Transcending the Trivial: When Sports Are At Their Best

I was raised to see skin color and to pass judgments as if it mattered. For a boy growing up in rural, Mormon-pioneer-settled-community in Wyoming, I saw very few people who’s skin was not as white as mine. When I saw a white family at church with the black nephew and niece they were raising, my four-year-old self turned to my mom and asked, “Are those chocolate people?” My mother, horrified, hushed me while my father and older siblings chuckled. They hadn’t taught me to think like that, but I hadn’t been taught not to. I don’t think that four-year-old or his parents should be blamed for what was said. Other races were simply not in our line of sight on a regular basis. Our television received three, grainy, rabbit-ear signals out of the cosmopolitan enclaves of southeast Idaho and northern Utah. We didn’t have PBS–a good thing, too, since their liberal ways triggered my father. I didn’t get to see Mr. Rogers dip his feet in the pool with his black mail carrier until I was an adult looking for genuine role models.

What I did get to see, on the rare occasion they were broadcast, were sports. I didn’t really start watching them until I was ten. in 1990, just twelve years after the Mormon church finally allowed members with black skin to hold the priesthood and be married in their temples, Ty Detmer won the Heisman trophy for our BYU Cougar football program. The season captivated me as I fed off the excitement of my father and older brother. I also started to notice, that there were black people playing…and they were incredible athletes! Detmer won over Raghib Ismail and Eric Bieniemy! Despite being enamored by Detmer, I can’t remember any specific play from that season. I do remember the incredible kick return by Ismail that would have won the Orange Bowl had a penalty not nullified it.

Sports became a passion for me following that season. Up to this point, there had been little exposure to racism for me in my home. It was definitely there but it was subtle, built into the daily discourse in a way my young mind couldn’t discern. You might say it was systemic and by being so prevalent, it was normal. I figured everyone spoke this way.

We had our teams to follow–BYU anything; Steve Young’s San Francisco 49ers; and whomever was playing against the University of Wyoming. When basketball season came around, we peripherally followed the Utah Jazz. That white point guard they had was an acceptable role model. He wasn’t flashy but he was tough, smart, and dignified in his press conferences. He looked and sounded like us. But when a game came on the TV with two teams we didn’t know, I learned quickly how to decide which team to cheer for. When I asked who my father was cheering for, he almost always had picked a team, especially when it was basketball. “Why them?” I would ask.

“Because they have more white guys on the floor.”

Over time I learned to think in this way. I should cheer for the team with the most white guys because we are different than the black guys and…it mattered. If it mattered for something as trivial as sports outcomes, what about real, complex, divisive social, political, and personal issues?

I think that I felt there was something not quite right about this but, like my love of ice cream and my devotion to Mormonism, I absorbed some unhealthy habits from my dad. This trite phrase became hard-wired, expected for its consistency as well as its reliability and applicability. In essence, there was a difference when it came to race. I should notice white and black, and one reason to think this way was as a standard for deciding who to cheer for. Can you imagine how I felt when Barak Obama campaigned for the presidency against a white war hero or, *gasp*, a white Mormon?

THE ROOTS OF MY RACISM

I grant my parents and grandparents a pass. Why? Because, like anyone raised in a cult like Mormonism, everyone following orders is a victim. Add to that a moral superiority and divine infallibility exuded by the men at the top claiming to be modern-day Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and you can get anyone conditioned to defer to your judgement to say or do anything.

Artistic depictions of my white family’s and largely white church’s Palestinian-Jew, Jesus, were always of an anglo-Scandinavian male who’s slightly tanned flesh was the result of a bit too much desert sun. The actual words “white and delightsome” are used in The Book of Mormon to classify the good guys. The bad guys of the same book, in a vision to a prophet, were labeled as “a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.”

When that vision came to pass, we are told in 2 Nephi 5:21-25:

21…as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.

22 And thus saith the Lord God: I will cause that they shall be loathsome unto thy people, save they shall repent of their iniquities.

23 And cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed; for they shall be cursed even with the same cursing. And the Lord spake it, and it was done.

24 And because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety, and did seek in the wilderness for beasts of prey.

Don’t fret. These dark and loathsome creatures can reverse their “curse.” In fact, as recently as 1960, Mormon church leaders have taught that the curse can be and has been reversed so that the loathsome, dark skin of Native American children was becoming lighter! Prior to the civil war and for sometime after, leaders promoted the eternal rightness of enslaving people of African decent. Though the church wants to now promote the idea that these prophets were products of their time, other church leaders within the same governing body, The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were opposed to slavery. (Turns out that Brigham Young University bears the name of a decrepit racist) The apostle Orson Pratt, unlike the slave-holding and slaver-sympathizing leaders, opposed to slavery. He was certainly ahead of his time and perhaps should have been targeted by God to lead the church so that the church couldn’t be led astray against reassurances that said deity would never let that happen. Prohibitions against interracial marriage were taught from the pulpit for over one-hundred-thirty years. Until 1979, blacks couldn’t go to the temple for the most sacred, capstone-rite of Mormonism–eternal marriage to one’s spouse.

Those factors influenced my parent’s a great deal as the operating system they were given had been passed from their parents for at least six generations of Mormons. (That’s as far back as anyone can claim.) But my dad had his own reasons for cheering for the team with the most white boys playing. It took me thirty years to figure it out.

Members of the University of Wyoming’s “Black 14”

We cheered for BYU and whoever was playing against the University of Wyoming. This became a double-win when, as happened in 1969, BYU travelled to Laramie to be UW opponent. Fourteen black players at UW asked their coach if they could wear black armbands during the game to quietly protest BYU’s sponsoring entity’s–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–policy that excluded black individuals from equality in the church. The “Black 14” included seven starters on their nationally ranked team. The coach’s response was to promptly remove each of the players from the team, citing team rules. The University realized there could be a constitutional conflict with their rules and dropped the rules a week later. However, they did not reinstate the fourteen students.

The bad PR to the University of Wyoming is its own story. For my father, something else happened. Like the University of Wyoming, it was my father’s own fault for reacting as he chose to. His loathing for UW became permanent and irrevocable, a loathing he passed on to my older brother. I, too, carried the torch until reason prevailed over me, and I realized that the only chance of anything catching fire was my own decency. The larger choice my father made was to see black athletes as lazy and entitled and lesser.

His own mother, a vocal racist in her own right, used the word “negro” or “colored” as often as occasion would permit. A college tennis player in the early 1940’s, we watched tennis tournaments all summer in her home. Due to a lack of diversity, I saw few non-white competitors in tennis before Venus and Serena Williams. My grandmother was happy to see Venus win Wimbledon and talked about watching Arthur Ashe play. This was the first I’d heard of him. My grandmother was one of the sweetest women I knew. She was also the racist product of a sectarian, racist belief system and larger, racist social construct. We cheered for the Williams sisters in-spite-of their skin color. My father is her son with the slow erosion of social progress smoothing some of the rough edges.

The simple fact remains that through sports my father taught me that race matters. It may just be through sports that I have learned that it shouldn’t matter.

WHEN SPORTS ARE ONLY GAMES

I do not think my father is or ever was a malicious racist. I believe he would, like Abraham Lincoln, espouse and defend the axiom, “As I would not be a slave, so I will not be a master.” Even the great Lincoln, with his fight for emancipation, seemed to believe that whites and blacks could not or should not coexist. President Lincoln made attempts to garner support in an effort to expatriate blacks, after emancipation, in colonization efforts to Liberia or the Caribbean.

In 1880 Frederick Douglass said, “In all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln, I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race.” Yet, Douglass would also said, four years earlier, that Lincoln was, “In his interests, in his associations, in his habits fo thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”

I’ll accept both Lincoln’s–the Great Emancipator and the White Man’s President. Why should I revere half of one man? Why should I choose to see only the half of my father that maintains racist impulses or the half that would not be a master any more than he would be a slave?

Watching sports with my father, and football in particular, was always all about the contest. Extended breaks for replay were perpetual annoyances unless it benefitted our team. Distractions from the game and competition were almost always unwelcome. With the exception of the Olympic games, story lines were rarely compelling outside of the competition at hand. Unless, of course, it involved a former or current BYU athlete.

I recall in 1993 when Emmitt Smith held out from his expiring contract with the Dallas Cowboys. I think I remember it mostly because my dad thought such a thing as a holdout was immature and immoral. After all, Smith signed a contract. “When you sign a contract, you follow through.” (My father also opposed unions, convinced they were an apparatus of socialism at best, and that was an inevitable precursor to communism at worst.) During the 1993 season and the years on either side, we cheered for the San Francisco 49ers–the Dallas Cowboy rivals–led by BYU alum and future hall-of-fame Quarterback, Steve Young. Despite the Cowboys being our arch rival and a much better team with Smith on the field, my father seemed to take Smith’s holdout personally. “They are payed millions to play a game!”

I heard similar rhetoric, though with more disgust and vitriol from my father when Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during The National Anthem prior to Football games in 2016. This behavior had gone from something like Smith’s selfish demand for money to blatant disrespect for the United States of America and its divinely inspired and appointed National Anthem! Disrespect for the soldiers who had given their lives to defend its Constitution and the freedoms it outlines.

I’m not immune to the climactic, elation-inducement of a well-performed rendition of Francis Scott Keys’ lyrical majesty. When Whitney Houston performed our National Anthem in Tampa Bay before Super Bowl XXV, I was not yet a teen. With all that surrounded that monumental performance in 1990, perhaps it is no wonder that my father’s eyes were misty at the end. If you watch the video and see faces in the crowd, and even Ms. Houston’s, he wasn’t alone. To this day, her rendition of The Star Spangled Banner still brings a tear to my eye.

Let’s not forget that there are more verses to the Nation Anthem than the first. The author, himself a slave owner, penned the words that celebrate the United States of America as a bastion of freedom for the oppressed. Black men (women, black or white, weren’t counted at all) were legally considered only 3/5 of a man and then only for apportioning WHITE representatives to the U.S. Congress. For practical purposes, it would seem that few considered their black slaves as human at all. Treating them as beasts of burden and chattel, I think of Jefferson’s words (another slaveholding founding father who perhaps appreciated the irony of the practice) when he said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Even under the grand auspices of The Star Spangled Banner, we must admit that it contains a dream of freedom for everyone…so long as they are considered a human.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, father to the famed Supreme Court Justice, penned a fifth verse to the Anthem during the American Civil War. Perhaps we will one day, our nation may stand united when we have realized the hope contained in Homles verse:

Down, down, with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!

Until then, I don’t think we should find it offensive or even surprising that an entire community within our nation should find a hero who kneels for them. The song certainly did not represent them when it was written or adopted. After reflecting on the justice of God, Jefferson added, that God’s “justice cannot sleep forever.” And despite the famous Christmas refrain, “Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.” For now, I am left to trust in the goodness of collective humanity–an exhausting and discouraging course–to break the chains. Rosa, Martin, Colin, Bayard, Abraham, and George: If God’s justice is to be awoken, chains broken, and the oppressed to go free, it will begin these names and those we haven’t yet met who’s acts and words will inspire and indict.

Sports At It’s Worst


Fall in line. Do your duty. More dramatically, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” That is how I was raised. There’s no value in dissent. Conformity is far more honorable than individuality. Things are pretty good. The status quo works! Well, it works for families like mine. God. Family. Country. The United States is ordained by God! To serve one is to serve the other. Ms. Houston’s yet unrivaled performance of the Nation’s anthem evoked a great deal in my mind. Commitment to the flag and the institutions of the country. Somewhere within that, I believed that the government and the flag were the country

An injured olympian struggling to finish a race to which they’ve dedicated their life, only to see their father run from the stands to help them cross the finish line.

A high school athlete collapse when her body can’t go on, and struggle to rise, determined to finish when her competitor stops and lifts her as they cross the finish line together.

A professional athlete, idolized by a child visits them in their hospital bed granting them encouragement.

Alex Smith, determined to return to the field after a horrific injury and near deadly recovery, returns to competition and leads his team to the playoffs.

Victories of the human spirit over their circumstances. Sports can and often does inspire the best within us. Yet, the two-bladed-sword of humanity cleaves divisively in the opposite direction. Where there is the best, we often see the worst at work as well.

There exist grotesque levels of selfish, entitled, and violent behavior from fans, parents, and athletes. These often happen precisely over the less-important, silly-children’s-game aspects of sports. I can’t think of them being justified. But they happen when scores, playing time, and individual ego are taken too seriously by aspiring amateurs and overpaid, professional, athletic entertainers. Sports are at their worst when we take them too seriously for what they actually are. Other than money or pride, little rides on the outcomes of sporting events. A person’s livelihood may depend upon it, to be sure. And I expect that every player takes their job seriously. They put their health on the line to entertain. They are placed in an environment of physical and mental strain. I’m not surprised. But I have come to appreciate that sports can be so much more than entertainment. I want the entertainment, but I see now that we, all of us, need the game to be far more.

As a youth, I vaguely understood the ill-defined silhouette of these historical events and motivations leading up to and through the end of The Civil War. I pledged allegiance to the flag, saluted it appropriately in cub scouts, and Lincoln’s reminder or redefining at Getteysburg of “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people” may have made “the people” extensions of those symbols rather than the reason for their adoption. The military pomp with navy, marine, and army color-guards and air-force fighter-jet flyovers that accompany the National Anthem remind me of George Orwell’s words in his essay, My Country Right or Left. In the essay that explains how the middle-class are most susceptible to and are a nationalistic toward military service. He wrote, “I grew up in an atmosphere tinged with militarism…To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during, ‘God save the King.'”

Sports At It’s Best

From “God Save the King” to “The Star Spangled Banner”…

I was raised to hate an athlete like Colin Kaepernick. Overpaid prima donnas making a fortune to play a child’s game. What happened to the love of the game and striving for the best within us? The virtues that made college sports and the Olympics the pinnacle of athleticism? I just wanted to watch football. Get through the ceremony of the National Anthem and watch some football. The Anthem was out-of-place anyway. Not only should there exist a “wall of separation between church and state” as Jefferson once said, there ought to be a wall of separation between sports and patriotism. Are we to be indoctrinated as Orwell said by the vestigial rite we perform before each athletic contest? But that’s not really the point or, rather, it doesn’t have to be. What I did feel was a reverence for the song and the flag–symbols–not a reminder of what the symbols represent.

