Tag Archives: empathy

One Half of Wisdom

“What do you believe, and why?”

. . . is the unofficial motto and often the first question asked of theistic callers to The Atheist Experience.  It is the question that drives most religious debates and discussions.

While listening to Tanner Gillibrand on MormonTransitions this past week, I stumbled upon his response to a family member who asked the question of Tanner when he announced his resignation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (…).  Tanner’s response, in which he details his desperate efforts to keep his faith, is beautiful, heart-breaking, and brilliant.

This was the hardest time of my life. I used to drive out to the fields in Rexburg and pray out loud for hours, begging God for some light, but it never came. Jesus said, “What man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone?” I begged for a loaf and received nothing. I would have taken a stone over the silence.

[…]

I thought I loved God my whole life. But as I studied the scriptures I realized I could not love such a God. Rather than a God that was found through love, I saw a God that was found through loyalty tests…

Tanner’s family member was brave to ask the question, and Tanner was brave to lay open his story.  Reading his letter, however, I realized that I had never been asked that question by my family or by those friends who had raised me to be a good, believing member of The LDS Church.  None of them asked me to write on this blog.  None of them likely read it.

When I lost my faith, I was taken to a therapist.  I told the therapist I didn’t believe The Church anymore.  The therapist told my parents.  My parents were disappointed, and hurt, but I never remember them asking me why I stopped believing.

After I stopped attending services, my father once asked me if I was going on an LDS Mission.  Somewhat befuddled by the idea of giving two years of my life to a religion in which I no longer believed, I answered with a quick, “No.”  He asked why not, and I replied impatiently, “Because I don’t believe it anymore.”  He never asked a follow up question.  Was it because of my teenage attitude or his lack of curiosity?  I’ll never know.

Later I ran into a member of the local bishopric and a good friend of my father’s.  He asked why I stopped coming to church.  I replied that I didn’t believe it anymore, and that I had some problems with some doctrines and beliefs.  Before I could go on, he stopped me and told me that he knew people who had left The Church, and knew their problems with The Church, but it didn’t matter.  “It’s just true, and I think you know that.”

Instantly dismissive of my thoughts, opinions, and beliefs.  How intellectually lazy and willfully ignorant.  Though it is highly doubtful, this man may have been able to address some of my concerns, but, for him, it seemed better to dwell in ignorance.

After my child was born, our families passively danced around the issue of religion until I felt it necessary to confront my mother about my lack of beliefs.  Though she acknowledged the atheist position, of which she was already aware, she asked no other questions of me.  Even when I resigned my membership in The LDS Church, and sent a direct e-mail making my actions known, not a single member of my family, including my innumerable extended family members, asked any variation of, “What do you believe, and why?”

Why are we so afraid to discuss this topic?  I am guilty as well.  I often want to ask my siblings, father-in-law, brother-in-law, what they believe and why they believe, but I I avoid it – afraid of offending them, as I have been offended.  Why is this one topic so volatile?  So alarming? Though I study and obsess over these subjects, I never really ask those true believers who are all around me.  Are we all really that thin-skinned, or do we just assume that everyone else is so easily distressed?

It is likely part of why I continue to write here; so that I can openly express to strangers what I’d really like to express to those I love.  In which case, thank you for reading.

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon

Poisoned Pueblo

“No!  Help!  Help me!” I cried out, loudly, to all the people in the McDonald’s.

“Shut the hell up!” Tiana started dragging me toward the doors.

“Help!” I screamed, looking around at all the moms and their kids bustling to the play area and bending over their Happy Meals. “Help me!  Don’t let her take me!  Please!”

No one even looked at me.

 

The above is a passage from Saving Alex a memoir from Alex Cooper, which I am currently reading.  The biography describes Ms. Cooper’s 2010 ordeal with Southern Utah “conversion therapy” after she came out to her parents as gay.

My favorite novel of all time is It by Stephen King.  That story features the town of Derry, built around, haunted, and possessed by an ancient soul-devouring monster.  When I read the passage above, I thought of this passage from It, in which one of the characters is running from the monster who has possessed her father:

If he caught her he would choke her, or beat her, or kick her. And when it was over, someone would come and collect him and he would sit in a cell the way Eddie Cochran’s stepfather was sitting in a cell, dazed and uncomprehending.
She ran toward downtown, passing more and more people as she went. They stared – first at her, then at her pursuing father – and they looked surprised, some of them even amazed. But what was on their faces went no further. They looked and then they went on toward wherever they had been going.

I believe that few individuals are true monsters.  They are rarely as racist as David Duke, or as bigoted as Gayle Ruzicka, or as misogynistic as Donald Drumpf.  I think our society, however,  exposed to the constant diseased energy of these individually demons can amplify that hate, ignorance, and bigotry; can cause good people to do bad things, or, sometimes worse, nothing at all.

