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Category: Deconversion stories (page 1 of 2)

Would it be a bad thing to live forever?

‎”Blindly we dream of overcoming death through immortality, when all the time immortality is the most horrific of possible fates.” -Jean Baudrillard

One of the worst things about my deconversion was realising that there probably wasn’t going to be an afterlife. I’d been counting on that all my life, and as a result, I had to do some serious rethinking on my timescale. A universe without me? I’m not an eternal being? My religion had flattered me, made me feel so important, and appealed to my sense of vanity. I hated thinking that I probably wasn’t going to live forever.

I was surprised, then, to find that some people aren’t concerned about it, and don’t particularly want to live forever.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, one character is immortal, and it’s a curse.

To begin with it was fun; he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.

In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.

So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people’s funerals began to fade. He began to despise the Universe in general, and everybody in it in particular.

“I think I’ll take a nap,” he said, and then added, “What network areas are we going to be passing through in the next few hours?”

The computer beeped.

“Cosmovid, Thinkpix and Home Brain Box,” it said, and beeped. 

“Any movies I haven’t seen thirty thousand times already?” 

“No.” 

“Uh.” 

“There’s Angst in Space. You’ve only seen that thirty-three thousand five hundred and seventeen times.” 

“Wake me for the second reel.”

Immortality might be horrible. Really: how long can you enjoy the vitality of life? How many more times can you listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’? How many times can you watch your favourite movie? Eventually you’ll have found all the things that do it for you. And habituation’s a bitch. What if I became so accustomed to the sunset, or the touch of my sweetheart through repeated exposure that I could no longer enjoy it? I’d be dead then, but still walking around.

Okay, so I can see that eternity would be a long long time, but I don’t envision a check-out date. There’s too much to learn! There’s enough for fifty lifetimes. I’m doing linguistics now. I think in the next lifetime, I’ll do maths and get really good at that. Then what? A lifetime of typography! What kind of computers will people invent? What will English be like in 500 years? And so on. Seventy years seems so short.

Even so, it’s probably a good thing that people die. Max Planck has been paraphrased to say “Science advances one funeral at a time.” And Steve Jobs has his take on it:

 
Transcript for people who don’t like watching videos.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

It’s true, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

So what do I do about it? Steve continues.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Have you made peace with mortality? Or do you rage against the dying of the light? I haven’t decided which approach I like best. I guess at this stage I’m just glad to have escaped the liars who make big, empty promises about forever.

Still alive, more than ever.

This is a post about my Mom. It’s not intended to distress family members — I think I’ve written it with a modicum of sensitivity and tact — but it may. If you think you may be offended by my views on the implications of religious belief as they pertain to mortality, best to stop reading now, instead of making a scene at the funeral later. If, however, you’re willing to risk it, or you just want to know where I’m coming from, please read on.

Facebook friends will already know that my Mom passed away last week. It wasn’t unexpected — she hadn’t been well for a long time, and I’m glad she’s not in the pain and the frame of mind that she was in. I’d already done a lot of the emotional work and the ‘letting go’, but I was still surprised at how tender I felt that first day; I felt the fragility of my body, my heartbeat, the delicate chemistry of my consciousness. I walked and moved gingerly, as one does at the beginning of a cold. I’d always lived in a world where my mother existed, and now I didn’t.

It must have been a long time since we really talked, what with her being ill for such a long time. My memories of her come back in pieces. I’ll remember something she said, a conversation we had, something she taught me. If we went to McDonalds, we had a ritual where I’d wind up the straw, and she’d flick it with a loud crack! All with the most blasé expression on our faces. It’s much funnier if it’s your Mom. As I said on Facebook, “My mom was a great person. She always encouraged me to develop my mind and my talents. She loved me. And she taught me to shop.” She really was amazing, and I’m really going to miss her.

Subsequent days have been fine. I may feel different at the funeral (jet-lagged), but for now I feel like I’ve bounced back. In particular, I feel no desire to revert to the comforting myths of the religion of my youth. Quite to the contrary — when someone wrote that Mom was in a ‘better place’, I felt a quiver of very mild exasperation.

