I am an atheist, but I grew up Mormon. My children have asked their grandparents and others about religious belief and how it works in order to try to understand it. But for all of their interest and curiosity, I doubt they’ll ever completely understand what it’s like to be a part of a religious community and to truly believe in it. I wouldn’t recommend raising children in religion just so they’ll have that experience—but as for myself, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for a nonreligious background even if I could.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that a single claim can seem either obviously crazy or perfectly reasonable, depending on how you have been exposed to it. Consider the Mormon belief that God was once a human and that humans can become gods. As a teenager, it was an epiphany for me to encounter Christians who scorned and ridiculed this belief—not because they considered it a deadly heresy but because they regarded it as obviously absurd. Meanwhile, these same Christians believed in an omnipotent three-in-one god with no beginning who loves his human children and promises them an eternity of unchanging subservience (best-case scenario) or an eternity of torture. I’d been exposed (as least tangentially) to mainstream Christian beliefs my whole life, so their theology didn’t really shock me. But I was shocked by their crazy belief that Mormon theology was somehow objectively more crazy than their own theology.
One time, some colleagues invited me to a Hindu Diwali celebration. I was surprised to see people pouring milk, honey, and orange juice over statues of their gods, apparently to please them. “Wow, that’s crazy!” I thought. And then I stopped myself. Was it crazier than symbolically eating your god? Or putting olive oil on someone’s head to perform a faith healing?
So much of what seems normal and reasonable depends on the beliefs you’re brought up with and on the things the people around you believe. Other trappings can influence your perception as well; think of the effect of homeopathic medicines packaged like real medicine and sold in ordinary pharmacies. I have found that the natural “That’s crazy!” reaction doesn’t always lead to a rational exchange of ideas. If a person thinks that claim X is reasonable, and you say that it’s obviously crazy, then in that person’s eyes you may be the one who looks like a raving lunatic. A lot of times you need to start by understanding why belief X seems reasonable to the other person before you begin to discuss it.
Spending my formative years in a minority religion has shaped my perspective and who I am. Note that I wasn’t raised in some sort of isolated community of believers who feared and shunned all contact with the outside. I went to an ordinary suburban high school that had only a handful of Mormon students, so most of my friends were not Mormons. On the other hand, Mormonism is a time-consuming religion that requires a lot of socializing with other believers; I had one foot in one community and one foot in another. Thus I observed how minorities are judged (and misjudged). And I learned that being different is more than okay—it’s something to be proud of.
Now that I’m an atheist, I have additional perspective. I haven’t forgotten my past, so it’s a little like being bilingual: I can translate between two communities. On the Internet, I can correct errors and misimpressions on both sides. On the Mormon side, you encounter people who believe the usual stereotypes about atheists: that they’re miserable, amoral nihilists, or whatever. Sometimes on the Bloggernacle (the network of faithful-Mormon blogs), people write posts using those stereotypes as basic “everybody knows”-type assumptions about atheists. I’m one of the ex-Mormon atheists that help to challenge the stereotypes not only by posting comments directly on posts that misrepresent atheists but also by maintaining a long-term personal blog (Letters from a Broad . . .) about my ordinary life as a mild-mannered mom.
On the other side, I can correct erroneous claims people make about Mormons and Mormon doctrine. In particular, there’s a lot of confusion about polygamy—mostly due to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) publicity wing broadcasting misleading half-truths along the lines of “We have not had any connection with polygamy for over a hundred years; we have no connection with any modern polygamist groups; the modern polygamist groups are not Mormon; end of story, stop asking us about it.” In reality, the modern Mormon polygamist groups are branches of the same tradition with as much right to self-identify as Mormon as any other branch of Mormonism. And while LDS (the branch with the pairs of missionaries with suits, bikes, and little name-tags) renounced the modern practice of polygamy, it hasn’t renounced it as an eternal doctrine—it’s very much worth noting that their “eternal families” include polygamous unions.
