I departed from the Mormon Church, effectively if not
officially, more than a half century ago. Amazingly, the essential break
took place during my freshman and sophomore years at BYU, after which I
transferred to the University of Utah where I was to earn my BS, MS and Ph.D
degrees in Philosophy.
I don’t believe that I have stepped inside a Mormon ward more than twice in
the past forty years. Each time was for the funeral services of my parents.
However my wife and I are still counted among the thirteen million members
about which the Mormon Church boasts. Admittedly, we could formally resign
from the LDS Church if we were willing to tolerate the required persistence
and the resulting entreaties of Mormon officials to reconsider. But this
would alienate me from many of my Mormon friends and relatives. Just not
While living in Utah as a student and later as a professor, surrounded by
Mormon friends and family, I could hardly ignore “the Church,” though I was
usually careful not to engage in arguments that would only provoke hostility
among the faithful with no useful result Even so, those who sincerely sought
out a respectful conversation were not turned away. Most of my post-graduate
life, however, has been spent away from “Zion” where, for all practical
purpose, Mormonism has receded in my awareness to the status of just another
Each month, we are visited by our “home teachers,” good friends with whom we
enjoy small talk, patiently listen to their “faith promoting stories” from
The Ensign, and by tacit agreement never discuss our personal beliefs
or why we never attend Sunday services. Until recently, we were frequently
visited by missionaries. But no longer. And why not? Because, I suspect, of
what followed a seemingly simple request by our home teachers. “We have some
new missionaries in our Ward, who would like to practice their lessons.
Would it be OK if they visited you?”
“Sure,” I said, send them over.” I suspected all along that this was a ruse
to sneak a conversion spiel on us. Heretofore, when we told the missionary
visitors that we had lived in Utah (where my wife was born), what followed
was small talk, sans doctrine. This time would be different.
Before these poor fellows could get up to speed, I asked a couple of simple
question: “How old do you believe the Earth is?” “Do you believe that the
Earth was totally flooded some four thousand years ago, and if so, why don’t
ancient Chinese records mention this?” And so on. There were to be no more
Aside from occasional home teachers and missionaries, whom we politely
tolerate, for the past half century I have kept a respectful distance for
“the Church.” Until recently.
So why this renewed interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day
Saints? For the most part, I believe that I can blame the candidacy of Mitt
Romney. It is impossible these days to ignore all the resulting “Mormon
talk” let loose in the public media, and to fail to reflect upon my unique
perspective on the LDS faith. And so I have of late visited a few
“ex-Mormon” websites. I have been fascinated
and entertained by the personal stories therein, and I believe that I have a story
that might interest some and, who knows?, might possibly
lead a few doubters out the door of Mormonism to a “life after Mormonism.”
My Mormon Boyhood.
The pivot-point in my exit were those two years at BYU. But before I get to
all that, here’s a brief account of what led up to it.
I was born in New York City in 1935, and from age five to eighteen, grew up
in Montclair, New Jersey, some fifteen miles from Manhattan. My parents were
both born in Utah into devout Mormon families. (My great-great-grandfather,
Edward Partridge, was the first bishop of the LDS Church). Both parents were
graduates of BYU and post-Graduates of Columbia University. My father, an
educational psychologist, was for most of those years (excluding service in
World War II as a naval officer) a professor and later the President of
Montclair State College (now Montclair University).
Given my parents’ backgrounds, it was almost pre-ordained that they would
drive me and my two brothers to the Mormon Church every Sunday. Had they
not, this would have cause great distress in the families back in Utah. They
also believed (erroneously, as I was later to conclude) that “going to
Sunday school” was essential to our moral development.
“Going to the Mormon Church” was not a simple matter back then. There were
in Montclair, a town of about fifty thousand, just three active Mormon
families, and we had to travel ten miles or so to the Ward in East Orange.
At the time there were less than two million Mormons world-wide. The East
Orange Ward contained some notable Utah Mormon elites, including a daughter
of Utah Senator Wallace Bennett and a sister of Ezra Taft Benson, later a
President of the LDS Church. My age cohort
(roughly) included journalist Peggy Fletcher Stack and law Professor Edwin Firmage. Peggy Stack’s grandfather, Harvey Fletcher, an East Orange Ward
“regular,” was a world-renowned audio physicist and the co-inventor of
stereophonic sound. There were some authentic intellectual heavyweights in
At the same time, I benefitted from an outstanding high school education.
