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Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mormon Diaries

Mormon Diaries

I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ – Mahatma Gandhi

Justice is a good idea; lawyers not so much. Politics is a good idea; governments not so much. Beliefs are a good idea; religions, again, not so much. The world is full of good ideas but as soon as we draft people in to manage them everything goes pear shaped. Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I never discuss religion. It seems, though, as I’m going to review a book called Mormon Diaries, I should at least say where I stand when it comes to religion: I don’t care. I’m not a true believer, a lapsed anything, an agnostic or an atheist. I am not interested in discussing the issues. I do not want to be converted nor am I interested in converting others to my mindset. I … don’t … care.

I was not always that way. I was raised by a pair of devout fundamentalist Christians and that upbringing had a lot to do with who I am today; I am a principled and dutiful person. As far as religions go I liked that mine encouraged an inquiring mind—there was none of this “it’s a mystery” or “because we say it’s true”—and I appreciated that but an intellectual grasp of scripture can only take one so far. At a fairly young age I realised that there was something amiss but I kept going through the motions assuming that by osmosis I would eventually discover or develop my spiritual side. I never did and fifteen years ago I stopped pretending to myself and resigned formally. There are people who have no sense of smell. I have no spiritual awareness. Nada. My decision did not go down well with my family. The last time I spoke to my siblings was at our mother’s funeral and I have had no contact with them since and that’s over ten years. So if I approached Mormon Diaries from a sympathetic standpoint you’ll understand why.

There is an old Jesuit maxim "Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man." It’s been co-opted by everyone, even Lenin. Roman Catholics will understand this better than most because they have their own special brand of guilt that never goes away. The principle is certainly a biblical one: "Train up a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it." (Proverbs 22:6) The modern word for it is indoctrination. Classic conditioning is usually done by pairing two stimuli, as in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, and it comes in two flavours: carrot and stick. The reward is joining the choir invisible when you die or attaining Nirvana or living forever on a paradise earth; the punishment is going to the big bad fire, missing out on the Rapture or coming back as a cockroach or something equally repugnant. Of course there are lots of wee rewards and punishments on the way (Freemasons have ninety different degrees from apprentice to grand master) but every creed has these two biggies: life vs. death. Some religions wave the big stick more than others but I don’t know of any faith that doesn’t use threats or promises to corral its members.

There have been many books written about people who have been brought up in a religion, sect or cult and then had difficulty leaving. We hear of people needing to be deprogrammed and the like and it all sounds very scary. We associate such stories with things like the Waco siege where some 72 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect died in a fire; the mass suicide of 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, a UFO religion and the murders and suicides carried out by the Order of the Solar Temple. Surely there’s no comparison between these groups and an organisation with millions of members? There are over three million Moonies, seven million Jehovah’s Witnesses, anywhere from eight million to fifteen million Scientologists, fourteen million Mormons and sixteen million Seventh Day Adventists if you believe their press. Could we really say a film or a novel had a cult following if even three million people had seen or read it? The issue here is not to look for a label because the world’s major orthodox religions can be every bit as guilty as the newer ones when it comes to treating their members unfairly.

One of the first books I heard of which talked about how hard it can be to move on dates back to 1956: Thirty Years a Watchtower Slave. I doubt many will have heard of that but what about Oranges are Not the Only Fruit in which Jeanette Winterson presents a fictional accounts of her life among working-class evangelists in the North of England in the 1960's and the problems she faced when she realised she was gay? Steven Hassan discusses his time in the Unification Church in Combating Cult Mind Control and what about Nancy Many’s My Billion Year Contract, Memoir of a Former Scientologist? Sophia L. Stone’s Mormon Diaries joins the back of a long queue.

So what do you know about Mormonism? Before I sat down to read this book I made a list:


That was my lot I’m afraid. My wife knew a few other things which I should have remembered (like not drinking tea or coffee) but she was no expert either.

One of the problems reading science fiction is the fact that the author often has to present and explain a completely different world to the one we live it. Lots of exposition ensures. Take a book like Dune with a least two hundred unique terms like Fremen, face dancers, gholas, the Imperium, melange, no-chambers, sandworms and thumpers. Or what about Nadsat, the fictional argot (that’s a secret language) used in A Clockwork Orange? That’s what reading Mormon Diaries feels like at times. I draw the comparison with science fiction deliberately because Mormonism will be, for the majority of us, an alien world involving testimonies, the baptism of the dead, endowments, exaltations, tithing, missions, polyandry, stakes, the restored gospel and various quorums. Even a simple word like ‘teacher’ means something different. From the book’s glossary:

Teacher: A fourteen or fifteen year old boy with the Aaronic Priesthood, capable of passing and preparing the sacrament, collecting fast offering, and home teaching.

parson-aaronic-priesthood-2_hrOf course we then need to understand what ‘Aaronic Priesthood’, ‘the sacrament’, ‘fast offerings’ and ‘home teaching’ mean and involve.

