A sweary—and expertly punctuated—weblog.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It gets better: Navigating a mixed-faith Mormon marriage

I gave the following talk at a Mormon Stories conference yesterday here in Houston. Since I haven't posted anything detailed on how I left Mormonism, I thought that some of you might appreciate reading this. The talk was recorded, and the live version is available here.

I’d like to begin with two disclaimers.

First, while I’m the one standing up here and telling the story — and while I’m certainly telling it from my perspective — this is our story. It's a story of how I left Mormonism, how Amanda has remained an active member, and how our relationship has survived in spite of our differences. It’s a story about both of us, in other words. It’s too bad that there isn’t time for both of us to tell our sides of it, and I find it a bit anti-feminist — especially for Mormon Stories! — that I’m the one up here. But here we are. The consolation prize is that we get to break the usual Sacrament Meeting convention: Here it’s the husband who has to introduce the family to the new ward, not the wife!

Second, I don’t want anyone to think we have marriage advice to give out. We know we got off easy: we’re young, we have no kids, and our situation is much less complex than many others'. All I can do is to tell what we’ve been through and to share a few insights that we’ve gleaned along the way. The predictive value of our experiences, or the applicability of our insights to individual circumstances, I’m simply not willing to claim.

With those out of the way, let me lay out my thesis: Stable, healthy marriages between active Mormons and ex-Mormons are possible. New apostates often feel like the only way to save their marriage is to deconvert their spouse. I believe this to be a largely false and harmful idea. I also believe that the shift in worldview that often accompanies a faith crisis gives the apostate two insights that can help stabilize a mixed-faith marriage. One, belief doesn’t have much to do with intelligence. Two, belief doesn’t have much to do with morality.

By Mormon standards, my upbringing was pretty ordinary. I was born in Tacoma, Washington, to parents of pioneer ancestry. Dad worked in business while Mom stayed home with the five kids. We were loyal Republicans. I hit all the usual milestones. I was baptized at 8, ordained to the Aaronic priesthood at 12, and at 18 I graduated from high school and was shipped off to BYU, where I picked a safe, marketable major. After my freshman year, I put in my papers and was called to the Australia Perth Mission.

I had always believed in Mormonism, and I felt like it held together logically. But I also subscribed to the Mormon epistemology that I could know — through unmistakeable spiritual witness — that it was True. And I’d never had such a witness. So while I left for my mission not “knowing” if the Church was true, I had every expectation of receiving a witness while teaching the gospel. I was not disappointed. In the early months of my mission, during a small handful of our very rare opportunities to teach, I experienced a profound, naked human connection as we testified of the gospel and as our testimonies were received. Even now, as an unbeliever and a thoroughgoing materialist, I consider these experiences meaningful and even transcendental. As an idealistic young missionary hungry for spiritual validation, I considered them an indisputable manifestation of the Holy Spirit. I completed my mission and returned to BYU confident that I knew, not merely believed, and that my faith would endure for the rest of my life.

I was wrong. In fact, my faith endured for only a few years. My faith started its transition as I worked on my master’s degree. I was still at BYU, and I wasn’t studying anything that would challenge a testimony, but the transition from undergraduate study to graduate work has a way of forcing self-skepticism on a person. And that’s because research is difficult and unstructured. Suddenly, instead of being the guy who can master difficult concepts and solve problems on exams, I was the guy suggesting wrong-headed solutions to research problems. I went from being very rarely wrong in my area of expertise to being wrong every single day. And I came to learn that this was perfectly normal. Being wrong was part of the program. The first of my two insights began to set in: When the questions are hard, even smart people are wrong all the time. Belief has little to do with intelligence.

Around this time I met Amanda. Her upbringing was less stereotypically Mormon than mine. She grew up in Dallas. Her parents had converted to Mormonism in the mid 70s. By Mormon standards they were politically left-of-center. In their household, belief in evolution did not contradict belief in Mormonism. Gays and lesbians were regarded as good, decent people, and although you might share an honest difference of opinion with them there was no reason to condemn or avoid them. It was still an orthodox Mormon home, both in terms of belief and practice, but it was less rigid than that of many of her peers.