This has raised a question for me, though. I’ve often heard that stories of an afterlife serve to ‘comfort’ believers in times of death. So why are the religious members of my family so glum? Of course, we’re all sad because we’re going to miss her. But among all the condolences and the contacts I’ve heard and read, there has been precious little optimism (so far). Why are they expressing sadness at all?

They ought to be delighted! Right now, Mom’s wearing a robe, padding around in little white slippers, waiting to be taken to some kind of veil thing where she can give the handshakes and passwords. Whereupon she will be ushered into a bright white place with tasteful furniture, there to be with my father, her sisters, parents, Jesus, and everyone, for all eternity.

I believed in that story, and I talked with other believers for years, so I think I know the mindset pretty well. When you believe in the supernatural stuff, there’s always some vacillation between certainty and doubt. It comes in cycles. You can have a doubting period, but then you pump yourself up with faith until you’re ‘strong’ again. Maybe some people don’t let themselves doubt, but I’m sure many believers are familiar with what I’m describing.

For me, the conflict ended when I realised that the evidence for gods was poor. The concept of a ‘spirit’, or a little ghost inside of us, was equally unsubstantiated. The sensible explanation was that our brains were the things that produced the sensations of cognition and perception, and when the brain died, perception would simply stop and we would experience nothing. I wasn’t fond of this conclusion (and I’m still not), but I found it to be the explanation that best fit the facts. You could say I ‘took the hit’, and accepted its implications for my life.

As a result, I’ve accepted my Mom’s passing with an equanimity that I couldn’t have mustered in my believing days. I was taking all my time going between belief and doubt. Someone who believes in heaven and an afterlife is just dodging the inevitable conflict. They can’t do the work of accepting the finite nature of human existence because they think they’re going to live forever. Their religion keeps them from accomplishing this very important task of adulthood. They are prevented from growing up.

Me, I’m waking up today and feeling grateful. I’m enjoying all the sensations my body feels. I realise that my life is a tiny blip in an eternity that will go on without me, and I feel happy and amazed that I get to be here on this day that will never come again. I’m tasting food. I’m enjoying the touch of a sweetheart. I’m the guy you saw riding the bicycle too fast, shouting “I’M ALIIIVE!”

For so we are. All of us here today are alive. Let’s get out there and do it.

Back to the old meeting-house

I did eventually return that box of church books. I didn’t recycle any of the old lesson manuals or anything, just gave them back. I debated annotating the margins with point for point rebuttals, but that would have taken more work than benefit.

It was good to see some old friends and acquaintances. Oldest Boy came along, too. A few people asked him if he’d be coming back, looking hopeful. (His reaction: Don’t think so.) He thought it was kind of good to see people, though he was annoyed that everyone commented on how tall he’d gotten. Other people’s kids looked older too. That was strange. I must have been away longer than I’d realised. In fact, it’s only been three years, but it feels longer.

The building looked the same, the art was the same, and the lessons were probably about the same as when I’d left. In fact, that was the overall impression I got: sameness. But not stability — stagnation.

Same people there, too, still hearing the same messages, same exhortations to pay tithing, do Home or Visiting Teaching, support the activities, and on and on. I could probably go back in three more years, and still find mostly the same people there. It’s silly, but because I only ever saw these people at church, I had this cognitive illusion that they’d never left the building in all that time. It was all a bit Hotel California.

I couldn’t imagine sitting through another meeting rehashing the same material — same scriptures, maybe some interesting discussion, maybe a bit of controversy, never really able to be resolved, and the same curriculum over and over.

Since leaving religion, I’ve had more time to learn about the world we live in — about science and nature, philosophy and ethics, language and life. No doubt all the church people had learned things in the interim, too, when not at church. But what I’ve learned — and they still haven’t — is that life is enhanced, not diminished, by enjoying the real world and by rejecting the unseen world of gods, angels, devils, and spirits. Sure, I learned a lot of good moral teachings in that church, and some really awful ones. But the religious system was like a maze that you could stay in forever, whose passages only led back to the same places, with no relation to the outside world.

As I left the building that day, I felt relieved not to be there anymore. I want to say that it was the feeling of having graduated, but that’s not quite right. It was the feeling of having escaped.

My son and I said goodbye to everyone, and walked out into the sunlight. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, too nice to be inside. People were playing a game in a field opposite the church. Life was happening out in the real world, and we were a part of it.

