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Sunday School for Atheists

I realize that community is important. Mormonism has always provided me and my family a ready-made community—a quirky, somewhat dysfunctional community, but no human community is flawless after all. Leaving Mormonism has meant leaving that community behind (in spirit at least since I attend Sunday services to support my family).

A recent Time article, Sunday School for Atheists, highlights the growing trend of atheistic parents banding together to support each other in teaching and living their values. The most consistently held values among the diverse atheist population seem to be free and critical thinking. Parents find it challenging to cultivate these values in the midst of a culture that instead values faith in traditional ideas at the expense of personal exploration and determination. This would probably be a non-issue in a largely non-religious culture.

As a parent, I worry that community (or the lack thereof) might be the determining factor in my children’s choices regarding their belief systems. Human beings are social animals. Going it alone is difficult for most. People like to fit in to a group, if possible. Thinking like your peers is a good way to fit in, so stray thoughts and doubts may be subconsciously pruned when they seem too aberrant from cultural norms. I don’t want that for my girls, but I do want them to have a community.

So I’m in the market for a community that supports human development without restricting free thought, exploration, and expression of what it means to be human. I intend to visit the local Unitarian Universalist congregation after New Years when my family’s LDS ward will presumably change its meeting schedule. The UU congregation seems like a good place to start my search.

In the meantime, I like what I heard in these videos that I found through their website (from the UU FAQ website). The first is a bit cheesy, but it gives me a flavor.

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Mistakes Were Made

Does this scenario seem familiar?

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been saved—for from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”

The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.

(Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), via The Situationist)

Quite a few prophecies have failed, yet people still believe. We’ve expected Jesus to come again for two thousand years, for example. It seems like people have been saying “any day now” forever, at least since the day he died.

Why don’t we collectively say “You know what, we were wrong. Christ really isn’t coming.”? Even if Christ really is coming (the big tease), disbelief would be a reasonable reaction after two millennia of disappointment. Why does the biggest failed (so far?) prophecy in history fail to cause widespread disbelief?

One reason is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort we feel when there are two conflicting beliefs fighting it out in our minds. For example, if I believe myself to be an honest person, but I cheat on my taxes, this conflicting information will cause cognitive dissonance. I will probably do one of two things: I could either stop cheating on my taxes, or I could rationalize my dishonesty, perhaps by saying that I worked hard for my money and I deserve it.

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions — especially the wrong ones — is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways. (Ibid.)

In the case of the Second Coming, we don’t want to believe that we could be duped. “I’m not the kind of person who could fall for silly stuff like horoscopes, crystals, doomsday cults, and the like. But Christianity is different. Christianity is real. If it weren’t, I would see right through it because I’m not easily fooled.”

Personally, I have spent a lot of time in my life telling people that I knew that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, that Jesus loves us, and God has a plan for our lives. I spent two years doing this full time. I spent countless hours saying this and hearing it repeated in church services. Much of my life has been spent inside the walls of a church. I estimate that I’ve spent at least one full year of my life in church meetings. The church received 10% of my earnings before taxes, my whole life, every last penny. After committing so much time and energy to my beliefs, it was uncomfortable to think that I’d sacrificed all that for a lie.

I’m no fool, or so I like to tell myself. If my beliefs were false, then I’d have realized it a long time ago. False prophecies? You’re reading them wrong. Polygamy? It was God’s will. Racism? Talk to God ’cause I didn’t make the rules. Christianity borrowed from previous mythologies? No, the mythologies borrowed from Christianity. Contradictions in Holy Scripture? Errors in translation. Unanswered prayers? Maybe the answer was “No” or “Wait”, or maybe you weren’t faithful enough for God to speak to you.

I rationalized from morning till night. Evidence against my beliefs surrounded me. I constantly battled to preserve my self image as an intelligent, independent thinker. The truth was that I spent my intelligence in rationalization and followed like a sheep because I was too proud to admit that I didn’t see the Emperor’s clothes. I was the very thing I pretended not to be. I held on to my beliefs kicking and screaming until I was forced to see their absurdity.

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What Is Real?

When I was very young, not even in school, a recurring nightmare troubled my sleep. A wolf with demonic eyes would stand on its hind legs and chase me relentlessly. I still feel the shadow of fear to this day when I think about it.

I shared my nightmares with my mother. She suggested that I pray about it, asking Heavenly Father to remove the nightmares. I prayed as she suggested, and the nightmares went away. I felt comforted that God was answering my prayers.

I now sit in church meetings as an outside observer. I often ponder on what brings people to sit in church for three hours on a Sunday. There must be some real benefits to induce them. What is real about the religious experience despite the unreality of God?

