Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Farewell to Mormonism – No Regrets

Ernest Partridge

November 7, 2012


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 worth it.

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 strange cult.

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 missionary visits.

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 our ward.

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 institutions

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 “Lo, there!”...

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 doctrinal claims.

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 much cast.

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 norms.

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 Mormondom.

And it apparently satisfies most who ask it. But not me at BYU, circa 1953-55.

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 narrative.

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 LDS Church.

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 others.

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 instructive nevertheless.

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 an atheist.

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 Moral Relativism”).

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 Ensign.

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 promised."

Everyone in the congregation was duly impressed and their faith validated by this story.

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 morality.

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

A Defense of Moral Relativism.

Religion, Education and Morality – A Dialogue


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .