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Moral Compass

It was hot, unpleasant work in the middle of of a muggy upstate New York summer. My missionary companion and I had volunteered to help a family in the ward take down some old plaster. The plaster dust and real horsehair made the job even more unpleasant. The mother of the family introduced us to her daughter, a blue-eyed beauty just a few years older than we were.

I sensed instinctively that she had been one of the cool kids in high school. In all the strange circles I haunted in high school, I never got much respect from the cool kids. They relegated me to the periphery of social life. So when this woman was kind and friendly to me, it caught me off guard. It wasn’t long before I was smitten by her beauty and attention.

We learned that she had two sons and had been excommunicated from the Mormon church for giving birth to the first outside of marriage. She had wanted to remain a member of the church, but she found herself on the wrong end of a branch president who demanded too many details about her sexual experiences. Disgusted, she didn’t show up to her church court and the church leaders tried and excommunicated her in absentia. She had hard feelings because her father had maintained a temple recommend while sexually abusing his daughters. The inequity between the two situations pushed her farther from the church.

She became our project, to get her rebaptized.

We spent a lot of time with her and her family. We ate a lot of dinners there, mowed their huge back lawn, fixed problems with their house. I even bought the kids the Sonic and Knuckles expansion cartridge for their Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Sega Genesis.

Things started to get a little weird after a couple of months. She and my companion sat next to each other on the couch one night, sharing a blanket. “It’s cold.” I wasn’t sure, but I thought they might be holding hands underneath the blanket. Then there was the time they accidentally watched a movie which showed a topless woman. “Oops!” Or how often we sat next to her in church with him next to her.

It became more and more obvious—even to me, Captain Oblivious—that there was something going on between them. This has to stop, I thought. It should have been me that she liked.

Jealously, I contacted my mission president and told him what I thought was happening. He reassigned my companion elsewhere, she was heartbroken, I got a new companion, and we were banned from the home that we had spent so much time in. That was how our six month companionship ended.

The mission president gave me a pat on the back for doing the right thing. He told me my companion had confessed to sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet with her and make out. My former companion later thanked me for getting him back on the straight and narrow. I felt like a punk. I didn’t turn informant because it was the right thing to do. I did it because I wanted to get my companion out of the way, to take revenge on him for stealing her away from me.


How often have I done the right thing simply because it is the right thing? As I look back on my life, the answer I come to is never. The reason I do things is because I want to do them. It only happens that most of the time what I want coincides with the moral thing to do, as it did in this story.

Even when I do something primarily because its right to do it, I am really motivated because I want to feel good about myself; I want to avoid a guilty conscience, or I can’t bear feeling empathy for the suffering of another. It all comes down to what I want, mostly irrespective of any moral law.

If God came down tomorrow and told everyone that he rescinded his moral law, that we could sin as much as we want with no consequence in heaven or hell, would human civilization descend into perdition? Would we break the hearts of our family by abandoning them? Would we take advantage of children and the mentally retarded? Would we kill babies for the fun of it? What sins would we commit that we aren’t committing already?

I can’t think of any.

I behave the way I do largely for reasons other than the moral law as taught in our houses of worship. I always have. Becoming an atheist has freed me from all religious constraints of heaven or hell, yet my behavior is mostly the same. I don’t cheat on my wife because I don’t want to hurt her. I don’t take advantage of people because I hate injustice. I don’t kill babies because that is repugnant to me.

I’m beginning to live my life according to the Law of Thelema: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law… Love is the law, love under will. I do what I want, like I always have. The only difference is that I am now unashamed of the actions that the pious would label as sin. I don’t sin more, just with a free conscience. My mental energies are now focused on real problems in my behavior, not petty stuff like drinking tea, or working on Sunday.

The moral law that I live didn’t come from above. I comes from within. It is the product of my true desires. I don’t need a fictitious deity to bully me into acting morally. It’s what I already want. You might want to give credit to God for creating me that way, for writing his law in my heart, but then he must also take the blame for all the sinning that I’ve done.

I prefer to take all the responsibility to myself.

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An Immodest Proposal

I didn’t expect to hear about topless teens when I sat down in the pew that day. A missionary had returned from a mission to somewhere in the South Pacific. He spoke in church and devoted a large portion of his talk to chastising the young women where he served.

