Friday, January 25, 2008

notes on religion and health

I was updating my list of "Further Reading" books, and realized a couple books I had on there previously were dropped when I switched from the old blogger. (Some of my blogroll was also lost; my apologies if your blog is not on my list--just let me know!)

The two books I recognized as lost were God, Faith, and Health: Exploring the Spirituality-Healing Connection, by Jeffrey Levin, and Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Medicine and Religion, by Richard P. Sloan. I read them both for a class I took, and looking through my classwork, I found some of my notes about the books.

Koenig [who he is, I can't for the life of me remember] argues that health benefits might only come to those who are intrinsically religious; this leads me to wonder about all those people who are extrinsically religious, but belong to religions that do not let them admit that. Are they not only getting no benefits, but are they also harmed by religion? Even Levin acknowledges that such people exist in his comment about “the exceptions, such as people whose emotional well-being is harmed by religion” (Levin, p. 8). It is easy for Levin to say, “If we find that how we worship is only making us more miserable, then it may be time to find a new way to pray” (p. 92). However, for people in conservative religions especially, Levin has a frustratingly simple view of people’s ability to switch religions or styles of worship. If religion is paid better attention to in public health and medical practice, it should be to find those people for whom religion causes negative health outcomes, particularly with regards to mental health. Much more research needs to be done to even tease out these effects and to determine how widespread they are. Unfortunately, at this stage most studies on religion and health are financially supported by religious funders; it is in their interest to ignore religion and negative health outcomes.

The application of findings of religious studies to medical or public health practice should only be done only with great caution. The studies are indeterminate enough that medicine cannot go beyond saying religiousness/spirituality may have benefits for prevention of chronic disease in general, particularly with regards to providing social support, reducing rates of high-risk behaviors, and providing time to relieve stress. But this ignores the cases in religious communities where social support morphs to coercive demands for social conformity; where youth are ignorant about how to protect themselves from STDs because of demands for absolute abstinence; and where participation causes stress. These cannot be simply ignored.

If findings were to be used in practice, it would best be secularized first. For example, doctors and public health interventions could recommend people find social groups, reduce risk-behaviors, and take time out of each day to relieve stress. The recommendation could then list possible forms of social groups, with church groups as one example of many, and possible forms of stress-relief, such as yoga, breathing, prayer, meditation, etc. Religion should not be ignored, but it also should not be trumpeted as a panacea, especially given that membership in a religious community stems from many reasons, not limited to an actual desire to be a member.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

shirt and tie

I dreamed a dream...

I was at my parents' house in Utah, and lots of extended family was there too. It was a Saturday evening. I walked into the living room to find at least a dozen family memories hanging about. I saw my son in the center of room, playing with three of his male cousins. I saw with annoyance that all of the boys had on white shirts and ties, as if in preparation for church, including my son. (Who had a Star Wars tie on, to his delight.) I could see he was enjoying the group uniform, the feeling of being one of the crowd. Obviously, one of the adult members of the family had decided to introduce this particularity of the Mormon church to my son, as if grooming him for more exposure to the One and True Living Gospel.

As I stood there steaming about it, my dad asked me, right in front of everyone, "When you are going to have Little FTA baptized?" My son is a couple years away from the Age of Accountability still, but in the dream, he was just old enough. Just old enough that people were wondering when the date of the baptism would be.

Just after my dad asked that question, my husband came and stood by my side. I answered, "Not until he's 18, if he wants to at all." That created quite a ripple through the crowd, and I left the room, only to be hounded by others about why we would wait so long. The dream ended.

Now I have to think, how would I answer?


-We feel that childhood is not the appropriate time to join a church, any more than it is the time to join a political party.

-We're not going to baptize him. And, no, you can't baptize him either.

-Little FTA doesn't believe in god.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mormonism and the Bible

I realized that in my last post about the Bible, I forgot to write some things I wanted to say. Like how Mormonism has a strange relationship with the Bible. Because of the 8th Article of Faith, "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God" (I typed that from memory; I think I got it right), Mormons are kind off the hook in some respects. For example, you could take a passage in the Bible you don't like or agree with (hmm, like slaughtering every man, women, child, and animal; or sacrificing daughters; or destroying gay people) and throw it out with a "it must not have been translated correctly."

