A few years ago I moved into an almost entirely Mormon neighborhood. It turns out that Mormons are a great deal more tolerant than the average atheist Social Justice Warrior. As a result I was able to learn some things about them that certainly won’t be news to other Mormons, but may interest the readers of this blog.
One day, shortly after my arrival, I was chatting with my next door neighbor, and she mentioned that some of the neighbors in our age group were in the habit of getting together socially every other week, and wondered if I would like to tag along. I said, “Sure.” She suggested I ride along with her and her husband, as the group rotated from house to house, and they knew the neighborhood. Well, when we were underway, she casually slipped me a large Bible. It turns out that the “social gathering” was what the Mormons call Family Home Evening, or FHE. The host is responsible for coming up with a program that relates to the church in some way. This time around it involved each guest reading passages from the Bible with a common theme, which the group would then discuss. At other times the Book of Mormon or other Mormon religious books might be substituted for the Bible. Once we were to act out different parables, and the others would try to guess what they were. On another occasion there was a presentation about the Mormon system of indexing genealogical records, and how volunteers might help with the process. I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable with any of this, as I attended Sunday School regularly and went to church camps as a child, and still know my Bible fairly well.
After the first meeting I e-mailed my neighbor to thank her for taking me to FHE, but told her that I had no intention of changing my religion. I quoted my favorite Bible passage, Ephesians 2: 8-9 in self defense. It goes like this:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: It is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
I strongly recommend it to my fellow atheists. It’s great for warding off pesky proselytizers. After all, if you’ve read the Bible and have an open mind, then nothing more can be done for you by human agency. The rest depends on God, “lest any man should boast.” It usually works, but not this time. It turns out my neighbor was something of an activist in the Mormon community, and was bound and determined to make sure that when “grace” came, I would be standing close enough to the source to notice it. She said that I’d made a very favorable impression on the other neighbors, and they would be very disappointed if I stopped coming to FHE. They knew I wasn’t a Mormon, but it didn’t matter.
Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and I agreed to keep coming. I must admit with a certain degree of shame that I never flat out said I was an atheist. I mentioned that an ancestor had been a Baptist preacher, and I think they took me for some kind of a hard core Protestant, probably with a distinct Calvinist bent. As an extenuating circumstance I might mention that I’m not much of a cook, and delicious snacks were served at the end of each meeting. I’m not talking potato chips. I’m not sure if “my” FHE was typical, but these people were real gourmets. They laid out some goodies that gladdened my heart, and were a welcome relief from the hamburgers and bologna sandwiches that were my usual fare. It’s possible my FHE was an outlier in things other than food as well. My boss was a Mormon, and seemed surprised when he heard that I attended. He said I’d better watch out. I was getting pretty close to the fire!
In the meetings that followed I always felt accepted by the group, and never “othered” for not being a Mormon. None of them ever came to my door to engage in spiritual arm twisting (that was limited to the local Jehovah’s Witnesses), nor was I ever subjected to any heavy-handed attempts at conversion. They did let me know on occasion that, if I had any questions about the church, they would be glad to answer them. They also encouraged me to come to church to see what it was like, and always invited me to other Mormon social affairs. These included a barn dance, “Trick or Trunk,” a convenient substitute for trick or treating on Halloween at which candy is passed out from the trunks of cars parked side by side, Christmas dinner at the church, a Christmas pageant, etc. The atmosphere at these affairs always reminded me of the church I grew up in during the 50’s and 60’s. Now it is a typical mainstream Protestant church, attended mainly by people who appear to be well over 70, but in those days it was a great deal more vibrant, with a big congregation that included many children. So it was in the Mormon church. There were members of all ages, and there must have been 50 boys and girls in the children’s choir. In a word, you didn’t get the feeling that the church was dying.
I did attend church on one occasion, and it was quite different from a typical Protestant service. To begin, there are no regular pastors. Everything is done by lay people. The church services last about three hours. Ours was divided into a general service, another lesson delivered by one of the lay people, and another period in which the men and women were divided into separate groups. Of course, there’s also Sunday school for the children.
Each church is attended by one or more “wards,” and there are several wards in a “stake.” Each ward has a lay “Bishop,” who is appointed for a period of five years, give or take. The stake is headed by a lay “President,” also appointed for a limited time. These part time clergymen aren’t paid, don’t get to wear any gorgeous vestments, and certainly nothing like the Pope’s Gucci slippers, but they still have all the counseling, visiting, and other duties of more conventional clergy. I was familiar with both my ward Bishop and stake President. Both were intelligent and capable professional men. They were respected by the rest of the congregation, but the ones I knew weren’t patronizing or in any way “stuck up.” They were just members of the congregation at the service I attended, but perhaps they occasionally play a more active role.
