The Baby and the Bathwater

When I first left the church (about 20 years ago), I kind of assumed that the experiences of people who left the church were pretty much like mine. Or, more precisely, I didn’t really have any idea of how other people’s experiences might differ, and — before discovering the online exmo community (about 10 years ago) — I didn’t have any way to connect with other exmos and find out what their experiences were like.

Discovering the incredible range and diversity of mo/exmo experiences has been a joy — a never-ending fountain for my curiosity about the human condition — that holds my interest lo these decades after I should have long ago started “leaving the church alone” (according to the conventional wisdom).

Even before rediscovering my online fellows, I had grasped that religion is tied to a number of different (otherwise unrelated) aspects of life:

  • Traditions
  • Rituals
  • A long-term communiy network
  • An opportunity for leadership
  • An opportunity for service (that others will appreciate)
  • A sense of purpose (+ a set of rules to follow)
  • An identity
  • Answers to the “big questions”
  • A source of comfort in the face of the unknown
  • A framework for understanding altered states of consciousness and for interpreting one’s natural sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature
  • probably a bunch of other stuff I haven’t thought of. πŸ˜€

Personally, when I was an active participant in the CoJCoL-dS, I loved the theatrical productions! I loved the road shows, and playing “Emily” in a Stake production of “Saturday’s Warrior” in 1979 when I was 7 years old was probably the high point of my entire Mormon experience. I loved the fact that it was possible to organize these sorts of amateur productions and expect to generate an audience simply because, hey, we’re a community and we do stuff together.

I also loved being part of this “peculiar” out-of-the-mainstream current in American History.

On the other hand, I hated the petty, arbitrary rules, divorced from their real-world consequences, I hated the “lessons” where there was hardly even a pretense of actual information transfer, and I hated, hated, hated the emphasis on conformity and the way the conventional “worldly” popularity ladder was doubly (perhaps quadruply) re-enforced by Mormon culture. Coming from something of an Asperger family, I think my Mormon experience was best portrayed by Rudolph and Hermy in that one Christmas special:

Hermy: Just fixing these dolls’ teeth…
Hermy’s boss: What? Listen, we have dolls that talk, walk, blink, and run a temperature — we don’t need any chewing dolls!
Hermy: I just thought I’d found a way to… to fit in.
Hermy’s boss: You’ll never fit in!! * slam! *

But, upon reflection, it is obvious that the whole thing would look very different for those for whom “fitting in” was never a challenge. Such folks would logically have an entirely different set of reasons for leaving, and, no doubt, an entirely different set of fond memories that make them sad to leave. The combinations of which parts of Mormonism one might love (and respectively hate) are almost endless.

If you go to any randomly-chosen congregation of the CoJCoL-dS, there’s probably someone sitting in one of those pews thinking: “Heavenly Father wants me to be here at church and I am demonstrating my faithfulness to Him by sitting through this and making my best effort to pay attention and try to convince myself that I am learning something new (or, failing that, at least trying to not fall asleep),” — as I was thinking every Sunday, back when I was a true-believing Mormon teen. Someone else in that same congregation is probably sincerely thinking “I fell such joy and peace here, surrounded by the saints, singing with them, sharing their spirit. This is the high point of my week.” Both of these reactions are normal and common (as are many others).

But what happens when those two people have a “faith crisis” (as it is called), that is: a change of belief. What happens when they get the picture that the CoJCoL-dS isn’t what they thought it was?

Most likely they will react very differently because they value different parts of the Mormon experience. And very often they will begin to judge each other — wrongly, unfairly — because they don’t understand each other’s perspective.

Person A will likely be saying: “Woo-hoo!! I am so. outta. here!!!”

Person B will perhaps say: “I will re-interpret my faith and find a more nuanced set of beliefs so that I can continue to stay LDS and continue to feel the joy that I feel here.”

Then person A may ask person B: “Why are you living a lie?” Especially if person B is in a marginalized group (woman, gay, intellectual, poor). “Why are you torturing yourself here when you could be free?!”

Person B judges back: “Your thinking is too limited and black-and-white. You were unable to trade in your literal belief for a nuanced belief like mine, and that’s why you threw out the baby with the bathwater.”

I contend that neither person’s choice is necessarily wrong, but that both judgments are wrong.

People who leave the CoJCoL-dS (and or God-belief) aren’t throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They simply have a legitimate difference of opinion about which part was the baby and which part was the bathwater.

I’ve already said most or all of this before, but I wanted to explain my point of view in one simple article to have something to point to when I see these “Grayer Than Thou” essays, like the recent interview with my brother. I agree with John that modern ideas about the discipline of History have colored people’s expectations about how literally true the Bible should be. But, ultimately, that isn’t the reason I rejected it, and I doubt it’s the reason for most atheists. Even if the Bible were literally accurate as a secular history, that wouldn’t justify treating it as Holy writ or as wise stories (literal, symbolic, or otherwise). I’ll respect it as wise if it’s wise. I’ll treat it as good advice if it’s good advice. OTOH, given that it’s an ancient work that isn’t even as wise as some much earlier ancient works, I’m not going to revere it and treat it as though it were somehow magically relevant to my life. Period.

I get that the whole “It was never meant to be taken literally!” argument is very comforting to people who cherish the Bible. But, please don’t turn that around and use it as a barb to poke at those who don’t see the Bible’s relevance as justified, as though we are somehow limited and unable to imagine that the Bible could be “symbolic” instead of “literal.” We don’t all have to have the same faith journey! Our differences are beautiful! πŸ˜€

FARMS and me!