Sophia L. Stone was born to two Mormon parents. Unlike Roman Catholics and many orthodox religions Mormons do not practice infant baptism. Mormon baptisms take place only after an "age of accountability" which they set at eight years of age and involve complete immersion. Interestingly Mormon baptism does not purport to remit any sins other than personal ones, as they don’t believe in original sin. That, of course, is a major difference between them and most other Christian denominations. So it’s fair to say that Sophia was not born a Mormon but chose to become one of her own free will. Needless to say Mormons have their own idea what free will is.

Mormon Diaries charts, for want of a better expression, her rise and fall from grace. It begins with an eight-year-old Sophia preparing for her baptism:

My journey into Mormonism began at the age of eight after I’d emerged from the waters of baptism, peeled off my soaking wet clothes, dried my hair, changed into my dry Sunday dress, and plopped into a chair located in front of the baptismal font under the anticipatory gazes of family members, friends, and neighbours.

I bowed my head. A circle of men gathered around me. The bishop, my dad, and a number of my father’s friends stood so close as they put their hands on my head that it felt like being in a fort made of arms and shoulders and torsos. I felt small and important at once, eager to have The Gift of the Holy Ghost.

It was the moment I’d been waiting for. The monumental occasion when the bishop would call me by my full name, use the Priesthood to call upon the powers of heaven, and pour into my heart and mind a peacefulness akin to nothing I’d ever experienced before.


I’d wanted to feel the Holy Ghost pour into me so badly that I memorized every sound in the room: the buzzing of the lights, the ticking of the bishop’s watch, even the pregnant silence of those watching. I memorized the weight of the hands on my head, the lack of a draft as I sat in the blessing circle, the collective rise and fall of shoulders clad in blue and black suits as the bishop spoke. And so, when the prayer ended and I felt nothing but the air around me, I convinced myself I’d felt something the same way a child who believes in Santa runs through the house on Christmas Eve announcing they’ve seen flying reindeer.

I stood and said, “I feel it!”

But in the moments that followed, when people were shaking my hand and there was no time for confession, regret washed over me.

I had lied.

mormon-baptism1“No virtue ever was founded on a lie.” – Dinah Craik. I don’t know Sophia very well. She comes across as a virtuous person and that’s not surprising because she was brought up by two devout Mormons. She was taught to be modest, not to swear, to avoid silliness (and she admits to being a serious young girl even at eight), to respect her parents and not to tell fibs. When people say there’s good in all religions the fact is that that’s true. As I said I am the man I am today—the good bits and the bad—because of how I was bought up.

After her baptism and confirmation Sophia sat in Fast and Testimony Meeting along with others from her church:

Many of them told stories about their family, some recounted experiences when they’d felt the spirit. But when one man in particular spoke about my baptism and confirmation, saying how my countenance had glowed when I stood and said, “I feel it!” my stomach twisted with guilt.

“I didn’t really feel anything,” I whispered to my dad. “Should I go up and tell everyone the truth?”

I’d been taught all my life to be honest, and my impulse to go up to the pulpit and confess my sin was almost unbearable. I could, in fact, think of nothing more important than correcting the lie I’d told.

My father, however, knew people better than I did. He knew perfectly well what was appropriate in a Sunday service. He knew what I did not, that there’d been conflict amongst some in the congregation over what kinds of stories were appropriate to tell in church. So while I had no idea what was going through his mind at that moment, I’m sure what he said next was his way of looking out for me.

“Don’t do that, sweetheart. You wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s testimony.”

There is nothing in the book to say that this matter was discussed any further once they got home or in the days that followed. She was an official member of the LDS church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and she fell into step. She rationalises away her doubts

Maybe God simply didn’t want me to feel his spirit pour into me, maybe he wanted me to live like I knew the church was true, act like I knew, talk like I knew, and continue to read the scriptures and pray until I finally did know.

and got on with the day-to-day business of being a Mormon which was not always so easy. For starters she went to a public school. I had expected her to talk about being ostracised or picked on because of her beliefs but it looks like her poor academic performance saved her from that and that was what the kids focused on:

I couldn’t get my homework done. Couldn’t remember half the stuff I read. Couldn’t pass a test to save my soul. And Mrs. Anderson took each failure personally, attributing my poor performance first to laziness and then to passive-aggressive defiance. The more I struggled to complete and turn in my homework, the more she tried to motivate me by taking away class recess time. Not just mine, but everyone else’s.

