The Mutt’s Nuts

Where religion is about as attractive as a two week holiday in Afghanistan

Archive for the ‘Deconversion’ Category

Religion hurts

leave a comment »

After nearly 30 years of embracing a particular set of beliefs, I found it very difficult to let go. And yet I knew I had to let go, if I was to move forward with my life. I’ve heard it said that leaving your religion is like experiencing a bereavement and that’s certainly how it felt to me.

But as my life as an active Mormon receded further and further into the distance I was able to see that the faith which I thought filled my life with happiness and meaning, had actually been positively harming me. Six years on, I find little pleasure or interest in talking or thinking about the church and its teachings. This saddens me because, at one time, it was my whole life and, I thought, would be my eternal future as well. But I cannot forget how my religion and its leaders duped me on a grand scale. Nor can I forget the pain its teachings and actions caused to me and to others that I know.

I don’t want to claim that Mormonism, or any other religion for that matter, does not have any positive effects on a person’s life. However, as a former believer, I can now see that it can certainly be harmful and I think this needs to be acknowledged and understood.

Below are a few personal examples of what I mean.

The Mormon church will tell you that it is a family-oriented organisation. That sounds very laudable but, in fact, the emphasis on the LDS version of happy families pays little thought to the needs or feelings of individuals. If you are not part of a standard family unit you are made to feel “different” and being different in a church that lives and breathes conformity is a very uncomfortable place to be.

Both men and women are encouraged to marry by their early to mid-20s. Any single person older than that is patronised into feeling that they are something of a failure, and that they should rectify the situation as soon as possible. This imperative to marry can cause some unsuitable marriages born out of the desperation to be part of that holy grail – the perfect family. Until I eventually married in my 30s, I felt the subtle force of marginalisation that many single church members experience. Add to that the stress of avoiding sexual encounters with the opposite sex, or even developing a romantic relationship with a non-member of the church (particularly difficult in areas where the church has only a small congregation) and already the detrimental effects of Mormon culture become apparent.

Once married, the expectation is that a couple will start a family. Although in later years the use of contraception has not been frowned upon as much as it once was, there is barely-disguised surprise if a couple fail to produce an offspring within the first two years of marriage. Women, in particular, are told that the production and raising of children is their supreme purpose in life. I remember very clearly hearing a talk by one of the church’s Twelve Apostles, which explicitly declared that bearing children was the most important thing any woman would ever do. For someone, such as myself, who discovers that they are unable to conceive, this is a devastating and demoralising doctrine. I spent many hours pleading with God to explain to me why I was denied this incomparable blessing, when children were being born every day to feckless and even violent parents who would never give them the committed and loving upbringing that my husband and I could offer. I received no consolation, either from God, or from uncomprehending church leaders. Thankfully, the anguish that I felt in this situation was immediately eased when I finally rejected the church and its teachings, negating power that it once had over me.

One other example of the damage religious dogma can cause occurred in the life of a young woman who was part of our church congregation. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I am now convinced that the church’s stance on the perfectly normal issue of masturbation directly caused, or at the very least contributed to, this young woman’s ongoing struggle with mental illness. The terrible guilt engendered in her by the church’s disgust of her habit and the effort of abstention, has made her life a misery for many years. Success in avoiding the activity brings great “highs”, but lapses cause terrible “lows” that have blighted any hope of a normal, productive life or enduring romantic relationship.

Mormons are taught to decry those who are thought to have allowed themselves to become “offended” by the actions of the church or one of its members. Being “offended” is regarded as a weakness, even a sin, on the part of the one who is on the receiving end of the offence. No credit is given for the possibility that they may be justly indignant or hurt. Anger is also condemned as a sin which must never be indulged. These attitudes, I feel, are unhealthy and unfair. I will admit that I was angry when I discovered that the church had doctored its own history to eradicate the unsightly blemishes that it really contained. I was hurt by the church’s intimation that I was somehow lacking because I was unmarried and then, later, unable to bear children. I am furious when I think about the stigma that the church placed upon a young woman who felt obliged to confess her private intimate activities to her male leaders in an attitude of shame and guilt, leading to a skewed idea of her value as a person and as a Latter-day Saint.

