Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Deconversion stories: The last Sunday School lesson

I was a Sunday School teacher when I hit what turned out to be the initial months of my deconversion. I’d promised myself years earlier that I wouldn’t testify that anything was true unless I believed it to be true. As belief ground down, that eventually meant that I couldn’t say very much at all. So I began to notice that I hadn’t been teaching church doctrine as ‘true’, but rather as merely ‘helpful’ (although that claim could have used some scrutiny). My Sunday School lessons tended to focus not on the truthfulness of the gospel, but on self-improvement, learning to be happy in life, and other humanist values. Pretty watered-down stuff, but it was best I could do if I wanted to hang on to religion and reason.

I remember the last lesson I ever gave in Sunday School. I hated it. I realised that I was talking around the subject material, probably because I was coming to the uncomfortable realisation that I didn’t believe it. I guess I was having a conflict between what I had always thought and believed was true, and a whole body of opposite information that seemed to be demonstrably true. How I hated that conflict.

Toward the end of that lesson, I said “I’m grateful for the scriptures. They’ve taught me a regard for truth, and while insisting on truth isn’t always comfortable, I’ve found that it can be a help when…”

The class waited.

“…when your belief system changes very rapidly, as mine has.”

It was the closest I ever came to making a public confession of doubt in church.

Of course, I closed the lesson “in the name of Jesus Christ” as was customary, but it felt like my mouth was full of sand. How could anyone presume to do anything in his name? What were we all doing here?

Compared to some, I got off easy. It’s difficult to go through a deconversion, but how hard must it be when your religion is also your job? Jeffrey has forwarded me this article about priests and pastors who deconvert.

McAllister has learned that you can tell inspirational stories, grounded in social justice and tolerance and peace, without having to bring God into the picture—and this sermon was a masterful case in point. A woman in his congregation had recently dropped everything to care for her cancer-stricken daughter, and that selfless commitment was sacred in its way. “You can see how I cook the books a little bit to make it easier to look in the mirror,” he says of his sermons. “But there are times when I get that sort of empty feeling in my stomach, like I’m a fraud.”

I hear that.

McAllister is not just scared for himself. “I know that my parishioners look to me for comfort,” he says. “They’re coming to the end of their life and they want some assurance that it’s all going to be OK. I have sat at the deathbed of people in my congregation and told them what I regard as lies—or fantasies, at least—just to give them comfort. I’m willing to do that up to a point, but not for the rest of my working life.”

Then there’s the practical dimension. McAllister owes the church $18,000 for his schooling, at the same time as he’s trying to put his last son through college. “I’m 56, which isn’t a real good age to be pounding the pavement, and I’ve got a master’s of divinity, not the most marketable degree in the world.”

Ouch. I guess the Mormon tradition of having a lay ministry saved me some pain.

But have a look at an idea being floated by the RDF:

Richard Dawkins is convinced that McAllister’s situation is common; in fact, he hopes one day to address it through “clergyman-retraining scholarships,” set up through his charitable foundation, to “bridge the gap between living a lie and getting a new life,” as he puts it.

Damn, that is forward thinking. I’m going to have to give a serious look at adding the Richard Dawkins Foundation to my charity list.

This is an amazing article. I felt like every one of the stories from the ex-clergy contained something from my own experience. See if you don’t agree.

7 Comments

  1. Daniel, just saw this post sitting in my Netvibes. Not sure how I missed it. Wanted to drop a note though and say how much I indentified with it. It really struck a chord with me.

    As J-Dubs, the men folk give ‘talks’ a few times a year. Over time mine became more and more removed from the ‘God loves us’ angle and relied heavily on the practical nature of whatever the theme material was. No one ever noticed I was removing God from my talks, which confirmed my suspicion that we were all really worshiping an organization and not a God. I’d only ever be ‘counseled’ if I used a reference that wasn’t from the Watchtower.
    Think I told you previously about the three Chinese boys I had a bible study with and trying with my wife to not concentrate on the creepy bible stories that popped up repeatedly, but to help these kids learn how to take care of themselves (they were alone for most of the week).

    Anyway, this was a great post. This blog is a nutritious part of my balanced daily reading.

  2. I’m really glad to hear that. Thanks.

  3. I still remember the day. I’d been praying hard for the lord to let me know that what I was doing was true. I had decided to follow the admonition in the first charla, missionary lesson. I would read the BoM with an open heart and pray and ask for a testamony. Daniel, I think you know just how serious and dorky I can get when I really want to be pious.

    I WANTED a testimony, I WANTED to beleive. There was no incentive at this point for me to be anything but a mormon.