Many of you no doubt recall that there was a recent shake-up in the Mormon Apologetics community. I don’t have all the details (mostly because I don’t find apologetics to be a terribly interesting topic), but in a nutshell, it was this:

The Maxwell Institute (which is perhaps? affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was publishing an apologetics journal in conjunction with the Mormon Apologetics organization FARMS. The FARMS guys have something of a reputation for using personal attacks as one of their favorite debate strategies (see here for example). An extensive piece criticizing John Dehlin was axed from their journal at the last minute before press time, and, shortly after that, the Maxwell Institute decided to clean house — and fired the FARMS guys (here are some links to more discussion and details about the incident).

Anyway, apparently the FARMS guys regrouped and formed a new journal: The Mormon Interpreter. And guess who they decided to go after in their inaugural issue? Me!! (Among other people, of course.)

Now, it’s probably undignified of me to acknowledge and respond to this piece, but to hell with dignity. The piece is actually kind of funny, and as I said at Sunstone I don’t want to take myself too seriously. For reference, the Mormon Interpreter article is a response to Free Inquiry‘s Mormon issue from last year. My article from that issue was posted here. Thanks also to this Mormon Discussions thread for further information about the Mormon Interpreter article (notably for pointing out that a version of the same article was published in another venue shortly after the issue of Free Inquiry came out last year). And thanks to Badger for calling the article to my attention.

Let’s start at the top, with the title: “Atheist Piety: A Religion of Dogmatic Dubiety,” by Louis C. Midgley. As usual, they try to zing the atheists by calling atheism a religion. If that’s the best (or worst) epithet you can come up with dismiss atheism, then atheism has already won. Moving on:

Ms. Hanson proclaims that she is an atheist but grew up Mormon (p. 40). She can presumably translate between [the] two communities (p. 40). Why? Her once having been LDS makes her, she imagines, sort of bilingual. She is ready and willing, she claims, to correct those who believe the usual stereotypes about atheists because she knows that they are not really amoral nihilists, or whatever. She can, she claims, also correct mistakes that atheists make about the faith of Latter-day Saints. She does these things sometimes on the Bloggernacle (network of faithful-Mormon blogs).

OK, true enough so far. Though I’ve recently learned that there are non-Bloggernacle-affiliated faithful Mormon blogging networks.

She pictures herself as a mild mannered mom who posts up a storm on the Internet promoting what she calls the middle ground where nice, tactful atheism can occur (p. 41).

Sadly, this is not as true as I would like it to be. I really don’t “post up a storm on the Internet” anymore. I wish I did have more time to blog like I used to back in the early days of my blog. Now — as you guys can attest — it seems like every other post is me apologizing for not making any progress on Mormon Alumni Association books. I’d rather be actually making progress than apologizing, but between my job and my kids and my other hobbies, it’s hard. My kids are getting a little older and more independent though, and I’m hoping to ramp up my Internet activities again over the next few years.

Her blogsMain Street Plaza and Letters from a Broadstrike me as a bit raunchy and as lacking intellectual content.

As for the “raunchy” part, again I have to admit that it’s not as true as I’d like it to be. I enjoy writing about sex, but here’s my problem: I’m happily, monogamously married, and have been for more than a decade. My husband has asked me to respect his privacy by not discussing our sex life on the Internet (a request I find totally reasonable) — but this leaves me short on material. If you check out the sexuality tag on my blog, you’ll see that the raunchiest articles are many years old — except for my Vagina Testimony, which was posted after the Mormon Interpreter article was written. (And as I said to my Sunstone friends, I was really happy to be invited to write that piece which kind of sums up what I’ve been saying about sexuality and Mormonism since the beginning of my blog.)

As for the claim that my blogs are “lacking intellectual content” — well, let me quote this response from Bob Loblaw on the Mormon Discussion thread:

Her blog is a personal blog without pretensions to “intellectual content,” though her insightful posts are a hell of a lot more intellectually solid that Midgley’s s****y post.

Neither my personal blog nor “Main Street Plaza” are intended to be academic journals. (I probably don’t have to tell anyone here, but) MSP is mostly conversation about Mormon-interest topics, and my personal blog is about me posting random thoughts and stuff about my life. That said, I do discuss serious topics, and I hope I have some interesting insights to offer. Maybe instead of going for the sex posts, you might look at my series on A future for everyone’s favorite species?, or tags like economics, philosophy, racism, etc. (But whatever you do, avoid the Minecraft, Legos, Star Trek tags. πŸ˜‰ )

That sentence has a footnote:

For example, it really is ludicrous for Hanson to describe her teenage efforts to seduce boys or to describe what she claims to have managed in the library at BYU. See, including the comments for one of many similar examples of childish rubbish.

I mentioned — but didn’t actually describe — my teenage efforts to seduce boys (and my BYU library story), but I could have described them. My personal blog is intended to be about my life, including lots of memoirs.

As Doctor Scratch of Mormon Discussions pointed out, it’s perhaps a little pervy of this guy to have tracked down sex-in-the-BYU-library story (which — at the time the Mormon Interpreter article was first written — was only told in the comments section of some really old posts deep in the archives of my blog).

However, I suspect the BYU library reference was less a question of perviness and more a question of the fact that painting a woman as a slut is a way to discredit her, especially to a Mormon audience. But, as I explained in my Vagina Testimony, one of my goals is to show that a woman can be normal, healthy, happy — even interesting! — and also be sexy. So go ahead and bring up the BYU library story or my sex on the first date post all you want.

Then I noticed that there was an earlier footnote about me:

Hanson is an atheist housewife who blogs from Zurich, Switzerland (at Letters from a Broad and Main Street Plaza). She self-published in 2006 a novel entitled ExMormon. The issue of Free Inquiry under review has a half-page advertisement for her novel and one of her blogs (p. 24) in which she asks others to join her in what she calls the Mormon Alumni Association: Gone for Good.