It’s perhaps this attack upon a person’s self-worth that is the key to the damage religions can wreak in an individual’s life, because our feelings about ourselves are determined by our perceived success in adhering to a set of improbable rules, many of which run counter to our inherent nature as human beings. In the LDS church, we were encouraged to “put off the natural man”, in other words to set aside perfectly natural human behaviour in the quest to become “spiritual beings”. It is this burden, I’m sure, which leads to so much guilt, frustration and unhappiness in the lives of the faithful as they find themselves constantly trying and failing to stifle their instincts. The stress of attempting to live a “higher law” turns life into a series of barriers to overcome, rather than experiences to learn from and enjoy. Accepting myself for who I am, rather than trying to be something different (and, by Mormon definition, better), is one of the happiest results of my deconversion.

There are many other incidents I witnessed as a Mormon which indicate to me that obedience to a set of rules laid down by a different culture in a different era can cause untold damage to the psyche and well-being of believers today. And I’m sure that they occur in all religions, not just in the LDS church. Looking back on these experiences has allowed me to finally rid myself of the fallacy that religion is an unremittingly good thing, that it is the cure for all the ills of the world and that those who extricate themselves from the cloying embrace of religious belief are rejecting something innately valuable. On the contrary, I have found greater peace of mind and appreciation of myself and others since stepping away from religious influence. Losing my religion has allowed me to gain so much more of what I think is really important.

IslaSkye

Advertisements

Written by islaskye

October 28, 2007 at 8:46 pm

Dangerous thought

with 40 comments

From the moment I decided I could no longer believe in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all through my questioning and ultimate rejection of all types of religions and gods, the most exciting and satisfying discovery that I made was that I could think for myself. For most of my life I had been content to accept that other people knew more about most things than I did and I would bow to the opinion of the “experts” or, in the case of religion, to those who claimed to be “inspired”.

All that started to change one day in 1995 when Gordon B Hinkley, recently ordained prophet and president of the Mormon church, visited our city as part of a short tour of the British Isles. As we very rarely got to see the prophet “in the flesh” over here, it was a wonderful treat and I was as excited as anyone. I couldn’t wait to hear what God’s representative on earth, as I believed, would have to say to us. I was expecting revelation, prophecy and a powerful spiritual experience. What I, and the other faithful, actually received was a series of reminiscences about the old guy’s missionary experiences some 60 or more years before, a tetchy complaint about the quality of the Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip supper that he had just consumed and, finally, the usual mantra of “pray, pay and obey”. The only time he looked and sounded the least authoritative was when he suddenly glared at the audience and told us to “cease backbiting”. I hadn’t noticed that we had a particular problem with backbiting, but as the man speaking to us claimed to have a hotline to God, I supposed that he knew our weaknesses better than I did.

As the meeting ended and President Hinckley made his exit from the building, I felt a tangible sense of anticlimax. This was not what I had expected from a prophet of God. The next week at church one of the women announced that she had copied down the prophet’s words in shorthand and transcribed it into typed copies, which other members happily clamoured for. I couldn’t bring myself to take one – it would only remind me of my disappointment. This was the first time I can remember ever having a rebellious thought in the whole of my church life thus far and, although I could never have anticipated it then, I had taken the first tentative step on the road to free thought.

Although I put my dissatisfaction to the back of my mind and carried on as a good little Mormon, the feeling never quite went away and, looking back, I can see now that it started to colour my attitude towards the church in subtle ways. Once I had had the temerity to find the prophet wanting, it would be easier to slip off the rose-tinted glasses that I had always worn to view the church and begin to see the reality behind the hype.

Fast forward 3 years to June 1998 and the dedication of the Preston Temple. Another huge spiritual event in the life of English Latter-day Saints. Again there was a great sense of anticipation. Everyone had taken the day off work especially to attend the dedication service. People had fasted, prayed and prepared themselves for a spiritual manifestation of divine approval. Unfortunately, the reality was much more mundane – a long coach journey, crowds of people that meant our group was initially herded into seats in the adjoining chapel rather than the temple itself (although just as the ceremony was starting some extra seats were found in one of the rooms of the temple and we were able to actually get inside the building). As we settled ourselves excitedly in our chairs, a video link to the celestial room allowed us to view the prophet and his counsellor, Thomas S Monson, as they gave their preparatory talks. The spirit that I had eagerly been awaiting seemed conspicuously absent as I listened to words that should have inspired, but didn’t. Only when the whole congregation stood to sing “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning” and the Hosanna Shout rang out inside the building, did a feeling of spiritual power descend upon the proceedings. However, the ceremony ended shortly after and I shuffled my way out into the daylight again, an ordinary mortal untouched by the hand of God.

