My Personal Articles of Faith

In the wake of my faith crisis, I have been forced to re-evaluate how I think about a lot of things, though (interestingly enough) my actual approach to life has not changed that much: I behave much as I did before, with the exception that I no longer think other people have the right to dictate my personal morality without input from me.  This page contains a verbal expression of the standards by which I live my life.  Since I am a Mormon, it is (somewhat loosely) modeled on Joseph Smith's 1842 letter to John Wentworth.  I have grouped things a little differently, putting what I regard to be the most important stuff first.


1. I believe in personal integrity.  I believe in being honest and true, above all else.  I strive to make my word my bond, and to be as forthright as I can with myself and others.  I also believe in being chaste, which for me means sexually responsible rather than celibate: since I am monogamously married, sexual responsibility entails being true to the promises I made to my wife (that I would love and cherish her and refrain from sleeping around). I believe in being benevolent, and in doing good to all people (even those who disgust me for reasons which may or may not be morally justified).  If there is anything virtuous (anything that brings out the best that is in me), lovely (anything that makes my life and the lives of others more beautiful), of good report (I value the opinions of others), and praiseworthy (living up to its reputation for goodness), then I seek after these things.  While I do not believe or hope all things, I do hope to be able to endure whatever I have to in order to live at peace with myself and all the other living beings in this world.

2. I believe that belief should never be coerced.  I claim the privilege of worshiping according to the dictates of my own conscience, and allow all other humans the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may (whether the object of their worship be a tribal totem, an anthropomorphic god or gods, a glorified holy man, or a philosophical or scientific construct).  (If at any point we become aware of other living beings that worship, then I extend them the same freedom.)  

3. I believe that I alone am morally responsible for my actions.   The only limit on our worship should be the harm it causes others: when my actions (the results of my beliefs) hurt others (infringing unduly on their freedom to exist), then I am out of line and will gladly accept correction.  While I may be free to believe whatever nonsense I please (2), I am not free to impose that nonsense forcibly on others.  For example, I may choose to wear a burkha myself (whether as a chastity-shield or a defense against extraterrestrial surveillance), but I may not force you to do so against your will for any reason.  Until you start wearing bombs and venturing into public places, your clothing is none of my business, no matter what anyone else says (even if the person speaking claims to have some kind of absolute authority).  Part of my moral responsibility is owning my agency, protecting it against anything and everything that demands my unquestioning obedience.  The fact of the matter is that I am responsible for what I do, no matter what.  I can never pass the buck (not to secular leaders, not to religious leaders, and certainly not to God).  Adolf Eichmann's excuse ("I was only doing my job") is not available to me.  This means that I must suffer for my own sins, which are naturally my own fault.  No one--neither God, nor anyone claiming to represent him, nor some mythical human ancestors-- can wrest from me the opportunity to own my own mistakes and learn from them.

Living with Other People

4. I believe in pursuing peaceful solutions to every conflict.  Per (3) above, I do not yield my moral agency to any third party: I am nobody's abject subject--not God's nor the company's nor the government's.  But I am not a violent rebel.  I believe in cooperation.  I believe in looking for productive compromises (which serve multiple purposes, including but certainly not limited to my own).  I believe that it is always better to pursue life rather than death.  The best kind of revolution is bloodless.  The best kind of defiance is a clean, self-sufficient life.  (Every church, company, and government is more or less of a mafia: instead of joining the mafia to beat the mafia, I strive to avoid relying on the mafia, any mafia, for anything.  The less I depend on them, the less dangerous the authority they have over me, over my ability to make moral decisions.)  So I am at once an ideal citizen (submitting to civil authority as long as it exists to maintain peaceful order, the way it still does in the United States of America) and a hopeless revolutionary (since I don't trust any authority perfectly, not even my own: I do not think the world would be a better place if they appointed me president, prophet, or CEO tomorrow).  There is no silver bullet.  So let's all stop shooting, for goodness' sake!  And while we're at it, we might all try wondering what is wrong with our own approach to life before we excoriate our opponent (in religion, politics, or business) as the worst thing to happen since Satan.  When Coriantumr and Shiz fight, everyone loses.