Deconversion stories: Why so long?

Why did it take so long for me to leave religion?

I keep coming back to this question, in fact kicking myself over it — all that time and energy gone. Then I cut myself some slack. I remember that it’s hard to get out of a system you’re born into, and one that you’ve believed and invested so much in.

Still, all that aside, why did it take me so long to recognise the now-obvious absurdities and contradictions in Mormon doctrine — actually, in all of theism? And Mormon doctrine is full of absurdities. Translating out of a hat? Pouring oil on someone to heal them from diseases? God living on a planet near the star Kolob? Having to memorise and repeat words and signs to get into heaven? Ridiculous in retrospect. Why did it seem so plausible at the time?

Of course, we can turn to the standard set of devices that humans use to believe the implausible: communal reinforcement, childhood indoctrination, confirmation bias. But recently I realised a little something extra that probably helped keep my belief afloat: It’s very difficult to critique a religion effectively when you still accept some religious ideas. Meeting on Saturday might seem arbitrary, but really, meeting on Sunday is equally so. Believing in chakras is not so absurd when you believe in spirits. Why would it be a problem for a ghost to tell Nephi to kill Laban, when David killed Goliath? And so on. Religious beliefs don’t seem absurd in contrast with other religious beliefs. What we’re able to question depends on what we already accept as true.

In other words, the only solid ground from which to criticise religion is atheism. But how likely is someone to question the whole kit-n-kaboodle all at once? What’s more likely to happen is that we’ll try to preserve as much of the original belief as we can. Much less painful that way. But when you do that, you’re unlikely to question that one little assumption that allows the whole structure to stand: that there’s a god who can do magical things when it wants to. If you accept that one idea, then you can magic your way around any contradiction.

Once you step outside of that bubble and question the idea of a god, then all the absurdities become transparently obvious. But that’s an advanced move, and probably one that people only try when all other options are exhausted. No wonder it can take so long.

Global Atheist Con, Day 3: Dan Barker

You could tell who the former true believers in the crowd were, just by looking at people who came out of Dan Barker’s talk. Atheists who were once casual believers or never-believers thought it was a great talk, while former true believers came out looking stunned, and saying, “That was just like my story.”

Dan Barker used to be a Christian preacher, but deconverted in 1984. He is now at the head of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

He described his work in converting others to Christianity. “I never got any doors slammed in my face. I never got an informed response.” He surveyed the audience of atheists. “Where were you guys? I could have used you. You probablty didn’t say anything out of respect.

“Well, don’t do that.”

The striking thing for me was how he described having exactly the same kinds of feelings that Mormons describe as the feelings of the Spirit. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I still am. Mormons customarily claim that non-Mormons don’t have regular access to the Holy Ghost. I have also heard some believers claim that the feelings of the Spirit is something that Satan cannot duplicate. But, as one should expect, there’s nothing unique about Mormon testimony. The ‘positive feelings’ Mormons get are in sync with the feelings felt by other believers and — dare I say? — non-believers.

Having been a believer once, he raised the question of how to have “dialogue without disprespect, and the answer is to respect them and the reasons why they believe…. I think there can be a small place for ridicule, if that’s not all we’re doing.”

From Barker: “Paul said, ‘God is not the author of confusion.’ But can you think of a book that’s caused more confusion than the Bible?”

LDS lessons: now even less content

I suspect that if I were still a believing Mormon in church classes, I’d have to go insane just as a coping mechanism. The lesson manual they’re now using for Priesthood and Relief Society is ‘Gospel Principles‘, a manual originally intended for new converts. As I remember, the chapters were, shall we say, spartan. How are long-time members coping with this? Will they go mad from repetition? Then again, don’t underestimate the Mormon capacity for boredom absorption.

Now how would I have approached teaching this kind of a lesson as a Priesthood teacher? I might have thought, sure it’s a little sparse, but nothing we can’t fix by bringing in some interesting outside sources. But even there I’d have been stymied; you’re not supposed to use them. Let’s peek in at a fictional Relief Society teacher, and see what the Brethren have in mind for its flock.

A woman sat at her dining room table, buried in dozens of books and magazines. She looked discouraged. Her daughter asked if she could help.

