Thursday, May 29, 2008

Personal History part 3: Age 10-14

See the entire "personal history" series of posts:
  • Part 1 - Who I am now. why I'm an atheist, a skeptic, and a progressive liberal, and why I think that's a good thing.
  • Part 2 - I grew up in a Mormon family and community, but my parents always encouraged critical thinking.
  • Part 3 - As I became a teenager, I began having doubts about religion and the supernatural and began to reconcile that with a scientific viewpoint that increasingly edged out religion.
  • Part 4 - "Agnostic, leaning toward atheism"

My family moved to Midvale, another suburb of Salt Lake when I was 10 - my fifth grade year. The new area and new people corresponded to a growing dissatisfaction with the LDS church and religion in general. My fifth grade year saw my first "debate" about evolution vs. creation with a peer, my first sexual awakening, and my first real struggle with faith in my assigned religion.

During this four year period, I still self-identified as Mormon. I participated in Boy Scouts. I attended Church (nearly) weekly. I had a close relationship with my bishop (not that close, you sicko you) with whom I shared a lot of intellectual conversations.

I took much (though not all) of what my Sunday school teachers said at face value. Once, a teacher was telling us about the importance of tithing, how there was a time in his life when he didn't tithe and everything went to shit (my words, not his). Then when he started tithing again, he got himself a hot chick, a hot car and a cool job and everything started shaping up nicely. How great is that! At the time, I remember being impressed: Wow! Tithing will make god send a little luck your way! Think of what you could do in Vegas if you just gave God a cut of the winnings! (Isn't the tithe supposed be from the goodness of your heart, not from avarice?)

When I hit 12, I became a deacon in the church. During this time, I started to become less active in the church, missing it now and then with increasing frequency. My parents encouraged me to go. They seemed disappointed that I didn't go, but never forced me to (keep in mind that neither of them went to church at all).

Aside: I think the fact that Mormon church starts handing out formal ranks like this so much earlier than other churches has the function of instilling a sense of responsibility, which kills any notions of becoming less active: "I can't miss church this week! Who will pass out the chunks of Wonder Bread!?!!?"

Unblinded by Science
I continued to thirst for knowledge. I overheard an offhand comment once from one of our ward leaders saying that it was not possible to be a scientist and believe in god. I had already been thinking along these same lines, but it was a surreal experience for me to hear such a blatant admission from a church leader. He was saying it in an anti-scientist way, of course, but there it was: religion was inherently at odds with science. (I still feel this way, though I acknowledge that it is not true for everyone. There are many great scientists of faith.)

Around this same time, at age 12 or 13, I had a one-on-one chat with the bishop. He asked what my favorite subjects in school were, and I said I loved science. Unprompted, I then began to talk about how I thought the Universe and the world were created by scientific means. I then said that "I think God works through science." I said that because I knew it was the sort of thing I should say, though I didn't believe it. It was the first time I was forced to confront the fact that I was beginning to reject God and the church. It was also the first time I lied about what I believed to anyone.

It wasn't the last time, though. On a Scouting trip, all the boys had to come up with an activity. I set up a long and elaborate orienteering course where each boy would have to follow the compass coordinates found at each post to get to the end of the course... Except that at one of the posts i had accidentally written the wrong coordinates. This sent everyone off into a field full of thorny bushes. After everyone got lost from the course, I made some impromptu remark about how it was intentional, and that I was showing how easy it was to think you're on the right course when really you're letting Satan lead you astray. This was bullshit and I knew it, but these were my friends and I knew that it was EXPECTED of me to at least SOUND like I believed in the church.

In retrospect, this analogy casts me in the role of Satan. Oh well.