Comfort is one answer. There is real comfort available in religion. I received comfort when I prayed that my nightmares would end. Mourners receive real comfort when they imagine their deceased loved ones received into a paradisaical afterlife where they in turn will meet their dead when their time comes. It is reassuring to believe that an all-powerful being is directing our lives for our good.

Community is another answer. We flock with birds of a feather. Religion brings like-minded people together on a regular basis and encourages them to become a community. Human beings are communal creatures, and religion helps to fulfill our need to feel connected with others.

Transcendent experiences are a third answer. Adherents of religions throughout the world have real experiences involving overwhelming peace and a sense of connection and transcendence. These experiences fulfill our innate need to find a greater meaning for our life than brute survival and reproduction.

Answers to our questions are yet another benefit of religion. Curious by nature, we hate not knowing the answer to a question. Real, truthful answers are hard to come by, but we can be sated with answers that have the semblance of reality. Why does the universe exist? No one rightly knows, but it’s nice to have an answer that assuages our curiosity as long as we don’t scrutinize it too closely.

Direction is the final answer that I will mention. Without goals to work toward, life becomes a tedium of recurring cycles without end. Without purpose, we languish in a meandering existence that goes nowhere in particular. If our life doesn’t serve a greater purpose, then why live at all? Religion gives us ready-made goals to work for. We don’t have to scrounge around for our own.

Religion provides real benefits irrespective of the truthfulness of its claims. The faithful often cite these benefits as evidence in favor of those claims. A placebo has no curative benefit beyond the patient’s belief therein. The benefits of religion cannot easily be ascribed to the existence of deity. Perhaps belief in something—any plausible lie—will do.

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Family First

I felt smugly self-satisfied that I had gotten the right answer. I turned in my essay to my eighth-grade English teacher. She had assigned us to write on how we defined success. I felt sure that my classmates had written about schools and careers and other worldly pursuits. Instead, I took the moral high ground with the help of a Prophet of the Mormon church.

My church leaders repeatedly emphasized this teaching: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” (Benjamin Disraeli as paraphrased by President David O. McKay) The church prepared all young men to become husbands and fathers. Our whole lives should be centered around marriage and fatherhood, just like our Heavenly Father.

I wrote about being a father and husband because of the church’s teaching. I considered any other goal petty and trivial. I had written about the only worthy goal. I fantasized that my teacher would recognize the moral superiority of my goals and applaud my wisdom. That never happened. I probably received a good grade based on the mechanics of the essay (i.e. thesis, support, support, support, conclusion), but I never heard from her about its content.

All the same, Disraeli’s catchy phrase shaped how I feel today. I still believe that my wife and children should receive my first attention. They should expect to receive the best of me, leaving the leftovers for my other pursuits. My fondest hopes lie in the continued health and happiness of my family. My family gives me my greatest joy. I look forward to time with my wife and girls at the end of the day. They keep me going.

I could have learned this attitude from some other source, but I didn’t. I learned it from the Mormon church.


I immediately noticed the motorcycle decor in his modest home. My missionary companion and I had been in his neighborhood so we decided to visit this inactive member of the congregation we served. We had heard that he hadn’t attended church in years, so we decided to see what we could do to bring him back into the fold.

Motorcycles didn’t interest me, but I asked him about them anyway in the interest of building relationships of trust. For the next couple of hours he regaled us with stories about his new Harley-Davidson Softail. I heard about truly insane hill climbing trials. I picked up new phrases fraught with wisdom like “Loud pipes save lives,” and “There’s only two kinds of riders: the old and the bold.” He made something of a convert out of me by the end. When I later served in Buffalo NY, I made sure to buy a 75th anniversary t-shirt from the Harley-Davidson/Buell store.

After two hours, we finally got down to business and asked him why he didn’t come to church anymore. His answer forever changed my attitude about church service. This older man had converted to Mormonism early on when the LDS church wasn’t well established in the area. The church asked a lot of its members back then. It was routine for him to spend almost every night away from home on assignments for the church. After a while, this began to wear on his family life. He decided to leave the church to save his family.

We gave him some unsatisfactory excuses about the church not being like that anymore and how his attendance would strengthen his family. I didn’t think the excuses would convince him, and they didn’t. He thanked us for the visit, and sent us on our way. I left his home convinced that he was making a short-sighted choice, but he had planted a thought in my mind.


My wife was taking classes at the university to finish her degree. I watched our new daughter on the nights Lacey had classes on campus. I was serving in the Elders Quorum presidency and feeling the pressure to be away from my family on the nights Lacey didn’t have classes. Home Teaching always needed to be done. I needed to go out with the missionaries once a month. We needed to make visits to members’ homes as a presidency. Various congregation members had little emergencies that needed attention. I needed to attend the ward’s monthly temple night. We needed to meet with the Elders in the quorum for monthly interviews. The list goes on.