Mostly true, except… I’m not a housewife. Sheesh, they can do enough sleuthing on my blog to find the sexy stuff, but not quite enough to discover my occupation. Allow me to direct you to the blog tag/category called my real job. Then there’s this:

Hanson needs a sense of solidarity with Latter-day Saints, even though her own nice atheist community (p. 41) should take care of her emotional needs by providing her with friends, a sense of [Page 135]meaning, and an identity.

This is the bit that most makes me go “WTF?”

Midgley seems to be implying that I’m some sort of lonely, emotionally-needy person who clings to the faithful Mormon community due to some inadequacy in the atheist community. Not only is that not true, but there’s really nothing in my article to suggest it. Allow me to explain that the point of the article was to convince atheists of the value of engaging in constructive dialog about religion. You can go read my whole article, but let me just quote the conclusion to give you the idea of what my article is like:

Atheists who were raised in other religions can form the same sorts of bridges with their own communities. I encourage them to do so. It makes sense that within the atheist community secular Jews should take the lead when discussing Israel, and people raised Muslim should take the lead in discussions about problems in Muslim countries, for example. They have added perspective on the subject, plus they can be trusted not to be biased by racism against their group nor by believing that their group is doing Gods will. Being raised in religion isnt better or worse than being raised without it. But I believe that those of us who were raised in religious communities have a special role to play, and we should step up and play it.

Then Midgley says:

The fact is, however, that both substance and civility are in rather short supply on lists, boards, and blogs, where the most violent and uninformed are free to opine up a storm. And this goes, unfortunately, for both Latter-day Saints as well as their critics.

Yes, exactly — that’s the challenge. There is tremendous polarization between the members of the church and the former members. And this polarization needlessly tears apart families and friendships. It is not at all an easy task to try to have any kind of civil dialog across belief lines. Yet, some things that are hard are worth doing.

I have a hard time believing that Midgely finds the polarization unfortunate. I wrote an article encouraging atheists to build bridges of constructive dialog with their former faith community, and Midgley responds to this by calling my personal blog “childish rubbish.” I can’t help but read that as meaning that he’s in favor of the polarization.

Then I worry that maybe I’m encouraging polarization myself by calling more attention to his article. But this isn’t an “us vs. them” post because I am not at all suggesting that his article is typical of faithful Mormon tactics. Quite the contrary, I think most faithful Mormons would agree with me that his posting gratuitous insults in response to my article is both unhelpful and uncalled-for.

Then he says:

Some of Hansons remarks, however, actually almost seem to address Tom Flynns desires for an answer to the question of how atheists and Latter-day Saints can have something to say to one another (p. 21), presumably in addition to bashing each other on blogs.

Yes. My remarks “actually almost seem to address the question” of how atheists and believers can have something to say to one another because that was one of the main topics of my article. If he would replace “in addition to bashing each other on blogs” with “instead of bashing each other on blogs” then I do believe that he read my article and mostly understood it.

Unfortunately, she does not address the two questionsWhy did Mormonism grow? and Why does it endure?that constitute the subtitle of Tom Flynns introduction.

Right, because those were not the topic of my article.

Actually, I didn’t read Tom Flynns introduction (nor any of the other pieces) until I received my print copy of the magazine. Tom Flynn didn’t tell me to answer any particular questions — he simply contacted me to tell me that the magazine Free Inquiry was doing a special issue on Mormonism and asked me to contribute an article. So I submitted an article that I thought would be interesting and relevant. (After it was accepted, I also placed the ad mentioned above for my book and for Main Street Plaza.)

That said, I agree that the questions of what’s interesting and special about Mormonism, and what are the reasons for its growth/attrition, are very interesting topics. We discuss them frequently here on Main Street Plaza.

Anyway, I’m glad to have a new excuse to discuss civil discourse and building bridges of understanding with current members of our former faith. It’s a challenge, but I don’t think it’s a lost cause. KThxBi. πŸ˜€

Mormon Intra-faith Dialogue Under Controlled Circumstances

Picket Fence

A week ago, a number of bloggers from across the Mormon belief map joined together answer the following question- do good online fences make good LDS neighbors? My co-panelistchanson has posted some remarks here, andRachel Whipple has posted her remarks at Times and Seasons, andyou can also readHolly’s post herefor thoughts from a non-panelist.

I have written frequently on the topic, but I wanted to address things again here. For our panel, we had wanted to have members of the orthodox, believing Mormon blog aggregator Nothing Wavering. However, both Bruce Nielson and J. Max Wilson declined our invitation, but they did provide reasons for why they declined our invitations to Sunstone (Bruce’s reasons for declining Sunstone detail this idea that the different blogs are “safe zones” for different communities, whereas J. Max Wilson’s reasons for declining talk about the need not to give Sunstone or the Bloggernacle any legitimacy.)

With J. Max’s and Bruce’s posts publicly available on their blogs, I thought that I could present their pointson their behalf — kinda like a devil’s advocate (can you taste the irony?) I don’t know how J. Max feels about this, but Bruce, at the very least, had said explicitly in his comments:

…if you wanted to express my views of boundary maintenance at Sunstone on my behalf just for kicks and giggles and then let your panel shoot it down, I really wouldnt mind. (Not being present, I can hardly be socially rejected now can I?) I might even take this email and post it on M* one of these days and see if it generates any discussion while Im in my safe zone so to speak. But this is up to you.

So I guess his post was fair game. But there was a funny thing that happened after I presented both of their positions.

Continue reading “Mormon Intra-faith Dialogue Under Controlled Circumstances”

Reclaiming Our Stories

This is the presentation I gave for the panel Who gets to say what former Mormons are like? which I organized at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.