When I finally started completing assignments, my reputation was damaged beyond repair. My classmates had stuck a label on me that simply wouldn’t come off. I sat alone each afternoon in the cafeteria, kept my eyes perpetually down, and would sometimes cry as I walked home from school.

So what does she do? She immerses herself in her church activities. A journal entry from January 4th 1987 reads:

Today we went to church at 11:30 a.m. I went to my Merry Miss class and found out many wonderful things. We are going to try to do Faith in God Awards. You set a goal in a certain area. We do the goal for two months.

After you’re done, you get a necklace with the scriptures and the angel Moroni on them. It’s painted gold and comes in its own case. I’m so excited. I have so many wonderful things to be proud of, and one reason I think I’m able to do these things is because I probably earned them, because you earn happiness. And this is happiness.

Faith in God Award

Her story goes on through college and marriage and the birth of her four children. She was never in any doubt what the future held out for her:

My father had made my purpose clear at my baby blessing when he’d put his hands on my head and prayed I’d never choose a career over the important full-time work of nurturing my kids and future husband. I may have had no memory of that event, but I still knew the gist of what he’d said because it was written in my pale pink baby book mere pages from my name and date of birth: Sophia White, born April 30, 1976.

She has lived a regimented, rule-based life:

1. Thou shalt keep the Sabbath day holy.

2. Thou shalt not drink coffee or tea.

3. Thou shalt love God.

I have to ask: Since when was abstaining from caffeine more important than loving God which Jesus said was the greatest commandment?

4. Thou shalt read your scriptures daily.

5. Thou shalt give 10% of thy income to the church.

6. Thou shalt fast once a month.

Apart from the tea and coffee thing these are all the kind of things you might expect. But down the list (which contains sixty entries) there are a few that make one wonder a little:

29. Thou shalt do genealogy.

32. Thou shalt not wear flip flops to church.

36. Thou shalt avoid silliness and loud laughter.

55. Thou shalt not procrastinate.

57. Thou shalt go to the temple and perform baptisms for the dead.

but the two one needs to worry about are:

31. Thou shalt not criticize your leaders.

60. Thou shalt not doubt, ever.

And what happens if you do doubt?

If I’d openly spoken about my doubts to others, the bishop could have taken away my temple recommend, released me from my calling, and forbidden me from taking the sacrament of bread and water until my repentance was complete. He’d likely see his actions as a form of mercy. For no unclean thing can enter the presence of God. He might even see it as a way of protecting me, which would make total sense if my Heavenly Father valued worthiness above all else.

Witch-Endor-Blake-LHere’s a case in point: King Saul. Saul wasn’t a bad lad. When he was told that God has chosen him to be king he went away and hid. So this was a man handpicked by the sovereign of the universe and yet by the end of his forty year rule he was nothing less than an apostate: he’d instituted false worship, attempted murder, consulted with the witch of Endor and was generally stubborn and egotistical. Who says that leaders are beyond criticism?

As far as doubt goes we need look no further than poor old Doubting Thomas whom the Catholics have now venerated. Saint Thomas didn’t just doubt anyone either: he doubted the resurrected Messiah to his face. All the guy wanted was proof. He got his proof—thank you very much—and then he went right back to believing.

Doubt doesn’t come as easily as one might imagine. Belief is a habit—some might even go so far as to call it an addiction—and we all know how hard it can be giving up a habit. My father sucked on an empty pipe for years after he gave up smoking and even after the bowl got broken (probably by me—I was a destructive wee bugger from all accounts) he still sucked on the stem for a long while after that.

For the most part Sophia did not have any problems with her faith. She believed in God. She believed there could only be one true religion. She trusted her husband and the church leaders. And then something started bothering her: the role of women in the Christian congregation. At a Sunday School Class they decide to discuss Ephesians 5:22-24:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. — Ephesians 5:22-24

“I prefer what they say in the temple, because the word ‘as’ has more than one meaning, and when we’re told to hearken to our husbands as he hearkens to the Lord, I take that to mean I’m only under covenant to follow my husband when he follows God.”

“So you’re his judge,” my Sunday School teacher said. Well, now he’d twisted my words around to make my interpretation sound unfair.

“No, I don’t think ‘judge’ is the right label. Let’s say a woman has a husband who hits her. I think it’s safe to say he’s not harkening unto the Lord and that the wife is no longer under any obligation to be submissive to her husband.”

