Why “Atheist” and “Agnostic” are stupid titles that make us less intelligent

It’s time to vent about something that has begun to annoy me more and more – the stupid titles we have for people who don’t believe in religion or God.  In this little article, I’m going to argue that our use of these words isn’t only imprecise, but actually makes us all less intelligent.  Hang on, I’ll get there.

Agnostic vs Atheist

When someone says they’re agnostic, what they mean is that they’re not sure whether or not God is real.  They’re likely very uninterested in finding out, because they don’t think it’s possible to find out in the first place, and they just live their lives as they think they should.  If God decides to make himself known somewhere five years down the road, cool.  If not, whatever.  No big deal, but they’re not about to be as presumptuous as to say there isn’t a God.  Who are they to pretend to know one way or the other?

An atheist, on the other hand, is, in the eyes of a lot of society, someone who is certain God doesn’t exist.  They’re often seen as being against religion, actively fighting against dogma with the same kind of religious zeal as the people they’re opposing.

What the words actually mean

Agnostic simply means “without knowledge.”  Gnosis is the Greek noun for “knowledge,” slap on the A and it means the opposite.  To be agnostic about something is to not know whether that thing is true and to believe that it is impossible to ever know.

In same way, Atheism simply means “without theism.”  To be a theist is to believe in a God (specifically, a personal God), and therefore to be an atheist is to not believe in God.  That’s it.

(Side not, you could also be a Deist – someone who believes in god, but doesn’t believe he/she/it is a “personal” god.  In other words, they created the world and are now eating popcorn, watching the cosmic drama of Life, but aren’t involved in it.  There are probably five million other things you could be as well, but these are the main ones.)

Two reasons these words suck

  1. Notice that we don’t have terms in our society for not believing in the myriad other things we don’t believe.  I’m not an a-santa-ist or an a-unicorn-ist simply because I don’t believe a bearded man walked through my front door a few days ago (we don’t have a chimney) to leave a package under our tree, or that a horned horse’s tears can cure any illness I have.  Likewise, my worldview should not be defined by one thing out of a billion in which I do not believe.  We’re defining a person’s worldview by views they don’t have about the world.  That’s dumb.
  2. Atheists do not know there isn’t a god, we just have no good reason to believe in one.  Except for a few extremists and a lot of people who haven’t thought enough about what they believe, there are very few people on this planet who would claim to have an absolute knowledge that God does or does not exist.  The rest of us are somewhere on the continuum from belief to disbelief, accepting uncertainty as a fact of life.  For this reason alone, “agnostic” doesn’t mean anything to me – all of us who think it is impossible to prove that God exists or doesn’t exist are agnostic by definition.  Believers feel they have a good reason to believe, unbelievers don’t.

Two reasons using them the way we do makes us stupiderrerr

  1. Most of us in our culture view uncertainty as a bad thing.  Someone’s intelligence, in our minds, can be measured by the number of strong and clear opinions they have on politics, science, religion, and so on.  When in a debate about something we’re not sure about, we’ll often say something bold, pretending to know things we don’t, because to not know something is to be weak, ignorant, and wrong.  We can hardly be blamed for this, we’re surrounded by media filled with opinionated news anchors, spewing facts and statistics that “prove” their positions.  Too often we latch on to a pundit’s positions because to repeat them in the same tone of confidence makes us feel intelligent and clear, even though we really have no idea whether that person’s facts were right, whether they skewed a statistic to meet their agenda, or whether they cited the one study out of 5,000 but didn’t tell us.  We’re easily manipulated because we adore certainty and shun uncertainty.  We’re made less intelligent because we don’t know how to deal with uncertainty.  In this way, if more of us were agnostic and had a healthy dose of cognitive uncertainty, the world would be a better, less virulent place. 
  2. But if we use “agnostic” to say we don’t try to learn about the world, that’s also dumb.  So we can’t prove God does or doesn’t exist.  We also can’t prove a lot of things in science.  Scientists develop a model by which we can understand the world, see if it fits with the rest of our body of knowledge, and then continue to move forward, constantly challenging and tweaking what we already know to fit with new evidence.  To be agnostic doesn’t just mean you don’t know, it means you can’t know.  And while that’s true, it’s also true about nearly everything else in our lives.  Yet we still manage to make decisions and progress intellectually, and those decisions are based on the models we accept about the world.

Now, if someone calls themselves an agnostic, and I call myself an atheist, what difference is there in how we live our lives?  Probably none.  We don’t pray, we don’t attend church, we don’t ask for forgiveness.  We both probably live our lives as if there isn’t a God, trusting in our own moral compass instead of what’s laid out in scripture.  For many people, calling themselves “agnostic” is probably the result of atheism’s negative stigma and from not feeling comfortable with their new doubts enough to give them such an ominous and opinionated-sounding title.  They’re still in flux, so it’s a good word to use because it’s noncommittal.  That’s fine, I just think we should find new words.