Following a competitive examination, I was admitted to “College High
School,” which was affiliated with Montclair State College. There I was
taught by college professors and, accordingly, acquired a precociously
secular, scientific, and scholarly perspective on human history and
Consequently, during my adolescence, I carried about in my head, a
bifurcated mind. There was “the weekday mind” of ancient dinosaurs, of
evolution, of American Indians as migrants from Asia, and above all, of
skepticism, scientific discipline and critical thought. Then there was “the
Sunday mind” of the Creation in 4004 BC, of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s
flood, of the Indians as migrant Israelites (the “Lamanites”), and of faith
trumping “man’s reason” – faith: “the substance of things hoped-for,
the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews, 11:1). I somehow managed the
alternation of mind-sets from weekdays to weekends to weekdays again,
without undue strain. And so, when, at age eighteen, I left New Jersey for
Provo and BYU, my hand still firmly grasped the “iron rod” of Mormon faith.
Brigham Young University – Where it all Unraveled.
At BYU the shifting of mind-sets from a required religion classroom to a
science classroom to the library to the study hall proved to be untenable.
About that time, Joseph Fielding Smith’s book, Man His Origin and Destiny,
was published along with Cleon Skousen’s “Thousand Years” series, each
defending the Biblical “young earth creationist” theory. Simultaneously, I
was taking standard biology courses in which the professors were routinely
(and accurately) explaining evolution, and I took a geology field trip to
Zion National Park, where the age of the rocks and strata was calculated in
many millions of years. “What gives?” I wondered.
But all that was a mere side-show. Ironically, for me the precipitating
slide on the slippery slope down and out of Mormonism was not unlike Joseph
Smith’s autobiographical account of the anguish which (allegedly) led him to
the Sacred Grove:
The whole district of country seemed
affected by [religious revivalism], and great multitudes united
themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small
stir and division amongst the people, some crying “Lo, here!” and others
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said
to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or
are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it,
and how should I know it.?
Good questions, all of them, deserving the
respect of any philosophy professor. But then, as we all know, Smith comes
upon the passage from James: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of
God...” This admonition is later echoed in the promise of Moroni:
I would exhort your that ye would ask
God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not
true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having
faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power
of the Holy Ghost. (Moroni 10:4).
Again, seems reasonable, except for the
assumption in both promises that there is a God and/or Holy Ghost available
to fulfill those promises. In addition there is Moroni’s troublesome
prerequisite that one have a faith in Christ.
“But aren’t these precisely the key points at issue?,” I wondered. “And just
what am I asking for? Confirmation of a faltering faith? And isn’t that
simply begging the question?”
Because these questions were very much on my mind, at this point my story
radically diverged from Joseph Smith’s, never to return as it turned out. So
I concluded that the task immediately before me was to study the art and
craft of logical thinking and the psychology of belief, and also to examine
the available evidence pertaining to the truth or falsity of Mormon
At first I reflected, “I kinda suppose that the LDS Church is true. If so,
then it will stand the test of logic and evidence. And if not, well then I
should be open to that possibility as well. Otherwise, this is not an honest
inquiry.” As I was later to discover with that approach, the die was pretty
And so, to discover the nature of “objective thinking,” I enrolled in
Chauncey Riddle’s class in “Introductory Logic.” On the first day of class,
he wrote several definitions on the board. Among them:
“Objective belief:” Belief in
concordance with social norms.
“Subjective belief:” Individual belief, not in concordance with social
By this account, in Provo Utah, a
testimony of the truth of the LDS religion is “objective,” while a belief in
the infallibility of the Catholic Pope is “subjective.” At the College of
Cardinals in Rome, the reverse is the case.
I did not show up for Riddle’s second class. Instead, the next day I was at
the Registrar’s Office dropping the course.
Enter Reed Bradford’s course in Sociology. (For a short while, I thought I
might major in Sociology). Prof. Bradford, whom I came to admire immensely,
was a learned yet tolerant scholar. Early in the course, he introduced a
technical term for a concept that must be familiar to any thoughtful
individual, however young: “ethnocentrism.” It is inevitable, he said, that
all individuals grow up believing that their group is morally superior to
all others. A few, with education, reflection, and contact with other
cultures, “grow out of” ethnocentric beliefs and biases. But most do not.
“Of course,” I reflected, “everybody with a mind knows that! That’s why
almost everybody dies with the religious belief they grew up with.” But then
came to mind the next question, which sealed the fate of my Mormon faith:
“So how is Mormonism any different?”
