Six months ago, I didn't watch the LDS Church's semi-annual General Conference for the first time in my life, and I experienced some anxiety over the disruption of routine and loss of comfort. This time I just enjoyed doing other things with those ten hours and almost forgot it was going on. Progress! A friend who had to watch bits and pieces because she hasn't yet told her parents she's an atheist filled me in on what I missed. Pay your tithing, wear your temple garments, use the full name of the church, stay on the covenant path. You know, fresh new revelation to address the real issues that people are facing.
The tithing part really pisses me off. My friend sent me this.
I testify that this promise, at least the way the LDS Church takes it out of context, is bogus. I received no blessings for paying tithing and I lost no blessings when I stopped. Notice, however, the caveats that Andersen adds to make it unfalsifiable and set up the church's ever-popular blame reversal game: spiritual, subtle, easy to overlook, Lord's timing. In other words, when I paid tithing and nothing happened, the problem was with me for either failing to notice or being impatient. I was supposed to just keep giving my money to the church indefinitely regardless of whether God ever got around to keeping his end of the bargain. That kind of defeats the purpose of the promise in the first place. "[P]rove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it." What part of that sounds subtle or easy to overlook? How am I supposed to "prove" God if he's too sneaky for me to notice?
But as I said, the LDS Church takes this verse out of context anyway. The preceding chapter begins thus: "And now, O ye priests, this commandment is for you." Lacking any indications to the contrary, it would seem that the rest of the book of Malachi is addressed to these priests, and that the verses about tithing are actually a rebuke of religious leaders who hoard wealth. Hmmm. The LDS Church has hundreds of billions of dollars, and was fined by the Securities Exchange Commission earlier this year for breaking the law to hide that obscene wealth so its members would keep paying tithing, and of course it hasn't apologized or so much as acknowledged that incident in General Conference. Andersen has a lot of gall to exhort anyone to "be honest in their tithes" when he knows damn well that church leaders up to and including the First Presidency have not. He has a lot of gall to pretend the church still needs any donations when it could fund its operations indefinitely off the interest generated by its obscene wealth. And if tithing was really about personal consecration and putting the Lord first and whatever, it wouldn't be a flat rate for all members. Ten percent of my income was a sacrifice. Ten percent of Jon Huntsman's income is not.
This is the other thing I read about that pissed me off. Ex-Mormons on Twitter are not happy about it.
I really hope my parents are too smart to buy into this manipulative, emotionally abusive garbage. I left the LDS Church because it's not true and it's not good. I never questioned their faithfulness or their commitment to the principles that it teaches but doesn't live up to. For example, they taught me to be honest. The LDS Church is not honest. I have a problem with that. The problem is not with me or my parents. I don't see eye to eye with them on a lot of things, but they don't deserve to be guilt-tripped over their son making a choice that he has no reason to be sorry for. I won't likely have "a whole chain of descendants," but I kind of want to just so I can not raise them in the LDS Church, especially if they're female and/or LGBTQ. The "covenant path" is hardly worth staying on when the covenants and the supposed authority behind them are based on lies. I'm not interested in perpetuating "a legacy of faith" in a system based on lies. And I'm not interested in living with the monstrous LDS God for five minutes, let alone eternity. I guess my dad's going to be really lonely in the Celestial Kingdom. His dad and his five siblings and another of his kids were already "lost" long before I was. He did everything right to have an eternal family, but as usual, the LDS Church can't and won't keep its end of the bargain.
Saturday was one year since the Islamic Republic murdered Mahsa Amini for not wearing a hijab, sparking protests throughout Iran. After a few months, the Western media largely ignored these protests or straight-up lied that they were basically over, but the truth is that they aren't going to stop until the Islamic Republic is dead. The Islamic Republic has passed the point of no return. It's lost its legitimacy, it's become desperate, and its collapse is a matter of when, not if. The sooner the better, of course. The US and the EU need to hasten that day by growing some spines and treating it like the global pariah that it deserves to be. Down with all dictatorships, down with all theocracies, down with all religious extremism, and down with all misogyny and other forms of bigotry, no matter how much they wrap themselves up in the supposed respectability of faith.
Today I went for a hike in Tony's Grove with members of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation and three dogs. I was the youngest human there by a wide margin. The next youngest human was a mother of adults and teenagers, and everyone else had white hair, or in one case would have had white hair if she hadn't dyed it purplish red. I didn't remember where Tony's Grove was and I didn't realize the drive and the hike combined would total four and a half hours, but I'm not mad. Just tired. The temperature was perfect and the views were gorgeous. Susanne Janecke, a geologist from USU, told us about the caves and the rocks. Supposedly some of the latter were shaped by the ocean before life existed on land. I'll take her word for it. I felt, as I often do these days, insignificant against the scope of this planet's history, and since we'd just had a presentation on climate change by USU hydrologist Patrick Belmont earlier that day, I thought about the possibility that my entire species might not be here much longer, and I wondered why we evolved to be so stupid and whether there's any real purpose to the suffering we've inflicted on ourselves and our home. But mostly I just appreciated the views.
Because I have two sisters and a non-binary sibling who functioned as a sister, I've seen the OG Barbie movies. I must have seen Barbie in the Nutcracker and Barbie as Rapunzel twenty times each. I unironically enjoyed them and I don't care who knows it. One night in 2019, long after the last time I saw Barbie as Rapunzel, I dreamed about its musical motif and woke up in chills from how beautiful it is.
I also saw Dance! Workout With Barbie a few times. When I revisited it as an adult, I stopped watching after a few minutes because watching preteen girls in leotards made me uncomfortable, but I left it playing because it has a killer soundtrack by twelve-year-old Jennifer Love Hewitt, which is what I was really after anyway. Also it features the little mermaid as the voice of Barbie.
When I saw the trailer for a live-action Barbie movie, I just thought the concept was bizarre, maybe even desperate. I wasn't super interested. But my interest shot through the roof after conservative man-babies like Ben Shapiro threw temper tantrums about its wokity wokeness. I will say that even though I fully agree with the movie's feminist message, I found it a little off-putting because it's delivered with all the subtlety of an exploding freight train full of fireworks and neon paint. (And the multiple references to Barbieland's all-female Supreme Court were kind of weird because they implied that the US in real life has an all-male Supreme Court, which it doesn't and hasn't for a long time. The US Supreme Court profoundly sucks, but not for that reason.) But I do agree with it, and oh, the movie was so, so funny. I kept thinking that it was a well-deserved giant middle finger to the church I grew up in. I swear I could hear Ezra Taft Benson screaming from beyond the grave within the first five minutes. The opening scene where little girls smash their baby dolls on rocks made me a little uncomfortable, but then I realized it was an allusion to Psalms 137:9, which celebrates smashing real babies on rocks, so that was fine. I just worried that the message might be anti-motherhood instead of anti-not-letting-women-have-identities-or-aspirations-outside-of-motherhood, which would make the filmmakers the very evil that anti-feminists think they are. I was glad they clarified that by the end.
A week later, I went with Steve and Sierra to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. It was action-packed and funny. I don't really have anything specific to say about it, and I'm not a diehard turtle fan or anything, but I enjoyed it.
Before that, we went to the thrift store and picked out a DVD that we knew would be really bad. It was a mockbuster, aptly described by Strong Bad as "The kind they put right next to the check-out line, so Grandma might accidentally mistake it for the real thing." The Secret of Anastasia is actually a knockoff of two movies - the real animated Anastasia movie released the same year, and Beauty and the Beast. In this version, she's friends with four talking instruments that are actually her parents and siblings, which she doesn't realize because she has amnesia for reasons that are never explained. It was just the right amount of badness. It had a lot of unintentionally funny moments and plot holes that we augmented with inappropriate jokes (like I asked if the horn blows himself, and a few minutes later when he did blow himself, we couldn't hold it together). I did legitimately appreciate that the Communist secret police's comic relief guy was named Goofinov, at least until his boss insulted our intelligence by saying "I hope Goofinov isn't goofing off again." And we all agreed that Anastasia's emo sister was funny. And the pronunciation of Anastasia was more authentic than in the real movie. And the portrayal of Russia's military as childishly incompetent and pathetic was very accurate.
The bonus movie on the DVD, Snow White and the Magic Mirror, was legitimately good. The songs are better and it's funny on purpose. The Magic Mirror is a Robin Williams genie knockoff who imitated a bunch of nineties celebrities. The seven dwarves are all based on comedians that today's kids won't recognize. It's surprisingly dark in a couple places. Instead of ordering a hunter to kill Snow White, the queen orders a butcher to kill everyone in the kingdom (including her executioner, because even he's prettier than her). Fortunately, the butcher is a pacifist who doesn't even kill real animals. Then when Snow White runs away, her first stop is at an inn where a creepy guy with an off-screen mother offers her a private shower. In case you fail to notice the name of the inn, the camera zooms in on the words "The Bates Inn" after she leaves. I certainly hope no child understands that joke. My intelligence should have been insulted, but I was just shocked (in a good way) that they went there. My friends seemed a little confused that this movie follows traditional versions of the Snow White story more closely than the Disney version. She gets poisoned first by a magic comb and then by having a piece of apple stuck in her throat, and she revives when it pops out. She and the prince she just met sing a song about how they're going to get married, but at least he doesn't kiss her corpse. (He did see her at the dwarves' house earlier, but he didn't introduce himself because she was baking bread and it smelled awful and he was afraid he'd offer her some. Told you this movie is funny.)