In short, it’s dumb that the main word I have to describe my worldview is based in what I don’t believe, we’re all agnostic to varying degrees and therefore to call yourself agnostic is meaningless and counterproductive (although comforting), we should all be more comfortable with the idea that we don’t know a million things in life, and just because we can’t know something doesn’t mean we can’t still make reasonable assumptions and conclusions from the things we observe in the world around us. 

To end, here’s a ridiculously awesome quote about uncertainty and science:

There is a widely held notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proved.”  Nearly an oxymoron.  The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt.  Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge.  Therefore a good scientist is never “certain.”  Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain, because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better evidence or novel arguments emerge.

Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society.  Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up if we don’t do anything?  Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution?  Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones?  No, we are not, in any of these cases.  But if, from this lack of certainty, we jump to the conviction that we had better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective than modern medicine–well, we are simply stupid.  Still, many people do make these inferences, because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness instead of being what it is–the first source of our knowledge.

– Carlo Rovelli, Physicist, The Uselessness of Certainty

After note – in the spirit of embracing uncertainty, I have to admit the high possibility that I asserted things in the article above which aren’t correct.  For that, we have debate!  I would love to adjust my views on the subject above so they’re more accurate. Please leave your thoughts below 🙂

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“Glimpses of Buried Treasure”

The other day I was hiking in the Greenbelt here in Austin Texas, a system of trails that follows a seasonal stream, and I stumbled onto the scattered pages of what I thought was someone’s journal.  The pages were spread over about fifty feet of the dry creek bed, a recent rain having weighed them down so the wind hadn’t taken them very far, and I guess I did what anyone else would do when given the chance to read the secret thoughts of a stranger: I started reading.  It turned out to be a community notebook, placed in a cave a few weeks ago for whoever stumbled on it to write in.  Then I did what any responsible citizen would do and picked up the litter so I could throw it away.  Or I did it because I wanted to write about it . . . .

On my mind was something I had just read in A Tale of Two Cities.  I think it does a good enough job explaining why this notebook of random thoughts was so great to have found.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.  A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!  Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all.  No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged.  It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. . . .  In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?

Cave Secrets cover

Cave Secrets

(Click on any of the circular pictures to enter the album)

Greenbelt Journal - Lost mother

I am ever interested in the secret lives of other people and ever impressed at how impossible it is to know them.  As I passed people on the trail and had quick conversations about dogs and the weather, I wondered what they would write on their page and what unknown stories lay hidden further beneath.

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(PS, if by any small chance one of the authors of this journal finds this post, or anyone else who knows, let me know where the “cave” is and I’ll return the book with a new one that is more permanent!)

Sunrise

This morning there was a beautiful sunrise and I saw myself in it, my own insecurities and anxieties reflected back in a way that helped me understand myself. I thought about society and public opinion, about history and fame, about why none of us really understand each other.

Nature is like poetry in that way–vague and ready to be interpreted for our own use–but I don’t like to stretch symbolism farther than needed. What follows is simply an attempt to describe what I saw while watching the sun rise and the scattered thoughts that followed.

Sunrise1

Silhouetted trees, black with no leaves, set against a stark orange background of a large cloud, waves across its surface. The sun is at just the right angle that, much like the sand of a beach when the sun is low, the cloud’s low points cast shadows across the rest.

Sunrise2

It’s the small things that are so impressive, the things we usually don’t notice and that don’t last long enough to give us a second chance. Here you see loose fog at the bottom of the cloud, closest to me in the picture, that will soon be burned upwards or will become invisible once the sun is too high to reflect through it to my eyes.

Sunrise3

Each phase of this sunrise lasts only a few minutes. The waves on the bottom of the cloud are gone, the sun having risen behind and becoming only an orange glow, and the cloud now blocks most of the light from reaching my eyes.

Sunrise4

Wispy clouds high in the atmosphere now have their moment.  Invisible or unnoticed before, they are now bright, intricate, and delicate, set against a blue sky and above a dark red. These clouds now pull my eyes upward, halt my breath, stretch my mouth into a smile, move my hand to the camera, my finger to the zoom, and cause me to take eight photographs to try to capture their simple but intricate appeal. This is the signature of 7:30 AM.

The rest has been beautiful and unique, but this is my favorite. I can’t explain exactly why.

Sunrise5

Sunrise6

Sunrise7

As the sun rises more, the orange glow begins to disappear, the sun now almost completely darkened behind what has become a very large cloud. Above, the light’s reflection is too much for the intricacies of 7:30 – it too becomes indistinct, the light blending too much for detail.

