The Mutt’s Nuts

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

Posts Tagged ‘belief

Fallen hero

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200px-joseph_smith_jr_1843_photograph.jpgAs a Mormon, the church’s early mythology was an important element in my initial acceptance of, and continuing loyalty to, the church. It cemented my sense of being part of a living, growing movement, one with heroism and pathos in its past, divine power and approval in its present and glory in its future.

The “official” history of Mormonism involves the selective retelling of the life of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, and of the early church that he created. It’s the story of a poor, ill-educated farm boy who has a spiritual epiphany, receives a long-hidden book of significant religious and historical importance, is visited by God and by angels, restores the true church and priesthood of Jesus Christ which had been lost for centuries, withstands serious persecution, triumphs in the face of adversity, becomes an inspirational leader of his people, founds a city, commands an army, and is finally martyred for the cause of the gospel. Along the way, Smith is portrayed as an heroic character, a man’s man, strong, handsome, honest, loyal, brave, a loving husband and father. He is permitted a few minor flaws which do nothing to diminish the picture of his overall character – allowing himself to be taken advantage of by others because of his trusting nature or becoming overly-competitive in games of strength with his friends.

This is a figure that church members can be proud of and inspired by – someone who overcame the disadvantages of his situation in a spectacular way, a role model for the ideal patriarch and leader. Down-to-earth, yet blessed with extraordinary spiritual gifts of prophecy, revelation and seership. A character to aspire to, yet a personage to stand in awe of at the same time. In common with the mythologies of other religious founders, Smith is painted as larger-than-life, yet comfortably accessible too.

It’s not surprising that Smith plays such a central role in church history. His influence on the fledgling church and its continued progress since his demise at the relatively young age of 38, is immense and, indeed, provides the foundation for all of the most significant doctrines and activities of the church today. Everything that I believed and held sacred as a Mormon originated in the ideas of this one charismatic figure.

Because Smith’s life and teachings provide the backdrop to the church’s most sacred beliefs, they have necessarily been airbrushed by the religion’s leaders to provide an appropriately spiritual canvas upon which to build faith and testimony in both converts and long-time church members. As Mormon Apostle Boyd K Packer once famously commented: “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not … Some things that are true are not very useful” (The Mantle is Far Far Greater Than The Intellect). In other words, prevarication in the presentation of church history is sometimes essential to maintain the faith of its members. If the truth does not promote faith, then church members need protecting from it.

This approach has proved very fruitful, as once the “approved” version of Mormonism’s early mythology is ingrained into its membership, it’s difficult to dislodge. For a start, the leaders of the faith do all in their power to ensure that the “official” history is widely taught, while seeking to dissuade members from accessing a more accurate, and potentially uncomfortable version. They often dismiss more accurate histories as “intellectual” rather than spiritual, as though using the intellect to assess and report historical events is shameful and unprofessional. Basically, they insist that maintaining a faith-promoting mythology is essential, even if the censorship of truth is required to achieve it. Often they do their job so effectively that most faithful members are unwilling to accept a more sceptical view of their church’s origins, no matter how much evidence there is for its veracity.

As I had only ever known the church-sanctioned version of Mormon history, realising that there was more to the stories of Smith and his exploits than I had suspected came as a nasty shock. Revering the man as God’s chosen vessel through which to restore his true church and priesthood certainly elevated my expectations of his behaviour above the ordinary. Of course I was aware that he had flaws, but I assumed that the uniqueness and responsibility of his calling required a certain level of integrity and honour. I had bought into the faith-promoting mythology so thoroughly that I was totally unprepared to discover the more unsavoury aspects of Smith’s character and actions.

