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One Last Blessing

I dreaded giving blessings. Maybe I would have been a better Home Teacher if people didn’t ask faithful Home Teachers for blessings. Ask me to help you move, paint your fence, or fix your computer. Just spare me the pressure of giving you a blessing. One last blessing gave me the determination to leave the church.

I was rounding up the girls to go home from church when I was approached by the Elders Quorum President to help him give a blessing. My heart sunk. I hated giving blessings even when I believed in Mormonism, but now I didn’t believe in God let alone modern prophets of God. Those doubts were still private, and I wanted to keep them that way for a while longer. I was trying to regain my testimony for my wife’s sake. Part of trying to gain a testimony was doing my priesthood duty.

So I followed the President toward the cultural hall. Two women and several children were waiting on the stairs leading to the stage. One woman I knew from church. The other I had never seen before in my life. This other was the woman whom I was being asked to prophesy over.

Giving a blessing always followed a pattern for me. Whenever someone asked for me to give them a blessing, my mind started racing. What would I say? Would God speak through me? Had there been anything that I did that I should have repented of? What would they think of me? What did God think of me? Would God support me in trying to do my duty?

I had been taught that if I opened my mouth in faith, God would fill it. It never happened that way for me: I never felt any special inspiration. I concluded that I must not have enough faith. I begged and pleaded with God to inspire me. I begged him to make me his worthy servant. All to no avail. It was always the same: I was left to my own devices.

I had never felt a special inspiration to say anything in particular while giving blessings. It was always a shot in the dark, a guess. For all I could tell, God didn’t care whether I promised a person that they would be healed completely or whether I told them to prepare for death. I never felt a special guidance.

So I always walked a tightrope. On the one hand, I could decline to pronounce a blessing and feel like a faithless, heartless schmuck, enduring their scorn. On the other, I could speak as if I knew the mind of God with a confidence that I didn’t feel, promising the moon only to look like a fool when my promises came to nothing. I was too afraid to do either one, so I split the difference and promised only safe things. Rarely would I promise someone complete healing. Only if the person was asking to be blessed for some minor illness that was unlikely to prove fatal would I promise them that they would recover. I always counseled them to listen to their doctors.

The same went for naming my babies. Naming babies was the mental anguish of giving a blessing magnified. The public ritual of naming a newborn and giving them a blessing in front of the congregation only made things worse. I would brainstorm good things that I wanted my children to have and that I presumed Heavenly Father would like them to have too (since we both loved our children). I would pray about my ideas beforehand to see if God approved. I wouldn’t feel anything special either way, as if God were saying “Sure, whatever. Sounds good to me.” I agonized, fasted, and prayed over what I would say, and the most I got was a shrug of the divine shoulders?

We all walked up to the stage, the woman seeking a blessing sat in a chair, and we gathered around her. I asked the woman to give me her full name. I repeated it back to her to avoid any embarrassing mistakes. I put my hands on her head, the President covered my hands with his own, and everyone else folded their arms and closed their eyes.

Those Sisters (it was always Sisters) sat there expecting me to speak for God like it was the easiest thing in the world. I secretly resented when women would ask me for blessings, for putting me through this torture. I tried to forgive them by telling myself that if they really knew what it was like, they probably wouldn’t ask. I think many Mormon men don’t ask for blessings because they know what it’s like for the person giving the blessing (and deep down they know how uninspired most blessings are).

With few exceptions, blessings never seemed to do much of anything. People would get better (except for when they didn’t) in due time, just like any Gentile would. I never witnessed any miraculous cures or extraordinary instances of prophesy. I never saw the blind given sight, the deaf made to hear, a lost limb restored, or the dead raised to life. As far as I could tell, the world went on spinning regardless of whether or not someone received a blessing. Subconsciously, this made my resentment for being asked to give a blessing even greater because I felt like we could skip the pointless exercise and spare me the mental anguish.

I sent one more silent, urgent prayer that God would guide my words, and I began. “Sister X, in the name of Jesus Christ and through the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood, we lay our hands on your head to give you a blessing of comfort and peace.”