School graduations there require traditional attire. Traditional attire meant being topless for the women. The missionaries exhorted the young women to refuse to honor the tradition by dressing more modestly for their graduation. They pleaded with the girls to observe Heavenly Father’s standard for modesty. They reminded them how sinful it was to appear in public without covering their breasts.

The young women attended the ceremony in traditional attire despite the missionaries’ exhortations, and the speaker condemned the young women for bowing to custom and social pressure instead of following the word of God.

His remarks got me thinking.

After I stopped daydreaming about topless young women in grass skirts (thanks, Elder), I wondered: what exactly is the true standard for modest attire?

The talk reminded me of my own missionary service. I learned soon after I arrived in my first area that it was forbidden for missionaries to be in Seneca Falls during the summertime women’s rights parade. It didn’t matter that I arrived as the last of the autumn color was fading from the trees, that I would probably leave before I had a chance to violate the taboo. The other missionaries told me anyway, taking some relish in warning me that all of Seneca Falls was verboten during the parade because female participants often went topless.

It was apparently legal in the state of New York for women to go topless just like men. At least prosecutors refused to try cases. The missionaries also shared folklore with that topless sunbathers could be found at the top of Cobbs Hill in Rochester. Oh the devilish controversy these stories conjured in this young missionary’s heart! I heard stories of errant P-day activities at the top of Cobbs Hill, but I studiously avoided participation. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to.

The mission leaders forbid missionaries from these areas because the wanted to preserve us from the taint of sexual temptation. Randy young men can be hard to control, especially when their leaders remove all sexual outlets. The leaders expect the young missionaries to lead exceptionally celibate lives at the peak of their sexual drive. Personally, I felt like a boiler with a red-lined pressure guage. Any weakness could cause the whole thing to explode. Seeing topless women could be the beginning of the end.

As I thought about my missionary experiences, I could think of no particular reason that men and women shouldn’t be held to the same standards of modesty. Why should women’s chests be so much more sexually charged than men’s?

Many modern members of the LDS church will point to the temple garment as God’s standard of modesty: the limits of the garments define the minimum standard for modesty. My primary problem with this idea has always been that the garment has changed over the years. It originally covered down to the ankles and wrists and up to the neck. Today’s garment covers a few inches below the shoulder and down to the knee, and plunges quite low below the neck. If the garment is God’s standard, he seems to have changed his mind to suit changing fashions in the Western world. Would God make the garment even more abbreviated in the future?

Also, assuming there is an absolute standard for how well clothing should cover our nakedness, what happens if we shorten clothing even a little bit I wondered. If my shorts should cover my knees, what if I shorten them just a nanometer? (A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers) Surely a nanometer can’t make a perceptible difference in modesty. Surely shorts that reveal 1 nanometer of my knees are still modest. But if I can reveal 1 nanometer, why can’t I reveal 2? That’s still not enough to perceive. If 2, why not 3? Pretty soon, the assumed absolute standard doesn’t seem so absolute anymore. It seems downright subjective. I began to suspect the very idea of an absolute standard for modesty. Modesty came down to nothing more than an “I know it when I see it” test.

So if modesty is subjective, then whose standards did the LDS church preach? Did God set these changeable, hazy standards? It seemed like pretty sloppy work for a perfect God. Perhaps God just expects us to follow the standards of modesty for our own time and place. That made more sense to me. If the idea is to avoid titillating each other with naked flesh, then different cultures have different thresholds for titillation. An African man wouldn’t give any special attention to a bare chested woman. A Muslim might feel aroused by the sight of a woman’s hair.

Wasn’t the missionary just exporting his own cultural mores to those young women in the guise of serving God? Maybe the problem was that the missionary found the idea of topless young women titillating. The problem arose because of his cultural expectations, not because of the attire of the young women. He was the visitor. He failed to adapt instead expecting them to conform to an absolute standard that didn’t exist. He believed himself to be God’s emissary come to save the benighted natives from their lascivious ways.

I became a lot more forgiving of other culture’s standards of modesty after that missionary’s talk. No standard of modesty is more justifiable than another.

I would be remiss if I finished this post without providing photos and videos of topless women in New York.

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