Sunday, August 12, 2007

Letter to my Brother


Sorry it’s taken me so long to write back to you, but I really think you deserve to have a well-thought out response from me. I’m going to respond in sections to what you wrote me. Your words are in italics; my responses follow.

Hey Michelle, I was thinking about you the other day and I wanted to talk to you about your beliefs. I was wondering if you really found fault in the gospel of Jesus Christ, have no faith in a savior and the eternal nature of our spirits, or if you just gave up trying to follow the commandments and decided that giving it all away would be easier. I don't believe that you could really feel that the gospel of Jesus Christ as restore in this time is not the true gospel of happiness.

This is a legitimate question with an easy answer. I stopped believing in the teachings of the LDS church. Rather, I found many teachings of the early leaders (Joseph Smith, Brigham Young) that I thought were so wrong, so far off-base that I could not believe anything else they had said, and came to believe that the church had been founded on lies. It had absolutely nothing to do with any inability on my part to follow the commandments. In fact it was nearly 8 months after I officially left the church before I even tried a cup of coffee because the Word of Wisdom had been so deeply ingrained in me. It was even longer before I tried alcohol. In fact, I probably still follow many of the commandments, even today. I only left because I could not continue to associate with a church that I so strongly disagreed with.

I need to tell you that from the beginning, I never read any “anti-Mormon” literature. I did all of my research out of books from the Utah State University library that were “church-approved” and were either directly written by early church leaders or compiled by LDS members. It was the words of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that turned me away from the church. The things I read are no longer taught in the church on Sundays, because they are too “outdated” and “obscure” for modern members. I no longer have my research as it’s been four or five years since I left the church, but I will do what I can to give you some of the information I found.

The first thing I read that really scared me was that Joseph Smith (and many prophets and apostles after him) taught that Mary did not conceive Jesus by a “miracle,” but rather, God the Father actually came down to earth and had sex with Mary in order to conceive their child. When I read that, I thought it was utterly blasphemous!! I immediately called Dad to ask him if he had heard that before. He told me that yes, that was the church’s position on the “virgin birth,” and he had been taught that in Primary. I talked to my roommate about it, and she called her father, a bishop in California, who confirmed what Dad had said. I spoke with her father to get some clarification. He told me that there are certain laws of nature that even God cannot break, and conception is one of them. He gave me another example, stating that a law of nature is: “If you put your finger in a fire, you will get burned.” So, of course, I asked him why, if God is bound by the laws of nature, that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could stand in a fire for hours and not be burned. He had no answer for me. Have you heard this teaching before? It was completely inconceivable to me, and I could not believe it. Brigham Young said: "The birth of the Saviour was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood - was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers" (Journal of Discourses, Brigham Young, 8:115). For more statements about this by other General Authorities, you can see them compiled here.

From there I continued my research. Here are some other teachings I found unbelievable:

Brigham Young said that men inhabit both the moon and the sun: “So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain. It was made to give light to those who dwell upon it…” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 271 (1870))

It is believed that Joseph Smith taught the same thing. Oliver B. Huntington, an early church member said: “Nearly all the great discoveries of men in the last half century have, in one way or another, either directly or indirectly, contributed to prove Joseph Smith to be a Prophet. As far back as 1837, I know that he said the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this earth, and that they lived to a greater age than we do -- that they live generally to near the age of 1000 years. He described the men as averaging near six feet in height, and dressing quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style. In my Patriarchal blessing, given by the father of Joseph the Prophet, in Kirtland, 1837, I was told that I should preach the gospel before I was 21 years of age; that I should preach the gospel to the inhabitants upon the islands of the sea, and to the inhabitants of the moon, even the planet you can now behold with your eyes." (The Young Woman's Journal, published by the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Associations of Zion, 1892, vol. 3, pp. 263-64)

Brigham Young taught that slavery is a blessing from God: “It is a great blessing to the seed of Adam to have the seed of Cain [the negro race] for servants.” (Brigham Young Addresses, MS d 1234, Box 48, folder 3, LDS Church Historical Dept., as cited in Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism, p. 132, and in Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, 5th ed., p. 293A.)

Brigham Young taught that Adam, the first man on earth, was actually God in the flesh. Many modern Mormons dispute this fact, but Bruce R. McConkie wrote in a letter that “Yes, President Young did teach that Adam was the father of our spirits, and all the related things that the cultists ascribe to him. This, however, is not true. He expressed views that are out of harmony with the gospel.” After reading this I thought, if Young, a prophet of the church, was wrong about this, what else was he wrong about?

I found many more early church teachings that I disagreed with, but my purpose in this email is not to dissuade you from your beliefs. I just want to show you what got me started in my research. I left the LDS church because I felt that I had been lied to by the church my entire life. Today I find even the well-known teachings ridiculous, but that has come after years of being away from the church. For example, every good member believes that by going to the temple and learning the special signs and handshakes taught there, they may pass the sentinels in heaven and enter the Celestial Kingdom. There, they will live with God, Jesus, and their families (although I think this is really just with their spouse, not with their parents, siblings, or children), become Gods themselves, rule their own planets, and spend the rest of eternity populating those planets (i.e.: women will be eternally pregnant). While I know this teaching makes perfect sense to you, it seems far-out and silly to me.

So, yes, I really feel that the “gospel of Jesus Christ as restored in this time is not the true gospel of happiness.”

Faith is not a cult, nor a giving up of your freedoms. Rather, it is a pathway, by your own means and works, to make the best out of your life and to find happiness and joy.

I absolutely agree with you. There are many groups, especially radical religious groups, that can be considered cults (see People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate). But faith itself is clearly not a cult. That is the main idea behind many eastern religions (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.). These ancient belief systems are not religions at all, but guidelines for living your life in a way that will bring you peace, happiness, and joy. In fact, the main teachings of Buddhism are called “The Eightfold Path,” a pathway, as you say, by which you make the best out of your life. My problem with the LDS church, in part, was that it did not encourage faith as “a pathway, by your own means and works.” Rather, the church lays out specific rules that you must follow so that hopefully you may make it into the Celestial Kingdom. It didn’t give much guidance in finding happiness and joy in this life; rather, you are encouraged to forego happiness in life in order to ensure a happy afterlife.

In addition, being part of the LDS church is a much sweeter deal for men than for women. Since my days in Primary, I was taught that my sole purpose in life, my “divine role” was to become a wife and mother. In fact, as a woman, I would not even be able to enter the Celestial Kingdom unless I was married by the time of my death AND my husband chose to call my name from the other side of the veil! I could not even enter on my own merits! And then what would happen if: I did not ever marry; my husband failed to remain worthy to enter the Celestial Kingdom; or, worst of all, my husband chose not to call my name? Well, the best I could hope for would be that some other man in heaven would find me worthy and thereby call me over to join him as one of his polygamous, lesser wives. And of course, if all of these requirements were met and I at last made it into the Celestial Kingdom, I would still be relegated to “second class citizen,” never ruling my own planet, destined to forever have “heaven sex” and produce spirit babies to populate my husband’s planet(s). How can any woman who has any sense of self-worth be satisfied with this arrangement?

In fact, just in the last session of General Conference, your prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley, said: “Husbands, love and treasure your wives. They are your most precious possessions.” (Ensign, May 2007, page 105.) No, I am nobody’s possession! A car is a possession. A book is a possession. A wife is not.

So you see, while faith itself may give you fulfillment, happiness, and joy in this life, I could never have found that within the LDS church. Instead, I would have been faced with a lifetime of guilt, worry, frustration, and of never feeling good enough. I would never have been able to make my own decisions, based on what I believed were best for me, because I would have always been told that I don’t have that authority, that men who hold the priesthood are the “mouthpiece of God,” and that what they say goes, regardless of how I feel about it. So, perhaps those of you who are in charge may feel that the LDS church leads you down a pathway to make the best out of your life, but the rest of us cannot say the same.

I know that our spirits are eternal, that we have always existed and always will. I don't think that you, yourself, could be able to imagine, nor would want to imagine an end to your existence.

