17 December 2012

Pants and pink boxers

Mormon civil wars are not common, but there are some rumblings from time to time over history or doctrine that can enflame passions. The events of the last week – centered on pants – have generated a little more than the usual excitement. What happened? About a week ago, several LDS women organized a Facebook event inviting women to wear pants to Sunday services as a statement about gender inequalities in LDS culture. Supportive men were invited to participate by wearing purple shirts or ties to church.

By about midweek, roughly 1500 people had joined the event – a sizeable number, but clearly one that represents only a very small percentage of church membership. Within short order, it appeared, opposition and disapproval bombarded the original Facebook site. Comments included statements that the event was silly or juvenile, or that women didn’t need to try to be like men, or that the type of clothing a sister wore to church didn’t matter in the eyes of Jesus. Some of these comments had received thousands of “likes”. In fact, I recall seeing the “like” count tick up quite rapidly as the page was automatically updated every few seconds. Clearly, a backlash was in the making.

Valid debate aside, things also got stranger and uglier. In a spirit of shocking vulgarity, one of the comments left by an antagonist on the original page advocated lethal violence against all “minority activists”. Then, about mid week, the original Facebook page that advertised the event disappeared. Some speculate that the page was bombarded with so many complaints that it was taken down. If so, this was an ironic outcome since the pants advocacy was really fundamentally about having a greater voice in Mormonism. Later, I learned from an on-line discussion (though this would be impossible for someone like me to verify) that a bishopric in Colorado held an emergency meeting in which it was determined that a list of women wearing pants should be assembled so that “worthiness interviews” could be conducted. Such a tactic, if true, sounds closer to totalitarian intimidation than anything Christian leadership should be involved in. Apparently pants had become a real pain in the ass for some in conservative Mormonism.

Now briefly on the matter of pants, the LDS Church currently has no set rules on what women can and cannot wear to church, except that members should make an effort to be respectful and reverent. Those are the official rules. Sometimes however, because of strong social expectations that tend to permeate Mormonism, something as innocuous as pants versus dresses can become a big issue for some Latter-day Saints. The doctrine and the culture can get mixed up in the minds of members such that things like taking the sacrament (communion) with the proper hand (righties only), and the color of men’s shirts when they officiate in priesthood functions (white is respectful), and the kinds of language approved for prayer ('thee' and 'thine' are in; 'your' and 'yours' are out) take on a life of their own. Those cultural practices become quasi-doctrine and if a member strays from them, they might get a visual or vocal pat-down from someone in their local congregation.

With these details behind us, why the orthodox backlash? I can only speculate, but at least I can use history and collective personal experiences to guide those speculations. First, Latter-day Saint culture is very uncomfortable with dissent and criticism. This derives from some key doctrine: Mormons are taught that the Church is perfect and that the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on earth. There is also a belief that the LDS Prophet, though human, teaches infallible doctrine, at least in settings like general conference. The cultural manifestation of this belief is that a fair amount of adulation goes on. Ordinary church members praise local leaders such as bishops and stake presidents, and local leaders revere the Apostles, and the Apostles bear public testimony of the Prophet and so forth. The corollary to this bottom-up reverence is that Mormon authority flows downward. Apostles are called by the Prophet, so they should be respected; stake presidents are appointed by general authorities, so they should be followed; other local leaders are called under the inspiration received by stake presidents, so they should be sustained; and so forth. This is all well and good if all of these men are really God’s servants and really teach nothing but truth.

Criticism doesn’t sit well with any of this. To criticize Church leadership at any level is to directly challenge their authority to act or speak in the name of God. More subtly, to fail to conform to specific Mormon practices (some rooted in official doctrine, others rooted more in culture as we’ve discussed above), shows a lack of faith in the divine calling of Church leaders or a lazy or disrespectful attitude. Constructive criticism or dissent has little role in this more orthodox version of Mormonism because God’s church is already reflective of God’s will and if changes were to be needed, they would happen through revelation through appointed leadership channels.

A second reason for the conservative backlash of the last week may stem from the very rigid views that orthodox Mormonism has about gender roles. This gets beyond pants and more to the heart of why some women organized the Sunday event in the first place. Gender is a really big topic in Mormonism touching everything from polygamy to working versus stay-at-home moms to homosexuality. In the case of pants, some of the backlash may have been a rejection of the notion that women do not already have all of the rights, privileges, and opportunities that they could ever need within Mormonism. True, I suspect that many women are perfectly happy in the roles and opportunities that are currently provided for them in the culture and doctrine of the church. But some are not. Some women may want greater leadership opportunities (currently women can only lead other women or children, never men). Some women may want greater validation if they choose to have a career and be a mother. Some women may want priesthood authority, just as the men have. A very enlightening perspective on some of the inequalities that women can face in Mormonism was put together on this website. Among the listed items are the lack of examples of women in scripture, the paucity of voices of women in church leadership meetings and general conference, and the vulnerable position that women in settings like confession and church discipline that are presided over only by men.

The final reason I’ll venture for this orthodox backlash against pants (again, very speculative on my part) may be due to Mitt Romney. Huh? Here is the line of reasoning: Mormons have historically been a very misunderstood and persecuted group of people. The early Saints were driven from settlements in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio and eventually settled in the barren Salt Lake Valley where they had the benefit of physical distance from hostile citizens. Shortly after settling in Utah however, the persecution ramped up again. This time antagonism came from the government, but now in connection with polygamy. A more peaceful balance between Mormonism and the rest of the world really wasn’t achieved until the 20th century, but even today Mormon doctrine is still regarded as strange by many people and many still know little about the church. So in part Mormon identity has become connected to the concept of being besieged and persecuted because of the long tradition of hostility directed towards the faith. Then arrives Mitt Romney recently in American politics, and Latter-day Saints finally have an unprecedented opportunity for acceptance. But, dashing the hopes of many Latter-day Saints, he is defeated in the presidential election. So putting these loose pieces together, the hypothesis is something like this: revolutionary doctrine -> historical persecution -> defensiveness -> a strong ethos of inter-group loyalty -> sour grapes about Mitt Romney + (dissent = bad) -> not happy with women in pants.


Given that I have a little bit of a rebellious streak, it was natural that I wanted to participate in pants-to-Church Sunday, even though I have not really attended Church very much since coming out as gay. I wasn’t brave enough nor warm blooded enough to go without pants, nor did I have a purple tie or shirt, so a blue shirt and pink tie had to suffice.

Well, it turned out that the whole event was a non-event in the sacrament meeting that I visited yesterday. Without staring down the congregation too much, I could discern only one sister in pants, and perhaps a single purple tie out of the corner of my eye. In my moderately-sized fairly sleepy town with several Mormon congregations, there was no revolution in the making. Some of the most noteworthy things during the meeting were the return missionary giving a talk while seated (he started feeling light-headed early on) and the billowing cumulous cloud of curly hair atop the young man that came by to offer me the sacrament. Oh, and there were my pink boxers, hidden evidence that I’m not quite the Mormon I used to be.

There is a degree of solidarity among the different groups that seek a greater voice and flexibility in Mormonism, whether they are academics, feminists, or gays. And because they share concerns about Mormon rigidity over gender roles, discontented women in the Church and disaffected LGBT Mormons share a common bond. Both groups tend to suffer from the insensitivity that bleeds into LDS culture from time to time, whether that is done in outright antagonism or because of the less insidious, but no less problematic, matter of ignorance. Some LDS women and gays are discontent because they feel that Mormonism is antagonistic towards their individuality. They do not exactly fit into the ideal family or pre-approved gender expectations.

Yet the dynamics of struggle in the church also differ for disaffected women and gays. For women, biological sex and gender are something that cannot be hidden, so a woman can constantly be a potential victim of scrutiny by others. If her degree of femininity is “lacking”, or if her life choices are somewhat different from the expected norm, she may be immediately open to criticism, even (? especially) from other women. However, the roles of women as mothers and wives are revered in LDS doctrine and culture, so at least her fundamental value as a human being is reaffirmed throughout Mormonism. For some women who tend to gravitate towards less “traditional” paths, the price of that affirmation may seem to be conformity to other’s expectations.

Human sexuality on the other hand is generally a very private matter and is often not discernable in a public setting. While the invisibility of sexual orientation can be a refuge for LGBT people determined to stay in the closet, it has also meant that gay issues have long been neglected in the Church. Issues that are neglected tend to only progress very slowly. Insensitive or even hateful comments may come from fellow Saints who have no idea that their words are being heard by LGBT people right next to them. The silence of sexuality tends to turn inward into cancerous emotions that suggest things such as: God does not love you; you are unworthy because you cannot change these attractions; you need to hide who you are so that no one ever knows this vile secret you carry. When Church members associate homosexuality with words like ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverse’, even the sense of worth of a gay person’s life can be questioned.

I will never know the struggles that women have faced or continue to face in a world that doesn’t always recognize their equality. As a man I can choose a career or fatherhood or both with little criticism from broader society. But as a gay person, I did not choose the sexuality that I have. It comes with its own set of challenges and limitations. A woman’s sex is constantly visible, like her pants at Church, subject to discussion and debate or maybe a smile from another person that sees beyond notions of set roles and responsibilities. My sexuality is largely invisible, like my pink boxers, but it is as close to my true self as all my other core attributes. Women in pants and men in pink boxers. Can’t the Church celebrate all of us?

03 December 2012

Decisions Decisions

Decision making isn’t my specialty. And unfortunately, I am in a season of life where there are some pretty important decisions to be made – the future of my marriage, employment, and where I will live. There is a lot that is out of my hands too. For instance, on the career front I can choose where I will apply, but the available positions and the eventual offers or rejections are beyond my control.

This is definitely a season of uncertainty for me. I have mixed feelings about uncertainty. On the one hand, uncertainty enables possibility. And possibility is the foundation for optimism about the future and a desire to work hard to achieve goals in life. Also, pleasant surprises come because of possibility. On the other hand, I am a scientist. I like data, and the more information the better. Maybe I have this deep seated (if naïve) notion that if I have enough information, I’ll know what to do. But scientists never have enough data…

Uncertainty is built into life. But, my discomfort now is that virtually everything about my future is uncertain – my next job, my wife’s job, the duration of my marriage, where I will live, where my wife and kids will live, and if I divorce, whether I will find a gay relationship that is mutually edifying for me and my partner. It has been sort of overwhelming lately. Big decisions like these tend to put us on certain trajectories in life. While sometimes those trajectories are reversible (finding a new home for instance), others like having children are essentially permanent. I’d like to make good decisions on these important issues.

I’m not sure how much I rely on spiritual mechanisms to help me make important decisions. Is intuition, prayer or consultation of holy texts helpful? I tend to be very skeptical of religious mechanisms now, though less so about broader concepts of spirituality. I also know that no amount of data can produce a roadmap for my life. I think my best foundation currently is simple principles like love, hard work, cooperation and optimism.

I’ve had a good life. My path so far has been unexpected, but it has been one of learning and opportunity, success and failure. The second half of my life may be quite different from the first half. But I hope there will be some common themes: learning, love, and pleasant surprises. Someone very close to me has encouraged me twice recently with the words, “things will work out”. I hope that is true.

22 November 2012

On Uganda

It is by no means a walk through a park full of rainbows to be gay in most of America, but there are still places around the world where the hand of repression is much more severe for LGBT persons. One such place that has been in the news periodically is the east African nation of Uganda. Since 2009, a legislative bill has surfaced periodically that threatens severe and sweeping penalties associated with homosexuality. The “Kill the Gays bill”, as it is also known, appears to be back on the table at the close of 2012.

I had heard of this bill before, but only today had I taken some time to learn more about the language of the legislation and its history in the context of Ugandan politics. A detailed discussion of the content of the bill and its evolution can be found on the Box Turtle Bulletin website, but here is a very brief synopsis of the alarming points:

- Homosexual acts are punishable with significant prison sentences, or in certain cases, by death.
- Homosexual acts are very broadly defined, so actions very far removed what most people would define as an overtly sexual act might be considered offenses under the language of the legislation.
- Parents, teachers, medical professionals or others who do not report people suspected of homosexual activity can be fined or jailed.
- Ugandan nationals who commit any of the acts encompassed by the legislation while abroad can be extradited back to Uganda for trial.
- Oppression of homosexuals in Uganda could increase even further in the future because the bill gives authority to an “Ethics and Integrity Minister” in the government (currently an anti-gay former Catholic priest) to create regulations to enforce the law.

It is clear in reading about this proposed legislation that it amounts to wholesale oppression of LGB persons and a potential witch-hunt of gay people and their supporters. It appears to be part of a broader problem of homophobia in Uganda, according to this Wikipedia summary.

While I do not generally think that one nation should interfere in the culture or politics of another, egregious violations of human rights are a different matter. Half way around the world, we might have little influence over the course of these events in Uganda, but perhaps adding our voices to the outcry over this legislation may help prevent enactment of this extreme legislation. A few ideas:

Write or call the US Ambassador to Uganda, Scott DeLisi.
- Write to the Ugandian Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, a strong supporter of this bill: rakadaga@parliament.go.ug
- Sign this on-line petition to urge the Ugandian President to veto any anti-gay bill passed by parliament.
- Write to your representatives in the senate or house to encourage the US to place diplomatic pressure on Uganda to protect human rights. Since we give monetary aid to Uganda, we have some leverage.

I am fortunate to live in a time and place where my very safety and mental wellbeing is largely protected from these shameful displays of hate and discrimination. Everyone deserves to be freed from oppression based on who they love.

14 November 2012

The tipping point

Last week’s elections were a historic moment in public acceptance of same-sex marriage. After thirty some consecutive defeats in state-level contests, all four states in which marriage equality was being contested in 2012 gave victory to advocates of same-sex marriage. Maine citizens overturned their previous rejection of gay marriage. In referenda in Washington and Maryland, the majority of voters affirmed the same-sex marriage laws passed by their state legislatures. Minnesota defeated an effort to incorporate a gay marriage ban into the state constitution.

These state-wide votes were not anomalies, but are part of a more gay-affirming environment that has very recently emerged in the public life of America. In the election last week voters also rejected an effort to unseat a Republican legislator who had supported the legalization of same-sex marriage recently in New York State. Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly gay person in the United States Senate. A half year ago, President Obama became the first president ever to give public support for marriage equality. Two recent federal court rulings on DOMA rejected discrimination against LGBT marriages. With repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy gays can now serve openly in the US military.

The political victories of November 2012 are remarkable in light of the long road that gay people have traveled to be accepted here in our broader American society. And they are remarkable because of their speed: our other national civil rights movements to gain full equality under the law and in the workforce have been a long uphill battle that even continues in some degree today.

The tipping point seems to be upon us now. I don’t expect that every legislative debate, court case or state initiative will side with marriage equality from this moment forward, but it is more likely than ever that the coming victories will outnumber the setbacks. Younger Americans are strongly behind marriage equality. My own 10 year old son (with whom I have had very few conversations about homosexuality) said as much as we listened to a discussion of gay marriage on the car radio today. Without any prompting from me, he expressed that anyone should be able to get married regardless of who they are. Yes, on the question of equality, it is that simple.

In a way the gay rights movement is only partly about the right to marry. I think the broader struggle involves the collective aspirations of a minority people that have long been brewing and the consciousness of a nation more ready than ever to make peace with homosexuality. This movement is not just about a list of rights gained when civil authorities recognize a relationship. It is about achieving a society where gay people can walk down the street hand-in-hand with a loved one without shame or fear. It is about the hope that gay Americans have that their public and private realities can be one. It is about freedom from marginalization, shame, criminalization, vilification, misunderstanding and prejudice. It is about a nation, mostly straight, that is identifying the pull of justice on its conscience and finally moving to take public action on that faith. There remains those opposed to this broader movement, but momentum is not on their side. As evidenced at the ballot box and in the other political signs of the times, the tipping point appears to have arrived.

Ref: New York Times, 8 Nov 2012, page P7

19 October 2012

Name Withheld

Going through some papers this morning (I’m an intellectual packrat and collect information on everything from microorganisms to politics to geologic maps), I came across an article from 2009 published in the LDS Church’s main periodical, the Ensign. Written by the sister of a lesbian who was in a same-sex relationship, this re-activated member of the Church wrote of struggling to support her sister while maintaining her orthodox beliefs. The devout sister in no way masks the overall self righteous tone of her writing: “I … agonized over my sister’s eternal welfare”, but concludes the article by stating that love is her principle obligation. In the text of the article, the actual name of the lesbian woman was changed and the article was signed “Name Withheld”.

I think I first began to notice short articles written from the Church perspective about gay and lesbian people in the Ensign some 5-8 years ago. I was deeply in the closet at the time. Never appearing very often, I would find one of these articles and my heart would race. I would sneak off to the bathroom or something to digest this new article. Someone was addressing in official Church media, a topic that for so long I was fearful of confronting. Now such articles seem remarkably sanitized and rote, but years ago it was about as far as I would go with homosexuality.

Name Withheld’s article exemplifies a few of the damaging ways in which homosexuality and gay persons are typically addressed in Mormonism. The first issue is sanitization. Many devout Mormons prefer to use the terms “same-gender attracted” or “same-sex attracted” (or worse the acronyms SGA or SSA), in place of gay or lesbian, because they associate the latter label of identity with the homosexual “lifestyle”. These are clinical-like terms, suggestive more of a pathological diagnosis than recognition that sexuality is as much about love, commitment and vulnerability as it is about mere physical and sexual attraction.

The second issue is that orthodox Mormonism prefers abstraction over personification on this issue. In the article I encountered this morning, neither the faithful sister nor her lesbian sister are named. Moreover, the lesbian sister’s partner, is not named either and is described at one point as a “friend”. Without names or faces, these individuals become more distant actors in the homosexual dilemma, Mormon untouchables in a way.

The last issue is the most general and it is simply that of silence. Homosexuality has been almost invisible in Mormonism for so long that I think it has fueled much of the shame that gay Mormons struggle with. I think this tendency was inherited from broader American society, where homosexuality has also been placed on the margins. For decades, more timid gays were relegated to secretive lives (often heterosexual marriages) and more proud gays were sequestered in their own neighborhoods and clubs. Homosexuality has long been the “love that dares not speak its name”.