With the easy part over, I took a deep breath. Feeling no special inspiration, I told her safe, comforting things. “Your Heavenly Father loves you.” “Your family life will improve as you attend church.” “Be diligent in your scripture study and prayer.” “Listen to your priesthood leaders.” I said whatever I thought she wanted to hear.

In this way, this blessing was different than all the previous blessings that I had given in my life. I was consciously lying to her. All the other times, I had some hope that God would come through for me and fill my mind with his divine will. This time I had lost that hope.

If I had been honest, I would have declined to go through this ritual which had become empty for me. But doing so would be to admit that I lacked faith or that I was somehow unworthy of God’s communication. And they wanted to hear comforting words. How could I refuse to give them comfort? I just wanted to do the right thing and make everyone happy.

So I did the best I could with what I had. When asked, I showed up and begged for divine guidance. Lacking that as I always did, I said what I could without overcommitting myself.

From various talks given in church by other men, I don’t think I was the only one. One man during my missionary years openly admitted in a fireside that he usually just said safe, comforting things. One stake president taught in stake priesthood meeting that we should feel no pressure to prophesy when called upon to give a blessing. It was a nice idea, but impossible for me in practice. People expected to hear some prophesy, and I couldn’t bring myself to disappoint them by admitting that I wasn’t capable of it.

I left church that day knowing that I couldn’t lie anymore. I dropped a letter in the mail to my Stake President the very next Tuesday. I am so grateful that I never have to give another blessing.

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Break On Through To The Other Side

Letting go of God involves letting go of the stories that gave meaning and purpose to life. This can be a very dark time. When I think about this part of my deconversion, I imagine myself skirting the brink of a bottomless abyss like those swirling black holes in old sci-fi movies.

Black Hole Bob

…the person’s former faith has collapsed, but they do not yet have anything to replace it with. Unfortunately, most people are taught that only through religion can they hope to find happiness, meaning, purpose or fulfillment in life, and this belief often persists after all the other aspects of religious belief have gone, leading to a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, of having hit rock bottom. Fear, undirected anger, and feelings of depression are common. Often a person feels overwhelmed and lost, adrift in the world without a framework to make sense of it all. (Into the Clear Air)

One day while I was flailing around for meaning in my life, I happened to be driving through northern Utah and southern Idaho on my way to a family reunion. The overcast skies and the long, scenic drive conspired to put me in a contemplative mood. I wondered why it mattered whether I lived or died since I would be dead in the end anyway. The universe didn’t care. It would go on its mindless way, heedless of my death.

Then I began to think about my daughters and my wife. My death would matter to them. I didn’t want them to be unhappy or to struggle without me. I wanted to help my family.

Then I thought about my ancestors, about all of the hard lives they eked out on this earth, about the flashes of joy and the dark tragedies in their lives. They survived and I owe my existence to their perseverance. I pondered on the countless generations of mankind who lived and died before me. A sense of deep history overcame me.

I imagined even further back to the time of my ape ancestors. I imagined the strength and tenderness of a maternal ancestor grooming her new baby, protecting it with her own life from the dangers lurking in the darkness. I imagined the strength and determination of my paternal ancestors whose lives punctuated by violence made me possible. I began to feel a sense of deep connection with all of my ancestors back to the beginning of life on earth.

Then I looked on the plants and animals around me and realized that I was surrounded by family, distant cousins trying to live according to the dictates of their own drives. I worried about the brutishness of their lives and wished I could lift them out of it. I was filled with compassion for all life.

I looked to the future. I saw obstacles and uncertainty. There was no God to help us. We could only succeed by our own wits, by taking responsibility into our own hands. Only we had the power to succor and bring equity. Only we could love each other.

I decided to live in the service of the grand experiment: life on earth. If I could ameliorate the suffering of other beings present and future, I would count my life meaningful. My heart burned within me with an intense love and connection with the world around me. I felt at peace; I had finally found a safe harbor to escape the storm. I felt an growing confidence that I was on the right path.

I had broken through to the other side.