Once I was in junior high school, I rode the bus every morning to school and my friend Mark and I would often get into these huge debates where I'd try to explain evolution to him (with a relatively rudimentary but still pretty much accurate view of how it worked myself), while he insisted that the Bible was true and mocked me for my often flawed arguments. ("You believe we evolved from MOSS!!!" "No no, of course not, that's silly. Moss and humans both evolved from the same bacteria!"). At this point, I was a firm believer in science, doubted religion through and through. But I still attended church. Concurrent with my scientific qualms, I was also developing issues with how the church regarded sexuality.

Heavy Petting
Note: this section gets pretty personal at times, and frankly discusses my developing sexuality. I just don't want to make anyone uncomfortable. You have been warned.
In addition to scientific matters, I was also forced at this time to confront differences in what the church taught, what my parents taught, and what I believed and did. Every young person in the LDS church receives For the Strength of Youth, a little peach-colored (at least then) pamphlet around the time they hit puberty.

This guide is designed to fit in your wallet, so that if, for instance, you're out on a date and your boyfriend asks "Hey, would you like to engage in some necking and heavy petting?" you can say "hold on one moment, let me consult my teen sex pamphlet thingamajig... No it appears that if I do that, it would prove that I don't love myself and I don't love God."

Aside: "Necking?" Way to keep up with the hep cat lingo of the kids these days!)

I was not involved sexually with anyone at the time, but I was a boy between the ages of 12 and 14, so read between the lines (I can still remember how hilariously inaccurate early mental picture of how sex worked was). According to the pamphlet, what I was doing was a nearly unpardonable sin. But, as the saying goes, everyone is doing it.

During a scout camp (age 12, 6th grade), I was in a big tent full of all the boys my age in the ward and the subject turned to how some girl one of us had seen in Playboy had really big nipples, and whether that was attractive or not. A long and fairly in-depth discussion of the female form ensued, and everyone had their preferences: John liked large-breasted Pamela Anderson types with skinny hips, bleach-blond hair and thought that large nipples were repulsive. Steve was racist and thought anyone other than white women were utterly repulsive and "literally make [him] gag." I had comparatively exotic tastes with a bit of an Asian fetish and a serious crush on a dark-skinned (for Utah) classmate from Greece. Brian said he liked redheads, was also a horrible racist and "believe[d] in the separation of the races."

Aside: All the boys had seen varying degrees of pornography, but remember that this was 1992, before the ubiquity of pornography in the Internet era, though I did have access to some digital pornography I found on some big 5.25" floppy disks my brother had hidden away (though not well enough, apparently).

Second Aside:
Anyone who thinks that racism is not still endemic in the LDS church has never been to Mormon Boy Scout camp.

Anyway, it turns out that this entire conversation was overheard by the scout leader. (Friendly tip: A tent wall leaves much to be desired when it comes to keeping your conversation private.) This led to a LONG talk in the morning about the dangers of pornography and how we were now all doomed to lives as serial rapists. He actually told us that sexual feelings, in general, were something to be ASHAMED of and repressed. All of this conflicted with what my parents taught me about sexuality. My mother was fairly anti-porn, but for completely different reasons: it was often exploitative and set unrealistic views of what relationships are like. But my parents NEVER condemned sexuality outright. Quite the contrary.

The big "sex talk" between my dad and I consisted of the following exchange:
"Hey, Patrick. I want you to watch this video. I'll be upstairs if you have any questions."
He proceed to put in a sex education video he'd bought after watching a PBS pledge drive or something (OH MY GOD! It was totally this one! Hahahahaha. Oh god, it looks so unhip, and the kids on the cover look so much like the kids on the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet!). Cheesiness aside, it was actually a pretty decent little video. If not truly sex-positive, it was at least sex-agnostic and knowledge-positive. It openly discussed sexuality, including masturbation and, if I recall correctly, homosexuality -- all without condemning it.