I could see that she didn’t know what she was talking about just by the description of this book!

Author needs to do her research first!

I have only read the description of this book and I realize that I might not really understand the content, but the Mormon church is not like what is being described.

The author does not have the least bit of correct knowledge of the Mormon religion. Her portrayal could not have been more grossly inaccurate.

If you would like to know what the Mormon church, (correctly named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints*) believes in and stands for, this book is NOT the source to choose. Visit or talk to a Mormon you may know.

All of these are quotes from online reviews of someone’s personal memoirs. The book is not billed as anything other than one person’s life experiences — certainly not as a source-book on Mormonism.

I know, you can find anything on the Internet. But still, it’s interesting to see several people confidently post that they are more qualified than the author judge the accuracy of her recounting of her own life, simply because her experience with Mormonism was largely (but not entirely) negative.

The advice to “talk to a Mormon you may know” is perhaps the most poignant part because of the unspoken assumptions it carries: That obviously the author can’t be considered “Mormon” if she’s no longer a believing, practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that if she’s not “Mormon” by the CoJCoL-dS’s standards, then she has no business talking about Mormonism at all. Even experiences from her own life — it’s as though she has no right to claim them anymore.

If you dont want anything to do with the LDS faith, then why allocate so much of your time talking about it??

That’s our “Frequently Asked Question” on the community blog Main Street Plaza. No other question comes close in frequency.

I try to be patient with this question because — no matter how many times I’ve answered it — it’s new to each new person who comes by to ask.

It’s not a malicious question. It’s that the CoJCoL-dS teaches that “apostates” are miserable and bitter, and have no further connection with anything Mormon — except to angrily try to tear the church down. And if you’re surrounded by people who believe that, it’s not unusual to have simply never questioned that claim. I’m glad to have the opportunity to expose people to a new and unfamiliar perspective.

The truth is that if you were raised Mormon or have practiced Mormonism for a significant amount of time, that experience is part of what shapes the person you are. That component of your life doesn’t suddenly become invalid or irrelevant the day you stop believing in the truth claims of the CoJCoL-dS. That’s why our book distribution co-op is called the “Mormon Alumni Association” (see here for the origin of the name).

Former Mormons typically have strong mixed feelings about Mormonism. Some negative opinions, naturally, but also lots of positive associations and memories as well. Rarely indifference.

It’s normal for former Mormons to want to join in discussions about Mormonism. It’s normal that those who feel inspired to write stories include Mormon characters and Mormon themes, as I did in my novel ExMormon. You write what you know. And if you look at our book collection, you’ll see that our portraits of Mormonism are complex and varied — not one-note diatribes. For some of our stories Mormonism isn’t even the central point at all, it’s more background scenery.

In his March 15 Washington Post column Michael Otterson argued that journalists are not really qualified to cover Mormon-related stories unless they:

Drop into our services, talk to our people**, have dinner with a local leader, spend a family home evening with a family, be present when a young soon-to-be missionary opens his or her call letter and learns where they will be spending the next couple of years. Join with us on a service project. And then, when you have scratched the surface in this way, closely observe the transformation of peoples lives outside the church as missionaries teach them and they go through the conversion process. Watch those who transition from attitudes of hopelessness to lives of purpose and meaning and learn new ways to follow Jesus Christ. Talk to a Mormon bishop –our version of the local pastor, but who is unpaid for their volunteer work –as he helps people grapple with problems of addiction or shaky marriages or unemployment.

He also gives a list of publications that are extremely laudatory towards the CoJCoL-dS as examples of good journalism.

Michael Otterson (the managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is the intellectual leader behind the new mantra “If you have any questions, go to!” Any time a news story diverges one iota from the party line found on and the LDS Newsroom website, the church PR machine exclaims that the journalists didn’t do their research properly. This includes interviewing faithful Mormons like BYU Professor Randy Bott.

I wish faithful Mormons would be willing to apply the same standards to themselves, and realize that Sunday School lessons like Beware the Bitter Fruits of Apostasy represent tearing other people down — real live people like you and me — whose lives the faithful Mormons aren’t qualified to describe.

One positive aspect of the “Mormon Moment” is that it might help people like Otterson get the message that it’s not reasonable to expect journalists to quote exclusively from your company’s official spokespeople and press releases, and not seek any other sources. But even if it doesn’t, we former Mormons can find our own voices through blogs and books, etc., and reclaim our own stories.

* Unless the reviewer mistakenly thought the memoir was about growing up in the Strangite branch, the correct name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” not “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”.

** I imagine Otterson means to exclude people like me in the category “our people.”


This is the presentation I gave for the panel “Do Good Online Fences Make Good LDS Neighbors?” (which Andrew S and I organized) at the 2012 Sunstone Symposium.

Criticism. Sometimes it tells you more about the critic and his own personal issues than bout the thing being criticized, doesn’t it? Other times criticism gives you valuable information about real problems that should be addressed and solved. And sometimes it’s a little of both — you can pick some nuggets of useful data out of an otherwise unpleasant rant.

I bring this up in response to J. Max Wilson’s claim that organizations like Sunstone are parasites that harm and weaken their host (in this case: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or CoJCoL-dS). But all Mormon discussion groups depend on Mormonism for their existence. That includes “Nothing Wavering” — their group depends on the existence of Mormonism too.

So the question becomes: Which groups are doing their “host” the most harm?

I argue that shielding the CoJCoL-dS from all criticism — including criticism from strongly interested insiders — does more harm that allowing criticism to be aired and discussed.

If you take the attitude that all criticism is unfounded — and that the solution to criticism is simply to get the critic to shut up — you create a situation where many problems won’t get acknowledged, hence won’t be analyzed, hence won’t be solved.

