My Journey to Humanism
I grew up as the child of LDS parents in small towns in southern Utah. My great-grandparents were polygamists, leaders of the LDS church. My great-grandmother was well known—at least in LDS circles—for coming across the plains with a handcart, writing LDS songs, and being the church-wide young women president. Family history also says that when her husband took a second wife, supposedly without her knowledge, she called him Brother Fox ever after. It might be true—I have copies of her journals and she does refer to him as Brother Fox after a certain point.
At any rate, I come from a very strong LDS background, although my parents weren’t particularly active in the church. My mom wanted to be but my dad was not interested. I grew up in Washington, a microscopically tiny town (population approximately 450 at that time) by St. George. We moved to Kanab (population 1500) when I was eight and I spent my growing-up years there.
I tell you this for one reason: so that you understand that I grew up in the most conservative, white, LDS environment one could possibly imagine. I don’t know that I even saw a black person until I was in high school.
But I have a vivid memory of this: about 1969, sitting in a senior class, “American Problems,” and listening as one of my classmates said about blacks, “Well, everybody knows the neighborhoods go down when they move in.” I turned and said to her loudly, “Bullshit.” I don’t remember saying anything else. I’m surprised my teacher didn’t stop me, as profanity in that time and place was unheard of, but I think she was probably excited to have her students feeling strongly about something. Now, I had no more experience of black people than my classmate did. Why did I think what she said was garbage?
My dad was and always has been a right-wing bigot, my mother not so much. Maybe I got my feelings from her. I honestly don’t have the slightest idea. Why is it that I would grow up in this environment and be a liberal from the start while my siblings would go the way of so many in these small Utah towns—ultra right-wing, even to the point of bunker mentality, hoarding guns (including assault rifles.) I don’t understand why, but it’s a fact.
Our family wasn’t a scripture-reading, church-attending family. I was active in the church until my late teens because it was the only social outlet in town, but was never a particularly “good girl.” My brothers and I all rebelled to some degree. I started drinking when I was in high school. I still attended church and knew I did bad things and felt guilty about them, hating myself a lot of the time. By the time I was about 20, I’d quit attending church although if you’d asked me, I would have said I still believed. Right out of high school I went from Kanab, Utah, to Washington DC, then to San Diego and then to Salt Lake. For ten years I drank and partied and married and divorced (three times) and had one daughter in my last marriage.
After my last divorce, when my daughter was two years old, I decided I was going to get back into the church and raise her “right.” For the next 15 years, that’s what I did. We went whole-hog. I repented of my evil life and began to be a “good Mormon,” even attending the temple and holding many positions in the church. For 20 years I tried.
Twenty years of guilt, financial stress from paying the church 10% of a single mother’s income, always feeling like a failure. Yes there were positives, but over the years I had doubts. I’d read something in the Book of Mormon and think, “What?!?” or “I don’t think I believe that.” Or I’d find myself sitting in the temple and thinking, “The god of the whole universe, and this dumb ceremony is the best he can do??!!” Then I’d catch myself and push those feelings down, telling myself I needed to have more faith, repenting over and over again. I remember a talk I heard from a church leader who said that every night as he said his prayers, he thought over his day and tried to remember what he needed to repent of. I tried doing that too and came to the realization that it was horribly destructive. What a terrible way to end your day—believing you’re a sinner and going over every little mistake you made during the day! What a horrible thing to teach people to do.
For some years, right before I finally left the church behind, I asked several leaders to help me because I had such doubts that I was thinking of leaving the church. Several times they assigned people or missionaries to come and talk to me, to keep me in the church and it’d work for a while.
At one point I went through a terrible experience—I didn’t know what to do or how I was going to get through it. I was deeply depressed and afraid. I fasted and prayed and prayed and prayed and got no comfort whatsoever. And a thought came to me over the days and weeks of fear: What kind of a loving father would have his child come to him sobbing and terrified and saying “dad, help me,” and then just turn away and say nothing, do nothing. How many times would this father expect his child to come to him for help and comfort when all he did was turn away? I finally realized no loving father would do that. There was simply no father in heaven there. Nobody was listening. This wasn’t the only experience that led me to believe there was no god—but it was probably the most profound for me.
Finally, I moved into a new home in a neighborhood where nobody knew me. I attended church at first, but gradually realized it was a different kind of area and nobody cared about me or my daughter and I realized my chance had come. I had come to the realization that I didn’t believe the LDS church was true and that I didn’t believe in god. As I first contemplated this, it was with fear because I felt that if I didn’t believe in all that, what would take its place? It was a relief when I finally realized that nothing had to take its place—I didn’t need a religion or god. I could live a decent life without that. The day I made the decision to actually leave the church was wonderful. It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I’ve never looked back and never second-guessed my decision.
For several years I did nothing…nothing to actively find a new basis for my life. I thought I’d just float along, live my life, and then die. But as I began to identify myself as an atheist, I felt uncomfortable. I told myself, that says what I don’t believe, not what I do believe. There must be other atheists out there who don’t identify their principles by that term. I started searching on the internet, reading about atheism, secularism, and finally humanism. I found the American Humanist Association website and realized I’d found what I’d been looking for. As I read the manifesto and began reading the articles on the website, I knew I’d found a group who felt as I did—that I could live a decent, positive life, with the fact that I didn’t believe in god just one of the facets of that life.