I probably could have been away from home most evenings, but David O. McKay and the Biker from Hamburg NY whispered from the back of my mind. A lot of the things that I could have allowed to take me away from home seemed less important than being with my family. I began to build up a boundary between my family and church service.

I had always heard that serving the church also brought blessings to the family. Serving God would call down blessings from heaven on my home. My leaders intended this to justify all the hours spent away from family in the service of the church’s needs. The tension between this idea and Disraeli’s “No success in public life can compensate for failure in the home.” forced me to find a balance between the two ideas. I decided to serve in the church, but only if my personal attention to a church job was more important than time with my family. I felt justified by God in saying no to uninspired activities. A night of wandering around with the missionaries trying to find someone to talk to didn’t often make the cut.

While serving in the presidency, I attended a world-wide church broadcast for priesthood leaders. The church leaders taught us that we needed to find balance between church service and family time. They expressed sympathy for the demands that church service placed on us and gave us general guidelines on how much time each calling should require of us. This broadcast brought me peace of mind: they agreed that we need to set boundaries to preserve balance.

The Elders Quorum President at the time had a young son himself, but often left his home to serve in his church calling. I know that this was hard for his wife, but they were conscientious people and did what they thought was best. I wished he wouldn’t, but I knew that the President would pick up the slack when I refused some church service. I wished he would delegate and allow someone else to take care of things more often. Instead, he took a the-buck-stops-here stance. I could admire that in a way, but I thought he lacked balance between family and church life. If he spent more time with his family, I would have felt less guilty about prioritizing my family, but he had his own choices to make, and I had mine.


We entered the Stake President’s office dressed in our Sunday clothes with our little one in tow. The Elders Quorum President had moved away, and the Stake President had asked us to meet with him. We sat down in his wood-panel office and made small talk for a few minutes. Getting serious, he called me to serve as Elders Quorum President and asked if my wife would support me in serving.

With the example of the previous Elders Quorum President in mind, I told him that I would serve in the calling but that I had some concerns about the amount of time it might require. I told him about Lacey’s classes, her callings, and the other demands on my time. I said that I worried that I might not have enough time to serve well, but I would do my best. Then he did something unexpected.

He thanked us for coming in, said that we did the right thing by bringing our concerns to him, and told us he would be in contact with us if he had anything further for us. I left his office a little stunned. I felt like I had just turned down a calling—very taboo. Faithful Mormons do not turn down callings. At least they shouldn’t. I sat with my wife and daughter in the car for a long time. We talked about going back to his office and telling the Stake President that we took it all back: we new that I could serve faithfully in the calling. We eventually decided to leave it in this inspired hands. I started the car, and we left for our home.


The LDS church promotes itself as family centered. It has been a mixed blessing for me in that arena. I’ve focused on only one way that Mormonism has influenced my family life. What effects, good and bad, has the LDS church had on your family?

(Here’s a humorous antidote for the terminal sappiness of that commercial I just linked to, if you feel the need.)

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I’m Not Angry

I never really got angry. Who could I blame? Every individual Mormon that I could think of seemed to be sincere. We all did what we thought was best. If we withheld information, we did it out of concern for the fragile testimonies of others. Milk before meat and all. I got angry at God for a while, but I couldn’t sustain anger against something that I thought was imaginary.

Even now, I’m not angry at the LDS church members and leaders. I still believe in their sincerity. The only people I have reason to blame are Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Both seemed to have abused their power for personal gain. Perhaps others in church leadership have done the same. I don’t know. I find it hard to be angry at dead people, too.

Almost every Mormon does the best they know how. Like worker ants, they take care of their small tasks largely unaware of what the whole community is doing. Even the queen of the ant hill just does her one thing: laying eggs. There isn’t a central mind that can take responsibility for the actions of the whole. Individual Mormons might not intend to deceive anyone, but the cumulative effects of all their individual labors deceives.

The church as a whole hides from its dirty laundry. The idea that God directs the LDS church prevents most Mormons from admitting the mistakes of the past. The church has painted itself into a corner. I has taught its members to expect nothing less than a church lead by God. The leaders of the church must never lead the people astray. Yet the members discover more and more each day that the LDS church doesn’t meet their high expectations.

Leaders carouse with and marry other men’s wives. They lie to the public about polygamy. They prophesy falsely. They change scriptures. They never publicly disclose their financial dealings. They disagree about fundamental doctrine. They intentionally distort the presentation of church history in order to make it as favorable as possible. They try to silence critics.

All this and I’m still not angry. Call me naïve, but I still think most of them believe in the divinity of the LDS church. I still believe that they think they act in our best interest. “We know the Gospel is true, so everything we do to build up the kingdom is justified.”

I have a hard time empathizing with those who get really angry. For those of you who went through some anger while leaving the church, what got you angry? What do you think about your anger now?

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