The disappointing thing is that still, in the 21st century, Mormon culture has been painfully slow to openly talk about homosexuality and the lives and experiences of gay people. Yes, the conversation has recently accelerated pretty remarkably, but like other prominent social issues of the past, the Church has been late to the game. She has long left her LGBT members in dark places of shame. Even if silence has been replaced recently by greater discourse, there is still abstraction, sanitization and even misinformation.

The way that silence perpetuates shame deeply frustrates me. I feel that my own hesitancy about confronting my sexuality for so long was heavily influenced by Mormon silence. Homosexuality was rarely talked about, and if it was, it could never escape the cloud of negativity that comes from linking it to sin. Even to the present day, there are no happy gay couples that are spoken of or held up as role models in Church literature. That gay + in a same-sex relationship can = happy just doesn’t seem to be an option in orthodox Mormon discourse. As for myself, I have to take responsibility for my choice to stay in the closet for as long as I did, but the silence, shame, and sinfulness that surrounded being gay in Mormondom was no easy swamp from which to emerge.

Dear Mormons everywhere: please, no more articles with “Name Withheld”. We are real people with names, faces, families, accomplishments, mistakes and love. We don’t want to live in a world of shame. Most of us don’t want to be in your face, but we want to be confident and happy with who we are.

21 September 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part IV)

In a 2007 interview for a PBS documentary about the LDS Church, the late President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “[Our foundation] is either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.” As President Hinckley succinctly stated, Latter-day Saints are taught to accept the Church as a bundled package. There isn’t much middle ground (according to the official viewpoint at least). There is little room for people like me that are inclined to believe about 44% of Mormonism (1).

A lot of modern Christians do not regard belief as such an all-or-nothing proposition. They might look at the contradiction between a literal belief in Genesis in the Bible and current understanding of human history and evolution and choose the latter while enjoying the other benefits of their faith. They may not believe in a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus, but rather view that story in a figurative capacity, whose main purpose is to teach spiritual truths. Because of this doctrinal selectivity, they might be called ‘Cafeteria Christians’. Such fragmentation of belief really doesn’t exist in orthodox Mormonism. It isn’t where Church leaders want members to go.

Belief and compliance are pretty central to Mormonism. The LDS embodiment of belief is a 'testimony'. A testimony is both a public affirmation of belief and a very private affair. Any visit to a testimony meeting (traditionally held on the first Sunday of each month), confirms the central role that testimony plays in Mormon identity and mindset. In these meetings, individual Mormons from the congregation volunteer to share a brief witness of their beliefs to the whole congregation. Testimony meetings are a form of encouraged confirmation bias. When testimonies are shared, the verb ‘know’ is usually used in place of ‘believe’. Even young children will share statements before a congregation such as ‘I know Joseph Smith was a prophet’. Mormons are promised that their testimonies will grow as they share them. The testimony is sacred in Mormonism. It is nourished, protected and shared. Its arch nemesis is doubt.

Mixing testimony, LDS social dynamics, and the strong claims of divine Church origins creates a distinct Mormon fingerprint regarding belief. This common pattern of belief (with individual variation, of course) creates a number of interesting phenomena in Mormon culture. The first is an interesting linkage between faith and personal righteousness (typically termed ‘worthiness’). Doubt is viewed negatively, and while perhaps not a sin technically, it is seen in Mormonism as a weakness. Church leaders have taught that faith and doubt do not co-exist in the same mind simultaneously (2). Members seldom express doubt about Church teachings in public settings. A very prevalent adage says that ‘The Church is perfect but the members are not’. The Mormon linkage between faith and worthiness is also manifest in interviews between lay members and ecclesiastical leaders to determine worthiness to enter into the temples of the Church. In addition to questions about sexual purity, honesty, and abstinence from alcohol or tobacco in these interviews, members are asked if they have a belief in the restoration of the Church, a belief in the Godhead (trinity) and if they affiliate or sympathize with views or organizations that are contrary to official doctrine. So even though doubt can be an important prerequisite for refining human understanding, it is given poor treatment in Mormon culture. In my more skeptical moments, I find the heavy emphasis on certainty in Mormon discourse to be nauseating.

Secondly, criticism of the leadership is viewed very unfavorably in Mormonism. Because the upper hierarchy of the Church is seen as the connection between God and the rest of humanity, these men occupy a distinct position of respect in the theology. Their teachings are often seen as infallible because they come from God. Leaders may from time to time encourage this special deference to their position and viewpoints (3). Furthermore, in LDS temples Mormons make a covenant to avoid “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed”. At the very least, this culture of deference to authority tempers public expression of alternative doctrinal viewpoints in the Church. In Mormonism, revelation and doctrinal exposition are top-down processes which are closed to significant debate among the lay membership.

Another interesting effect of LDS belief patterns on member behavior is a tendency for some members of the Church to engage in self censorship (4). Because faith is linked with righteousness and one’s standing in the faith community, there is a strong incentive to protect the integrity of that belief system. Many members avoid reading “anti-Mormon literature”, a term that can encompass anything that speaks negatively about the Church. Other members may avoid specific academic subjects that are likely to contain ideas that threaten their testimony of Mormonism. Those could include anthropology, cosmology, evolution or archaeology. More subtly, much spiritual energy can be spent by some members trying to protect their testimonies. I speak of this from experience, having spent many years putting doubts aside, or giving uncomfortable doctrines the benefit of the doubt. A recent study found that BYU professors in fact, in large proportion, avoided researching topics that may put them into conflict with the Church (5).

A final curiosity about the fingerprint of Mormon faith is the phenomenon of apologists in the Church. Apologists seek to sustain and promote official or traditional viewpoints of the scriptures and Mormon beliefs and history by engaging in scholarship. Organizations such as FARMS produce academic works with the purpose of supporting Mormon ideology and history. While these academics may be trained in scientific methodology and do careful detailed research, they may not always approach their subjects in a scientifically-sound manner. Apologists tend to find evidence for questions for which they think they already have the answer. This type of scholarship can be more of a scavenger hunt that an objective enterprise that starts with more open-ended questions. The answer precedes the evidence, not the other way around as should be the case in science. My brief experience with Mormon apologist writings suggests that they can get lost in a forest of details. They may write lengthy papers abounding in footnotes about a single inscription on an ancient stone in Central America in search of credible evidence for Book of Mormon historicity, all the while ignoring abundant DNA and archaeological data that give little credence to a literalist Mormon view of ancient history.

All of the tough stuff of Mormonism – the polygamy and polyandry, similarities between the temple endowment and Masonic ritual, racist policies prior to 1978, multiple and incongruent accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, Biblical literalism, the historicity of the Book of Mormon – can put the traditional testimony in jeopardy. Of course members try to deal with these challenges in one way or another (as long as they are aware of them in the first place). Apologists may devise convoluted explanations to support implausible Mormon concepts and rank and file members may just put these questions on a mental shelf filed under ‘unknown’. But in all of the effort devoted to maintain the traditional testimony, I’ve come to believe that other mental values like open-mindedness, intellectual parsimony, and even common sense can get pushed to the wayside. If I had not been a participant in these mental gymnastics myself for some time, I probably wouldn’t be so critical about how more orthodox Latter-day Saints sometimes approach questions of truth.

Not all Latter-day Saints are literalists, and certainly not all are apologists. I am acquainted with individuals who express doubts (even if generally only in private conversation). Other people have let those doubts hold enough sway that they have more or less left the Church all together. But I think it is the core population of Mormonism – those who diligently attend the temple and most of the leadership in the Church – that really believes in the whole package. At least they have convinced themselves that they should believe, because a faithful Mormon is a good Mormon.

In my opinion this black and white view of the world, flavored with the supernatural, breaks down for many people with time. The exit from orthodoxy may start as a simple willingness to ask some hard questions about Church history or specific Mormon beliefs. If the skepticism is coupled with investigation, members are likely to encounter a lot of new information that is at odds with official positions of the Church. It can be time consuming (and perhaps impossible in some cases) to thoroughly investigate all the claims that challenge orthodox Mormonism. But for me at least, the list of concerns and improbabilities began to grow so long and comprehensive that it seemed ever less plausible that Mormonism as a complete package could accurately reflect ultimate truth.

I’ve beat up on Mormonism a fair amount in this post. However, I think it is important to discuss these weaknesses because they are seldom articulated in Church settings. I ask my readers to interpret my criticisms as manifestation of many years of frustration finally venting a little in a public setting, not as blanket condemnation of the Church. Personally, I spent too many hours being silent in church when I was uncomfortable with the certainty, skeptical about the miracles, or dissatisfied with the conformity. My cynicism here doesn’t reflect the totality of my experience with Mormonism; I’ve written briefly about some positives here. Optimism, hard work, service, honesty, sacrifice and a knack for attracting highly motivated and generous individuals are the better fruits of Mormonism.

In this series of posts I’ve discussed tensions between religion and science. Both endeavors make positive contributions to humanity. Belief is a powerful force in the human experience. It can inspire acts of charity. It can bring people together and fuel the flames of optimism. But when incongruent with the truth or used as a social or political weapon, it can lead to dark manifestations of human behavior. When religious tenets and empiricism are in conflict, I’ll side with science with the understanding that it too changes and grows with time and new discoveries. More so than the data it uncovers, it is the method of science that I think has the most to offer all of us seeking truth. The scientific method is self-correcting, progressive, and democratic. Because there is the tendency to hold tightly to the past, religion can use some good housecleaning. It is time to refurbish the improbable and unscientific rooms of religion for a less cluttered and more useful place for the soul to take refuge.