“So you’re his judge,” the teacher repeated.

I knew a losing battle when I saw one. “It’s the responsibility of every self-respecting woman to judge her husband,” I quipped.

A few people laughed, and the woman behind me poked me in the shoulder and gave me two thumbs up. I allowed myself to feel optimistic about where the lesson was going.

That was my first mistake.

For the next twenty minutes, I listened to the teacher explain how a man is more likely to treat his wife with respect and love when he understands that the temple covenants essentially make him a God to his wife.

Of course this is all nothing new to me. My dad declaimed on more than one occasion, “In this house I am God.” This, however, is the thin edge of the wedge for Sophia and over the next few chapters we witness her slowly losing her faith. Not, I should make clear, her belief in God but her belief in Mormonism. And you can only imagine the trouble that causes when that finally became public knowledge. Or perhaps you can’t. I honestly expect that most people will have no idea what Sophia was going to have to go through. And that’s why books like this are necessary.

It’s not the longest or most in-depth book you will read on this subject. It’s obviously written by a nice lady who really doesn’t want to hurt, upset or offend anyone and yet in all good conscience can’t stay silent. She even uses a pseudonym so as not to do anything that might damage her family. She’s not an angry, bitter or vindictive person. She says:

On my bad days, I feel more disappointment than anger. Mostly because I believed with all my heart the promises found in Mormonism. I thought I was happier than other people, that I had greater access to spirituality, that I knew my most important and fulfilling role. I believed I had divine knowledge and purpose. Now I’ve found that many of these promises are smoke and mirrors.

And I’m further disheartened when I see religion hurt families. You’d think a family centred church would shout from the rooftops not to shun family members who’ve fallen away. You’d think they’d allow non-believing parents to see their believing kids get married in the temple. You’d think they’d support all different kinds of families, not just those that meet one definition. But all too often an ideal is promoted that benefits the church over families that are struggling. “Traditional gender roles” and “conservative family values” are taught as religious principles.

I asked her who this book was aimed at.

Anyone who wants to better understand how religions indoctrinate children, how they can unite and separate families, how they can bring peace and turmoil at the same time. Anyone who wants a more personal understanding of how it feels to grow up in a legalistic religion that values trust and obedience more highly than free thought, or anyone who wants to understand Mormonism.

Please don’t misread that to mean my book is factually perfect. It’s not. It is based on my experience, and everyone’s reality is different. But I stand by my claim that people who leave Mormonism are often in an isolating place. It’s hard for an orthodox believer to understand why anyone would leave. It’s hard for those who’ve never been in a fundamentalist religion to understand why leaving one is such a big deal. To both these groups, I’d say, “Please read this!” Understanding is vital.

I don’t think anyone who has not been brought up in a fundamentalist organisation—be it a religion, a cult, a sect or even a political party—will in fact understand. You can’t possibly understand unless you’ve been there. I read recently someone’s opinion “that Mormonism isn’t just a religion, it’s a culture.” I think that’s well put. Imagine packing your bags and leaving for India or China or Mars. Imagine the culture shock. The same article goes on:

As members of the LDS church take their first steps into traditional, Biblical Christianity, they are often accosted by sights, sounds, and Stranger in a Strange Landphilosophies which (at times) differ greatly from those with which they are familiar.  Wading through the positive and negative aspects of LDS culture and its relationship to the Truth frequently leaves these new believers feeling as though they are “immigrants in a foreign land”.

Or as Heinlein (and the King James Version) might put it: strangers in a strange land.

Most people I associate with these days haven’t the slightest interest in religion. Many, like me, had religious upbringings and yet even in their fifties, sixties and seventies cannot shake off completely what they were taught as children. ‘Sophia’ will never be free. Not even if she moves to Mars.


Kirk said...

Fundamentalist Christianity encouraged you to have an inquiring mind? There must be a different brand of fundamentalist Christianity practiced in Scotland than here in the US. Suscribers to the American version are some of the most closed-minded people you'll ever gonna meet.

Angela said...

And hey, that last line is probably true. It would likely take moving to Mars for Sophia to be free.

This was an extremely well down rundown of the Mormon question, whatever you may think that means. :-)

Linds said...

amazing analysis. You had a pretty spot on evaluation of Mormonism and it's power of indoctrination. Well said!

Jim Murdoch said...