It was his attitude towards women, and more especially his wife Emma, that first shook the foundations of my testimony regarding Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. I read a couple of books on one of his most controversial doctrines – plural marriage. One book in particular – Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard van Wagoner – detailed how Smith went behind his wife’s back numerous times to “marry” other girls and women. In one particularly poignant incident Emma, as president of the newly formed Relief Society (the organisation for women of the church), gave an address designed to quash the rumours that she believed to be wholly false regarding the institution and practice of polygamy within the church, while embarrassingly unaware that her two counsellors and her secretary were all secretly “married” to her own husband. Other stories of Smith propositioning the wives of his friends who had been sent away on missions at his direction, and reacting with venom towards the women who rejected him, cast serious doubt in my mind as to the likelihood that God would choose such a man to restore his true gospel to the earth in preparation for the eventual return of Jesus Christ, as I had always been taught.

No mention is made in “official” church history of Smith’s infidelity and deceitfulness, nor the way he used his position of authority to coerce married women into acquiescing to his demands that they enter into a polygamous relationship with him behind their husbands’ backs. Nor are members told about the malicious way in which he publicly destroyed the reputations of the women who refused his overtures. I’m sure these incidents would come under Boyd K Packer’s category of that which is true but not very useful in promoting faith.

Learning of these and other distasteful but verified and documented aspects of church history made me realise just how much my testimony had relied on the truthfulness of what I had been taught about the church’s beginnings and Smith’s career as an instrument of the Lord. I found it very hard to reconcile what I was now discovering with what I had always believed. Realising that the “faithful history” could not be trusted to give an accurate picture of what really happened, I was left with a dilemma. Did my new and growing knowledge of Smith’s character and actions mean that he may not have been a prophet of God after all?

But in my heart of hearts I already knew the answer. After 27 years of indoctrination, the church had done a wonderful job of convincing me to listen to my feelings, to treat my gut instinct as a communication from the Holy Spirit. My distaste for some of Smith’s more obnoxious activities felt too much like a confirmation that he wasn’t the man I had always believed him to be. With Joseph Smith gone, there was nothing left to support my belief in the uniqueness of the church. My hero had fallen – and taken my testimony with him.

Isla

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Written by islaskye

March 21, 2008 at 6:49 pm

Every believer has their own version of God and religion

with 12 comments

I’ve just had one of those “D’uh!” moments. The kind where you slap your head and say “Why didn’t I see that before?”

Reading the recent comments on this blog from Kuri and Snark, I’ve finally realised that everyone who belongs to a church, or who believes in a god, sees that church and that god in their own personal way. When I was an active member of the Mormon church, I believed everything that the church taught, about itself and about God, wholeheartedly. I realised that there were other people in my ward (local congregation) who didn’t appear to have the same kind of commitment as I did, but I put this down to lack of devotion, rather than to a different view of the church and its teachings. I would have been very surprised to discover that many of the people I was judging so self-righteously were as devoted to their own concept of the church as I was to mine.

Now the penny has finally dropped and I realise that everyone (including me, when I was a believer) has their own customised belief about their religion and their god. For some, their belief might cause them to follow the “letter of the law” absolutely, without any deviation or concession, even when it may be inconvenient, uncomfortable or downright unreasonable to do so. For others, it will mean adapting certain teachings to suit their own ideas of what the church or the god should be.

In order for anybody to successfully embrace a religion and its teachings I think they have to reconcile it, to some extent, with their own personality. Otherwise, cognitive dissonance sets in pretty quickly and makes life increasingly uncomfortable. Especially when the person is told that they should believe certain things, or act in certain ways that are at odds with their experience or inner values.

So, when someone tells you that they believe the LDS church, or the Catholic church or any other church, is true, what they are really saying is that their version of the church is true for them. When they talk about God, it’s their version of God that they are referring to. So many religions, so many gods, so many “truths” – they are just different people’s ideas of religion, God and truth. Those people may be the founders or leaders of a religion, but often they are simply the members of that religion, each worshipping and proclaiming the god, and teachings about that god, that suits them best.

I think that’s why people’s responses to certain religious ideas vary so widely. While a set of teachings may resonate with one person and incline them to believe in the institution that is propagating those teachings, another person may find the same teachings unconvincing, maybe even bizarre. I’m satisfied that it’s not a “holy spirit” that convinces people of the “truth” of a certain precept or revelation, but their own inner beliefs, shaped by upbringing, culture, circumstance and personality. This is why different people can firmly believe in the correctness of totally different creeds.

The Mormon church teaches that there are certain people known as “the elect”, people who are particularly righteous and valiant in support of God’s plans and purposes. It is said that these “elect” people will be more inclined than others to accept the church’s version of the “truth” when they hear it. But I no longer believe that it is some special character trait or spiritual sensitivity that accounts for the attraction that certain people feel towards the LDS gospel, but the elements that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. There’s nothing outstanding about them. In fact, in my experience, the LDS church has just as many lukewarm members as any other church.

What all this tells me is that you can never be sure that what you believe about God, or what your church teaches doctrinally, is actually true – it’s just someone’s perception of the truth and that can hardly be reliable. In the end, religious belief just comes down to feelings, and those feelings are triggered by external elements, rather than by supernatural affirmation.

I realise now that, when I used to believe and express that I knew the LDS church was God’s true church, that I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon was true, my “knowledge” was nothing more than a strong feeling about my personal and individual perception of the organisation, the Prophet and the scriptures. I could say that those things were true because I had made them true for me.

Isla

Written by islaskye

March 5, 2008 at 6:48 pm

I believe in me

with 4 comments

I was listening to the John Lennon song God on YouTube the other day and I could relate to the lyrics – especially the line that said “I just believe in me” and then the addition “Yoko and me. That’s reality”.

Since I rejected religion, I’ve always said that I believe in people, not God. I’ve also learned to believe in myself a lot more. In the past I tried to be what someone else wanted me to be – the people who wrote the scriptures, church leaders, other church members. I conformed myself to other people’s views of how I should behave, what I should think, say, do and not do.

Freedom from religion has meant, for me, freedom to be myself. Several years ago, a woman who wrote on a forum that I used to visit put it perfectly when she said:

Maybe that’s why it hurts to find out the church is crazy. You are feeling the death rattle of a false self. You think it’s your self, but it isn’t. It’s just an identity that was built on something phoney. Your real self is right under it, eventually waking up and stretching its arms like nothing ever happened. And then you’re stronger because you’re living closer to your true identity. – Melissa

There is a deep satisfaction in being my real self, that never existed when I lived the religious life. Not that I’m so very different in my personality, except that I’m much less judgemental, less gullible, more logical and more sceptical. I’m still polite, kind and friendly. I still love to study, but now I study a whole world of absorbing subjects, not just the scriptures. I’m still often forgetful and careless and I continue to procrastinate over tasks that I dislike. One of the big differences is that I don’t feel guilty about my failings – I just accept that I’m human. I still want to improve in some areas of my life and behaviour, but not because someone else tells me I should, but for my own reasons. I don’t have to spend time doing things that I don’t really want to, or that I’m not particularly interested in, because I think God has “called” me to that work. I can say “no” without reproaching myself for it.

Since setting aside faith, I’ve felt the power and strength of reality. It’s not always comforting, but it’s always honest and solid. There’s a simple joy in believing in yourself and your loved ones and knowing that you can count on them absolutely. Believers may fool themselves into thinking that they can count on God, but only because they’ll twist any circumstance to “show” that he was there for them. I know, because that’s what I did. Except, there were certain very traumatic times in my life when, try as I might, I just couldn’t convince myself that I was being supported by a loving God. My belief in him and desire to understand the terribly difficult things that were happening to me in terms of his will, made a hard situation ten times worse. And, despite my faith, there was a part of me deep down that felt that faith wasn’t the comfort I really needed.