5. I believe that we know little, as a species, but that we can learn.  We don't know much.  Our ideas about life are all upside-down and backwards: as a species, we generate really good questions (what is the meaning of life? how we can provide peace for ourselves and our descendants?) and really bad answers (follow the president! follow the prophet! follow the scientist! follow the mob, and walk like an Egyptian!).  That said, if we all doubt one another and ourselves enough to poke holes in our common human idiocy, we can come up with some pretty incredible things (like the European university, the Asian martial arts, the American Constitution, music everywhere, not to mention the phenomenon of relatively clean and peaceful cities existing all over the world in spite of childishly tribal rivalries).  I believe that our success depends on remaining open to new ways of doing things.  We cannot suppose that we know all there is to know (or at least everything important).  We have to be open, really open, to continuing revelation (even though this makes us incredibly vulnerable in some ways, leaving us open to the constant possibility that we might be messing up in a really big way without recognizing it).  We also have to realize that insight doesn't recognize our artificial hierarchies: it comes suddenly to young children, by-passing presidents, prophets, scholars, and all other established authorities.  It doesn't care how hard you worked for your degree, how noble your cause is, or that you carry the mandate of heaven: it plows straight through all that crap, while most of us are too naive (or too ashamed) to notice.  It takes real courage to notice that you are wrong (in spite of everything), and that the current of revelation is passing you by.  But I believe that our future as a species depends on remaining open to new insight.  We have to empty our teacup, constantly, if we would have it refilled with fresh brew (instead of the putrid mess that was fresh 200 or 2000 years ago).

6. I believe in the power of myth.  I think myth is a great tool for presenting and exploring human morality.  I am grateful for the wide exposure I have had to mythology from all over the world, and I believe this exposure is very useful.  We should all tell stories.  (In fact, we all do, whether we know it or not.)  We should read them.  We should look at the stories handed down by our ancestors.  They have much to teach us, especially when we notice where they are wrong (whether factually or morally).  They are the lab-notes in an ongoing experiment of which we are all subjects, whether we like it or not.  But we should not make the mistake of exalting one story unduly: no single story contains all truth.  Even all of them together fall short of that impossibly immense (and opaque) thing that is ultimate reality, but all together they provide a much better tool for approaching it than any one of them alone can.  So I read the Bible.  I also read Homer, Pindar, Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plato, Vergil, Ovid, and many others.  (Talking of mythology, let's not forget Snorri Sturlson, or the Kalevala.)  I read Shakespeare, Locke, Hume, Milton, and many others (including Joseph Smith and/or whoever else was involved in creating the Book of Mormon).  I also read Jane Austen, Dostoyevksy, and Tolstoy.  I read Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.  I also read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (and many other people remembered somewhere on this blog).  And I learn from everyone: each of us has an important story to tell.

7. I do not believe that magic is real the way I used to.  I do not think that myths are telling strict, objective, historical truth when they record bushes talking, sticks turning into snakes, people returning from the grave (zombies!), or people being healed miraculously.  I do not believe that the universe provides clear answers to prayer.  (If it does, it must hate all those poor folk in Africa and Southeast Asia, not to mention anyone else who has ever been in a really awful situation and gotten no response at all.)  I do not believe in the accuracy of prophets (any of them, whether they use star charts, priesthood rituals, or mathematics made to serve Keynesian economic theory).  And I don't think there are any magic shortcuts for learning a language: some people have more aptitude than others, but (in my experience) everyone requires exposure and practice to develop that skill.  My disbelief in magic comes late, after I spent 20 years willing myself to believe.  At this point, I am still open to belief: if I see a miracle (or meet a zombie out there in the world), I will believe.  But until then, I must stick with the truth I know, which does not include magic outside of mythology (where it is more a form of speech than anything else: we invoke it to explain what to us is inexplicable).  There was a time when I would believe extraordinary claims without any proof other than my own emotions (did I feel happy when thinking about zombies?).  No longer.

8. I do not believe in utopia.  In my experience, there is no such thing as a perfect organization (a group of people who make no mistakes, whose leaders are always to be trusted, no matter what).  All of us fall short of our good intentions sometimes.  The best of us know this, and make sure that we are answerable when we go off the rails (as we inevitably will).  This is especially important when we hold offices of trust over other people (as leaders of governments, churches, companies, and families).  I do not think that anyone's authority is (or ought to be) unquestionable.  I do not think that gender qualifies people to lead or follow: both men and women can make excellent leaders.  That said, I do not think that the most important work in any organization occurs at the highest level.  The best leaders know how to free other people to make good decisions; they do not demand obedience.  They model good behavior, and let other people have the freedom to create their own integrity within the context of the organization that they share.  (As Joseph Smith said, "I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves."  Only I really mean it.  I expect leaders to permit and even encourage thoughtful dissent.)