The usual BYU answer was, “the gift of the Holy Ghost will give you a
testimony so strong that you simply cannot doubt it!” Of course, the same
answer is given countless times in Sunday Schools and seminaries through
And it apparently satisfies most who ask it. But not me at BYU, circa
Instead, I asked: “So is the ‘testimony’ of the Catholic Priest, or the
Baptist preacher, or the Moslem Imam, any less fervent than that of the
Mormon? What is the qualitative difference?” So we’re back to “Lo, here!,”
“Lo, there!” aren’t we?
I received no answer, other than “you will know the truth when the Holy
Ghost manifests it to you.” End of conversation.
But not for me. Back to a study of logic and evidence in the continuing
quest for “objectivity” (conventional definition, not Chauncey Riddle’s).
That calls for a study of Philosophy – in particular, Epistemology and
Philosophy of Science. Fat chance of finding any of that at BYU. So at the
end of my Sophomore year, I was outta there and on my way to the University
of Utah, where I enrolled as a Philosophy Major.
With validation by faith set aside, what followed was inevitable:
scholarship replaced apologetics, science replaced dogma, textual criticism
replaced “scriptural proof,” and my mind became open to compelling evidence
from New World archeology, evolution, historical geology, Mormon history,
and so on. In my mind, the status of the Mormons shifted from “us” to
“them.” Notwithstanding the membership records in Salt Lake City, I became
an “ex-Mormon.” I never looked back.
Sidebar: When I wrote and published for the internet a brief account of my
loss of faith at BYU (“About
this Mormonism Thing”), I received an angry e-mail. “You are a liar!”
it charged. And why? Because, I was told, it was absolutely impossible for
anyone to lose his testimony at BYU. Therefore you lie. Totally valid,
logically speaking. (Modus Ponens for you students of logic). But totally unsound due to a false primary premise. In
fact, many individuals lose their faith at BYU. I personally have known
dozens of them. And, of course, I am Exhibit A.
Life after BYU and Mormonism
In the summer of 1955, between universities, I decided to search out my own
“Sacred Grove” in the Wasatch Mountains east of Farmington, Utah. There for
ten days I read and reflected and, yes, prayed a bit, without allowing
myself the luxury of assuming that there was a Deity at the other end of the
line. I received no answer, other than the Buddhistic “Subdue Thyself.” That
message, I believed then and believe now, came from within.
With that, I essentially closed my personal book on Mormonism, and thus this
tale is essentially told. What remains after my transfer to the University
of Utah is more post-LDS autobiography, and that is not the subject of this
As I read and hear the personal experiences of ex-Mormons, I am duly impressed with
accounts of how various difficulties and scandals in Mormon doctrine and
history have prompted the departure of others from the LDS Church. Among
these, the lack of physical evidence for the Book of Mormon, DNA evidence of
Asiatic origin of native Americans, The Book of Abraham, the doctrine
concerning the Negro, and discrepancies and outrages in Mormon history. I
don’t dispute any of these accounts. But for me, they are essentially moot.
They simply pile more evidence on a conclusion which I arrived at a half
century ago: namely, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is
a colossal, if fabulously successful, fraud. Those who sincerely believe in
their Church – those with “testimonies of the truth of The Restored Gospel”
– can not and will not be convinced otherwise, and life is too short even to
try to convince them.
However, some parting reflections may be in order. For extended treatments
of these issues, follow the indicated links to essays at my website,
The Online Gadfly.
First, “Who is a Mormon?”
During Mitt Romney’s first campaign for the White House In 2008, Newsweek
published an article by Jon Meacham who wrote that “the world’s nearly 13
million [Mormons] ... believe that God ... [revealed] the Book of Mormon”
Not even close!
I suggest that one can subdivide Mormonism, like Caesar’s Gaul, into three
parts: First there are the faithful Mormons like Mitt Romney, with
uncompromising “testimonies” of the truth of their beliefs in “the restored
Gospel of Jesus Christ,” of the Book of Mormon, of the divine mission of
Joseph Smith, and of the divine authority of the “prophet, seer and
revelator” in Salt Lake City, who leads the LDS Church.
There are, I would guess, at least as many “social Mormons,” who have an
abiding respect for the history and traditions of the Church and who enjoy
the weekend company of other Mormons, while at the same time rejecting the
LDS theology. “Social Mormons” admire, as do I, the strong family values,
and the in-group solidarity and compassion that is conspicuous among the
Mormons. But they may be much less impressed with the indifference of the
Church and its members to social and economic injustice. Many of my
much-admired professors at the University of Utah were non-believing “social
Mormons.” So too, as I was eventually to discover, were my parents. My
father, it turned out, had serious doubts about the authenticity of the Book
of Mormon, and was outraged by the Mormon doctrine concerning the Negro.