I hear complaints all the time that all these exit narratives are so predictable. They all hit the same notes. Well, if you’ve got thousands of people defecting, and their explanations all have a lot of the same elements, that’s valuable data. I’m sure some of the similarity is due to the stories influencing each other, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it.

J. Max claims that when faithful Mormons post complaints to the Bloggernacle, it’s like taking your marital problems down to the pub. I find that a very interesting metaphor. The problem is that all these faithful members — who do have a profound and intimate relationship to the church — don’t have the equivalent of a living room or bedroom where they can talk to the people who make church policies and expect the leaders to listen to them and take their perspectives into account.

Telling people that it’s OK to have issues — but please only work through them privately with friends and local leaders until you find a way to put your issues on the shelf — that doesn’t cut it. And when there’s a real problem, that doesn’t solve it.

Even minor issues — refusing to address them can grow them into major issues.

At the blog Main Street Plaza our goal is to have an engaging discussion of LDS-interest topics such as current events and Mormon culture. We absolutely do allow criticism of the CoJCoL-dS and its leaders. I believe that the feedback and critical perspective we provide is at least as helpful to the CoJCoL-dS as it is harmful — and it’s possibly a good deal more helpful than harmful.

But that’s beside the point.

My goals (and I’m not speaking for anyone else in the community, but), my personal goals are not about helping or harming the CoJCoL-dS. I just think that Mormonism is a fascinating topic, and I enjoy discussing it and hearing different viewpoints.

As I said in my earlier panel, we have additional goals like reclaiming our stories: allowing former Mormons to define their own experiences instead of standing by and letting the church invent the “apostate” narrative, according to its own agenda.

But I don’t want to be too earnest and take myself too seriously here. I’m mostly in it for the camaraderie and fun — and because it’s less stressful than discussing the serious problems facing the world.

You can see how our commenting policy reflects these goals. People are welcome to argue any position and present their evidence. Even (especially?) to criticize our policies and tell us when they’re not working, and what needs improvement. And in my weekly blog round-up I link to interesting posts from blogs all over the belief map.

But people who just want to pick a fight — to polarize and reframe the discussion into the familiar paradigm of “the church and its enemies, forever locked in mortal combat” — I have no patience for that. (I generally post a follow-up comment reminding people that “if you wont/cant make your point in a clear and reasonable way, then it only makes your own position look, well, questionable.”)

On principle I don’t fault J. Max for wanting to marginalize viewpoints that he thinks are wrong or harmful. In a society that values free speech, using your own speech to try to push certain voices to the fringes works better than actual censorship.

To take some extreme examples, think of Holocaust deniers or the anti-vaccine movement. You can legitimately argue that their speech is dangerous. We see babies dying of new outbreaks of diseases that vaccination had kept at bay for more than a generation! But censoring such viewpoints actually gives them a weird new credibility, like “These guys must really be onto something if Big Brother is so threatened by letting them speak!” It’s better to make the case for why such viewpoints aren’t mainstream.

I simply disagree with J. Max about whom he’s choosing to marginalize. Criticism can be constructive.

Help? Do I belong here?

How do we help “new bloggers” find their voice?
Are we really a community that does?
I believe we are, or at least can be.

Main Street Plaza is an Internet home for people who care about their thoughts and ideas, eventhough weoften disagree. Wedon’t have the same world view,but it helpsus tobe able toarticulateour point of view, and listen to others asthey express theirs.Disagreements on doctrineor different life choices,does nothave to lead to animosity.I hope that we are making a space for people questioning their faith, lives and community, and to help them feel that they have a “voice” as they work throught those struggles.

An Example of doing it right!

I think that Post Mormon Girl does a great job giving voice to her experiences with the church, and how those experiences shaped her life. Her entire blog is great and some time. when you have the flu or something else, where you have an excuselay inbed,I highly recommendreading through her past posts. She is an awesome person, writer, friend and she has a great way of gently encouraging new readers and commenters to talk, even if they are VERY shy.

Part of what is remarkable about Post Mormon Girl, as a blogger and human being, is that she makes sure to thank each person who comments, or to engage them in some way. When she doesn’t know an answer, she will post that she doesn’t know, and ask her readers whether they know them. She also asks questions that she genuinely doesn’t know the answers to, and at the end of the OP asks her readers to share their experiences.

This is one of her recent posts, that especially hit home with me: (You really should take the time to read the OP and ALL ofthe comments)

The post is touching and masterfully written.Thecomments, thoughts, ideas and personal experiences added to the OPmake it much morepowerful!. PMG is a great writer, who writes honestly and straight from the heart. There is no doubt that her writing stands on its own. While being a great writer is important, her original reasonfor starting A Post-Mormon Life, was to help others who had, were or were going to have some of the same experiences, when they decide that leaving the LDS church, She wanted other people toknow that it is possible to leave the LDS church, andthey can be happy. Mostly, she wants people to ask questions, or leave part of their own stories, so they can be part of the larger narrative of current Mormons, Ex-Mormons, and thosestraddling the fence.

What we are doing now, and howwe can bebetter!

Hopefully, Main Street Plazais creating a space for thestoriesof people who have had the LDS church touch their lives. As a place forexperiencesto beshared, a place of encouragement, and not a place of condescension or condemnation.This is a place that you can hear the words and voices of those whose lives have been different,while you still share some common threads.

Hopefully, you willfind acceptance, no matter where you fall on the living-believing-caring-hoping scale of personal growth.As you discuss, debate, and find common ground, hopefully you will see Main Street Plaza as a place to embraceideas and people who don’t agree with you (or do agree with you) that you respect because of the lives they live and their tollerance and support, no matter how different you may seem at first.