Good leaders care less about outward appearance (hair length, clothing style, body art, etc.) and more about what's inside (integrity, honesty, heart).  Their authority does not come from votes, money, popularity, or divine fiat, but because they have integrity (1).  They work tirelessly on the only "kingdom of God" that matters, which is the one that exists here and now in every living person.  As Brigham Young said, "When we conclude to make a Zion we will make it, and this work commences in the heart of each person."  He was paraphrasing Jesus (Luke 17:21), but the point remains: the kingdom of God is wherever you happen to be living at the moment; don't expect it anywhere else.  If someone tells you something about their company (or government or church) that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  If they expect you to pay them regularly for the privilege of creating a perfect society, be suspicious.  (There is always a downside: every heaven creates hell.)  If they expect you to pay them regularly without providing access to their financial records, be very suspicious.  A good society is one where people have access to such information, i.e. one in which I am presumed to have a legitimate interest in the concrete effects brought about through my labor and resources.  Wherever possible, I strive to avoid throwing my scarce resources away down black holes (into corporations whose records I cannot check).  If people want my contribution, they have to earn it (or take it from me at gunpoint, like a real mafia).  I can be sold (if you convince me that your organization is good) or even coerced (up to a certain point), but I will not be stolen.  I may bet on a company and come up short, but nobody is ever going to sell me straight-up pie-in-the-sky again.

Metaphysical Speculation

9. Behavior is prior to words.  Because we can transmit some kinds of behavior via words (viz. all those manuals for building things), we have a tendency to assume that words are somehow prior to activity, but this not really true.  First, stuff happens.  Then, we think about it, talk about it, and come up with verbal recipes (some good, some not so good) for dealing with it.  But the behavior is ultimately prior, as the reality to which words hold up a mirror.

A case in point is my own experience working to develop moral virtue.  Of course I talked a lot about virtue.  I thought about it.  I prayed about it.  But then, something happened (e.g. I was mistreated, I hit puberty, etc.) and I had to react in real time.  My initial reactions were not always that great.  (This is true of all kinds of skills: anyone who has ever learned to play a musical instrument or perform any complicated physical task like dancing or fighting knows that all the theory in the world will not substitute for an hour of practice.  It is one thing to know something in theory.  It is another thing entirely to know it in reality.  Words can sometimes lead us toward behavior, but they can never substitute for it: it exists with or without them, and their ability to train it is limited.)

Part of my faith crisis was realizing the banal truth that good words often cover up bad things.  Crimes like genocide and lying become fighting for freedom and serving God and country, as though all the behavior needed to be OK was a pretty verbal package.  I realized that it did not make sense to defend (or attack) abstract ideas (like marriage, to take one example) without examining the particulars to which these abstract terms refer.  So I started examining particular instances of abstract ideas.  What I found was eye-opening. Marriage has no coherent meaning in real time.  For one woman, it means living with a drunken man who beats her senseless every night.  For another, it means a loving relationship where she keeps the house and he pays the bills.  In another household, he keeps house and she pays bills.  Others yet share all responsibilities equally.  And not every couple is monogamous or heterosexual: note that serial monogamy (as practiced by conservative icons like Newt Gingrich) is not really monogamy, and that heterosexuals have no great track record of marital fidelity (witness the existence of the world's oldest profession, and the person of Ted Haggard, not to mention all the politicians whom I will not bother to name).  Defending marriage requires legislating for all these situations at once, coming up with a single recipe that covers all kinds of very different personalities and circumstances.  Personally, I don't think it can be done (at least not very well).  The best I can come up with is something like this: a good marriage, from my point of view, depends on earning and maintaining your partner's trust.  So be trustworthy, and love each other!  (But how does that work as law?  Can you have a law that tells people, in case they didn't know, that they shouldn't mistreat one another?  Imagine the headline: today Congress passed a resolution stating that all people shall be nice to one another.  Cute.  But would that really be effective?  I don't think so.)

