Letter to friends and family about not being active in Mormonism
Dear Family Member or Close Friend:
In this letter, I am sharing with a few people to whom I am close some of my thoughts concerning religion. I decided it might be worthwhile to discuss with you the basics of why I am not actively involved in Mormonism. One reason for this is that I don’t want people to automatically assume that my inactivity is simply a matter of laziness and/or unrighteousness. Of course after reading this, you may nonetheless end up concluding that it is, in fact, a matter laziness and/or unrighteousness, but at least it will be an informed conclusion.
The idea to write this letter stems in part from discussions between mom and I in recent years in which we shared many ideas about religious issues. It seemed that she preferred knowing something of what was going on in my head rather than being left to speculate about the myriad of negative possibilities. While I doubt any other readers will be as interested in the subject of my church activity as mom is, you might at least be curious. If you are not, then at this moment you have an excellent opportunity to put this aside and save yourself a bit of time which otherwise will be put to no productive use.
The purpose of this letter is not to persuade anyone of anything. It is explanatory re my thoughts and actions. Therefore, please don’t take this as an affront, challenge or invitation to argue. Furthermore, please don’t feel that you have a spiritual obligation to respond by asserting your testimony. In fact, please don’t go to that trouble. Your silence will not be taken as a tacit agreement with anything herein, nor am I seeking your endorsement. The objective of this letter is simply to leave you with something other than pure speculation and/or presumption of the worst on those rarest of occasions when you might wonder what is going on with me (or me and my family) from a religious perspective.
The reason I have decided not to leave you to pure speculation is this: I think that in the minds of most sincere Mormons, there are only a few explanations as to the inactivity of other Mormons. I think they boil down to the following: (1) sin; (2) slothfulness; or (3) stupidity. Of course there are sub-categories and more delicate phraseology, but those are the basics.
My inactivity does not arise out of the Three S’s. Rather, it stems from the following two basic factors (not necessarily in order of influence): (1) I haven’t found a great deal of fulfillment in being ‘active’ in Mormonism; and (2) I have serious doubts about the authenticity of the Church. On this second point, my conclusions are based in large part on my own instincts and personal convictions about truth, morality and human nature, especially when superimposed upon my study of Church history and world history. I see too many things in Mormonism that I find inconsistent with the characteristics I would expect of a one and only true church of the God of this world.
Personally, I do not believe there is an appreciable link between No. 1 and No. 2 above. You may be tempted to conclude that No. 2 is simply a subconscious attempt to justify No. 1, but I don’t think so. Both factors figure into the equation. But I can’t honestly claim that my inactivity is wholly attributable to a studious pursuit of Mormon history and a consuming love of truth. It is also definitely linked to an aversion to boredom and a cherishing of my limited free time.
Don’t worry that by reading this letter you will be dragged through “anti-Mormon” tirades. I will discuss issues of principle in general terms, and by way of illustration, I will make cursory mention of some matters I find troubling, however, out of respect for the feelings of readers who would prefer not to hear or evaluate uncomfortable facts, this letter won’t go into details.1
PART I: No Historical Abundance of Fascination About “Church”
I’ll start with this section, because even before I started examining the underpinnings of Mormonism, I was actually never very enthused about devoting a lot of time to religious matters. Since approximately the time of junior high school, I have been semi-active in church, quickly capitalizing on most opportunities to miss church meetings. I don’t think this was on account of a black heart, but rather, wanting to avoid boredom. Historically, for me church meetings have represented primarily excruciating boredom and enforced social situations I would rather skip.
Notwithstanding my dislike of endless and repetitive meetings, during those early years, I still had every confidence that the church was true. The problem was, I just couldn’t bear sitting there for 3+ hours in a suit and tie listening to the same things over and over and over and over and over. I was never really moved as a result of the doings in church meetings. For me, one of the nicest things about growing up and leaving home was to be free to not spend Sundays in a suit and tie sitting on folding metal chairs listening to the same things repeated for the 700th time.