This second big disappointment had me seriously worried and, naturally, I concluded that I was somehow to blame. Religion is good at convincing people that all their blessings come from God, but negative experiences are always their fault. I guiltily reflected that I had been less than conscientious about fasting on the first Sunday of each month as the church required. My prayers were not as fervent as they might be and I sometimes neglected to read the scriptures on a daily basis. The absence of a spiritual experience, both at the visit of President Hinckley and at the temple dedication could only mean one thing – I wasn’t worthy.

But try as I might to humble myself under this shameful knowledge, it was no longer the motivator it had once been. For some reason, much as I wanted to do better, I couldn’t seem to improve. In fact, I became somewhat more lethargic about prayer and scripture study and began fasting for less and less time on the appointed day, until I was only missing out one meal instead of two. Eventually I stopped fasting altogether. What had been easy for so many years started to become a burden. Oh, I continued to faithfully pay my tithing, keep the Word of Wisdom (the church’s health code) and work hard at my calling as a teacher in Relief Society, the women’s organisation. But the daily spiritual rituals were harder to maintain. I would have periods of rededication to them, but these rarely lasted longer than a few weeks at a time. What I realise now, but would never have accepted then, was that the church wasn’t fullfilling me as it had once done.

Athough the big events stand out in my mind as key moments at the start of my cognitive dissonance, I think it was the church’s tireless insistence on only providing gospel “milk” rather than “meat” that began to really tell on me and sap my enthusiasm. There was a big emphasis on “the basics”, as they were called – faith, prayer, scripture reading, keeping the commandments, following the prophet. Week after week the talks and lessons that we heard at church were variations on the same old themes and, quite frankly, for someone who had been a long-time member it was simply tedious. I began to long for an in-depth discussion, some revolutionary ideas, a radical programme to regain lost spirituality, but none of these ever materialised.

In my mind and to all outward appearances I was still a true-believing Mormon, but I was finding it harder and harder to get excited about what I was hearing at church. There were welcome oases in the desert of blandness – occasional talks or lessons that would temporarily fire me with enthusiasm and determination to increase my faith and obedience – but these were few and far between. By denying me the chance to explore, examine and discuss issues of real depth, the church was gradually squandering my love and commitment.

However, a calling to be Gospel Doctrine teacher reignited my enthusiasm somewhat. I set aside the predictable church-produced lesson manuals and sought to make my lessons more thought-provoking and scripture-based. Now that I was in charge of my own class, I could instigate some in-depth discussions and get people thinking. In my determination to make the most of this opportunity, I redoubled my efforts to really study the scriptures and search out their meaning for our lives.

My lessons were well received, and everything was fine until we began the annual course of study that included the Doctrine & Covenants and church history. I was making use of the internet to search out information about the early church to bring my lessons alive, when I started to notice some striking differences between a few important teachings of early church leaders such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and those that were being promulgated by the current hierarchy. Doctrines that had once been claimed to come directly from God, and to exist everlastingly, had either been watered down or even discarded entirely over the years. To me, this couldn’t be right. Either the truth was always the truth, or either the early or later leaders had made mistakes, while claiming to be inspired.

Once I accepted that somebody, somewhere, was tinkering with God’s revelations for the sake of convenience or popularity, I realised that a fatal flaw had occurred in my testimony of the church’s truthfulness. After much study of early church scriptures and writings I decided that the former prophets had simply been more “in tune” with God’s will, had manifested more impressive spiritual experiences and generally sounded more confident in their assertions of revelation than those of recent years. Because of my mounting questions about the discrepancies in scriptures and teachings, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable listening to talks and lessons at church. A couple of times I tentatively raised potential problems in Sunday classes, which, in my heightened state of awareness seemed almost glaring in their inconsistency, only to be “slapped down” by pompous members secure in their complacency. I realised that I didn’t belong at church any more.

Once I had made the decision not to return to church, a huge feeling of relief engulfed me. For the past few months I had been attempting to keep a lid on thoughts and feelings that were becoming more and more insistent. At last I was free to give them full reign, examine them properly without anxiety or guilt and stand by the conclusions that I drew from them. I relished the chance to free my thoughts from the channels in which they had been confined for so many years. It was an amazing feeling – and it still is.