The woman said she was preparing a Relief Society lesson. She told her daughter she didn’t know how she could possibly “boil down all the information” she had collected for the lesson. The process, the woman acknowledged, was both time consuming and frustrating.

The daughter looked surprised.

“Why,” she asked, “are you trying to boil down information? An inspired Church-writing committee has already done that for you.

[L]eaders and teachers in the Church do themselves and the people they serve a disservice when they turn to unofficial — not correlated — materials in the planning of lessons and activities.

Oh, dear. Seems people have been using the Internet to get information, and finding out things that the folks in Salt Lake don’t want you to know. Those who want to control minds need foremost to control information, and this is part of an attempt to do exactly that.

The tone of this article needs to be read to be believed, but the last paragraph is a good indicator.

The Church — through its inspired correlation program — has given us official sources of information to help us prepare lessons and plan activities. Instead of turning to unofficial books and Web sites, let’s use those sources.

Something I realised after teaching Sunday School for many years was that the whole process was essentially stagnant. It was frustrating: I believed in eternal progression, but it was not to be found in church meetings. When I was younger, I thought that eventually I could graduate to — what? moving mountains? At uni, I could delve more deeply into topics of interest and there was always more to study. But at church? Delving into early Mormon history was just asking for apostasy, and who cared enough to delve into the Old Testament? Eventually I realised that there was no higher level. The quest for spiritual knowledge had plateaued, as far as earth goes, and it seemed to me the fault of the religious system. There was just no ‘there’ there.

In hindsight, it makes sense that going over the same books over and over would leave one with that cyclical feeling. The religion couldn’t really offer any answers past ‘goddidit’, and that doesn’t take long to explain. This was a source of profound disappointment for me at the time, but now I’m glad to have escaped that useless hole that I kept digging myself into.

What deconversion is like

I see that someone else has had this thought before me, but it’s a good one, so I’m going to post it here anyway.

Imagine that you’re hanging on to a rope, suspended over an abyss. All around you are other people, all clinging to their ropes. You shout encouragement to each other, telling each other not to let go of the rope or else you’ll fall. Hang on to the rope! they say. They even have a song: “Hold On to the Rope”. They sing it to each other on Sundays.

You’ve been hanging on to the rope for a very long time, and your arms are tired. All this rope-holding doesn’t seem to make any sense sometimes. The rope burn is terrible. But you don’t dare let go of the rope because of all the awful things that will happen to you if you do.

At last, you become so tired of holding on to the rope that you let go, and fall.

Six inches. That’s how far away the ground has been all this time.

This is a great surprise. So you tell the others, “There’s no danger! You’re almost touching the ground as it is!” But they won’t listen. They just cling to their ropes all the harder.

And now you have choices. You can walk around. You can run, or even dance if you want to. Or you can talk to other people that have also let go. Strange how you never noticed them before. You also have two free hands that you can use to build things, examine things in this new world, or hold hands with someone nice, instead of just holding on to the rope all the time.

Life is good with your feet on the ground.

Deconversion stories: The Dude with the Horns

As a religious youth, I was told about Satan. The Adversary. The Tempter. The one who puts all the backwards messages in records. Mormons don’t dwell on the Devil — I heard people say it gave him more ‘power’ — but he was always there hovering around the periphery of my morality.

The Satan meme is a real mindfuck. There’s a totally evil supernatural person who wants you to do bad things. Don’t do what Satan wants. How do you know what Satan wants? It’s bad. What makes something ‘bad’? Satan wants you to do it. And round it goes. Figuring out what Satan wants you to do is like asking who the Terrists want you to vote for. Could they do the ol’ Double Reverse Psychological Fake-out? And of course, if someone starts to question the teaching of the religion, who’s been putting those thoughts into your head? Yep. Better get back in line.

Satan isn’t just a great control tool. He’s a dodge to the problem of Evil. If God’s good and in charge, why do evil things happen? For some reason, saying ‘You are evil’ wasn’t the answer people liked, so Satan did the trick. Why is there evil? Satan. There you go. God is still good, but he wants to see if you’ll follow him or the Devil.

P.S. You are evil.