Even on my mission, I didn’t attend a lot of Church meetings (except of course when those meetings were held in our apartment or when I was a branch president in Gang Shan. I still remember how to say “abortion” in Chinese, since in that position I had to discuss that subject with prospective female members) (not a criticism, just a memory that comes to mind). In our mission, missionaries weren’t supposed to attend Sunday meetings unless they had an investigator attending that week. We had a hard liner mission president. If the Mormon church was a communist government (and actually, there are several parallels, a few of which I’ll point out in this letter), our mission president would have been a Breshnev as opposed to a Gorbechof. Anyway, missionaries were instructed to tract instead of attending church, unless they had new investigators attending that week. Ironically, I found this rule to be a bummer, because meetings in Taiwan were much more interesting to me than those I had grown up attending. I actually quite enjoyed meetings there. There was a spark of newness, innocent candor and unpredictability. A different dynamic altogether.
My mission didn’t do much to strengthen my testimony in the truthfulness of the church. In fact, for at least two reasons, it was the first time the idea ever entered my head that the Mormon church might not be “true.” More on this later.
The time in my adult life when I was most active was shortly after moving to California to attend law school. My (now) ex-wife, who was not intrinsically spiritual herself, suddenly wanted to become more active, and I certainly wasn’t going to endanger our souls by hindering her, so we were both active for a while. The best thing to come out of that was an anecdote about a talent show. I won’t go into it now, but it is worth hearing, so remind me to tell it to you sometime. As most of you may know, it wasn’t long before a divorce derailed that brief phase of activity. The last I heard (many years ago), my ex-wife had left the church with a vengeance. Maybe she is active again now.
It may not be accurate to ascribe my historical aversion to the Mormon church’s formal meeting schedule to just boredom. In a broader sense, I was not intrinsically fascinated with religion. I also had trouble sorting out why it was that the church categorically condemned many of the things which did intrinsically interest me, and did not appear to me to merit condemnation. A brief discussion of these factors:
First, I really haven’t maintained a burning obsession for things religious. While I have nothing but respect for those who do have it, I can’t quite relate. I am also ambivalent about most professional sports, gardening and hanging outdoor Christmas lights. I learned about the Church, lived it, but I never got caught up in it. Some might think this is revisionist history, and that I have simply forgotten that I had a testimony. Actually, I’m sure I did have a “testimony” for a time. I bore testimonies, intoning that deeply ingrained phrase, like every other testimony bearer, that I “knew the church was true.” And actually, I did think the church was true. Certainly I thought that other people knew it was true. I just wasn’t very interested in it.2
A side note: Like all kids of that time and place, I was taught from a young age to say that I knew the church was true. But is it really fair to tell kids to say that? What did I really know? Any kid growing up in Our part of South Eastern Idaho at that time had better well say they knew the church was true, just like they had better wear clothing to school. Growing up in Mormon country, saying that you “know the church is true” becomes a reflex as ingrained as tying your shoes. Even in grade school, every kid in our class except the abominable Jerry S. knew that the church was true. But Jerry S. was certifiably insane and clearly bent on self-destruction from an early age.3 I knew I wasn’t a Jerry S.. The choices were clear: Be insane, or KNOW the Church was true.
In those days I would usually sit with my best friend’s family at church because I knew if I did he would probably, to my great amusement, eat the entire water cup when the sacrament was passed to him (which got to be quite noisy when they switched to plastic cups). But at least we two KNEW the church was true. I repeatedly said that I knew the Church was true, because that was clearly expected of me. Plus, I had no reason to believe that the church wasn’t true. If virtually every adult in our town knew the Church was true, I would have been crazy to think otherwise. But even so, inside, I wasn’t at all fascinated by religion.