When Amanda and I met, she had just finished her degree at BYU in anthropology. Our first meeting, a chance encounter by the apartment complex pool, got off to an auspicious start. I made some jokes, she laughed at those jokes, and we discussed our academic aspirations. I got her phone number, asked her out, and for the next two years we dated off and on. Around the time I was finishing my master’s degree we began to talk seriously about marriage.

In the meantime, my self-skepticism had put down deep roots. As I realized I could be wrong on technical matters, I also realized I could be wrong about almost anything, and my entire worldview was up for reexamination. I consciously admitted to myself doubts that before I had kept sequestered in the subconscious. I doubted that my missionary experiences were necessarily divine manifestations. I doubted that a few million Mormons, out of the billions of humans on the earth, have any credible claim to exclusive truth. I doubted that there is a life after this one. I doubted that there exists any God at all.

It turns out you can rationalize anything when the stakes are high enough. As we talked more seriously about marriage, I confided in Amanda my doubts — she knew what I was when she picked me up, you might say. But we examined the problem from a very Mormon perspective. We talked about how I was “struggling” with my testimony, and we were optimistic that I would “overcome” my doubts. In other words, we assumed that the right answer — from a purely moral perspective — was for me to find a way to continue believing. And, for a while, I did. Of course I did. I was in love, I wanted to get married, and “overcoming” my doubts was a precondition for getting married. We got engaged a few weeks later, got married a few months after that, and immediately afterwards we left for Houston so I could pursue my Ph.D. at Rice.

It was another six months before my doubts resurfaced, and they did so with a vengeance. Somewhere in those six months the second insight had set in: belief has little to do with morality. I’m not sure exactly what caused it — maybe I just needed to get out of Provo, or maybe it was interacting with a bunch of smart, decent people of diverse backgrounds at Rice. Whatever the stimulus, I no longer believed there was a morally right answer to my doubts. I gave myself moral permission to disbelieve. I began a more serious, and I think more honest, study of my beliefs. I read Amanda’s textbooks on biblical archaeology. I confronted issues with Mormonism that are probably familiar to many in this audience. After a few months, I came to a conclusion: I no longer believed in the truth claims of Mormonism, and I no longer wanted to affiliate myself with the church.

Breaking the news to Amanda was difficult. Of course she had seen it coming. Of course it was something she didn’t want to hear. But she also knew that she couldn’t in good conscience pressure me into continued activity. So I left, and to her credit she came to terms with it. She was too tolerant a person to buy into the rhetoric that apostates are morally degenerate. So once it became clear that I was the same person as an ex-Mormon — once it became clear that I’m an even nicer guy after a few drinks! — she accepted the fact that I had left, and that I probably wasn’t coming back.

But things were still rough, and it was mostly my fault. I was decent enough not to try actively to deconvert Amanda, but I did hold out hope that she would eventually leave. This hope led to a few nasty disagreements. I particularly remember one evening. We were at Arby’s, having a particularly classy night out, and somehow we got to talking about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS church. And I couldn’t resist the urge to stick it to her. I pointed out that FLDS members bear a testimony of Warren Jeffs that isn’t all that different from the one Mormons bear of Thomas S. Monson. How could Amanda have any confidence that her convictions were any more justified than those of an FLDS member?

No amount of beef ‘n’ cheddar could salvage our evening. Arguments like these happened often enough, and were severe enough, to create a sense that our differences were fundamental, that they prevented us from having an emotionally intimate relationship. It was a bleak several months, and we both worried that our marriage was in jeopardy.

The turning point came in October 2010. We were sitting in our living room. Amanda was listening to conference while I wasted time on the internet. And Boyd K. Packer got up to speak. Probably you remember the talk. For all the harm it caused, Packer’s crotchety intolerance may have saved our marriage, and for that I could kiss him on his gruff old mouth. Amanda was outraged. She was too tolerant, and had known too many gay Mormons, to listen to someone she regarded as an apostle of Jesus Christ indulge in hurtful rhetoric she knew to be false.

