Elder Uchtdorf’s Spiritual Abuse:
“Be Not Afraid, Just Tune Out All Opposing Signals”

Keep Calm and Believe Believe

When I first heard Elder Uchtdorf’s Saturday morning talk during the October 2015 General Conference, I had high hopes it signaled a movement toward a kinder, gentler LDS Church. I hoped that some combination of pressures from public critical voices, the mass exodus of fleeing member, and Uchtdorf’s sincerely held Christlike outlook on the Mormon gospel had finally manifest as a teaspoon of change in a organization which so desperately needs it.

(Optional: View the video in which I analyze Uchtdorf’s Saturday Morning talk with Jonathan Streeter.)

My optimism turned out to be baseless. (But then, I always have tended to be bright-eyed and naive.) I knew other General Authorities would undo Uchtdorf’s good words. I just wouldn’t have predicted he’d undo himself, that same evening, in the Priesthood Session, in his talk, “Be Not Afraid, Only Believe.” 

I expected better from the folk hero of progressive Mormons.

He begins telling the story of biblical Daniel, who was taken captive into Babylon. To make sure his audience is paying attention, Uchtdorf has the young men place themselves into the story:

“Think of it, my beloved young Aaronic priesthood holders, Daniel was very likely your age when he was taken into the king’s court to be educated in the language, laws, religion, and science of the worldly Babylon. Can you imagine my young brothers how it would have felt like to be forced from your home, marched 500 miles to a foreign city, and indoctrinated in the religion of your enemies?”

Persian bas relief of a prisoner

Actual photograph of Daniel taken into captivity (not really)

This employs a technique known as “Identification and Example.” We are to put ourselves in Daniel’s shoes, and to imagine ourselves in the story. This lowers defenses and helps to convey the emotions and morals of the narrative. 

What does Uchtdorf want us to learn? A couple of things, for instance:

“The pressure on him must have been immense to abandon his old beliefs and adopt those of Babylon. But he stayed true to his faith…”

Hanging gardens of Babylon

Setting the scene. Some pretty immense pressures indeed.

Uchtdorf relates this ancient tale to modern times. He speaks of defending unpopular truths, particularly on the internet, where we might be “flamed by those who disagree with us.” He points out that Daniel could have been literally flamed for his beliefs by the evil and murderous Babylonians.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego on fire

Old school flaming

Elder Uchtdorf speculates that Daniel may have been like modern Mormons who “have to work for our testimonies,” which is another way of saying that it’s difficult – and desirable – to set aside tangible evidence and our own direct perceptions of reality in favor of believing as Church leaders want.  Continue reading

An Atheist Spiritual Experience at Sunstone

How can an atheist have a spiritual experience? It happens to me all the time, and it happens more often when I am true to myself and my sense of reality.

First, let me be very clear. I am speaking only of my own journey, my own psychological and spiritual path, my own beliefs. I am not speaking of your truths, path, or experiences. I do not wish to dictate your direction in life, or say that my perspective is right and everyone else is wrong. I do not judge or shame, nor do I believe I am more fully evolved that anyone else. It is important for me to clarify that, since so many of my readers are LDS or freshly exmormon, accustomed to hearing authoritarian statements delivered in an absolutist, prescriptive frame. That is the opposite of my purpose.

I am an atheist. To me, this simply means I do not believe in God. I grant that one or more gods may exist, but that does not make me agnostic because I do not believe in any of them. I do, however, believe that human beings think in stories, emotions, and symbols, and in this sense, we all have an internal spiritual language. Belief in the unseen can be healthy, especially when it is self-directed. So I consider myself a spiritual atheist. More on this here.

Meet the Exmormons Panel

Meet the Exmormons: Alan Rock Waterman, John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, Marisa and Carson Caulderwood

So I went to my first Sunstone Symposium, where the 2015 theme was “The Mormon Mind.” I felt a little mistrustful at first, nervous, expecting to have to walk on eggshells so as not to offend the touchy true believers. How would they react to a longtime exmormon? How would they react if I professed my inability to believe in the literal truth of God, Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon? Worse, how would they react when they heard my presentation, which basically calls Mormonism a cult? Thanks to my recent experiences going back to church, I knew I could listen to their confessions of faith without flinching (mostly). But how would they react to me? Continue reading

Sunstone Slides, The Cogs of Dissonance and Consonance: The Levers of Control in LDS Doctrine

Many people requested copies of the slides after my presentation at Sunstone Symposium last week, entitled The Cogs of Dissonance and Consonance: The Levers of Control in LDS Doctrine. Click for the full slide deck. Audio of the talk is currently available for free at Sunstone’s website. Or you can purchase a hardcopy.


