Mormon, atheist, Mormon and then spiritualist. How? Martha Beck, a Harvard graduate of Sociology, now a life coach, tells the story of her life growing up Mormon, leaving for Harvard, turning atheist, giving birth to her son Adam, who has Down syndrome, returning to Utah and the warm embrace of Mormon hospitality, and eventually leaving the Saints. An easy read, it may be a good break from deep theology or philosophy.
Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith is for Mormons and non-Mormons alike. If you are curious about Mormonism, you’ll find value. If you are Mormon, you may relate to the struggles of Beck, and even have the same concerns, but choose to practice Mormonism to change things from the inside.
Forgiveness, hope and compassion are the strongest subjects Beck presents. It’s these lessons that the author cherishes, despite the hardships described in her story. The book is more about forgiveness than it is about Mormonism. The opinion Beck has of Mormonism and Mormons is pretty positive.
People in Provo, Utah, home to Brigham Young University (the place to go if you’re a Mormon itching for higher education), are genuinely nice to each other. Beck recalls how amazingly nice everyone was, from the movers who moved them into their new house, to the members of her Ward and how they fawned over her little son Adam (who was headed straight to the best part of the Celestial Kingdom). If you don’t know anything about Mormonism, this can be a good starter. You’ll get a little glimpse of one person’s family life, a greater view into the quirks of Mormon doctrine, and a peek at the end into the dark side of Mormonism.
While in Utah, Beck embarks on a serious spiritual quest. Driven by experiences she had while pregnant with Adam, she seeks to find the source of this overwhelming feeling of compassion. She begins to explore the universal myth of a spirit world, diving into Eastern religions, practicing meditation, and earnestly praying to a God she is sure is there. Throughout her story, she has several supernatural experiences, mostly in childbirth or under anesthesia. It’s these experiences, her lust for truth, and finally her reconstructed memories of sexual abuse, that urge her to pack her bags and leave the Saints.
As quickly as Beck fell in love with Mormonism and its Saints, she turns on them. As a teacher at BYU, she had grown tired of the censorship there, the efforts to control what people could learn, especially about Sonia Johnson and the Equal Rights Amendment. She felt she could not be open about criticism of BYU, even outside of campus, without being “called in.” While she only taught part-time, her coworkers had more to
lose. The thought was that once you had been at BYU for five or six years you were tainted and no school outside of Utah would hire you. Beck does leave the school, but not because she is unhappy there. Her exodus is triggered by “lost memories,” which resurface after an examination by a gynecologist. Her recollections involve her father and herself, when she was five, mumbling in an ancient language, and sexual abuse. She was her father’s Isaac.
The method Beck uses to tell her story is to weave the retelling of an uncomfortable meeting to confront her father in a hotel room, before he dies, and the rest of her experience. The telling is tragic. You really feel envy for Beck’s life when she first moves back to Provo. Everyone is genuinely nice. But, by the end, you feel that women are treated as second-class citizens, the LDS employ ex- CIA to spy on members who go astray, and there is a giant cover-up of sexual abuse in Utah. The intent of the book is to tell a story, not to bash Mormonism, or convince others to leave. Beck takes the time to show Mormons whose love and compassion embody everything good about Mormonism, and whose values she believes are worth emulating.
While Beck used to be an atheist, you could view her as nonreligious. There is no serious mention of her deciding she was atheist. However, her spiritual questioning and quest for truth are noble. If you are an atheist, you may find yourself skeptical of her supernatural experiences while her body is under extreme stress, or under chemical influence. If you are not an atheist, you may find truth in a belief that everything is connected, and hold out hope for a place where “all our hearts will sing in unison.” – Bjorn Watland
Professor Eller teaches Cultural Anthropology in Denver, Colorado. In his research on religion, he gained great insight into the affects of religion and the advantages of freethinking.
Natural Atheism has some challenging material, but it appears Professor Eller’s aim was to address a general audience. At the beginning, he clarifies what he means by a natural atheist. As Eller writes, “All humans are born Atheists. No baby born into the world arrives with religious beliefs or knowledge.”
To return you to this natural state, Eller offers twelve steps to atheism. In his twelve steps, he attacks the traditional arguments for the existence of god and the support theists use to justify their position. This chapter leads to a lesson on reasoning. For Eller, a rational approach is imperative for understanding the issues he presents.
The second part clarifies his understanding on important concepts that influence an atheist. He addresses epistemological concepts, a clarification of types of atheism, science’s role in promoting atheism and finally toleration and truth. These chapters give a wider approach to being an atheist than just using a standard atheist’s defense. What is often a problem in books on atheism is a lack of application, but a lot of theory.
In his third part, Eller explores the issues of separation of church and state, recruiting members into atheism, and how to deal with the fundamentalist in our culture. He concludes with a presentation of an atheist’s attitude toward being an atheist.
The book has a good bibliography but has no index. This makes it more difficult to use as a quick reference. The table of contents is more thorough and helps recall of the chapters.
Eller has created a book that could be used as an introductory text. It is accessible and does not gloss over sections. It is understandable for most readers and thought provoking for the novice. – Grant Steves
Bob Schadewald could – and would – talk to just about anyone. There wasn’t a crackpot too cracked or a true believer too deceived that Bob wouldn’t talk to. Bob died in 2000 at age 57, but he left behind files filled with articles he wrote about the pseudoscientists he had met, interviewed, and even formed deep friendships with.
Fortunately for us, Bob’s sister Lois Schadewald combed through Bob’s files, talked to Bob’s friends from around the country, and put together a remarkable compilation of Bob’s work.
In Worlds of Their Own, you will meet some amazing characters. Immanuel Velikovsky, for example, was a Russian immigrant and psychoanalyst who took biblical mythology, Greek mythology, and some comets no one else ever heard of, mixed them all together, and “proved” that biblical stories like Noah’s Flood, the Parting of the Red Sea, and the Sun Stopping for a Day thing really happened.
As Bob put it, Velikovsky was like many other pseudoscientists and true believers: “Facts inconsistent with his conclusions never troubled him in the least.”
In 1978, Bob published a spoof in Science Digest about a perpetual motion machine. That article led to his meeting people (including engineers) who truly believed they could build a perpetual motion machine that violated the laws of thermodynamics. Bob’s conclusion: “A perpetual motionist typically concocts a scheme so complicated that he can’t see why it won’t work. He then assumes that it will work.”
After Velikovsky and the perpetual motionists, the reader may be prepared for the flat-earthers. Yes, there really are people who believe the earth is flat, shaped like a phonograph record with a sky dome over it. North is in the center, and South is at the outer edges where you will find huge mountains of ice (Antarctica).
Bob even joined the Flat Earth Society and became friends with the president. Bob was kicked out for a time because of “spherical tendencies,” but he was allowed to rejoin. In a history of flat-earthism, Bob notes that, for flat-earthers, to deny the earth is flat is to deny the Bible is true. Indeed, they feel the spinning ball theory is just a way to get rid of Jesus and say the Bible is a big joke.
While Bob had a sense of humor about pseudoscience, he drew the line at people he felt were deliberately lying for God – the “scientific” creationists. In 1983 until well into the 1990s, he went to every national creation conference. To fight creationism masquerading as science, he was a board member of the National Center for Science Education, edited their newsletter, and was president of NCSE for two years. He also debated prominent creationists.
In Worlds of Their Own, he makes a clear distinction between creation “scientists” and other religionists: “Most religious people see no conflict between their faith and the findings of science. Educated Christians, Jews, and Muslims typically believe that evolution was God’s method of creation, and some of them therefore call themselves ‘creationists.’ It’s not of them that I speak.”
But don’t let that make you feel less worried. In the conclusion of the Lying for God section of Worlds, Bob wrote: “Scientific creationism is the best organized movement in the history of American pseudoscience, and thus the most dangerous. Since they cannot win by the rules of science, creationists promote their doctrines by religious, political, and legal means.”
We all owe thanks to Lois Schadewald for spending her sabbatical and a lot of nights and weekends in this well-conceived effort to share her brother’s humor, wisdom, and, yes, foreboding.
Worlds of Their Own will be published in late September 2006. - Sue O’Donnell
Edd Doerr came to the twin cities some years ago when he was president of AHA to be the keynote speaker at the first ever banquet for the Humanists of Minnesota. Those who were present got to know Edd Doerr as a gifted speaker, tireless worker, and accomplished coalition-builder.
Doerr collects the anecdotes and memories of his lifetime of service to Humanism in his newest book, Min Liv Som Humanist (My Life as a Humanist). The title was chosen to echo the title of a popular Swedish film, “Min Liv som Hund (My life as a Dog)”, and serves to underline that this memoir is strictly about the humanism in Edd Doerr’s life, and not about his personal life. Indeed Doerr barely mentions his family in the book.
It’s a small book – only 30 pages plus some appendices that add up to another 22 pages. It is written in Doerr’s trademark direct and concise style. The pace is breathtaking. Doerr recounts projects involving years of lobbying and litigation in a few brief paragraphs. You’d better pay attention to every word because Doerr does not use two words where one will do.
This book is interesting reading for those who want a glimpse into the life of a professional activist. Doerr recounts his almost 40 years of work with Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Humanist Association. He discusses his involvement with the Unitarian Universalist movement, religious Humanists, Jewish people and others who share Humanism’s goal for a better life. He describes coalitions he helped build to oppose government aid to private schools (called “parochiaid” in those days and “vouchers” today). He describes many of the interesting people he has met and worked with over the years.
By sharing his experiences, Doerr gives effective lessons in coalition building, lobbying, litigation, and managing a nonprofit. There are numerous photos and side stories presented along with the main narrative. This is a good book for fans of Ed Doerr or anyone who wants to learn how to be a more effective activist. –Rick Rohrer