I tolerated the form which was made more important than the freedoms.
Now, consider the irony of my father’s dislike for Colin Kaepernick. For a man who believed that sports were a child’s game and could be little more than that, he refused to allow sports to represent something more. For a man or woman to use the stage of athletic contest for something other than entertainment; to kneel or sit and by so doing to stand for something much bigger than a game; this is where sports are at their very best! This is where a man like my father ought to see that an athlete might just be worth millions.

Transcending the events on the field is when sports is at its best–black fists raised in solidarity and black knees bent in memoriam. Triumph on the field of competition can’t mean more than victories in our communities and schools. If it’s all about cups and rings, my dad is right. Its just a game. A captivating but ultimately meaningless game played by adults. And the worst of it is just the natural offspring of it.

We’re not talking about an uninjured LeBron James walking off the floor with nearly six minutes remaining in a blowout, playoff loss. We’re talking about the difference between that “me first” behavior and The Black 14 who weren’t allowed to play for making a statement about something bigger than their own ego. I’m a white dude enjoying privilege and security from a life easy enough to grant me the time and energy to contemplate these things. I’m not sacrificing much. I write under a pseudonym to protect me from my family or friends learning my identity. Most of my family wouldn’t care if I expressed racist or sexist views if they were framed with the “wisdom” of ancient scripture or modern, prophetic catch-phrases. Harming the reputation of their tribe is what is important to them. They don’t care about Kaepernick’s tribe. Yet he and others have sacrificed their careers to their tribe. He took a knee in an attempt to raise his tribe’s station. I don’t doubt he would welcome a common unity where the only tribe that matters are those of the collective, human race.

When Kaepernick lost his value in the NFL, I heard some say, “It serves them right for being ____________.” This kind of reaction offers a lazy mind (dogmatic minds tend to be lazy) a comforting, facile deflection from engaging with difficult ideas. But when they fill-in-the-blank with “gay” or “a woman” or “a black man” it is necessarily preceded by a qualifier like “bitter”, “man-hating”, or “ignorant.” A white man is simply an “angry man”, or an “ignorant man.” In saying it this way, it seems to justify the anger or ignorance or at least to excuse it as understandable if not acceptable.

While the golden rule serves as a great mantra for those who feel empowered, it seems to fall short for the marginalized and oppressed. It can lay a groundwork for such individuals and groups to act passively when strength is called for in word and deed. The Bible played a powerful role in both oppression and emancipation. The fact that it can be used to justify both sides weakens its role as an arbiter. It encourages slaves to be subject to masters and for everyone to submit to the powers that be. Don’t go violently usurping an oppressive tyrant. God put him there to begin with!

Far better is the wisdom often attributed to Nelson Henderson though written by his son, Wesley, in the book, Under Whose Shade: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. seemed to be utilizing this mantra when he, realizing it would not happen in his life time, still dreamed of his own children playing with the children of his white neighbors as equals in dignity and opportunity. Can we say the same for Colin Kaepernick? It seems safe to assume that he put his career in serious jeopardy by “taking a knee.” Kapernick took a knee to direct people’s minds to the persistent inequity with which black people continue to endure in the land of the free.

Tim Tebow loved to take a knee. It’s hardly possible to imagine him without visualizing him on one knee. He took a knee to point attention to the “big man” in the sky. If it were not for that reason, why do it publicly? I don’t recall him kneeling during the Anthem, but should it matter? Both are attempting to point attention to where they feel it needs to be.

The difference is that we can all see the people to whom Kaepernick attempted to turn our collective attention. We don’t need to take anyone’s word for it. Sky Daddy has yet to come out of hiding yet society seems to pine and sappily ahhh when an athlete takes a penitent knee. It’s not only Tebow. Many athletes of every ethnicity do the same.

Like those who went before him, Kaepernick utilized his platform of athletic popularity to plant a tree. Today, athletes take knees during the National Anthem with some regularity. None of them risk their career and their reputations seem to recover well-enough. They bask in a shade under which their predecessors only dreamed.

What is the National Anthem? It is a poem put to music and adopted as a theme for the United States of America. It celebrates the grim nature of war if fought for a just cause. It celebrates a red, white, and blue fabric and the freedom from oppression for which it stands. It honors free and brave individuals who give their lives for collective emancipation.

Where we should honor the principles and ideals for which it stands, in this country our co-dependent relationship with an idol of billowing fabric too often supersedes the republic for which it stands. Many people in my circle who seemed incredibly offended by the passive, kneeling activism of Kaepernick and his disrespect toward the Stars and Stripes were reluctant or even obstinate in condemning the Capitol storming of January 6, 2020. Somehow, for them, the fabric of the flag and the F.S. Keys poem set to music are sacrosanct while the institutions and civic rites for which they stand are easily anathematized. Even by riled protestors waving the same flag in insurrection upon the floor of our congress.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, and spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of the earth.”

We can’t see the future but we have a clear view of the past and growing clarity of the present. Kierkegaard reminded us that, though we live our lives forward, we can only understand it backwards. Like Lincoln, the Black 14, and Colin Kaepernick, we don’t know the future. We can’t see it. We can only hope for it and strive to bring it into being. Whether on our feet or on our knees, it is our hearts that must learn empathy and our minds that must endure the painful struggle of understanding. We hope to see a tree, we hope to bask in its shade. I hope that we can find the shade as one people. I hope for a day when sports can be about the competition because, perhaps through sports, we will have arrived at a place dreamed of by those ahead of their time.

What’s In a Name?

I don’t like the circumcision of my name. When I was a kid, being called Pete didn’t bother me. Only a couple of my friends did it anyway. Here’s the thing, I don’t get angry or offended when someone calls me Pete. For some, it’s a term of endearment, for others it’s just their way. To be honest, the only time my name was used in derision was when someone called me Peter. If you can’t guess why, I’m guessing you were never in public or private middle school America.

I suppose I’ve reached a place of self-confidence and self-acceptance that the juvenile joke doesn’t bother me. I used to say, “The chief apostle of Jesus was named Peter,” as if that meant something and justified or made noble the name. It was the name of two of my revered great-grandfathers. If someone is going to call me Peter to mean Penis they could do worse. After all, the name means rock or the rock. With so many men my age beginning to ask their doctors about Viagra and Cialis prescriptions, being named after something hard could be taken as a compliment. If that’s the heads side of the coin, the tails side would be the allusion to something cold and lifeless. I suppose in this case I can have it both ways.

That’s exactly what the Mormon church seems to want. But when you’re playing with the devotion of your tithe payers under the guise of being led by a prophet, I don’t think you can. Might as well claim we have always been at war with Eurasia when last year we were always at war with Eastasia. So, can you change the name of a church carte blanche? Can using the term Mormon be a delight to God and a badge of honor until 2018 only to suddenly become an offense to God and to members?

I have heard it said and seen it written by devotees: “Calling us Mormon is the same as using the N-word.”

John Mulaney’s wit and wisdom sum this point up pretty well:

Mormon prophet, Russell Nelson declared:

“It is a command of the Lord.”

“…the name of the Church is not negotiable.”

“…if we allow nicknames to be used and adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, He (Jesus) is offended.”

“To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan.”

Mormon’s have been trained to cringe when the name of Jesus is uttered away from a pulpit in their church. Their own scripture from which Nelson plucked his feverishly fundamentalist interpretation and of which he has made a hobby horse for decades, also states that the highest level of the priesthood in Mormonism should be named after the great high priest, Melchizedek, from the Old Testament. The real name of the high priesthood is revealed in Doctrine and Covenants 107 to be, “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.” Why should the name be changed? The verse that immediately follows gives the answer: “out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.”

The irony is laughable. The emasculated reminiscence of Orwell’s 1984 can’t be lost on those viewing from the outside. However, I know it is lost to those on the inside who are convinced that their Big Brother can make 2+2=5 simply by decreeing it.

The Mormon church has a long history of utilizing Newspeak and the memory hole. In response to Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful Presidential campaign, the Mormon church initiated a campaign of their own. In 2010 they began sinking hundreds of millions of dollars in a worldwide public relations effort. What was this program called? The “I Am A Mormon” campaign. From Times Square to the London underground, the LDS church placed adds depicting Mormon celebrities and ordinary members proudly declaring, “I am a Mormon!” Youtube videos and the church’s own sites published these videos.

“I sell essential oils and recruit for a large, Provo, Utah-based MLM. I am the wife of an amazing husband, father, and dentist. I like sewing and canning vegetables I grow in the garden with my five, oddly-named children. I am happy and not weird. And, I’m a Mormon.”

“My name is Randon Blooms. You might know me as the lead singer of The Murders. I’ve recorded two gold records. I have my own line of non-alcoholic sugar drinks and anti-aphrodisiac colognes. I’ve travelled the world and founded a charity. I’m married to my cool wife for time and eternity. I’m totally normal and not weird. And, I’m a Mormon.”

This has been done before. Why not? Joseph Smith, the founding father of Mormonism taught that the name Mormon meant, more good. Like Melchizedek, Mormon is the name of a prophet so great that a book of scripture bears his name. What a great way to avoid repetition of the name of the Supreme Being! Then underling apostle, Russell Nelson spoke about the name of the church in April 1990. In response, member of the church’s first presidency and senior apostle, Gordon Hinkley, gave his own talk to the church six months later, in October 1990. After affirming the revealed and proper name of the church and admitting that not only would changing the nickname be difficult, it was also unnecessary. He said, “if there is any name that is totally honorable in its derivation, it is the name Mormon.

In addition to the I Am a Mormon campaign or, rather, part of it, was a church published feature film titled, “Meet the Mormons.” (Search it yourself, I don’t want to give their website yet another external link to push it up the search queue.) For one-hundred and eighty-eight years, the church and its divinely ordained prophets embraced and promoted the use of the nickname, Mormon. A reasonable choice considering their egomaniacal God’s strange reverence for and aversion to the use of the Greek derivation of his own earthly name. From 2010 to 2018 not only was Mormon accepted, it was sold to the world under divine guidance and with outrageous marketing funds.

By the day following Nelson’s revelatory scolding to members for the long tradition of reverencing Jesus’s name despite previous prophet’s endorsement, the term Mormon became a bad word. Members now recoil at it as a “victory for Satan.” A membership already stretched thin in lay callings to support the church–leading, teaching, planning, organizing youth groups, etc–in addition to their jobs and families, they are now expected to further exhaust themselves by repeating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is equally as exhausting to hear someone say though I must chuckle to myself at the discomfort and haste with which devoted church members seem to regurgitate the bitter cud. They would do well to take the advice of Brad Pitt’s character, Rusty, to Matt Damon’s character, Linus, in Ocean’s 11: “Don’t use seven words when four will do.”

As if members don’t have to give enough time to the church’s growth, how much do they lose with this banal and ridiculous exercise? Don’t use an eight word title when one will do. When Rusty offers the advice to Linus, it is to help him allay suspicions of the man whom he is conning–make him seem legitimate, even genuine. Ironically, that reasoning and advice apply well here. The word Mormon means something to people, for good or ill. During my time as a missionary, it seemed to predominantly have a quaint connotation for outsiders. They associated it with quirky but friendly folks who can be a bit annoying but mean no harm. Watching those quirky members try to honor their prophet’s counsel has a less favorable connotation. And outsiders aren’t stupid. They’ve seen the videos and advertisements from the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. They aren’t citizens of Oceania who have been trained to let things go down the memory hole. Mormons moved themselves from their comfortable, scriptural label of “peculiar people.” Lengthening the name has, by the very nature of it, taken them from peculiar to the forgivable but annoying, pedantic. Add to that the unforgivable, pretentious, and you’ve alienated yourselves further from a world you desperately want to be accepted into.

Ask yourself if you think it is ridiculous for God to to condemn an artistic rendering of the Prophet Mohammed be produced? Does the idea make you recoil? I hope that’s the least of your visceral reaction to such fundamentalism. What Russell Nelson and those members who went from making “I’m a Mormon” video’s on Saturday night to claiming that the use of the M-word is a victory for Satan by Sunday afternoon clearly demonstrates that fundamentalism is alive and well in Mormonism. Prophet Nelson demonstrates that either he and his predecessors have never been prophets or revelators or that their god is petty, capricious, and tinkering. If they are, indeed, revealing the mind of God, it doesn’t mean that they can’t agree, it means that their source, God, can’t agree with himself. He’s like a paranoid schizophrenic that thinks the world is out to get him! Even his covenant people. He can hear them talking about him. They’re following him! Time for another flood!

I don’t prefer the circumcision of my name and I am beginning to oppose the circumcision of the genitalia of children. But one circumcision I would support is with regards to the name of the church. Make Members-of-The-Chruch-of-Jesus-Christ-of-Latter-day-Saints Succinct Again!

Creating a God in Whom I could Believe

For all the outcry over individual mental and emotional and sexual autonomy in society, it seems that in finding shoe on the other foot we have discovered steel toes on both. Society largely agrees and vehemently declares that no one should compel another to believe anything they don’t want to. Anyone who uses societal shame to silence, de-platform, or shell any nut with an opinion is only doing what those who went before them have done. Tyrion Lannister, charming imp of the Game of Thrones series, cleverly observed that “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

Throughout history, men and women have been subjected to gruesome deaths or the very real threat of injury to life or limb for holding their own views and expressing them. Usually, their indictments and punishments came at the hands of some or other clerical bully who truly believed he had God on his side in passing and executing punishments for blasphemy or heresy. The excuse that it must be done “for the children” ought to be a red flag for any critical, free-thinking human.