Cogs of Dissonance Slides



Mormon Marriage Equality Is Next

Rainbow Temple

Within eight years or less, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will allow civil same-sex marriage to members. Another five years after that, the Church will allow same-sex temple marriage.

I’ve been making this prediction for a couple of years now. With Friday’s SCOTUS ruling, it’s time for me to go on record.

Seven years ago, I said that gay marriage would be legal in most US states within ten years. No one believed me. It wasn’t even a major political issue then, except in California, where they were actively trying to make it illegal. LGBT activists weren’t pushing hard for marriage at the time, but I saw that conservatives efforts to actively ban marriage equality would force the issue, and they would lose.

I’m using similar reasoning to explain why Mormon leaders will rapidly reverse their stance. In fact, Mormonism will lead other hyper-conservative, fundamentalist Christian sects on this issue. Evangelicals will take a couple more decades to come around.

This is a daring prediction to make. The LDS Church has doubled and tripled down on their position, leading the fight against marriage equality. They were 50% of the funding behind Prop 8 campaigning, and funded other nationwide efforts to suppress marriage rights. They fought in courts, all the way up to SCOTUS, to enforce the marriage ban. And even Friday, on this historic decision, they doubled-down yet again by issuing a statement, “The Supreme Court will not alter doctrine.”

So how can I be so sure they’ll do an about-face? Continue reading

The BITE Model and Mormon Control Released on Kindle!

The article I wrote ten years ago, based on Steven Hassan’s BITE Model of cult control, is now an ebook! I updated it and added more content and it is now available on Kindle for your reading convenience.

The original is still available for free right here on this website. If you’d like the new, more convenient read, head over to Amazon for The BITE Model and Mormon Control.

 The BITE Model and Mormon Control

Feeling the Spirit as a Secular Mormon
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Spirit

Many of the highly-promoted interpretations of LDS doctrines are divisive, shame-inducing, and thought-stopping in nature, as I’ve described in my book, Recovering Agency.

But what if there is a more loving, inclusive, mind-freeing, self-actualizing way to interpret some of those same doctrines that increases free agency rather than restricts it? Wouldn’t such an interpretation be more in line with the overall message of Jesus?

I wasn’t asking this question when I returned to Church this month after 15 years as an exmormon. But because I can now think about the doctrine differently than I’d originally been taught, not only was this answered in the affirmative, but I felt the Spirit to confirm it.

Yes, an atheist felt the Spirit. Don’t worry; I’ll explain.

Let the Holy Spirit Guide

In my book, I tackle Mormon doctrines that manipulate the emotions of members and eliminate flexibility of thought. Through writing and study, I’ve seen behind the curtain at how the illusions are performed. I’ve unframed the frame set for me by the LDS leadership, which leaves me free to build my own frames and hear my inner voice.

Giaquinto, Corrado - The Holy Spirit - 1750s

Holy Spirit depicted in a frame of Cherubs

The Spirit is an unseen “Holy Ghost,” a bodiless member of the Godhead who inspires baptized members of the LDS Church mostly via feelings, but also promptings, dreams, and visions. The feeling is described many ways – usually members are on the lookout for “warm and fuzzy,” “burning in the bosom,” “comfort,” or “peaceful.” The Spirit prompts people to be moral, do what is right, perform good works, follow the commandments, and keep their minds on the things of God.

(There’s also a thing called “The Light of Christ,” which is the feeling just like the Spirit that is given to those who are not baptized as Mormons. It’s a distinction without significant difference, so for the sake of this post, I’m going to just refer to both as “the Spirit” as if it’s all the same thing.)

