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.

Stewards of the Earth

Seems as though there are some rather embarrassing Mormon-related stories in the news lately. A sadistic controlling doctor is on trial for having bullied his wife into having unnecessary plastic surgery so he could have the opportunity to sedate her to death, allowing him to continue a sordid affair without having to bother with a divorce. (I suppose I should say “allegedly” but this case doesn’t seem worth the bother.)

A slightly less evil headline regards Glenn Taylor and Dave Hall, the Mormon Boy Scout leaders who decided that professional Utah State Park Rangers were incapable of managing their own territory and that a rock formation dating back to the Jurassic simply needed to be knocked over. You know, for the greater good. Somehow this greater good involved a video camera, dancing, singing, and high-fiving. Bang-up job on taking trail safety seriously, gents.

The most astonishing bit about this story is the Scout leaders’ sincere belief that they haven’t done anything wrong. They acknowledge that knocking down the rock formation was technically a no-no, but then employ some incredibly twisted logic by claiming that they did “something right the wrong way.” No, you stupid twats. You did something wrong the right way, because you videotaped yourselves committing a crime, thus making the job of the police much easier. (Normally I wouldn’t call someone stupid, but the idiocy of this crime and signs that Taylor appears to be a lying money-grabber makes me feel justified.)

I wasn’t surprised when I heard that these numbskulls were LDS. Any idiot from any belief system could have committed this crime, but it didn’t strike me as out of character for an LDS man to do something like this. Mormon men are taught that they are literally the stewards of the Earth. God is an absentee landlord, so in his place priesthood holders have authority over all things animal, mineral, or vegetable. Is it surprising that these jolly vandals felt perfectly entitled to take the initiative despite the numerous laws of the state and policies of the Scouts that would discourage them from such destructive activity?

Let’s not forget that although geologists know that the formations in Goblin Valley are 170 million years old, Doctrine and Covenants 77 makes it crystal clear that the earth is only 6,000 years old, and that the second coming of Jesus and the attendant renewal of the globe is imminent. And the book isn’t called the Suggestions and Covenants; it’s the Doctrine and Covenants, making it rather hard to have wiggle room on this point. Strangely, BYU teaches Art History courses that acknowledge human works older than 6,000 years, and their Biology department even teaches evolution. But all religious and doctrinal publications seem to support a young earth viewpoint. To shut down potential apologists, I offer a scan of a card I was given as a teenager in Sunday school:

That copyright reads “Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” which is the legal entity under the direct control of the Prophet. Anything bearing that copyright is coming directly from the Church Office Building’s Correlation department. This places the flimsy plastic bookmark in a doctrinal category equal to the Church Handbook of Instructions. Some Mormons will quibble and hem and haw and try to reconcile modern reliable science with outdated religious conjecture, but I have to be the adult in the room when this happens and point out that it’s positively embarrassing that an argument over such a simple and scientifically settled question could even take place in any organisation that wants to be taken seriously.

But back to the stupid twats. If a person sincerely believes that the earth is only 6,000 years old, fragile ancient rock formations will seem far less worth caring about than if you understood their true age and scientific significance. On top of that, if you sincerely believe that you are Chairman of the Board God’s estate manager, you are going to feel justified in making changes to the landscape, especially if his CEO Jesus is coming back in just a few more days anyway to make everything shiny and new again. So these men may not be stupid because they are callous toward nature; they are stupid because they subscribe to a belief system that encourages them to be callous toward nature.

For now they’ve only been kicked out of scouting. Let’s hope that the police go on to make examples of Glenn Taylor and Dave Hall so that any other geniuses who fancy themselves Stewards of the Earth don’t get any other bright ideas.

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.

My Last Sunday School Class

The last time I went to Sunday School I was home visiting my parents. At this point I hadn’t attended church regularly in years, but when I went home it wasn’t so bad seeing familiar faces and getting the chance to sing a few hymns. Most of the lyrics were rubbish but I like working through each harmony line in a four-part hymn.