Unfortunately, you can’t know this, you can only believe it. And believing it is fine if that gives you hope and/or a feeling of fulfillment, but it doesn’t work for me. I don’t know what happens after we die, but I’m okay with not knowing that. I think it’s true that human brains cannot understand the concept of eternity with nothing ever ending while at the same time being unable to comprehend the thought of something just ending and disappearing from existence. I do believe in the scientific truth that energy is neither created nor destroyed, so perhaps there is an energy force within us that remains after our death, but I cannot even begin to say what happens with that energy force. And I’m perfectly fine with not knowing.

The greatest thing that we have to enjoy in this life is our agency to make our own decisions. I love the fact that we are independant people who get to make our own decisions. I know that because we get to choose, we learn the most and are able to become better people. I also know that because we can always make decisions, we can always change. Just like you chose to separate yourself from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its teachings, you are always able to rejoin yourself if you so choose. It is never too late to change anything.

I would like to refer you back a few paragraphs to where I wrote about my lack of decision-making power as a woman in the LDS church. In addition to what I’ve already said on the matter, I must continue to strongly disagree with your claim that “we are independent people who get to make our own decisions.” Adults in the LDS church are not even free to decide what kind of underwear to put on in the morning, let alone being allowed to make important decisions! What if next year in the October General Conference, Gordon B. Hinckley told all American members of voting age to vote for Mitt Romney in the presidential election because this country was in need of a strong, LDS president? Would you do it? My guess is yes, not because you know anything about Romney, but because the prophet told you to. Perhaps this is an extreme example. Let me give you a different example.

Have you ever heard of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)? It is a proposed amendment to the US Constitution, first introduced to Congress in 1923, that would guarantee equal rights to all US citizens, regardless of gender. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Why wouldn’t the US guarantee equal rights to women in this country? I thought they already did anyway, right? Wrong. This amendment has been submitted to Congress nearly every year since 1923, and it still has not passed. In the year 2007, women are still not guaranteed equal rights in the Constitution. In the late 1970’s, there was a large movement across the nation to try to pass the ERA. Many feminist groups lobbied Congress for years to pass the amendment, but when it came time for ratification by the states in 1982, only 35 of the needed 38 states agreed to ratify the ERA. During this time period, the LDS church was vehemently against the passage of the ERA. The First Presidency sent letters to bishops and stake presidents that were to be read to their congregations explicitly stating their opposition to the proposed amendment. They did not want women to be guaranteed equal rights by the Constitution. Why? This is only speculation, but perhaps they did not want to then be pressured to give women more power within the church, in the same way that they had been pressured to give the priesthood to black men in 1978. In fact, a woman named Sonia Johnson was actually excommunicated from the church because of her involvement in trying to pass the ERA. She was a strong LDS member who never stopped believing in the church, did not break any of the “laws” of the church, and even continued to attend church for a full year after her excommunication. Was she given the agency to make her own decisions? Clearly, she was not.

Even when LDS members do make “their own decisions,” if those decisions are contrary to the mainstream, they are ostracized, looked down upon, and pressured to change their minds. Take yourself, for example. How much guilt has been placed upon you, even by your own family members, for being a 20-year-old man who has not yet served a mission? I applaud you for putting your education first, but I can’t imagine it’s been easy for you to defend yourself.

Sure, people have the right to make their own decisions, but not if they want to be a good LDS member.

I just don't want you to lose hope in life.

This was the most shocking line of your entire email! I know that we don’t know each other very well since we’ve lived apart for 8 years, but I believe anybody who knows me at all knows that this statement is far from the truth! When I told some of my friends about this line in your email, they all agreed that I’m the last person they would ever say that about. Just because I don’t believe in your church doesn’t mean that I’ve lost hope in life! It only means that I don’t believe in your church. I love life! I enjoy every day of it. In fact, I may enjoy it more than many religious people because when something is going wrong, I don’t need to blame a God that I thought was loving and caring. I don’t need to claim that “trials and tribulations” are just God’s way of “testing me” to see if I’m strong enough. I can just deal with what’s happening to me and do whatever I can to fix things myself. And when things are going well, I can bask in the goodness that surrounds me. I have many ambitions still in life and I hold out plenty of hope that I can enjoy my life and accomplish my goals by its end.