Recovering Agency offers many examples of how everyday human emotions are reframed to be interpreted as the Spirit. These include:

  • Compassion
  • Serenity
  • Love and affection
  • Feeling loved or accepted
  • Oneness
  • Hope
  • Compassion
  • Inspiration
  • Peace
  • Reverence or awe
  • Elation
  • Trascendence
  • Excitement
  • Belonging
  • The sense of “doing the right thing” (integrity)
  • Joy
  • Epiphany (the ah-ha of a powerful new idea)
  • Cognitive consonance
  • Sense of community

I’ve heard others describe their profound confusion when they felt the Spirit while watching action movies or reading novels. Just last Sunday in Church, one of the speakers said she doesn’t feel the Spirit when praying, but she does when meditating, hiking in the mountains, or working at her job in the arts field. And people who have never even heard of Mormonism or Jesus Christ describe experiencing these feelings as part of their own religion, or just for being alive.

Continue reading

Returning to the Flock, But Not As a Sheep

Last Sunday, I went back to Church for the first time in fifteen years.

Yes, to Mormon church.

I’ve been talking about doing this for awhile now, ever since the North Seattle Stake sent a letter inviting LGBT members back to a supposedly open and affirming atmosphere.

North Seattle Stake Center (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here is the Church, here is the steeple; They have opened the doors. Do they welcome ALL people?

I didn’t leave the Church because I am gay. But that is certainly a factor that has kept me from going back. I am bisexual, a bit genderqueer, and polyamorous (meaning I have multiple lovers). I find deep personal meaning, even spiritual meaning, in recognizing these identities in myself and in practicing them in ways that official LDS doctrine deems sinful.

So the letter was significant: a branch of God’s kingdom recognizes that exclusion and judgment are not loving and that the Church has caused many of us pain. Their welcome revealed a promise of unconditional love that I hoped could extend to one such as me, a wandering sheep who has transformed into an autonomous, thinking being, who has no interest in being a bleating, following sheep again.

For a couple of years, I’ve publicly stated that if the Church would have me back, accept me just as I am, without changing me, I’d go back to Church and even get rebaptized. I’ve dreamed of a Mormonism devoid of the controlling, harsh, manipulative, top-down group-think tactics that I describe in my book, Recovering Agency. There’s plenty about Mormonism to set it apart from other Christian sects that it could retain its unique identity without all the shaming, toxic perfectionism, demand for purity, and other artifacts of unrighteous dominion. I imagined a future sort of Unitarian version of Mormonism, where some members were devout, others believed only parts of the gospel, others took the scripture stories as metaphorical instead of literal fact, and still others were complete atheists but who attended only for the sense of family and community.

Now here was a ward – no, a whole stake! – displaying at least a few of these traits. In their words, “Our ward includes members from diverse backgrounds and experiences. We would love for you to add your personal experience to ours… Your faith and your fellows need your strength, your testimony and your unique perspective on our gospel. You will be valued and welcomed as a part of our ward family.” Continue reading

“Therefore Apostle Bednar Induced Their Fears”

During the most recent LDS General Conference, Apostle David A. Bednar delivered a talk that promised to “hush” members’ fear. But in a highly manipulative series of twists and turns, he instead amps up fear, channels it down routes that benefit the Church, reframes the source of fear, and then in an exciting backflip into double-think, loads language to conflate fear with love.

This talk is spiritually abusive.

As I point out in Recovering Agency, high-demand groups instill phobias. This is not some random, baseless claim. Cult researchers have studied this at length. In my book, I spend a whole chapter describing instilled phobias within Mormonism: how it’s done, which phobias the Church instills, and why. The main purpose, of course, is to make you afraid to leave the Church, and also to make you afraid of disobeying God (with the Brethren in proxy as the voice of God).

This process is not simple and happens over a long period of time. It’s rare to see a talk that covers so much ground all by itself. Yet if any single talk is perfect for demonstrating how this process works, “Therefore They Hushed Their Fears” is the one.

Image from a really old episode of Doctor Who

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Elder Bednar begins with a story of how scared he felt as a boy after breaking a window. (I’m sure if you were to run a statistical analysis of LDS Conference talks, you’d find that every general authority broke at least one window.)

