“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.

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.

An Embarrassing Revelation

Most people on their way out of the Mormon mainstream and into apostasy or nonconformist practise spend years delving into Mormon history, theology, scripture and doctrine. They waste countless breaths arguing and discussing and pleading with various people such as bishops, spouses, parents, children, friends, strangers on the Internet, and imaginary persons dwelling on Kolob in an effort to sort out the viable and non-viable bits of the religion.

In recent months, I have discovered something incredibly embarrassing. Among atheists, sceptics, and freethinkers, Mormonism is considered to be so transparently fraudulent that it is only considered useful as a punching bag when they need an example of exactly how self-deluded some people are.

It’s true. Where heavy hitters like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are willing to spend many words on the character of Yahweh, they mention Mormonism only as the most sad and unfunny of jokes. As Hitchens put it in God is Not Great:

“The actual story of the imposture is almost embarrassing to read, and almost embarrassingly easy to uncover.”

There’s quite a lot of fuss going on lately about tugging on Salt Lake’s coattails and begging for things that simply aren’t going to happen, such as the ordination of women, or things that are extremely unlikely, such as allowing LDS couples to have public wedding ceremonies along with temple weddings. (As it stands, the only places LDS, Inc. allow this practise are in countries like Britain, where they do not legally recognise secret ceremonies, especially if they involve funny hats, secret handshakes, and oaths to procreate.)

I understand how hard it is to let go of something when quite a lot of time and effort has gone into it, but I have come round to the position that people seeking to force Mormonism into the mold of a hip, modern, secular-values friendly, defanged diet church is a complete waste of time. This church could be reformed, but why would you bother? If you think changing swapping out Wild Cherry flavour for Berry Blast makes a difference, it doesn’t. You’re still drinking the bloody Kool-Aid.

Mormonism is to philosophy what homeopathy is to medicine. Any benefit it has works entirely on a placebo effect, but this marginal benefit comes with a monster price tag, takes up an unreasonable amount of a person’s time, and infuses the user with dangerous misinformation that will cripple a person’s ability to be truly whole and well. There isn’t anything you can get from Mormonism that you can’t get somewhere else for a much better price and with far fewer side effects.

I was recently confronted with the idea that it’s inevitable that each new wave of disaffected Mormons will have to go through their own process of disillusionment. I don’t think it has to be. We don’t let people sell poison and call it food. There are laws against that. And the poisons that we do allow to be sold, such as tobacco, alcohol, saturated fats, and refined sugars, come with warning labels. We have organic labels to indicate that a food is less likely to contain bad stuff, and fair trade labels to indicate that a product was more ethically produced.

Why don’t we have these sorts of warning labels on the things we put in our minds? Religion can never and should never be outlawed, but why is it that as a culture we have this abject fear of identifying true and false faith claims as such? Why do so many generations of people have to go through the same life-crippling process of losing faith when we could have helped them out years ago through some kind of culturally agreed on Bullshit Meter that lets the world know how viable their truth claims are? If we can come up with a bloody food pyramid we ought to be able to sort out which philosophies are mostly harmless and which ones aren’t. It wouldn’t be hard. Just pick concrete, testable truth claims and test them. Is the existence of the alleged American culture described in the Book of Mormon supported by a shred of scientific research? Are Native Americans long-lost Hebrews? Is the Book of Abraham an accurate translation of the Joseph Smith papyri?

I pity those still trapped within the psychological prison of belief, but I resent those who have escaped but then make patronising comments such as “well, some people just need to stay” or “if people want to try to fix the church we should be supportive.” I’m sorry, but I refuse to give my support to an activity that wastes precious years of a brief and beautiful life. I refuse to be so arrogant as to think that freedom is just dandy for us enlightened types, but some silly sods just aren’t bright enough to lose the crutch of religion. Those trying to change the church from within are most likely on their way out. It would be a far greater service to do whatever we can to hasten that process rather than enable their self-torture.

Interviewees Wanted

I’d like to start blogging and podcasting interviews with people who have gone from being devout believers to becoming doubters, sceptics, pragmatists, apostates, atheists, and ant-theists. In general I am not as interested in interviewing people who have swapped one brand of faith for another, although I won’t reject anyone with a really interesting story.

If you’re interested, do let me know by leaving a comment. Please do not put your contact information in the text of your comment; your e-mail address as entered in the field will do, and that way the whole internet won’t have it.

Justifying Polygamy Part 1: Debunking

Approach the average Mormon and ask the following question: “What was the purpose of the practice of Polygamy in early Mormonism?” First you’ll get a whole lot of awkward silence, then some flustered attempts to avoid the question and change the subject. The reason for this silence and embarrassment will be for one of two reasons. You can look up online discussions, and the ignorance is telling. Most Mormons haven’t got a clue as to the doctrinal or practical function of LDS polygamy, and they’ll be too embarrassed to admit this. A very select few will know the reasons and they’ll be too embarrassed to say them out loud because when you do that you sound absolutely barmy.

Like most LDS doctrine that is more controversial than admonitions to avoid swearing in the nude in the presence of small children, there is a great deal of misinformation on this topic, so I can’t even begin discussing the actual justifications for polygamy before I disembowel the false reasons that many Mormons unwittingly circulate.

The Theory: There were too many women when Mormons moved west, and so men married up the surplus to ensure that widows and single women would be cared for.