Again and again, I was confronted with what the church said was acceptable when it comes to sex and gender, and what my parents said about those same things:
  • Church: Sex before marriage is an affront to god.
  • Parents: You should be in love with someone before you have sex with them.
  • Church: Dressing modestly shows that you respect his creation (i.e., YOU).
  • Parents: The human body is beautiful! Let's go to Paris and see all the nudes in the museums.
  • Church: "Pornography" in any form is addictive and will destroy all civilization.
  • Parents: Nude photography in the living room!
  • Church: Homosexuality is an abomination.
  • Parents: There is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay (even if my dad did make the occasional limp-wristed-and-lisping-stereotype joke that to this day still make me cringe and sigh).
  • Church: Women should be subservient to men in every way and stay at home all day with the kiddies.
  • Parents: Women have been oppressed and if a woman (like my mom) wants to pursue a career, the only thing stopping her is the inherent sexism of the working world.
  • Church: Women's gift from god is being able to give birth. Men's gift is magical powers and -- when they die -- their own planet full of people to worship them.
  • Parents: Ugh!
That's a lot of conflicting messages! Add to that my own developing sexual morality and identity that was at times at odds with both of these sources (more a matter of degree with my parents), and this was fuel-to-the-fire for me leaving the church.

Leaving the fold
The straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to my affiliation with the LDS church is perhaps a bit unusual, and probably a bit overblown in my memory. Nonetheless, here's how I recall it:

I was already philosophically distant form the church, but I continued to go most weeks. These were the people I knew. I respected many of the adults in my ward, and I enjoyed going camping with the scouts.

But, You know the stereotype about the preacher's kids, how they kind of go off the deep end and become either sex- and drug-addicted hellions, or else become completely arrogant bastards with a sense of entitlement? Well the bishop's son in my ward fit the latter stereotype to a T. This jackass got away with everything, and there was always a "boys will be boys" response whenever he did something awful to someone.

One Sunday morning at church I arrived to Sunday school. Josh greeted everyone at the classroom door and shook our hands. This was unusual, but not remarkably so. We all sat down and our teacher began his lesson. At some point, my eyes started to become irritated with a mild burning sensation. I rubbed them as the irritation grew. I rubbed them some more. Soon, my eyes were on fire. I was in a great deal of pain and could barely keep my eyes open. Tears were streaming down my face as my eyes tried to flush out whatever was in them. This was then the most painful experience I could recall -- such intense, burning pain on my eyes. It's still one of the most painful experiences I can remember.

I was too wrapped up in my own agony to realize that I wasn't the only one: at least three other boys in the classroom were exhibiting similar symptoms as the teacher started to wonder what was up. Josh, on the other hand was having a grand old time and having trouble keeping composed and not bursting out into guffaws of laughter. He finally brought out the bottle of cinnamon oil he had applied to his hands before arriving in class to shake hands with everyone. The class took a break as we all went to the bathroom to try to flush out our eyes. I liked playing a good prank as much as any teenage kid, but I just didn't understand the compulsion to willfully apply uncontrollable pain to another person (or animal, for that matter) for pleasure. I was already thinking "This sucks. Why do I even still come to church to hang out with jerks like this?

But I was horrified when we got back to the classroom and the teacher was laughing about how funny it was, and how he couldn't figure out what was going on at first, but now it's just funny. Good think it was a funny, hilarious harmless prank rather than, say, Ebola. Hahahahahaha.

When the authority figure congratulated this asshole on his beautifully executed torture prank, that's when I decided that it was time to cut my losses and forget about this nonsense. I was done. When I walked out of the church that day, I never came back. I've since only been inside a Mormon church four times, for three weddings (one of which featured wine and Jaggermeister served surreptitiously in URCs) and a funeral.

Note: Never get cinnamon oil in your eyes. It's horrible. Seriously.

Next Installment: From non-Mormon to atheist.


The Jovial Vanquisher of Prudes said...

these are so interesting to read. looking forward to the next one!

Judy said...

I love learning about your journey, Patrick! Thanks for being so honest and open.

C. L. Hanson said...

Aha! So you left the church because someone offended you -- that's always the reason, isn't it?

kidding. ;^)