how would you feel about funding such activities?

Excellent question. I’ve stewed over this at great length. We live in a predominantly Mormon community. The vast majority of high school graduates go on Mormon missions. Anyone who opts not to go on a mission is looked at in askance. If I refuse to fund a mission I am almost certain this will add to the community belief that I’m an evil apostate and generally poor father and husband. I also don’t want to drive a wedge between my relationship with any of my children by not supporting something they want to do.

Will I pay for my child’s wedding if I cannot attend the ceremony? It isn’t a pleasant thought. I don’t know what will happen in the years to come, but I certainly do not want to pay for Mormon missions, nor to I have any desire to send any money to BYU, but I also do not want to drive my children away. I still haven’t come to any conclusions or formulated any plans. Perhaps your readers could offer me some direction here.

How successfully do you feel your children are being indoctrinated in Mormon beliefs? Of your three children, how many do you think will be orthodox in their faith when they reach adulthood? Have any of them expressed a desire to disaffiliate from Mormonism, or do you anticipate that any of them will?

Our oldest child is 11. He has told me he doesn’t think there is a God, but he plays along to appease his mom and grandparents (and practically everyone else he knows). We rarely talk about it, so I don’t know how strongly he feels. I don’t hide my atheism, however, so the kids definitely know what I think. Our second child is 8. She seems more inclined to Mormonism. Whenever I make light of Mormon doctrine, she asks me to stop. Our third is 5. He is currently interested in Mormonism only so far as there are treats involved. I think that for all three children the conflict between choosing to be Mormon like their mom, or being secular like their dad will only become more acute as they get older. I can’t see into the future, and I don’t want to speculate. My main goal is simply to make sure they know they are loved, and to try to make them feel accepted and secure with themselves whatever they choose.

The presence of atheist literature in your home is distressing to your wife. Is the presence of Mormon paraphernalia in your home distressing to you? If so, does your wife know that or acknowledge that her religious choices are more prominently displayed?

The presence of Mormon paraphernalia in our home is beyond distressing to me, I find it downright disturbing. Take for instance the Proclamation to the Family, it is a clearly homophobic document that is intolerant of anything outside of the traditional husband, wife, and children family structure. Or the Articles of Faith, which tell us what we believe. How is that not a form of brainwashing? My wife hasn’t hung any more Mormon pictures on our walls since I’ve left the church. But she also hasn’t taken any down either. The church magazines, manuals, and other church propaganda are constantly coming in our home. Wow, I haven’t put much thought into this before, and now that you’ve got me thinking about it I wonder if I shouldn’t be more vocal about my disapproval of all the Mormon crap in our house. Hm.

What do you feel is the likelihood of your wife one day leaving Mormonism? What is the likelihood of you going back to the church?

I would like to think she may leave one day, but I have to accept that she very well may not, and I am resigned to the great likelihood that she won’t. She has not shown any inclination of doing so since I’ve left the church. It has been over four years. If anything, I think she has dug in her heels and become more fundamental since my leaving, perhaps to counterbalance my apostasy.

As for me, the only way I see myself ever going back to church is if I develop a brain tumor, have a stroke, or suffer some other kind of brain trauma. In short, the odds of either of us changing are very slim. This is why trying to figure out how to accept and respect each other’s beliefs and make it work for our family seems so vital.

How Not to Console a Sceptic

Someone very dear to me has recently been diagnosed with a very grave form of cancer. The condition is not untreatable, but the prognosis is poor. Five year survival rates for this condition are under forty percent. There is no reason to lose hope, but it would also be foolish to pretend the situation is not very serious. This person is from the Mormon part of my acquaintance, and in general I’ve been dealing with it better than the Mormons and other believers. I think this is because I can recognise that this tumour is just a statistical reality of the natural world. It’s horrible and it’s unfair and it’s bewildering, but it’s just random chance and my friend drew the short straw. I don’t have to go through the mental gymnastics of reconciling the Problem of Evil with the idea of a supposedly benevolent and just God. Sorry, people, but a young, decent, ethical person with small children being stricken with cancer serves no legitimate purpose for moral instruction. Any God that thinks that is a sick bastard who deserves to be dethroned as quickly as Satan can manage it.

So whilst a sceptic can come to terms with the gruesome facts of living in an impassive natural world full of death and destruction, there are a few things that make my brain boil. Here are precisely the wrong things to say to someone you know to be rational rather than superstitious when they are dealing with an already difficult situation.

1. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Everything happens for a reason? Really? I wouldn’t argue with this if those who spouted it off were just being literal. The solar system revolves for the reasons laid out by astrophysics. Bread rises for the reason that yeast digests sugars and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products. Men sometimes give their bollocks a good scratching for the reason that they have become itchy. And cancer emerges for the reason that random mutations or environmental hazards can trigger undesirable replication of cell structures. These are causes, but causes of events do not require a conscious initiator.