We’ve all heard of mob mentality; when a group of people start acting viciously, and that emotion permeates the mob, and keeps building, and building, and building on itself until it reaches a frenzy level?  It seems as if this soft racism, this soft bigotry, this soft acceptance of misinformation and willful ignorance is somehow more insidious and more pervasive, infecting even the most good hearted of people with the willingness to condemn, judge, and cast aside people they don’t even know, for the most inexcusable of reasons.  It quietly encourages the populace to vote for politicians who promise to hurt the minorities among us – even should they not tacitly agree.  To support or simply ignore the passing laws that only serve to further wound the vulnerable.  To become defacto lesser demons of the true monsters.

I can only hope that, like the Stephen King novel, empathy, love, and unconditional friendship can defeat the monstrous.

Sinews of The Soul

This is my much-less polite and anger filled resignation letter, as opposed to the message I sent to my immediate family.  This was originally posted at The Friendly Atheist.

—-

Dear LDS Church,

It is amazing how much The Church has changed since my early Mormon upbringing. So many of the messages and teachings have changed and evolved over time. For example, when attending church:

Yes. This last revelation was the straw that finally prompted this long overdue letter.

Although I have found other policies of The LDS Church hurtful, ignorant, and bigoted, this last policy change seems so malicious. So full of hatred. And I won’t be a member of a hate group, even in name only.

I received many odd and certainly unique lessons on sexual morality, and was frequently told in oblique ways that homosexuality was a sin, I was never taught that this kind of sexual immorality would damn the salvation of my children.

The LDS Church claims to be a loving, knowledgeable, and charitable representative of a just and loving god, but their actions speak louder than their empty words.

Potential converts to The LDS Church are asked to commit to baptism in the first discussion, then rapidly pushed through a shallow and superficial version of The Church’s doctrine and history in a mad dash to get them under the water and on the membership roles.

Eight-year-old children are encouraged, expected, and demanded to make lifetime commitments they cannot possibly understand, to a church which continues to hide, obscure, and deny it’s history and doctrines.  Heavenly Fathers wants everyone, and quickly, before they start looking too deeply into the closet.

Except in this one special case; a child raised by same-sex parents.

Even if that child is raised in this fraud of a church by those loving, caring parents. Even if that child believes with all his/her tiny, pure heart that there is a Heavenly Father, and that Jesus knows and loves each of his beloved and innocent children. Even if all that child wants for their eighth birthday is to be washed clean of their supposed “sins.”

The LDS Church will tell them, “No. You are lesser in the eyes of Jesus and Heavenly Father.”

“Though you have done nothing wrong, your parents are the worst kind of sinners.  Jesus does not want you as a member of His church, nor will He take you until you are old enough to curse the names of those who loved and raised you, and shake the dust off your feet at their doorstep.”

As of the writing of this letter, I am an atheist and an ex-Mormon.  Should a Mormon member take my young child to be blessed into your twisted organization, however, my child would be accepted and blessed without pause or question because I am married to a member of the opposite sex.

This hate-filled policy is designed only to cause injury to an already injured population; the same-sex attracted people who The Church considers to be the loved children of Heavenly Father, who are doing their best to make it through this life whilst still maintaining some measure of belief in the deceitful message of eternity and love that you spout between vicious jabs at these wounded souls. It cannot and does not serve any other purpose.

This manipulative “guilt by association” is revolting behavior from anyone, let alone an organization which spends so much time talking out the side of its mouth about the importance and necessity of love, acceptance, and eternal families.

I have not claimed membership in this deception for years, but have never felt it useful or necessary to make it official. I do now. I cannot and will not allow you to continue to count me amongst your hateful, heinous, hurtful, and peculiar number any longer.

I hereby resign my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

A Next Step

Dear friends and family,

I want to let you know that I am resigning my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Though likely unwelcome news to many, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise as I have not regularly attended church service in nearly 20 years, and no longer believe in a god.  Why do I feel it necessary now? To officially cancel my ties with The Church? As has probably been guessed, the new anti-LGBT policies of The Church are the last straw for me.

I hurt so much for those true believing children who were just told by the trusted and beloved representatives of their loving Heavenly Father and Savior that they were lesser and unworthy.

I clearly remember my own child-like and singular love and trust in Jesus — so pure and innocent and all-consuming. Jesus, who gave only love and comfort and acceptance; never a rebuke, even in the face of sin.

Because I remember that so clearly, an image comes to me of having that very love and trust bludgeoned by a visit from President Benson, on the day of my Baptism, suddenly breaking the news to me that Jesus won’t have me as a member of His church today.

I can imagine my heart breaking in my chest as President Hinckley shows up at our ward house, and stops my father’s hands, only to tell me that Heavenly Father will not have me as a member of His Priesthood today.

I imagine being filled with such abject misery and hopelessness when my Primary teacher tells our class that “Heavenly Father needs and wants all of your chosen generation, but not you.  Not you.”

Though I no longer believe in the importance of these events, the thought of the children going through less dramatic but nonetheless real versions of those scenarios right now fills me with heartache. That’s why I’m angry for them. That’s why I hurt for them. That’s why I feel it necessary to take this action.