Notes:

1. Somewhat arbitrarily-chosen number. :)
2. See the Lectures on Faith and this article by President Monson.
3. For example, in 1985 Elder Oaks cautioned against “criticiz[ing] or depreciat[ing] a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true.” He stated the following year that, “The counsel against faultfinding and evilspeaking applies with special force to criticisms of Church leaders.” Lavina Fielding Anderson chronicled this and other similar statements by Church leaders that discourage intellectual non-conformity or criticism of Church leadership.
4. Censorship is institutionalized to a small degree in the Church as well. At least when I served in the 1990s, missionaries were encouraged to read only from the scriptures and a few pre-approved religious texts. Church members leading classes are admonished to only use a very limited set of Church-approved materials in their instruction. Such homogenization of Church instruction across the world is known as “correlation”, a somewhat Orwellian term and process that may be administratively efficient but one which may significantly suppress theological diversity within Mormonism.
5. Rose, P.M. 1999. The Zion university reverie: A quantitative and qualitative assessment of BYU’s academic climate. Dialogue 32:35-50. An eye-opening statistic from this report: when asked if “BYU professors should not conduct even sound research that may draw into question church or university procedures”, 66.1% of respondents from a randomly-selected sample of faculty answered that they agreed or strongly agreed.

09 September 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part III)

As I discussed in part I of this post, belief in irrational and improbable stories are part of virtually all religious traditions. Why do many believe in the improbable, the irrational and the miraculous? Does it serve a purpose individually or collectively for groups of believers? What is the mental and spiritual price one pays when the choice is made to no longer believe? Full treatment of these questions requires considerably more thought and discussion that I am able to give presently, but I want to explore a few ideas below.

One general advantage of belief is the social benefits it accrues. Common belief can be a nucleus around which shared identity is formed and maintained. Tight social cohesion is a major benefit of identification with a specific religious group. Belief in a common mythology sets a group of individuals apart from others and gives them a shared social identity. I understand and appreciate this benefit of religion. It is one manifestation of our clannish nature as human beings – much like club membership, sports allegiance, political affiliation, or even sexual identity.

But why are miracles – events that are irrational, untestable, and, for most of us, foreign to our individual experiences – such a consistent part of religion? Why does religious sociality incorporate the supernatural? Miracles seem to be a way for the human mind to deal with the unknown. I suppose there is a natural human aversion for uncertainty. After all, the unknown is unsettling and disturbing. We can easily imagine how unsettling ancient uncertainties were for our ancestors: When and where will the herds return next season? When will a natural calamity strike next? Will this illness kill me or my family? In our modern world, we have exerted such a degree of control over nature that food, water, shelter and safety are consistently available for most of us. But even so, the psychological landscape in our more affluent societies still remains full of unknowns today: employment stability, financial strains, relationship troubles, and health care, for instance.

Of course uncertainty is a certainty in life. But for the religious mind, miracles point to God, who is the lone unassailable place of safety. God is a rock, a lighthouse, a Savior, a refuge, a comforter. These kinds of descriptions of God, devoid of uncertainty, abound in Christian scriptures. God ultimately may not remove the uncertainty inherent in our lives, but rather overshadows it. Without the link to God, the inexplicable can be too unsettling. Linked to God, uncertainties point to a power and understanding greater than our own. God renders death, illness, separation, loss, pain, and cruelty tolerable.

Interestingly, superstition (and religion more generally) may have evolved in connection with humankind’s long struggle over millennia of evolution to wrestle control over an unsympathetic natural world. In a fascinating history, Kirkpatrick Sale outlines the cultural advances in prehistoric Homo sapiens (starting about 70,000 years ago) and argues that art and magic may have evolved out of a need or desire for humans to exert further control over their environment (1). Over thousands of years, loss of prey populations (over-hunting) and continued changes in environmental conditions (a massive volcanic eruption ~71,000 years ago; loss of hunting grounds or prey abundance due to advancing Ice Age glaciers) brought stresses to human populations that were developing culturally and were increasing in population size.

As an ecologist, I find Sale’s connection between the history of human cultural development and external environmental changes intriguing. Here is how he summarizes the religious implications of the explosion of art in southern Europe starting some 35,000 years ago: “Whatever kinds of magic and ritual were practiced with the sculptures and paintings, of which we can only have a small idea today, they all involve some form of human effort to have control over nature … with symbolic art, and particularly the charged rituals in deep caves, humans became involved in a new relationship to the animal world, or at least were attempting to extend their old relationship in a new way … How fateful, that: the attempt to be independent, or to think of oneself as independent, from an ecosystem on whose bounty one is entirely dependent for sustaining life itself is delusional, and can be maintained only by tortuous ideas of self-importance and wrathful practices of self-enhancement.” If Sale’s argument about the ecological context in which religion evolved is reasonably accurate, I find the resulting irony fascinating: though religion’s initial function may have been to increasingly dominate the outside natural world, it eventually became a system of beliefs that emphasized its actual inferiority to even higher powers.

Many thousands of years after the explosion in cave paintings by Stone Age humans, there still seems to be a near universal pull in humankind to the divine. Most Americans today, for instance, still believe in a higher power. While the modern American religious landscape is diverse and complex, a surprising percentage of people, in fact, cannot bring themselves to accept the scientific evidence for evolution. In our scientific age, many of the answers to the ancient mysteries that religion supposedly once addressed can now be found in natural phenomena. Science may not have erased the need for spirituality, but it does offer compelling alternatives to many of the old religious explanations. Why then does belief in improbable miracles persist when such events are more reliably explained by natural phenomena?

Perhaps the strongest reason may just be tradition, cultural inertia if you will. Miracles were born in times when scientific explanations were much less available to most people. They became incorporated into religious texts and became part of the narratives written about the divine. They served some utility too, because they could be a way of enhancing God’s greatness and our ultimate dependence on him. But in more recent times, they may come more as appendages to the more meaningful body of religious ideas – mythology, ethics and self-empowerment – we may tend to focus on today.

Another answer, I suppose, may be provided by a simple psychological phenomenon I learned about as an undergraduate in an introductory psychology class: confirmation bias. This is the tendency to pay particular attention to new information that sustains a person’s belief systems. We all do this. The mind creates a filter on incoming information. We seek out, remember, and transmit information that confirms beliefs that we already have formed. On the other hand, new information that contradicts our current belief structure is dismissed, forgotten, trivialized or ignored. If, for instance, we grow up learning that evolution is an evil and erroneous theory from a young age, we are likely to pay particular attention to any pieces of evidence that confirm our belief in this viewpoint.

But tradition and confirmation bias cannot explain it all. Though there are likely many people who uncritically accept religious claims, many religious adherents are also deeply aware of the contradictions that sometimes arise between elements of their faith traditions and more scientific sources of information. They realize that their religious worldview is not always congruent with our modern understanding of history, anthropology, or cosmology. For some followers, the compulsion to continue belief in the improbable may then come from a deeper need to stay connected with a religion that permeates family life, community life, or perhaps even employment. Any threat to such a deeply held belief structure is more that just a challenge to an academic understanding of some remote facet of the universe; such threats can be threats to family cohesion, individual identity or purpose, or one’s place in a faith community. For a few people, it may be easier to sacrifice some measure of rational thinking than to abandon a belief system that brings other social and psychological benefits.

This thought process presupposes than an individual views his or her religion as a single package that one is to accept or reject in totality. In all likelihood, this may not be a very common way of thinking for most modern religious adherents. I assume that there are many people who are comfortable accepting much of their religious tradition while rejecting ideas that are improbable (like miracles) or otherwise unacceptable (like sexism) to them. But blanket (or near universal) acceptance of religious doctrine is relatively common in Mormonism. I’ll explore this phenomenon more in the upcoming final post in this series.

Notes:
(1) Sale, K. 2006. After Eden. The Evolution of Human Domination. Duke University Press, (quotation is from p.61).

31 August 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part II)

Science and religion, perhaps more than any other disciplines of the human mind, concern themselves with the search for truth. Sometimes they often come to radically different conclusions. Yes, they sometimes ask different questions, but their differing destinations can also be explained in large part by different processes of inquiry.

Science is based on empirical research. The process begins with a question, usually born of some set of observations made about the natural world. Humans are generally curious creatures and have long asked about natural phenomena. In science, these questions, which initially may be narrow or wide in scope, are later framed as testable hypotheses. Hypotheses themselves are usually quite specific. They are educated guesses about the mechanisms that create observable patterns. As an illustration (using my field of ecology), one might ask why a tree species is distributed only at certain elevations in a particular mountain range. Hypotheses are then developed: seasonal snowpack limits its upper distribution or competition with another tree species sets its lower distribution. One or more experiments (a set of observations or manipulative interventions) are designed so as to lend evidence to two or more alternative outcomes to the experiment. Ecologists like me love to do field work, so given the hypotheses mentioned above I might set up a clearing experiment to test for evidence of competition or add or remove snow to test for its effects on seedling success (a challenging experiment indeed given the size of the organisms of interest!).

Importantly, good experiments are not structured to automatically favor one alternative hypothesis over another. They are also most helpful when their results can be cleanly interpreted. My mountain experiments with the tree species would need to be conducted so that the experimental methods do not bias the outcome or so that my interpretation is inadvertently stymied by some confounding factor. Broadly speaking, science is not supposed to start with an a priori answer to which subsequent inquiry must be subservient.
Science is guided by a few other key principles. First, science proceeds as hypotheses are rejected. Technically, hypotheses are never proven, rather they are rejected. Second, data and conclusions obtained by good science are repeatable. Incorrect hypotheses will be repeatedly rejected by independent experimentation. A series of experiments testing the same phenomenon with the same approach and under the same conditions should yield the same result. If results differ, the original ideas need to be modified. There are limits to our ability to repeat experimentation, such as the impossibility of rewinding the clock to replicate the exact conditions of a previous time period. But if not for every tiny detail, there are abundant opportunities to verify the general phenomena elucidated by scientific inquiry. Third, science is based heavily on probabilities because it frequently relies on statistics to reach conclusions. Since probabilities govern interpretation, again, hypotheses are not technically irrefutably proved.

Finally, science is pretty democratic. By this I mean that the process of scientific inquiry and the discoveries of science are available to everyone. Limitations of access to expensive instrumentation being one exception, anyone can design and conduct an experiment or gather a set of observations to address a question of interest. Likewise, much of science is conducted in an open manner so that the results of experiments, mathematical models, and observational studies are accessible to all. Scientific results are often published following peer-review (an imperfect though workable process) and then are made available to other scientists and the public for scrutiny, further evaluation, rejection, or modification.

Those basics form the backbone of the scientific process. From here, there are minor philosophical variations on how hypotheses are treated and how science proceeds. Previous theory and data informs the scope of experimentation and the methodology used to address specific inquiries in science. However, the best scientists are open to new results that challenge their existing knowledge about the world. Data are always > theory. In this sense, science has less of a tendency to create a hierarchy of truth: a sound experiment that overturns a well entrenched idea would be accepted even if the original idea came from a scientific superstar. There are no prophets in science with an unassailable conduit to truth. Although incorrect paradigms can persist for some time in our understanding of the natural world (the rejection of continental drift in geology until about the 1960s is a good example of stalled progress), science can also be punctuated by paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that rapidly push forward inquiry by providing a new framework of understanding (1). Creativity, hard work, collaboration and intelligence are generally the main ingredients of successful science.

Empirical research, like any human endeavor, has limitations. One fundamental issue concerns limits to observation. Tools such as microscopes, telescopes, satellites, and high speed computational statistics extend our capacity to measure and model phenomena at smaller and larger scales than are possible with human senses, but they only extend perception so far. Another limitation to empirical science is that some concepts are largely untestable. “Hypotheses” such as the existence of supernatural beings or miracles cannot be adequately addressed with typical scientific techniques. Even for many natural phenomena rarities abound. It may be logistically impossible to repeat experimentation or observation of extremely rare events. Yet this does not mean that all religious claims about the supernatural are off the hook intellectually; the lack of ability to test certain religious ideas empirically also means that we can never reject natural explanations in favor of the supernatural.

Religion seeks knowledge by a wide diversity of means. In many religions, ancient scriptural texts derived through others’ interactions with the divine form the basis of acquiring truth about life, history, human purpose and moral responsibilities. Many religions place importance on a living authority – a prophet or teacher – whose role is to transmit divine information. Yet other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, focus on individual experience with truth. Meditative practices enable direct communion between the religious student and the divine (truth). Mormonism has pieces of all of these basic means of discerning truth.

While religion can have deep inspirational value for human beings, its several pathways to knowledge each suffer from significant weaknesses. First, ancient religious texts have cultural biases and tend to have limited scientific rigor because they were composed in less scientific times. Add to these translation issues, indeterminable textual origins, uncertain dating, and incongruence between textual claims and empirical findings and their reliability as a source of infallible truth becomes very suspect. Moreover, we generally know nothing about the authors of ancient religious texts outside of the information presented in the works themselves; are these people reliable sources of information? Have their words and experiences been changed by others unintentionally or intentionally? At best, concepts in religious texts should be treated as hypotheses, subject to debate or scrutiny like any other claim.

Individual experience and spiritual teachers are also common means of acquiring religious truth, but they suffer heavily from the vagaries of subjectivity. The experiences, thoughts and inspiration each religious seeker obtains are invariably influenced by culture, individual circumstance, and personality. Religious seekers and proponents can hold more ennobling traits like compassion, selflessness and mental discipline, but they can also be subject to greed, deception, the quest for power and jealously like the rest of us. In my view, I assume that spiritual experiences are principally cerebral experiences, so how can the inner thoughts of another person ever be verified? There is no ability to challenge spiritual interpretation that comes through authority the way that an open scientific process allows. For these reasons, accepting others experiences as divine truth of direct relevance and applicability to me, something I am hesitant to do.

Theoretically, any of the fundamental features of the scientific process – observation, hypothesis generation, experimentation, and replication – can be applied to some religious questions. In fact, in the Book of Mormon a notable series of passages encourages non-believers to “give place that a seed may be planted in your heart …”, a sort of experimentation with faith in religious concepts (see Alma 32:27-42). The reasoning is sound: if the religious claims are true, then they experimentation should yield consistent and positive fruits. But caution is still warranted: if in taking a placebo, I feel better, without careful scrutiny I would not know that there was some mechanism other than the substance of the pill itself that had its effect on me.

More to the heart of a skeptic’s point of view, there are instances where scientific approaches can be applied to religious claims. I find these exciting, because they are one way to evaluate the reliability of religious sources. The most prominent of these questions in Mormonism are specific historical events. Claims in the Book of Mormon such as Israelite journeys to the Americas and cataclysmic destruction of ancient cities are subject to verification by archaeology and studies of human phylogeny. A subject better left for its own post, scientific evidence seems relatively scant for many traditional Book of Mormon claims. DNA evidence, for instance, is highly unfavorable towards the popular LDS view that many of the Native Americans descended from Middle Eastern populations several thousand years ago (2).

Religion need not have antipathy towards science. Skepticism about supernatural claims is healthy. Unfortunately, some elements in religion are hostile to scientific inquiry. Some biblical literalists, for instance, hold that scripture comes directly from God, and is therefore intellectually unassailable. Scriptural teachings are like a perfect scaffolding around which other elements of truth must eventually fit. Such scaffoldings can often demand a lot of mental gymnastics. If they are not based on truth, they will eventually fall. In my view, science and religion best co-exist when religion humbly accepts that many questions about life and human experience are better addressed by empirical inquiry. Religion can be a powerful force in teaching ennobling ethics and encouraging the human spirit to flourish. It oversteps its bounds however, when it deals with evolution and not ethics, linguistics and not love.

Notes:
1. See Kuhn, T.S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
2. Simon Southerton presents a very interesting discussion of DNA and the origins of Native Americans in this Mormon Stories podcast. Similar information can be found on his blog. The DNA issue, in my view, is extremely troubling for many of the traditional claims of Mormonism.

26 August 2012

When the improbable is compelling (Part I)

Diving into any religion reveals some eye-opening beliefs and history. Angels, demons, virgin births, visions, healings and the like accompany other components of faith traditions like love, commitment, honesty and ritual.

The supernatural is as much a part of Mormonism as it is of most other religions conceived before science had a broader influence in society. In principle, one can have a practical Mormonism without the supernatural – a religion of family, Christian values, and patriotism – but the Church wouldn’t even exist today without the supernatural. The fluid communion between Joseph Smith’s mind and a foreign universe of gods and angels is the genesis of everything else that has emerged in Mormonism during the last two centuries.

The biblical tradition is rich in miracles and the supernatural. On top of these, Mormonism has added other miraculous events. Miracles from the Book of Mormon and early Church history include ocean crossings by ancient prophets traveling to the Americas, epic battles, angelic visitations, and golden plates translated by divine inspiration. In fact the Book of Mormon, not to be outdone by the long established preeminence of the Bible in the improbable, has perhaps even more miraculous events than its companion scripture. For instance, whereas Christ’s birth in the Old World was met by a new star appearing the sky, in the Americas it was also announced by a night of continuous illumination even though the sun set that evening before his birth (3 Nephi 1:15-21).

I grew up loosely as a Catholic with little pressure from my family or community to dive deeply into Biblical literalism. I knew about miracles but felt little compulsion to give them too much deference. When I thought about it, of all the Biblical miracles I was probably most accepting of those tied to Jesus because I was always impressed by his character and divinity. As a kid I was inclined towards science, biology and paleontology especially. That interest later matured into degrees in science. A short time before college, however, I learned about Mormonism and joined the Church. It was my first encounter with an intense theology that doubled as a way of life. I liked the focus on truth and certainty in the LDS Church and the impressive fruits I observed in my friends. It was not too long, however, before I encountered the miracles and literalism of Mormonism. Right from the start, in fact, investigators learn about Joseph Smith’s miraculous vision of God and Jesus as a 14 year old boy because this event is central to Mormon belief in the need for a restoration of Christian authority. Being impressed with the Mormon promise of access to truth and a community of well-intentioned and accomplished individuals, I was inclined to give the Church the benefit of the doubt regarding miracles and literalism as I became a new convert.