Sunrise8

New clouds form above the large cloud, bright on the bottom and dark on the top, dotting the sky in a diagonal line.

Sunrise9

Sunrise10

The sun is now finally visible above the large, low-hanging cloud of the early morning.

Sunlight

These clouds were beautiful, but wouldn’t have been anything special without the low-angled sunlight passing through them. In fact, many of them were in the sky before I woke up. Had I looked out my window at four in the morning it isn’t likely I would have felt impelled to get my camera and go outside to capture the view; any clouds would have been dark, gray, or unseen. During the short time of sunrise and sunset the colors are so unique and fleeting that we have to either look at them or admit that we’re out of touch with nature.

Even these clouds were the only ones I noticed among hundreds of others within my view, and even then I only focused on the most brilliant among them for a few short moments before the sun, followed quickly by my eyes, shifted its gaze elsewhere.

Scattered thoughts

I am a lot of different things at once, and so are you. Since I don’t know you, and you don’t know me well enough to speak for me, I’ll speak of myself and hope you can understand. That’s the difficult thing – to be understood. Everything I am influences the way you hear me.

I’m an atheist ex-Mormon. To some, that fact brings an unexpected twinge of curiosity: “There must be a great story here.” Hours of friendly conversation follow. To others it brings genuine emotional pain, a feeling of loss, a felling that a friend is now an enemy, an ally now a critic: “Oh how and why did he do that? He was so faithful and strong.” To others–perhaps to the more insecure or controlling–it brings anger, and results in biting remarks most often unheard by me.

Religion, along with politics, is a topic where most people expect misunderstanding and conflict.

I’m also philanthropist. You are too, most likely – it’s not an exclusive term reserved for the rich or the hipster, it’s just about doing good for other people. I write my honest thoughts about poverty and nonprofits in a way I hope is helpful and interesting. Most find this inspiring: “That’s awesome, I want to do something like that too.” Other people are, as surprising as this has been to me, sincerely offended. I ignored them until I realized they really believed the words they said about me, and then I lamented our inability to be heard correctly and recognized how oversensitive and callous our society is at the same time – ready to react defensively but excited to criticize when we can: “This racist, pampered, pretentious fool actually thinks he’s making a difference. This slum-tourist, this sheltered naive prick, this self-absorbed idiot.” Still others are defensive and distrustful. Within their vague responses I hear what they mean to say: “Would you please just not ask as many questions or discuss our programs so openly? You might mess something up.”

I’ve felt misunderstood at many times in my life, but usually I’ve been able to explain it away. These reactions to writing about philanthropy were startling.

I’m a lot of other things too, some of them controversial, some boring, all of them important to the way I’m heard. I’m a banker for a large bank at a time when large banks are hated; I’m an American; I’m white, tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed; I’m a man; I’m bilingual; I’m liberal; I live with my fiance; I’m talkative when with friends and content to people-watch when with strangers. Each of these things–and thousands of others like them–are seen in a different way by every person who sees them.

Understanding

Sunrise11Consider this cloud. I love how each smaller, individual cloud is pressed together into one large body. It reminds me of a hand-drawn map of an archipelago or the rippled sand on the shore of a mountain lake.

Still, it’s nothing compared to the scenes shown above.  That has nothing to do with the clouds themselves, it has only to do with the sun and I, standing at a particular angle to each other that other clouds are more brilliant and these are more gray.  To someone else though, farther to the north than me, these clustered clouds are in just the right spot to be colored beautifully by the sun.  What is gray to me is beautiful to someone else.

And that’s the truth I want to give here, the only words that really matter to this whole article: understanding is impossible. When I write something, the way it is received by others has far more to to with society and with the prior position of the listener than it does with the words I say.

Consider the scriptures. I used to read the scriptures and get a great spiritual feeling. Now I don’t read them at all, but when I do I notice all the destructive things in them, like the stories that glorify murder in the name of god or the verses that make all other lifestyles seem terribly unhappy, for example. How different my experience is now than it was before. The book hasn’t changed, I haven’t even really “changed,” but my perspective has. Now I get my spiritual feeling elsewhere.

We each interpret the world through our own experiences. What would a life-long atheist understand about the feelings of a Mormon boy reading the scriptures? He might become familiar with the doctrines and the scriptures themselves, but he wouldn’t understand what it was like, not fully. The imaginative and empathetic person can feel a little of what someone else feels, but that has its own limitations. If I had never felt good while reading scriptures, how differently would I view my Mormon friends? How much less would I understand them?

Likewise, how can Mormons understand me and my experience?

Consider politics. A conservative friend hears a speech about protecting the second amendment from “Barrack Hussein Obama” and it rouses within him a righteous anger against those who are attempting to “weaken America.” That feeling is real. I hear the speech and make fun of it right away, titling the speaker as moron, idiot, zealot, dogmatic, and ridiculous. The words we heard were the same, the simplistic meme was the same, but the response it received from me and my friend are completely different.