I don't want you to be under a false impression that life is all about the moment that it takes place. Life is about always, that's why we have memories of our past, the experience of the present, and the dreams of the future.

But life IS all about the moment!! How can you enjoy it otherwise? Yes, we have our memories, and we can learn from our mistakes in the past, but we can’t live in the past! We can’t change the things that have already happened. And the future, well, we can’t live there, either. We can work hard today to ensure a happy future, but you don’t know how much of a future you have, anyway! Ah, the folly of youth, to feel invincible. Yes, it’s wise to plan for your retirement, but you can’t bank on it! You don’t know if you’ll even be alive next week, let alone 60 years from now! Of course life is all about making the most out of today! I think that’s one of the saddest parts about religion, that so many people are content to live out their lives in a miserable state in the hope that they’re “storing away treasures unto heaven.” So, what happens if you get to the end and you realize that’s it – that’s the end? Or that you had it all wrong, that actually the only true religion was Islam, or Judaism, or Hinduism, or Sikhism, and you wasted your life not living, because you were planning for an eternity that doesn’t exist? Why not enjoy what’s happening to you now? Why not make the most of what you have now? Why not be happy?

I love you so much as my sister and I don't want to see you take the easy road in life, that you can't gain as much from.

Do you honestly think the “easy road” was telling Mom, Dad, my bishop, my roommates, you, and our sisters that I no longer believed in the church I was raised in and could no longer be a part of it? You think that was easy for me?? On the contrary, that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. There is no way that you can claim I took the “easy road” by leaving the LDS church. No, the easy thing would have been to just stay in the church and do the things I had always done, even though I really didn’t believe in it anymore. The easy road would have been to become more and more miserable as I became stuck in a church that I disagreed with, that didn’t serve my needs, and that denied me rights and status as a woman. Because at least then I wouldn’t be considered an apostate, a black sheep, a heathen, a sinner, or a disappointment by my own family.

Please don't give up hope, ever. I love you and I want to see you make good decisions and do good things in your life. I want to see you happy and I want to see a fire in your life with a deep knowledge of life.

If only you knew how happy I really am. I love my life, I love my job, and most importantly, I love myself. I’ve done great things in my life, and I plan to continue with that. I graduated from college, volunteered in Russia, moved to a new city where I knew nobody, got a job, met a fantastic man, went to graduate school, earned a Master of Education, got a teaching job that I truly love, gained the respect of my colleagues, actually helped my students learn, became team leader in my second year at work, earned enough money to rent my own apartment and buy a new car, started taking yoga, began getting involved in politics, and I’m planning to continue changing the world. I am passionate about what I do, I am deeply happy, and I have that fire in my life! And what’s more, I didn’t get that fire from any religion; I got it from myself, from what matters to me.

There are answers to the questions about the purpose of life.

I don’t have questions about the purpose of life. My purpose is to help make the world a better place and to enjoy myself along the way.

I don't want to see someone that I love give up hope and truth. Please don't give up hope and truth.

I haven’t given up hope. In fact, I’d like to say I’ve become more hopeful. I have much more confidence in myself and in my worth. I’m proud to be a woman. I have nothing to be ashamed of anymore. It no longer matters to me when people try to judge me, because they no longer have any power over me. I’m not hopeless; I’m free. I have value just because of who I am. And if I live long enough, I will change the world, whether it is through one child at a time in the classroom or one city at a time in the government. I haven’t given up on anything.

Have you? Do you feel like you’ve had to make difficult decisions in your life in order to remain true to the LDS church? I wonder what brought on this email after years of silence.

All my love,



Cherish Life said...

WOW! Can I borrow this? Maybe use it to help explain my side when I finally do get up the courage to tell my Mom I have left?

Cherish Life said...

Did you ever get a reply from your brother?

Michelle said...

You can absolutely use this! And no, he never responded. Now he's on a mission in Thailand...