If I could have sculpted Mormonism at this time, I think that I would have probably regarded at least some of the miraculous in Mormonism figuratively – almost surely so with creationism and the Garden of Eden. But it was not my church. With more experience, I learned that the Mormon supernatural was literal, not just symbolic. Adam and Eve were real individuals who lived on a paradisiacal earth 6000 years ago; God really did send a flood that covered the whole earth in the days of Noah; and Joseph Smith actually did see a resurrected Jesus Christ with a tangible body in a forest in New York State in 1820. Joseph and his successors wrote of these Biblical, Book of Mormon, and more modern miracles with the same certainty as they would tell you of the sun rising each morning from the east. To be sure, these supernatural events often also held deeper symbolic importance in Mormon theology, but fundamentally they were and are also regarded as literally true historical events.

As a maturing Church member, to deal with this uncomfortable literalism, I needed a strategy. I would have a hard time being a devout Mormon if I dismissed each of these miracles as figurative events, so my mind seemed to have developed two mechanisms. The first was to spend less time thinking about scriptural events that seemed unlikely to me. Instead, in my religious commitment, I wanted to focus on the comfortable doctrines: love, self-improvement, and the intellectual components of LDS theology. As I read scripture, I found that I wanted to interpret passages in such a way as to make them more consistent with more rational beliefs. I often read them more with the mindset of an academic.

The second strategy involved some intellectual acquiescence on my part. To illustrate, I would meet a miracle with the following kinds of thoughts: ‘That seems improbable, but it certainly could have occurred. With God anything is possible.’ Considering each miracle in isolation, this strategy worked reasonably well since I thought it would be virtually impossible to disprove specific events that transpired such a long time ago. They may not have seemed rational and they may not occur today, but I could make some mental space for their possibility. I could also maintain more belief if I did not look too much to outside sources for alternate interpretations of miraculous phenomena. Though it could work for one passage of scripture at a time, taken in sum however, this strategy of miracle excuses eventually became unsustainable. A few too many improbabilities accumulated can look much more like outright impossibility. The intellectual compromises I entertained to accept literalism promoted a fractured view of reality and caused me to spend too much time straining at details while the broader landscape was ignored.

My trouble with literalism came to a head once on my mission, about two years after I joined the Church. Growing up with a strong interest in biology and fossils, belief in biological evolution was natural for me. I could not have foreseen how much trouble evolution was going to cause me in my attempts to be a faithful Mormon. I had had faith crises before during my first year in the Church, but such intellectual-spiritual clashes become intense on an LDS mission. Your job as a missionary for most waking hours of each week is to continually proclaim, with no uncertainly, your witness of the Church’s divine origins and to do all you can to convert new members and help current members retain their faith. There is very little room for doubt.

I am unsure exactly what triggered the evolution crisis, but I vaguely recall it being something I read in a Church periodical. Perhaps it was some flippant dismissal of evolution that appears in Church discourse from time to time (1). At some point I took my evolution trouble to my mission president. The mission president was a retired dentist, a grandfatherly man who had both a compassionate demeanor and a surprising streak of fire and brimstone zeal. I don’t know what I expected to hear from him about the Church’s position on evolution – maybe a confirmation of what I had heard during a talk by a Church authority in the Missionary Training Center at the very start of my mission – that indeed the Church had no official position. After all, my new-found church supposedly embraced all truth regardless of its origins. Why would it oppose a theory for which so much evidence existed?

My hopes were dashed with the mission president. In our conversation I learned that he was a full fledged creationist – of the variety that believes not only in the fallacy of evolution, but in an earth aged in thousands, not billions, of years. He even mentioned the old non-sense that the extinction of the dinosaurs occurred because of Noah’s flood. He directed me to a book in his office downstairs written by a former Church leader, Joseph Fielding Smith. Smith, son of the 6th president of the Church and grand-nephew of Joseph Smith, would later also become president of the Church briefly in the early 1970s. In the 1950s, as a member of the Church’s high-ranking Council of the Twelve, he wrote a scathing denunciation of biological evolution in “Man, His Origin and Destiny”. This book had no sympathies for belief in a 4.6 billion year chronology of earth history or any intimation that modern humans descended from earlier hominids. As his son-in-law Elder Bruce R. McConkie, another prominent Mormon leader, would also believe, before the days of Adam and Eve there was not even death for any living organism (2). I read some of Elder Smith’s book and was deeply disheartened. Was this the official position of the Church? Was this the “appropriate” framework in which I had to interpret biology? (3)

In connection with this spiritual crisis, I had two divergent experiences. The first occurred in a church building adjacent to the Mission Home where I lived at the time. One Monday evening I was caught up in this internal debate about evolution that had been swirling around in my mind. Not having the resources or lengthy Church experience to better research the position of the Church, I seemed to have been stuck reconciling poignant anti-evolutionary views, my natural instinct to believe in evolution, and the overarching Mormon imperative to be obedient to the teachings of Church leaders. In the conflict on this one night in the church building, I made a painful decision that I would accept belief in a young earth even though it seemed repugnant and humiliating. It was a sacrifice I would have to make to be in favor with God. Perhaps in this one moment – one that would not last very long at all – I had fully acquiesced to orthodox Mormonism.

The second experience was in the mission home some time later, on the same floor where Smith’s dreaded book was kept. It was the redemption from my own intellectual fall. Alone in prayer, I felt that God accepted my belief in evolution. There was a warm feeling and a restoration of calm. I cannot recall many more details than that, but the result seemed to be that I felt accepted as an exception to what at least some other Mormons believed. Though anti-evolution remarks made in Church classes or found in more formal Church publications would bother me for years after my mission, from this point, I felt more secure in my own belief on this issue.

Evolution was a warning to me of the strength of Mormon gravity on the intellect. It was a huge issue for me during my early days in the Church, but one I was able to better resolve with time. In spite of this small victory, I perhaps became complacent about the other abundant improbabilities that I would encounter with orthodox Mormonism. In my brief intellectual acquiescence to creationism, I was following a pattern that I would also unfortunately do with my sexuality: I deferred to faith and authority more than conscience or evidence.
Evolutionary tree of life according to the influential and controversial biologist, E. Haeckel. 1866. Generelle morphologie der organismen.



Notes:

1. See, for example, a BYU address given by Elder Russel M. Nelson in 1987: “…some without scriptural understanding….have deduced that, because of certain similarities between different forms of life, there has been an organic evolution from one form to another. Many of these have concluded that the universe began as a ‘big bang’ that eventually resulted in the creation of our planet and life upon it. To me, such theories are unbelievable. Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary? It is unthinkable!”. Elder Nelson repeated his analogy as recently as April 2012: “Yet some people erroneously think that these marvelous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’”.

2. Elder McConkie’s popular book, “Mormon Doctrine” can be found in many Mormon households. It contains both anti-evolutionary and anti-gay teachings. I believe that Elder McConkie also played a role in crafting the current version of the Bible Dictionary in the LDS scriptures. That dictionary also makes reference to lack of any death before Adam’s fall.

3. Pronouncements about evolution by Church authorities do vary, though most leaders have viewed evolution unfavorably. Many such statements have been compiled into a book, “Mormonism and Evolution” by W.E. Evenson and D.E. Jeffrey, 2005, Greg Kofford Books. I was unaware of the detailed history of the debate over evolution in the church as a young member and missionary in the 1990s.

13 July 2012

A thought

Religion can be a useful stepping stone to compassion and truth. It tends however, to be a poor final destination.

27 June 2012

Seattle pride

Two weekends, two pride parades. I don’t want to give the impression that I am on some sort of tour; it just happened to be convenient to attend pride in Seattle in coordination with family visits last weekend. My oldest son (10 yrs old) also attended the parade and a breakfast gathering of gay Mormons held before hand. I didn’t do any explaining prior to the parade, but he is a smart kid and must have answered any imperative questions for himself.  I explained that dad is gay earlier in the year. This news he took in stride. At the parade, he seemed most excited to collect the myriad free items tossed into the crowd.

Pride parades evolved in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots that took place in New York 43 years ago. While the riots were a violent assertion of gay frustration and pride, today’s parades are peaceful (if sometimes boisterous and highly suggestive) celebrations with an eclectic mix of corporatism, music, dancing, politics and a lot of color. In my ignorance about almost all things gay for such a long time, I had no knowledge of the events that occurred at Stonewall until very recently. I found this excellent American Experience program on-line and highly recommend it for some historical perspective.


19 June 2012

Portland pride

On Sunday, I attended only my second pride event. It was a parade in downtown Portland. And…I not only attended, but marched in the parade as well. My friend Jon (who blogs here) and another person invited me to march with other Latter-day Saints under the auspices of the Mormons for Marriage group. I was hesitant for a while because I consider myself pretty distant from the Church lately, but our group actually ended up being a mix of (probably) mostly straight Mormons in more Church-like dress and some gay (ex)Mormons. I just dressed casually and waved a rainbow flag.

The crowd was generally very welcoming and cheered our group of a few dozen marchers. The cheers were properly for the brave LDS folks supporting us gays, but once in the parade you have to smile and march. There were a variety of expressions from the crowd – a few tears, smiles and, I’m sure, some looks of incredulity. The straight allies who marched in our group really deserve kudos for having the courage to support same-sex marriage publicly, or at least to show their love and support to LGBT people if they personally don’t support gay marriage.