Most people, by this stage, have learned that they are not alone, that their path is one that many travelers have walked before; that there are whole communities of freethinkers out there, glowing like galaxies through the dark veils of blind faith.… this stage is characterized by a peak as high as those valleys [of the previous stage] are deep, a joy as high and sublime as the horizon of dawn. The exhilaration of breaking through the layers of things that you believe because you have been taught to believe, of discovering for yourself what is true, and of finally knowing who you are and understanding your place in the cosmos, is something compared to which the sterile and antiquated dogmas of religion seem puny and absurd. Returning to them, at this stage, is like trying to return to life in a small, windowless room after one has seen the soaring, sunny vista that awaits just outside. (Ibid.)

Since that time, I’ve met a few believers who have had brushes with atheism. They come to the place of darkness and meaninglessness but never seem to make it through to the bright vistas on the other side. They’ve dipped their toes in the pool and decided that a world without God is not for them. Or perhaps they leapt in and began to drown like I had. While I found the other side of the pool to save me, they returned to the place from which they dove in.

They have to find their own way and happiness, but I wish I could share with them what I found.

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Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

I was assigned to babysit my little brother one day when I was a teenager. All was well until I got distracted by a neighborhood girl. While I was talking to her, my little brother had somehow gotten up the street and was playing with a neighbor’s dalmatian. The dalmatian jumped up on my brother and ripped open his cheek.

I don’t remember seeing him until he had already come back from the emergency room. I had been so oblivious of the situation that my parents found out before I did and managed to take him to the hospital without me knowing. My brother still has the scars to prove it. I still regret that I was derelict in my duty, and that my brother payed the price instead of me.

I often hear that I should leave religious beliefs alone, that I should just live and let live. I’ve already highlighted one reason why I choose not to do that. My desire to do right by my brothers and sisters is another. My love and sense of responsibility push me to share what I’ve learned.

It is strange to me that some of my religious friends would prefer that I keep to myself and allow everyone to find their own way. The Judeo-Christian scriptures are replete with injunctions against this attitude.

Cain the murderer who was cursed from the earth which received his brother’s blood was the first to espouse this callous live and let die attitude when he uttered “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Jesus gave us the parable of the good Samaritan who succored his neighbor instead of leaving him in the ditch like two pious passersby had done. Jesus also esteemed the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves as the second greatest. From the tenor of Jesus’ teachings, I’m confident that his idea of love was not a passive, warm-fuzzy feeling of endearment, but an action which demonstrated our concern for our neighbor’s wellbeing.

The Mormon scriptures tell us “it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.” (D&C 88:81)

So why shouldn’t I warn my neighbors?

To be fair, I think most who tell me to leave well enough alone see what I say as destructive, not constructive. To them it seems that I am tearing down something good and dear to the believer. I see it differently. I must be completely honest about how I feel in order to show why I feel the need to warn my brothers and sisters.

Religion is a vapor of darkness which blinds our eyes and binds us down to the foolish traditions of our ancestors. It is a collection of the ideas of fallible men mingled with ancient scripture. It is a collection of half-truths and obfuscated wisdom which has outlived the peak of its usefulness. It feels good, so we don’t question its foundations. It is often the tool of the powerful to control the powerless, to lull them into complacency. Promises of rewards in heaven keep us from acting against the injustices in the only life we know that we have. It destroys our natural propensity to think and ask questions. It causes good people to do evil things. It diverts our energy and our resources from more useful efforts. Whatever benefits we derive from religion can be replaced by less destructive methods.

You may disagree, but if you try to step into my shoes for a moment, I think you’ll agree. If this is how I truly feel, then I would be a schmuck if I kept to myself.

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Family First

I felt smugly self-satisfied that I had gotten the right answer. I turned in my essay to my eighth-grade English teacher. She had assigned us to write on how we defined success. I felt sure that my classmates had written about schools and careers and other worldly pursuits. Instead, I took the moral high ground with the help of a Prophet of the Mormon church.