Joseph Smith seemed to have done this with the crazy story of Lot offering up his daughters to the Sodomites in place of the male visitors (as if it's better to rape women than men?). "Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof" (KJV Genesis 19:8). In the Smith translation, the scripture reads "And Lot said, Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, plead with my brethren that I may not bring them out unto you; and ye shall not do unto them as seemeth good in your eyes;" (JST Genesis 19:13). Smith's version certainly makes Lot sound like a nicer dad (we'll not get into what happens later).

I've seen Mormons discount stories with other morally questionable passages, like the story of youth getting eaten by bears because they teased Elisha about being bald (see 2 Kings 2: 23-24). When you believe the Bible is true only insofar as it was translated correctly, it's easy to decide that the whole bear story was a fairy tale, or at least told incorrectly. God wouldn't do that. And yet I've seen even worse stories held up as absolutely factual, like God telling the Hebrews to slaughter every living thing in wherever-it-was (see, I really need to improve my Bible literacy). I mean, why not give God the benefit of the doubt that He (ahem) really is benevolent and decide that particular passage was an after-the-fact justification for massacre, or that the incident didn't even happen at all?

I would expect some Mormons to also take the as-far-as-it-was-translated-correctly clause as an easy way to reconcile modern science with the early stories of the Bible. You know, like the 7-day creation, Noah's flood, the parting of the Red Sea, 900-year lifespans, the Tower of Babel as the origin of diversity of languages, etc. It'd be pretty easy to dismiss these as mythology if you don't have to believe every word of the Bible as Truth. And yet the party line is that these things did literally happen (I'm sure there are many Mormons who don't believe these literally, and many are able to handle the cognitive dissonance of believing both evolution and creation, for example).

I suspect that one of the reasons Mormons generally don't dismiss those stories as mythology is Joseph Smith's literal belief in them--and his placing of mythological characters and events in prominent, literal events. Noah's flood must be literal, for example, because prophets said the flood was the baptism of the earth (for example Smith, Joseph Fielding, Jr., Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: BookCraft, 1955), Vol.2, p.320.). And if the Tower of Babel is just mythology, then the story of the Jaredites in the Book of Mormon would have to be mythology too--so if you believe the Book of Mormon is true, you must believe the Tower of Babel is literal. Then there's Joseph's assertion that Abraham was a real person who wrote a real book and hid it among Egyptian papyri while he was really in Egypt. And while I've on the rare occasion heard Mormons refer to the temple version of the creation as symbolic, it's safe to bet that a large proportion take Adam and Eve's existence as quite literal. Joseph certainly did--he reportedly spoke to not only Adam (aka Michael), but also Gabriel (aka Noah), Raphael (D&C 128:20-21), Seth, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Journal of Discources 17:374; 18:325-26; 21:65, 94, 161; 23:48). So it's safe to say that Mormons are supposed to take those men's respective Bible stories as real.

Which is unfortunate.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the spirit and transcendence

I recently had a faithful Mormon friend ask me, "Okay, so you left the church. But what about your spiritual experiences? Didn't you have any? What did you 'do' with them since leaving?"

In reply, I sent here edited versions of two previous posts, the spirit and exorcising the spirit. On reading those posts, I realized I've thought more about the issues, and added the following to my reply.

I also think that transcendent moments (e.g. spiritual experiences) happen across religions, and to the non-religious, and people interpret them according to how they were taught to interpret them, or according to their personality. A Baptist takes it as confirmation that her church is the true one; a Mormon takes it as confirmation that her church is true; an agnostic takes it as a beautiful moment of feeling a connection with the community or the cosmos; one boy decides his experience means he should become a priest; another boy sees his as a great love for science and the natural world. It doesn't mean none of it is sacred or important. A good quote for this is "I now believe that whether or not there's a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It's possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn't take away from its power or importance."