The pressure to believe in god is all around me. It was in my upbringing, my marriage, the births of my children, my own devotion and faith of over thirty years. It’s programmed into my firmware and there don’t seem to be any updates beyond the age of twenty-five. About as far as I am able to take it is to reason that the belief is unfounded by any standard to which I hold any other aspect of my life. Martin Amis observed, “What one doesn’t learn from one’s parents one never learns, or learns awkwardly.” This must include the negation that whatever we learn from our parents we never unlearn or unlearn awkwardly.

I don’t exactly find myself yearning or pining for a relationship with god, but sometimes I want to believe that there is a being in control of the chaos. A creature that can really see the end from the beginning and who, with our ability to choose, allows the course of human events to play out to their natural conclusion. But that’s the extent of it. I can’t bring myself to believe in any of the gods postulated by any monotheism or the other religious traditions as I understand them. Vengeful, jealous, willing to command genocide and infanticide in his name. Eager to subject women to the superstition and sexual whims of men.

That’s not my god! It says right there in the Bible: God is love!

God punishes disbelief to the third and fourth generation. That’s not love.

You just don’t understand him. God can’t hate anyone or anything!

Have you read Proverbs 6? It clearly lists the things that your God “hates.”

Oh! That’s not what it means. He hates bad behavior!

Okay, what about Pslam 11:5? Clearly his hate is directed toward the people who exhibit bad behavior. Wicked is a pretty broad term.

That’s not what it means!

Forgive me while I scratch. I a severe allergy to double-speak.

Sixty-four percent of American’s responded affirmatively to the question, are you convinced god exists. From my experience amongst and as one of the devout, I presume that these same respondents also promote their belief that freedom and morality cannot exist without God. Each tradition has its slippery slopes that follow, but those are easy to ignore if you’ve been programmed to find comfortable in reassuring swaddling of cognitive dissonance. My proprietary, sixteenth-century firmware has been updated, but it really needs to be wiped clean and replaced with twenty-first century, open-source programming. (I do hate to think of a new paradigm as programming at all. Don’t carry the metaphor too far.)

Since the first anthropoid sought to explain the volcano, earthquake, tsunami, plague, crippling defect, or epileptic spasm, they have created gods and devils. Dreadful or benevolent–even some dichotomous combination of both–they have created many gods to fill the gaps of their understanding. Our species’ minds prefer a poor explanation to no explanation at all.


This long-honored the tradition involved man creating a God or gods in whom they could bring themselves to believe. Created in their own image, in other words–though perhaps not in totum. I realize there is a certain arrogance in this idea, a self-delusion against which one’s own faults must be ignored or embraced and rationalized. That is why I must confess, with a strange combination of pride and disgust, that the god I am now capable of conceiving is a deity in which I could believe rather than one in which I feel I must believe.


Such an imaginative undertaking is not that difficult. Most American’s have been exposed to Christianity. We have popular movies with their serious or comical depictions of gods and goddesses. The trick is to reconcile that god with reality in a way that allows that god to be as we all want him to be–loving, concerned with our individual and collective fates, omnipotent without being arrogant or negligent. My god is still derivative of the monotheistic interpretation of deity. It depends in part on the God revealed in the Torah, Bible, Book of Mormon, and Quran–a God we know to be petty, vindictive, demanding of uncritical and unending praise, homophobic, racist, and-on-and-on-and-on.

I don’t believe in the deity I am about to describe and, just to prove that he/she/it is my creation, I have conceived of a god that doesn’t care if I believe in them. That was really the nidus for my conceptualization. If you were truly eternal and all-powerful–not like an Earthly king who can be killed or could lose their power in defeat–would you care about endless praise? Would you care if someone said, “Oh my God!” It’s not even your name! It is a title in one, infantile language! Would you be so hurt if someone defiled a day you decreed as sacred by walking more than the allotted number of steps or buying a meal or going to the laundromat? Would you be so concerned with mandating a “day of rest?” Would inane observances of a single day of the week mean enough to your ego that you would threaten destruction for those who didn’t follow your edicts on it? And that’s just one of the most benign of the commandments!


Speaking of edicts and mandates and commandments: Why would covenants matter to God? Why would people need to make promises, binding themselves to oaths and promises of conformity and obedience to satisfy you? It feels like this eternal dictator of monotheism has an incredibly fragile ego that is idiotically disproportionate to their infinite capacity to comprehend, create, and foresee.


Are you all-powerful? If you are able to make laws simply by decree, why do you rely on a barbaric, human sacrifice to “save” people? Why not demonstrate to your creations the example of forgiving by simply forgiving those who recognize when they have wronged another, made an effort to make things right, and changed not only their behavior but their attitude? When you don’t establish a simple standard of forgiveness but require bronze-age blood-myths to achieve reconciliation with your less-than-the-dust-of-the-Earth creations, you promote the creation and perpetuation of religions from which holy martyrs, honor killings, and blood-atonement are preached as doctrines and praised as worthy of emulation. On top of this inanity, you find that your acolytes in Christianity, for example, adore the blood of their savior and the means by which it came, yet they recoil at the barbarity of rampant blood-sacrifice in other ancient civilizations.

When one defines someone’s god as vindictive, petty, narcissistic, punitive, greedy, or applies any other unseemly adjective to him, the condescending response that person must often be prepared to entertain is, “that’s not the God I’ve come to know.” Well, based on your holy scriptures, what other god could you know? Are not the sacred cannon the final word regarding God? Even you call the extremists in particular sects–including your own–“fundamentalists.” Why? Because they not only preach the verifiable fundamentals, they live according to them!


Once, during a long drive with a colleague who happened to be, broadly speaking, an evangelical Christian, the discussion meandered to my recent shift away from belief in a God or any god. I explained that I could no longer reconcile either intellectually, ethically, or in any other fashion, the fact that god had condoned and even commanded so many horrific things to be done in his name and for his glory. Of course, the Old Testament came to the fore and we settled on the injunctions to slay entire civilizations such as the Amalekites for the crime of, as Mel Gibson’s character said in the movie Maverick regarding the Native Americans, “being on our land before we got here.” My colleague, without any hint of remorse, irony, or even difficulty in saying it, defended the act as his God showing his love for his chosen people by keeping his promises to them. The God he knows is a promise keeper which is far more important that a respecter of life, as innocent as it may seem to me. To ancient Israel, the Amalekites were aggressors for living on a certain real estate that, as Christopher Hitchens ironically said regarding this territorial gift from an omniscient creator, is the only place in the Middle East with no oil.


So, what God could I believe in? I could believe in a monotheistic God who has allowed the holy scriptures to be written just as they are. Not to see if we will abide by them in every detail, but to see if our innate sense of solidarity, irony, and humanity can overcome the siren song of clerical authority. Are we courageous enough to speak out against slavery despite scriptural prescriptions of how to do it? Will we refuse to stone the adulterer or ostracize the homosexual? Mine would be a being that allows suffering but does not condone or command it. This deity would permit those that profess to speak for him to teach hideous, dangerous doctrines though he would not inspire them. My God, if he has allowed all of this wickedness and suffering, does so with pain and anguish so that he can see if we will rise above it. If we will subject our confusion and social desire to conform to our own humanity. My God does not need to be praised. I ask again: why would an eternal, all-powerful being need the praise of any mean mortal? What could our adoration give to him that he would make it a commandment that includes a penalty consisting of eternal torture as the punishment for the failure to obey?


In a more recent conversation, I expressed to my wife that, if nothing else were to change in the divinely allowed/proclaimed, revelatory database, I could believe in a certain type of God. After outlining what I have thus far written, she agreed with me. This is indeed the God in which she believes. I was taken aback by her concession for I have heard her justify Noah’s ark, Nephi decapitating Laban, and bears devouring rowdy, if rude, children. And I have heard her justify these divinely condoned happenings to our children. How can she claim to believe in the God I have just described? Were she to say that she had come to know Hitler, Stalin, or any other tyrant as a loving, caring, personal father-figure, I don’t think I could have been more surprised. It is as if, after studying chemistry first-hand, and teaching it to others, she were to say, “Sodium and chloride ions together make sugar.” The salt of her convictions would seem to have lost its savor.


It is a case of Stockholm syndrome? Defending the indefensible because of fear of offending and enticing to violence? Or even a misplaced affection for one’s tormentor? Or is it out of a duty to make palatable for consumption rather unsavory ideas that keep people like me from joining–or, rather, rejoining–the feast?
In Mormonism, one of their interesting doctrines revolves around punishment. In The Book of Mormon, Alma 42, instruction is given that God does not punish people, rather, they bring the punishments upon themselves. “There is a law given, and a punishment affixed…and the law inflicteth the punishment.” The tricky position is to ask the believing Mormon if they believe their God to be omnipotent. If they even know the definition of the word and do not attempt some sophistry in redefining it on the spot, some will claim that, in fact, their God is not all-powerful for he is bound by eternal laws. Their obsequious deference to the Book of Mormon does have its limits, but any doctrine–including polygamy, racist ideologies, and capital punishment for heresy–is not utterly dismissed, only deferred until the hereafter.


Many atheists, when asked what they will do if, upon death, they find themselves before the God of the Jews or Christians or Islam. (It seems only monotheists really care to challenge with this scenario.) When asked how he would respond to a God that asked him why he didn’t believe in Him, Bertrand Russell famously replied that the God had not provided enough evidence for himself. Other, more contemporary critics of religion like Dawkins and Hitchens have said that if God is really as loving and understanding as Christians make him out to be, they aren’t afraid to meet Him because they have lived their lives with the reason and moral integrity that this god would have created them with. They challenge the concept of a god of love by expecting that god to live up to his billing. A god that would not be impressed with people who espouse belief only to avoid punishment. That he would look at your life and judge you according to who you became despite the pressures of religions organized around barbaric, primitive writings of credulous peasants who knew nothing of germ theory, plate tectonics, astronomy, physics, biochemistry, or meteorology.

These same men and others have said that they would not wish to go to the heaven presented in the Christian, Jewish, or Islamic tradition. An eternity of praising the god of easily bruised ego.

So, here I am, doing what generations before and after me have and will do: creating a god in whom I could believe. And as much as he/she/it is beholden to the traditions of the past while being a reformation from them, I still cannot bring myself to believe. But, hey, my god doesn’t care about that. He appreciates my assimilation of new science and philosophy. I’m not a “good” person, but I don’t need to be. A “good” person in Mormonism, for example, used to support segregation and racism under prophetic teaching. They used to alienate and attempt to therapeutically heal gay people. They made women servile to men. They did all of these things, claiming the moral high ground…until they didn’t. My god isn’t impressed with this and, being created in his image, neither am I.

Shelf Abuse: The Agony and the Ecstasy

A common idiom amongst former or “ex” mormons who have been disaffected or driven away by capricious policies, chattel-like treatment, and deceits-come-to-light is that of their “shelf” breaking. The long, painful process of denial to acceptance typically involves the individual placing all their unanswered or poorly answered questions regarding the sordid history and practices of the church on an imaginary shelf to be answered later. What matters most is their faith and that is the soft wood of which their shelf is made. They trust that the answers will come either in this life with some meaningful sermon at the semi-annual general conference or, perhaps, not until after they have died. 

With enough time and enough unsatisfactory mingling of philosophy with scripture by their leaders, their shelves, weighed down by the decay of faith and the growing tomes of irreconcilable offenses to reason and common decency, their shelves creak and bow. Some, like myself, didn’t realize we had a shelf until it was already lying in splinters beside our tear-soaked feet.

There always seems to be a final straw. As for me, I was nearly an avowed atheist before I could let go of my faith in Mormonism and its anointed leadership. But in the throws of my doubt vs. faith prize-fight, the Mormon church put out a series of essays. Now, you have to understand, that I was a dutiful, repentant, letter-and-spirit-of-the-law, returned missionary, BYU graduate, temple-endowed and-sealed, life-long member. I defended the church against what I was told were “anti-mormon lies to defame and discredit Joseph Smith and the church.” I wasn’t the only one. The essays covered a range of topics from the proscription of blacks from holding the priesthood to polygamy to the authorship of a text known as The Book of Abraham which Mormon’s hold as sacred canon. 

The first one I read was Race and the Priesthood. A friend from high school, whom I had not spoken to in years shared it on Facebook. I didn’t know at that time that he was a disaffected, ex-member. But I was having more frequent and profound doubts of my own about the existence of God. The primary portion I recall is the careful prose-dance around the idea that Mormon church leaders, despite being declared by deity and sustained by fawning members as “prophets, seers, and revelators”, they were simply the products of their time. Of course, they won’t directly and concisely say it. Rather, they say:

“The Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.”

I would have basked in this lame excuse at one point in my life. Having read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, I begin to see what he meant when he said about political prose that “quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

In that moment, I remember feeling uneasy with the explanation. Primarily because I had long been taught that Mormon leaders could not lead the church or, indeed, the World astray. Consider the words of the the fourth president of the church, Wilford Woodruff on the heels of “officially” banning the practice of polygamy: 

“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”

Taken with the many scriptural injunctions such as that in the Old Testament book of Amos, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” I agree with the first seven words of that scripture, but for one who swallows the final ten words with the first seven, and you have a recipe for theocratic tyranny to take hold. Particularly amongst a people who continue to believe that their leaders cannot lead them astray. Couple that with the convenient revelation of Joseph Smith in the canonical Doctrine and Covenants, “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (emphasis added)

“Hey, you have to do everything I tell you because I’m the prophet.”

“Sure, but how do I know that is really God’s word?”

“Because I’m the prophet and I said so.”

To finish the Race and the Priesthood apologetics, they declare, “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”

This entire essay is not an apology nor an explanation. If we were speaking about a secular organization that did not claim to speak for God, we could understand the excuse that these men were products of their time. When you have racism codified in the Bible and The Book of Mormon and exemplified in the lives and teachings of Mormon leaders for a century you start to think that God must be a respecter of persons. He must have cursed blacks with dark skin because they were meant to be separated from whites.  This essay is an  exercise in subtly changing the dominant narrative of the church. It is a refutation of the scriptural injunction that God has spoken through his prophets. He makes no excuses. That his words will not pass away.