Oh, I've met 'em, Kirk, I've met 'em. One of the scriptures I learned early on was Acts 17:2-3 which reads:

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. (New International Version)

The key words are 'reason', 'explain' and 'prove'. All my life I was encouraged to reason on the scriptures. The goal was to ascertain that one truth that would set us free. I was taught that there was good in all religions—if there wasn't why would so many people flock to them?—but there still had to be only one true religion and that religion should be able to stand up under close scrutiny. We were fundamentalists in that we accepted the Bible—the whole Bible—as the inspired word of God (2 Timothy 3:16) and that it could not contradict itself. Yes, it's possible to take many scriptures and read them out of context—and by that I mean the context of the Bible as a whole and not merely the surrounding verses—and so that meant one had to be careful in not jumping to conclusions. Ultimately though you do become very dismissive of other people's beliefs (in that respect we were close-minded and very sure of ourselves) because with a handful of carefully chosen texts you can usually show that much of what others believe is unscriptural. This was the case with my dealings with the Mormons; the majority of those I encountered did not have a good grasp of scripture (and I include their ability to quote from the Book of Mormon). This was why I was very keen when writing this article to show that this book isn't just for people who are interested in what Angela below called 'the Mormon question' because indoctrination is bigger than that. I'm sure if 'Sophia' read any of the other books I list the terminology might be different but they would still resonate with her.

Angela, you may have misread that last line because what I'm saying is that 'Sophia' could move to Mars and she still would not be free. I am not free. Carrie and I lived together for a few months before we got married and all that time I was acutely conscious that we were living in sin. I didn't just shrug that off and get on with it but it sullied things for me because every time I saw my mother I knew she looked at me and saw Jimmy the fornicator and, yes, she used those exact words. I'm not a bad man, not by a long chalk, and I hate it when others judge me so but especially one of one's parents (my father was dead by this time). There will be hundreds of thousands of people out there who feel like me. I can only imagine sitting down with my mum and telling her I was gay because telling her that I was going to cohabit with a woman out of wedlock was no different in her eyes.

And, Linds. The amount of information out there to help people make up their minds is incredible. I distrust any organisation that shies away from complete transparency and that wriggles out of answering awkward questions. I'm not too bothered about stories about individuals in any religion whose lives are not stellar because, as I say in my article, there are plenty of examples in the Bible of once faithful men and women who fell away and yet Christianity didn't crumble because of them. No one is going to say that Christianity isn't the true religion because Judas betrayed the Messiah. No, all religions should stand or fall based on doctrine alone.

Dave King said...

My knowledge was pretty much the same as yours except for your last point. I didn't know that.

I have a lot of sympathy with Kirk's position. Give me a red blooded atheist any day of the week.

Way back I let two Mormon "missionaries" into my sitting room for what I hoped would be a "reasonable" discussion. Reason never showed up! Whenever we got to swopping texts, for example, my texts weren't in their Bible.

Jim Murdoch said...

The problem with a lot of atheists, Dave is that, when push comes to shove, they don't know why they don't believe in God; they haven't chosen to be atheists any more than most people choose their religion. People are born into Roman Catholic families and are baptised as infants and it's just taken for granted that they are Catholics. I was brought up in a Labour stronghold and it was just assumed that one would vote Labour. I was brought up by, and surrounded by, heterosexuals and so what else was I going to become? One has to wonder how much choice any of us had in becoming the kind of people we are today.

I don't invite anyone selling religion into my home nor do I waste my—and their—time at the door. I'm always polite—let's face it, it takes bottle to do what they do—but I assure them that I have taken time in the past to listen to what others of their denomination have had to say and have made an informed decision so thank you but no thank you. I don't ask them not to call again because that wouldn't stop them. People change their minds and people move home so I would expect them to visit periodically just to confirm that I was resolute. Best just to be appreciative (they are trying to save my life after all), put up with the couple of minutes of inconvenience and send on their way with a smile.

Harleena Singh said...

Wonderful indeed Jim!

I also don't really believe much in religion and feel a person should and needs to be a good human being more than anything else.

I love the way you write and you sure have a wonderful way of expression as well. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the writing, Harleena. It always pleases me when someone is willing to wade through three or four thousands of my words in a row when most of the people feel they can say what needs to be said in a hundred and forty characters. I think it takes time to develop an argument properly and I'll be honest I always feel I'm skimming over topics. I mean, seriously, 4000 words on the subject of religion is nothing.

Most people I know these days would say they "don't really believe much in religion". I really see a change in people even in my short lifetime. It used to be so different when I was a kid; people then at least went through the motions and felt they ought to believe and a wee bit bad because they knew they didn't.