And it answered a whole lot. Why do ouija boards seem to work? Satan (or one of his many helpers) is moving the table thing. Why do I want to do bad things? You’re being tempted by Satan, he’s putting thoughts into your head. (Another mindfuck. An invisible person is putting thoughts in my head? Scary!) Why are there so many religions? Satan is deceiving people and leading them astray. Satan Satan Satan. Very useful. If he didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him.

As it seems we did. This page tells how Satan doesn’t appear to be much of a character in early Hebrew lore (talking snakes notwithstanding). The Hebrew word s’tn simply means ‘adversary’ or ‘opposer’. In 1 Samuel 29:4, it tells how the Philistines mistrusted David, fearing that he would be a ‘satan’, or someone who would oppose them. Only later after the Hebrews ran into the Persians with their Zoroastrian dualism did Satan become an actual character, and for a while there he and the Lord were pretty chummy (see Job).

For me, Satan’s undoing was when I ran into this page about the Ouija Board that church leaders so straitly charged me not to play with.

Some users believe that paranormal or supernatural forces are at work in spelling out Ouija board answers. Skeptics believe that those using the board either consciously or unconsciously move the pointer to what is selected. To prove this, simply try it blindfolded for some time, having an innocent bystander take notes on what words or letters are selected. Usually, the results will be unintelligible.

So the church leaders were right, but they had the wrong reason. You shouldn’t play with the thing, but because it’s stupid, not satanic. A scary spiritual phenomenon had a perfectly sane material explanation. I wonder what else does, thought I.

I reviewed my knowledge of the Horned One, and found that he’s usually held responsible for three things:

  1. Temptation
  2. Deception
  3. Possession

But, you say, what about reality TV?

That falls under ‘Possession’.

Let’s take them one by one.

Temptation. Do people really think that a spirit being is somehow… what, whispering to you? And then you want to do bad things? How would that happen? This has the whiff of dissociation. Why not take responsibility for your own desires?

Deception. Well, the world is a confusing place. It’s easy to be mistaken. But I’ve found that the one who deceives me the most is good old me. No need to blame an invisible being.

Possession can be explained these days by mental illness, though it must have seemed devilishly scary to people in New Testament times.

In short, everything that people blame Satan for can be explained simply, materially, and non-mysteriously, leaving Satan as rather extraneous. Our theory works just as well without him. Occam’s Razor claims another victim.

Once I’d got that settled, it was the beginning of the end for supernaturalism. Turn it around, and suddenly everything we thought god did turns out to be the product of natural forces. No gods. No devils. No angels or demons. Just gravitation, evolution and us, working for good or ill. But then I suppose that’s just what Satan would want me to think.

A true believer in the audience isn’t satisfied. But if there’s no Satan, he wails, then why is the world getting worse and worse?

It’s not, but with that attitude I suppose you can make it as bad as you want.

Celebrity deconversion story: Scientology edition

Jason Beghe, a former Scientology celeb, trashes the church, including their creepy habit of taping all those auditing sessions:

“Not one auditing session—which are supposed to be private—is not recorded on film,” he says, and claims that secret cameras are used at every session at the Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles, recording sessions that for Scientologists are supposed to be something like confessionals in the Catholic church.

“Will Smith is supposedly dabbling in Scientology. Let Will Smith know that his shit was fucking recorded. And tell him to look them in the eye and see if he believes it when they deny it.”

This incident was also interesting.

Beghe says the proof that Scientology was no longer working for him came when he was almost killed in a car accident. After the L’s, he points out, that shouldn’t happen. “A clear isn’t supposed to have a car accident. You’re supposed to be practically immortal.”

Right, because religions always make huge claims that don’t come true. So the leaders finally had to admit their claims were bullshit, right?

To the Scientologists, the accident was an indication that someone was “suppressing” Beghe. So they pulled him in for more interrogation.

“What about this gay person you’re friends with,” Beghe says one official asked him, implying that somehow the gay friend was causing Beghe’s clear state to be sabotaged. When Beghe objected, he says the official responded, “Well, he’s gay.”

Well, that’s creative. Usually they blame you for not having enough faith. All of which tells me that Scientology is not only stupid, but it’s also run by evil jerks. Maybe next time I’ll tell you something you don’t already know.

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.

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