Friday, January 11, 2008


I've been reading more of the book I mentioned in my last post, and realized that I've never actually read the Bible all the way through. Sure, I attended Sunday school, where the Old Testament (I now prefer to call it the Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament were the year's topic every 3rd and 4th year. And I was a highly-faithful seminary student all through high school, where the Old and New Testaments were taught my junior and senior years. I even liked it that way; I loved that New Testament finished off my seminary career. Keep the focus on Jesus and all. Then in college, I took a New Testament class again, one focusing on the Four Gospels.

But in all that, did I ever actually read the whole thing? Nope. In seminary, it's the usual practice to read every verse and chapter (or section, for D&C) through the school year. For the Book of Mormon year, that was easy enough, since I'd made a habit of reading that book daily since I was 11. I read every section of D&C, retaining virtually nothing. But for the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, the powers that be selected which chapters and verses were important enough for us to read. Numbers for example--we read all that. Vital to know the exact count of each of the tribes wandering the Sinai. And at least most of Deuteronomy. Why did we read those? To know all those laws we no longer follow? Song of Solomon was completely nixed. If anyone asked why, we were told that part was not inspired. Among ourselves, we discussed how it was immoral, pornographic even. Which was enough to get some kids to crack those pages on their own, I'm sure, but if anything was even labeled pornographic, that was enough to keep me far, far away. (I've still never read that book, though I have read some exegesis on it.) So I have read most of the Bible, but I skipped quite a bit, not according to what interested me, but according to what the Church Education System thought I should read.

Oh, and only the King James Version. Which is considered the worst English translation out there. Not only is the English difficult to understand, but it's just a poor translation. It's old. Scholars have learned a lot more about translating Hebrew since then. More modern versions better represent what the Hebrew says, and they say it in language that doesn't sound 400 years old. "Charity never faileth" becomes "Love never fails." Ahh, much better.

Mormons cling to the King James Version, though. Why? Ultimately because that's the version Joseph Smith, Sr. had in his home, as far I as know. So it's what Joseph Smith, Jr., grew up with. All kinds of justifications have arisen as to why they haven't switched to another version like a lot of churches have. Like, the language seems more noble, more holy. Why is James's English more holy than any earlier or later English? And are we forgetting Smith's idea that God speaks the "Adamic" language, not English? And have we forgotten that when the Bible is in other languages, it's not in King James English? The Book of Mormon and D&C are in similar archaic language, which Mormons take as evidence that God just speaks that way. But which says to me Joseph Smith thought God speaks that way.

In addition, there's the major quoting of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. The King James Bible. Supposedly 1000-2000 years before the King James Bible was written. Mormons take this as evidence that both are from God, and further evidence that the King James version is the way to go. Occam's Razor compels me to interpret that anachronism differently.

The greatest joke the King James version played on Joseph Smith is in the italicized words. I asked about the italicized words as a young child, and was told that these words are glossed, not exact translations. For example, in Hebrew you might not need the word "to" in a certain phrase, while in English you do, so it's put in, but italicized. Or there are other words that are translated with hesitation, where the meaning is unclear. Joseph Smith didn't have the luxury of an educated dad to tell him this, though. So when Smith came across the italicized words when rendering his translation of the Bible, he added whole phrases. A large portion of his translation is just his expanding glossed translations as if they were secret passageways to God's lost words. The same is true of the (mis)quoted parts of Isaiah in 2nd Nephi. When I learned about that I was still unsure about the Smith and the Book of Mormon. When I read about that, though, the possibility of Joseph's prophethood dropped 20 notches. Not the final nail in the coffin of my testimony, but it definitely raised suspicions.

Part of my Bible illiteracy is the quoting the Bible in the Book of Mormon. Lots of (2nd) Isaiah, a oneupmanship version of the Sermon on the Mount. So sometimes I can't remember which verses are in which book. At least I recognize this, so I can avoid making a fool of myself by spouting off a quote I think is from the Bible only to have a Sunday-schooled Bible thumper tell me I must be quoting Satan. Then there's the problem of the Pearl of Great Price--it has a lot of similarities to parts of Genesis, but is definitely in its own la-la-land. Like that story about Abraham almost getting sacrificed by his father? I didn't realize that wasn't in the Hebrew Bible until a few years ago. (Who can keep track of all those sacrifices and twice-told stories?)