My Mormon past puts me in a unique position to provide constructive criticism to the Mormon community. When I encounter Mormons talking among themselves, I know the lingo; and what’s more, I grok what they’re talking about because I’ve lived it. We have shared experiences. When Mormons were working to get the antigay Proposition Eight passed in California, I could talk to them about what was wrong with their position without being immediately dismissed me as someone who hates and misunderstands Mormons. I can approach them not as someone who thinks Mormons are crazy cultists but as a family member who just wants to see my own people do the right thing. I currently write for the group blog Main Street Plaza (one of the most popular blogs on the topic of Mormonism), and we discuss politics with the faithful all the time. The LDS leaders and the publicity arm constantly spread memes like “Gay marriage is a threat to our freedom of religion” and “People who criticize the Mormon involvement in Proposition Eight are hypocrites because they’re bigoted against Mormons.” As a member of the family, I can discuss with faithful Mormons what’s wrong with those messages in a calm and constructive manner.
I want to make it clear that although I’m interested in engaging thoughtful believers in constructive, civil dialogue, I’m not denouncing other approaches. No matter how nice and well-meaning I may be, “apostates” are viewed with suspicion in Mormonism as in many other religions. That’s why I don’t want to disparage the outspoken “new atheists” who are highly critical of religion. They’re the ones who open up the middle ground where “nice,” tactful atheism can occur—by moving the poles of the debate. You are misunderstanding the dynamics of the debate if you think that angry atheists harm the position of the bridge-building atheists. In fact it’s quite the opposite. The only reason religious people see you as a nice atheist—as opposed to seeing you as a servant of Satan who deserves no place in the discussion—is because there’s someone else out there who’s less “nice,” providing contrast. If any atheists advocate crime or violence or taking away religious people’s civil rights, then I’ll denounce them for it. But if they’re offending people by challenging the wrongheaded notion that religion has a monopoly on morals and ethics, I’ll thank them for forcing those points onto the table of discussion.
Actually, the alliance between the Mormons and the rest of the Religious Right is one of my favorite topics to discuss with believing Mormons. Naturally, I think that Mormons—who, like the Jews, belong to a minority religion—need to understand the importance of protecting the rights of minorities. The problem is not merely that evangelical Christians think Mormonism is a dangerous cult. It’s possible to make political alliances with people that you don’t like personally. But as I (and many faithful Mormons) have pointed out, it’s not in the Mormons’ interest to promote laws that let majority religions impose their beliefs on minorities—such as encouraging a precedent where a 51 percent majority can enshrine religious-based discrimination in the California constitution. When Mitt Romney gave his famous speech describing American political discourse as a “tapestry of faith,” many of the Mormon blogs fawned all over this one-ended bridge toward the Christian Right’s private club. And I was right there on Main Street Plaza to present the view that the speech was more about exclusion than inclusion and to encourage people to also write articles about that: “In a speech Romney was forced to give because he feared unfair discrimination, Romney did not stand against intolerance. Instead, he simply asked that it not be directed against him, a man of faith. You can be intolerant, but do it to them, over there. They’re even more different,” and “Romney opposes bigotry in self-defense, not in defense of others, which is to say that he does not really oppose it at all.”
Another central part of my online work is to help build a community for former Mormon bloggers and encourage harmony and understanding within mixed-belief families. For years I’ve been gathering up former-Mormon bloggers into a huge blogroll called Outer Blogness, and I do a weekly link roundup (Sunday in Outer Blogness) to encourage people to visit each other’s blogs. Faithful Mormons naturally have a community of people with whom to share their faith experiences (at church). In contrast, losing belief can be incredibly isolating because in real life there’s very little context for sharing your experience with others. Family and other members of the congregation find incidents of loss of faith very threatening and often react with fear and hostility rather than understanding. When people who have left the faith get online, they’re usually pleasantly surprised to discover a whole world of others who have gone through similar experiences. They can share coping strategies, including ideas on making the transition smoothly and on maintaining loving ties with family members who still believe. That was also the theme of my novel ExMormon: the grand comedy of growing up Mormon and caring about your Mormon community and identity but then losing belief and reconstructing your expectations and your relationships. Believers have found the novel to be a fun and nonthreatening starting point for better understanding their nonbeliever friends and family members.
Atheists who were raised in other religions can form the same sorts of bridges with their own communities. I encourage them to do so. It makes sense that—within the atheist community—secular Jews should take the lead when discussing Israel, and people raised Muslim should take the lead in discussions about problems in Muslim countries. They have added perspective on the subject, plus they can be trusted neither to be biased by prejudice against their group nor by believing that their group is doing God’s will. Being raised in religion isn’t better or worse than being raised without it. But I believe that those of us who were raised in religious communities have a special role to play, and we should step up and play it.