When I read that the AHA had some local chapters, I immediately did a search to see if there was one in Utah and have to admit I was very surprised to find that there was! It was some time before I talked myself into attending my first meeting, but about 18 months ago or two years ago I did and am pleased to be a member of the chapter. I enjoy the meetings, the speakers, being with people who feel so much like I do. I want to help the local chapter grow and expand if I can, and would especially like to see a whole slew of younger folks coming in to take over the reins and keep us on our toes!
I do want to add one thing—the effect my leaving the LDS church and being an avowed liberal has had on my family. Thankfully, my daughter (who has ALWAYS gone her own way) left the church even before I did and she and her husband are both at least agnostic. A few years ago, when my family members found out that I’d actually had my name removed from the LDS church records, the reaction was profound. That and my liberal politics were just too much. My mother passed away years ago so I don’t know what her reaction would have been. Two brothers have broken off from me completely, one telling me to never contact him again. My father, my other brother and my sister stay in touch and try to keep some family feeling, but they have been devastated by my actions and hate my liberal politics. Basically, I’m the black sheep of the family. We don’t have much to do with them, so my daughter, her husband and my grandson are truly my only family. I must say here that I’m no saint—I’ve got a big mouth and little tact and say things I shouldn’t say, and I certainly don’t lay all the blame for our family troubles on everybody but me. That said, I don’t regret anything. I’m living by the principles I believe in and am finally at home in my own skin.
Community Corner Conversations
I’m not a person who does well with New Year’s Resolutions. They are more of a demotivator and sentence than a tool for something positive. But I inevitably still find myself getting caught up in the turn of the year as a chance to wipe out the accumulated scribblings of the past year and pull out a fresh blotter page. A fresh new year with fresh new plans and determination and forgiveness of past.
I decided to share with you my jotted Notes To Self for the Year 2013, since as I look them over it reminds me very much of what being a humanist means to me. And so, my community of fellow humanists, here are my own “resolutions” for 2013.
- To view my body and brain as my helpers instead of my handicaps
- To pursue things that make me happy without apology and without guilt
- To interact with my world: to have conversations, add opinions, propagate kindness, and fight cruelty
- To treasure and nurture friendships
- To vigorously remember that “shit happens” is a reality that is not a personal failure
- To not empty myself in the battles for social change because these battles have no end and I’m in it for the long haul
- To not compare myself to others
A very Happy, Fruitful, and Loving 2013 to all our Utah humanists!
Long time chapter member Rolf Kay died January 4, 2013. Rolf served many years on our Board of Directors as the Entertainment Chairman and as our Photographer.
As a photographer he took official pictures for the Utah Symphony and Ballet West. Among the luminaries that appeared in his lens are: Danny Kaye, Lech Walensa, Al Gore, Mikhail Gorbachev, Victor Borge, and many others.
Rolf also served for many years on the Utah Gandhi Alliance for Peace who honored and recognized his service in 2011.
Rolf always had a humorous story to share and made people around him happier. He frequently was heard saying, “And remember, be nice to everyone, no exceptions!”
If he were a poker hand he was definitely a Royal Straight Flush! We miss you old friend.
Life Can Be Wonderful
It must have been twenty years ago when my daughter Sarah and I were talking one evening and she said “Dad, when I look up at the mountains or the night sky I feel so small. Insignificant. Like nothing.” She was only about 12 years old at the time, and her angst wasn’t surprising. Many of us have such feelings when we face the immensity of space and the stars, the vast face of a mountain, or the rolling expanse of the sea. If we compare our physical size against such immensity we are indeed seemingly insignificant, less than ants staring down an elephant. But that feeling of smallness is the product of only one, very limited point of view, and given what we now know about ourselves and our place in the cosmos it is not very relevant.
Even two decades ago, I had enough insight to reply to Sarah, “You are the most complex system in nature.” I then attempted to convey that as part of the web of life on Earth, and a very beautiful member of one of the most complex species in that network, she was far more intriguing, rare, and wonderful than any star or mountain. The stars are just big globs of gas collapsing and fusing under their own weight; mountains mere piles of stone pushed up by tectonic forces. They are indeed magnificent and awesome, but lacking a nervous system they are unable to think, play the violin as Sarah does, invent, write, speculate, measure, create music, poetry or mathematics. The stars cannot look at each other and wonder or, large as they are, even feel insignificant or grand. What would it be like to be a star or a mountain? Not much different than being a stone or being dead. No awareness or thoughts, no emotions, no sensations.
We humans can observe, reason about what we see, and explain our insights to each other. And that ability to see, measure, reason, and communicate reveals ever more about us and this universe with each passing year, reveals more and more about how marvelous we are, how rare and improbable, and how wonderful. The intricate, interwoven patterns of life on Earth are the facets of a jewel in the cosmos. And only the human pattern, the most complex of these aggregates of atoms, these systems of chemically communicating cells, can puzzle out the rules, laws, and history that made us and the universe what we are. No star can do that; no mountain can attempt to decipher the riddle of its own existence.
What is the point of all this? Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, in his memorial to Christopher Hitchens wrote that “rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor” (NY Times December 17, 2011). This remark has stuck in my craw these last 12 months and is very far from the truth, betraying an almost laughable ignorance. It is typical of the remarks made by the conservative religious community about secular humanism and atheism. Such remarks are made with no data to back them up, just flat statements of dogma without justification.
Indeed, it is very easy to make the opposite case, as Hitchens did in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, that religion casts a wasting pall over existence. It isn’t atheists who denigrate all humanity as miserable sinners, terrorizing children with threats of eternal hellfire and endless torment. And it isn’t atheists who claim that this life is only a painful proving ground for the next, warning that lest we spend our lives groveling in preparation for meeting a vengeful and capricious maker he may visit us with tsunamis and massacres of children. If those aren’t part of an enervating cloud darkening existence, I don’t know what is.
A view of existence based on evidence and reason rather than divine magic demonstrates that we are marvelous and precious creatures in our own right, far more astonishing and rare than anything depicted in creation myths or fantasies given in any antiquated text. The story of us is far more fascinating than any ancient fable. The evidence, after all, shows no trace of an all powerful creator, but tells a 14-billion-year-long tale of chaotic explosions, collapsing stars, expanding space, warping space-time, black holes and cosmic jets, serendipitously spawning a tiny island of order that eventually produced us, unique in all this universe. The atheist sees that life is rare and precious, something to be cherished and celebrated, not wasted ranting in hatred against our fellows over doctrinal differences or sexual orientation, or groveling before an imaginary deity.
To understand how rare and precious we are, we need only understand what the evidence demonstrates, that we came about through biological evolution from simpler forms of life. That evolution is driven through random mutation and non-random selection by the environment when the mutations occur. That randomness provides a set of choices for survival, and that randomness makes us unique in this cosmos. If evolution is happening on other worlds, the random mutations ensure that non-random selection has a completely different set of survival choices on each world. Life on no two worlds will be alike, and the complex creatures that might result on each planet will be quite different. The species of Earth are therefore unique. We are the only humans in this cosmos, and we may be the only highly intelligent species in it. We are certainly almost infinitely rare.
Sure, our individual lives are limited and sometimes brief, but that brevity doesn’t make them any less wonderful or marvelous. Certainly, many of us suffer horribly in our short lives, but that doesn’t diminish or make them less precious. Knowledge of the ephemeral nature of life, our mutual suffering and predicament, our astonishing origin, and the potential in each and every human brain must cultivate compassion and a positive humanism.
This year we celebrated my granddaughter’s first birthday with my daughter and her husband. At the party I marveled as I watched them, tall, beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate holding their own perfect little girl. My complete lack of religious belief cast no shadow over the love and awe that I felt at that moment. On the contrary, that lack of belief gave me a clear understanding of how lucky I am and how wonderful life can be.
Web Site of the Month
Kids Without God
As long as I have been President of Humanists of Utah and writing this column every month, saying something about the New Year has always been tough. Perhaps partly because I find it amusing that we have somehow decided THIS is the first day of the year. Why not start the year on the shortest day of the year, although that’s the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Or maybe an equinox would be better. But I guess whining about how the ancients set up the system won’t get me very far. I guess it’s just the geographer in me being contrary.
But getting back to thinking about last year, it was quite a year if you ask me. As I worried that we voters might be stupid enough to elect the likes of Mitt Romney in as President. That was kind of spooky. Plus for me personally it was, to say the least, a busy and challenging year. I’m kind of glad it is over. As far as the New Year goes, I don’t make resolutions, nor do I make predictions. For the most part I just hope the world will somehow be more peaceful.
But I don’t want to dwell too much on the past right now, rather I want to talk about some of our plans for Darwin Day. This year the planning is being done by UCOR and in association with other local freethought groups. The keynote speaker will be Jon Seger, a local evolutionary biologist and recipient of the McAuthor Genius Award. There will be catered finger foods, a screening of the BBC biographical film Creation, some displays and literature tables and t-shirts and other “stuff to buy,” and of course a birthday cake.
Darwin Day Celebration
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building Auditorium
University of Utah Campus
You do not have to pre-register, but we will appreciate it if you know you are coming. This will help us with planning for the catering. Also, pre-registration will entitle you to “extra goodies.” Please plan to attend and bring a friend!
This year’s event will be our sixth annual Darwin Day, and I hope that it will continue to be held for many years to come. It is personally the one thing that I hope continues long after my tenure as president. I have found our Darwin Day celebrations and the people I meet at them a rewarding experience. I never tire from talking to like-minded people.
But I shouldn’t neglect January. This month’s general meeting will feature Salt Lake Tribune columnist Lya Wodraska, our first speaker of the year. I’ll be there, I hope you come too. I’m bringing the cookies.