    And then that day my companion and me sat down in the living room of the nicest 70 year old lady in the world who was open to talking bout religion and never had an unkind word to say even when she disagreed with us. There was no sudden moment of light. I just walked away that day with my answer.

    I’m a hypacrite. I am lying to myself. The answers are far more complex then my beleif system allows for. As I have said in the past… “God” told me he wasn’t real. (Of course I don’t really mean that, this is how my mind allowed me to understand the logical dissonance it was experiancing. It took me years to intelectually understand that)

    I do still have memories of having conversations with you about…gays, blacks and the priesthood, etc and you tossing each one off as if it was simply explained away. I have to admit that one of my few doubts all these years has been you. “Daniel is so much smarter than me and he still beleives, maybe I am missing something.”, I would say to myself. Funny, if I had just started with the logical problems of the existance of God I may have had a better conversation with you. I also am impressed that it was a problem with the idea of God and with all religions that got us both to the same point, not any of the logical problems with the mormon teachings per se. Maybe that is why we don’t feel the need to pick on the mormons any more than any other religion.

    The last 7 months of my mission sucked. Everytime we had to testify I felt myself deminished in hypacricy and vowed that I would do the rest, and my welcome back speach (for my parents) and then would have nothing to do with the church again.

  4. Thanks for relating that story. I must have been an annoying know-it-all git. One of the side effects of evangelism, I’m afraid.

    I wonder if you remember doing this:

    One time when we were younger, about 12ish I think, Jeff tried to show me a sort of problem from an IQ test he’d seen. It was a grid full of numbers with one number missing, and you were supposed to fill in the missing number.

    The thing about this puzzle, though, was that there was no solution. Your score on this test depended on how quickly you realised that there was no solution, and stopped trying.

    But I think the god conundrum is a much better example of this kind of puzzle. Here I was for most of my life, clinging to bad assumptions — the existence of god, the truthiness of the church, and all that crap — and trying to make my philosophy come out right so I could keep my beliefs and match what I saw of reality…

    and Jeff figured out early that there was no solution, and stopped.

    Jeff, that’s why I think you’re probably smarter than me. But now that I know about recognising bad ideas and giving them up, watch out!

  5. Well, you both seem happier and more reasonable. So net-and-net probably a good thing you left. Besides, the church and religion you believed in is really a fiction that most Mormons delude themselves with everyday. I can understand how acidic it eventually can become for someone interested in the truth and having to swallow that poison day-in-and-day-out. However, I am thoroughly convinced you can have a meaningful interaction with God and also be earnest in seeking the truth of the matter. However, this isn’t something we alone can control (it is delusion to believe one can command God). It is really up to God to do something as well. My parting advice is please be open to that when it eventually happens of which I am quite confident it will.

  6. Thanks, Tobin. I sometimes say that if new evidence comes along I’ll take it into account. Easy to say…

    It’s true that I’m happier now, but I don’t think that’s the most important thing. If I were happier in a religion, that wouldn’t make it true. I think that it’s more important to know what’s true than it is to be happy. Lucky for me, the two frequently coincide (as least, as far as I am able to tell what’s true).

    Also, I’m glad you’ve recognised that some of the peripheral doctrines are silly (even though you still, for some reason, believe the core ones). I wonder why you think you’re able to discern true doctrine better than most of the membership of the church — and indeed, most of the leadership. I still get the feeling that you’re picking and choosing what you want to believe because you like it. Not that all other believers don’t do that as well. But could it be that you’re using the maneuver described on this page?

  7. Daniel,

    I am pleased that you took my comments the way I intended them.

    I also read the link you posted and while interesting, it does not apply.

    Most religions are bankrupt because they have no explanation for their spiritual beliefs simply because they have no access to obtaining clarification from the sources. Basically, they are stuck with a few written materials, commentaries, traditions, etc. and are left bascially to rot. Mormonism is one of the few religions not so handicapped (if they choose to be). Our understanding is allowed to evolve as we delve into the truth of the matter and this is how it should be. But, as you know, this can only go so far. Clearly a line has to be drawn somewhere.

    Do I believe that Joseph saw God? Yes.

    Do I believe God can interact with us and influencing event in our lives? Yes.

    Do I believe God can clarify a great number of our questions if we have the patience and persistence to inquire and research matters? Yes.

    The article you linked to speaks more to the fact that people can not use or do not have this avenue because they don’t believe in such a God to begin with. To explain events that have transpired in their religion’s history they are left to discard such beliefs because they have no rational or natural explanation otherwise. Such religions are poor fits for people intersted in getting at the truth anyway and should be discarded. I have little appetite for gods and religions that rely on magic. A natural God that follows the rules of universe, that interacts with us, and acts accordingly is much more appealing.

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