The Sunday School lesson was on the bit in the Old Testament where the Hebrews go to war against pretty much anybody they come across on their way from Egypt to their final home in Palestine. The teacher, a former bishop who had given me positively oodles of terrible personal advice under the guise of revealing God’s will to me, waxed poetic about the virtues of slaughtering not only all the men, but every last woman, child, cow, chicken, pig, ox, and dormouse in a conquered city.

I had been out of Church long enough that I didn’t receive this with the same glassy-eyed acceptance that seemed to possess the rest of the class. I hadn’t heard the story in long enough, and my mind had been cleared enough, that when I heard this I instantly thought to myself, this story is unbelievably messed up.

I couldn’t come right out and say it, because that would have roused the entranced zombies from their scripture-induced coma and caused them to attack my brains. But I still wanted to make a go of it, so I raised my hand and adopted the well-practised tone of self-doubting humility that Mormon women unconsciously master by the age of twelve and said the following:

“I find this story difficult to deal with. The idea that a loving Heavenly Father would want people to murder civilian men, women, children, and even their pets and livestock just doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. How important is it that this story be literally true? Isn’t it possible that whatever scribe was writing out this story just got a bit overexcited with patriotism when retelling a war story? Couldn’t this be hyperbole, as when a football fan describes a match saying things like “We slaughtered them. We destroyed them. We pulled down the stadium and burned it to the ground.” I think a lot of people might agree that it causes concern when people say it’s all right to murder children because God told them to. We certainly don’t put up with people like that today.”

The Sunday School teacher had no answer, but a kindly, matronly woman I’d known since I was a small child spoke up after me, saying she had similar feelings about this tale. A few old people who had been dozing in the back row blinked and looked around, having been roused be the sudden sound of everyone inhaling sharply and holding their breath nervously.

The bishop was in the lesson that day, and he instantly took over the conversation. He shifted in his chair so that he could twist to look right at me. He jabbed his finger in my direction and said:

“You just don’t understand the will of the Lord. Those children would have grown up to be wicked, so it was better to kill them before that happened. We know that this is how it happened because Moses wrote it himself, and to say that this isn’t literally true is to question God’s judgement.”

It wasn’t his words, but rather his tone and the quickness of his assertion that drew the attention of the room with far greater alarm than anything I had said. Literally everyone blushed, gasped, or simply stared at the man with an expression that read, “Wow. You are a bit of a cunt.”

When I had heard through the grapevine that this man had been appointed bishop, I was surprised. He was a man who engaged in questionable business practices that were very likely illegal, and everybody knew it. He had wealth and flouted it whilst being notoriously stingy and harsh toward his children. He was cruel and humourless and could not take any kind of joke for any reason whatsoever. And this was the best the ward could come up with for their Dear Leader?

The kindly old lady looked at me and gave a knowing wink and nod. Even if she didn’t suspect that I was a closeted apostate, she did want me to know that I wasn’t crazy for being rational and it wasn’t wrong for me to speak up. She probably took it as a comfort that a young person seemed unafraid of allowing for personal interpretation.

I had no such comfort. On that day I realised that Mormonism is beyond redemption and not worth the effort of trying to reform. It’s a spiritual Ponzi scheme run by snake oil salesman, and every copy of the Book of Mormon ought to be stamped with a warning label reading “THE CONTENTS OF THIS BOOK ARE A LOAD OF RUBBISH.” I could show up once in a while and try to change things with honest questions, or I could even take the old woman’s route of quietly living as a member with tolerant ideas, hoping for better days. But nothing would change so long as the people with authority were the kind of men who thought genocide was perfectly fine so long as somebody’s invisible friend thought it was a swell idea.

I never went to Church again after that. I made sure to schedule visits to family and friends so that I’d never be around on a Sunday. I didn’t want to waste my time being alternately bored, offended, or angered by lies and lies about lies. I didn’t want to have to pretend I was a believer and then make awkward excuses for never bearing my testimony with all the requisite tears and clichĂ©s. I didn’t want to not have an answer when people asked me what calling I did not have in the home ward I did not attend. It just wasn’t worth it.