Stories like this are persuasive because they put us in the speaker’s shoes. We are invited to relate to him and feel the emotions he conveys. All children have accidentally broken something, so this story conjures up strong, personal childhood emotions. It regresses the listener to an earlier time, when we were at the mercy of our parents. When we were afraid of punishment from an ultimate authority.

Elder Bednar survives the encounter, of course. He had loving parents who handled it well. As he expresses relief in his story, we are relieved along with him.

Thus we’ve begun the emotional ride he’s about to take us on.

Keep in mind that most viewers of this talk are already conditioned to trust Elder Bednar. He presents himself well and speaks in the usual soft tones of a general authority. Mormons recognize him as an apostle, a righteous and spiritual leader, chosen by God, and blessed with spiritual gifts. Few Mormons would question his motives. They have already suspended disbelief and are willing to hear all of his words uncritically, hopefully through “the Spirit,” an emotional, meditative state that leaves them open-minded and willing to accept whatever message he delivers. Continue reading

Elder Pearson Asks Mormons To Stay By The Tree,
No Matter What!

Pearson is a relative newbie who wasn’t a General Authority when I was still a member. He is charismatic, animated, and funny.

While I liked his delivery style, the core of his message centered on thought reform. This message is, “Keep on believing no matter what.” Don’t let any trials, doubts, and questions steer you away from the Church. Keep your thoughts on the gospel and obey the commandments. This is a very literal form of mind control, as you are expected to continue thinking what the Church wants you to think.

No matter what.

Let’s take a closer look.

The title, “Stay by the Tree,” is a reference to Lehi’s dream about the Tree of Life, the narrow path leading to the tree, and the iron rod his children had to hold to in order to reach it safely. Other elements of this dream include a dangerous river, mists of darkness, and a “great and spacious building” which contained a multitude who mocked those those who held the rod, enticing them to leave the path.

Stay by the tree in the boat

Mixing the metaphor with Elder Ballard’s 2014 admonition to Stay In The Boat

Pearson begins with a deathbed story, which concludes, “[President Heber J. Grant’s prayer] is a striking reminder that no one, at any age, is immune from Satan’s influence. Two of Satan’s most powerful tools are distraction and deception.”

This statement reframes the source of all doubt. Doubt can never come from any legitimate source. Any outside ideas that might confront your testimony (and cause cognitive dissonance) are deceptions from the devil! Those who take Elder Pearson seriously will, in the future, experience a knee-jerk thought-stopping reaction to anything that runs counter to their faith, reducing their ability to think critically. Continue reading

General Conference: Scrambling to Close the Floodgates of Apostasy

April 2015 LDS General Conference seemed to have one major theme: Apostasy. The majority of talks were about bolstering personal faith in the face of doubt and dealing with wayward loved ones.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 3.09.10 PM

This session seemed as reactionary as last fall’s. Then, in the context of legalized marriage equality, leadership emphasized family values. This conference, in the context of political controversies (such as John Dehlin’s excommunication), and in light of the increasing tide of members who are struggling or outright leaving, it was as if leadership desperately tried to put the steam back into a suddenly boiling pot, as if these issues are new and emergent, when in fact, this atmospheric pressure has been slowly building for many years.

Leadership resorted to old, previously tried and true methods to retrieve and retain members. But those methods haven’t been working lately – and preaching reminders from the Conference pulpit isn’t going to make them work any better. The lid has already blown and the pot boileth over. Any attempts to put the water back will only smear it around and scald the skin.

(Hey, it’s not a perfect metaphor.)

In addition, the response to gay marriage continued. The women’s session primarily focused on family. The general sessions were sprinkled with several family values talks, and Hales gave a whole talk on protecting religious freedom — a reaction to the perception that marriage equality somehow will infringe on LDS civil liberties.

This post is a review of several talks, and in separate posts, I will provide an in-depth analysis of two particularly interesting talks: Elder Pearson’s “Stay by the Tree” reminded listeners of the usual LDS thought-stopping techniques to use when facing doubts. And Elder Bednar’s talk “Therefore They Hushed Their Fears” outright instills and reinforces previously-instilled phobias. Stay tuned for these reviews.

Continue reading