Now, this wasn’t a turning point because Amanda’s beliefs began to change. Because really her beliefs didn’t change at this point. This was a turning point because it gave us common ground. Here was something about Mormonism we could discuss productively. We were both upset by the damage being done to gay and lesbian Mormons. And we talked about it. Through our discussions I came to a long-overdue realization: Both intellectually and morally, I had seriously underestimated Amanda’s relationship with Mormonism.

I took the two principles that led to my apostasy, and I applied them to believing Mormons in a way I just couldn’t do when I first left. Even though I think the evidence weighs heavily against Mormonism’s truth claims, there still are intelligent, thoughtful reasons to believe. Belief has little to do with intelligence. Even though Mormonism can do a lot of harm, there still remains tremendous good to be found in it and to be done through it. Belief has little to do with morality. I came to respect Amanda’s belief, and I came to accept that, just as I might never return to Mormonism, she might never leave. From then on, Mormonism ceased to be a wedge between us.

Since then, Amanda has begun to deal with her own faith crisis. She has become increasingly unorthodox in her beliefs. She interprets the Church’s truth claims figuratively. She’s gotten involved in activism for the Mormon LGBT community. She participates in Mormon Stories. But this doesn't cause me to breathe a sigh of relief. It’s nice — it gives us even more common ground, and more to the point it’s made Amanda happier — but her faith transition is not essential to our relationship. If tomorrow she returns to orthodox belief, if she decides never again to listen to a Mormon Stories podcast, it wouldn’t have much impact on our relationship.

We don’t know where our faith journeys will lead us. Amanda especially has an unpredictable road ahead, and who knows what the future holds for me. But we’ve stopped worrying how that might impact our relationship. Our marriage is no longer predicated on shared religious belief. Respect for each other’s intelligence and goodness is what’s essential to our relationship. And our particular beliefs don’t say very much about our intelligence or our goodness.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A big eastern syndicate

The tubleweed has been blowing around this blog for a few months now, and I expect that I've lost the attention of most of my potential readers, but I can't let the Christmas season pass without making a post. It's tradition!

Right now you're probably wondering: do we have to talk about being a non-believer at Christmas again?

Sort of. Part of the tradition is to reflect somehow on my faith journey in the context of Christmas. But most of the Christmas-as-an-atheist topics are tiresome. The Christmas culture wars exist only to stoke the ire and to stroke the egos of those fighting either side. That Christmas traditions are almost exclusively derived from pagan sources is irrelevant except to set a precedent for my own repurposing of Yuletide celebrations. If we're going to talk about Christmas, we need something a little less trite.

I want to dig a little deeper and probe what people mean when they talk about the "real meaning" of Christmas. Usually when people -- religious people, at least -- talk about the real meaning of Christmas, they mean its religious message, particularly in opposition to its commercial component. Indeed, this is the central thesis of the "A Charlie Brown Christmas".


With all due respect to Charles Schultz, I reject this as a false dichotomy. Lord knows I'm not into the commercial Christmas. In my adulthood gifts have mostly ceased to make sense, and I hardly know what to tell people to get me for Christmas, let alone what to get for others. But in ignoring the commercial aspect of Christmas, am I forced either to embrace its religious content or discard the holiday altogether?

No. Emphatically no. In addition to the religious and commercial components of the season, there's a third meaning that's as widespread as anything else. This is the humanistic message: peace on earth, goodwill towards men; charity, kindness, and redemption; and the meaning found in human relationships.

I can hear the objection from a mile away: the humanistic message is merely a component of the religious message. But that's not usually how the story goes. Usually the humanistic part of Christmas is expressed without mention of any religious message.

And I have evidence. Evidence in the form of Christmas specials. (Of which "Charlie Brown" is the notable exception.)

Our first stop is the original Christmas special, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". You probably already know that, in England at least, Christmas observance fell into serious decline around the time of Cromwell, and that Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" during a Victorian-era Christmas revival. Dickens' view of Christmas, in addition to being distinctly anti-commericalist/anti-capitalist, is entirely secular. Indeed, it's a rejection of the Cromwellian hyper-piety that pushed Christmas out of the way in the first place. There's a reference or two to God, and of course the Christmas ghosts are supernatural entities. But there's no reference to Christ or the Nativity, no call to remember the religious underpinnings of the season. The Christmas spirit in Dickens' story, as embodied in the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, is the innate goodness of humanity, the triumph of people over things, the power of love over loneliness.