So bishop, should you ever stumble across this post, I hope by now you’ve thought about what you said, and how it made you sound like a manic Jihadi in front of people who were meant to trust you. I hope you’ve changed, but if you haven’t, It’s not too late to quit being a twat.

And that’s all the energy I care to expend on making LDS Inc. a better place.

Justifying Polygamy Part 2: Smith’s Doctrine

This is the second of three planned posts regarding Mormon polygamy, the misconceptions Mormons have about the reasons for it, the actual reasons for it, and the consequences of doctrine and practise. You can read Part One here.

Mormon Polygamy, referred to as Plural Marriage or The Principle by those in the know, is one of the least understood yet most central doctrines of Mormonism. I previously discussed common misconceptions that modern Mormons often have regarding plural marriage, which include nonsense such as a surplus of women that needed looking after (census records do not indicate a surplus), increasing the number of offspring (polygamy doesn’t increase the overall number of children, just the proportion of children fathered by polygamous males), and an effort to revive an Old Testament society (in which raping teenagers is fine, but they kept right on eating bacon). Since the mythconceptions are bollocks, I’m now moving on to the actual doctrinal reasons that Mormons who practiced in the past and at the present give for The Principle.

This post will focus on the reasons developed by Joseph Smith for the practise of polygamy, which I describe as a theory of breeding better blood into fallen races and ensuring the more rapid dissemination of the “good blood” of righteous men such as himself.

The eugenics that would plague the Western world in the 20th century focused on eradicating undesirables who had the audacity to be born to the wrong tribe or with a less-than-perfect body or mind. Joseph Smith was by no means exempt from the reprehensible ideas about women and minorities that were common in his day, but at the least we can say that he felt everyone could be redeemed. He may have been influenced by the ideas of Lamarck1, who taught that heredity was a result of mixing. Under the common knowledge of Smith’s day, bad blood could be diluted and eventually bred out through liberal doses of good blood.

This was back before anybody knew what DNA was, and it was thought that blood was the conveyer of genetic information. We still use expressions like “it’s in the blood” to describe hereditary traits that are actually conveyed via DNA, which can preserve certain traits intact no matter how many generations pass. So when Smith wrote his very earliest possible revelation on polygamy in 1831, the idea was likely that by appropriating the wives of the less righteous, upstanding saints like Smith and his cohorts could breed out the bad blood:

[I]t is [Jesus Christ’s] will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites [i.e., Native Americans], that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.3

Once again, keep in mind that this was before Mendelian genetics, before Darwin, and before the discovery of DNA. Humanity had figured out that too much interbreeding by close kin was a bad thing, but the idea of purifying blood lines through selecting superior males to act as sires was commonly practised with livestock. The burgeoning population of Europe and problems associated with increasing urbanity and industry spawned thinkers such as Malthus and satirists like Swift to experiment with unorthodox ideas about improving the human race. If the goal is to improve humanity as rapidly as possible, there is a logic to Smith’s idea of appropriating virtuous females, shutting out unwanted bad-blooded males, and increasing the rapidity with which good blood could be distributed to the next generation.

There are obviously numerous problems with this ideology, but they only come to light when we have the benefit of modern understandings of evolution, psychology, and genetics. Joseph Smith did not have any of the information we now take for granted. We cannot fault him for theorizing about using breeding to reshape humanity to his liking. We can fault him for the utter disregard for ethics that he displayed in actually experimenting on human subjects.

Something of this idea was echoed years later, when Brigham Young openly advocated the idea of a woman ditching her current husband in favour of a man with a better spiritual pedigree. This too was preached at General Conference, giving it the full force of doctrine:

“If the woman preferred a man higher in authority and he is willing to take her and her husband gives her up. There is no bill of divorce required, in [this] case it is right in the sight of God.”4

This idea is positively Darwinian, encouraging females to mate with the most advantageous male, presumably passing on the benefits of a higher pedigree to her offspring.

