I have always been a big believer in the right to choose. And I’m not talking about abortion. (As a sidenote, as an extension of my belief in choice, I also happen to be pro-choice pro-choice. Glad we cleared that up.) I see so many people claiming to have made a choice in one way or another, when really they’ve hardly considered the other options at all. Being unaware or ill-informed about one side of an issue does not lead to choice – it leads to dogma. Continue Reading
How time flies. My brother-in-law, who I first mentioned here (and then again, here and here) is back from serving his two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Better known as the Mormons. It was great to see him again and he has changed so much. His mission was a Spanish speaking one so he has returned completely fluent in Spanish. Pretty cool. While I obviously don’t support missions, I do think the church does an amazing job with these young people. My hubby served in France and remains fluent in French to this day. The church, very deliberately, takes these young men (there are some women missionaries but they are overwhelmingly young men who begin their mission at the age of 19) at a pivotal point in their lives and
immerses indoctrinates them even further into the teachings of the church. They are shielded from the world (no tv, no music, no movies, no shopping, no fun) and do nothing but read scriptures or teach scriptures for every waking hour.
Well, it happened. Just like I knew it would. Except it was worse than I had imagined and I felt more uncomfortable than I might have predicted.
For the past few weeks, Paisley has been asking me a lot about religion and prayer. It all started when she asked why her Grandpa prays before eating. We explained to her that some people thank God before they eat. We told her that some people believe in God, and some people don’t. When asked what God was we replied that he was a man who lives in the sky and takes care of you. I thought that was an age appropriate way to explain a complicated (and let’s be honest – confusing) concept. Ever since then she has been asking more questions. I explained that I used to believe in God but that after looking at the evidence I decided that I didn’t any more. Which led to a conversation about evidence. We talked about believing in flying ducks versus flying pigs. I went through each example, offering evidence for and against each claim. At the end of our conversation she stated that “I don’t believe in a man in the sky or that pigs can fly.” I had a bad feeling about going to see the in-laws for Easter dinner.
I was interested to read some of the comments to my recent post On a Mission. I thought my approach was very tempered and a good way to open a dialogue. Nothing feels less comfortable to me than never addressing a major issue. I know there are times to address it and ways to approach things respectfully and lightly but never? Never, ever? That just feels wrong. So while I appreciate the idea that I should just leave things alone and the sentiment behind it, that ain’t me. I feel too strongly about this to just sit back and watch someone I care about become a morg. :)
The good news is, I got a great response from my BIL. I didn’t really think he would take it badly but I guess you never really know until you try. I won’t repeat verbatim what he wrote because I feel like that would be bad form but basically he agreed with me that credit should be given to doctors, technology, science etc. but that crediting God is also important because for many, it really is their faith that keeps them going. Fair enough I suppose.
He maintains that he has seen prayer at work (and gave me an example of a woman in his mission who has been trying to get pregnant and only a week after receiving a priesthood blessing, found out she was expecting. Oh, and the missionary correctly predicted it would be a girl) and that it is the greatest outward expression of inner faith. He wasn’t the least bit offended and so I am happy that I have started a discussion at the very least.
It is too easy for myths and stereotypes about atheists to persist when we fail to identify ourselves as such. So, in my reply to his email, I thanked him for his response and told him I thought it was well-considered and respectful (which it was) and that as an atheist, prayer is likely not something we will ever agree on but that there is always value in trying to understand the people you love. Baby steps.
The example of “prayer in action” that he gave me is so typical and so pervasive. To be able to see the example for what it is requires a lot; an acceptance of true coincidence, an understanding of basic statistics and probability, an appreciation for the human brain to create what it wants (“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” – Mark Twain) and the maturity to recognize that a lot of stories, are just down right lies. How do you effectively deconstruct this example in a way someone of faith can grasp where you are coming from? I mean, I know that there is only one way to end a drought (whether it be of the moisture or the baby variety) and so a prediction like that will almost always be true with time. I know that there are only two options for a baby and that predicting it’s a girl is not statistically relevant – not even close. I know that people tend to count the hits and ignore the misses and that it’s just as likely that the missionary told her she was going to get pregnant several times before she actually did, or that the story was revised to be even more faith-promoting with each repetition. I know that by no means does this example prove that prayer works and yet, for some, it does.