I know it's pedantic of me but I like to differentiate between 'belief' and 'faith'. Most people treat them as interchangeable but, as I wrote in a poem once

        The thing about beliefs is
        they don't need to be true.
        That's not their job.

        They're there because
        so many things aren't true.
        Nature abhors a vacuum.

Beliefs are what we wrap ourselves in, spiritual comfort blankets, and so often people's beliefs are not based on any kind of empirical proof or even scriptural evidence. I once explained to an old guy something from the Bible and his response to me? "Why did you tell me that? I didn't need to know that. You've spoiled everything now." He wasn't interested in truth. He wanted to believe what he wanted to believe and I was shocked to hear anyone own up to that; mind you I was young then a bit naïve.

Brent Robison said...

Jim, I find your timing very fortunate (coincidence? I think not!) in bringing out this review just as we Americans are facing the possibility of a Mormon president. You may be interested in my most recent blog post, "A Recovered Mormon's View: Why We Don't Want a Mormon President":

Yup, I'm a former Mormon myself. And despite the title, "recovered" is claiming too much. Like you and Sophia, I'll be "in recovery" the rest of my life.

I commend Sophia for her courage in making her transformation public while facing family criticism and worse. The many people struggling to wake up from religious indoctrination need her kind of insight and support.

Thanks for another good essay!

Jim Murdoch said...

I read your article when it first went up Brent and the point I took from it was the fact that all Mormons are accountable to the Prophet; as you say, it would be no different from electing a Roman Catholic president to be the Pope's puppet. One could argue that one shouldn't vote for a female president since her husband is the head of the household. The bottom line is that politics and religion should not mix. All Israel ever got was trouble after they asked for a king—there were few good ones and even the one God picked himself (King Saul) turned apostate. I haven't taken too much interest in the American election—I find it hard enough to take any interest in British politics—but what little I have heard of Romney has not impressed me. I' not saying that Obama is perfect but like so many other world leaders he inherited a mess. It's been a couple of years since the Tories took power here in the UK and they're still slagging off Labour because of the mess they've had to clean up. All I can say is if the Conservatives had been in power back then we'd have the same mess because it was a worldwide mess and it didn't make any difference who was in power where—left or right wing—there was still a mess for the next lot to clean up.

I agree with you on the whole recovering thing too. Taking your analogy to its logical conclusion that would make religion a sickness which we have to build up a resistance to and can recover from but I think it's more like an injury than an illness. I feel broken; I have a physiological limp. I can't run and play with the other kids. And I resent that.

Marion McCready said...

Enjoyed that, Jim. We used to get Mormons occasionally but not for many years now, don't think they send them over to Dunoon anymore!

As you well know, I'm a Christian, but the unquestioning brand of Christianity they have in certain parts of the US is abhorrent to me. Like yourself I love knowledge and learning and have a house full of books from biblical studies to Marxism, Nietzsche and Darwin. As a Christian I naturally bring my children up according to my beliefs and when they are ready question them I will facilitate that in any way I can. I really can't stand the fear of knowledge or the kind of censorship which comes from the lack of critical thinking or the freedom to question things. This is when religion is reduced to power relations and control.

Marion McCready said...

Interesting about what you said above about being conscious of 'living in sin', my mother was brought up in a strict Free Church background and even in her forties as a non-religious person, when she moved in with her second husband before they got married she kept it a secret from her mother and every sunday would go back to our old house to phone her mother so she would never guess she wasn't living there anymore! I thought all of this was hilarious at the time but looking back it's amazing the hold hold she had on her.

Jim Murdoch said...

Since we moved house we've never been visited by any Mormons, Marion, but the Witnesses call on a fairly regular basis, maybe three times a year and I don't consider that too bad.

I hear a lot of parents say that they'll let their kids make their own choices when it comes to religion when they're adults. That sounds like their being cool but if you truly believe you have the truth—which, as far as I'm concerned, everyone should believe about the religion they are associated with (if not then why bother?)—then they should want to inculcate that truth into their kids. We criticise all of these fundamentalist organisations for the way they indoctrinate but really they have the right idea. There can only be one truth. I don't subscribe to the philosophy: All paths lead to God. All you have to do is look at the Old Testament to see that God didn't tolerate false worship and as he is an unchanging god then he won't have changed. Any religion that fears investigation at any level—be it administrative or doctrinal—is, to my mind, highly suspect.

I have only met a couple of Wee Frees once and I have to say I was very impressed by their scriptural knowledge. One was a school teacher and the other her minister husband. Up until that point—I would have been about twelve at the time—I was a bit superior because I'd never encountered anyone who could quote more than "God is love" and "Jesus wept" but this guy knew chapter and verse and nothing fazed him.