This is a picture of the banner that led our group.
This was one of the best signs by far and received audible comments from the crowd.

Here is a short video I took as we marched (evidently, I am not so good multi-tasking):

video


16 June 2012

Damn us

I’ve fallen in love with another male twice in my life. Nothing has quite shaken me like those experiences. There is a lot that could be said about my feelings and my growth in connection with falling in love, but the salient point here is that those experiences are the clearest indication to me of what it means to be gay. In the course of falling in love, the full suite of my attractions was engaged. I know that being in love is as much an emotional and spiritual response to another person as it is any sort of physical reaction. In fact, I might use the word visceral to describe it, not in a carnal or debased sense, but in the way that every fiber of a person’s being (to borrow a Mormon cliché) feels something deep and fundamental. The times I fell in love are an invaluable reference point from which I’m able to understand my attractions. To me then, the idea that homosexuality is merely a manifestation of unnatural sexual desire is only an illusion, an over-simplification of experiences that are profound and even sacred.

This is the context in which the orthodox Mormon position on homosexuality must really be examined. The discussion is properly about love, not about lust. It is about personal growth and fulfillment of human potential. It is about dignity and the ability of individuals to define their own identity. It is about giving of oneself and receiving of another in a relationship that is best suited for gay persons. It is not about sin. The conversation cannot merely be a version of ‘it’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t act on it’. Such statements are simply platitudes repeated over and over again in LDS discussions of homosexuality.

This is the general Mormon message on homosexuality today: gays are acceptable before God, even noble, if they “struggle” with “same-gender attractions”, but they’ve crossed the line into sin if they “act” on those persuasions. Gays need to fight homosexuality because it is a temptation, a weakness, and not an integral part of their eternal being. They need to believe fundamentally in the wrongness of homosexuality. Homosexuals need to fight the “natural man”. Gays really – though the leadership wouldn’t phrase it this way – need to fight themselves.

The roots of the tension between homosexuality and Mormon thought are doctrinal (though the conflict is also manifest culturally). In Mormonism the nuclear family, with a heterosexual union of husband and wife at its head, is the theological and social center of the religious experience. This is the ideal family organization designed for all people. Though not elaborated on much by current leadership, God himself is a biological male with a wife (actually, wives) in an exalted heterosexual union. We are his direct spiritual children here on earth with the principal goal of advancing along the same path that He took in the past towards glorification. Glorification (“exaltation” in Mormon terminology) comes through increase (reproduction). Either here or in the next life, everyone is supposed to eventually be married to the opposite sex or they have failed the principal reason for their existence. Families are discussed in Church meetings, families form the basis for much of Mormon advertising and proselytizing, and families are the central focus of LDS temples. In fact, such is the rigor and frequency with which the ideal family is discussed in the Church, that perhaps even Jesus is secondary in importance in Mormon theology. It is through this one specific family structure (man + woman + children) that earthly happiness is obtained and the ultimate objective of this current life – securing eternal life with God – is realized and perpetuated. In fact, in LDS thought the principle reason for Earth’s creation even, with its millions of species, is for one species - for us. If Christianity can be said to be a strongly anthropomorphic religion, Mormonism is a significantly accentuated variation on the theme.

In the LDS cosmology I have attempted to sketch out, there is no place for gay love or gay relationships. For Latter-day Saints, heterosexuality is built into the universe. Same-sex relationships stop with friendships or direct family relationships. Sexual activities are off limits. Non-sexual physical affection, especially between two males, is also limited, though this is a modern cultural norm and it was not prohibited socially a century ago, even among devout Mormons (1). Finally, any emotional bonds between two people of the same sex are ultimately supposed to be subservient to the emotional connection one makes with an opposite-gender spouse. So, all of the ways in which a gay person can be attracted to a person of the same sex – physical, sexual and emotional – have proscribed limits in Mormonism. Sex is the big one, however, and is the area with the most severe consequences officially.

Because heterosexuality appears to be the only type of attraction that exists in the eternities, Latter-day Saint leaders teach that gays will not be tempted with same-sex attraction in the next life if they are faithful (either celibate or heterosexually married) and repentant of any homosexual behavior (2). Therefore, the concept of homosexuality doesn’t really exist in the realm where it matters most (eternally); it is only a mysterious wrinkle in our current imperfect and fallen world. Same-sex attractions will somehow disappear for the faithful once they die. It is unclear how this will happen, or even if that promise is consonant with the general Mormon understanding of how this current life’s experiences relate directly to the next life: “that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.” (3). For gay people, is this really an appealing doctrine? Personally, I am not sure that I want to be changed in such a fundamental way in the next life (if there truly is one). Sure, the less desirable traits in my personality would be good to dispense with, but my capacity to love? I don’t want to find myself a stranger in my own soul or disconnected from the same-sex bonds I make with people in this life.

For many gay Mormons, the fundamental heterosexuality of all of Mormon reality leaves a nearly intractable tension between the essence of who they are as persons and the belief structure of the Church (4). Dizzying tales of conversion therapy and suppression of homosexual “urges” notwithstanding, virtually all gay people really are gay and cannot change their orientation. By being forced into a universe in which heterosexuality is the only option, currently and forever, gays are left as theological strangers in a worldview that cannot accommodate them. And if there is no place for what are the most fulfilling of relationships for gay people, then there is only a shadow of happiness, a shell of existence.

Mormonism thus damns us homosexuals – in the doctrinal sense of the word – because it prohibits us from the possibility of a life that is most likely for us to achieve relationship fulfillment. Church doctrine on sexuality is damnation for us because it caps our ability to grow spiritually and emotionally. It limits our chance to find sexual and physical fulfillment. It prohibits us from attaining what is supposed to be the pinnacle of Mormon achievement, a deep and abiding union with another person. Why do gays leave the church? If it is not because of un-Christ-like ridicule from insensitive members, intellectual dissonance, or intolerant leaders, then it is likely because of this theological damnation. God just has nothing to do with being, thinking, or acting gay. God is not gay and never has been and never will be. This perhaps is at the heart of gay Mormon despair and sorrow. Many gay Mormons internalize their theological otherness and their emotional separation from the divine. It is this doctrine that pits our loyalty to self against the official position of the Church. Though most gay Mormons will eventually choose either the self or the Church to be supreme in this matter, the conflict is a spiritual fire through which eventually every LGBT Mormon must pass.

There is really nothing that has brought me to a place of sorrow in life quite like being in love and not having the opportunity to form an uninhibited romantic same-sex relationship. I understand that there are many people, regardless of sexual orientation or religious background who go through life never experiencing reciprocated love or who have circumstances that keep them from a relationship that they desire. But heterosexuals always have the chance to form these relationships and experience love in all of its physical, emotional and spiritual manifestations. There are no legal, doctrinal, or cultural barriers to their relationship potential inside or outside the Church.

Does the orthodox Mormon position on homosexuality benefit anyone? Is it even harmonious with other tenets that are essential to the religion? As I understand it, the whole purpose of commandments and restrictions in Mormonism is to keep individuals from doing that which is harmful to their spiritual, emotional or physical health. It is fair then to ask if the LDS position on homosexuality actually achieves that. I think it accomplishes the opposite. It humiliates, confuses, degrades and exiles gay members. It keeps them from developing more fully the valuable personality attributes essential to thriving relationships such as selflessness, sacrifice and compromise because they cannot attain an intimate long-term stable relationship with a person of the same sex. It inspires spiritual self-doubt, facilitates dishonesty, and can generate an emotional distance between a gay person and his or her associates. It leads to a higher incidence of mixed orientation marriages than is likely to be the case if same sex relationships were allowed in the Church. It restricts sexual fulfillment and expression of non-sexual physical affection.

Having extricated myself from the constraints of Mormon possibilities, I have the freedom, at least mentally, to explore the idea of a relationship with another man – one in which I can give fully of myself, as much as my potential permits. A same-sex romantic relationship seems likely to be the kind in which I can give and receive the most that a relationship between two un-related people can offer. Though I do not know what my own future holds, I want all people to have the opportunity to form relationships that work best for them, free from social, legal and theological roadblocks that have little real value. The ability of two consenting adults to express love is a basic human right.

I believe the Church would benefit from seriously examining its position on homosexuality in light of its other doctrinal views about human happiness and human progress. Church leaders need to have the courage to recognize that their prohibition on homosexual relationships is unjust to a significant number of God’s children. Institutionally, Mormonism has shown theological creativity and adaptability in the past. It may take some unprecedented creativity to incorporate same-sex relationships into Mormon theology, but it may be a necessary step if Mormonism is to rightly claim that it is a religion for everyone. On an encouraging note, among Church membership, understanding, dialogue and acceptance are growing. Perhaps an increasing number of Latter-day Saints now diverge from their leadership in full support of their gay friends and family members. Meanwhile, back in the narrow corridors of doctrinally pure Mormon sociology, however, gays continue to be damned.

Notes:

1. See Quinn, D.M. 1996. “Same-sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans. A Mormon Example”

2. Homosexual behavior is universally interpreted in Mormonism to include same-sex sexual intimacy, but is more ambiguously interpreted for other types of affection such as kissing or holding hands.