Oftentimes, connecting through blogs has less to do with marketing and more to do with making personal connections, but it is hard to make those first few connections, If someone has posted on a group blog, and they have a personal blog that is in their profile, check out their blog. If theirblog is interesting, and youare comfortable with the content, leave a comment about something you liked, and then ask them to check out your blog.It can be a great was tostart conversations that mightnot happen inlarger forums, with 20-50 comments. There are new and more experienced authors,who offer their advice, when you ask for it. πŸ˜‰

There are times whenyouneed help now, and you aren’t sure who to ask. So, please, if you are new or have been lurking for a while,
please leave a comment with your question(s) and hopefully between the community members, we will be ableto answer all of them.

Julia πŸ˜‰


**Disagreeing is just as honorable as agreeing, as long as comes from a supportable idea or an experience based insight. Name calling is always an easily throw, like the balls from a Nerf gun. I am asking you to at least try meeting me half way, and stick to only calling me an idiot, AFTER you have shared your “supportable idea.” :-)

Why do you blog? How do you choose what to include, or focus on?

(This is part of a post that is on my personal blog. To see the entire post you can go to

When I startedmy currentblog, there was a lot of”legal “crap” going on in my life, thatlasted over a year, beforea judge finally dismissed the case for lack of evidence. My lawyers didn’t want me to continue posting to my previous blog(s) since they were coming under a lot of scrutiny. However, since I didn’t have anything to hide, they didn’t want me to delete those blogs either.

For a while I didn’t blog at all. I read and commented on other people’s blogs, but didn’t post anything.

It drove me nuts.

I wanted to stop having my only real creative talent, writing, to be bottled up on my hard drive, with no way to share it. The compromise, with my lawyers, was to create a poetry blog that did not focus on specific aspects of my life. So, initially it was about finding a way to be me, but not the me that was being attacked.

As the legal stuff calmed down, and then was dismissed, I considered going back to my original blog. Emotionally I didn’t want to go backwards, and that desire to go forward, but cautiously, is what inspired the “My New Favorite Blogs” series.

The contests came from several conversations with several people, about how sad it is that personal blogs get so much less attention than group blogs. Lots of people know and read larger blogs like BCC, Cake Wrecks, or Wheat and Tares.

As I started looking around even more, I felt even more strongly that while there are blogging communities that are successful, there are very few personal blogs that have large followings. My goal was not to make a blog with a large following, but to have fewer bloggers who have very few or no comments left on their blog(s).

Pintrest seems to have made this even more common. Even personal blogs that have lots of followers are getting more hits from Pinterest, but fewer comments. While comments aren’t everything, they do help personal bloggers keep motivated to move forward when they are frustrated, or lonely.

While my contests don’t have huge prizes, and don’t always have a lot of entries, they all focus on expanding the number of blogs that readers are exposed to, and/or giving incentives to people sharing a little slice of who they have been, are, or want to be.

If nothing else, having that focus has pushed me to spend time finding new blogs and meeting new people. Almost all of my “guest bloggers” are people who have personal blogs that I have connected with. I wouldn’t have found them if I had spent a lot of time lurking before I jumped in and commented, which was what I used to do a lot of. I realized that if comments on MY blog meant a lot to me, that most people probably felt the same way!

Does that make sense?

Why did I choose to have guest bloggers write on my blog, instead of just letting everyone know
I was going to be gone having surgery, and I wouldn’t be blogging until I felt better?

I wanted to have guest bloggers while I am “taking a break” for two reasons. First, I am hoping that I will get some different perspectives,(which certainly is ending up being the case)since a lot of the blogs and bloggers I have found, and connected to, are very diverse. I want to have that diversity evident, because I think that it helps everyone, to hear new voices, that may be outside their immediate comfort zone.

The second reason is that I had time to plan ahead, and I don’t want my blog to go “dark” for a week or more. If I had an unexpected emergency, not having any posts would make sense. Several bloggers I know have left a post that essentially says, this is happening all of the sudden, so I won’t be able to blog for a while. While I won’t be able to blog, I do have the time to set up interesting things for me, and my readers to learn about.

I am not super smart about how blogs work, but recently I figured out how to find out, how many people have me on an RSS feed, who follow me privately, and who have my posts emailed to them when a new post goes up. Since I only have five official followers, I was really surprised that when you include those other forms of “following” the blog, I have almost 90 additional people who have signed up, in some way, to hear what I have to say. With each contest I hope to engage those readresa little more, and maybe they will take the challenge to find and listen to other view points. I also hope that new people will be interested in what I and my guest bloggers have to say! I guess I see guest posts as another way to do that.

If you are interested in seeing how the Guest Posting is going, feel free to check out my blog over the next two weeks. A fwe posts I wrote ahead of time, but most of them are posts with unique perspectives, and while you may know some of the authors, you may be surprised at some of the things they wrote for my blog, since it didn’t realy fit with the theme of their blog! So, stop on by, and answer these questions here in the comments section!

Why do you blog?

Do you like finding new blogs, or do you find yourself staying to the same several blogs?

Do you add more bogs to your blog roll, if you have one? How often do you add new blogs?

What do you hope people learn about you when you blog or comment?

I know they are deep questions, but you guys are smart! So, let’s hear it!

Julia –


Who’s holding the microphone???

Molly recently left a comment here that, I think, expresses a question on a lot of people minds:

Must admit to having trouble understanding why Joanna Brooks is taken so seriously. Her work is very softball, and frequently skirts meaty issues or downplays legitimate problems completely.

This was largely in response to the fact that Brooks won the Mormon Alumni Association’s prestigious “William Law X-Mormon of the Year” Award, however, I think that the attention she gets from the other side of the aisle is even more mysterious. Specifically, why does the CoJCoL-dS have its media outlets continuously taking pot-shots at her?