Lamarckian breeding philosphy has carried down in less expected ways as well. At the October 1960 General Conference future prophet Spencer W. Kimball cheerfully reported on missionaries who were donating their blood to Native Americans in the hopes of assisting them in being transformed from dark and loathsome to white and delightsome:

“There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”5

DNA had only been discovered seven years before this talk was given, but I am not certain that ignorance of science can it does anything to diminish the astonishingly ugly racism that runs through the text.

It’s likely Smith had been dabbling in polygamy 1831, as reported in several “hypothetical” conversations on the subject, and in 1832 the Mormons began converting the followers of the Christian polygamous sect led by free love advocate Jacob Cochran. It wasn’t until 1843 that Smith produced a revelation that is still regarded as doctrine by practising Mormons:

And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. . . . And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God.6

The fire and brimstone tone of the revelation makes it very unlikely that this was a brand new issue for Joseph Smith. I sincerely doubt that “God” would have felt the need to threaten Emma Smith with so much damnation had she not been grumbling about the very young girls and married women her husband was shagging.

There did always seem to be a spiritual component to Smith’s theory of polygamy. His modus operandi for persuading young women to become his concubines involved approaching them through compliant relatives or sending troublesome relatives away on missions before bringing the girls under his roof as his wards or employees. The girls would then be told that if they submitted to his wishes, they would attain high glory for themselves and all their family in heaven, and that if they did not they would suffer certain damnation. I firmly define this sort of coercion as rape, but for the sake of argument, if polygamy truly was “God’s will” then it would have been the case. Smith consistently seemed to view families rather than individuals as the basic spiritual unit. If a teenaged girl became his wife, she would have access to the spiritual country club in the sky, and through her her family would gain access as well.

This idea was further elaborated by Brigham Young, who preserved the idea of polygamy being a vehicle to more rapidly distributing superior blood and the accompanying spiritual superiority that comes of being sired by a high-ranking Mormon. But in the next generation Smith’s Lamarckian ideas of improving blood was combined with a sort of spiritual pedigree that created a justification for polygamy in the next life as well as this one.

1. Wikipedia: Lamarckism
2. Wikipedia: Origin of Mormon Polygamy
3. Arrington, Leonard J. (1992), The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-Day Saints, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-06236-0. pp. 195
4. Brigham Young, from Conference Reports, 8 Oct. 1861.
5 Kimball, Spencer W. “The Day of the Lamanites.” Conference Report October 1960, pp. 32-37.
6 Doctrine and Covenants, Chapter 132

Do I Need Them?

For several years my relationship with my family has fluctuated between non-existent and turbulent. I was disowned at one point, and for over a year after a fight in which my mother screamed repeatedly “you are so selfish” there was almost no contact at all. I did not come home for Christmas and while some of my siblings spoke to me occasionally, I knew that I would never be part of the family again.

Recently I’ve noticed a change in my mum’s behaviour; she calls me to ask how I am and even invited me to come spend a day with her recently. It’s a sad reflection on our relationship that I find this to be a significant change for the better, but I’m not about to rebuff it. She is, after all, my mum, and none of the ways in which she has failed me are due to her personality, but rather her devotion to Mormonism. I blame the church, not the member, for bad behaviour to apostates. My dad has been a different story. Since realising that I wasn’t going to come crawling back to the church with ten percent of my income to sacrifice on the altar of social acceptance, he’s written me off. He is not rude, but he is not interested. He treats me with civil detachment, addressing me with the same level of enthusiasm and interest that he would give to the friend of one of his children or a casual business acquaintance. I suppose it’s better than entering his house and living in fear of being whisked off to the spare room for a religious interrogation (a regular feature of life under his roof) but it’s also painful to realise that my father has decided I’m no longer worth the effort of treating like a daughter. But lack of conflict is better than constant conflict, so there it is. I’ll just have to be pragmatic when I get a birthday card signed “Love, Mum and Dad” in only my mother’s handwriting.