I feel lucky to have a strong background in science and I credit that largely for my atheism. I studied neuroscience with some very impressive people with wicked minds and an almost universal lack of belief in God. I learned how to think, deconstruct, spot the faulty assumption or premise and apply the scientific method to the world around me. It is not realistic to think that everyone could (or would want to) have that kind of experience. So, how do you teach basic critical thinking to young people in a way that isn’t threatening?
This could be a whole other post, but I’m a big believer that this should be taught to every student in the world. At least it would be a start.
Will keep you updated on BIL.
Here is an excerpt from a recent email I wrote to my little brother-in-law who is serving his mission in Mesa, Arizona:
I saw the video of the LDS woman who was in a plane crash and survived. It was a very moving story and that woman was very brave and obviously very strong. It did raise a question however that I have had for some time. I hope you are okay with me asking you a religious question – I figured now that you are a missionary you probably get asked difficult questions all the time. You are an intelligent person and someone who I know thinks about things very deeply so I am hoping you can give me some insight. My question doesn’t pertain to the Mormon religion per se, but to faith in general. In the video, I was disturbed by the part where the woman credited her survival to God and prayer. I watched the video only a few days after my experience in hospital and had been thinking about this already. In fact, it has always bugged me. I remember when 12 miners were rescued years ago in Pennsylvania, people crying and saying they were saved by prayer and by God. While rescue workers who had risked life and limb stood by. I think of all the doctors who worked on that poor lady in the video, and all the amazing science and technology that went into saving her life. The nurses, the physiotherapists, not to mention her own inner strength and perseverance. I find it so frustrating and difficult to understand.
Many people say that faith is not something that can be measured or tested. That is true. However, certain things can be measured. One of those things is prayer. It’s a simple thing really; pray for 100 people, don’t pray for the other 100 and see what happens. You can have control groups and measurable outcomes. It’s been studied and tested hundreds of times over, by those of faith and those without, in many different countries and there has never been a measurable difference. While prayers certainly brings peace to those offering them, it doesn’t actually increase the odds of the sick or injured getting better. Now, what has been proven to work is medicine. Time and time again people are saved by medicine and technology and doctors, and yet, many people of faith insist of crediting prayer when things go well (and God’s will when they don’t, but that is a whole other story) rather than thanking the people who actually deserve it.
Anyway – I don’t mean to go off on a tangent. I saw that video, and it was fresh in my mind and I know you are religious and also smart and so I naturally thought to ask you. I truly hope that you don’t feel offended or put off in any way and if you don’t feel comfortable addressing my question, than by all means just ignore me. :) Having said that, I would really like to know what you think about this. I guess, to summarize, the question would be: why insist on crediting God, when there are so many more obvious and tangible people who deserve recognition?
Now for those of you who are seasoned rational thinkers or atheists this email might seem very mild. There were a million other points I could make – I could tear his world asunder if I wanted to. The thing is, he’s an awesome kid and we have never talked about religion. Ever. Nobody in my husband’s family discusses it at all. We all just tip toe around the fact that they are Mormon and we are not. I hate it but it’s hard to engage people in a conversation when they are unwilling. So, I decided that this topic was safe. It isn’t specific to Mormons, it hopefully won’t be perceived as a personal attack, and it might just get him to think a little. Since this is my first attempt at a religious conversation, I have no idea what to expect.
I asked my husband how he thought my BIL would take it and he said he didn’t have a clue. When my husband told T (my BIL who was 16 at the time) that he was never coming back to the church, T cried like a little kid. Full on bawling for an hour. This kid is not a crier and actually pretty reasonable, level-headed and unemotional. Ever since then, my husband feels like he has little insight into his younger brother which leaves me out on my own. So, I sent him the email and I guess I’ll wait and see what he says. I’ll keep you posted.
Oh, and please check out the video. Sad story of course but another example of how incredibly awesome the church is at marketing, communications and spin. I’m in awe.
Well, today is the day. My little brother-in-law left for the MTC (Missionary Training Centre) at 4:30 this morning and after 9 weeks of intense Spanish language training he will be dispatched to his mission in northern Arizona. Sigh.
In the end we decided not to say anything to him about his mission. We told him we loved him and that we would miss him. We told him he would do well and that is was an opportunity to grow. All of these things are true and yet, so much was left unsaid. Like, you would grow just as much by going to University or travelling the world. You will likely discover great things within you and despite what you believe, they will not be revealed by the holy spirit but by exercise, a life of routine and regimen and challenging yourself.
My husband still feels that his mission was a positive experience overall. He lived in France for 2 years and learned to speak fluent French. He became a great negotiator and public speaker and learned things about himself and about humanity more generally. He thrived in the almost military approach to schedule and exercise. They woke up at 6:00 every morning, lifted weights and prayed. They worked from morning until night and read scriptures. And then they did it again…for more than 700 days. He couldn’t see movies or listen to any music other than the tabernacle choir. He couldn’t read any books other than the approved missionary library that consisted of five church books. He was never alone. He went every where with his church appointed companion and ate what he could afford, which wasn’t much. He was encouraged to journal every day but like most things in the church, even that wasn’t really an exercise in individuality. Everything he wrote was filtered so that later generations would never hear of any doubts, stumbles or struggles. A big boring book of testimony.
But, he travelled and grew and made wonderful friends and learned about his strengths and weaknesses. He was challenged and directed and on his own for the first time in his life so I suppose I can see the appeal.
After much thought and consideration we decided to just be kind and supportive. My little brother is so excited and feels good about himself. He is heading off on his own for the first time ever and this is a very vulnerable point in his life. He came to our house for dinner the week before he left and we had a wonderful time. He is smart and thoughtful and in my opinion, too bright to stay a church member.
After he left I said to my husband, “Do you think he’ll leave on his own?” to which my husband replied, “Nope. I’m going to help him.”
Let’s hope that is exactly what happens.
So, I know I’ve been off the radar for a while and I apologize. Getting caught up in life I suppose. With Christmas coming I, like most people, have been busy preparing and trying to get things organized before we head off to visit our respective families. One of which, as you know, is Mormon. Seriously Mormon. As in NO booze, NO coffee, NO tea. I am already dreading a Christmas morning without a hot cup of coffee in my hand not to mention the family tradition of having french food without any wine. Any respectable french person would cringe at the thought of raclette, cheeses and fresh bread without a drop of Bordeaux. Despite what many believe, Martenelli’s does not cut it. Ever.
Christmas can be a divisive time of year for the atheist community (if you can even call it that). Some people believe strongly that we should make a point of shunning all things Christ-like, ban the word “Christmas” all together and use the season as an opportunity for religion-bashing. Others see Christmas as they do every other time of year…as an opportunity to deny their true feelings about religion and remain cloaked and quaking in the closet of atheistic anonymity. I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle. I use the word Christmas. I also use the word holidays. Or Xmas when I’m writing informally. I have a tree and I do the gift thing and while I refuse to put up a manger or put an angel on the top of my tree I don’t go out of my way to be a Jesus scrooge. Except for the few opportunities I had to replace baby jesus with a donkey in the nativity scene. Can you really blame me?
It’s always a tough call for me…do you make a point and say something or just let it slide. Always staying quiet makes me complicit in the ridiculousness that is faith. Always saying something makes me the asshole nobody wants to hang out with. Guess you have to pick your battles. So, I will close my mouth but not my eyes at Christmas dinner when we pray and I will refrain from pointing out that “Hey! Those wise men are all black! WTF?!” and I might even capitulate and sit nicely while we read the Christmas story as long it gets called a story and not a Christmas fact. But I’m bringing a go-cup and I’m making instant coffee in the microwave on Christmas morning and at least then the general climate of hypocrisy might be overtaken by the smooth aroma of a dark roast assaulting the virgin nostrils of my in-laws.
Merry Christmas XMas WTF is wrong with you people? A Virgin birth? A star guiding some wise men who are so WISE that they walk around following stars? A manger which “scientists” now claim was actually a cave in a futile and weird attempt to legitimize the story?