Neither of my parents appeared to be much troubled by my alienation from the
And finally, because it is extremely difficult to remove one’s name from the
membership rosters of the Church, those rolls include individuals who are
totally alienated from the Church. As recently as twenty three years ago,
the only way “out” was through excommunication. When the LDS Church
proclaims that there are more than twelve million Mormons, the Church no
doubt counts me and my wife among them, along with, I suspect, millions of
Second, “So what are you now? An atheist or something?”
I reply with an anecdote. At her deathbed, Gertrude Stein was heard to
mumble, “What is the answer?” The Rabbis drew closer, anticipating a
deathbed conversion. But then, Stein sat upright and said “But what is the
question?” Whereupon she collapsed and died. Probably apocryphal, but
Exactly! To the query, “Are you an atheist?,” or “Do you believe in
God?” I can only respond: “What is the question? What am I being asked to
affirm or deny?” “God” is an ambiguous term. Do I believe in Aristotle’s
God, the God of Genesis, the God of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Mormon God? No,
no, no, and no. If that makes me an atheist, then so be it. But Einstein wrote of God as the rational order of the
universe. Do I believe in Einstein’s God. I suppose that I do. But none of
the aforementioned four “theists” (if that is what they all are) accept
Einstein’s concept of God. Still worse, the traditional
Christian concept of God is incoherent, for there are, in fact, several
distinct and mutually exclusive concepts of God within that tradition.
On the one hand, there is the God of the theologians: "infinite in
being and perfection, a most pure sprit, invisible, without body, parts, or
passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most
wise, most holy, most free, most absolute..," so states the Westminster
Confession of Faith (1617). Moreover, Saints Augustine and Thomas
Aquinas tell us that God is outside of time and space, yet "everywhere" and
"everywhen." On the other hand, there is the "Sunday School God" of
the ordinary churchgoer, the "compassionate and loving Heavenly Father, who
answers prayers, rewards the faithful and punishes sinners. The two
concepts are flatly contradictory.
So before you ask me that question, “Do you
believe in God?,” tell me first what you are asking me to affirm or deny.
And don’t tell me, as some theologians would, that God is an “infinite and
timeless person,” for that notion, like so much “God talk” is utterly
incoherent. (See my “Do
You Believe in God?”).
So to the question, “Do you believe in God?” I am neither a believer (a
theist), a non-believer (an atheist), or undecided (an agnostic). I prefer a
word that never caught on in our language (I believe it originated with
Bertrand Russell): I am an “Ignostic,” meaning I fail to recognize any
coherent meaning to the question. If, further on, you present me with
a conventional Christian concept of God -- say, the Sistine Chapel depiction
of the bearded grandfather in the sky -- then, sure, by that definition I am
Third: “So I suppose that means that you do not accept the authority
of the Bible?”
Correct -- I don’t. And thankfully so. The early books of the Old Testament are rife
with genocide, brutality, murder and mayhem, much of it allegedly commanded
by God. The so-called “minor prophets” late in the Old Testament preach a
much more peaceful message, as does the gentle Nazarene Rabbi of the
Gospels. Much of St. Paul, most notably his asceticism, anti-intellectualism
and misogyny, we can well do without. And the final book of the Bible,
Revelation, ends the collection with depictions of the same sort of savage brutality with
which it began.
I accept much of Jesus’ teachings because they are moral, but I accept them
critically. I do not judge acts moral or immoral just because Jesus
(allegedly) said so. Accordingly, I describe myself as a “secular
Christian:” I accept (critically) most of the ethics of Jesus, but totally
reject Christian theology. In this respect, I am the opposite of the
“religious right” which accepts traditional Christian theology while it
rejects the ethics of Jesus.
I addition, I recognize that there is no authentication whatever of the
books of the Bible: no original autographs, numerous translations, etc.
“Biblical proof” is a meaningless travesty. As one wise cynic put it, “the
Bible is like a prisoner of war. If you torture it enough, you can get it to
say anything.” But let’s not get into all that. (See my
“Through a Glass,
Darkly”). Suffice it to say that when the LDS Articles of Faith proclaim
that “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it translated
correctly,” with no clear indication as to how to distinguish "correct"
from "incorrect' translation, the LDS Church gives its game away.