What it subtly points out with inadvertent irony is what the church really believes: Only prophets of the past are products of their time, not prophets of the present. Give them twenty years and present prophets are past prophets who were products of their time. The unfalsifiable nature of prophetic leadership is the problem.

Dallin Oaks, then a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in 2015 that the church does not seek apologies nor does it give them. In a follow up interview to clarify, he backed up his demagogic statement by seeking refuge in holy writ when he asserted that the word apology does not appear in the scriptures. I wonder if he’s ever seen the word repent in there? Look it up. In the Old Testament, even God is said, on multiple occasions, to have repented.

This is the same man who said it’s wrong to criticize church leaders, even if the criticism is true. I don’t know if he realizes in his posturing to seem big and important just how small these kinds of statements make him appear. All he is trying to do is silence dissenters to protect himself. Another small man–fictitious though not as fake as Mr. Oaks–Tyrion Lannister talked about apes like Oaks. He famously said, “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

To vilify those who would criticize you with truth is to attempt to transfer accountability to the credulous. To say that a living, sustained and anointed leader is above criticism by those he leads is to create a culture where victims are blamed. Many of these acolytes have already covenanted to avoid “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed,” a covenant which, until 1990, contained a penalty for breaking. Since I went to the temple post 1990, I have to parse this together with what I can find, but I believe the penalty is to have one’s chest opened and their heart torn out. Understand, this is not just a penalty to be imposed by God, but a wish for it to be imposed.

And then, we are required to forgive all men of every trespass. Even leaders who abuse and marginalize. The skilled leader uses the tired excuse: “I only declare God’s will. It is His will, not mine. By the way, we pretend to grieve for the hurt our words may cause but we don’t apologize. Remember, ‘by mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.'”

They feel justified in their self-delusion. Examples from their scriptures such as that of Elisha, the prophet, indifferently making his way to Mount Carmel after watching two she-bears tear apart 42 children, why wouldn’t the modern prophets demonstrate the same? After all, it was the boys own fault for teasing Elisha for being bald that made him curse them with the penalty. Only, it wasn’t Elisha’s penalty. He cursed them, sure, but it was God that sent the bears. (2 Kings 2:23-25) 

If I were a deist, I might not care. But the god theists have created is a petty, jealous, capricious image of themselves. Should I not blame the anointed leaders, I have to blame deity. One I am told is loving, forgiving, and infallible despite his petty and capricious methods demonstrated clearly in the Canon and in the lives and teachings of the modern prophets. 

Reflecting on the collapse of my own shelf, I am reminded of the words of Christopher Hitchens, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law. Tyranny can be petty.” You, Mr. Oaks and those who’ve come before, are petty and capricious. Tyrants sailing under the banner of divine anointing. To you and your God I deliver a hearty, non serviam.

The Mormon Temple: The Vain Search For Knowledge

I kept a journal as a young man, at the behest of church leaders. Far too much of my adolescent and teenaged drivel involved thoughts on whichever girl held my fancy in that moment. Some of it captured the journey of a young man searching for a faith like that which he had seen in his heroes and mentors and of which he’d read about in holy scriptures. I was impressed with the significance of a journal for my own posterity and, perhaps, some future biographer. Thus, I was careful to keep from revealing any shadows of doubt that might infest the fragile minds of those that might read. I certainly would not admit to any grievous sin. Even if I had a concern, and by some slim chance wrote it down, it was accompanied by a faithful inoculation of sorts. Some tired rhetorical phrase like, “But I know God has a plan for me.” Or the less sanguine but dutiful, “This is just a trial I need to get through.”

Most Mormons raised and active in the church and near enough to a temple will go for the first time at the age of twelve. This was changed recently in a brilliant and godly revelation to their prophet so that an eleven-year-old may “receive a recommend” and go in the year they will turn twelve. Probably some strange association with Joseph Smith saying “in my fifteenth year” rather than “when I was fourteen” in the official account of The First Vision. Such random associations like this seem to be where some revelations make their suggestion to the mind of a prophet in the latter days. 

As it was, from the ages of twelve to eighteen, our congregation would take two trips per year to Idaho Falls–the nearest temple to us geographically–to perform baptisms for the dead. This hideous rite is beyond simple–its excessively bland! Well-meaning adults with a spiritual eye spice it up by references and allusions to unseeable spirits attending your proxy ordinance on their behalf and accepting their salvation with whatever kinds of tears a disembodied spirit may be capable of producing. “If you could only see the joy they experience as you are baptized for them!” I heard that and similar propaganda at every visit. 

All-in-all, the experience was positive. I didn’t realize how strange it was and is until I was on the outside looking in. If you accept that Jesus could atone, by proxy, for each man and woman who had lived, was living, or would ever live on Earth, why not believe this seemingly charitable absurdity? The fact that a barbaric human sacrifice was necessary at all for an omnipotent deity is subject for another essay. As for me, I looked forward to these semi-annual trips. I found some pride in having a recommend that stated I was worthy to enter the house of the Lord. (Worthiness, another hot-button that would require it’s own essay.) 

Baptisms and confirmations for the dead are simply a normalization process for kids. Give them peaceful and pleasant experiences to inoculate them against the truly bizarre they will later experience if they “stay on the covenant path.” For it is anticipated that prior to a mission, each young man and woman will go to the temple for a secret, er, sacred series of ceremonies known as Intiatories which consist of nearly redundant, interdependent rites called Washing and Anointing, followed by the Endowment. For those who do not go on missions, these rites are completed prior to marriage in the temple with its own ceremony known as Sealing. In some cases, older members who join the church later in life or for whom, the covenant path was not followed as a young adult, they may receive their endowment at the recommendation of their bishop when he feels they are ready, but almost never before completing college.

I went to the temple in November 1998 during Thanksgiving holiday weekend. My sister and her husband were also having their endowment and being sealed since they were married civilly several years earlier. During that break from BYU, we met in Logan, Utah on Friday night. Unable to sleep or really concentrate on something productive, I stayed up playing video games that night, being anxious and excited at the prospect of receiving one of the Holy Priesthood’s most profound covenants. (I didn’t find out until later that there are several other, super VIP rituals that actually happen and, somehow, despite their claims to being Christian, these rites are a guarantee of exaltation with God no matter what they may do after receiving them.) I was later told that my poor choice of activity the night before, playing video games, was the reason I did not have a spiritual experience that first time. The fact that the game involved a gun fight did make me blame myself for not being able to see the heavenly in my first cult ritual. In retrospect, I recall replaying the final level of the game and repeatedly stepping out a door to fight the final boss who, in each instance, swiftly riddled my avatar with bullets, pushing me from a platform high above the ground. If the bullets didn’t kill me, the fall surely would finish the job. That metaphor for the whole temple experience is far more apropos. I stepped blindly onto a high platform, unprepared for what I would experience since, prior to the internet age, the church largely succeeded in cloaking the sacred rites in their illusory veil of secrecy. There is a “Temple Preparation” course, but at that time it was taught by those sworn to secrecy under penalty of brutal, divine retribution for revealing details of the rite. We had no idea what we were really committing to. It might have been like one telling me that when I saw the emperor, I would see that he wore clothes that were fashioned in god’s way, not man’s. When I saw the emperor I would recognize that he was naked, but if I saw that, it meant I wasn’t spiritual enough.

Recently, I read a from Omar Khayyam’s, Rubaiyat. His metaphor struck me:

Nor idle I who speak it, nor profane,

This playful wisdom growing out of pain;

How many midnights whitened into morn

Before the seeker knew he sought in vain.

You want to know the Secret—so did I,

Low in the dust I sought it, and on high

Sought it in awful flight from star to star,

The Sultan’s watchman of the starry sky.

Up, up, where Parwín’s hoofs stamp heaven’s floor,

My soul went knocking at each starry door,

Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair,

Clear-eyed I looked—and laughed—and climbed no more.

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:

No agony of any mortal brain

Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;

The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

I won’t describe the ceremonies in detail. If you want to know, the information is out there in written form as well as pirated video of the actual ceremony. However, I will share the relevant portions that created my first, truly doubtful journal entry in my young, pedantic life.

First, I’m taken to a room to hear an old man tell me just how important these covenants are. He impresses on me the sacred nature of the magical, cotton-poly underwear I will not only be permitted to wear after the ceremony, but expected to wear at all times save swimming and bathing. Not only that, he believes that like respectfully folded burial clothing Peter and James found in the tomb on that first Easter morning, I should never casually toss the garment of the holy priesthood in a corner or a dirty laundry bin. They are that sacred.

Second, my father acting as my escort, leads me to a changing room. Let’s say, an immaculate locker room with no permeating body odor or the echoes of crass jokes through the metallic partitions. (In retrospect, I find I prefer the latter. The sterility of the temple makes me feel more doubtful of it. Perhaps it is experience with whited-sepulchers. Christopher Hitchens said in Letters to a Young Contrarian, a book I highly recommend to anyone, “the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example.” I find I believe that more and more each day.) 

Even in this celestial changing room, I find it odd that people who are deemed worthy after scrutinizing questions about their sexuality, honesty, and integrity, still need lock their belongings in the company of other saints. I’m given a large, white poncho metaphorically–or hyperbolically–termed a shield. Aside from the thin layer of coarse fabric that is completely open at the sides, I’m nude. I can hold the sides closed–which I do–the predominantly cataract-dimmed eyes all around me notwithstanding. 

This whole process is by far the most strange element of the temple but, for me, not the most disturbing. To begin, a series of three old men touch various benign and very-near-to-intimate parts of my body with a finger dipped something akin to holy water while pronouncing blessings to those areas. Round one complete, a second round ensues in a similar fashion with an exchange of holy water for sacred oil with similar blessings to go along with each touch. Of course, I need to be touched in those sensitive areas not on but near my unmentionables because “Gods ways are not my ways.” When the cringe-inducing experience is over, one of the old men dresses me in my garments, vulgarly referred to by Mormon’s with a sense of irony and gentiles alike as magic underwear. A more recent reference to them as Jesus Jammies is more amusing if more profane–a tried and true recipe I might add. The old man struggles to bend over to do it and, as strange as it was, I’m worried that the covenant I just made is so profound that I should never take the holy undergarments off at all!

I can’t say I felt violated, but I did feel unsettled. It was when the Endowment began that I began to feel as if I were part of a cult. After passing through a place where I am given a new name,–one I believe is sacred and personal only to find out years later that the same name is given to every male on that day for themselves or for a dead person for which patron may be performing the ritual by proxy–I end up in a small, quaint auditorium of sorts. The monotone theatrics of the video and audio production were a bore and they never got better with new editions of the film. Not that any serious believer goes to the temple seeking entertainment, but they do go to learn and to do the work for the dead by proxy. There is nothing of value to be learned. It was near the beginning where a voice speaks to us over loudspeaker that we will be asked to make covenants with God! If we violate these covenants we will bring upon ourselves the judgments of a God who, like a human dictator, cannot tolerate being mocked. We are then informed that, if we do not feel comfortable taking upon us these covenants of our “own free-will and choice” we are invited to leave.

First: due to secrecy and the utter absence of “informed consent,” no one can have any idea what these covenants are!

Second: I’m sitting in the middle of nearly every person in the world who means anything to me! Those that are not there expect me to return to them having made these covenants. I was more than uneasy and seriously considered leaving, but I rested on the faith of my parents, siblings, and extended family members who were there. To this day, I’d love to hear of someone who stood up and left at this moment.

We proceed into the ritual which involves pirated Masonic secret handshakes, signs made with the hands and arms, and group chants. We are required to answer “yes” in unison with the group on several occasions, making the individual covenants that, together, compose the endowment ordinance. We progressively add layers to our clothing. Through it all we learn strange, ridiculous phrases that, upon our death, will help us pass by the angels who stand guard at the gates of heaven.    

All the warnings with which Mormonism and The Book of Mormon had warned me regarding “secret combinations” had left me fearful of organizations that performed strange rites in secret–and I hadn’t even learned the secret handshakes yet! I simply didn’t believe God worked this way. Heleman 6, in The Book of Mormon, outlines the dangerous “secret combination” known as the Gadianton robbers that had “their signs, yea, their secret signs, and their secret words” as well as “secret oaths and covenants.” I was a dedicated Mormon teen. I read The Book of Mormon at least three times prior to my first exposure to the temple.

After the rite, we are standing in an ornate room with a gigantic chandelier and soft cushioned couches. This room known as the Celestial Room is the end of the endowment. I’m on shaky legs and can barely swallow when my beaming family members come up and ask me in eager whispers, one-by-one, how it went. I pasted a smile on my face and generously said things like “it was interesting.” Or, “I guess I’ll have to come back.”

I didn’t write in my journal for a couple of weeks. I was in my final weeks of fall semester at BYU, and had relationship with a great girl in whom I was very interested. She reciprocated as much as one can in a chaste relationship. However, this journal entry captures my feelings well for, even after more than two weeks, it is all that is on my mind:

“I went through the Temple Nov. 28. It was a good experience but to be honest it was somewhat disturbing also. I have finals next week and then Christmas Vacation. Not king (I’m not sure if this is a misspelling, but that is what seem to have written) now before my mission. I am going to have to fight for my testimony now because for the first time in my life it’s waning. It started after the temple. Maybe I just don’t understand it well enough yet. I’m trying to be more faithful in things to help my testimony. I don’t know why the temple was such a shock to me but it was. I really feel somewhat lost at this point in my life.”

It must have been a very negative experience because I was not optimistic nor did I concern myself with the faith of those descendants who might read it one day. And within six weeks I would be pounding the pavement of Falls Church, Virginia in new Dr. Marten shoes. I would have other opportunities to go to the temple in those six weeks, each time to perform the work, by proxy, for the dead–usually an ancestor whom my mother had searched out.

Over the years I would return frequently, each time straining to find meaning, yearning to feel something as I learn to feel in the Mormon way. I would openly celebrate subtle and significant changes to the rites that made them less intrusive on personal space or that would raise women slightly from their subservient role to men to what, on the surface, would make them seem as equals in God’s eyes. Privately, I would wonder how a sacred, priesthood ordinance that I had been taught was unchanging, could be changed. 