I completely empathise with your mother. Probably the hardest thing I ever had to do was tell my mother that a woman was moving in with me and due to that fact—though not because of that fact (important distinction)—I was resigning from the church. To my face she took it rather well but I know from talking to my sister that that was not the case. She was quite resolute though: she wouldn't let Carrie in her house until we got married.

Marion McCready said...

I agree, but the path to Truth has to be found personally and individually. If the Truth sets us free ie liberates us than how can it be forced on someone? And we're all on it, no one has all the right answers and the dialectic of faith is the continual questioning of it, faith and doubt - necessary two sides of the same coin. When we stop questioning, we stop learning.

Marion McCready said...

The down side to Free church background was the heavy Calvanistic stance, my mum spent most of her life convinced that she wasn't one of 'the chosen' because she never had a Damascus road experience.

Jim Murdoch said...

This is why I hate talking about religion, Marion, because I end up arguing about things I really don't care about any more. You are right that everyone has to make a personal choice but the Bible also makes the parents responsible for educating their children. A father should "direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD" (Gen 18:19) If they do so then when the time comes for them to choose they will make the right choice. You might say that gives the kid no choice but I guess that's the point. As far as no one having all the right answers how can that be? Doubt has its place: it's there to be refuted. I couldn't be part of any religion where they did not believe what they had was the truth. I don't know how much you know about Jehovah's Witnesses but like all these religions you need a glossary to understand them when they're talking amongst themselves. When they talk about how long they've been a baptised Witness they'll say, "I've been in the truth since such-and-such a year." Whether you believe what they believe is neither here nor there. To my mind this is an expression that everyone should be able to say about their religion, that it is the truth.

Questioning is not evidence of doubt, simply ignorance. The Witnesses refuse to take blood transfusions. Ask any of them why not and they will rattle off the classic scriptures beginning with Deuteronomy 12:16. Ask a Mormon why they don't drink tea or coffee and they'll refer you to Doctrine and Covenants 89:9. Ask a Muslim why they don't have any paintings of people of animals they'll refer you to Bukhari vol.4 book 54 nos.447-450. And so it goes. Now whether what these religions offer up as proof is sufficient is up for debate and most commandments don't come with explanations but in my experience when you examine them you'll should the health (in the broadest sense) benefits. I don't see any evidence of God setting down rules for their own sake. The Jews might have wondered why they couldn't eat pork, sleep with their sisters and touch dead bodies but did they doubt? Wonder, maybe. Science gives us the reasons behind these commandments. If I encountered a religion that said I had to hop around on one leg each Sabbath I would have to seriously wonder if it was the true religion.

As far as Saul's experience on the road to Damascus goes I've listened to people talk about things that happened in their life that proved to them that God was not only real but taking a real interest in their lives. I knew one man—I forget what denomination he belonged to—and his catch phrase was: "There are no coincidences only God-incidences." I didn't buy that but I did look for something personal and never found it. Eventually I realised that an intellectual appreciation wasn't enough and so I quit. It bothers me that I couldn't make it work but then it bothers me that I don't like opera when so many others do but I can live without it and I can live without what I believe the Germans call ehrfürcht which is a semi-religious word meaning reverence for that which we cannot understand.

Marion McCready said...

I agree, which is why I bring up my children according to my beliefs but when they are old enough they still have to make the choices for themselves, they can't live of my faith.

As for having all the right answers, I meant no individual or demonination has exclusively the only right interpretation of the bible. As a Christian I believe that Jesus is the one and only true God and that's the truth I hold onto, however I'm sure you're more than well aware of the differing interpretations or emphases different denominations have on what it means to be a Christian.

"Questioning is not evidence of doubt, simply ignorance" - I disagree. Just because someone can provide a pat answer to something, isn't equal to knowledge, in my opinion.
The faith I have now isn't the same as the faith I had when I was sixteen, it's taken a lot of blows over the years and the pat answers just don't cut it. Yet despite everything I keep coming back to the core of Christianity - the person and teachings of Jesus.

I don't much like debating religion on the internet either, it far too complex and easy to be misunderstood. I think we'd find if we were talking in person that we're not disagreeing all that much.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, Marion, I don't think we would agree any better in person and if we ever do meet up again I'd rather not waste our time together squabbling about religion; we'll take about poetry and books. I have no axe to grind but whenever anyone raises a point that differs to what I was brought up to believe I immediately start quoting the party line—I'm nothing if not a product of my conditioning—and a part of me is just itching to disprove the trinity so I think it's time we draw a line under this.

