I’m newly agnostic. I lost my religion while writing my first novel, A Danger to God Himself. It’s about a Mormon missionary who goes insane on his mission—schizophrenia. I started the novel seven years ago with the intent of skewering Mormonism through it. Best laid plans. The book does skewer religious certainty, but in the process of writing it, my religious certainty suffered a protracted, though not entirely unpleasant, death.
So it goes, as Vonnegut says.
It was actually kind of liberating.
Here’s the short version.
I wanted to be an author since I was 9. (Even then, the idea of saying, “Why, I’m an author!” to someone at a cocktail party was intoxicating, as if I knew what happened at cocktail parties.) But life got in the way. Mental illness. First newspaper job out of college. Marriage. Mental illness. Getting married and raising a family. Divorce. Mental illness. My fifth decade arrived, my kids were heading off to college and finally I had enough time to devote to my fiction career.
The book began, I guess, when I started inviting the Mormon missionaries into my home. At the time, I was wondering what my first novel would be about. (First question from people at the cocktail party: “What’s your book about?”) I was struck by the comical incongruity of it all: These 19-year-old kids so sure they held the secret to life in their meathooks. The absurd certainty of their testimonies. They didn’t believe in the Truth. They knew it. (A Mormon will liken it to a “burning in my bosom.”)
Then I started studying Mormonism (and schizophrenia, by the way). To a Christian like myself, it was outlandish. Kolob?! Magic underwear? Golden Plates carried off to the Celestial Kingdom and thereby unavailable for third-party inspection—how convenient.
How can anyone believe this bullshit?
So the book would be all about why people believe screwy things—and it didn’t get much screwier than Mormonism. The Garden of Eden in Missouri, of all places.
As part of my research, I continued to invite the missionaries in—and this time actually got to know them. They were good kids, really—misinformed but well-meaning. I attended a Mormon church undercover. Good people there, too, fervent about serving God.
I’d read the Mormon apologists’ defenses of Mormon and they were so . . . tortured. One example out of hundreds: The Book of Mormon claims there were horses in pre-Columbia America, which clearly wasn’t the case. Realizing this, Mormon apologists explain that Joseph Smith just translated the word as horses for convenience’s sake. Actually, they were tapirs. Tapirs. Can’t you just see the army riding out to battle on its host of tapirs?
It was fun to make fun of Mormonism.
Yes, they were good people. But good people who have been deceived are pitiable—dupes. And dupes who shove their religion—their rightness—in your face are, well, assholes.
But a nagging thought would needle me: Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like Evangelical apologists explaining away the inconsistencies in the gospels? How many woman were at the tomb?
Why do I scoff at the Mormon apologists yet give the Christian apologists a pass?
During all this, I continued to attend my charismatic Protestant church—and thereby was the burr squeezed between my ass cheeks. It became unavoidably obvious that the only difference between these Mormons and my fellow Christians—the only difference—was the words we used to explain God (as if God could be explained). They both loved God, Mormons and Christians. Both wanted to live like Christ, passionately. The only difference was the dogma. Words.
In the end, I saw that my religion was the same as the missionaries’: Love God with your whole heart and try really, really hard to be a good person. Really hard—fast, pray, study, confess. There’s the rub. I wasn’t any more Christlike than the Mormons I would mingle with. I loved God. So did they. I loved the Savior. So did they. We both failed miserably, despite my belief that I had the power of the Holy Spirit working on behalf of my sanctification—and their belief they bore the power of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood. (I worked on the book for seven years, and I still have to look up the spelling of Melchizedek every time.)
I mean, it makes sense: The correct religion should empower its adherents to abide by the dictums of said religion, shouldn’t it? The correct religion would work as advertised. It would do the trick.
But none of them do—or, better said, they all work about the same: fair to middlin’.
But we insist our words are the correct words.
Finally, I had to admit: I only believed my dogma because someone had told me to believe it. I didn’t deduce it. Not that my dogma is untrue—necessarily. It might be true. Who’s to say?
That’s the point. Dogma can’t be deduced. It must be revealed—then your faith is in the trustworthiness of the source: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the daily horoscope, your hairdresser. What happens is that the believer has some sort of experience related to what he or she has learned. They are cut to the quick. “God just touched my heart when I heard that sermon/read that book/listened to that song/prayed that prayer.”
It’s a mirage, certainty. Experience counts for nothing—or, better said, when everybody’s having essentially identical subjective spiritual experiences, who’s to say which is the True Experience? You say, “I heard God speak to my heart”? So did I—or at least I used to.
Is there One True Religion? I suppose it’s possible. But how will you prove it’s your religion? Bottom line: It’s your subjective experience that validates your religion—your burning in your bosom. I mean, walk on water or something and then we’ll talk. Until then, keep your certainty to yourself. If your religion gives you peace and purpose—hot dog. If it makes you feel like shit, think about finding a new religion—or no religion.
Anyway, welcome to my blog. This is where I’ll revel in my uncertainty. Stuff like the preceding. It’s actually kind of liberating. Lash your sacred cow up to the hitching post now and then and sit a spell. Maybe we’ll learn something, you and me. Of course, you’re free to disagree. Just don’t put me down, please, for creating beyond your mind.
If you liked this blog post, why not subscribe to my blog? It’s free and in return I’ll send you the first two chapters of my novel, A Danger to God Himself, for free. Click here to subscribe. Meanwhile, feel free to use the little share buttons below to share this post with your friends