I’ve considered this final step over the years, but this is the reason I’ve finally decided it’s necessary; to protest a church claiming to speak for a God of love and acceptance, which instead seemingly teaches children hate, exclusion, and shame. Teaching them that they will not only be punished for their own sins, but also for their parents’ love.

I understand that we may have different understandings and interpretations of this policy. I have read several different official, semi-official, and unofficial attempts to explain how this new policy is not vicious nor malicious. I’ve watched D. Todd Christofferson’s reaction video. I’ve read the letter from The First Presidency. I’ve read the press-release from Michael Otterson. I sincerely disagree with all of these rationalizations and explanations.

I don’t mean to preach in this letter, but I felt I owed at least a brief explanation before I join the other compassionate and empathetic believers and non-believers in requesting that we no longer to be counted among the membership of this church.

If this hurts you personally, I am truly sorry. It is not my intent, though that may be cold comfort.

Any and all of you are more than welcome to tell me or ask me anything you like, so long as we can remain a loving family in doing so. I love and value and respect each of you and know that each of us is walking our own path as best we know how.

We Have Found A Witch

“We did do the nose.  And the hat.  But she’s a witch !”
— Monty Python and The Holy Grail

Apparently, some LDS Bishops are on a witch hunt.  According to the latest Mormon Stories podcast, after not attending church for more than four years, Taylor Knuth-Bishop has been called before an LDS disciplinary council to face possible [likely] excommunication.  Taylor and his husband, Sean, were among those happy couples married, on-stage, by Queen Latifa at the Grammy Awards in 2014.

Taylor lives in New York, but recently moved back to Utah for the summer in order to help plan his sister’s wedding.  One night, while preparing dinner, the Bishop of the LDS ward he attended as a teenager called and asked to speak with him.  Taylor was informed that they intended to hold a disciplinary council based on his “choice” to marry Sean and the “lifestyle you have chosen.”

excommunicationIf God really wants to remove from Church membership, those of us who no longer believe and who live “lifestyles” that irritate The Almighty, He’d best get crackin’; there are millions of us.

As much as it doesn’t make sense to me that otherwise faithful people like The September Six or Kate Kelly are excommunicated for pointing out inconvenient facts, it makes even less sense to go after people who no longer really have any interest or affiliation with the LDS Church.  In fact, it seems very much like an old fashioned witch hunt – which stokes the fire, anger, hatred, and persecution complex of the still faithful and the expense of those deemed to be disposable.

According to Mormon Stories, at least two other couples have claimed that they now face disciplinary councils for the same reasons.

Taylor declined to attend his trial and, instead, sent this letter.

Educated Empathy

You oughta be shot. Or stabbed. Lose a leg. To be a surgeon, you know? Know what kind of pain you’re dealing with. They make psychiatrists get psychoanalyzed before they can get certified, but they don’t make a surgeon get cut on. That seem right to you?” – Jubal Early, Firefly (2002)

When I was young, I would wonder how other kids in my class, who were not Mormons, could not see that The LDS Church was the living and restored gospel of Jesus Christ. How did I know? How was I so sure? They told me at church. They told me at General Conference. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents all told me. It said so in The Bible, and The Book of Mormon. Heavenly Father gave us these sacred books to tell us how to behave, what was right, what was wrong, and what was true. How could anyone be so obtuse as to deny that? When I was old enough, I  would even get up and proclaim my perfect knowledge from the pulpit; “I know this church is true.”

Of course, later, I lost that perfect knowledge and faith. As I did, I began to empathize more and more with those who had doubted my previous point of view. They weren’t being obtuse, or hateful and evil. They weren’t just a bunch of “anti-Mormons” leading us from the straight-and-narrow. Either they believed, just as fiercely, in their own chosen faith, or they saw holes, contradictions, and logical fallacies in the claims of my former church. Just as believers had reasons to believe, doubters had reasons to doubt.

The experience of being so fiercely on one side of a debate, then having to admit that one was completely wrong, is a difficult but ultimately healthy one. It bestows a welcome gift of empathy that can be gained by no other means. Whether in religious discussions, moral, ethical, or political debates, there is no greater tool than understanding the position of the opposition, no matter how wrong it may seem to you. I believe the experience of believing gave me a better ability to understand why someone might feel that I am wrong, or even why they might feel threatened by my point of view.

When a business says that they are Christian, and won’t serve LGBT people because it’s immoral – I can empathize with the why, though I believe them to be completely wrong. Could they say the same? When believers get upset that “them damned atheists” are trying to move a Ten Commandments monument out of a courthouse, I empathize with their reaction. I think I understand, as much as anyone can, how they believe the action to be a attack on their faith and traditions, even though I don’t see it the same way.  But, are those believers able to, for a moment, suspend the concrete assurance that they cannot be wrong, for the purpose of trying to understand how in His name someone like me may feel differently?