My church leaders repeatedly emphasized this teaching: “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” (Benjamin Disraeli as paraphrased by President David O. McKay) The church prepared all young men to become husbands and fathers. Our whole lives should be centered around marriage and fatherhood, just like our Heavenly Father.

I wrote about being a father and husband because of the church’s teaching. I considered any other goal petty and trivial. I had written about the only worthy goal. I fantasized that my teacher would recognize the moral superiority of my goals and applaud my wisdom. That never happened. I probably received a good grade based on the mechanics of the essay (i.e. thesis, support, support, support, conclusion), but I never heard from her about its content.

All the same, Disraeli’s catchy phrase shaped how I feel today. I still believe that my wife and children should receive my first attention. They should expect to receive the best of me, leaving the leftovers for my other pursuits. My fondest hopes lie in the continued health and happiness of my family. My family gives me my greatest joy. I look forward to time with my wife and girls at the end of the day. They keep me going.

I could have learned this attitude from some other source, but I didn’t. I learned it from the Mormon church.


I immediately noticed the motorcycle decor in his modest home. My missionary companion and I had been in his neighborhood so we decided to visit this inactive member of the congregation we served. We had heard that he hadn’t attended church in years, so we decided to see what we could do to bring him back into the fold.

Motorcycles didn’t interest me, but I asked him about them anyway in the interest of building relationships of trust. For the next couple of hours he regaled us with stories about his new Harley-Davidson Softail. I heard about truly insane hill climbing trials. I picked up new phrases fraught with wisdom like “Loud pipes save lives,” and “There’s only two kinds of riders: the old and the bold.” He made something of a convert out of me by the end. When I later served in Buffalo NY, I made sure to buy a 75th anniversary t-shirt from the Harley-Davidson/Buell store.

After two hours, we finally got down to business and asked him why he didn’t come to church anymore. His answer forever changed my attitude about church service. This older man had converted to Mormonism early on when the LDS church wasn’t well established in the area. The church asked a lot of its members back then. It was routine for him to spend almost every night away from home on assignments for the church. After a while, this began to wear on his family life. He decided to leave the church to save his family.

We gave him some unsatisfactory excuses about the church not being like that anymore and how his attendance would strengthen his family. I didn’t think the excuses would convince him, and they didn’t. He thanked us for the visit, and sent us on our way. I left his home convinced that he was making a short-sighted choice, but he had planted a thought in my mind.


My wife was taking classes at the university to finish her degree. I watched our new daughter on the nights Lacey had classes on campus. I was serving in the Elders Quorum presidency and feeling the pressure to be away from my family on the nights Lacey didn’t have classes. Home Teaching always needed to be done. I needed to go out with the missionaries once a month. We needed to make visits to members’ homes as a presidency. Various congregation members had little emergencies that needed attention. I needed to attend the ward’s monthly temple night. We needed to meet with the Elders in the quorum for monthly interviews. The list goes on.

I probably could have been away from home most evenings, but David O. McKay and the Biker from Hamburg NY whispered from the back of my mind. A lot of the things that I could have allowed to take me away from home seemed less important than being with my family. I began to build up a boundary between my family and church service.

I had always heard that serving the church also brought blessings to the family. Serving God would call down blessings from heaven on my home. My leaders intended this to justify all the hours spent away from family in the service of the church’s needs. The tension between this idea and Disraeli’s “No success in public life can compensate for failure in the home.” forced me to find a balance between the two ideas. I decided to serve in the church, but only if my personal attention to a church job was more important than time with my family. I felt justified by God in saying no to uninspired activities. A night of wandering around with the missionaries trying to find someone to talk to didn’t often make the cut.

While serving in the presidency, I attended a world-wide church broadcast for priesthood leaders. The church leaders taught us that we needed to find balance between church service and family time. They expressed sympathy for the demands that church service placed on us and gave us general guidelines on how much time each calling should require of us. This broadcast brought me peace of mind: they agreed that we need to set boundaries to preserve balance.

