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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The World Cracks Wide Open

Skepticism’s foundations come from the child’s persistent questioning of the world, demanding answers that fit coherently together.
—Comment on Pharyngula
I grew up in the fifties, a third generation Mormon in Louisiana. Yes...a Mormon. Yes...Louisiana...Cajun Catholic Louisiana.

The Dunn Family on the Salt Lake City temple grounds the summer
after my high school graduation. I'm the tall one.

Like most Mormon girls, I was hyper-vigilant, obedient, a good student. My sister Donna recently told me she used to pray, but it always felt like showing off. I knew the feeling. Tribal loyalty and fear of planting doubt in my younger siblings kept rebellion in check throughout childhood and adolescence. When I was well into my twenties Donna announced, “Mama, Sharon and I aren’t going to church any more.” And that was that.

Donna, The Emancipator

I’ve softened since then. After forty plus years away, I’m living back in the house where I grew up, and I go to church from time to time. It’s the only place around here where I recognize anybody. Though Mormons don’t shun their lost sheep, I feel like an outsider. Since it’s how I feel everywhere, it doesn’t bother me so much any more. Nearly all my old friends and relatives are believing, practicing Mormons, and there are many intelligent and accomplished among them. Most are much better off financially than I am, and I take that as an appropriate Calvinist rebuke. That original congregation of sixty or so has grown to almost a thousand and has a respectable reputation I played no role in building. Like the Pentecostals Bill Clinton speaks of so highly, Mormons live their religion. I don’t believe in Mormonism any more, but I believe in Mormons.

Crack I

Ironically, the first big crack in my world view came in the ninth grade when I read the Book of Mormon. By then I was also reading the standard public high school literature: Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Dickens and Eliot. The BoM was indeed, as Mark Twain put it, chloroform in print. That wasn’t such a problem. When you’re a good Mormon, you put your shoulder to the wheel.


I wasn’t much of a literary critic, but I was a good English student. I couldn’t help but notice some really bad writing in the BoM. The best parts were almost word-for-word from the Bible. An unwelcome thought crept in: I wonder if Joseph Smith did what I do when I rearrange words from an encyclopedia for term papers. I felt like the only one who puzzled over why the BoM was written in archaic English. Wasn’t it supposed to be translated for the latter day saints? I’d been hearing the Bible quoted my whole life, but BoM passages sounded like a bad British accent to me. I felt queasy when I heard Mormons say the BoM was so deeply inspiring it could not have been written by the hand of man. Huh? A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court had moved me to tears. The BoM...not so much.

Crack II

In 1961 the poet Miller Williams (singer Lucinda Williams’ father, incidentally) did a stint as my tenth grade biology teacher at Gonzales High School. In Cajun Dogpatch, Mr. Williams was an exotic. With his gaunt, almost skeletal face, he both fascinated and scared the bejeezus out of all of us.


Back then, the first question...an awkward one for me...was, “What church do you go to?” It hit us like a thunderbolt when Mr. Williams answered evenly, “I don’t believe in God.” My best friend Jane, a Catholic with a flair for drama, burst into tears. “If I didn’t believe in God,” she sobbed, “I couldn’t live!” I sat there blinking, thinking, “No... If you didn’t believe in God, you just wouldn’t believe in God.” Somehow I knew that faith is not essential to viability.

I’d been liberally exposed to mockery of my testimony that I belonged to the only true church. To that point I’d had no existential thoughts about God. I accepted the fact of God. But...I’d also accepted Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. They gave me stuff. There was evidence. But God? Like Winnie the Pooh, I started to think, think, think.

Crack III

After my sophomore year at LSU, I went to see one of those shockumentaries of the Mondo Cane ilk popular in the 60s. In one scene an Indian woman in a sari squatted, quietly forming cow manure into patties with long, brown fingers.


While everyone around me was going eeeew, I was having an epiphany. No...I wasn’t stoned. “That could be me,” I thought. “Where does she end and I begin?” Then it hit me how improbable life is and the thing that connects all living things is life itself. The fact of life made the idea of God seem silly.

Crack IV

That fall I moved to Salt Lake City hoping to snag a returned missionary and put all this infernal thinking behind me. My Aunt Nancy had done exactly that a generation earlier and I stayed with her and her family until I got my first job as a proofreader for the LDS Genealogical Library. The library was a sweatshop and another faith buster, but I digress. One day, as I was helping Aunt Nancy with dinner, she said, “You know I sometimes ask myself, ‘What if the church isn’t true?’ and I think, ‘Well what if it isn’t? It’s a good way to live.’ ” I was gobsmacked. How could the truth not matter?


Growing up in the Mormon hinterlands, Salt Lake City represented the pinnacle of civilization...Zion. What I found was a provincial place with nothing of the diverse culture I’d been exposed to in Louisiana living along the rural corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I was anything but worldly, but it rankled when my returned missionary boyfriend treated me like a child, saying things like, “Where’d a little girl from Looosiana learn a big word like that?” I returned to Louisiana a Mormon atheist.

21 comments:

  1. I guess I am a Mormon agnostic too...
    Debra

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    1. Yep, we're fellow travelers. You can't escape the culture. It's too deep. Do you ever listen to the Mormon Stories podcast? It's really good. There are probably more like us in Utah than here in Louisiana, where the Pioneer spirit of swimming against the current is stronger. You'd have a hard time convincing anyone around here there's such a thing as a liberal Mormon.

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  2. I suspect the Mormons are still haunted by the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. The truth was buried hastily and a lot of Americans just do not trust LDS.

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    1. Most Mormons don't know a thing about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the Kinderhook plates, the BoM witnesses' "eyes of faith", the BoM anachronisms, the DNA evidence, Smith's 30+ wives, the Book of Abraham papyri. I could go on and on. This is changing in the age of the internet. IMO, Mormonism is no more preposterous and no less trustworthy than any other religion. It just has the misfortune of having emerged recently and being subject to the rigorous scrutiny of modern historical research.

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  3. They might not shun lost sheep, but they shun gay ones. And their record for black sheep was pretty bad until the 70s. And there's that whole foundationally offensive notion of having the "real" native peoples be white. Loving you to bits, but LDS still stand along with Scientology as the scariest theologies in this hemisphere.

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    1. Ian, thanks so much for your comments. You misunderstand me if you believe I'm a Mormon apologist. I'm not. All the things that offend you offend me too. Forty years after abandoning theism, I started reading Mormon history and researching Mormon origins online as a way to understand myself and my loved ones. My hair caught fire.

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    2. What I'm getting at is I lost faith in LDS long before the internet information revolution. I lost it over things in plain sight. The bad writing in the BoM. Members standing up thanking Heavenly Father for their "pretty white skin". The inferior status of women. The idea that every human who ever lived could and would be baptized...dead or alive. Really? Everyone? The whole narrow, narcissistic view of life in the cosmos. I had an imagination struggling to grasp in some puny way the vastness of human evolution and time-space itself. Catch my drift?

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    3. Ian, I recently read and can recommend the book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Putman and Campbell. Mormons rank down there with Hindus and Muslims in the opinion of most Americans.

      According to Putnam and Campbell, Jews are the most admired religious group in America, and Mormons are the most admired Christian group among American Jews. Huh? This was a startling finding to me. I'm not sure what it means or if it's even true.

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    4. That should be "Buddhists and Muslims", not "Hindus and Muslims".

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  4. No no. I read you clearly that you weren't an apologist. I mainly wrote it to clarify and emphasize a point or two that I thought was worth mentioning. FWIW, I'm also aware of the grim relations that many other religions in this country have had inside/outside, the scandals currently burning the Catholic Church (to say nothing of the similar revelations being seen in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn that may prove similarly tips of icebergs). It's just in this time when there is still a struggle for acceptance for LGBT people to be thought of as worthy of protection, that so much is coming up again about the mistreatment of Native Americans in this country, and the continuingly grim history of people of color in the South and everywhere else, for those reasons and more I wanted to underscore it all. I am intrigued by this Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, Mormon citation. I'm going to learn more. Posts are always great.

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    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Ian. They made my day. Feel free to visit again any time.

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  5. I REALLY enjoy your writing and thoughts. I'm so glad you posted your link at The Confluence!!

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    1. Katie, Katie, Katie. You made my day.

