Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I'd Make a Great Mormon

Last week, a chance meeting with a new person resulted in my spending two hours counseling this gentleman on a personal matter. The man (I’ll call him Kurt[1]) was in spiritual need, hungry for an ethical solution to a painful quandary. I was touched that he reached out to me, and did everything I could to help him find a solution he felt comfortable with.

We embarked on this conversation with the clear understanding that I was an atheist, and he was of some strict religious background. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that Kurt is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints[2]. This knowledge did not influence my opinion of him as a human being. He was struggling for a rational, compassionate ethical strategy that would fit into his religious home. Kurt is an intelligent and educated man; his guiding philosophy is closer to humanism than he would probably like to admit.

When we finally arrived at an appropriate strategy, Kurt was thrilled. He had sought help from his religious leaders, who referred him to counseling. The counseling had not been successful. And yet here, in two hours, we’d found a workable solution. Not an easy solution, to be sure, but something acceptable that he could be excited about, and which he could implement right away.

Kurt thanked me profusely. And then he said, “I know you’re an atheist, but you’d make a great Mormon.” From his perspective, he was paying me a high compliment. I returned the compliment, telling him I thought he’d make a fine atheist. And he would. Apart from this blind-spot of faith, Kurt is quite the rationalist.

I figured we were done. Kurt’s problem was apparently solved, he was happy, I’d done a good deed, mission accomplished on all counts. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there.

Kurt’s mind has been blown. He is awed by the fact that an atheist can be such a nice person. On one hand, I’m happy that this experience has opened a door for him — he has firsthand knowledge that not only can atheists provide satisfactory solutions to personal problems, but they are kind and compassionate, just like (his impression of) Mormons. So hooray. On the other hand, however, ouch. Are atheists really seen as such cranks and meanies that an intelligent individual could be shocked at being treated compassionately by an atheist? If atheists are all belligerent proselytizers who hold religion up to scorn, why consult with one in the first place?

Another thing that bothered me was that Kurt seemed to think that God wanted him to be perfect. No faults, no chinks in that shining armor. I tried to get around that by telling him that perfection is inherently unattainable, and that he might find comfort in considering that our inability to attain it means that we have infinite opportunity for change and improvement. He liked that, but it was clear that he would continue being (in my opinion) much too hard on himself for having absolutely normal feelings and desires. So much of what he saw as a moral standard appeared to be aesthetic, rather than ethical. It saddens me to see someone so needful of external validation, as opposed to internal fulfillment[3].

Which leaves me here, concerned that by continuing to pursue his religion, Kurt may be doing psychological damage to himself. He is seeking the validation of a being who doesn’t exist, rather than living an intellectually and emotionally satisfying life. And for myself, I am somewhat offended that anyone could be shocked that I am a nice person, just because I don’t have an imaginary friend.

No, Kurt. I would not make a good Mormon.


Amy Frushour Kelly

[1] This is not his real name.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints

[3] Although to be fair, aren’t we all guilty if this? I certainly am, on occasion...


  1. Nice post, Amy. Good to see you back. I hope all is well with you.

    Best regards,

  2. Hi, Amy! I always get worried when I realize that I haven't seen one of your e-mails alerting folks to a new blog post of yours, so I was very happy to receive one today! As always, this post is extremely well-written and exceedingly readable. And not to mention, it rings with kindness and thoughtfulness throughout.

    Like "Kurt", I feel pressure to be perfect, too ... unlike Kurt, as an atheist, I don't attribute it to God ... (or do I, subconsiously? This opens a whole can of worms ...) I'm not sure what my advice for him would be! There needs to be a balance between doing everything "right" and not being lazy. I know I haven't found it!

    He is a fortunate person to have received your counsel. It's great to hear that you've opened his eyes and eroded some of his preconceived notions. Atheists are human, so we are susceptible to the negative attributes you described, just as are those who are religious ... which again, is why it's so great that he got to talk to you in particular.

  3. Hi Amy.

    I used to be Mormon -- did the whole thing, went on a mission, married in the temple -- and have now chosen a different spiritual path. However, Kurt probably isn't surprised that you are aethiest and a nice person, he's surprised that you are NOT A MORMON and are a nice person. It's a very insular little group, and it's often hard for people who are in the midst of it to understand that there is life outside the LDS box, and great people all around.

    Thank you so much for your blog. It's much-needed, and important.