I wrote this poem a while back and it's really about me and my decision to, as I put it in the poem, "walk off the track" and go and sit on the bleachers.

      The Human Race

       (for Richard Brautigan)

      A man cannot lose what he never had
      but he can give up trying to get it.
      Just walk off the track.
      Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.

      It's that easy.
      Catch your breath now.
      It's too hot to run..

      I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
      Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
      they disappear over the horizon
      so no one knows for sure.

      Friday, 25 May 2001

Marion McCready said...

oh very much like the ending.
yes, well, I'm sure we would have no shortage of things to talk about :) though, psychologically-speaking, I'm interested in your need to "quote the party line". :)

Poet Hound said...

Thanks for this post, Jim, it hits home for me, too. I was raised Catholic and while I believe in God I am suspicious of organized religion. Many people have turned their back on me for not "being Christian enough" and others have told me I'm "such a good Christian." All that matters, really, is the way you treat other people and your quote by Ghandi is a perfect representation of so many people I have encountered. I'm glad you took the time to explain your own upbringing and your understanding of this book. So many of us can relate in one way or another.

Jim Murdoch said...

Religion is terribly divisive, Paula. People fall out over other things like politics but few things affect people as strongly as religion apart from maybe racism; people still get pretty riled up about that too. When you say all that matters is the way you treat other people you're really paraphrasing half of the law of love (i.e. love your neighbour as yourself). If you learned that there was a danger to your neighbours—let's say there's a gas leak—it would be the neighbourly, the loving thing to warn them and that's the mind-set of the Witnesses and the Mormons who knock on your door and the Hari Krishnas or the evangelists that approach you in the street. That's why I'm tolerant of and polite to them because in their mind they're doing me a favour.

The other half of the law of love is to love God and that's where problems arise because of what God asks of people (or what people come to believe he is asking of them) and that takes precedence over simply being a decent human being. It bothers me when I see people seek out a religion that will accept their lifestyle choices. Religion is not wallpaper. If you truly believe in God then you owe it to him to find out what he says is right for you and let that be your guide. I never left my religion because it wasn't the truth. I left it because those truths don't matter to me. I hear about people fornicating and I'm not upset by it. When it suited me I did it. I should be offended by the state of the nation's morals but I'm not.

There is nothing worse than a self-righteous person though. Every religion has them. We had one woman who wouldn't sing along when I played the organ because the music hadn't been "approved" (whatever she meant by that) which was fine by us because she was an awful singer.

Art Durkee said...

Raised Norwegian Litheran. My mother's people were basically from Lake Wobegon. Turning out to be gay wasn't the main reason I left Christianity behind, but it was part of it. I found my way back towards appreciating the best threads in the fabric of Christianity through discovering the mystics and visionaries, of which I am one. I started with Thomas Merton, which is a good place for modern mystics to start, although my real core is with Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and Hildegard of Bingen. I do like the founders of the Quakers, All that while I was studying and practicing Zen. But really I'm an eclectic eno-pagan shaman whose practice is part Buddhist and part mystic, well really mostly mystic.

Aren't labels fun?

Anyway, when the Jehovah's Witnesses show up, since after all their church is just down the street, I politely tell them "No thank you, I'm Buddhist," smile and gently close the door, they smile in return and haven't come back for a long time.

The Moromna haven't been in my neighborhood for awhile. There is a temple a few blocks away in my small rural town here, but that's all. I know they're around, and I know of boys who have done their mission time overseas, but returned here to live. It doesn't impact my life, or the life of my community, at all.

I am an absolutist about the separation of church and state as outlined in the US Constitution. I believe in few ideals as strongly as I believe in that one. It's necessary forgone to be ale to believe and practice however one wishes without interference, and it's just as necessary to live in a civil society without your priesly authorities trying to tell you how you should vote.

Jim Murdoch said...

Now if a couple of eclectic eno-pagan shamans came to my door I might just give them five minutes, Art. Yes, labels are fun but you know as well as me how damaging it is being reduced to a label be it a gay writer, or an eclectic eno-pagan shaman. People make assumptions and invariably misjudge you. I, for example, only know a couple of writers who are gay (you and Colin MaGuire although I'm sure there are others) and the reason I don't know about any of the others is that they just get on with being gay and don't feel the need to proselytise: they're writers, just writers, not gay or white or American or non-smoking or married or anything else. And yet I run across so many sites where it's obvious that we've entered the domain of a Christian writer. I rarely hang around long.

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