The second thing that comes to mind that may explain my historically tenuous relationship with the Mormonism is that it did not approve of many of the things that did interest me. Here, I am speaking primarily of music. In the same sense that I wasn’t captivated by sports statistics or gardening, I was deeply moved by music. The Church disapproved of much of the music that I admired and enjoyed, and I couldn’t understand why. Analyzing the content morally, it was not any worse than your average Shakespeare play, which as far as I know gets a clean bill of health from the Church. Why was it OK to be invigorated by a TV football game but not by music? I did not feel like a bad person for enjoying the music that I did. In fact, sometimes it seemed to me that the kinds of rapture that other people attributed to religion came to me instead through music.
You may be thinking “poor shallow fellow, to think of comparing the spiritual stirring of a testimony of Mormonism to the puny ripples of music appreciation.” I can only respond that since I am not you, I am not in a position to truly know or judge the magnitude of your feelings and experiences. Likewise, you may not have a yardstick to measure the nature and depth of my feelings. We were each born with different bodies and spirits, and we each have a unique set of life experiences. I do assert, however (and this is a major theme of this letter) that the reader has no reasonable right to assume he or she has a greater or lesser capacity to perceive, feel, believe and even ‘KNOW’ than I, or any other person of normal faculty. Even a non-member!4
The point is that from an early age, I was forced to either accept or reject the notion that my aesthetic inclinations were inherently bad. Fortunately, I had enough confidence in my own judgment to resist suggestions that I burn my records. Much to the shock of many, I have managed to grow up without going insane, overdosing on heroin or killing anyone (YET). This issue awakened me to the concept of relying on my own ability to discern, instead of automatically defaulting to someone else’s. And living to tell about it. And being quite happy about it.
As time passed, my ambivalence about Mormonism didn’t change. I went on a mission, in part because the only male contemporary in our ward who didn’t was (again) Jerry S.. I most certainly was not Jerry S., who by that time was in regular trouble with the police. If a lad in our part of South Eastern Idaho does not go on a mission, it is mysterious indeed. In a bad way. It means there are issues. Kind of like refusing to testify on the grounds that it might incriminate you. You didn’t say anything, but by not saying anything, you really said something. Not going on a mission would give you approximately the same social badge as having been sent to prison on charges of indecent exposure. In that culture no self-respecting local lass was going to feel comfortable with the idea of dating someone who everyone knew mysteriously had not gone on a mission. Why would she get in that car? Nor would the parents of said daughter in Zion be keen about this obviously sub-par punk trying to take up with their daughter. What ever I didn’t “know,” one thing I did know was that I was not going to be that boy.
I am not criticizing the Church of my youth, nor am I suggesting that I grew up on a perpetual downer about the Church, or that I am resentful, or that I wish I hadn’t gone on a mission. I recognize the Mormon church as a great influence for the betterment of the world. I am thankful for growing up with the Word of Wisdom as a way of life. I realize now that it probably wouldn’t have been catastrophic if I had tried a sip of tea or wine, but because I was petrified of instant damnation, I didn’t. Which is fine, but for health reasons, not damnation reasons. I’m glad I grew up with friends who were taught similar values. I am indeed eternally grateful and indebted for my mission experience. It radically impacted the course of my life for the better. However, the overarching themes of this letter are belief and truth, not admiration and gratitude.
The forgoing explains some of the reasons that occur to me for my historical marginal activity in the church. But what about the future? If I am appreciative of the Church’s influence, why not be active for the family’s sake? Well, my historical religious apathy is only part of the story. As much as I admire various aspects of the church, that doesn’t make it true. Not that it is necessary for a church to be true for it to be good, or that it is necessary for a member to have a “testimony” in order to have his family’s life benefited by activity. But more on this later. For now we’ll move along.
PART II: Beliefs Re Whether Mormonism is ‘true’
As discussed earlier, my conclusions about whether the Mormon church is ‘true’ (that it is what it claims to be) are based on several factors, including my own instincts about life, morality and human nature and my studies of world and Church history. Rather than immediately segregate this discussion along those lines, let me begin with a narrative that describes the beginnings of my questioning and later my skepticism. This will explain, at least in part, why I started to put some of my thoughts into writing and how I eventually came to step back for a moment and take a fresh look at the idea of Mormonism.