Next up is "It's a Wonderful Life". Yes, we do see angels, although their cosmological nature lends itself as well to Scientology as it does to anything in Christendom, and George Bailey does pray to God near the end of the film. But even in post-war America Frank Capra sees no need for religious sermonizing. Much like as with Dickens, the moral is about human relationships: meaning is found in the people we touch rather than the possessions we amass. George Bailey, the richest man in Bedford Falls? There's a double meaning in that.


Our last stop is Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". My wife found this wonderful article today. Its paragraph on the final scene of "Grinch" says it better than I would have:

"It’s a lovely moment, and I don’t want to dissect it too much, because its beauty lies in its simplicity. It’s the simplicity that gets me, and it’s what sets The Grinch just that much closer to my heart than any other story of the season. There’s no speech about Jesus, and Santa doesn’t show up to save the day. If you look closely at that glowing mass that rises above the Whos as they sing, you’ll see there isn’t anything inside. Which could mean a whole lot of things, or could mean nothing at all, but what it means to me is that Christmas isn’t anything special in and of itself, not even for the Whos. Christmas is something you have to make happen, not through 'packages, boxes, or bags,' but through the act of warmth and love and kindness."


While I'm posting stuff, it seems fitting to include a song I recently discovered by Australian singer/comedian Tim Minchin. The religious among you might be offended by a mild, albeit rather good-hearted critique of some aspects of your worldview. However, despite his being on the wrong hemisphere for this sort of thing, his Christmastime sentiments resonate with me. (Incidentally, if you want to see me tear up, tie me down and make me watch the bridge starting at 3:51. By the time he gets to "these are the people who make you feel safe in this world", there's a better-than-even chance of waterworks!)


Maybe, as the Grinch realized, Christmas doesn't come in a store. Maybe it doesn't even have to come in a church or in any other institution. It comes in homes, among people and across generations, gathering in the cold solitude of winter for warmth and love and togetherness. It has a meaning that transcends culture and epoch, that reaches back through history into shared ancestry. A meaning that's bigger than assent to or denial of any theological statement. A meaning so universal it can only be described as human.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A google+ tagline, rejected due to too much sadness but deemed okay for my blog

The world is adorable and absurd and tragic. Like a puppy who can't find his way out of a laundry hamper...

...and dies of starvation.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sufjan Stevens, you goddamn thief

Here is "Svefn-G-Englar", from Sigur Rós's 1999 album Ágætis byrjun:

And here's "Vito's Ordination Song", from Sufjan Steven's 2003 album Greetings from Michigan:

It's even in the same key. Sufjan apologists, I dare you to argue that he didn't lift the chord progression, instrumentation, and feel for his song from his Icelandic superiors.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The ergodic life

Today I flipped off an old lady while biking to campus.

And I liked it. Even now, I'm feeling pretty good about our interaction!

The situation: I was pulling up on my bike to the last stoplight on my route to campus, a quiet intersection on a peaceful, heavily-forested street. The light had just turned red, and I came to a stop about five feet behind a fellow biker. A car, pulling out in front of us, slowed down as the driver—a woman in her sixties—looked at the biker in front of me with unusual intensity. As her face contorted into a disapproving scowl she pointed at the other biker, mimed with her hands onto her head, and mouthed "helmet". She was rebuking him for riding without a helmet!

I don't know what my fellow biker's response was; the light had turned green and we were both starting to pull out. But as I began moving to the intersection, she caught my eye and I realized I was about to get the same silent lecture: a chastening glare, a ridiculous miming with both hands, and an agitated mouthing of the word "helmet".

I hesitated a moment, an irritated scowl undoubtedly on my face, before deciding that my rage was sufficient for all men and that this aggression would not stand. I twisted to face her departing car and offered up my middle finger. My only regret is that, in hesitating that small handful of seconds, I may have missed my chance to make my salute within her field of vision.