What I despise about this phrase is that it shows utter ignorance to something that humans really ought to be more aware of. In evolutionary history our slightly more paranoid ancestors survived better. If an Australopithecus heard a rustling in the brush and failed to react, it might turn out to be nothing but then it also might turn out to be a bloody great lion looking for a hominid hamburger. Individuals who attributed a conscious motive to every possible threat were more likely to survive because even when they were wrong about a lurking predator, they still sharpened their reflexes by running away from an imaginary threat. This has left us with a genetic predisposition to assign a motive to every force we encounter, and is likely the cause of our beliefs in gods.

Saying “everything happens for a reason” is a betrayal that you haven’t read the user’s manual on your own brain. Having the impulse to attribute a personal motive to outside forces is natural, but we now know enough about the brain to where you’re out of excuses if you give in to that primitive impulse. The universe is not a massive conspiracy theory. The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is precisely three words too long. Everything happens. Full stop. Do not attempt to sound deep by speculating about the wisdom of the universe when it comes to inflicting fatal conditions on people. Any force that would intentionally inflict cancer on a person is a complete arsehole, and therefore I have no interest in their reasons for behaving so badly.

2. Medical advice of any kind

Should you provide advice to me about my friend’s cancer? Let’s see. Are you a doctor? Are you her doctor? Are you her doctor, and have you familiarised yourself with all of the intricacies of her particular case? No? Then kindly shut up.

This problem is exacerbated by questions like “Has she considered alternative medicine?” I was told by someone today who is an unemployed clown — this is not an insult but rather a descriptor of a circus performer on the dole — that chemotherapy didn’t make sense because putting chemical poisons in a body that is already ill did not seem like a more sensible thing to do than, say, homeopathic placebo pills or acupuncture.

Let me clarify something for you, O thou genius devotee of Deepak Chopra: Alternative Medicine means something which is an alternative . . . to medicine. Medicine works because it is based on science. The alternative will not be based on science. Yes, chemotherapy is horribly toxic and often has dreadful side effects. But it works. Cancer is a civil war within a person’s body. There will be casualties in any battle that gains ground. While many aspects of the holistic movement can perhaps stave off disease through good nutrition and improved health, nothing at a natural foods store is going to kill cancer. It would be lovely if Chinese foot massages and herbal tisanes could magically dissipate tumours. And I’d like a flying pony while we’re engaging in wishful thinking. I’m not going to “teach the controversy” of Creation Science any more than I’m going to look into “alternative medicine,” because I’m not an expert and my anecdotal, nonscientific perspective is irrelevant.

3. “God has blessed us so much”

God botherers are at their most hypocritical when it comes to dealing out credit for the good and bad in life. If everything goes well, God gets all the credit for the hard work of human beings. If things go poorly, than any non-miserable factors in the equation are credited as blessings from the Lord. The horribleness of the situation must be twisted into some kind of good thing.

I don’t believe that when I moved house nearly a year ago and ended up living very close to my friend that this was part of God’s plan so that I could be on hand to help out when the cancer diagnosis came in, whatever my mother may say. In reality, I moved house because the city I moved to seemed like a nice place to live. And I don’t help my friend with babysitting and meals because I’m some kind of pawn of a sick man in the sky who enjoys watching people try to cheer one another up whilst suffering. I do it because I choose to. Because I care.

Look, believers, if your God was such a great guy, he wouldn’t have allowed the cancer to happen in the first place. Don’t skirt around that and tell me that it’s a blessing that we have oncologists and it’s a blessing that my friend has friends and it’s a blessing that my friend is otherwise healthy. None of these things are blessings. They are things that exist because real people did real work to make them happen.

4. “I’ll pray for you.”

Prayer only makes sense when you are dealing with a capricious, primitive god that is open to bribery. That’s why ancient people sacrificed goats and did rain dances. They believed their gods were just like them — people coasting through existence who were capable of momentary whims. Bribing an imaginary friend for favours makes no sense at all when you believe that your God is omniscient and that he has a plan. If it’s in his plan for my friend to get cancer, then where on earth do you get off asking him to reconsider? If your God is really so bloody smart, what does he need your suggestions for? Either God is capricious and won’t cure cancer without making you go through a song and dance to beg him properly. This would make him a sadist. Or he has a plan, and cancer is part of that plan, which would make him an arsehole. The obvious resolution is that he’s a figment of your very twisted imagination. If you want to plea bargain with your sociopathic imaginary friend, do it on your own time and don’t tell me about it or I’ll just think you’re barmy.

Fighting cancer is hard enough without having to also fight against pseudoscientific nonsense, new agey platitudes, and mindless religiosity. Some things are just random chance. We have much better odds of beating them if we accept the reality of the situation instead of falling into wishful thinking.