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  6. I remember having serious questions as a small kid that were not satisfied by religious explanations—exactly parallel to your contemplating the circumstances & fate of the woman in India. Christianity was pervasive in my upbringing, & I didn't exactly rebel. In fact, during my teens I undertook serious self-directed Bible studies, & even thought that I might become a minister. It wasn't until I left home that I eventually grew into atheism as a habit of thought more than as a revelation. It doesn't bother me to accept that existence is a mystery & a wonder, or to think that I need religion to contain it.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Ad. I know what you mean by growing "into atheism as a habit of thought". I hadn't pondered the god question in years until the Four Horsemen of Atheism arrived on the scene. That's actually when I started calling myself a Mormon atheist. I still thought of myself as Mormon even though I didn't believe a word of it. Then I returned to the village and church where I grew up. I still can't wrap my head around why so many from my childhood, who are intelligent by almost any standard, believe it. I know why they NEED it, but I don't know why they BELIEVE it. I became fascinated again by Mormonism. What about it sold my grandparents? Plus, Mormons have had a profound impact on American history, so it's fascinating for that reason alone. I'm not convinced like Dawkins, Hitchens et al that the world would be better without religion, especially since they offer nothing to replace it. These elites have little comprehension of the needs of ordinary working stiffs. I'm a firm believer in whatever gets you through the night. As William says, "You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone."

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    2. Sharon, thanks for linking Miller Williams' poem. Some of my evangelical relatives are mean spirited, self-righteous closed-off bitter people . . . but others are warm & accepting (despite knowing that some people they love just won't be saved!) . . . I think the world probably would be better without religion, but that's not the world we live in. (For all their flaws—& Hitchens especially was a flawed person—the celebrity atheists have done a public service.) Everybody knows Marx's famous quote that religion is "the opium of the people." Less well known is the sympathetic & eloquent prelude to that sentence: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions."

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    3. Exactly, Ad, what do the Four Horsemen have to offer the oppressed in the heartless and soulless worlds they inhabit? It seems like mankind is doomed to repeat the work of the enlightenment over and over again. I agree they've performed an important, necessary political service. They called on people like us to come out of the closet and be counted. That's important.

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    4. BTW, I love your term "celebrity atheists". I hope you won't mind if I use it.

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  7. "... what do the Four Horsemen have to offer the oppressed in the heartless and soulless worlds they inhabit?"

    Wouldn't that be the empathy, compassion and support of their fellow human beings? That's all we've ever had really, given the lack of evidence for any god, vengeful or loving. Faith in a deity is not required to assist another who is suffering from some aspect of the indifference of the universe.

    I find inspiration in what we have learned of the age and composition of the universe. On the true nature of the heavens, religions have been uninformative at best. It's so amazing to think that we are literally stardust. Everything in your body except for the Hydrogen was forged in the death of a good few stars. Most of the Hydrogen traces back to the initial Singularity whose signature in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation correlates with theory to unmatched precision. No holy text has ever documented this in any of its claimed revelations.

    Like you I'm sure, I would not tell a grieving grandchild that Nona is actually not looking down from Heaven nor deny that they will be together soon enough. I'd regret the lies the child has been filled with and the inevitable guilt and internal conflict I'd expect they will cause. But I wouldn't say any thing because adding to the suffering would be just wrong.

    It is so strange that people who have been given an unnecessary mental crutch would be so eager to craft one for everyone else, especially for their children.

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    1. "I would not tell a grieving grandchild that Nona is actually not looking down from Heaven nor deny that they will be together soon enough."

      Johnnie, I always told my children the truth about life and death. Once when my daughter was very small and had a severe case of chicken pox, in her suffering she cried, "Mom, why can't you protect me?" All I could do was hold her and tell her I was pretty strong and smart and would do every thing I could.

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    2. Thank you for visiting and taking so much time to compose your thoughtful comments, Johnnie. Yes, "empathy, compassion and support". These are all any of us have to give. When my mother was dying, we could see the struggle she was having as she kept trying to hang on believing there was so much more she needed to do for us. Finally, my brother and I went to her bedside and said, "Mama, Daddy needs you. He's waiting for you. You've done a wonderful job with us and we're all fine. You can go now."

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