It seems to me that many people are too caught up arguing about words when they should be looking more at deeds--specifically, at their own actions and the consequences that they are personally inviting.  Personally, I don't really want to force people to stay in demonstrably bad relationships or avoid potentially good ones merely to suit arbitrary abstractions of mine (abstractions like marriage or the traditional family, which deconstruct dramatically the moment you try to look at them historically with any kind of rigor).  So instead of defending marriage in the abstract, I work on my own (which is simple enough for me to begin to understand, and which I have a real chance of making better).  I cannot make everyone's marriage work (or give us instant world peace), but I can make mine work better (and promote peace in my tiny corner of the world).  To me, this is the kind of stuff that matters: the personal, the intimate, the real.  The more we lose connection with this, the more vulnerable we become to being led astray by pretty words.  (Of course I want everyone to be happy the way I am.  Of course I would donate money to this corporation for defending my kind of marriage ... and needlessly squelching everyone else's: hello, fascism!)

10. I believe in God.  But the way I think of divinity has fundamentally changed.  I do not think there exists a personal being (whether of flesh and bone or any other substance) who is at once immensely powerful and minutely interested in human concerns.  Many problems lead me to this conclusion.  Imagine that such a god exists and is kind (like a loving father or mother).  Then we have the problem of suffering: why would such a person allow tsunamis, famines, diseases, etc., in which innocents suffer (and from which the guilty often emerge unscathed)?  If God lets the wicked free to punish them later, fine.  But why make the infants suffer?  Even supposing that God were cruel (as he has been imagined at times), would he not be more systematic about it, more consistent?  This brings us to the problem of history: everyone, without exception, imagines God in his own image (Baal/Ashtart, Zeus/Hera, Odin/Frigg, Yahweh/Asherah, Jupiter/Juno, Buddha/Tara, Jesus/Mary, etc.).  God likes what he likes, dislikes what he dislikes, and generally validates all his  preconceived ideas (until someone with a stronger character or at least a more stubborn one convinces him otherwise).  The more I look into the universe, the less it seems to me that there is a personality (or personalities) behind it all.  Things just happen, for reasons which we can only ever know imperfectly.  Uncomfortable with ignorance, we call this God and then dress it up to look like us (making it seem less frightening).  But we haven't really changed anything.

Once we have recast our ignorance as God, we create elaborate hierarchies of experts around it, experts whose primary role is to convince us that everything random and scary in the world is being taken care of.  But these experts sometimes get a little too comfortable.  They think they know more than your average man (and sometimes they are right), and that they deserve better than he does.  So they threaten him with disaster from God if he doesn't do what they say (which not infrequently involves him submitting to them and increasing their bank account).  This is no good.

The situation becomes more complicated when we consider that the human being is not designed to exist as a solitary animal.  We are social creatures (political animals, according to Aristotle), meaning that many of our important attributes--e.g. our knowledge, habits, and culture--are collective.  I am writing this essay with a language that exists only because many people speak and read it, using it to share ideas (which exist concretely only as shared symbols targeted toward external realities more or less apparent to groups of people).  God the Ubermensch is actually a pretty nice metaphor for this messy human reality, the reality that makes people spontaneously clap, or burst into song, or tar and feather a philandering prophet.  But the collective will of human beings is no more inherently good (in a moral sense) than whatever it is that causes natural disasters that kill innocent children.

So God exists, as a word we use to talk about the cause(s) of events that we cannot perfectly understand.  But he is not really personal (as far as we can tell), or concerned about us, or moral (unless we decide to call the best moral impulses that we have God, a decision which many of us, including myself, have taken at some point).  Essentially, God is whatever we make of him.  If we imagine him as a cruel tyrant, presto!  There he is, justifying genocide.  (Exhibit A: all religious wars fought since the dawn of recorded history.)  If we make him a loving father, presto!  There he is, justifying peace.  (Exhibit B: all religious opposition to religious wars since the dawn of recorded history.)  But he never says anything for himself.  The closest he comes to making sense is when individuals talk about their own morality.  (Exhibit C: all religious zealots who have existed throughout time and left records of their personal visions of divinity.  These accounts are often individually coherent, but when compared they show wide variation: why does God tell some people to commit genocide and bid others become pacifists?)  From all of this, I conclude that God is a metaphor, a projection of individual and collective ideas about why things happen (or ought to happen) in the universe.

Having concluded that God is a metaphor for talking about real things, a word for things that do exist (like the universe and reasons for action, reasons which are often intuited), I arrive at a paradox: I am an atheist who believes in God.  It still blows my mind sometimes.