Sunstone Symposium 2012 I think Ralph Hancock gives us a bit of a hint in his latest piece on Professor Brooks:

Brooks has a political agenda or, to be more precise, a political-religious agenda, since her outlook on what is true and good is profoundly conditioned by a progressive-liberal-feminist political project, a project that requires a fundamental re-interpretation of the religion her parents taught her.

It sounds like the problem isn’t so much that she has a political-religious agenda — rather the problem is that she has the wrong one. The CoJCoL-dS occasionally claims that it’s apolitical, but who gets to speak from a given platform (and who doesn’t) is itself a political decision.

Have a look at The Narrator’s recently rejected profile:

Unlike most Mormons, I don’t necessarily believe in a life after death. However our scriptures teach that eternal life is more than living forever, but is something that can and should be achieved now in the present. Eternal life is to live and love others as God does. Too often I think we are confused in thinking that eternal life is something we must wait for, or that it is something that can only be found in another life after this. Rather, it is by following Christ’s example and learning to love as He did that we can find ourselves with eternal life in the present.

Andrew S explains in his response that the church wants to showcase some types of diversity and not others. For example, they want people to know that you can be black and be a Mormon, or you can be a woman who works outside the home and be a Mormon (y’know, as long as you don’t try to publish your ideas about Mormonism), however, not everybody can have the True Mormon seal of approval:

At the conference last week, the monitor in attendance justified the practice using the example of someone who might say that he is a gay parent and a Mormon. The obvious problem with this rationale is that there are, in fact, gay Mormon parents.

Personally, I think the CoJCoL-dS is really shooting itself in the foot on this one. As “A Mormon in the Cheap Seats” explains, it alienates the whole range of people who see Mormonism in shades of gray. (On the positive side, Deseret News is helping feminist Mormons raise money.) It looks like the PR department doesn’t get that making a good impression and obsessively controlling who gets to hold the microphone may be incompatible goals.

p.s. I hope you’re going to Sunstone 2012 — to discuss the politics of Mormon discourse with me as well as other Mormon-political questions!!

Building on a Religious Background

The following is an article I wrote for the October / November 2011 issue of Free Inquiry (the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism), reposted here with permission from the editors. The Oct/Nov issue is a special issue on Mormonism, and one other MSP regular also contributed to it.

I am an atheist, but I grew up Mormon. My children have asked their grandparents and others about religious belief, about how it works, to try to understand it. But for all of their interest and curiosity, I doubt they’ll truly understand what it’s like to be a part of a religious community, and to truly believe in it. I wouldn’t recommend raising children in religion just so they’ll have the experience, but as for myself, I wouldn’t trade in my experiences for a non-religious background even if I could.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that a single claim can seem either obviously crazy or perfectly reasonable depending on how you’re exposed to it. Consider the Mormon belief that God was once a human and that humans can become Gods. As a teenager, it was an epiphany for me to encounter Christians who scorned and ridiculed this belief — not for being a deadly heresy, but for being obviously absurd. Meanwhile these same Christians believed in an omnipotent three-in-one God with no beginning who loves His human children, and promises them an eternity of unchanging subservience (best case scenario) or an eternity of torture. I’d been exposed (as least tangentially) to mainstream Christian beliefs my whole life, so their theology didn’t really shock me. But I was shocked by their crazy belief that Mormon theology was somehow objectively more crazy than their own theology.

This is a lesson that I’ve carried with me. For example, one time some colleagues invited me to a Hindu Diwali celebration, and I was surprised to see people pouring milk and honey and orange juice over statues of their gods, apparently to please them. “Wow, that’s crazy!” I thought, and then I stopped myself. Crazier than symbolically eating your God? Or than putting olive oil on someone’s head to perform a faith healing?

So much of what seems normal and reasonable depends on the beliefs you’re brought up with and on the things the people around you believe. Other trappings can influence your perception as well, such as homeopathic medicines that are packaged up like real medicine and sold in an ordinary pharmacy. One thing I’ve learned is that the natural “That’s crazy!” reaction doesn’t always lead to a rational exchange of ideas. If a person thinks that claim X is reasonable, and you say it’s obviously crazy, then in that person’s eyes you may be the one who looks like a raving lunatic. A lot of times you need to start by understanding why belief X seems reasonable to the other person before you begin to discuss it.

Spending my formative years in a minority religion has shaped my perspective and has helped shape who I am. Note that I wasn’t raised in some sort of isolated community of believers who fear and shun all contact with the outside. I went to an ordinary suburban High School that had only a handful of Mormon students, so most of my friends were not Mormon. On the other hand, Mormonism is a time-consuming religion that requires a lot of socializing with other believers, so it was as though I had one foot in one community and one foot in another. Thus I observed how minorities are judged (and misjudged). And I learned that being different is more than OK — it’s something to be proud of.

Now that I’m an atheist, I have additional perspective. I haven’t forgotten my past, so it’s a little like being bilingual. I can translate between two communities. On the Internet, I can correct errors and mis-impressions on one side or the other. On the Mormon side, you naturally see people who believe in the usual stereotypes about atheists: that they’re miserable, amoral nihilists, or whatever. Sometimes on the Bloggernacle (the network of faithful Mormon blogs) people write posts using those stereotypes as basic “everybody knows”-type background assumptions about atheists. I’m one of the ex-Mormon atheists that help to challenge the stereotypes not only by posting comments directly on posts that misrepresent atheists, but also by maintaining a long-term personal blog about my ordinary life as a mild-mannered mom.