A couple of evangelical missionaries came by while I was lounging in the yard the other day. After I figured out that they weren't a charity asking for money, I was glad to talk to them for a few minutes. They came all the way from Florida to share their message out of love and I hope people don't give them a hard time for it. The core of that message, unsurprisingly, is on the sufficiency of Jesus' grace, which by implication contrasts with the more works-based salvation of Mormonism. "Those who trust only in the perfect work of Jesus," says the flyer they gave me, "Are enough in God's sight right now, Are forgiven of all their sins right now, Are perfect in Christ right now, Will live with Heavenly Father forever." Personally, though I know Mormonism's emphasis on righteousness and self-improvement is toxic for a lot of people, I always kind of liked it. I think people should have to do something to earn salvation so that Putin doesn't get into heaven by converting right before he's executed for war crimes. I don't agree with the claim that "Nobody is good." I'm not perfect, maybe I'm not even great, but I am objectively light-years better than someone like Putin. Most of my intentions and motivations are good even when the execution falls short. And I don't think most evangelicals believe that you should just give up and not even try to be good since Jesus took care of everything.
They asked why I left Mormonism, and I kept my answer deliberately vague. Policies, political actions, historical problems. I didn't want to make things awkward by saying I left because of how it treats women and gay people, because their church probably isn't much better in that regard. I didn't want to get into any arguments so I didn't ask questions when they invited me to ask questions. I did mention, because I didn't want them to try too hard to convert me to their particular denomination, that I'm hesitant to commit to any belief system because I no longer believe spiritual feelings are an indicator of truth. They agreed and said that's why they just use the Bible. I didn't press the issue of how they know the Bible is true without a spiritual witness. They probably would have said something about how reliable the manuscripts are. I remember from past Mormon/evangelical debates that the latter often claim the Bible has been proven true by secular evidence, which of course it hasn't, but someone who's already committed to believing it's true can certainly find secular evidence to fit that paradigm. (It also depends on what you mean by "true." No serious scholar could say with a straight face that it's inerrant, consistent, or univocal, but that doesn't mean you can't believe in it in some more nuanced sense.)
As it happens, right before they showed up I'd been reading about George Harrison's death. He was Hindu, and a quote he loved from the Bhagavad Gita was included in the liner notes of his final posthumous release: "There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be." It's such a beautiful thought. If I had wanted to get into an argument, I would have asked if he's burning in hell right now for picking the wrong religion. Mormonism, for all its faults, answers that question with an emphatic no, but I doubt these missionaries could have done the same. I did discuss this issue with an evangelical at Gospel Peace Church last year. His reasoning was that all of us deserve to burn in hell, so God is being generous and graceful by saving any of us. I think that reasoning falls apart without the premortal existence that Mormonism and, as indicated in George Harrison's beloved quote, Hinduism both teach. If God brought the entirety of me into existence from scratch in this world, then a. I didn't ask to be created in the first place and b. it's entirely his fault I'm not perfect, and therefore he has no right whatsoever to condemn me to hell. Furthermore, why doesn't he show himself to the world and tell everyone to accept Jesus, thus saving virtually all of us instead of a lucky few? In Mormonism, he requires faith because we've forgotten about the premortal existence and we're being tested to see what we'll do. In evangelicalism, I see no such justification.
I don't know how to have faith anymore in any case. The stuff they said about Jesus was beautiful, but that doesn't make it true. How can I know if it is? There's certainly not much secular evidence that the historical Jesus was born for me, lived perfectly for me, died for me, rose for me, intercedes for me, and will return for me. (In fact, the disappointments of two thousand years of Christians who believed he was returning in their lifetimes have made that last point very implausible in my book.) I used to believe spiritual feelings could fill in the gaps where secular evidence failed. Now I don't. People in religions that are incompatible with Christianity get the same feelings. And these missionaries agreed with me on that. So what else is there? I could choose to believe just because I want to, but I could just as well do that for anything. I really want to believe George Harrison's Bhagavad Gita quote, but being beautiful doesn't make it true either, and I really don't want to believe in the reincarnation cycle so that would make me kind of a hypocrite. I suppose I only have myself to blame for not asking these questions when I had the chance. I did take a look at the website on the flyer: beyeperfect.org/forus
Last night some of my neighbors held the first bonfire of the year, and several people gathered around it and ignored the big patch of snow right next to us, and I stayed up late and I'm suffering for it today but friendship is important. I was actually about to leave when they started talking about LDS stuff in a way that piqued my interest. Usually I zone out when LDS people talk about LDS stuff, but this started with two guys joking that they marry each other to save money on housing, and they said they were sure the church would be cool with it. Then this girl Mia that I apparently had an institute class with but didn't remember said the church used to do "adoption" sealings of random non-related people to each other, and stopped around the same time it stopped polygamy. The guys said that was cool. She said the church used to do a lot of cool stuff, like for example, it used to let women give blessings as midwives until Brigham Young said they should stop.