Finally: “Does Mormonism provide sound moral guidance?
If you want your son to be a faithful husband and stone sober throughout his
life, and if you want your daughter to be an obedient wife in all things and
the mother of a large brood of children, then by all means send them to the
Mormon Sunday School.
But if you want them to be stalwart soldiers in the ongoing struggle for
peace, justice, equality, democracy and defense of the planet, and if you
want them to go through life as independent thinkers and actors, “marching
to the sound of their own drums,” then you might want to send them somewhere
else for their moral training. (See my
“A Peculiar People”).
After this presidential campaign, I would add: “... and if you want them to
be truthful and trustworthy” send them elsewhere.
Moral intelligence can be a tricky business. It is not a job done well by
children or dogmatists. Two examples:
In my ethics classes I often encountered students who insisted that one must
never lie. “It’s one of the Ten Commandments!” Izzat so? I replied. Suppose
you know that an aggressive District Attorney is hiding in a dumpster to
escape assassination by a Mafia hit man. The killer asks you a direct
question: “Do you know where the DA is?” If you tell the truth, you have
committed the crime of Accessory to Murder. Ergo, you are morally required
to tell a lie. You disagree? Then please give me a rebuttal.
To the aforementioned novice missionaries I posed the question: “The Twelfth
Article of Faith reads: “‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents,
rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.’ Now
what do you do if a president orders you to disobey a law?” “I would pray on
it,” the missionary replied. Very touching, but hardly illuminating.
Simply put, a childlike belief in moral absolutism is incapable of dealing
with moral conflicts such as these. Or the vagueness and ambiguities of
moral prescriptions. (For an extended argument, see my
“A Defense of
The appalling limitations of Mormon moral vision were made clear to me by
the so-called “faith promoting stories” that I heard in “testimony meetings”
and that I hear today from our home teachers as they read from The
One example is from my pre-BYU adolescent days in New Jersey. At one
“Testimony meeting,” a very intelligent, well-educated corporate attorney, a
man of absolute and uncompromising faith, told us of the time that he was
scheduled to present a report to his company. On the night before the
presentation, as he was hard at work on the report, and with about a
half-hour of work remaining he ran into a "wall" of fatigue. Desperate, he
fell to his knees and prayed the Lord God to help him. He reported that a
great peace fell over him, and that he was led to understand that if he
retired immediately, he would awake refreshed in the morning with the energy
and presence of mind to complete the assignment. So great was his faith,
along with his wish not to disturb his wife, that he didn't set the alarm
clock, and sure enough, he awoke early and completed the report "as
Everyone in the congregation was duly impressed and their faith validated by
And then, I began to reflect on it. By back-dating to the approximate time
of this divine intervention, I figured that it was contemporaneous with the
time that millions of European Jews were being led into the Nazi gas
chambers – a time when mothers and fathers were praying to the Lord of
Israel to spare, if not themselves, then their children.
Tragically, as we all know, these prayers were unanswered. Even so, I was
asked to believe that at that same time the Almighty Creator of the Universe
saw fit to deliver, like a night clerk at a motel, a wake-up call to our
worthy friend, for the greater good of his employer.
This was not the message that the Lord gave to Job "out of the whirlwind."
And yet, sadly, it is the sort of tale that is often told from the pulpits
and congregations of numerous dogmatic religions. Thus, from our home
teachers and their ever-present copy of The Ensign, we have heard of
a man who was reminded the forgotten combination of a lock, of another man
whose crops were saved by a rainstorm that fell only on his property, of a
harried mother who figured out how to make a kite, of a child who was “told”
in a dream where to find his lost puppy, all of this in response to prayers
to Almighty God. I’m sure you have all heard much of the same. So God, we
are asked to believe, is not only an obedient night clerk, he is also
apparently a Cosmic Google.
This is not the kind of God that I choose to worship. Nor would I want to
send my child to a Sunday School that taught this level of primitive
I close as I began: “Farewell, to Mormonism – No Regrets.” I choose to labor
in a much broader field of moral endeavor than one or another
institutionalized religion. Instead, I am committed to serve a suffering
humanity at large, and to defend a home planet in grave peril due to human
waste, ignorance, and greed.
For more, here are some of my writings on Mormonism and religion in
general, all found at this website.
Do You Believe in God?
Through a Glass Darkly
One Nation Under God, Divisible
“Romney, Mormonism and ‘The Religious Test’”
A Peculiar People
of Moral Relativism.
Religion, Education and Morality – A Dialogue