Hard core Mormons give ten percent of their gross income to the church. I’m not sure what percentage is “hard core,” and I’m also not sure what the church does with all the money. That question has probably been asked ever since the days of Joseph Smith. I suspect the IRS is reasonably well informed, but otherwise they keep financial matters pretty close to the vest. In any case, only members who tithe are allowed to attend services at or be married in a Mormon Temple.
Mormons are a great deal more “moral” when it comes to reproduction than the average atheist. In other words, their behavior in such matters is consistent with what the relevant predispositions accomplished at the time they evolved. For example, the lady who tossed the Bible in my lap had 11 children and 37 grandchildren. Large families were the rule in our neighborhood. I can’t really understand the objections of the “anti-breeders” to such behavior in a country where the population would be declining if it weren’t for massive illegal immigration. In any case, all those grandchildren and great grandchildren will have inherited the earth long after the mouths of those who criticized their ancestors have been stopped with dust.
The people in my ward included some who were brought up in the Mormon faith, and some, including my zealous neighbor lady, who had been converted later in life. Among the former there were some older people who still had a lively memory of the days when polygamy was a great deal more common than it is now. They recall that there were federal “revenuers” who were on the lookout for such arrangements just as their more familiar peers were snooping after moonshine stills. A neighbor, aged about 80, recounted a story of one such family she had heard as a child. A baby had been born to a man with several wives, but died soon after birth. The “revenuers” were aware of the fact. Soon, however, the stork arrived again, and this time delivered a healthy baby. Shortly thereafter the man was sitting at the dinner table holding the new arrival when he was warned that inspectors were on the way to pay him a visit. He took it on the lam out the back door, and hid in the family cemetery were the first child was buried. When the inspectors arrived, they asked the wife who happened to be in the house where they could find her husband. With a downcast look she replied, “He’s up in the cemetery with the baby.” That statement was, of course, perfectly true. The embarrassed “revenuers” muttered their condolences and left!
I must say I had to clench my teeth occasionally on listening to some of the passages from the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, there’s really nothing there that’s any more fantastic than the similar stories you can read in the Bible, or the lives of the saints. In any case, what they believe strikes me as a great deal less dangerous than the equally fantastic belief held by the “men of science” for half a century that there is no such thing as human nature, not to mention “scientific” Marxism-Leninism. According to some atheists, indoctrinating children with stories from the Bible and the Book of Mormon constitutes “child abuse.” I have my doubts given the fact that they seem to accomplish those most “moral” of all goals, survival and reproduction, a great deal better than most of my fellow infidels. Many of my fellow atheists have managed to convince themselves that they’ve swallowed the “red pill,” but in reality they’re just as delusional as the Mormons, and their delusions are arguably more destructive. I personally would rather see my children become Mormons than dour, barren, intolerant, and ultra-Puritanical Social Justice Warriors, striding down the path to genetic suicide with a self-righteous scowl. I would also much rather live among spiritual Mormons than secular Communists.
As one might expect, there were many non-Mormons in the local community who “othered” the Mormons, and vice versa. Nothing is more natural for our species than to relegate those who are in any way different to the outgroup. For example, Mormons, were supposed to stick together and favor each other in business dealings, government appointments, etc. Unfortunately, there has never been a population of humans who consider themselves members of the same group that has not done precisely the same, at least to some extent. Mormon religious beliefs were considered “crazy,” as opposed, apparently, to such “perfectly sane” stories as Noah’s ark, the loaves and the fishes, the magical conversion of bread and wine to flesh and blood, etc. Mormons were supposed to imagine that they wore “magic clothes.” In reality the Mormons don’t consider such garments any more “magical” than a nun’s habit or a Jew’s yarmulke.
In general, I would prefer that people believe the truth. I am an atheist, and don’t believe in the existence of any God or gods. I’m not an “accommodationist,” and I don’t buy Stephen Jay Gould’s notion of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” On the other hand, when people treat me with kindness and generosity, as I was treated in the Mormon community, I’m not in the habit of responding with stones and brickbats, either. The hard core Hobbesians out there will claim that all that kindness sprang from selfish motives, but hard core Hobbesians must also perforce admit that neither they nor anyone else acts any differently.
If you want to get a fictional “taste” of what Mormons are like, I recommend the film “Once I was a Beehive.” You can rent it at Amazon. It’s about a teenage girl whose mom remarries to a Mormon. The flavor of the Mormon community pictured in the film reflects my own impressions pretty accurately. The Mormon Bishop, in particular, is very typical and true to life.
As for me, in the fullness of time I left the land of the Mormons and now live among the heathen once again. None of them has seen fit to follow me and pull me back from the fiery furnace by the scruff of my neck. It may be that they finally realized I was a hopeless case, doomed to sizzle over the coals in the hereafter for the edification of the elect. I’m afraid they’re right about that. If they do come after me they’ll find me armed with my copy of Ephesians, as stubborn as ever.