The Elders Quorum President at the time had a young son himself, but often left his home to serve in his church calling. I know that this was hard for his wife, but they were conscientious people and did what they thought was best. I wished he wouldn’t, but I knew that the President would pick up the slack when I refused some church service. I wished he would delegate and allow someone else to take care of things more often. Instead, he took a the-buck-stops-here stance. I could admire that in a way, but I thought he lacked balance between family and church life. If he spent more time with his family, I would have felt less guilty about prioritizing my family, but he had his own choices to make, and I had mine.


We entered the Stake President’s office dressed in our Sunday clothes with our little one in tow. The Elders Quorum President had moved away, and the Stake President had asked us to meet with him. We sat down in his wood-panel office and made small talk for a few minutes. Getting serious, he called me to serve as Elders Quorum President and asked if my wife would support me in serving.

With the example of the previous Elders Quorum President in mind, I told him that I would serve in the calling but that I had some concerns about the amount of time it might require. I told him about Lacey’s classes, her callings, and the other demands on my time. I said that I worried that I might not have enough time to serve well, but I would do my best. Then he did something unexpected.

He thanked us for coming in, said that we did the right thing by bringing our concerns to him, and told us he would be in contact with us if he had anything further for us. I left his office a little stunned. I felt like I had just turned down a calling—very taboo. Faithful Mormons do not turn down callings. At least they shouldn’t. I sat with my wife and daughter in the car for a long time. We talked about going back to his office and telling the Stake President that we took it all back: we new that I could serve faithfully in the calling. We eventually decided to leave it in this inspired hands. I started the car, and we left for our home.


The LDS church promotes itself as family centered. It has been a mixed blessing for me in that arena. I’ve focused on only one way that Mormonism has influenced my family life. What effects, good and bad, has the LDS church had on your family?

(Here’s a humorous antidote for the terminal sappiness of that commercial I just linked to, if you feel the need.)

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Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the ideals of the United States of America,
And to the republic by which they are upheld,
One nation, indivisible, with liberty, opportunity, and justice for all.

It strikes me as backward that the citizens of my home country pledge allegiance first to a piece of cloth symbolizing the United States, second to the republic which is assumed to have liberty and justice for all. This promotes a kind of shallow patriotism for symbols and institutions which can easily be corrupted to become nationalism.

Our allegiance would be better placed with the ideals of liberty and justice and only secondarily to the republic of the United States. We have seen recently how the republic has been perverted. The executive branch uses the authoritarian tactics of ubiquitous surveillance, torture, restriction of liberty, and so forth in the name of public security. The republic itself is only a tool to promote liberty and justice. When that tool fails to fulfill its purpose, we are duty-bound to either reform the tool or, if that proves impossible, to discard it in favor another tool which will serve our purposes. I hope that the adapted pledge above embodies well placed allegiance.

I am sure many religious readers will be upset by the omission of the words “under God”. They may perceive this as an attack on the religious values of the people of the United States. The reality is that this is the opposite of the truth. Our great nation was founded by men who were wise enough to create a separation between the religious and political powers. This protects the church from the tyranny and corruption of the state, and the state from undue influence by the church. Our Founding Fathers created a secular state (i.e. a state with no power to discourage or promote religion) in order to protect the free exercise of its citizens’ consciences. Removing the words “under God” is an acknowledgment of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in creating a secular state where the people are free to be Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, to have no religion at all, or whatever else their consciences may dictate without the threat of state oppression.

Additionally, the words “under God” were only added in the middle of the 20th century. The pledge of allegiance hasn’t contained that language for over half of its history. Removing the religious language in the current pledge is a correction, reverting it to its original, secular state.

The adaptation quoted at the beginning of this post was intended to preserve the familiar cadence of the current pledge. It should be easy to recite this adaptation in place of the current pledge. The following adaptation however is more in line with what I see as the ideal pledge, but it doesn’t have the same singsong rhythm we learned as schoolchildren. I prefer it anyway because it embodies more closely what I think is great about the United States of America.

I pledge allegiance to the ideals of liberty, opportunity, and justice for all;
And to the republic by which they are upheld,
One nation, indivisible, a home for the noble free.

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