I didn't think it was the time or place to get on my feminist soapbox, but integrity demanded that I go on the record as dissenting from any real or perceived implication that this or any of the church's restrictions on women's autonomy might have even possibly had anything to do with God, so I said, in a voice that I hoped was loud enough for her and nobody else to hear, "What a dick."
She responded in a much louder voice, "You ain't wrong, though!"
One of the most liberating parts of leaving the LDS Church is being able to acknowledge that Brigham Young was an asshole instead of having to try to rationalize that he was just a "complicated person." He did have his redeeming qualities, but he was an asshole. I was surprised and elated to hear this response from a member, though now that I think of it, I don't know for a fact that she's still a member. She did mention that she hasn't taken an institute class in a long time. Hmm.
Then someone probably said something else, and she said that Brigham Young was racist. And someone else gave the ubiquitous and only possible apologetic defense: "Everyone was racist back then." Because it's not fair to hold people who claim to speak for God to a higher standard than anyone else because reasons.
I would have said something, but Mia beat me to it. "He was exceptionally racist," she said. And that's an objectively true statement. Many of his contemporaries opposed slavery while he preached that it was ordained of God and pushed Utah to be the only Western US state or territory that legalized it, and very few of them taught, as he did, that God wanted mixed-race couples and their children put to death. God had no shortage of less racist men (or women) to choose from. Now the LDS Church wants to excuse all of his and other past prophets' faults with the "men of their time" card while simultaneously presenting the current prophet as such a paragon of virtue that we should emulate everything he does, such as the way he recycles plastic bottles. Make it make sense.
Someone else asked if Brigham Young is the thing that stops people from joining the church, and someone else said pretty much. I would actually hazard a guess that Joseph Smith stops even more people from joining the church. He's the one that missionaries teach people about, and then all those people have to do is Google him and find all the stuff that the missionaries didn't tell them and probably don't even know and be like, "Nope."
Then Mia or someone else mentioned Brigham's teaching of blood atonement, and this one guy who had either converted or returned to activity as an adult asked what that was, and someone explained it to him, that it's the idea that some sins aren't covered by the Atonement of Jesus Christ so some people need to be killed to be forgiven. And the convert guy was disturbed by that and he asked, "Then how could he be a prophet?" I don't know if he was on the cusp of a sudden faith crisis or just wondering. He was, of course, on the cusp of the obvious answer, which is "He wasn't." Not because prophets need to be perfect, but because they need to be good and they need to not say a bunch of stupid crap in God's name that will force their church to run damage control for centuries to come.
But of course someone responded by saying in a Batman voice, "He's not the prophet we deserved, but the prophet we needed." So they sidestepped the issue with humor and moved on to other things. Ah well. It was a fascinating couple minutes nonetheless. It's hard to say with any given Latter-day Saint if they're perfectly familiar with the church's controversial issues or if they'll go to pieces on hearing about them for the first time. With this little group, it seems like the church's innoculation efforts are working. They know what Brigham Young was really like and they manage to work it into their worldview even though it makes no sense.
Of course, I've also noticed that in the little over a decade since I've moved to Utah, mainstream Latter-day Saints in their twenties have become less uptight about multiple piercings, "immodest" clothing, shopping on Sundays, R-rated movies, and swearing. Almost every person in this group swore at some point during the evening and only one, the military guy who swore the worst and the most often, felt compelled to apologize. I swore thrice, twice while paraphrasing someone else who just swore and once while quoting Jeff Dunham's puppet Walter. I don't like how often I swear in general, but I have no intention of quitting entirely because they're just words. The whole concept of having words that no one should ever say is stupid beyond belief. Anyway, my point is that people who haven't left the church and haven't doubled down into QAnon-level stupidity are becoming more and more nuanced, and I'm not sure if that's a victory for the church or not. Its independent scholars and apologists go on about the importance of nuance, but its leaders, as anyone can see from the most recent conference, are going in the opposite direction. They don't want nuanced members. They want members who believe and obey them without question even when they contradict each other or simply make no sense. But they're in no position to be picky these days.
And honestly, the leaders are right in the sense that the LDS Church's truth claims are fundamentally incompatible with nuance. The Book of Mormon itself doubles down on the literal historicity of biblical myths that didn't happen (the Garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the tower of Babel). The prophets are supposed to be the mouthpieces of God that we're supposed to trust and follow at all times, not violent, racist lunatics who can't tell the difference between God's truth and their own delusions. As soon as you adopt a nuanced approach to just about anything in the LDS Church, you're believing in a different religion than the one it teaches. And that's fair enough. I believe in people's right to believe whatever they want, and in most religions, picking and choosing what to believe is the norm. But the LDS Church explicitly tells you not to do that. I wonder how many of the people there last night have begun the process of, like me, nuancing their testimonies out of existence.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.