If you have been raised a Mormon, it is incredibly difficult to step back and take a fresh look at Mormonism. Even if you haven’t been terribly active for quite a while, it is very difficult. It’s like trying to step back and take a fresh look at Abraham Lincoln. Or the Moonies. There are some preconceived notions that would appear immovable.
Notwithstanding my preference not to spend endless hours in church meetings learning about the golden plates and tithing for the twenty-zillionth time, giving “duh” answers to “duh” questions (derived from centrally prepared, carefully scripted ‘safe’ lesson manuals) and, for some unknown reason, tediously individually locating every scriptural reference uttered by a speaker, I did presume that the church was true. I was certain that a farm boy could not have written the Book of Mormon on his own. I was (and still am) impressed with the decorum, gentleness, apparent sincerity and relative lack of scandal among church leaders. I still think the Church’s modern leaders compare favorably with other prominent religious figures. Because of factors such as these, I had what you might call a testimony by default.
At BYU, it felt slightly less like the Lord’s university than it did like George Orwell’s university. Certain quirks of the leadership got on my nerves, including the haircut/dress code, insulting censorship of movies at the foreign cinema presentations (which I nonetheless loved to attend), and other similar rules reflecting an assumption that students are incapable of making responsible personal decisions or processing information with discretion.5 These policies seemed a marked departure from Joseph Smith’s professed leadership philosophy of teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves.6 But these were minor things, and could be dealt with by recalling the maxim of not judging institutions by the actions of their members, but by their precepts and ideals. After all, hadn’t I agreed to abide by these standards before entering the school? I had, but that didn’t make me feel any better about the implication that I simply couldn’t be trusted to conduct my personal life without close monitoring and strict limitations. That implication that I needed to be protected from myself.
I am increasingly of the opinion that forced virtue is not virtue at all. Is the caged tiger that has never killed more virtuous than its marauding wild cousin? Or is it simply a function of external manipulation of opportunity? Enforced virtue speaks nothing of the actor’s true character, and actually stifles opportunities to cultivate strength and character. It prevents one from deepening understanding through experience. Certainly it prevents the testing of character.
Nonetheless, my time at BYU did not alter my presumption that Mormonism was “true.” Up until then, the best I could say for myself was that I was unaccountably disinterested in this true church. Although it may seem strange, I didn’t begin to have doubts about the church “being true” until I was on my mission to Taiwan. During that time, I had three experiences that prompted me to take a step back and think again about the Church. One experience was rather minor, another less minor, and the third of great significance.
The Minor Event
This event occurred in the MTC. My companion was Elder E,7 who was a strange person in my estimation. What a challenge it was to get along with him 24 hours a day. However, we were told many times by our leaders, including general authorities, that our companionship pairings were the result of direct revelation so as to give each missionary the maximum opportunity to grow spiritually while in the MTC. We were supposed to learn from our companions.
My impression of Elder E was that he was undeservedly self-righteous, boastful, condescending and hypocritical. He was also fairly intelligent and seemed to be picking up the language faster than me, which got on my nerves. In any event, our pairing did seem to be a test of my patience, and I tried to think of it in those terms, i.e., a test. Due in part at least to Elder E, the MTC was actually the worst time of my entire mission.8 The situation was more frustrating still because there was another elder in our small group, Jeff W, with whom I got along wonderfully. Even though we weren’t “companions,” we became good friends. Twenty years later, we remain good friends. Elder E also found someone else in our group who seemed to appreciate his personality more than I did. We requested an adjustment in the companionships, but this was rejected. Instead we were counseled to pray so that we could understand why the Lord had selected our chosen companions for us. So we all dealt with things as best we could.
