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.