We’re prepared by society and by our former training to accept some things and reject others instantly. I could list a hundred other examples, but I don’t think we need to bore ourselves with repetitive detail.

If it sounds like I’m playing the victim, I am. I’m realizing now how impossible it is for us to all understand each other for how we really are. We are perpetually prone to misjudge. We’re each victims of our own training.

Being offended

Realizing that full understanding is impossible (with almost everyone) doesn’t relieve us of responsibility to explain ourselves well. Words are powerful – the smallest of them can change the tone of a sentence and affect the way we react to it. Ignoring accountability for the words we choose is silly.

I’ve heard the LDS phrase “It’s your choice to be offended” enough times to cringe when I hear it now, and this seems like a good place to rant about it for a second.

No, it isn’t my choice to be offended. Linguistically it doesn’t even make sense. It’s no more my choice to be offended by someone than it is for me to be slapped – it is an action done to me by someone else. It is my choice how I react to that offense, or whether I’d like to remain upset, just like it’s my choice whether to slap someone back after they slap me, but let’s keep the language clear.

I’m sure the person who authored this unfortunate LDS phrase didn’t realize it was going to be used as a license for members to say whatever they wanted without consequence.  They may have meant the phrase to be used to say a state of mind like “being upset” or “being angry,” in which case it is true that I choose the emotion of being offended.  But if you say something racist or homophobic you can’t toss your hands in the air, repeat this LDS phrase, and avoid apology. Nor can I, after watching people misunderstand me, simply throw my hands in the air and blame it all on how impossible it is to be understood.

So it is that there are two truths, existent at the same time: it is impossible to understand others perfectly and it is my responsibility to make myself as easy to understand as possible.

The best writing

The best writing is true, and that doesn’t necessarily mean people will like it. After all the frivolous words fade from human memory–the vain, the dogmatic, the pretentious–these true words last because people continue to be influenced by them across generations. I wonder which words about our day will survive the passing of time and how many of them I would have agreed with.

If I want to write something true, I have to strike a delicate balance between disinterest and interest in how society responds to my words. On one extreme I would constantly be thinking about how people might react and my writing would become fickle and easily forgotten. On the other extreme I could become pompously disconnected from reality, too sure about my own conclusions.

I think I’ll leave the flatness for politicians that need votes and just be myself. Maybe then I’ll say something true enough that others will appreciate it and it will last. Or maybe not.

Maybe I’ll be a cloud that will shine resplendently when society becomes aware of my words (and when I’ve written my best). Or maybe I’ll be there in the sky, saying true things but going unnoticed, a midnight cloud with no one to see or a mid-day cloud with few to care, while brighter clouds give porch-sitting watchers their morning thoughts.

All I can do is live my life honestly and explain myself clearly, as disinterested in the sun and the porch-sitting watcher as that 7:30 wisp was in me.

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Oh, and here are some more awesome Texas clouds 🙂

2012 in review

2012 has been a year of blogging – I’ve started five blogs this year (OK, so . . . maybe six or seven), but have only consistently contributed to two: The Accidental Atheist and The Weekend Philanthropist.

I’ve found a lot of joy in learning to express myself more clearly and look forward to another year of writing in 2013.

As a cap to the year, here are the 2012 articles from this blog I’m the most happy about, along with an annual report from WordPress down below.  Enjoy!

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1) A Mormon Boy’s Mission to Save His Father.  In this article I show six snapshots of my life, how I developed the need to save my father from being gay, and what it was like.  Beyond starting (or continuing, really) an important conversation within my extended family, a lot of other readers liked this article’s approach and honesty – it wasn’t an argument, I was just saying what happened.  A version of this was published in Wells Fargo’s Pride Team Member Network along with my face and the subtext, “I am Wells Fargo, and I am also an LGBT ally”, a blogger or two included it in articles they wrote, and I made a lot of new friends.  Because of this and another post about homosexuality, I’ll also be involved in a new Mormon podcast that focuses on gays within the Church – I’m very excited for it!

2) The Day I Left the Church and 2 months before my mission ended.  More than any other posts I wrote, readers enjoyed seeing journal entries from when I was struggling with doubt.  Journals were written for myself and to myself alone, distanced from any need to convince other people – I was bluntly honest in a few of my entries and included them without edit for readers to view.  People have related with and connected with my experience, and I’ve had great phone conversations and meetings as a result.  I also think it helped readers see my sincerity of purpose.

3) Rea’s Story (Mom).  Probably the part of the blog I’m the most happy about, however, is something I didn’t write at all – the Story Series.  Wanting to have the same impact I saw from John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories Podcast, I opened up my blog to family members and friends so they could tell their stories: what it was like for them when they left, or when they returned to the Church, or why they’ve stayed.  I wanted to keep it balanced, showing each of these three perspectives, and the result was great.  The most-read story, and one which readers have really connected with, was written by my mom.

4)  Mormonism and Polygamy – A Call to Honesty.  Of all the posts I’ve written, this one took the most research and thought.  I wanted to express something that was central to my leaving the Church – I felt lied to by my own authorities (well, I was lied to).  I bought three new books and researched for over a month before posting this article.  It started an interesting debate, as you’ll see from the 82 comments (not counting the few I had to delete).  The conclusion to this article, the paragraph with bold text in it, is something I’m still proud of – it expresses well my sincere and extreme frustration and contains a challenge to Mormons to be more honest.

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written on this blog, as I’ve been focusing on philanthropy – please check out the 2012 review for The Weekend Philanthropist as well and see what you think!  I look forward to writing more in 2013 and hope you’ll continue to be a part of it.  🙂

If you’re curious, you’re welcome to read the Annual Report from WordPress that shows some of the stats from The Accidental Atheist.

Six Months of Blogging . . . Plenty More To Come

image courtesy of Genista

“Hey.  Hey you.  Ya, I’m talking to you.  I just wanted to take a break from eating my acorn here to say thanks for coming by.”

Acorn, Dexter marathons . . . same difference, right?

Well . . . I started this blog six months ago exactly – to the T, on the dot, crossing my i’s . . . err . . . something like that.

Anyway, I want to thank you all for reading.

There are many types of readers here . . . and I’m glad for all of you.

Most of you are silent visitors, and I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen and come back often.  Some of you come here because of curiosity; you look around for a minute or two, maybe longer if you liked an article.

Others of you are here to get your weekly frown in, giving sighs of ridicule while reading and talking about it later with friends or family in a “what a twerp” kind of way.  I really hope you’ve had more “hmmm . . .” moments than frustrated sighs and I hope I can open the conversation with you a little more.

Some of you are here because you relate; reading others’ thoughts helps you define your own experience.  Others of you are here because you want to understand why I left and why I oppose religious belief today.

Whatever brings you here to read, thanks for coming by.  There are so many things to do each day, so many people and companies asking for your attention, seeking your belief, time, or money.  I hope I’ve used your time well and that every time you’ve clicked away from my blog you’ve taken a little more knowledge, a little more understanding, and maybe a little more empathy for the “other side” of this issue, whichever side you come from.

Six months . . .

In our six months together there have been 28 posts, 331 comments, and 10,776 views.  Nine of you have shared your own stories and that has become the best part of the blog, I think.  Friends I hadn’t heard from in years have sent me messages, some calling me to repentance, others giving their critiques (which are always welcome), but most saying “thanks” or that they understand.  Some who are struggling with doubt or family problems have messaged me and we’ve made new relationships (or deepened old ones) in the solidarity that comes from common experience.

In writing I find ways to express myself, to develop my thoughts slowly and make sure I mean what I’m saying (though often I’ll still revise later).  Writing gives me a way to remember past thoughts and experiences and leave them engraved somewhere where others can find them.  I’m happy with how this blog has gone and am looking forward to the next step.

The next step

Well, we’ve focused on Mormonism for long enough, I think.  As the title of this blog suggests, this is about my accidental and unwanted step into atheism, from devoted disciple to active skeptic.  I’m brimming with ideas and topics I want to discuss about atheism and have a lot of material ready – it’s time to move to the topic of atheism, at least momentarily.  There is so much to write about though . . . so much I want to think about and put on paper.

Here’s what’s coming up:

  • Transition – my religious experiences after leaving the LDS Church, the search for another religion, the problems I found, apathy, a long break, agnosticism, and finally, atheism.
  • A series of articles about what death means to me as an atheist and former believer and how that view affects the way I live my life.
  • A discussion about bitterness in ex-Mormons, a new Story Series by those who are bitter, and a look into why I probably won’t stop talking about religion for the rest of my life.

Would you like this blog to take a different direction?  Are there any topics you’d like to hear about or to discuss as a group?  I can’t guarantee I can cover them – this blog is a place to tell my story, after all, and some subjects weren’t important to me or I may not know much about them – but I’d love to hear your request and see if I can fulfill it.

What parts of the blog have been your favorite?  Your least favorite?  Post your comment below or send me a personal message.  Also, go check out my philanthropy blog!  I’m traveling to Nicaragua in November, I interview local philanthropists and write about their programs, and I discuss common problems in philanthropy.

Thanks again for coming by!  If you like what we’re doing here please tell your friends or anyone else you think could benefit.  Until next time!