Everything about my life has been so much happier and more satisfying since I walked away from religion and from belief in a god. Even if rejecting God and the trappings of belief was the only thing that had changed in my life over the past 6 years or so, I would still be immeasurably richer today than I ever was then. I’m materially better off and certainly healthier psychologically. I’m free from groundless fear, crippling guilt and superstitious magical thinking. And I can believe in myself. That’s reality – and I love it.

Isla

Written by islaskye

January 27, 2008 at 8:40 pm

Who are the real Christians?

with 16 comments

I’m confused. There are so many different brands of Christians in the world that I wonder whether they could all be considered true Christians, or whether one group is more “Christian ” than the others. Is the only requirement for being a Christian a belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or do other things matter too?

For example, are you a Christian if you believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God in its entirety? Or can you still be a Christian if you think that some of the more outlandish parts of the Bible are probably just made up? Are you a Christian if you condemn homosexuality as evil, or can you also be a Christian if you are tolerant towards homosexuality and maybe have gay friends? Do you have to believe that God literally created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days to be a proper Christian, or can you accept evolution and regard Genesis as an allegory, yet still categorise yourself as a follower of Jesus?

What if you don’t believe in the virgin birth? Does that mean you’re not a real Christian? Can you be unkind to people and swear like a trooper, yet still count yourself as a Christian because you’ve accepted Jesus as Lord?

To be a proper Christian, do you have to sell all your goods and give the money to the poor, as Jesus suggested to the rich young man who asked what more he could do to be a true follower? Should you shun your family in favour of following the Lord, as Jesus taught his disciples? Can you really claim to be a Christian if you don’t love every one of your “neighbours” as yourself?

I suppose what I’m really asking is: can you be a liberal, a moderate or a fundamentalist and still claim you follow the same religion? Whichever one of those positions you espouse when it comes to Christianity, would you still consider the other types of people to be just as much of a Christian as yourself?

Why do you think people can often take radically different positions with regard to their Christianity (e.g liberal and fundamentalist)? Is there something about Christianity that allows people to basically pick and choose what they want to believe as long as they accept Jesus as their Saviour? And, if so, doesn’t that sound suspiciously like a man-made belief system that is so flexible it can more or less give everyone what they want?

Even Jesus himself offers different things to different types of people. For example, there’s the compassionate Jesus who fed the 5,000; the gentle Jesus who raised a young girl from the dead; the furious, whip-wielding Jesus who set about the temple money-changers; the irritable Jesus who cursed the barren fig tree; the arrogant Jesus who insulted his local religious leaders; the sociable Jesus who feasted with his friends; the tolerant Jesus who mingled with prostitutes and tax officials; the bigoted Jesus who refused to heal a woman’s child because she was a Canaanite; the divisive Jesus who came to set father against son and mother against daughter; the war-like Jesus who came, not to bring peace, but a sword (in contradiction of the angel’s announcement at his birth).

If you like the idea of peace, love and kindness, you can pick out the scriptures where Jesus demonstrates those attributes. If you think tolerance is important, you can find examples of Jesus being forgiving and non-judgemental. But if you think people should be punished for not believing as you do, you can find plenty of passages where Jesus talks of the fiery hell that awaits the damned. If you want to justify an attitude of superiority over other races, you can find support from Jesus for that view. If you think that the way to deliver your message is through a raised voice, dogmatism and criticism, you’ll find a Jesus that sets that kind of example too.

Whether you think Christianity should be gentle or harsh, loving or condemning, forgiving or intractable, you can find support for your attitude in the Bible, even in the behaviour of Jesus himself. Does this not sound contradictory? You could argue that Christianity is all-inclusive, that it welcomes people with many different views, but it could also be seen as a very human belief system, reflecting many of our prejudices, fears, desires, and ideals, our fascination with the supernatural and even our blood lust.

So what does it mean to be a true Christian? And who has the most accurate definition?

Isla

Written by islaskye

January 20, 2008 at 7:04 pm