As I allowed myself to think about and consider things that had been almost taboo as an obedient Mormon, I began to understand why the church was so determined that members shouldn’t stray from the party line. It became clear that freethinking will always be a danger to any organisation that relies upon obedience as a mechanism for controlling its members. Once someone begins to think for themself there is a real potential for dissent. Because the controlling organisation requires unquestioning loyalty and submission to authority to maintain its power base, new ideas, alternative views, open debate and discussion cannot be countenanced. In fact, as far as the LDS church is concerned, safety lies not in merely discouraging these things, but in continually reinforcing the belief that such actions are in complete opposition to God’s will. Query the church’s version of its history? Question the words of the Lord’s mouthpiece here on earth? Point out contradictions in scripture? All totally unthinkable.

Dissent from orthodoxy must be condemned in the strongest terms and perhaps the most derogatory epithet of all is the most telling – intellectual! This term in some religious circles has become almost synonymous with “trouble maker” or even “apostate”. While secularists might be flattered by such a label, believers shun it like the plague. To be labelled an intellectual in a church context is almost to be considered a disgrace to your religion. At the very least you can expect to be treated with suspicion; more likely you will be firmly called to repentance and warned of the dire consequences – particularly in the life to come – of your misguided actions. If you refuse to admit the folly of your ways, you face becoming a virtual pariah among your formerly friendly fellow-believers.

This may well be part of the reason why the freedom to think my own thoughts, unregulated by people who imagined they had some divine mandate to impose their thinking upon me, tasted so good when I finally threw off the shackles of religion. It was the first and, so far, the sweetest fruit of my unbelief and has made the long and difficult journey that I have subsequently undertaken all the more challenging and fascinating.

IslaSkye

Written by islaskye

October 13, 2007 at 8:37 am

No more excuses

with one comment

excuses.gifIt was when I began taking God seriously that I suddenly found myself on the road that would eventually lead to my becoming an atheist. The American actress and comedian Julia Sweeney was onto something when she said, speaking to an imaginary God, “It’s because I take you so seriously that I can’t bring myself to believe in you.” Her one sentence perfectly encapsulates why I don’t believe in God today, why I felt I had no choice but to reject my supernatural belief system.

Someone reading the above paragraph could conclude that I was never an ardent believer – not until the moment I decided to take God seriously – but such an observation would be very far from the actual truth. My religiosity had always been sincere and earnest, anything less would denote a significant flaw in my character, and such could only mean that I was foolishly trying to get one over on a being who supposedly knows the condition of one’s heart and mind.

I think the seriousness that turned me into an atheist was of the type that refused to make any more excuses for God’s behaviour, whereas before I was always conjuring up explanations for what I couldn’t understand, probably in order to boost my faith. Which faith was nothing more than an excuse to believe in the absence of a valid reason.

It’s difficult to bring out in writing a very significant time that caused me to move away from a complete belief in a personal God. Having found myself backed into a corner by God’s apparent apathy to, what I thought were, sincere pleas for help and consequential questions that sought to understand why he was responding to my supplications with complete silence, I decided to reject him on the grounds that I had insufficient reason to continue to accept him as a viable reality. Faith had become an inadequate “get out of jail free” card. Whereas I had used it often in the past as an excuse to shelve difficult questions which I felt had the propensity to damage faith if entertained for too long, it had become defunct by my need for something greater.

I had reached a point when I became excruciatingly sick to death of living my life based upon self-imposed suppositions that had no more foundation than a flying spaghetti monster. I was somebody who sincerely thought that I had experienced God and for a time that brought me a lot of joy, but as I faced my cognitive dissonance I realised that everything was mere assumption on my part. And this realisation irritated me without end, because I wanted so much to believe in a deity.

I felt insulted by God’s silence. I was sincere and seriously believed in him, so completely that I thought I could bring him out of his hiding place by obedience to his word. I tried to bring verses of scripture to fruition by conforming my life accordingly. “Ask and ye shall receive” should bloody well mean what it says. And that goes for any other scriptural promises.

Quite frankly, I had had enough of asking God questions. As far as I was concerned, the onus was now on him. If he truly wanted me to know him, then he had better get his act together and stop expecting me to put my life on hold until he deigned to reveal himself in a way that would be unmistakable. I had no time for playing a childish game of hide and seek. I had a life to be getting on with.

There comes a time when the exercise of faith becomes unreasonable, in my book.

Curmudgeonly Yours

Written by Curmudgeonly

September 30, 2007 at 3:12 pm