One day, with about a week remaining in the MTC, our district leader, Elder Mason, who was about 30 and a convert (and who was also saddled with a very difficult companion, Elder M) told our group some disturbing information: In performing an administrative task, he had been preparing a list of the dozen or so missionaries in our little district. Having some previous experience in the business world, he instinctively made the list in alphabetical order according to surname. In so doing he realized that our companionships themselves were nothing more than the alphabetical listing of our surnames with a line drawn between every two names, i.e., D & E; Mason & M; W & Williams, etc. Although it may seem like a trivial point, it wasn’t to us at the time. Everyone in our group, even the junior Brigham Youngs in training, was somewhat shaken by this. In a way there was a kind of collective end of an innocence. I can’t say exactly how it affected the others, but for me it was a great disappointment.
Personally, I don’t appreciate being made a fool of, and I cannot believe that all of the ancestors of our district members had somehow acquired their surnames just so our little group could be paired off alphabetically for a few weeks in the MTC. BYU administrative peculiarities are one thing, but the MTC is quite another. There is direct hands-on control by the general authorities. I distinctly recall at least one general authority telling us in a speech in the large meeting room at the MTC that the pairings of our companionships were the direct result of divine inspiration. The reason I distinctly remember this is because I was having such difficulty with my companion at the time. The remark was quite relevant. Being intentionally misled and manipulated at the MTC didn’t feel good. And it taught me to think a bit more carefully about the information I received henceforth.
But what does this have to do with the foundation of the religion? Joseph Smith, the golden plates, etc.? To use the words of a good friend, uttered upon the unfolding of the ‘white salamander’ scandal in Salt Lake in the early 1980’s, “ARE YOU GOING TO LOSE YOUR TESTIMONY OVER IT???” No, I suppose not, but I had previously presumed that a hallmark of the Lord’s only sanctioned institution on the earth would be a distinct absence of telling insulting falsehoods to those volunteering to give up two years of their lives for that institution. Judging from the name of my younger brother’s MTC companion, they are no longer using the alphabetical system. I don’t know if that is better or worse. In a way, it is a compounding of the original non-truth about how companions are matched, in a downright calculated attempt to remove the evidence of the complete nonchalance (or mechanization) of the pairings. But I am speculating. How do I know what is actually going on? Maybe now they have moved to the inspiration system.
The Less Minor Event
The second event occurred while I was serving my mission in the city of Taichung (the epicenter of the recent earthquake). One day my companion and I went into a ‘Christian’ bookstore. Probably because it had an air conditioner mounted above the front door. I still remember the neighborhood where the store was located. It was upscale, and quite a few foreigners lived in the area. Anyway, in we went. While browsing around and enjoying the cool air, an English language book with the word “Mormon” in the title caught my eye, and I leafed through it. Little did I know, but for the first time, I had come face to face with a sample of the legendary and infamous anti-Mormon literature. Before I realized this, and could thus obey the invective never to read such material, I came across an excerpt allegedly taken from the early Mormon church publication called “The Times and the Seasons,” published in Utah during Brigham Young’s reign. The article recounted that Brigham Young had (at that time) recently performed a Patriarchal blessing for a young woman in which he told her that in her lifetime she would serve a mission to the inhabitants of the moon. In the blessing he went on to describe the inhabitants of the moon as short people who dressed much like Quakers.
Now this really blew me away. It seemed to me that either this was an outrageous and malicious fabrication, or the church had some serious problems that somehow had never come up in Sunday School. Or college level religion classes, or the MTC. Or anywhere, for that matter. Put in basic terms (although I didn’t dare think of it like this at the time), if this report were true, it would become rather open to question for rational people whether Brigham Young was really the kind of person he is now portrayed as having been. And whether he was really a prophet of God. For the time being, I assumed it was an outrageous lie. Just the kind of thing one apparently would find in anti-Mormon literature. We never went into that store again.