I am an ex-daughter, an ex-sister, an ex-niece and ex-granddaughter. Like an ex-spouse, I’m still around and people have to play nice when they see me, but they don’t think of me as a proper relative any longer. I’m not sure how to proceed. Mormonism prepares its subjects, especially the women, for a very particular life path. The skill set I was bred to have is very different from the skill set I’ve needed to operate as an unsupervised adult living outside a walled garden in the real world. I’m not helpless, but there are lots of areas where I’m simply not savvy. Just last week I was mentioning to Mr. Molly that I had realised that I’d never been trained how to think properly, and some of my biggest mistakes in my personal and professional life have stemmed from my conditioning to wantonly utilise circular logic and solipsistic thinking as well as a hard-wired refusal to change my mind in light of new information. The last nine years have been a brutal, messy self-education in learning how to think. I can’t imagine how much better off I’d be now if, in my childhood, my elders had taught me to examine the information given to me by authority figures rather than ingest it without question under threat of punishment.

The religious views of my family poisons their ability to interact with me, and I feel shackled by this. I can’t be myself around them because when I am myself and not in-character as an edited version of myself, I’ll casually refer to a million things that offend them. For example, yesterday I went to the cinema to see The World’s End (it was crap) and then to the pub for a pint and some lunch. If I’m trying to find a nice non-controversial topic to discuss with my family, a meal and a movie might seem hazard free. But with Mormons it isn’t. I went to the cinema on a Sunday1 to see a 15 movie (UK equivalent of an R-rating)2 and then went to a pub afterwards3 where I consumed alcohol4.

Every conversation I have with a Mormon has to be heavily edited, and I must keep track of every footnote in my mind. No matter what the topic, if I mention anything in the context of behaviour that makes a Mormon bristle, they cease to pay attention to what I’m trying to talk about and focus only on my sinfulness. Because of this it turns out to be better not to say anything about my life at all.

White lies may sanitise the story so that they pay attention to the events I describe and not the subtext of the ways in which my lifestyle fails to meet their approval. But lying is irksome and compromising. I’m not going to keep a lengthy mental record of the lies I’ve told to oblige people who take advantage of my tolerance by being open about their lifestyle without returning the favour. They can talk about going to the temple every week or the people they met at a church party, but I can’t tell them about a very pleasant conversation I had with someone I met at a wine tasting party. They won’t hear what I say about the conversation. They will fixate on the presence of alcohol and look at me with disgust.

So perhaps, after all, my Dad is right. Maybe at this point the most any of us can hope for our of our relationship is civil, disinterested small talk once in a while. The problem is this: without the warmth and love that comes with a familial relationship, I don’t know if there’s anything for either of us to get out of our interactions. We have so little in common that if we met as strangers it’s unlikely we would hit it off. If I met my parents now as new acquaintances I would likely come away with the impression that they were friendly but too forward about their beliefs.

I can’t invite them to dinner because, no matter how delicious the food, they would not be able to relax in the presence of a wine rack. I can’t make even casual references to current events because it triggers a suspicious reaction that I am mocking their religious and political beliefs with my liberal agenda. I can’t tell them about the books I read or the movies I enjoy because any media that features swearing, alcohol, sex, social themes, or “disrespectful children” make them angry. I’m not in a Work and the Glory book club and my blog does not consist of simpering posts about the faithful self-sacrifice of obedient women in the Bible. We literally cannot have a conversation about anything more controversial than whether gravy is more or less delicious with or without pepper. What kind of a relationship is that? None at all, it would seem.

Have any of you found yourselves in this sort of relationship purgatory? How did you mourn the relationships you used to have and which you now remember fondly? How did you come to terms with the deaths of those relationships? Do you now try to rekindle them, or do you see the charade of keeping up appearances as too much to bear?

1 – Seeking entertainment on the Sabbath is a sin, as is engaging in commerce.
2 – Viewing movies with a rating higher than a UK 12 or a US PG-13 is a sin
3 – Engaging in commerce again.
4 – Alcohol is right out for Mormons.

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.