Cue the obvious objections. Yes, I realize that riding without a helmet is relatively dangerous and that I probably should wear one. Yes, I realize I returned rudeness for rudeness. Yet I don't feel guilty. If you're a family member or a close friend, it's your prerogative to express your concerns about my safety. If you're a police officer and I'm in a state that requires helmets (I'm not), I'm willing to take a ticket or pay a fine without complaint. I'm more than happy to abide the confines of the social contract in which I participate. But nowhere does that social contract mandate that I be squawked at by an old hen who can't tell her children apart from strangers on the street.

After my retaliatory gesture, my mind jumped to a hasty generalization: where the hell does this old bag get off gesticulating a safety lecture to random passersby? Or, more particularly, at what point in your life do you decide it's your privilege to do so? When do you become Harrison Ford, yelling at the kids to get off your metaphorical lawn?

I bring this up not to deliver a mostly-unjustified diatribe on the generation ahead of me, but to discuss a fear that's been gnawing at me lately.

I've written here before that I'm afraid of growing old and dying, and that really hasn't changed. I'm coming to terms with many of the implications: I've pistol-whipped the first signs of fatness into submission, I'm steeling myself against the indications that my hairline is beginning its flight northward, and I'm learning to live happily under the soul-crushing weight of inevitable mortality.

But I'm terrified of the stagnation of my mind. I'm scared of my brain growing dull and inflexible. I'm worried that as I get older, I'll fall into the fallacy of assuming that life is ergodic: that the average over my life experience is indicative of the average over all people's life experience. I'm worried that at some point I'll become sufficiently comfortable with how I'm living my life that I presume to tell others to live it the same way. That I'll be the one shouting at other people's kids to put their helmets on.

Much of my fear springs from the fact that I have no practicable way of avoiding such ossification. The only way I know to combat this tendency is to continuously discard things I once thought I knew. If you think you've got something all figured out, it's remarkably difficult to learn about that something, so I try to take old conclusions and routinely put them up for review. So far, if I may be so bold, I think it's worked out pretty well.

But it comes at a cost, and don't know that I can keep this up forever. Sure, I'm aiming for an academic life, and an academic life should bring with it constant reexamination and reevaluation. But someday it'd be handy to be an expert on something. (I'm pretty sure search committees and tenure boards, not to mention students, will appreciate it.) And it's hard to become an expert when you're constantly dropping knowledge out the back of your mind in order to preserve your tabula rasa—assuming you can keep up the patience and mental sharpness to do so in the first place. If I want to achieve my dreams, it seems, I'm forced to compromise on something I consider a defining part of my character.

Maybe that's the price we pay for stability. Perhaps the cost of an established life is that I have to grow up, settle down, and entrench myself in a few worthwhile—yet finite—principles. Perhaps I'm doomed to become old. And stubborn. And stodgy. And, like it as not, to incite young, insufferable know-it-alls to make obscene gestures in my direction.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Diversity Order

I read this today, and I liked it so much that I decided to post it in lieu of a real entry. From the inestimable John Locke:

Since, therefore, it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions, without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth; and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly for men to quit and renounce their former tenets presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer, and show the insufficiency of: it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace, and the common offices of humanity, and friendship, in the diversity of opinions; since we cannot reasonably expect that any one should readily and obsequiously quit his own opinion, and embrace ours, with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another.

If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again, and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine all the particulars, to see on which side the advantage lies: and if he will not think our arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we often do ourselves in the like case; and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study.


We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavour to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information; and not instantly treat others ill, as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own, and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs.

For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds, or of the falsehood of all he condemns; or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own, or other men's opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay often upon very slight grounds, in this fleeting state of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than constrain others. At least, those who have not thoroughly examined to the bottom all their own tenets, must confess they are unfit to prescribe to others; and are unreasonable in imposing that as truth on other men's belief, which they themselves have not searched into, nor weighed the arguments of probability, on which they should receive or reject it.

Those who have fairly and truly examined, and are thereby got past doubt in all the doctrines they profess and govern themselves by, would have a juster pretence to require others to follow them: but these are so few in number, and find so little reason to be magisterial in their opinions, that nothing insolent and imperious is to be expected from them: and there is reason to think, that, if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.

So good.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Spring is a time for rebirth!