-Jefferson

(props to Genista for the awesome squirrel pic, and props to the squirrel for being so ridiculously attention-grabbing)

ps – here’s a note from an old friend (an active and believing Mormon):

I came across your blog tonight and have really enjoyed reading it. Who knew that the kid who would lurk below in the pool and bite down hard on peoples’ limbs for no reason was capable of such emotion and eloquence.:-)

I think most active Mormons fail to fully understand the emotional struggle that those who leave the church experience. I appreciate that your blog highlights these complex emotional issues. I think most members have many of the same struggles that you have had, but the culture of the church is such that any doubting is seen as weakness. More openness would be a lot healthier for members psychologically. I think the sugarcoating of history does more alienating than ‘protecting’ or whatever justification is given for it.  It gives the appearance of a ‘whited sepulcher’ to those already struggling with the history or tenets of the faith.

The Sounding Board: Mormonism & Polygamy – a Call to Honesty

discussion on mormon polygamy and honesty

Welcome to the first Sounding Board!  You can read about what the Sounding Board is by clicking here.  The original post is here.  Let’s get started!

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“Why does a person who has not only left the church, but also does not believe in God, ask for honesty from an organization which is just one of thousands in the world that are also less than forthcoming? I know your heart to be in a good place, Jefferson. But this is not clear to me. Can you expound a bit?”

  • This blog is my attempt to tell my story – what it was like to be Mormon, what caused me to doubt, what it was like leaving the church, and how I transitioned from belief in God to atheism.  This is an important part of the story I promised to tell.  Dishonesty is one of the primary reasons I left the Church and why I don’t believe in any religion today.  After trusting the LDS church for my whole life and realizing that I was lied to by others and by myself I never again accepted anything without skepticism.  But there is another reason for this article; I want to focus on helping the world improve in our current social framework – with you as a Mormon and me as an atheist.  I’m not going to get everyone to join atheistic hands and praise Darwin (you know, like at a midnight séance or something) and though I disagree with Mormon theology in a hundred ways, I’m not trying to get people to leave the church.  I think that’s an important difference between my blog and others I’ve seen.  As people do leave Mormonism or any other religion – great,  I’m here for them.  I think my blog will help them connect with like-minded people and deal with their difficult choice in a healthy way that doesn’t ruin relationships.  For those who are Mormon, I would like them to be honest to each other and the world.  I would like children to hear the truth about their history, not sanitized half-truths designed to give a good feeling about Joseph Smith – the real history.  Honest teaching of Church history would help people make an informed decision.  It would help church members understand those of us who have left.  It would help mend relationships because it wouldn’t seem like ex-Mormons were making things up or twisting information unfairly in an effort to disprove the church.  It would help us have a real conversation.

“Your posts have changed. Perhaps I misread, but earlier posts had a “lets understand each other” feel to them, this felt flippant and under thought in comparison.”

  • The first few blog posts were meant to establish the context of the blog – I wanted a forum of mutual respect, openness, and understanding before I got to the specifics of why I’m an atheist.  I don’t think this polygamy article is out of line because it illustrates a sincere concern I have with the Mormon Church.  This isn’t a small issue and it hasn’t only affected me; it is an important part of building understanding between both sides.  Just as a heads up, I’m about to begin writing memoirs based on my pre-mission and mission journals.  You’ll find sincere and heartfelt expressions of a believing Mormon boy and man, grateful for the truth God was teaching him.  You’ll see that boy struggle as he matures, you’ll feel his confusion from contradictory beliefs and the emotional ups and downs that came with each change.  You’ll see me disclose the sincere religious convictions I felt for years.  I hope you’ll stay around for the whole blog because it will balance itself out.  However, I won’t avoid being straightforward about challenging topics of Mormonism.
“He goes off track, in my opinion, when he makes his point boil down to the church changing to fit society/softening its edges. More important than the conformity to appeal to the masses is 1) the fact that Joseph Smith conducted himself in such a way as to use his position to convince GIRLS to marry him – whilst his wife was kept in the dark about his activities, and 2) the fact that the church has LIED and swept important things under the rug.”
  • Joseph’s actions carry serious implications – they are difficult for the Church to deal with and I think are a main motivation for dishonesty – but when I was a Mormon I didn’t know about the 14-year old girls or the specifics of how polygamy was practiced, so they didn’t cause me to doubt.  Rather, it was the feeling that information was being withheld and history misrepresented that caused me to lose trust for my church authorities.  Since the main purpose of this blog is to explain why I slowly moved to atheism, I chose to focus on that.  Also, I try to allow readers to come to their own conclusions rather than be spoon-fed; it’s a more rewarding way to read and saves us all time.  I think most people who read about a man hiding extra marriages from his wife will find that troubling . . . and I think they should.