The temple is called, by Mormons, The Mountain of the Lord. Some self-deluded and self-important reference to theophany–that Moses climbed a mountain for inspiration, so must we. That Abraham took his sacrifice to the top of a mountain, so must we. Mormon scripture even states that we “must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:4)

The reprehensible and disgusting idea celebrated by the pious is that we must be willing to sacrifice our children to prove our love of god. Of course, God is said to have offered an alternative that spared Isaac. Still, the fact that one would be willing to gut their child to prove their devotion to God is bad enough and we count intent in our legal system when passing judgment and sentencing. In a sense, I had climbed a figurative mountain to go through the temple. But no alternative was offered to me when the sacrifice of my intellect and my identity and my sense of goodness, decency, and free-will came into direct opposition to what I experienced there. I spent sixteen years returning often with my wife and our families. I strained to find the meaning it was supposed to contain. In the end, perhaps I failed the temple, but I have no reservation in declaring that those who “prepared” me and the temple itself failed me from the start.

In retrospect, it seems even more ridiculous now. The best experience I ever had with the temple was after I embraced my doubts and drove my wife three hours one-way so that she could attend. I declined to enter even though I carried that little recommend in my pocket. Never, in all the trips into the sacred rooms, did I ever feel the relief, satisfaction, or calm assurance that I was doing the right thing as I felt that day. Still, I live with fear of two things with regard to The House of the Lord. My oldest children already attend to do baptisms for the dead. One day, however, they may choose to experience the higher ordinances. These rites become more deluded with each decade. The shocking portions being lost down the memory hole. Becoming less offensive, will they the gradually watered-down, milquetoast rites see them for what they are? Second, I face the very real possibility of being forced, as an unworthy ex-mormon, to sit outside on the day they are sealed/married to their spouse. I get to miss one of the most important days of their lives. And, yes, there is a sense that if I loved them I would be worthy. An underlying idea that daddy isn’t a man of his word because, long ago, he made these covenants too only to break his promise to God. Another subject for another entry.

Now, like Omar Kayyam, I look back and think of the playful wisdom growing out of pain. How many years did I waste going to the temple in search of knowledge and wisdom from God, before [I] knew [I] sought in vain? I was told I would know THE SECRET of eternity! So I committed, remained faithful as I stayed on the covenant path that lead to The Mountain of the Lord. Kayyam more poetically said, “on high Sought it in awful fight from star to star…my soul went knocking at each starry door, Till on the stilly top of heaven’s stair, Clear-eyed I looked–and laughed”, or cried, “and climbed no more.”

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:

No agony of any mortal brain

Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;

The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

Like Beauty, So is Truth

I never thought I’d write a blog post that would end up empathetic toward Mormonism. That ought to reflect more on me than on mormons in general. I’m married to a staunch member of the faith, almost all of my family and circle of friends are members, and it still influences a great deal of my personal life. Feeling encompassed by its influence even as I would set a trajectory far from it, it’s no wonder I should harbor animosity. But, I should also, reasonably, be willing to praise the good about mormons and Mormonism.

I abandoned my faith about five years ago. In the last two years, my oldest sister and her family have found their way out of Mormonism. In addition to being very happy for her, it’s a relief to no longer feel alone in my family tribe. Despite having little to do with their decision, I do take some pride in her choice. During a conversation recently, we mused on the experience of someone close to us who endured an unconfirmed faith for more than two decades and who encourages us, despite our well-founded doubts, to follow their example. My sister expressed her sorrow for this person who lived two decades unfulfilled by her faith. One of realizations that started my faith transition was that, if you live in the midst of enough social pressure, the longer you expose your intellect and reasoning faculties to a particular idea, the easier it becomes to believe it and produce emotional experiences with it. In response to my sister, I texted, “You spend that long looking for meaning in something, your chains will begin to feel like wings.”

Being forced to love something or someone you also fear is, as Christopher Hitchens said often in debates, “the essence of sadomasochism.” Yet, we all live in this dichotomy, choosing to see our fetters as feathers that do not bind us but grant us the power of flight.

A knee-jerk platitude I adopted to maintain my sanity in relating to Mormons after abandoning their ranks was an adaptation of the famous line from novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, in Molly Brawn, that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” My mantra replaced the word beauty with “truth.” Inspired by my adaptation, I even attempted a free-form poem that, at the time, seemed quite good. I declared, “Like beauty, so is Truth, In the beholder’s eye.” I further mused:

     Facts do not require, neither do they ask,

     For open eyes or open heart;

     For Facts unseen, in the lonely dark

     Of ignorance or deceit, Facts remain.

In my ever-expanding study of philosophy and eager swan-dive into the refreshing pools of reason from the fright-inducing platform of faith, I find a strange comfort in the not-so-cold shadows and oddly-decompressing depths of the unknown. Where certainty was once my crutch for the unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable; where I once relegated all complicated queries–that had no revealed response–into the hands of my omnipotent and omniscient creator to answer after I passed from this veil of tears; now I find solace in allowing whatever is, simply, to be. Recently, I found broader application of the well-known prose of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in one of its preceding permutations–that of 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. In one of his essays on morals and politics he said, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” Like beauty, so is Truth.

Several years after writing my poem, I’ve become increasingly disinterested in attempting to understand what made myself as a Mormon–and those I still love and admire–defend the faith. How can one make rational that which, by definition and practice, is irrational? Yet, this point came home to me again as I read, by chance and within hours of one another, two essays.

The first essay is from Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic magazine, April 2002, titled, The Medals of His Defeats. Hitchens provides an iconoclastic, well-sourced synthesis of critiques on the life and character of Winston Churchill. It is a challenge to the romanticized, messianic ethos surrounding this mammoth figure of history.

The second comes from George Orwell published in 1946, titled, The Prevention of Literature. This essay is a rebuke of opposition to open-minded, untethered creation of prose in literature and journalism. The suppression of creativity should sound a warning to all of the slow and subtle march to tyranny we have always and will likely always face as a species.

I stated in my previous post titled, A Theocracy By Any Other Name Would Smell As Foul, that I have come to believe that the real, eternal struggle of the human species, is against totalitarianism. Theocracy–particularly the monotheistic kind–by my definition, is totalitarian. Seemingly secular, totalitarian governments thrive by learning from religious theocracies and adopting their forms. People need miracles, shame, a sense of duty to the divine, some person or entity to fight against, and leaders that are, if not divine, a little more than human.

Orwell said, “The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for discipline versus individualism.” Take, for example, a well-known quote from former Mormon church Apostle and President of its Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Boyd K. Packer. “I have a hard time with historians… because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and up-lifting.” Even as a true, believing Mormon, this struck a dissonant chord in me. I guess it was an early sign of my heretical propensity since, as Orwell put it, “A heretic—political, moral, religious, or aesthetic—was one who refused to outrage his own conscience.” To their credit, the prophetic counsel of Mr. Packer did not sit well with a great many believing Mormons.

The first step to hiding the facts is, simply, to hide them. As Orwell said regarding the years following the defeat of fascism and the rise of communism, the powers that be and the public at large “conspired to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed to him from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth.” Make the creative and critical minds into people who speak for the state. Give them approved talking points and encourage strange interpretations that are not a danger to the leaders’ power.

So long as an apologist with some credentials after their name is willing to follow Packer’s “counsel” by sharing only uplifting and inspiring facts, their truth is not in danger. “Uplifting” and “inspiring” are euphemisms here for the sinister idea that “the end justifies the means.” Lies are okay if they don’t harm faith. When one of the earliest stories in the Book of Mormon is the story of Nephi murdering a man who is essentially helpless just so he can recover an obscure collection of brass plates that contained the law of Moses inscribed upon them, and that act of murder is celebrated and justified, what means could not be justified in your defense of faith? Even the absurd assertion that the word “horse” in the Book of Mormon might refer to a strange animal known as a tapir that is evolutionarily related to a horse, is okay so long as it is designed to promote the faith. If you’ve seen a tapir, you might understand the absurdity since there are Book of Mormon stories of these early Americans riding their horses to war. Despite the fact that horses in America from the sixth century B.C. to the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 15th century A.D. stand as one of the more glaring anachronisms to Joseph Smith’s seminal work of faith-promoting fiction, the fact that tapirs share an ancestry with horses is of little help to the apologist. Rhinoceros share the same ancestry, but I suspect even devout Mormons who can swallow the camel-like tapir would likely strain at the gnat-like rhino loan-shift for the burdensome claim of horses in a purportedly ancient text. 

Despite what form Mormon apology takes, the reality is that the facts simply do not affect the perception that mormons take of their beloved truth. Like beauty, so is truth…

Compound this with covenants made in sacrosanct ceremonies in their hallowed temples to not “speak evil of the Lord’s anointed” and people feel they are bound by a promise to God to never say anything unfavorable toward any leader of the church past or present. Fact or not, it must not be spoken or even considered. The apologists that do speak of the unsavory and even criminal actions and words of prophets of the past tread carefully for they tread on the dreams of believing, devoted Mormons. And then to have current demagogue and ingratiating Mormon apostle and all-around asshole, Dallin Oaks say, on camera in a 2007 interview with PBS, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” The statement alone should pose a huge red-flag to anyone born and raised in a democracy or republic. Add to that the smug grin he wears as he says it! A normal, rational, free-thinking person shouldn’t need to hear more from Oaks to recognize a dictator masquerading as a saint. Then again, don’t all dictators put on the face of piety?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes an interesting observation regarding his murdering, adulterous uncle, “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Watch current president, Russell Nelson, speak about anything then imagine him telling impoverished members of the church in Africa that the cure for poverty is to pay tithing. It’s a brilliant tactic to say reprehensible things with a smile on one’s face; the populist tyrant feigning concern for the common man and woman when their real concern is maintaining their influence over them and padding their already bloated coffers. 

But, I’ve grown. There is still anger in me for I, too, gave two years to spread the church’s lies–lies I was told were truths and supported by any and all facts. As my relationship with the church has died, I have gone through the stages of grief. My faith meant everything to me when I was fully-invested in it. For me, I did what most Mormons continue to do, I denied my doubts at first. Denied for many years even after I began to feel in my heart that theism itself was baseless. When I began to understand that my doubts were as valid as my faith, I bargained for a time. Then, I got depressed. This lasted only a short time before I accepted. When my relationships with EVERYONE important to me became a constant strain and uncertainty loomed over my marriage, I got angry. This lasted a very long time and, frankly, its a roller coaster I continue to ride.

This week, however, I learned something new. Perhaps I knew it all along, but now I see it from a different, clearer angle. The dilemma, I realize, is not that a Mormon cannot accept the fact that Joseph Smith married, under coercive threats (the euphemism for threats that clergy prefer is promises or the heart-sell term, blessings), a fourteen-year-old girl serving in his home. It is not that they would reject the fact that Joseph couldn’t get his own story straight about the event erroneously and sensationally referred to as “The First Vision.” They may know that the narrative the church promotes regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon is incomplete and even a bit misleading. They are less likely to know about the tyrannical leadership of the church under Brigham Young. The disgusting and barbaric manner in which polygamy flourished in Utah under these ego-maniacal apostles. Facts are not in dispute in these disagreements. When they are, we shouldn’t be shocked to to see a believing member turn one-hundred-eighty degrees on their heel and defend what they had, only moments before, denied.

I wasn’t wrong, but my attitude about it wasn’t strictly applicable in the manner through which I both pityingly and pompously viewed my Mormon family and acquaintances. You see, as my faith dwindled my truth became utterly informed by and contingent upon facts. Since my closest friends and family, based on feelings, were prone to disagree with concrete facts of history and science, in my eyes, their truth disregarded facts and outraged reason. It’s not that I feel I’m right its that I believe in the context of constant application of agreed-upon morality and standards of evidence that even they apply to any other facet of their life, their truth with regard to their faith is often in direct conflict with facts.

The church knows the dominant narrative is unsustainable. As Hitchens said regarding Churchill, “A close reading of the increasingly voluminous revisionist literature disclosed many further examples of events that one thinks cannot really be true, or cannot be true if the quasi-official or consecrated narrative is to remain regnant.” Thus, the church with little fanfare and some clever placement on their website, published some well-known but little-read essays regarding complicated doctrines, practices, and history of the church. They have rewritten the first volumes in a multivolume history for members to read titled, Saints. Admissions without accountability. Acknowledging previously denied facts as if they were never suppressed or that the new information doesn’t really matter that much. Hitchens compared the details of Churchill that they, “not unlike the navels and genitalia in devotional painting, are figleafed in denial. They cannot exactly be omitted from the broader picture, nor can they be permitted any profane influence on its sanctity.”

This seems like progress-of-a-kind considering I was a missionary who, though I thought my leaders gave me the complete and honest story to share with future tithe-payers, ended up deceiving investigators about the church’s history and defending early cult leaders’ debaucheries. I shouldn’t be surprised since, like Oceania in Orwell’s 1984, the saints of God are always at war with the forces of the devil and “worldly” society. The primary difference is that Mormon’s are in a never-ending war with both Eurasia and Eastasia. So many things go down the memory hole in Mormonism, so much newspeak is introduced, that I can’t believe I bought into Churchill’s injunction that, in a time of war, “truth is so precious that she must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Notice, it is not fact, but truth that Churchill chooses to employ in his rhetoric. And, if you can keep the war going in the minds of the populace, you always have a justification for lies. For the Mormon who believes the absolute historicity of the Book of Mormon and Bible, they have already justified murder to defend their faith in the eternal, spiritual war.

You create an environment where, like Hitchens observes of Churchill, “action is judged by reputation rather than reputation by action.” Covenant to speak only good regarding church leaders. Remember it’s wrong to criticize them even when the criticism is true. Perhaps a trifle, Hitchens further says of Churchill misquoting Shakespeare, that “The thing is not to be right about Shakespeare. The thing is to be Shakespearean.” I might make a small change to show that, when you write the history as sympathetic, apologetic Mormons will do, the things is not to be right about history or doctrine or science, the thing is to be Mormon.