That evening (or the next morning?) I brought this up to the assembled missionary inhabitants of our apartment (my companion, Elder S, and another companionship of Zone Leaders – Elders V and H). No one had heard of such a thing. Three of us concluded that it must be a crazy falsehood designed to ridicule a prophet. Elder H, on the other hand, laughed and exclaimed “He was joking! People don’t realize that Brigham Young had a great sense of humor, and when he said crazy things like that he was joking!” To me, that explanation seemed a rather unlikely. The Lion of the Desert, the heir to Joseph Smith’s mantle of prophet, turning some poor faithful pioneer woman’s Patriarchal blessing into a practical joke? For what audience? Her parents? Not probable. While most of me concluded it must simply be a lie, a little bit of me wasn’t positive. I was the one who had actually read the passage. It was clearly referenced to a specific issue of a historical publication. If it was a lie, it would be so simple to debunk that you wouldn’t think anyone would dare to print it. This nagged at me a bit.
Not having access to ancient issues of The Times and the Seasons (and not remembering the exact issue cited), after my mission I wrote a letter to what I assumed would be the ultimate source for resolution of the matter: the “I Have A Question” column in the Ensign. In retrospect, I think writing that letter was rather naive. Anyway, I asked whether this blessing had occurred, and if so, what was the deal (was he indeed joking around?). I didn’t really care whether the question was answered in print, I just wanted to know what was going on. Therefore, I specifically requested that if the Ensign didn’t publish it, could they at least forward it to the appropriate general authority, historian or other official for comment or a response? I wasn’t trying to be a provocateur, I just wanted to know what was going on.
You won’t find my question or an answer printed in any back issues of the Ensign. Nor did I ever receive a response from any General Authority or historian. Or any response at all. In retrospect, they probably opened a file on me. Much later in my life I confirmed that indeed the report was true, along with other prophecies Brigham Young made about the moon. And these are actually among the less fantastic of Brigham Young’s now de-emphasized (to put it politely) teachings. More (not much, just a little) on that subject later.
Well, ARE YOU GOING TO LOSE YOUR TESTIMONY OVER IT??? Hmm . . . Brigham Young was supposed to be a prophet, and a patriarchal blessing is not exactly idle conversation. And the Times and the Seasons was the Church’s own publication. One of the principles that every member is asked to endorse is the idea of an unbroken chain of authority from Joseph Smith, down through every person in the position of prophet. For me this was now a little difficult. I don’t think anyone today, not even Mormon leadership, would hazard an argument in support of the moon prophecies. And why would the Church completely ignore my request for information? And why is it necessary to go to such extremes to get official information on a subject so relevant to the legitimacy of Brigham Young as a prophet of God? And why wouldn’t every Church library and bookstore have a complete, unexpurgated set of reproductions of every single issue of The Times and the Seasons? Wouldn’t it be an incredibly important historical publication, coming straight out of a time period continually obsessed over in modern Church publications? In my mind, by its silence the Church seemed to confirm the factual accuracy of the report, and that Brigham Young’s prophecy was indeed wacked out and embarrassing. And that embarrassing things, along with their implications, are simply swept aside as if they did not exist.
On rare occasions when I have discussed this issue with people in the Church, they basically shrug it off. They really don’t want to know about it. They don’t even want to open the thought process demanded by this incident. They way liberal activists shrug off the indiscretions of Bill Clinton. Furthermore, as far as Church literature available to modern members goes, this event, and many other events of the same stripe (i.e., astoundingly important, but not at all comforting to believers), are not mentioned. As far as the modern Church is concerned, these things are not acknowledged, and might as well have never happened.9 But I had a difficult time with this! I couldn’t understand how someone could shrug it off. Brigham Young is a load bearing cross-beam of the institution upon which people are basing their entire belief systems! A patriarchal blessing is not a comedic forum in your ward now, and it was even less so by a factor of ten in the 1800’s under the stern watch of Brigham Young. To me this was major! And what if there was more? Much more? Anyway, we’re jumping ahead.