“Not exactly written from a neutral ground perspective,” “well researched and well rounded,” “interesting, but unfortunately one sided,” incredibly well-researched and heartfelt.”

  • The votes are in, and . . . well, they don’t agree.  Though most readers thought this post was well-balanced, a few expressed the feeling that I was being negative or antagonistic.  I’m not sure what they felt was imbalanced (I haven’t heard back from them on any specifics) but I would like you to consider a few things about my approach to this article and a few concessions I made to be respectful to Mormons.  First of all, I left speculation out as much as possible by giving the frank historical facts with little interpretation, and when I did speculate I let you know (“historians speculate. . . .”).  For example, I said “Joseph believed God was commanding him to marry each woman and he didn’t have a choice” instead of “Joseph had a large sex drive and developed a theology to justify his adultery.”  Though that is an interesting conversation, it can’t be proven, and distracts from the primary goal of this article.  Also, I used “Joseph” instead of “Smith” and language like “Joseph received a revelation” instead of “Joseph purportedly received a revelation” to maintain the respect and closeness Mormons feel for their founder and to allow for that interpretation.  I’d like to suggest that it was not me that was antagonistic, but the history itself.  It doesn’t look good.

“Yes, I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, and yes, I too believe in polygamy.”

  • Great!  This is the honest answer.  You may then qualify your statement with “But we haven’t practiced it in over 100 years,” but if you say “no” or guffaw as if it is the most ridiculous question you’ve ever heard – you are lying.  End of story.  Polygamy is a central and important part of Mormon doctrine and history . . . it can’t be shed like an old pair of underwear just because no one wants to see it anymore.  Yet that is what the Church has done.  There was a good conversation in the comment section about whether or not it is OK for the church to be deceptive.  There were good points made on both sides, but I simply can’t approve deception from an organization that is supposed to be divine and godly.  I have a higher standard for myself and others; shouldn’t the Church of God have a higher standard for truth than me?  To be clear, I’ve written up a few examples of common answers by Mormons, PR reps, and Church leaders.  This is not a complete list, these are just answers I heard often while growing up.  After reading this post I hope you will never feel comfortable using one of these responses again.

Common answers by members:

  •  “Polygamy was revealed at a time when there were more women than men and they were crossing the plains.  The women needed to be taken care of, especially in that time when women couldn’t live on their own like they can now.”  This is one of the weakest answers I heard while growing up.  I chalk this up to ignorant members and don’t think this came from church leadership (at least I really hope it didn’t).  Census records show equal male and female populations, and many young men expressed their frustration that young women were marrying old men instead of people their age (we have access to their journals).  Also, early polygamous women typically had little financial support from their husbands.  Polygamy didn’t seem to “take care of them” in any earthly way, only spiritually.
  • “Joseph was commanded to restore all things.  Polygamy was commanded by God in previous dispensations (time periods when there were prophets on the earth) and God needed to restore it in this, the fullness of times.” This is part of the doctrinal answer, but pretends polygamy was something that “just had to happen for a while” as if God is checking off a list before he comes back to earth.  “Let’s see . . . alright, I’ve gotta make someone a prophet, I’ve gotta send my priesthood.  Check.  Check.  Oh, ya, we need a few people to have multiple wives for a while. . . .”
  • “Polygamy was about taking care of the women, it wasn’t about sex.”  “He didn’t have sex with the younger ones – if he did, he waited until they were older.”  That would be nice.  There is no historical evidence for this and quite a bit of evidence in contradiction to this.
  • “Polygamy was commanded by God so he could build his church quickly – once the church was strong enough, He commanded that it be stopped.”  Most importantly, this pretends a temporary and limited purpose for polygamy, and in early Mormon theology it was much more important than that.  Other than that, yes, growing the church was one rationale for polygamy and it is taught in LDS scripture (“to raise a righteous generation”).  Just one note here: there were plenty of other Mormon men could have had Mormon babies with their one Mormon wife.  Polygamy’s effect on the growth of the church was dynastic, not numerical: it strengthened links between central priesthood leaders and families and ensured more children were closely related to upper leadership.  In that way I supposed you could say it helped the Church grow.

PR Answers:

  • Part of President Hinckley’s interview with Larry King (1998), a few minutes into the transcript:

[Larry King]  “Now the big story raging in Utah — before we get back to morals and morals, is — the big story, if you don’t know it, is polygamy in Utah; there’s been major charges. The governor, Mike Leavitt, says that there are legal reasons why the state of Utah has not prosecuted alleged polygamists. Leavitt said plural marriage may be protected by the First Amendment. He is the great-great-grandson — is the governor — of a polygamist. First tell me about the church and polygamy. When it started and allowed it?