Vilify the opposition with this tired trope identified by Orwell when speaking of communism and Catholicism that they “are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that ‘the truth’ has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of ‘the truth’ and merely resists it out of selfish motives.” To be terse, anyone who disagrees has already been anathematized by the church in how it conditions members to think. This happens before the vocal doubter can even utter a word of dissent. My opinions and perspectives are not welcome with my family. They exist in a carefully crafted and sternly maintained echo chamber and want nothing more. They have become prisoners to their own opinions by silencing any dissent or even sincere questions.

In public addresses, Mormon leaders fall into the same patterns as communist leaders in seeking to maintain their grip on power. Orwell speaks of the attack on individualism with “words of abuse” that “do not have any agreed meaning” and “are difficult to answer. In this way the controversy is manoeuvred away from its real issue.” At the recent, April 2020 Mormon General Conference, Dieter Uchtdorf of the Twelve Apostles classified those who choose to leave the church as “headstrong, unruly child[ren].” Once the beloved apostle of exmormons due to his history of offering honest and generous appraisals of doubters, this single labelling may have undone the Silver Fox–at least in the exmormon community. The leaders maneuver away from real issues that drive faithful members from the church in exchange for belittling them as bratty, ungrateful kids. This isn’t an isolated thing. It is a chronic, systemic, proven tactic for keeping the faithful in line.

But it works because humans, evolved primates that we are, don’t use facts to inform our truth. We rely on our truth to inform and filter our facts. It’s not sinister in any way. I’m certain, despite my claims to the contrary, that I do have truths I hold that facts may not fully inform. My hope is that, if confronted with facts that contradict my truth, I would be quick to admit my error. Perhaps an important distinction is that as a mormon, I wanted my uncertainty to be certain. Now, I’m content with my uncertainty remaining uncertain.

For my family still stuck in the grips of theocracy, I love them. I don’t expect them to hear me with their carefully tuned fact-filters running at full power. What did it take for me to change my idea of truth? That’s hard to answer. Mostly, it was gentle and pressure-free exposure to contradictory ideas with a willingness to admit error. But I had to come to those states of mind on my own. Quiet reflection and willingness to speak with others. It took a desire to come to a knowledge of actual truth informed by facts. Mormon’s have a desire to come to a knowledge of the truth–it’s an injunction in their scriptures (2 Timothy 3:7).

I still struggle to hear harmful truths taught to my children, and I attempt to redirect their sights as necessary when I hear murder or child-rape excused or justified. Recognizing that their truths will stay with them means that I don’t often have to alter the truths they are taught, but I can insert other facts into the foundations of their thought. I can encourage them when they ask why god would command a man to kill another. I can praise them for their questions and pursue the course such inquiries take rather than degrade the idea and subdue it.

I still believe that truth is in the eye of the beholder. But facts, unseen, do fact remain. It doesn’t matter if either changes. They will both change over the course of our lives. Probably many times. What’s most important is to allow one’s mind the freedom to change; to hold to truths that can be falsified; to allow others the freedom to change their mind when new information is discovered. We cannot make ourselves the prisoners of our own ideas or truths by being unwilling to censor ourselves and our icons or to listen openly to contrary ideas. This is both how truth is refined and beauty is experienced.

Prisoners of Our Own Echo-Chambers

Have you ever watched a film or television show with a staunch Christian? I’ve watched many. Even the suggestion of sex produces tightly closed eyes, a turn of the head, and a comment like, “fast forward this!” Or, “let’s watch something else.” My favorite reaction is from an individual with whom I am well-acquainted. She is cautious regarding all topics that involve the perineum or breasts. Scandalous conversations such as the particulars of discomfort with wearing Mormon underwear or a nursing baby making a slurping sound. This woman, who neglected to even discuss menstral cycles or the birds and the bees with her daughters, can’t abide a mature discussion surrounding body image or marital intimacy. Her classic response is and always has been the passive-aggressive, “Can we talk about something else?”

So, consider television shows that depict the happenings of the Branch Davidians, news programs that expose Fundamentalist Mormons that continue to practice polygamy, or simply a fictional film depicting to loving adults sharing a kiss while lying on a couch? The Mormon mind is programmed to turn off, not allow itself to think and especially not to feel anything from these depictions or descriptions. Not only are Mormons under an injunction to “let virtue garnish [their] thoughts unceasingly” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45) they have the condemnation from their merciful, forgiving Jesus in Matthew 5 that “that whoeverlooks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

They have countless sermons that extol the necessity of controlling their thoughts to the point that they subdue even the slightest infatuation. Those that entertain such thoughts are on the path to adultery, STD’s, unplanned pregnancy and, worst of all, hell itself. Such an addiction are the actions that come from sexual urges, that they are to be completely and utterly quelled. In marriage, it seems, there is license to pursue them with the spouse. A little software programming can be altered at will, but when the firmware is designed and programmed to shame and disgust at anything sexual, the resources to reprogram it are not to be had in Mormonism. 

Ultimately, this prevents the devout from confronting unfavorable realities. They don’t refuse to see the parallels of disgusting cult leaders on television and their own, revered leaders, they simply can’t. Their brain shuts off to avoid lustful thoughts, and their hearts seal out all natural feelings a typical human primate capable of empathy has to child rape or sexual coercion of one’s acolytes.   

I’m not suggesting that Mormon leaders program their adherents in this way to prevent members from contemplating the ironies that coincide with their own sordid history. The rational conclusion would be that they are simply continuing the puritanical ideals in which the church began. However, that does not defeat the fact that such training in children and childish adults works to keep them from feeling and understanding the reality of what Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early church leaders did to their followers. 

If you won’t let yourself consider the plight of child brides amongst Fundamentalist Mormons in your own day, empathy for Helen Mar Kimball, fourteen-year-old bride to Joseph Smith. She only agreed after the Prophet promised that her marriage to him would ensure both she and her family eternal salvation. Others received similar promises and some threats of damnation if they did not. The same mind-forged manacle will not let them hear David Koresh convince his followers that he is to take the burden of sex for all the men to allow them to be celibate. 

Christopher Hitchens summarized a portion of Thomas Paine’s commentary on John Milton’s, Areopagitica, in a debate defending free speech. He said, “One of the vice’s of those who would repress the opinions of others is that they make themselves the prisoners of their own opinions because they deny themselves the right and the means of changing them.”

When we suppress speech or ideas that make us uncomfortable because they challenge our preconceptions and ardently-held beliefs, we make ourselves a prisoner of those beliefs. Such ideals are often indoctrinations we received as a child. And the means to changing or, at least, challenging them, is not to be found in a carefully constructed echo-chamber. 

Trial of Faith or Trial of Our Humanity

Before I stopped believing in Mormonism, I stopped believing in God–at least in the way Mormons claim Him to be. Fortunately, he seems to be essentially the same character in all monotheistic religions. Why not? They all find their roots in the Old Testament. I could see that trying to find a version of a truly loving and benevolent and omnipotent deity became a catch-22. I was dependent upon the ancient texts and their revelations of God’s character. Are we not taught–indeed preached to–that they are gods complete and final word on everything including himself?

I found one of the first books I chose to read after accepting my doubts regarding god quite by accident. In The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, he offers one of the most concise definitions of God yet given. It is a pleasing irony that the definition should come from an avowed atheist. And, in contrast to the faithful avowals of believers, is the only definition that seems entirely consistent with the sacred texts. Dawkins asserts, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Perhaps the only point at which a believer could argue against this definition without coming across as ignorant of their own scripture, is Dawkins’ categorization of the Bible as “fiction.” A skeptic can no more prove it is a work of fiction than a believer can prove that it is. Though the evidence does not seem to tip in favor of believers, when they attempt to stand upon the claim that it is factual in content and factually God’s revealed word, they become hopelessly bound to the remainder of Dawkins definition with little recourse to changing a skeptical mind from the reality of it.

Rationality and integrity left me with only one viable option for belief–leave faith at the door if it comes to me unwilling or unable to show its credentials. 

I don’t know where I first heard this, though I’ve heard it from catholic, protestant, and mormon alike:  God put fossils in the ground to test our faith.

I don’t mind this type of imaginative apologetics. It’s creative and interesting. It may even be true.  When you tie your hands to an Earth that is roughly six-thousand years old, something has to give. Worse, when you tie your hands to the idea that god might command you to kill your own son to show your faith, this is a trivial, whimsical postulate. It’s not going to be faith, so let it be reason and Occam’s razor. Though this line of thinking doesn’t make sense, it fits in well with Dawkin’s definition of him for such a being seems as if they would, like a cat, enjoy toying with the mouse over which it has ultimate power.

My sister and I were discussing the idea of god recently. We agreed that, even if it were true, would we want to worship such a God as portrayed int the Bible or Quran? We spent a good deal of our lives attempting to be worthy of his blessings and his approbation. Worthiness is a big deal for mormons and you get it by following the rules. You have interviews with a lay-clergyman at least twice a year as a teenager in which they evaluate your worthiness. To enter the temple, the most sacred place on Earth in which the most sacred covenants are made, requires passing a worthiness interview with the same lay-clergyman. You must be worthy to the end of your life to be with your family after death. They sing a hymn that states, “Then, when we have proven worthy of thy sacrifice divine, Lord, let us regain thy presence.”

As sister and I discussed the idea of God, she presented and idea about which I–an I assume many–have often considered. What if God has indeed given us–or allowed the publication of–such horrible texts as the Bible, Quran, and Book of Mormon to test our integrity, empathy, and humanity? An apologist can so easily accept that the deity they defend as infinitely-loving/benevolent and that respects not persons would deliberately place fossils in the rock or any other doubt-inducing idea/object/knowledge to test our faith. But if their god were truly as loving and knowing and eternal as they claim him or her to be, would this god actually have sanctioned slavery, genocide, and sexism? Would he, being all-powerful, have designed a plan that required the barbarism of a human sacrifice to save us from sins–many of them so petty as to be laughable–that he so graciously gave us?

If there is a god like religions claim him to be, it would seem more likely that he allowed the horrible Bible, self-proclaimed prophets, and divisive dogmas and racist, sexist practices simply to see if we can use the intellect and empathy inherent in our nature to overcome such blind faith? Maybe he wants to see if we will trust our own goodness and intuition more than we will trust the word of others. Maybe he wants to see if we will have the moral courage to break man-made conventions rather than assimilate them.

I don’t believe in God. But if I did, that might be one I could believe in. Nietzsche wrote, “We outgrew Christianity, not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close, even more because we grew out of it.” Reconciling our belief in this perfect god–created in our own image–with the God revealed in the holy texts, is a devastating experiencing. Perhaps it is a necessary experience to transcend bronze-age dogmas and move forward into an exponentially expanding enlightenment held back, if anything by the poorly represented but militantly defended God of revealed monotheism.

My Theocracy Right or Wro…Right!

We can typically agree on morality until someone opens up a holy book. Put the reprehensible action on the pages of an antiquated text considered by many to be scripture, and suddenly the injunction to murder becomes not only morally acceptable but divinely sanctioned. If it is the decree of the creator-god, it must be the highest of moral actions! Thus, imagine my godless, secularist satisfaction in listening to my children taught from The Book of Mormon that if someone disagrees with you, you can label them a threat and, with the authority of the government, have them exterminated if they won’t agree with you. Use their reluctance to comply with your way of doing things as the excuse. I mean, only an atheist believes that, as Dosotevsky deftly pointed out in The Brothers Karamozov, without God, all things are permitted…right? 

Excuse my previous sarcasm. I was horrified to hear, from my new and expanding vantage point, the story adoringly told–to my children!–of a character named Captain Moroni, asking for and being granted permission by the governor and the majority of citizens in a primitive America, to kill those who opposed the political ideology to which he and they subscribed. They refused to take up the weapons in defense of their own country, thus providing a ‘just reason’ to have them exterminated. The epigram that has been rendered, if you look through rose colored glasses, all red flags simply look like flags must have an auditory corollary. How could I have once venerated this disgusting character and barbarous story as an example of what it meant to fight for freedom and to uphold high virtue? The book was “written for our day” after all. And it’s ‘inspired’ text instructs the reader to “liken” the scriptures to themselves.

In his book, The God Delusion, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins highlights the interesting and frightening research of Israeli psychologist George Tamarin. From Dawkins himself:

Tamarin presented to more than a thousand Israeli schoolchildren, aged between eight and fourteen, the account of the battle of Jericho in the book of Joshua:

Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout; for the LORD has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction . . . But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.’ . . . Then they utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword . . . And they burned the city with fire, and all within it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD.”

Tamarin then asked the children a simple moral question: ‘Do you think Joshua and the Israelites acted rightly or not?’ They had to choose between A (total approval), B (partial approval) and C (total disapproval). The results were polarized: 66 per cent gave total approval and 26 per cent total disapproval, with rather fewer (8 per cent) in the middle with partial approval. Here are three typical answers from the total approval (A) group:

1) “In my opinion Joshua and the Sons of Israel acted well, and here are the reasons: God promised them this land, and gave them permission to conquer. If they would not have acted in this manner or killed anyone, then there would be the danger that the Sons of Israel would have assimilated among the Goyim.”

2) “In my opinion Joshua was right when he did it, one reason being that God commanded him to exterminate the people so that the tribes of Israel will not be able to assimilate amongst them and learn their bad ways.”

3) “Joshua did good because the people who inhabited the land were of a different religion, and when Joshua killed them he wiped their religion from the earth.”

The justification for the genocidal massacre by Joshua is religious in every case. Even those in category C, who gave total disapproval, did so, in some cases, for backhanded religious reasons. One girl, for example, disapproved of Joshua’s conquering Jericho because, in order to do so, he had to enter it:

1) “I think it is bad, since the Arabs are impure and if one enters an impure land one will also become impure and share their curse.”

Two others who totally disapproved did so because Joshua destroyed everything, including animals and property, instead of keeping some as spoil for the Israelites:

1) “I think Joshua did not act well, as they could have spared the animals for themselves.”

2) “I think Joshua did not act well, as he could have left the property of Jericho; if he had not destroyed the property it would have belonged to the Israelites.”

Once again the sage Maimonides, often cited for his scholarly wisdom, is in no doubt where he stands on this issue: ‘It is a positive commandment to destroy the seven nations, as it is said: Thou shalt utterly destroy them. If one does not put to death any of them that falls into one’s power, one transgresses a negative commandment, as it is said: Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth!

Unlike Maimonides, the children in Tamarin’s experiment were young enough to be innocent. Presumably the savage views they expressed were those of their parents, or the cultural group in which they were brought up. It is, I suppose, not unlikely that Palestinian children, brought up in the same war-torn country, would offer equivalent opinions in the opposite direction. These considerations fill me with despair. They seem to show the immense power of religion, and especially the religious upbringing of children, to divide people and foster historic enmities and hereditary vendettas. I cannot help remarking that two out of Tamarin’s three representative quotations from group A mentioned the evils of assimilation, while the third one stressed the importance of killing people in order to stamp out their religion.

Tamarin ran a fascinating control group in his experiment. A different group of 168 Israeli children were given the same text from the book of Joshua, but with Joshua’s own name replaced by ‘General Lin’ and ‘Israel’ replaced by ‘a Chinese kingdom 3,000 years ago’. Now the experiment gave opposite results. Only 7 per cent approved of General Lin’s behaviour, and 75 per cent disapproved. In other words, when their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. Joshua’s action was a deed of barbaric genocide. But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts early in life. It was religion that made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.”

(edited for formatting)

If you need me to explain to you why the above quotation is horrifying, you’re not the target of my writing even if you are the subject. The justification is together absurd and horrifying and, in no conceivable way, can be made to seem as if the injunction came from loving, omnipotent God that is no respecter of persons. Perhaps the only difference between Joshua’s story and that of Captain Moroni from The Book of Mormon is that the state-sanctioned murder of thousands is made to appear as a noble and heroic act of goodness and freedom conquering tyranny. To the victors often go the spoils and they alone are left to tell the tale of their conquering and they never malign themselves in the telling. 

Regarding Captain Moroni and the chief judge of the people, Pahoran: I have come to believe and written regularly of the struggle of humankind against tyranny. The real human struggle has been and always will be the struggle against totalitarianism. Absolutism is its methodology and it thrives by convincing its supporters that it serves them. Label the regime with any classification you want: democratic, people’s republic, socialist, stalinist. It really is by their fruits you shall know them. That is how I came to see the sordid but obvious totalitarian nature of what happens in the first twenty-two verses of Alma 51 of The Book of Mormon. 

According to the text, after many years of peace (v.1), suddenly there was a “contention among the people” for “there were a part of the people who desired that a few particular points of the law should be altered”(v.2). The leader of the people, Pahoran, called the Chief Judge, would not change the law (v. 3). We must assume that it was in his power to do so. And what, you may ask, did this small faction of citizens want changed? Before we answer that, this is not a governmental system that operates democratically, at least not in the way we understand in our day. There is no legislative body. Though the people may petition–the word itself is used several times in text–the chief judge has what seems to be not just judicial power as his title indicates, he also has legislative power (as shown in his denial to use said power to change the law) and executive power (as we will see later). 

The framers of the U.S. constitution and those of many subsequent democracies around the world realized that to have all three powers in one place constituted a tyranny. They separated the powers to limit the tyrannical capacity of any one group or person and that each governing body might check the abuse of another. While this system has been known to fail, the balance of justice has largely been as equitable as mere primates with our barbaric history could hope for as we seek, under the protections of our young governmental systems, to further realize untainted equality for each citizen under the law.

 Back to Pahoran: the minority who disagreed with their chief judge’s ruling, were angry and wanted him removed from power. Verse four even states that “there arose a warm dispute concerning the matter, but not unto bloodshed.” Sounds like a reasonable protest. Perhaps they stood outside the capital building or “white house” in Zarahemla (the capital of Christian peoples in first century B.C.E. America) with signs and chanting slogans like, “Stop Pretending You’re Not A King and Give Us the Real Thing!” Primitive as they were, they didn’t attempt a violent overthrow. They ought to be given some points for that. 

Verse five is where the “rose by any other name” business becomes unabashedly flagrant. For a man acting like a king and endowed with such power, it’s comical that it would be written, “those who were desirous that Pahoran should be dethroned from the judgment-seat were called king-men, for they were desirous that the law should be altered in a manner to overthrow the free government and to establish a king over the land.” Do I need to point out that the text LITERALLY uses the word THRONE? 

Mormon’s love to publish the fact that Joseph Smith couldn’t have written The Book of Mormon because he only had a third grade education. This story proves that they are right about one thing, he wasn’t well-educated. His ignorance is on full-display here, further convincing me that he did, indeed, author this work of fiction. Pahoran had every power of a king and employed them. These dissenters simply wanted to replace the existing tyrant with one of their choosing. 

The only quality that marks Pahoran as a “freeman” is that he supported and maintained the religion of the people. Here, we have a tyrant becoming a theocrat. It is in “maintain[ing] their rights and the privileges of their religion” that they think they can call themselves “a free government” (v.6). Demonstrating a vestige of democratic principles, in verse seven, we are told “that this matter of their contention was settled by the voice of the people. And it came to pass that the voice of the people came in favor of the freemen, and Pahoran retained the judgment-seat, which caused much rejoicing among the brethren of Pahoran and also many of the people of liberty, who also put the king-men to silence, that they durst not oppose but were obliged to maintain the cause of freedom.”

First, Pahoran did listen to the people though we already know that it was in his power to change the law regardless of what the people said. Second, when these king-men lost their attempt at changing the law peaceably, they did not oppose the ruling. Sounds like a peaceful and democratic attempt at pursuing one’s political ideals. They failed, but they remained civil.

Remember the “executive power” in government? Here is another example of its tyrannical use in this chapter. In the next several verses, we learn that an enemy of the Nephites was preparing to wage war against them. Say what you will about the king-men here. According to the story they were happy with this attack by their countries enemies and refused to fight to protect it. The military leader, Captain Moroni, became “exceedingly wroth because of the stubbornness of those people whom he had labored with so much diligence to preserve; yea, he was exceedingly wroth; his soul was filled with anger against them. And it came to pass that he sent a petition, with the voice of the people, unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should read it, and give him (Moroni) power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death” (vv.14-15).

Moroni was so concerned with “put[ing] an end to such contentions and dissensions among the people” that he believed the end justified the means. Luckily for him, the tyranny of the majority won, and the voice of the people was given what it wanted. They could slaughter their fellow countrymen if they refused to submit to conscription (v.16). Just like a good democracy of free people, the government allowed the military to act against its own people. Of course, it is again put in religious terms here because, as verse seventeen says, it was necessary “to pull down their pride and their nobility and level them with the earth.” Instead of saving his own army to fight their enemies, he decides to risk their lives to fight citizens who were NOT uprising.

Use of military against one’s own people, particularly those not in rebellion but, in a civil manner, opposing a government action, is a hallmark of despotism. And, with all three governmental powers in the hands of Pahoran, the king-men had no one to whom they could turn for redress. Sounds like the freemen were such in name only. I’m reminded of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and others who labeled dissenters as “counter-revolutionaries” and used their military might to slaughter them by the millions. In the end, “there were four thousand of those dissenters who were hewn down by the sword; and those of their leaders who were not slain in battle were taken and cast into prison, for there was no time for their trials at this period” (v.19). 

This is the first time any type of judicial proceeding is mentioned. It ought to be said again that Moroni’s intention and injunction was “to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death.” When they saw the army coming it was to kill them if they did not comply. Ironically, in verse twenty-two, it is actually said that this Captain Moroni was “subjecting them to peace and civilization!” It reminds me of Christopher Hitchens pointing out the demeaning irony of a person telling him, “Of course we have free will! The boss insists on it.” 

Which group acted with impunity, as if they held the “divine right” to do so? Do I need to add the medieval, sanctimonious “of Kings” to drive the point home? Was their cause so, absolutely right that they must eliminate dissent? That’s what many communist and fascist regimes have done and how they’ve justified it. The communists always call their nation “the people’s ___________” to, as Pahoran did with “the voice of the people,” behave as if the majority of common men and women sanctioned their actions. Simply label anyone who disagrees, no matter how peacefully, as “counter-revolutionaries” or “dissidents” and sentence them to death without due process. One man becomes judge, jury, and executioner and is given authority by another man acting as a despot would. Lenin encourage Stalin to be more brutal, to raise the death toll, to strike fear in the heart of any who would dissent against their workers’ revolution. Bring down the nobility! Up with the poor and humble. Lenin is to Pahoran as Stalin is to Captain Moroni.

Who are the king-men in this story? Just because you label someone a king-man, doesn’t make them one. If Pahoran and Moroni are kings in their “new clothes” they’ve managed to convince not only their B.C.E. subjects that they are freemen but also to convince their highly educated, twenty-first century audience of the same. Like a naked tyrant, everyone is unwilling to point out the obvious. Pretty soon, everyone goes along with it. After all, they’ve just seen Moroni slaughter fellow-citizens who dare to peacefully ask for a change in the law he didn’t agree with. You have the power, you create the labels and the people accept them. 

If anything, this is a cautionary tale from which we ought to learn a different lesson. Do not to let those in charge have too much influence on what you think! And learn how you think! In a democracy, as we know it and as should have been understood by an omnipotent god inspiring a book of scripture “for our day,” citizens can work to change laws to match their ideals and goals. They understand that they have to change individual voters perceptions to make this happen. Or, in a republic, you petition your legislators to work at changing the law. This seems to be what the king-men attempted and failed to do.

In a tyranny (theocracy) all that you need to do is to change the populace as a whole. Kill off entire populations or classes that stand in your way. Take their lives or their property. Instill fear in those that survive the purge. That’s how you get your way. It’s not just the leaders who crave this. Look at the French revolution and the zeal of the people who supported it?

Don’t think that Mormon’s are opposed to kings or even that they believe kings are okay but democracy is better. King Benjamin and King Mosiah are revered characters in The Book of Mormon. Aside from their example and that of many others in their holy texts, one verse I’ve often heard quoted in Sunday school is from Mosiah 29:13. “Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.”

This, my friends, is the attempt to establish a theocracy. Does anyone reading this really want sharia in the United States or Europe? Would you like for adultery to be punishable by stoning? Would you be concerned if it became illegal to wear clothing of mixed fabrics? Does slavery as outlined in and sanctioned by the Bible be alright with you? Even in a democracy or a republic, if you want another to have to live by your standards, your might be inclined to tyranny over them. We can agree that murder is wrong for everyone. But should no one be allowed to eat meat? Or drink wine or coffee? What about work on Sunday? 

Perhaps we would do well to learn from Oscar Wilde who said, “Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and to be more, and to do more.”

Illusions of Grandeur: Politics, Religion, and Polite Company

Considering the relative ease with which one buries refuse at a landfill, relative to the difficulty one faces of burying within their mind harmful, detestable, insidious ideology, it would seem one method of trash handling is not applicable to all circumstances. Neither is the modern ease with which we dispose of excrement to be found in the shit-sifting that is breaking free of childhood indoctrination. Without a severe blow to the head, it would seem the evolved primate brain to which we are dependent, is nearly incapable of purging noxious patterns of  programming. Perhaps this understanding illuminated Christopher Hitchens when he wrote, “Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown.” 

Growth is about change. Change comes as we enlarge our view of the world, of others, and of ourselves. The foremost challenge is against our preconcieved notions and long-held traditions. When we refuse to entertain new information we become prisoners of our own illusions.  “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the Earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” The appetizing fruit at the top of the pile is enough to satisfy our eyes to the point that we may say either the rot doesn’t exist–a willfully ignorant position–or, more sinisterly, the rot doesn’t matter at all. How deep are we willing to dig for truth? Does complete truth matter or only our small, superficial view of the surface layer we allow ourselves to see?

I once believed and was often taught that after death, one of my regrets would almost invariably be that I had spent too little time in study of the scriptures. Now I can say that I feel precisely the opposite. Committed to my memory are a small collection of wisdom from Kipling, Shakespeare, Frost, and Twain. Crowding the precious and seemingly more resistant space within the same memory are a festering, heaping, landfill of Bible and Book of Mormon versus. Myths and fanciful teachings of men like Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other “prophets.” These are largely passages and phrases to which I was exposed from the ages of fourteen to thirty. Try as I might, the process of “burying” the refuse with fresh soil in which new epigrams, lessons, and sonnets may be stored has proved much more difficult than I might have imagined. But where I cannot obscure or flush away the stinking waste, I am attempting to outgrow it.

In addition, I faced the guilt of wanting to read anything if I had not yet read from The Book of Mormon. If I hadn’t given time to reading the Mormon foundational scripture that day, I was making a poor choice to read something else. I felt less guilt for reading books or articles by church leaders or apologists, slightly more for clever but harmless fiction, and shame for an interest in literature or philosophy with their dangerous, liberal ideas. This guilt often won and, despite my piety, I wound up reading nothing at all. Outside of school obligations, I found reading or studying those things that interested me a burden rather than a joy. I sated myself with the droning punditry of Fox News and thought I had learned something. 

Unfortunately, it is not simply an issue of available space or adequate time. As the venerable Twain was known to have said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so.” Former Congressional Librarian, Daniel J. Boorstin is credited with refining and focussing Twain’s sentiment when he said, “The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” Herein lies the greater tragedy of my youth. Space can be made or expanded in the miraculous mind of a human, but changing the manner in which one learns, the lens through which they view the world, and reclaiming the time spent conforming the square mind of the indoctrinated to the round hole of reason and logic proves far more difficult than I might have imagined. Falling into old ways of thinking and responding to feelings in a reactionary reflex to protect my ideas and, indeed, my feelings from a perceived attack requires some professional help to deprogram. Especially when I was nurtured to equate disagreement with hostility and depravity.

Though I ask for and accept no sympathy regarding these emotional and mental handicaps, I cannot keep my reader from recoiling in disgust and their heart swelling with the natural primate impulse to empathy when I reveal that I received a degree in Neuroscience from Brigham Young University. The only ill-will I hold in regards to my time there is with respect to the academic integrity. I’ll allow one example to speak for my scientific education at BYU. (Though a great deal could be said about the required “religious” studies credits which amounted to one, two-credit course each semester!)

On a pleasant afternoon, I made my usual journey on foot from my off-campus apartment to the heart of campus for a class. I took a path through the Wilkinson Student Center to find that the university President, Merrill J. Bateman (a member of the LDS church’s First Quorum of the Seventy and thus sustained as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” by the membership of the church), had subjected himself to an open question and answer session. Any student willing to wait in line could ask whatever question was on their mind. I watched the display for some time as students asked questions ranging from the understandable “married housing is too expensive on campus, what are you going to do about it?” to the inane “how can we keep the girls on campus from wearing immodest clothing? For gosh-sakes, their knees are visible! And sometimes their clavicle!”

Finding that I had time on my hands, I stepped in line to see if I could ask a question. This was not long after I had returned home from my two-year missionary service. I had become more indoctrinated in that time and more confident in my faith. I had a real world to live and work in. I wanted to know and understand the secular arguments that I would inevitably encounter. The sooner I was exposed, the sooner I could wrap them tidily in the revealed truth of the gospel. As it turns out, due to the time constraints, I became the last individual to ask a question. “It seems to me that students are not treated as adults in our science classes. My professors hedge as if they walk on broken glass when the subjects of big bang cosmology or evolution come up. We hear a banal statement from the church on the first day of each semester in any natural science class. A statement from 1909. Why can’t our professors treat us like thinking adults and teach us what they surely learned in their PhD programs?”

As if his brain shut down or, rather, went into his ecclesiastical programming at the mention of “big bang” and its debaucherous cousin, “evolution,” Mr. Bateman said nothing more or less than, “The church has made a statement on the origin of man. I would refer you to their statement for any clarification anyone would seek on this matter.” And, like a good prophet, seer, and revelator, he walked away. The crowd dispersed, and I went to whatever class was on my schedule with a strange sense of anti-fulfillment. It wasn’t that I had failed to be fulfilled, it was that any fire of scholastic fulfillment had been doused by a needless evasion. What if I had asked him about the veracity of the 1969 Moon landing and he had said, “I refer you to a statement by LDS Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, from 1961:

We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.

I wonder how many books this was written in? Remember, this was from the mouth of an Apostle of Jesus Christ, a prophet, seer, and revelator to members of the church that sustained him as such. To take it to the ultimate endgame, he believed himself an Apostle chosen by God to minister to the WHOLE WORLD even if only his acolytes in the church were listening. He didn’t muse it in a journal or say it jokingly over donuts and cider. It was said in an official church meeting in Hawaii over which he would have been viewed as the presiding authority. 

So, it came as no surprise to read another compelling observation of Mark Twain. “All schools, all colleges have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge which they conceal cannot justly be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten.” It turns out that Mr. Twain was more prophetic about BYU than Joseph Fielding Smith was regarding space exploration. He was also more insightful regarding the Mormon church’s long history of consciously concealing the unsavory and deceitful aspects of the church’s history that rot at the bottom of the basket of the “appealing” fruit they sell. By their fruits, ye shall know them! Just don’t forget to raise the first layer to see what lurks beneath. 

This type of wizard-behind-the-curtain or king’s-new-clothes might be nothing more than an amusing blip in the human species collective history if reason could win the day. In his iconoclastic expose on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens adroitly observed, “In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjurer is only the instrument of the audience. He may even announce himself as a trickster and a clever prestidigitator and yet gull the crowd.” Ask those who sustained Joseph Fielding Smith a prophet of God if his rotten, prophetic fruit dissuaded their opinion in any way? Or, more to Hitchens point, what about the followers of Mormonism’s not-so-distant cousin led by Warren Jeffs? This man, once placed in prison and after languishing for some time, announced to his followers that he was a fallen prophet. Ironically, the statement is a “revelation” that the Lord “dictated” to Jeffs. But, he was their prophet! Of course, they would not listen–even to him. Not listening to what you don’t want to hear is a long-honored tradition for the zealous faithful. For the faithful, their hearing may be selective though not so selective as what they choose to believe. Where the ears cannot always be guarded, the mind can be made nearly impervious to challenges to one’s faith.

Merrill Bateman’s answer demonstrated two aspects of NEWSPEAK from George Orwell’s 1984. At the end of the narrative story, Orwell includes a section called “The Principles of Newspeak.” Of the need for brain activity in answering questions regarding INGSOC, or in my case, The Church, he said: 

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brains centres at all…[words were] ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox one, it implied nothing but praise…

I don’t doubt that, in a private conversation with Mr. Bateman, the topic of evolution or The Big Bang would result in much more fulfilling and insightful dialectic. Orwell further expressed regarding Newspeak: 

For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray for the the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument, and the texture of the words, with their harsh sound and a certain wifely ugliness which was in accord with the spirit of Ingsoc, assisted the process still further.

Language is simply a tool for the pious devotees to those truths who’s only evidence is faith. The real depth of the chasm to be crossed is determined by the height of the cliffs which abut it. They are the tangible reality on one side in which everyone shares sense experience. On the other side is the reality that many “see” through their lens of faith. They have a scriptural teaching that “now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Worse yet, they are instructed in their perfect, divinely inspired book in the same verse that “now I know in part; but then shall I know…”

We can share the experience of watching the sun rise. We can expect similar physiologic results from medicines. We can watch the same video of the President lying to the world. We can read the same histories of “holy men” declaring that they are the husband of one wife while secretly having wed dozens of other women and girls. We can study the same anthropology, archaeology, and DNA history of the world. The reality of these facts and countless others, are there for the individuals of the world to share.The facts remain indifferent the conclusions drawn. In the world of falsifiable science, we are eager to render the best conclusions. Often we are right! That does not make the intellectually honest unwilling to change or outgrow their assumptions and conclusions under the light of new information or contrary evidence.  

But what about the unfalsifiable? How can we verify heaven? Especially when we have so many, conflicting versions of the same? There is no evidence we can point to that a person can share or verify in any way. In a recent conversation with my own mother, I was told that with the coronavirus pandemic, the wildfires, the social unrest, and the threat of war with various countries, the second coming of Jesus Christ couldn’t be far off. “When the church announces temples in Independence and Far West, Missouri,” (a totally Mormon thing associated with Jesus coming again) “I’m gonna say I told you so.” 

Aside from my disdain for those who crave death and destruction upon the world for their illusion to be made real, I was hurt by my mother’s attitude. However, I have developed a thicker skin and a confidence in how my mind works. I attribute this to my confidence in my intellect but my willingness to be proven wrong. My reply was calm as I said, “Well, your position is unfalsifiable. You’ll always be waiting to tell me ‘I told you so.’ I would never want to say that to you. But there is not and never will be anything you’d accept as evidence against your position. If it does happen, you’ll say I’m right. If it doesn’t you’ll say, ‘We weren’t worthy of it.’ Or, ‘God works in His time.'”

My mother, and many others, believe their concept of heaven is more real than their experience here. This veil of tears is an illusion. They will reject any and all evidence present in this illusion if it does not conform to the reality of their heaven. They can reject evolution, physics, climate science, psychology, medicine, etc because they are products of an illusion. “I reject the evidence of my eyes and ears for the ideas of my mind and heart because right now, we see through a glass darkly.”

How many families have been torn apart because the faith-devoted spouse rejects the love of their unbelieving husband, demonstrated through decades of commitment, affection, and intimacy for the illusion, born of hope and unsupported by ANY evidence, that after she dies she can bask in the eternal love of a white-bearded old man in heaven? The pious will willingly and joyfully sacrifice relationships with children and grandchildren in the tangible now to build a future kingdom through missionary work and to save the dead. All of this is dependent upon their illusion of a future kingdom–an illusion they “know” is more real than reality. “You may be LGBT now but I will cut you off to show you that I care more about an illusory exaltation than our real, demonstrable relationship. One day you’ll thank me, my child.”

It’s not only the power of religion that can and does arouse such devotion. I used to view iconoclasts as petty, negative swamp rats that gloried in controversy and provocation. I see them quite differently now. To place any individual in a position of glory, saviorship, and adoration creates a fertile bed for cults of personality to take root. It is then a short growing season to the harvest of tyranny. 

How often have we heard Donald Trump say something grotesque regarding women, those with mental or physical handicaps, or call dead soldiers “losers”? How many times has he said something idiotic or wrong regarding the coronavirus? He may be ill-informed or simply ignorant of facts in some cases. But do a web search of the verified LIES he has said or written. The stance I’ve heard from his supporters? “The media doesn’t give him a fair shake.” And, yes, I’ve heard this one, including yesterday from a Republican Party pollster going door to door in my neighborhood, “The real Donald Trump isn’t the one you see on TV or Twitter.”

Their idea of him is more real that the reality of what he has said and done on record. Again, what he says and does are well-reported facts that supporters and opposers alike can share. But for the believer, there is no way to falsify their position. NEWSPEAK has gone from Trump’s witless rambling to infect his supporters. Their brains have shut-off to let Trump and the vociferous right’s inane language become their bulwark. He mocks you for your belief. He’s bragged–BRAGGED–that his followers are so loyal, he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and not lose a single vote. He’s not an idiot but he knows his supporters are. That is why he mocks you. This is not praise for you. Can you imagine anyone saying this? Even Stalin was more shrewd than this. It’s the equivalent of a mob boss looking you in the face and, knowing how pathetic and sycophantic you are, telling you, “I could tear your kids from your arms, kick you out of the country, and kill your spouse in-front-of you and you’d still love me.” It’s not praise, it’s bragging! He’s taunting you. Your illusion of who he is is more real to you than the reality we can actually, mutually see, hear, and read about.

There is another level of devotion to an illusion, however, that may be more disturbing. What is truly frightening is when people acknowledge the shared reality in the face of their individual illusion, yet claim it does not have any affect on their reality. This degree of devotion requires an obscene amount of “inoculation” and “brainwashing.” It is nearly always a case of special pleading. They reserve their harshest judgements for any and all other individuals while refraining from applying the same to their revered leader/savior/prophet. If Joe Biden were to have said or done what Donald Trump had said or done, the rules they refuse to apply to Trump suddenly become paramount against Biden. This is a broader human problem for which both sides of the aisle are guilty. It seems, to me, far more apparent now with the would-be-dictator currently inhabiting the White House. 

Oft attributed to Jonathan Swift, the following is perhaps less eloquently rendered but still as true, “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.” Put another way that elucidates the emotional aspect of the same epigrammatic image, English Poet John Dryden said, “A man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reason’d into truth.” The two topics, politics and religion, that we oft avoid but of which G.K. Chesterton said, “There is nothing else to discuss,” are simply emotional realms. They don’t have to be, but changing human nature will not happen by the dialectic. Again, we can’t change our illusions or our nature, we must learn to and work to outgrow them. This is where the dialectic is ALL THAT WE HAVE.

Along my journey, I’ve leaned on many forms of support as I challenged my own illusions and grown to accept my doubts. My journey accelerated around a significant back injury, surgery, and recovery. Frequent walks were the prescription therapy in the weeks following surgery. Up to five walks a day with increasing duration. As the paths I walked around my home became more familiar, I looked for insight and distraction from audiobooks and music. Already a casual fan of Coldplay, they had a new album released, Ghost Stories, that I began listening to during these walks. This led me to other albums. The most supportive and insightful during that time was their album X&Y. Among the applicable tracks, the song Talk applies well here: 

Oh brother, I can’t, I can’t get through

I’ve been trying hard to reach you ’cause I don’t know what to do

Oh brother, I can’t believe it’s true

I’m so scared about the future, and I wanna talk to you

Oh, I wanna talk to you

You can take a picture of something you see

In the future where will I be?

You can climb a ladder up to the sun

Or a write a song nobody has sung

Or do something that’s never been done

Are you lost or incomplete?

Do you feel like a puzzle, you can’t find your missing piece?

Tell me, how do you feel?

Well, I feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak

And they’re talking it to me

So you take a picture of something you see

In the future where will I be?

You can climb a ladder up to the sun

Or write a song nobody has sung

Or do something that’s never been done

Or do something that’s never been done

So you don’t know where you’re going and you wanna talk

And you feel like you’re going where you’ve been before

You tell anyone who’ll listen, but you feel ignored

Nothing’s really making any sense at all, let’s talk

Let’s talk, let’s talk, let’s talk

It’s all we have. Talk. Conversation. Open-mindedness and shared experience. If we can’t share it, we can’t talk about it in a meaningful way. If what we share is an illusion compared to what you believe is yet to come, we can’t talk. We need to talk about here and now. The climate is changing. The serious researchers that spend their lives studying it are in almost perfect consensus on the fact that mankind is largely responsible. If you believe an unseen God whose more real to you than your neighbor will destroy the earth with fire and war and plaque and pestilence before restoring it, how can we talk about what our species can do now? If you feel that your illusion about the current political leadership is the real Trump and the comments, tweets, and lies we can both view are an illusion, we can’t talk about it. If you believe that glory awaits you in heaven for obedience to the dictates of an unseen God through other men and women on this planet, how can we find common ground on social justice issues?

At some point in the future, my teenage daughter will ask if I voted for Donald Trump. I have not. My reason the first time around were his degrading statements about and treatment toward women. We share the reality of what he said. I couldn’t face her if I had voted for him. I couldn’t talk to her and tell her that its not the real Trump. I couldn’t expect her to buy the illusion in which I would certainly have had to sell my integrity to believe. If we can’t talk about the only experiences which we can share as earth-born primates, we can’t talk.

Let’s talk.