The Mutt’s Nuts

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

Posts Tagged ‘church

Resurrected me

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The other day I had a conversation with a work colleague about religion. Or rather, she did most of the talking and I listened, interjecting a comment only occasionally. She felt that another work colleague of ours took her Christian evangelical beliefs much too seriously and had missed the point of religion all together. Religion, she explained, was all about being kind to others and doing good. You could do that without all the conditions that religion placed on faith. Our mutual colleague, she said, was wasting precious time adhering strictly to codes that were restricting her life, rather than enhancing it.

She went on to explain that she, too, was a Christian and had been quite fundamentalist in her views and actions for about 20 years. She had given her all to her church, rising to positions of responsibility that had required a lot of her time, effort and resources. Gradually she began to notice the self-righteousness of her fellow church members, an attitude of being better than others and a strong tendency to form exclusive cliques. She had finally decided that the core of religion was simple goodness and had resigned her onerous responsibilities and opted for a much more basic approach to her faith. She had received no thanks for all her previous hard work and no support from her co-religionists. She now attended a church that preached and practised simple faith and caring for others and felt a lot happier.

I could relate to much of what she was talking about. As a dedicated Mormon, I had been zealous in living my faith. So much so that, looking back, I can see all too clearly the social life that I missed out on, the potential friendships that I forfeited and the unnecessary restrictions that ruled my life and almost completely obliterated the person that I really was inside. Baptism into the church was said to be symbolic of burying the “natural man” and being reborn a new person. It was many years before I realised that my baptism had buried the real me and raised up an artificial stranger in its place.

As a Mormon, my thoughts and actions were dictated by scripture, commandments and church teachings. I had to suppress my natural instincts and impulses and act in accordance with someone else’s script for my life. Of course, in those days I thought that the someone else was God, acting through his earthly representatives. Whereas, before, my attitude had been “live and let live”, following baptism I developed very fixed ideas of who and what was wrong and right (viewed through the lens of Christianity and, more particularly, Mormonism). I began to value conformity above individuality, to look down on people who acted in a “worldly” way (i.e. smoked, drank, went to pubs or clubs and generally enjoyed themselves) and to see any deviation from complete obedience to church teachings and commandments as a sign of weakness and lack of faith.

As my co-worker had noticed in her Christian acquaintances, I too was very self-righteous and judgemental of others during my true-believing Mormon years. I realise now that it was a most offensive and unpleasant attitude to have. Like her, I had noticed the “clique-iness” of my own church congregation, mostly along social and economic lines. I had worked hard for the church, often at the expense of my limited free time, never refusing a call to serve and taking on responsible positions within the local children’s and women’s organisations of the church. When I finally realised that the church was not what I had always believed it to be and decided that I needed to step away from it for a while to get my bearings, I received no thanks for over 20 years of service and virtually no support from church members who I had naively thought were my friends.

Unlike my work colleague, though, I hadn’t turned to another form of religion when I became disillusioned with Mormonism, although at one point I did consider possibly attending a Unitarian church. My journey away from my church turned into a journey away from God and religion in general and it’s been a journey of personal self-discovery and a cause for great rejoicing.

One of the interesting things about our one-sided conversation was that, at any time, I could have recounted my own parallel experiences as a believing Mormon and as an ex-Mormon (although technically I’m still classed as a member of the church). But something held me back from revealing my religious past. I decided that I didn’t want to be known as a former believer, but as the person I am now, someone who has no belief in God or religion, a humanist. It’s as though the “new person” that was raised up through baptism has now been buried and the natural me has been resurrected. I can make my own decisions about how I view things and accept that most people are just trying to get through life in the best (or sometimes the only) way they know how. I can say what I think and do what I want, regardless of whether or not it conforms to someone else’s ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable or “righteous”. I can embrace my natural instincts instead of repressing them and I don’t have to continually measure myself – and others – against some impossible standard. I can swear and drink wine and watch R-rated movies without the least twinge of guilt. I never did those things very much before I joined the LDS church, and I don’t do them a lot now, but that’s my choice. That’s me, not the artificial goody-goody person that I used to be.

To some extent I can identify with the young woman that my colleague was talking about, because I can see my own experience in the way she is choosing to live her life. I wonder if, one day, she’ll feel that she’s missed out on some important things because of the restraints that her faith imposes. I hope, if she does, that it won’t be too late to build an authentic life outside of religion and enjoy the freedom and satisfaction that casting off those shackles has brought to me.

Isla

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Written by islaskye

April 13, 2008 at 2:58 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

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