[Gordon B. Hinckley] “When our people came west they were permitted on a restricted scale.”

[Larry King] “You could have a certain amount of . . . ”

[Gordon B. Hinckley] “The figures I have are from — between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in it. It was a very limited practice; carefully safeguarded. In 1890, that practice was discontinued. The president of the church, the man who occupied the position which I occupy today, went before the people, said he had, oh, prayed about it, worked on it, and had received from the Lord a revelation that it was time to stop, to discontinue it then. That’s 118 years ago. It’s behind us.”

[Larry King] “But when the word is mentioned, when you hear the word, you think Mormon, right?”

[Gordon Hinckley] “You do it mistakenly. They have no connection with us whatever. They don’t belong to the church. There are actually no Mormon fundamentalists.”

I won’t get into everything here, but let me just point out the actual statistics of polygamy:

At present, perhaps the best estimates of the number of polygamous families among late-nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints range between 20 and 30 percent. Nevertheless, studies of individual communities show a wide variation in the incidence of plurality. Using 1880 census data, geographer Lowell C. “Ben” Bennion found the lowest percentage of polygamous families—5 percent—in Davis County’s south Weber and the highest—67 percent—in Orderville. He found 15 percent in Springville. In a study of St. George, historian Larry Logue found nearly 30 percent of the families polygamous in 1870 and 33 percent in 1880. (Alexander’s centennial history of Utah, quoted in Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity, 65 and 192)

Keep in mind that those are census records, which underestimate the amount of polygamy because many Mormons kept their polygamy secret (there was an intense amount of US government pressure on Mormons because of polygamy, invasion was threatened, laws passed, people imprisoned, etc).

  • There are a few LDS sites that give a decent explanation of polygamy.  Notice the word “decent.”  Here’s one: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/polygamy.  There still aren’t any specifics or numbers, but I wouldn’t demand all the numbers be included on a one page PR webpage.  (Again, I’m not expecting members to talk about all aspects of polygamy the first time someone asks them what their name is.  “HI, MY NAME IS JEFFERSON!  MY CHURCH USED TO BELIEVE THAT I COULD BECOME MORE EXALTED IN HEAVEN IF I MARRIED MANY WOMEN AND HAD LOTS OF BABIES!!” Or, “Joseph Smith saw a pillar of light . . . and then he married 33 women.”  That is silly.)  I would expect some substantive answer from the Church somewhere.  It doesn’t exist.  (If someone can find a better PR answer from the Church, I would be interested in seeing it.  I’d also be interested in any specific and detailed information found in church publications or manuals – I’ve never seen any.  Seriously – that’s not just a challenge.  I really would like to see it.)

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Thanks again for reading and joining the conversation.   Click here to go to the comment section on this sounding board.  Below are some more good articles about polygamy.  If you know about other good articles let me know and I’ll link them here as well:

http://blog.beliefnet.com/flunkingsainthood/2011/07/polygamy-by-numbers-how-many-mormons-were-really-involved.html/

http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/educating-people-about-the-gospel/

Two of the Most Important Videos Any Mormon/Ex-Mormon Could Watch

Over the last couple of days I have re-stumbled across two of the most important videos I’ve ever seen.  I strongly encourage anyone attempting to understand those who have left to dedicate 25 minutes to watch the first video and decide if you’d like to watch the second.

Video #1

Late 2011, John Dehlin and his associates fielded a survey in the effort to understand the main reasons people leave the LDS church and the perceived consequences of living as an ex-mormon within a Mormon community.  It targeted only those who had once believed the LDS church was “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” but no longer did.  To find participants the survey link was posted on several ex-mormon blogs and participants were self-selected; these results, therefore, don’t claim to be perfectly representative of the ex-mormon community, but the authors of the survey feel they do express the concerns they’ve heard echoed throughout the “bloggernacle” online.  There were 3,086 participants.

I think, if you watch or read nothing else I put on this blog, this is what I’d have you watch.  This presentation of survey results, given at a conference at UVU in Orem, Utah, is sensitive, straightforward, and calls every listener to be more understanding, real, and loving.  I think every member and ex-member should spend the time to watch it.

Video #2

In this extremely important video, John Dehlin discusses the issues that cause Mormons to question.  At the time the video was produced John was an active and believing member of the LDS church.  He still is, but now classifies himself as an “open Mormon,” citing the 13th Article of Faith to explain his position, “. . . we believe all things . . . we hope all things . . . we have endured many things . . . and we hope to be able to endure all things.  If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

Take a moment to watch the first 5 minutes and get a feel for what it’s like.  The topics he brings up are difficult to hear  but essential for transparency and understanding.  I believe he’s sincere when he says that is his purpose.  This is a great opportunity to hear the controversial issues discussed candidly through the mouth of a believing Mormon.