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Apostates

(Update: video added below)
1. I left because I was offended
2. I left because I wanted to sin
3. I never had a testimony to begin with
4. I was not diligent in studying the scriptures and praying
5. I lost my testimony because I read anti-Mormon literature

I have been told all of these things during the course of the last two years.  I personally think that one reason these are typical things that active Mormons think about inactive Mormons or apostates is because of cognitive dissonance.  Admitting that someone has a legitimate reason for the leaving the church would be admitting that there's something wrong with the church, which an active member mustn't do.

It is good to see that this issue is being taken seriously.  I have had contact with John Dehlin over the Internet, and I have participated in some of the research he has done concerning people who leave the LDS church.  I must say that I have been quite impressed with his open-mindedness and his sincerity in trying to understand this issue, rather than dismiss it as is so common among believers of any religion.  He complied a presentation which contains briefly his findings.  It seems to be a speech that he delivered to a body of active Mormons, with the intent of helping them reach out with greater love to their friends and family who have left or are doubting the church.

The most comforting thing to me is that he is willing to admit that there are doctrinal and historical issues with the church.  He does state multiple times in the presentation that "none of this proves the church isn't true".  That may be the case, but I personally say you only need so much evidence.  If I were on a jury and the defendant was found with the murder weapon near the murder site near the time of the murder, with a strong motive to commit the murder and no alibi, I would likely vote to convict.  None of that evidence proves that ey is guilty, but it certainly doesn't do any good in helping me believe that ey is innocent.  But that's beside the point.

Near the end of his presentation, he presents some possible ways to reach out to apostates, such as myself, in order to perhaps bridge the gap that now stands between believer and apostate.  One of the things he suggests pointing out is a shift in focus from "the church is true" to "the church is good".  This is the particular point I would like to address in detail.

I have often heard the argument that religion should remain in existence because it is good.  A very rational man, whom I respect very much, made such an argument on my wall just the other day.  I will amend the argument in the following way.  I think that any act which is good should be commended, while any act which is not good should be condemned.  I think that something such as a person or an organization is far too complex to label as "good" or "bad".  Hitler may have done some horrible things in his life, but to label him as "bad" because of it seems too extreme.  He did many great things for Germany, such as build the Autobahn.  The slaughter of millions of innocent people should be condemned, not the man himself.

And so I feel it is with religion.  I think it is far better to talk about specific actions on behalf of the LDS church, not the church itself as a whole.  Now, if I were asked whether the good things the church does outweighs the bad, I would respond in the negative.  And this is why I think that a shift from "is the church true" to "is the church good" still does not justify, in my mind, association with the organization.

What are the things religion does that people normally attribute to it that are "good"?  I believe the first is acts of charity.  Teaching people to help others and to be selfless is a good thing.  And the LDS church does this.  The church itself does participate in charitable acts, and it encourages all of its members to do so as well.  The church has spent over a billion dollars in humanitarian efforts.  This is to be commended.  The church has a welfare program.  However, my main concern with this program is that it primarily benefits only those who are active members.  There is little effort to reach out to those who are not members of the church.  Contrast this with a different kind of charitable organization--a non-religious one--and it would seem rather odd indeed if the only people who were entitled to receive aid from the charity were the very people who were paying dues to it.  So, I think the Fast Offering program in the church could use quite a bit of reform before it is considered on-par with the "standard" charity.

The main reason that I object to people suggesting that religion is good because it promotes charity is that this idea perpetuates the false belief that religion is necessary to promote charity.  There are many charities which are completely secular in nature--and many which are specifically set up and run by atheists.  Religion is not needed in order to be selfless and compassionate.  No belief in God or Christ or any other deity is required.  What we should promote is the charity itself--the kindness--not the religion.

Next, I think people say that religion is good because it makes people happy.  It brings people comfort. This seems to be the case at the time of a funeral or at difficult times in life, when hope seems intangible.  I do not feel fit to judge whether this is true or false in any particular person's life, nor do I feel fit to say whether it is better to believe something false and be happy or to believe the truth and be miserable.  As for me, if given a choice between those two, I would choose the latter.  But the problem is that religion really doesn't make people happier.  Modern psychological research shows that there is no significant difference between religiosity and happiness.  I can answer for myself personally, I am much happier as an atheist than I was as a believer.  I would attribute at least half of that to the fact that I am now able to live as an openly gay man, rather than keeping my sexual feelings repressed as I did while Mormon.  I will not make the claim that atheists are happier in general, since I have seen no evidence to support such a claim.  But any claim of the converse (that religious people are happier than irreligious people) has been shown to be false by scientific studies.

Lastly, I'd like to talk about the claim "religion makes me a better person".  This is certainly one of the good things about religion that people use to justify its existence.  The LDS church teaches people to love one another, to value family, to be kind and courteous, to show compassion, to be humble and unassuming.  These are all doctrines and teachings of the church, and many of the speeches given in church meetings are of this nature.  This is to be commended.  Teaching people to be kind and loving is a good thing.  This is true.  But would you reject all of those teachings if you weren't religious?  Would you insist on being selfish and unkind if you didn't have church leaders telling you not to?

So, the issue I have with people saying that religion is good because it promote morals is that from there it is often concluded that morality would not exist without religion.  And this is demonstrably false.  In fact, historically (and presently), non-believers have demonstrated superior morality to believers.  Take any civil rights issue in time.  Slavery?  Christians were pro-slavery and atheists were abolitionists.  Women's right to vote?  Again, Christianity argued against extending this right to women.  Atheists argued in favor.  And now we're seeing the same thing happen with homosexuality.  I have not met one single atheist who is opposed to marriage equality (I'm sure there are some, but I haven't met any) and yet I personally know hundreds of Christians who are opposed, and virtually every argument given in opposition of gay marriage is religious in nature.

And so, I say that overall religion is not good for society.  And it is not good for me.  It carries too much baggage with it.  It carries dogma and prejudice.  It carries bigotry and closed-mindedness.  I will promote the positive aspects of religion, but I will not promote religion.  I will promote the things that the LDS church does which are good, but I will not promote the LDS church.

I think that society will be much better off the day that we finally cast religion aside and embrace rationality.  We should keep all that is good and remove all that is holding us back.  Maintain the concepts of charity and selflessness.  Maintain the concern for the weak, the poor, and the elderly.  Maintain the teachings that help us to become better people.  And cast aside the prejudice, the bigotry, and the fear of the unknown.  Cast aside all of the irrational excuses for not granting all people equal rights.  Cast aside the fairy tales and nonsensical ideas, such as that the world is only 6,000 years old.

So, I am sorry John Dehlin, but even with your modified criterion, I cannot endorse the church nor call it "good".  The church teaches people to accept things on faith rather than on reason.  The church purports to have a fullness of the truth.  The church discourages people from doubting its dogma.  The church encourages young people to ignore any financial concerns--to marry young and have many children immediately, even if they know they cannot afford it.  The church teaches discrimination by not allowing gay people to use the word "marriage" in referring to their loving, committed relationships.  These are not good things.  I will not endorse them.  I will be happy to congratulate the church at any point in time when it rights these wrongs.

It has just been brought to my attention that John Dehlin has made a YouTube video about this presentation, which is embedded here.

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