The Problems: Isn’t it possible for a close-knit society to ensure the well-being of orphans, widows, and singletons without assigning them into sexual relationships? This theory promotes the idea that some sort of sexual relationship is required for a man to provide for a woman, turning marriage into more of a form of prostitution than a partnership. Also, this theory is rubbish as polygamy began over ten years before the trek west began. Once Mormons got to Utah, there was still no surplus of women according to the detailed census records from the period, none of which indicate a surplus of women. If anything, there was a surplus of unmarried men because for every woman added to a polygamist’s harem, there is a single man who will be unable to find a wife.

The Theory: Polygamy enabled Mormons to “raise up righteous seed” more quickly than if they were monogamous, increasing the population to allow for better growth of the religion.

The Problem: Polygamy does not increase the number of faithful Mormons in general. It increases the number of children born to a specific male. Women can only produce a finite number of children, whether they are in polygamous or monogamous relationships. While Mormon missionaries did become famous in Britain for marrying wives and then bringing them back to Utah where they learned that there was a harem waiting for the husband, early converts were not disproportionally female. So while polygamy would not have increased the overall number of births, it was an excellent way for individual males to guarantee a high number of their own children. There is a direct correlation between number of wives and rank in the LDS church. Common members who practiced polygamy rarely had more than two wives, whilst general authorities had several to dozens, with very few exceptions.

The Theory: Polygamy was necessary because God needed the Mormons to restore the “fullness of all things.”

The Problem: If polygamy was restored because Mormons needed to bring back Old Testament lifestyle, then we have a problem. At no point is polygamy identified as a religious doctrine in the Bible. Every mention of polygamy is within the context of a common social practice. God spends an awful lot of time talking about sex in the Old Testament: with whom you can have sex, how often you can have sex, and what you can’t do whilst having sex. You would think that a deity as sex-crazed as Yahweh would mention how many wives a man ought to have if he cared, but he didn’t. Sex, and not marriage, is the primary concern of the Old Testament, and I imagine this has to do with the fact that illicit sex was disruptive to society and property ownership. Also, if Mormons were looking to re-create Old Testament society, they would have also started keeping kosher and would not have kept pigs, which they did.

The Theory: Mormons didn’t want to engage in Polygamy, but God made them do it to teach them discipline and faithfulness.

The Problem: Joseph Smith’s laughable account of an angel with a flaming sword ordering him to marry his groupies on pain of death notwithstanding, this is bollocks. We need only turn to the most married Mormon of all time, Heber C. Grant, for a quote on how much polygamists hated doing their duty:

“I have noticed that a man who has BUT ONE WIFE, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to WITHER AND DRY UP, while a man who goes into PLURALITY looks fresh, YOUNG AND SPRIGHTLY. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it. FOR A MAN OF GOD TO BE CONFINED TO ONE WOMAN IS SMALL BUSINESS,… I DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE SHOULD DO IF WE HAD ONLY ONE WIFE APIECE.”

Deseret News, April 22, 1857

“God Made Us Do It” is the theory that the church is currently clinging to. However actual studies of polygamy indicate that it is almost exclusively practiced because it is beneficial to elitist, male-dominated, undemodratic political structures. What is more probable? That Mormon men reluctantly took on surplus wives out of the faithfulness of their hearts, or that they enjoyed being rewarded with their own little genetic empires that made them rock stars in their society?

In my next post I’ll address the doctrinal justifications that Mormons have used in the past and at the present time for the practice of polygamy. In the meantime, please do share any other justifications that you may have heard of that you suspect are bollocks.

Yelp Reviews for Living Scriptures, Inc.

All LDS people are familiar with the products of a company called Living Scriptures, Inc. So much of Mormonism is next to impossible to translate for people who have never been church members, so it’s helpful to be able to look up video clips online of the horribly, deliciously bad cartoons that are Living Scriptures. You can actually learn quite a bit about subtextual Mormon beliefs from this series, namely the enshrinement of white male American-accented patriarchy as the optimal font of truth and righteousness. Being British, it was always very difficult for me to take those videos seriously when God started speaking and he sounded like a Yank. But although these videos are not official productions of the LDS Church, they are remarkable in their ability to present the mainstream interpretation of Mormon scripture and cultural attitudes. This is probably why Mormons use them heavily in Sunday School. Well, that and these videos are lifesavers when a teacher didn’t have time that week to put together a proper lesson plan.

It has been years since I watched any of those videos, which in my childhood were a mainstay of my Sunday afternoon entertainment when I was prohibited from watching “real” television and could only sit on my arse in front of the telly on the Sabbath if I was watching something “uplifting.” Living Scriptures were boring as hell, but at least they were cartoons and they were better than reading the scriptures. (Cut me some slack. I was a kid.)

I recently looked them up online when trying to explain to a friend what it was like to attend Mormon Sunday School. A quick search for “Living Scriptures” yielded <a href="http://www.yelp.com/biz/living-scriptures-inc-ogden"this amazing Yelp page whose reviews of the video production company essentially belong right on a review page for the Church itself. The highlights: The company is incredibly low rated because of its pushy door-to-door salesmen who leverage personal connections with potential customers to lock them into an expensive and exploitative long-term contract. Members who failed to read the terms and conditions before signing on are left with a bad case of buyer’s remorse. They use creepy and unethical data collection to build a profile on you and harass you to join their club until you either relent or threaten a restraining order. Sound familiar? Living Scriptures even use recently returned missionaries as their sales people. Makes sense, since they’ve already been trained in what Mormons call “the commitment pattern” to close a deal on conversion to the faith. Or buying crap videos.