On the other side, I can correct erroneous claims people make about Mormons and Mormon doctrine. In particular, there’s a lot of confusion about polygamy — mostly due to the publicity wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broadcasting misleading half-truths like “We have not had any connection with polygamy for over a hundred years; we have no connection with any modern polygamist groups; the modern polygamist groups are not Mormon; end of story, stop asking us about it.” In reality, the modern Mormon polygamist groups are branches of the same tradition, they have as much right as any other branch of Mormonism to self-identify as “Mormon”, and while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the branch with the pairs of missionaries with suits and bikes and little name-tags) renounced the modern practice of polygamy, it hasn’t renounced it as an eternal doctrine — notably their “eternal families” include polygamous families.

My Mormon past puts me in a unique position to provide constructive criticism to the Mormon community. When I encounter Mormons talking amongst themselves, I know the lingo, and what’s more, I grok what they’re talking about because I’ve lived it. We have shared experiences. When the Mormons were working to get Proposition 8 passed in California, I could talk to them about what’s wrong with that, without having them immediately dismiss me as someone who hates/misunderstands Mormons. I can approach them — not as someone who thinks Mormons are crazy cultists — but as a family member who just wants to see my own people do the right thing. I currently write for the group blog Main Street Plaza, and we discuss politics with the faithful all the time. The leaders and the publicity arm of the CoJCoL-dS constantly spread memes like “Gay marriage is a threat to our freedom of religion,” and “people who criticize the Mormon involvement in Proposition 8 are hypocrites because they’re bigoted against Mormons,” etc. As a member of the family, I can discuss with faithful Mormons what’s wrong with those messages in a calm and constructive manner.

As an aside, I want to make it clear that — while I’m interested in engaging thoughtful believers in constructive, civil dialog — I’m not denouncing other approaches. No matter how nice and well-meaning I may be, “apostates” are viewed with suspicion in Mormonism and in many other religions. That’s why I don’t want to disparage the outspoken “new atheists” who are highly critical of religion. They’re the ones who open up the middle ground where “nice” tactful atheism can occur — by moving the poles of the debate. You’re misunderstanding the dynamics of the debate if you think that angry atheists harm the position of the bridge-building atheists. Really it’s the opposite. The only reason religious people see you as a nice atheist — as opposed to seeing you as a servant of Satan who should have no place in the discussion — is because there’s someone else out there who’s less “nice”, providing contrast. If any atheists are advocating crime or violence or taking away religious people’s civil rights, then I’ll denounce them for it. But if they’re offending people by challenging the wrong-headed notion that religion has a monopoly on morals and ethics, I’ll thank them for putting those points on the table of discussion.

Actually, the alliance between the Mormons and the rest of the Religious Right is one of my favorite topics to discuss with believing Mormons. Naturally, I think that Mormons — being a minority religion, like the Jews — need to understand the importance of protecting the rights of minorities. The problem is not merely the fact that the Evangelical Christians think that Mormonism is a dangerous cult. It’s possible to make political alliances with people that you don’t like personally. But as I (and even many faithful Mormons have pointed out), it’s not in the Mormons’ interest to promote laws allowing majority religions to impose their beliefs on minorities — such as encouraging a precedent where a 51% majority can enshrine religious-based discrimination in the California constitution. When Mitt Romney gave his famous speech describing American political discourse as a “tapestry of faith,” many of the Mormon blogs fawned all over this one-ended bridge towards the Christian Right’s private club. And I was right there on Main Street Plaza to present the view that the speech was more about exclusion than inclusion, and to direct people to articulate articles explaining the following: “In a speech Romney was forced to give because he feared unfair discrimination, Romney did not stand against intolerance. Instead, he simply asked that it not be directed against him, a man of faith. You can be intolerant, but do it to them, over there. Theyre even more different,” and “Romney opposes bigotry in self-defense, not in defense of others, which is to say that he does not really oppose it at all.”

Another central part of my online work is to help build a community for former Mormon bloggers and encourage harmony and understanding within mixed-belief families. For years I’ve been gathering up former-Mormon bloggers into a huge blogroll called Outer Blogness, and I do a weekly link roundup (Sunday in Outer Blogness) to encourage people to visit each other’s blogs. Faithful Mormons naturally have a community of people to share their faith experiences with (at church), but losing belief can be incredibly isolating because in real life there’s very little context for sharing your experience with others. Family members and people at church typically find a loss of faith very threatening, and often react with fear and hostility rather than understanding. As soon as people get online, they’re usually pleasantly surprised to discover a whole world of others who have gone through similar experiences. And they can share strategies, including ideas on making the transition smoothly and on maintaining loving ties with family members who still believe. That was also the theme of my novel ExMormon: the grand comedy of growing up Mormon, caring about your Mormon community and identity, but then losing belief and reconstructing your expectations and your relationships. Believers have found the novel to be a fun and non-threatening starting point for understanding their non-believer friends and family members better.

Atheists who were raised in other religions can form the same sorts of bridges with their own communities. I encourage them to do so. It makes sense that — within the atheist community — secular Jews should take the lead when discussing Israel, and people raised Muslim should take the lead in discussions about problems in Muslim countries, for example. They have added perspective on the subject, plus they can be trusted not to be biased by racism against their group nor by believing that their group is doing God’s will. Being raised in religion isn’t better or worse than being raised without it. But I believe that those of us who were raised in religious communities have a special role to play, and we should step up and play it.

Troy Williams @ Sunstone 2011: Thoughts on the Sacred and Profane

Troy tried to buck me up after my latest mini-meltdown over l’affaire Lyman and it reminded me that I need to remember to catch Tabloid (91% “Fresh”!) at my earliest convenience. Here’s Troy riffin’ at Sunstone (go show their Youtube channel some love) on his role in the Errol Morris documentary and his thoughts on the Broadway Book of Mormon: