Last week I had a facebook exchange with an old high school friend about why I feel the need to talk about religion so much. She accused me of being “a critic” and “hater” who is obsessed with “trying to convince Mormons that they are wrong.”
This exchange stung a little because I genuinely liked this person. Also, there was some truth to the fact that I tend to talk, read, and write about religion a lot. (I guess I’m supposed to assume there is something wrong with that.) But I questioned her about how I was “a hater” - since I had done nothing to encourage hate. To her, however, I had criticized her religious beliefs. Sometimes believers identify so closely with their beliefs, that criticism can feel like a personal attack.
However, I am not criticizing religious believers. I’m only criticizing religious ideas. There is a difference, and believers need to stop acting like there isn’t. We live in a pluralistic society where we have freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We have the freedom to criticize ideas from politics to economics. Ben Franklin said of critics, “Critics are our friends. They tell us our faults.” I have no problem with religious people criticizing my own ideas. I gladly invite their respectful criticism by having an open blog. But criticize their own religious beliefs, and they sometimes cry foul.
So with that as preamble, here are the reasons why I choose to speak out as a critic of religious ideas:
1. I am justifying my new belief system to others.
This is probably one of the main reasons we ex-Mormon/post-Mormons read and blog so much about why we left the church, but it is rarely admitted. However, there is nothing wrong with admitting it. I had good reasons for leaving the church. There is a mountain of historical, scientific, and logical evidence for concluding that the church is not what it claims to be, and is founded on pious lies and fanciful myths. We should justify these reasons with logical arguments and facts.
Mormons, including some friends and family who know me best, tended to assume certain things about me when I left: that I left the church because I was sinful, lazy, uncommitted, unreasonable, or unconverted. It’s understandable why Mormons, especially those who are closest to you, or who may be harboring doubts themselves, attack the messenger. It’s a cognitive defense mechanism and is taught to them by their scriptures and church authorities in order to protect religious belief. However, there is nothing wrong with speaking out and saying these sorts of ad hominem attacks are false and hateful. I know it’s hard for orthodox Mormons to imagine that people leave the church for good reasons, but it cannot be said too often that most people do.
2. I am expressing my resentment of fundamentalist ideas, leaders, and institutions.
Nobody admits to being a fundamentalist, and fundamentalism clearly exists on a spectrum. Mormons are by no means extreme fundamentalists like their FLDS counterparts (who are a like a modern reincarnation of the LDS church during their theocratic and polygamist era of Nauvoo and 19th century Utah). However, most Mormons clearly believe that LDS scripture, as well as modern-day revelation through prophets, is somewhat inerrant and infallible, and universally authoritative. Religion is not just personal to the Mormon; it applies to everyone. This is one of the definitions of religious fundamentalism.
However, I disagree with the central dogmas of Mormon fundamentalism. I disagree with their leaders for perpetuating them. I disagree when lay members accept this spoon fed religious pablum. I want to counter these universal claims of truth because I think they are false and can be harmful to people both within the faith and people outside it as well. I want to try and prevent Mormons from inflicting their fundamentalist version of reality onto others. This would include those effected when Mormons try to legislate their theology onto nonbelievers (like California’s Prop 8, and other state measures banning gay marriage). It could also include religious indoctrination of children before they have the ability to reason for themselves. Children are sometimes saddled with an unrealistic view of truth by their well-intentioned religious parents and community, that can stifle the adherent personally and intellectually, and can be painful to shed once they discover the facts of history or science that are readily learned from books, the internet, or college courses.
In many ways, my speaking out about religion is similar to people telling others about a harmful product on the market: If you have been harmed in a business scam, or bought a product that was defective and falsely marketed, I think you have a duty to tell others. That is why we have the Better Business Bureau, Consumer Reports, and the FDA - to prevent bad or harmful products being on the market, to hold the manufacturers responsible for their product, and to encourage manufacturers to make better and safer products. I see the criticism of religious ideas similarly.
3. I want to try and persuade fundamentalist Mormons to give up their unreasonable dogmatic cosmology, and accept a more rational one instead.
I think that moderate and progressive religion can be a good thing for people and society. My issue is with fundamentalism. If I can generate some rational thought and doubt in the minds of more fundamentalist Mormons - to the point where they don’t feel the need to apply their religious views on everyone else, including their own family members who are hurt by their ostracism and rejection - then I will have succeeded. Adopting a more rational attitude that “my religious beliefs apply only to me,” or adopting a “live-and-let-live” attitude about other’s religious views would be a step forward within Mormonism. It harms the religious believer in no way because they can still get the personal benefits from their religious views, but it prevents harm to those who they project their religious opinions onto.
4. I want to offer support for other individuals who have similar doubts, or who are making similar journeys away from Mormonism.
The process of religious de-conversion can be an extremely painful and lonely process. I remember feeling very alone and scared during my own “faith crisis.” Listen to French philosopher Jeoffroy as he describes the emotional pain he experienced following his loss of faith in Catholicism:
“This moment was a frightful one; and when towards morning I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, sombre and unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life.”
And here is author Alan Mintz in his book Banished from Their Father’s Table, describing Orthodox Jewish students sense of loss from their religious community when they concluded that Orthodox Judaism was not tenable:
“It was not so much that they world of faith had been purposely rejected but that at a certain point its plausibility had simply collapsed. . . . The world that had once been thick with symbols and texts, sacred times and covenanted obligations, providential signs and redemptive promises was, suddenly, not there. . . This intellectual and metaphysical negation was deepened by the loneliness that resulted from the break with family and community.”
I felt this way for a time too. For a time I perceived my journey in negative terms, rather than positive ones, because that is how my fundamentalist community framed the issue for me. I was taught to fear the intellectual exploration of religious doubts because it could lead to so much loss. According to LDS teachings, if you lose your faith, you can lose it all.
However, in our journey of faith, there can be much to gain as well; a light at the end of the tunnel; a mountain peak view at the end of an arduous climb; enlightenment where before there was only doubt and guilt. Not all is lost when losing one’s faith. Much is gained in terms of personal growth, intellectual honesty, personal integrity, and a more realistic (and very humbling) view of our place in the universe. The natural universe we occupy, as well as the social and emotional world our mind operates in, is even more full of rewards, wonder and awe than we could previously imagine. But, along the way, we sometimes have to give up cherished ideas and beliefs that may be holding us back.
This is why I choose to speak out.