Anyway, I've decided I want to read the Bible--and not the King James version. Not because I think I should, because I want to be Bible literate in a culture so infused with the Bible. I've tended to be pretty anti-scripture the past couple years, but I know there are some nice things in the Bible, too, among all the morally despicable and just plain wacko parts. I'm looking forward to reading it as mythology for the first time, too. What freedom to read it as "this is what one guy thought" and "this is a ancient story from the Hebrew people" instead of "this is what happened" or "this is what God wants me to do"!

And I'm looking forward to the Song of Solomon.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Since leaving the church, I've learned to differentiate spiritual from religious, and feel that one can nourish one's spirituality without organized religion or even religion at all. (One can also be religious without being spiritual.) But the actual definition of spiritual is elusive, maybe because it is intensely personal.

I think of it as a selfhood, a soulfulness (though I don't think there is a "soul" per se), paying attention to that part of the world that is me and only me. I also see it as a feeling of connection to others, to the world, the cosmos, the sublime. A feeling of peace, or joy, or love. A contentedness. It can be found anywhere, and it's different for everyone. A book, a movie, some music, dance, or art. In a walk through the forest or on the beach, or even in the neighborhood. Creating, building , destroying. Meditation, prayer, recitation, exercise, thrill-seeking.

Why do we seek it? I believe it has something to do with the fact that human brains have evolved to the point that we are conscious of our consciousness. We are animals smart enough to ask, "Why?" Smart enough to realize we are one tiny bit of one great whole, and we seek significance and connection within that.

I've been pretty non-spiritual and secular the past couple years, for the most part. Don't have god, don't need sublimeness or religion. But every once in a while, I feel like I'm in the mood for something spiritual. I miss it and crave it. I wonder, am I missing out on something by being secular? Is there really something special about religion that I can't achieve without it?

These questions were brought on this last week by a book I'm reading, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. I thought it would be terribly funny and irreverent, the whole book aimed at poking fun at all the wacko things in the Bible. It is quite funny, but the author really, truly tried to find god by following the rules in the Bible (wacko rules and all). It's written by a secular New Yorker who wondered if he was missing something by being secular. He wanted to give the Bible an honest try. Half way through his year, he found himself praying to god when his son was hurt. Spontaneously praying, and actually believing it might help (for a few seconds anyway).

And I realized something. I miss that. I used to structure my world view around a benevolent god watching over me. Me personally. I used to pray. Now? I've not once prayed that my current illness would go away. Most of the time, I am perfectly reconciled to the idea that I'm an outcome of evolution, that there is no ultimate purpose, no afterlife of reward. But sometimes, sometimes, I miss how it was.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

only the good stuff

I've been on a little hiatus, what with family in town for the holidays, Little FTA out of school, and my persistent no good, rotten, bad mood since Christmas. Unfortunately, this was one of those bad moods that kills my muse rather than brings it out. Sigh. I just haven't felt like writing or felt like I had anything to write.

But last night, on the way back from dinner with my husband, son, and believing brother-in-law, Little FTA busted out with a great line. And I thought, That is so going on the blog.

We were telling stories, and mission stories came up. Both my husband and his brother went on Mormon missions, so they've got lots of stories. Little FTA piped up, "What's a mission? Is that like when you go out and find something?" He was thinking of secret agent missions, in the vein of Backyardigans Super Secret Spy or James Bond.

I started to explain, "No, it's not like going on a secret mission to find something. See, Mormons and some other Christians go out as missionaries to try to convince people to join their church, to be Mormons or Christians too."

"Oh, right," Little FTA added in all seriousness, "but they only tell them the good stuff."

We laughed at that, and I said, "That's right. They only tell them the good stuff."

My brother-in-law was a bit shocked, but good-natured about it. "What are you teaching him?" he asked.

"Not to be a Mormon, that's for sure," I mumbled.