Going public

The adventure of life continues. As much as I plan and dream and try to anticipate outcomes, I will never know what lies around the next corner or down whatever road I choose to take. That’s the exciting and frightening reality of life. I wouldn’t want it any other way, however. As a Mormon, life was forced to fit into a master plan. Everything had a reason and a purpose. Screw that! Give me chaos and uncertainty. It’s much more fun. (Written by idiot brother, Trevor Bowen, in a rare moment of lucidity.)

Some months ago, Heather and I started meeting up with a group of atheists in Rochester. It’s led us to meet some great people and we’ve come to be more active in the freethinking community. Last weekend, we went to Syracuse, where I gave a speech on growing up Mormon and later we attended a debate at SUNY Binghamton.

We attended a debate on “Does God exists?” at SUNY Binghamton featuring Matt Dillahunty and Jay Lucas.

It is through the Rochester Atheists that I was invited to speak at the Freethinkers of Upstate New York in the Syracuse area. Prior to my speech on April 21, the group viewed the BBC documentary “The Mormon Candidate.” If you haven’t seen it, you should. Watch it. You’re better off spending an hour watching it than half the other crap that qualifies for entertainment these days.

The documentary is (in my opinion) fair to the Mormon church without pandering, with plenty of criticism from disenfranchised members, but with lots of primary sources from LDS ecclesiastical leaders and publicists. While I think their responses place them in a poor light, LDS leaders had plenty of opportunity to speak openly and honestly. The journalist, John Sweeney, doesn’t lob softball questions and he doesn’t let his sources off when it’s obviously they are lying. From one of the best reviews I read about the documentary:

The thing that makes this documentary amazing isn’t the amount it relied on ex-members, but the amount it relied on the LDS Church to be embarrassed about its past, to lie about its past and then finally to admit the claims that were being made.

The awkwardness and lying say a lot more about the LDS Church than any ex-member ever could.

Following the documentary, I spoke briefly about my own experience growing up in a fundamental religion.

fun·da·men·tal·ism noun fən-də-ˈmen-tə-ˌli-zəm

2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles <Islamic fundamentalism> <political fundamentalism> (Source: Merriam-Webster)

The new “I am a Mormon” TV ads try to portray Mormonism as a mainstream religion. The ads focus on people who are on the outlying fringe of the Mormon church. They aren’t representative of the homogeneous majority of Mormons. Converts expected to abandon traditions upon conversion.

I explained that I officially joined Mormonism at age 8, when I was baptized. I don’t remember much from the interview and preparation process except that my bishop (a man in his 40s who lived in our neighborhood) asked me whether I was living the “law of chastity” and I still can’t imagine what 8-year-old boy knows anything about sex. But somehow that was important.

I told the group about my upbringing in a Mormon household and tried to demonstrate how the LDS church has it hands into nearly everything members do all day, everyday: from the three-hour block of Sunday meetings to youth activities during the week; from Family Home Evening on Mondays to daily personal and family scripture study; from blessings over meals to family and personal prayers; from home teaching to temple attendance. In short, Mormonism demands a significant portion of members’ time and money and tries to influence members’ thoughts, diet, sex-lives, even their underwear.

I explained that controlling information has been one way the LDS church accomplishes this. On top of the four works of canon used in Mormonism, there is an approved gospel library of manuals. But over time those change and when the teachings of Mormonism change far enough, members have been are told not to use older resources that may contradict the latest version of church dogma. For instance, in 1978 Mormon leaders renounced the “Journal of Discourses,” a volume that contains many teachings of early Mormon leaders.

I explained my own reasons for leaving. Most of what I said is included in an earlier blog post: Exit from Mormonism.

During the Q&A, I was surprised that the questions targeted my personal experience and not the history or dogma of Mormonism. I answered questions about how my family reacted after I left and my relationship with them now. In response to other questions, I said that the Internet is making it harder for Mormon leaders to control information. The result is a lot more people finding out about the unsavory moments in Mormon history and the outright lies they are taught by the church itself. I was also asked what I would say if Mormon missionaries knocked on my door as well as whether I learned science (i.e., evolution) growing up in Utah.

I’ll be doing an encore presentation later this summer. Most of the Rochester group was unable to attend last weekend but several wanted to. We were already planning to go see the spectacle at the Hill Cumorah Pageant and we’re working out a meeting place so I can speak earlier that day, right in the Village of Palmyra. I’m looking forward to it.

I wasn’t able to use all my favorite quotes, but here are a few that I love relating to how non-theists see those who believe in the fanciful notion of a god:

By Johann Hari, from “Why should I respect these oppressive religions?” …

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don’t respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don’t respect the idea that we should follow a “Prophet” who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn’t follow him.

I don’t respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don’t respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of “prejudice” or “ignorance”, but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.

When you demand “respect”, you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.

By Carl Sagan in “Billions and Billions” …

The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

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