3. Alma 34:34

4. There are many possible solutions to the tension between accepting homosexuality and Mormonism. In many cases, however, an imbalance arises in the reconciliation. Either the member (1) renounces homosexual behaviors to be in line with the Church, (2) continues to “commit” homosexual acts while still being a devout believer and cycles through a likely painful process of confession and repentance, or (3) decides that they must abandon some or all of the Church’s teachings to accommodate their conscience. I don’t mean to imply that acceptable resolutions are unattainable, rather that all gay Mormons confront the tension at some point and that a balanced compromise between homosexual desires and Mormonism is probably exceedingly rare.

20 April 2012

A MoHo* Moment



* For the uninitiated, "MoHo" refers to a Mormon homosexual. This blogger claims credit, in part, for the origin of the term.

08 April 2012

Alone

Today
It may seem like I've lost it all
But I've won peace with me
And right now that seems
Like the most important gain.

This
Journey I'm taking within may appear
Incomprehensible to you
Who have never acted on stage
With a script not written for you.

Alone
I notice it is a beautiful spring day
The river flows swiftly
Sweet blossoms are bursting
The air is warmer than it has been in many months.

Matters
Of confusion and emptiness
Will be resolved with time
By God or by nature, either way.
As me alone, I am better for each of you.

18 March 2012

If only every family had a gay child

If only every family had a gay child
The cancerous shame
That begs for deception,
That builds walls of loneliness,
That even takes young lives,
Would be gone in a generation
Because no falsehoods can survive
A parent's love.

12 February 2012

Tender ironies

I don’t believe very strongly in Mormon doctrine anymore. As I have written on this blog before, I still find much good in the teachings of the Church. And of course, I very much like many of its current and former members. While it is neither necessary nor productive to turn over every doctrinal cobble, I have suffered enough of my unease over Church history and policies in silence, and no longer feel as compelled to self-censor my thoughts.

This week, a three member panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier judicial finding that Proposition 8 in California is unconstitutional. Of course, further legal wrangling is all but certain, but along with Washington State being on the cusp of legalizing gay marriage, this ruling was one more small step towards marriage equality in the US. The following was part of the majority opinion:

“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for ‘laws of this sort’.” Further the court determined, “The People may not employ the initiative power to single out a disfavored group for unequal treatment and strip them, without a legitimate justification, of a right as important as the right to marry.” (1)

In response to the ruling by the Ninth Circuit, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a short statement on Tuesday that reads in part:

“The Church…regrets today’s decision. California voters have twice determined in a general election that marriage should be recognized as only between a man and a woman. We have always had that view. Courts should not alter that definition … Millions of voters in California …expressed their desire, through the democratic process, to keep traditional marriage as the bedrock of society …”. (2)

Obviously, the Church is welcome to express its opinion on the merits of gay marriage. Superficially, press room responses like the one above give the impression that the Church holds a simple and popular position. However, like so much in Mormonism, one needs to dig a little deeper to find the deep ironies that sometimes characterize the deceptively simplified narrative the Church offers. In other words, some historical context is needed.

Point 1: The Church repeatedly avows its loyalty to the US Constitution, but in its response to the judicial ruling by the Ninth Circuit, it is being selective. Its statement lauds the initiative process but attacks the judicial functions of balanced government. In doing so, it joins, at least in spirit, other conservatives who decry the actions of “activist judges” with whom they disagree. The complete system of governance in the United States involves not only means for the majority to enact law, but institutions and concepts such as checks and balances that are designed to protect the rights of the people. Fundamental civil rights, especially minority rights, are not intended to be subject to the whims of the majority. The judiciary plays a prominent role in preventing discrimination by the majority. (3)

Point 2: The Church is on shaky ground invoking the supremacy of the democratic process in matters of public policy, because its own structure and modus operandi are far from democratic. The Church is a theocracy, ruled by 15 unelected men who are the final voice in matters of doctrine and policy. Exercise of power at all levels in the Church is supposed to be done in love and righteousness (a laudable goal), but regardless, Church governance flows structurally from top to bottom. It is not democratic. Even if we ignore the silliness of a theocratic institution lecturing on democratic principles, I wonder what the Church will argue when the day comes that the voice of the people in a particular state approves gay marriage. Public opinion on gay marriage is changing, and it is changing very quickly.  Prop 8 did not pass by an overwhelming majority in California.

Point 3: In its very active political opposition to gay marriage, the Church is actively campaigning against the legitimate aspirations of a minority people. In seeking marriage equality, gays are not interfering in the liberties of others, but seeking only to advance their own pursuit of happiness. The Church’s own history of persecution as an unpopular minority should invoke, at a very minimum, deep empathy for LGBT persons who are fighting for equality under the law. Driven from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, then to Utah, attacked by mobs, and having suffered terrible hardships in the course of pursing their faith in the 1800s, Latter-day Saints are well acquainted with the injustices perpetrated by intolerant neighbors and hostile laws. Nineteenth century Mormons by and large wanted to be left alone to pursue their way of life; twenty-first century gays by and large want to be left alone to love who they love.

Point 4: Recently Church leaders have linked the advance of gay marriage to threats to religious liberty. These arguments are as much of a smokescreen as a genuine concern. Elder Dallin H. Oaks (4) and others (5), for example, may claim that gay marriage infringes conservative religious freedoms, but eliminating the opportunity for gay marriage infringes the rights of other religious groups and individuals to perform marriages that they believe are equally acceptable to God. The religious freedom argument is a twisted one: the Church is seeking freedom from the beliefs of others, not freedom to define its own beliefs. As long as the Church is not forced to perform gay marriages, change its doctrine, or alter its own practices in any substantive way, its religious freedom is not infringed. Of course there may be some legal complexities and some need for compromise to both implement legal gay marriage and preserve freedom for certain religious viewpoints, but blanket prohibition of gay marriage is not acceptable. Hearing a wealthy conservative religion with a public voice disproportionate to its actual membership size crying victim is a little pathetic.

Point 5: Finally, there is great irony in hearing appeals for “traditional marriage” from Latter-day Saint leaders. As much as Church leadership may prefer to whitewash its own controversial history with sexuality, polygamy was a major component of Mormon theology for decades before the practice gradually faded away during the late 1800s and early 1900s following intense public disapproval and persecution from the US government (6). Moreover, monogamous heterosexual marriage – the way much of the rest of modern western society might have defined “traditional” marriage until recently – isn’t a completely accurate expression of current Mormon views of marriage anyway. Theologically, polygamy remains a component of mainstream LDS views because a man can be sealed to more than one woman during the course of his life as long as only one of the women is alive at the time – polygamy is thus believed to exist in the next life (7). Joseph Smith, the first LDS President and founder of polygamy among the Saints, had many wives, some of these women being already married to other men at the time he courted them and one being as young as 14 years old (8). Thus, early Mormons practiced both polygamy and polyandry. Brigham Young and subsequent leaders of the Church continued polygamy for several decades and defiantly challenged laws that prohibited the practice (9). Unfortunately much of this history occurred under a mantle of secrecy and deception so it is perhaps not even well known to most Latter-day Saints. Whether we’re talking about the 1800s or 2012, early Mormon sexuality represented some very unconventional experimentation with marriage! The Church’s position on gay marriage may be consistent over the short span of time that it has been debated openly, but its broader sexual history probably wouldn’t be deemed “traditional” to most people today.

Why the Church has invested so much energy into public opposition to gay marriage is beyond my comprehension. I can only speculate. But the ironies inherent in its political opposition are blatantly obvious to anyone who takes a careful look at Church history, doctrine, and culture. My conclusion is that the Church is exhibiting a bewildering disregard for its own history and culture in the process of publicly defending its position on gay marriage. Perhaps for those of us who have taken the courage to oppose the Church on marriage equality, our frustrations with its position are tempered by this thought: these ironies remind us that we are on the right side of history.

Notes:

(1) Ninth Circuit opinion.
(2) LDS statement.
(3) The desegregation of schools mandated by Brown v. Board of Education is an excellent example of judicial sanity in the face of majority discrimination.
(4) Elder Oaks’s speech at Chapman University.
(5) An open letter from several religious conservatives.
(6) Official Declaration 1, contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, comprises the 1890 manifesto by President Wilford Woodruff that banned polygamy, at least in the US. Despite the modern tendency to interpret this document as a revelation, and perhaps to believe that polygamy ended abruptly upon its reciept, the history is not so clear cut and polygamous marriages continued into the 1900s. For instance, polygamous LDS colonies were created in northern Mexico even though the practice was illegal since 1884 in that country. The Church acknowledges these post-manifesto plural marriages and that phasing out of polygamy was a gradual process. See Quinn, D.M. 1985. LDS Church authority and new plural marriages, 1890-1904. Dialogue 18:11-107 at this link.
(7) The term sealing refers, in part, to an eternal marriage in LDS theology. Theologically, polygamy is enshrined in LDS doctrine in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
(8) This site contains very detailed information on early plural marriages in the Church including source documentation for most of the claims in the document. Most of Joseph’s additional marriages appeared to have occurred during the last few years of his life.
(9) Quinn, D.M. 1985. LDS Church authority and new plural marriages, 1890-1904. Dialogue 18:11-107.