2014 is here

Since last posting here, a lot of life happened to me and I had fun while it did. I moved out of BYU housing into a new place with five housemates, all ex-Mormon. My relationship with my girlfriend has been better than ever. My parents moved to Arizona leaving me stranded in Utah (I never imagined that would happen). I started work at a new job. Schoolwork has been killer, but I’m moving into my final year. Things are looking very promising.

I have a lot to write about and talk about. I feel like keeping a blog helps me focus the ideas and perspectives I come across. The blog offers me an audience, and the possibility of even a little attention provides an extra incentive for me to write. When I write down ideas, they can be remembered and played with later on, whereas when I do not, they disappear into the aether. My New Year’s Resolution is to be more active on this blog, posting my thoughts. It’s been long enough.

Readers, you few who may be out there, I want to remind you that I welcome criticism of anything I write. A fact can be presumed to be true only as much as it resists criticism. Putting these thoughts of mine out onto the net allows me to be more honest with myself and more open to the modification of my beliefs.

And so it begins! With any luck, 2014 will be a year to remember.

Life in BYU Housing and the Failure of the Faux Mormon ideology

I’m living in BYU Housing with two LDS roommates. It’s interesting because you can legally be kicked out for violating the BYU Honor Code which is in place for all residents at BYU Housing. So even though I’m not a student of Brigham Young University, if I am caught drinking coffee, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, or having sex, I can be evicted. With no refund for my contract! I would have to keep paying even if I was thrown out!

I get along with both of my LDS roommates, we’re great friends. We enjoy the Xbox 360 and sci-fi television shows on Netflix and good movies (even rated R ones!), talking about girls and school and all that. We have a good friendship going on. But I have to hide the fact that I don’t believe in the Mormon Church any more. When I mention Brazil it gives away that I’m a former Mormon missionary, and I’ve got to pretend even more to prevent unwanted conversations. When I go to visit my girlfriend or drink with my best friend, I’ve got to make up excuses. When home teachers or Elder’s Quorum presidencies stop by the apartment, I’m expected to participate. I have to hide a lot in my day-to-day life, and it’s not fun. It’s not mentally healthy for me to be so dishonest with others.

But it’s not going to last much longer. I’m already making plans to move out for next semester. I’m picking friends who are not LDS to room with, even though it’ll be more expensive. Apparently the BYU Housing apartments in Utah County are partly subsidized by the LDS Church, which deflates the rental costs a bit. Anyway. That’s been my life for the last few.

I worked on my faux radically liberal Mormonism ideology for a couple days, maybe even a full week. It was IMPOSSIBLE. I could not make it logical in the slightest. I am that far gone, people, into the deep dark waters of atheism. I couldn’t figure out how to Mormonism work even slightly.

What I intended to do was look into the questions asked of Latter-day Saints by their bishops (LDS pastors) to see if they are “worthy” to enter the LDS Temples. If I could create an internally consistent ideology that would let me pass the interview, while incorporating as little as possible to the official Mormon position, I could perhaps come up with a worldview that I could talk about freely with others while still passing as a Latter-day Saint and while still enjoying my newfound lifestyle.

I’ll go over my process with you all and you can see why I found it impossible.

The LDS Temple Recommend Interview

1. Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

I could respond “Yes” to this if I stretched the meaning of “have faith in” and “testimony”. For example, I could have a testimony that Jesus Christ represented a good person, and have faith that his best qualities were ones I should have in my own life. Surprisingly, for this ex-Mormon atheist, this question was the easiest to work around.

2. Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?

This one I really stretched. While the “Restoration of the Gospel” in Mormon-talk means the collection of revelations given to Joseph Smith and the subsequent establishment of the Mormon Church, I took the “Gospel” to mean in my faux worldview simply “The Good News”. What is now the Good News to this ex-Mormon atheist? Rationalism, naturalism, and scientifically-based ethics. Sure, I have a testimony that the Good News has been restored. After all, didn’t we have the Dark Ages? We are still living the Renaissance after the Fall of Rome! I could respond “Yes” to this question.

3. Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?

What does “sustain” really mean? Or “prophet” “seer” “revelator”? To be able to say “Yes” to this question I had to redefine all of these terms. By sustain I really mean “acknowledge to exist”. I wouldn’t think it meant I supported them. Prophet, seer, and revelator just means these LDS authorities are moral teachers, no better or worse than anyone who investigates ethics and builds for themselves their own moral code. We are all prophets, seers, and revelators, and it’s not that big of a leap to say that other people are as well.

4. Do you live the law of chastity?

In Mormon-talk, the Law of Chastity is the set of commandments that keep Latter-day Saints from viewing pornography, masturbating, groping, or having intercourse. All I have to do is be able to respond “Yes” however, which means that I can define my own Law of Chastity. I live my own Law of Chastity, sure, it means that I limit my sexuality to healthy limits, practice safe sex with consenting partners, and do not emotionally jeopardize anyone I have a sexual relationship with.

5. Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?

More surprisingly, things begin to break down here. When the question specifically mentions “the teachings of the Church”, how can I pretend that that doesn’t mean the Mormon Church? It could mean “my interpretation of the teachings of the Church”, sure, but as an ex-missionary who ruthlessly studied LDS theology for two years and studied the basics for many years before that, my interpretation is very close to what I think the teachings of the LDS Church really are. How can I be opposed to the LDS Church and interpret their teachings to be okay? Luckily, for this question I was saved by the specific “relating to members of your family”. Is my conduct really not in line with the teachings of the LDS Church? Actually, I do pretty well following their teachings at least in regard to my family. I’m a very loving and honest brother and son. My “Yes” is very easy here, without requiring that the meaning of words be bent.

6. Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

It’s not that this question is difficult. This question is IMPOSSIBLE! How can I honestly answer “Yes” to this kind of question. I can’t do it! Do I “affiliate with” or “agree” with anyone or any organization that does things the LDS Church officially opposes? Absolutely! There’s just no getting around it. There’s my ex-Mormon groups, my atheist groups, there’s reddit, there’s my real-life friends who smoke and drink and talk bad about the Church, there’s a multitude of authors and thinkers that produce words I read that support things the LDS Church doesn’t like. I can’t do it.

There’s that voice in the back of my head that says… “Just say ‘No’ here, and talk it out with the bishop. Usually even believing Latter-day Saints worry about this question, but after discussing it, the bishop says it won’t be a problem, and gives them their temple recommend.” But that is a privilege believers have that I do not. If I start trying to explain myself, either I’m going to have to lie and be disgusted with myself or I’m going to have to tell the truth and not get the recommend. Checkmate.

Maybe I was lucky that this faux radically liberal Mormon ideology was stopped so quickly in its tracks. It would have taken a lot of my intellectual time to develop further. It might have been difficult to keep track of in my head as I’m working on developing my real worldview that involves naturalism and humanism. Instead of having this optimized social costume to use, I just avoid religious topics altogether. I escape when people start talking about Mormonism or spiritual things. It really is easier to do than I imagined. So I’m lucky.

I couldn’t do it!

My video response to Sean Faircloth’s speech on resisting modern theocracy in America and giving an ex-Mormon perspective obviously never came to fruition. I filmed it several times but damn, I could never get the lighting right or be pleased with my dialogue. I still want to do videos, but I’ve got to find a way to make the process easier.

These last eight months or so have been amazing! I’ve found a group of ex-Mormon friends here in Utah and have been having a blast with them. I’ve explored the world of alcohol, tobacco, parties, and sex more than I ever have in my life. It’s been a wild ride. I’ve stumbled on new interests, passions and dreams in the process.

This doesn’t mean this blog won’t end, but it might shift directions. In particular, my interest in politics and rational thinking might be featured more than I expected. At some point I hope to get videos through the production pipeline, but there are technical considerations I have to deal with.

What am I working on right now? I’m actually moving in with some LDS roommates soon and I don’t want to be seen as an ex-Mormon atheist. I’ve been open before with roommates about my unbelief and it has created a lot of problems in my day-to-day life. Instead I hope to manufacture a “public” identity for myself, that of a radically liberal inactive Mormon. In preparation for putting on this ruse, I’ve been creating a faux worldview in my spare time that takes the best parts of Mormonism and leaves behind the worst in the most logically coherent way possible. It’s an interesting intellectual task, the product of which I intend to start another blog about. Of course, it won’t be featured here… I can’t connect this atheist identity of mine with that. I intend to show my Mormon roommates this new blog and if they connected it with this one, my ruse will be revealed. But that’s what I’m doing now, and maybe I’ll write up some atheist commentary on the process a little later.

It was fun to finally write up another post here! Hopefully this is a sign I’ll continue being more productive on this.

Status update

In all reality, I am still an amateur when it comes to video production. I’ve been interested in film since a child, all aspects of it: cinematography, acting, editing, directing, screenwriting. Currently my focus is in video editing, I seem to have a knack for it. But in producing videos to express my ideas and opinions I must take control of every part of the process. I’ve had to clear out my family’s barn to create a studio. I’ve had to assemble lighting and build a foam box to reduce echoing. It’s tough work.

In filming today, I realized that I was taking on too large of a topic. Even as I tried to cover all my points as quickly as possible, I ended up with twenty minutes of footage. I could probably cut that down to ten or less through editing, but what I realized during my rambling is that the subject I want to cover is not going to be best expressed through a simple “talking to the camera” approach. I need graphics. It needs to be a multimedia presentation, if I want to do it right.

It’s also too broad of a subject. I need to fine-tune the message. What do I really want to say about Sean Faircloth’s call to arms against the religio-industrial complex? I can’t ramble on and on about it, my message must be focused. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s going to take a little while longer to get the final version on YouTube.

I’m really only writing this status update to try and focus myself. Take a moment of self-reflection before plunging into my studio again. I must admit to myself I am truly an amateur, and what I am trying to do is so new to me that I will surely stumble during this beginning. But if I keep at it, I’ll find what works. *whew* Okay, feeling a bit more confident now. Hopefully my next post will be the video itself!

Action-oriented atheism

Today, I unfortunately mismanaged my time and ran out of daylight. I thought my lighting arrangement would work well enough (five work lamps… not ideal but with color correction still looks pretty good) but I just got too many shadows. I’ll have to wait for tomorrow to finish it up.

I’ve decided to make a video response to Sean Faircloth’s recent address at TAM. The Richard Dawkins Foundation is trying to energize the atheist movement around the idea that we can expose corruption in Christian mega-churches and encourage tax reform concerning religious institutions. However, in Utah, where I live, there really isn’t ANY mega-church like the ones he mentions… except for the LDS Church, which is a different organism altogether. In the video I highlight the peculiarities of the challenges Utah secularists face and what we can do about it.

One thing I want my videos to do is inspire and educate people how we can organize and fight the battles that need winning. I want action. I want to motivate atheists and secularists to be doers, because having spent twenty-one years in one of the most outreach-oriented churches in the world, I know the opposition already has much experience in motivating people to take action. The atheist movement has the most logical, fact-based messages in the world, we have science on our side, but if we don’t get up and do something about that message, we will fail. For ideas must also follow the law of survival of the fittest.

What to film this Saturday?

My goal is a video uploaded to YouTube every week. I’m stumped at what to film tomorrow. I have too many ideas!

In recent news, Sean Faircloth gave a speech at the Amaz!ing Meeting in which he exposed some of the corruption going on in mega-churches around the USA. I’d like to do a video about what Utah Atheists can do, which should be unique as we really only have one mega-church here, the LDS Church, and dealing with them could be very different from dealing with their evangelical equivalents.

I’d also like to make a video about how typical atheist talking points used against everyday Christians are often wasted on Latter-day Saints, and what is the best way to discuss atheism with Mormons. There are too few videos on this subject, because it seems few atheists debate Mormons. That’s a shame, because most Latter-day Saints (especially apologists) think they have everything figured out and “nothing could prove the Gospel wrong”. Mormons need to be more exposed to critical thinking and the atheist worldview.

There is also some fascinating recent news concerning the Maxwell Institute, formerly FARMS, the leading BYU center for Mormon apologetics. Some key personalities got fired and I’d like to go a bit into the reasoning behind that and what it means for the LDS apologetics community. 

What topic seems more intriguing?

The Long Earth and the Idea of an Atheist Colony

I just read a book today that was very intriguing: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. It kept me distracted all day at work, I would read a page or two every moment I could find. The Long Earth is about a world fifteen years ahead of our own in which a technique has been discovered that allows people to “step” into parallel earths. The catch is, Our World (or “Datum Earth” in the novel) is the only one on which humanity has evolved. That allows practically anyone with the desire to move off to claim an entire planet earth for their own and live in the wilderness.

There was one interesting group called the First Heavenly Church of the Cosmic Confidence Trick Victims that created a community far from Datum Earth, more than a hundred thousand earths over, in fact. As I understood it, they were “comedy atheists”, nonbelievers who were united over their love of mockery of the divine. The writers didn’t go too much into how their society worked, but I liked the idea of a community of atheists creating their own society on a planet they could claim all for themselves. Sometimes, living in Utah Valley, I like to look up at the mountains that surround my home and think: “What if the Mormons hadn’t been the ones to create a new society here? What if it had been atheists that had faced persecution and had decided to buy wagons and move their families to the west? What kind of society could have been created out here, free from theistic influence?”

That’s my Mormon heritage for you. My ancestors were people so dedicated to their worldview and ideology that they would sacrifice anything for the chance to get away from everyone else and put their ideas into practice. The urge to be a firebrand, a zealot, a pilgrim continues inside me, it’s in my blood. But it is an interesting idea. If there is something we can learn about the Mormons and their Exodus to Utah, it’s that a lot can be accomplished with a dedicated group of people united by their beliefs and willing to sacrifice for them.

The book was great, though the ending was very abrupt. It seemed like I was a chapter or two away from the ending, and then I came to the last page. That was slightly disappointing. But the world-building was fascinating and I’d recommend it to any sci-fi lover.

Now what would the LDS Church do if stepping technology was suddenly discovered? Like most Abrahamic religions, Mormonism depends a lot on its eschatology, it makes numerous truth claims concerning the “road map of the future”. So far, apologists have been able to paint the prophecies as metaphorical to such a point that the invention of air travel and the Internet really don’t get in the way of most people’s expectations of the future. But if suddenly we could all travel to parallel universes… well there isn’t anything about that in the Bible, or the Book of Mormon, or the Doctrine & Covenants. That could cast even more doubt on the LDS Church’s truth claims. That, along with the disappearance of many steppers moving off into the great unknown without the desire to return, would decrease the numbers of Mormons in the Long Earth. But, the whole idea of “separating yourself from the world” might inspire the Church hierarchy to move off Datum Earth so that they wouldn’t be constantly harassed by popular culture and scientific evidence. Imagine Brigham Young University ten, twenty, or a hundred earths away! There would be so many opportunities for thought control.

There’s also the idea that, because humanity is filtering through different earths left and right making new societies in hundreds and thousands of different universes, it would be much harder to keep the Church from proselyting where they want? Can’t preach in the People’s Republic of China? No problem, because hundreds of millions of Chinese have spread into other earths where the government can no longer manage all of them. Missionaries with steppers would have a field day. You could have the Dan Jones effect by sending highly trained charismatic missionaries to small villages and impressing all the yokel-locals, turning them into dedicated faith-spreaders.

Because society would be so decentralized with stepping tech, however, the Church would inevitably have to follow. There would be lots of splinter groups coming up with new interpretations of things and creating their own religio-cultural ideas far from the central Church hierarchy. The LDS would have to change or die, much as they now have to change or die in a rapidly changing world. In the end, the future of the Long Earth isn’t one where rationalism and evidence-based thinking would thrive, because anyone with crazy unsubstantiated ideas could just leave to their own world to live as they see fit. They wouldn’t have the internet or public schools from which they could learn rational critical thinking.

Would we really care though? Many atheists would think: Let them leave, let them remove themselves from civilized society if they so desire, for we will inherit what’s left and purify humanity of their insanity.

I don’t know if any of this is really useful, but hopefully its food for thought.

Lessons I Learned as a Boy

I ran into an old video from Mormon Messages today: Lessons I Learned as a Boy, based on a story President Hinckley gave at General Conference once. On my mission in Brazil I had a companion that carried around a DVD that had this video in Portuguese. A handful of times we showed it to investigators of the Church to show them how the Prophet was “inspired by God” and most of the time it brought tears to my eyes. When I watched it again I wasn’t surprised that I found myself grow emotional once more.

Hinckley tells a story of two boys walking along a road near a field that stumble upon an abandoned pair of shoes just off the path. In the distance they spot a farmer working his crops (I guess to do so you need different shoes?). The younger boy suggests they take the shoes and watch from a distance when the farmer returns to find his shoes have disappeared. The older boy says instead they should put a silver dollar in each shoe instead to see what happens. Reluctantly, the younger boy puts a silver dollar in one shoe, the older boy in the other.

This is when it really gets me. The farmer returns and as he’s putting on his shoes, he finds a silver dollar. He looks in the other one, and finds a second. His face is overcome with emotion and he kneels down to pray to God for thanks. The boys learn as the man prays aloud that he has a wife sick at home and that money is very tight. He thanks God for this divine providence and asks for the powers of heaven to be upon those who helped him. The boys leave having learned that to do good always feels better than doing evil.

I think why I always came to tears is that the farmer is a tragic figure and I loved seeing him receive a little charity. He’s poor, hard-working, and down on his luck because his wife is so sick. Maybe the farmer imagined that no help was going to come from God, that he had been abandoned. God provided for the farmer a small sign that he was there, watching, and caring. His faith hadn’t been ill-placed.

It’s a great film, short, well-made, powerful. However, it’s funny that since I have lost faith in God, I still feel inside of me what I would have called “the Holy Spirit”. I don’t feel such positive emotions though because I am reflecting on how God remembers each one of us, but because what the boys did for the farmer was so charitable and humane. It’s fantastic they ended up helping someone who deserved a little help. People caring for people, that’s what really touches me. And the farmer was so humble and grateful for the help. It is touching.

What I don’t like now is one line where Hinckley says that the farmer “invoked the blessings of heaven upon those who had given him this needed help” (oh, so the farmer didn’t believe the silver dollars were placed there by an angel? okay, so he’s not into THOSE kind of miracles). After Hinckley narrates these words, the camera pans down onto the younger boy who is bewildered and emotional. The camera lingers just enough for me to think that we are supposed to be imagining the boy being awestruck by the idea that the blessings of heaven will be given to him for this charitable deed. Oh wow. Cool. Yeah, it touches you if you are a believer, but to a pagan like me it seems the LDS director wanted his audience to think: “Aha! If I help people, I’ll get the powers of heaven on my side!” Why not just help people for the sake of helping people, yo? Let’s help people even if we aren’t going to receive something for it.

But, I’m not really one to talk. The video no longer has a message directed at me. I would love it if we could get some atheist versions of Mormon Messages and have some videos on non-believers performing “Christian” charity for others. We need those kind of feelings in our movement. As a Mormon going Atheist, I definitely perceive a lack of attention in producing content that inspires other atheists to be good and help one another with our burdens. I’m not saying atheists aren’t charitable and aren’t caring, but there’s just not enough media showing that part of us off. We could all use a little push to love our fellow human beings more than we do.

Lessons I Learned as a Boy by Gordon B. Hinckley

Weird Fiction from the Mormons and Infighting among Atheists

Last night I had to deal with insomnia again and I killed the time reading Monsters & Mormons, an anthology of short stories dealing with Latter-day Saint characters encountering the supernatural. I have to say, it is FUNNY. Not the best writing, but there is some really hilarious material included. A companionship of Mormon missionaries deal with a zombie outbreak by doing “baptisms for the dead” after every kill. There’s a Western that reminds me of “The Searchers” only the red men are replaced with pale men (a necromancer and his shambling horde) and the hero can transform into The Thing. In another story a Mormon bishop is tasked by the prophet to hunt down demons. It’s deliciously irreverent at some points, and the message I’ve picked up from it is: “What’s so bad about taking our strange fantastical beliefs and throwing in a few more myths while we’re at it?” I was glad to see this. Mormon culture isn’t entirely headed in the wrong direction.

In other, more serious news, I was alerted by the Honest Atheist to some controversies happening over at Freethought Blogs. I subscribe to thunderf00t’s YouTube channel, so I was aware there had been some trouble over issues of sexism (or perceived sexism). I don’t really grasp the entire situation, but I did read some posts by PZ Meyers about thunderf00t’s removal as well as some reviews he has done concerning the work of Alain de Botton. I haven’t read or heard much about PZ Meyers… a year after my deconversion I’m still trying to understand the who’s who, you know… but my first impression was not good. I read a lot of straw man arguments and exaggerated ridicule of Alain de Botton, whose book Religion for Atheists I have recently purchased and devoured. I understand some of his criticisms, but he comes off so mean about it! He wants de Botton to look like a fool.

In my opinion, Alain de Botton does not deserve such attacks. After leaving the Mormon Church, I feel a great loss of community. The support structure that I have known my entire life doesn’t work for me now. Reading de Botton’s words, I finally feel as if that sense of community and meaning could be returned to me. I wouldn’t have to swallow any unsubstantiated truth claims to do so. The future secular society that de Botton imagines, that meets in temples dedicated to skeptics and humanists, that feasts with strangers while listening to secular sermons, that joins together to help their fellow men with their everyday problems… I could benefit from that. I don’t think I’m the only one. I don’t think every atheist needs to be a part of something like that, but I would appreciate it.

Sean Faircloth of the Richard Dawkins Foundation once said, before you make public a criticism:

If it is about somebody in the secular movement – if it is about somebody on our team – let us do the evidence-based thing and contact that person directly, and then give them a chance to . . . offer evidence . . . so you might actually know before you click – before you say something negative to thousands of people. It’s really important for our movement.

Faircloth is probably the closest thing our movement has to an authorized strategist. He has a bold new vision for how we atheists can accomplish real change, not just in the U.S. but in the world. While some have objected to this suggestion of Faircloth’s, I think it’s something to pay attention to. We can’t waste so much time arguing between ourselves when we could be disproving creationists, theocrats and the religious right on their turf. What’s worse is making other distinguished atheists seem like idiots. Sure, theists have always been divided by infighting and have for thousands of years been trying to make each other look like imbeciles, but why should we? If we criticize one another, it should be because we love humanity and wouldn’t want to lead it astray.

I hope this movement I’ve fallen into can get it’s act together. Otherwise we won’t achieve much.