Gender neutral bathrooms: a legal requirement, or will your church be exempt?

This is a guest post written by Holly Whitman and is American-centric. Holly is a freelance writer and journalist, originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman and more of her writing on her blog, Only Slightly BiasedTo submit a guest post, email ourthoughts@gmail.com.

For the longest time, the most pressing issue about public restrooms was the mere fact that there often weren’t enough of them. This is especially true at concert and stadium venues, where the lines can stretch several hundred feet. Now, with the emergence of people identifying as transgender, the issue of restroom accommodation is taking on a whole new spin.

Will it become a legal requirement for a public building to require a men’s bathroom, a women’s bathroom and a non-gender-specific bathroom? And what about churches? Will they be required to expand their restroom facilities even if there is little chance of transgender members becoming a part of their community? Could this all be a case of political correctness run amuck? Clearly, there are a lot of factors to sort through when it comes to the bathroom question. Continue reading Gender neutral bathrooms: a legal requirement, or will your church be exempt?

7 secular reasons why I’m still religious

The following blog post was submitted anonymously by an active Latter-day Saint who serves in a leadership calling in their ward. To submit a guest post, email ourthoughts@gmail.com.

At the risk of sounding like a “lukewarm” fence sitter that will deeply disappoint both sides of the battle between secularism and religion, I have felt impressed to put in words the non-religious reasons that I still find value in religious observance. I assume that there are others like me who may struggle with maintaining authenticity and integrity when in social/religious environments that command or at least expect conformity. I hope that my thoughts will be of some benefit to others who are searching for a comfortable, livable fit that mutually involves critical thinking and religious practice.

I often feel trapped in the space between the excitement of the never ending pursuit of knowledge and the warm, familiarity of faith. While I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive as some seculars might argue, they often intersect in a less than neat and comfortable way. I value freethinking and feel uneasy when an organization asks me to disregard any evidence that isn’t in its favour but I also recognize that rigid dogma exists in abundance outside of religion as well.

I shy away from labels but if I’m going to be honest, I’m agnostic but too afraid to tell anyone at church. I’m Mormon but quick to dismiss the cultural implications associated with the church, especially when among academics. I feel drawn to the humanist movement in theory but find that in practice it looks more like mocking religion rather than promoting well-being for humanity. I have liberal viewpoints that separate me from most of my conservative family and church community yet my conservative roots and religious affiliation often keep me on the outs in liberal circles.

To be clear, I am not conflicted in what I believe or what I value. I have more moral and ethical clarity now than ever in my life. My conflict comes from finding a place where I feel like I fit in. I think we all search for like-minded people who share our most cherished beliefs and values. I have felt the skin-crawling discomfort of being in a room full of people that have an opinion diametrically opposed to my own and I have likewise felt the burning euphoria of mass resonance, and I have had these experiences both at church and at university or other secular gatherings.

So far, neither of those places has told me that I am not welcome so I continue to patronize the lot. A sort of, philosophical hedging of bets.

All of this is to say, that I don’t perfectly fit in anywhere as much as I would like to. Unfortunately for me, it seems that a perfect fit would require changes to my core self; changes that, at least right now, I am unwilling to make in either direction. While I continue to attempt to gain knowledge by staying on the broad shoulders of academia and science I have rediscovered the value of religious affiliation and observance. When I say religious affiliation and observance I’m talking about an ‘all-in’ attitude. I’m not interested in a passive-aggressive, veiled protest approach that consists of showing up to church while refusing to participate or contribute in anyway because of contrasting principles. This approach will only hurt the individual. I believe that such a person is better off either cutting ties or recommitting, any other course of action will make them feel even more resentful and contrary to the church while missing any of the possible benefits of religiosity. It’s a losing approach that will lead to dissatisfaction and dissonance.

Carl Rogers in “On Becoming a Person” emphasizes the importance of personal congruence. Be clear on who you want to be and constantly evaluate whether you are growing closer to or further away from that person. Waging a war against your religion while you are in it is not congruent behaviour. Take a break. But first maybe take a look at the ways that I have been able to use religion to help me become who I want to be. Then decide.

By no means do I believe that religion has a monopoly on any of the following commodities but it is convenient that I can get all of them in one, neatly wrapped package.

  1. Community
    I can’t do this by myself. I’m not talking about this blog, I’m talking about life. My needs exceed my resources. Especially when it comes to raising children. My wife and I are fortunate enough to have an incredibly supportive family but even then we have found ourselves at times in need of even greater support. Our church community is indescribably compassionate. This isn’t by default. We are able to access the strength in numbers because we put the effort forth in involving ourselves from the beginning. If you are going to benefit from the community you have to get as close to the dense center of it as possible. We ask for help when we need it. We express gratitude. We do our best to pay it forward, or better said, pay it around. We made ourselves an integral part of the community and it has paid off in droves. Social capital benefits the individual just as much as it does society and in the age of the suburban sprawl and globalization we are losing our sense of community. My church gives me that.Recommended reading (Putnam, Bowling Alone).
  2. Self-transcendence
    Complementary to my first point, research has convinced me that humans are hard-wired to be a part of something greater than themselves. Jon Haidt argues that by losing ourselves and becoming a part of a whole, in joining others to pursue communal interests, we ascend the “staircase” that is human spirituality. I’m inclined to agree. When we transcend our profane selves we experience a higher level of peace, self-worth, and well-being. Abraham Maslow added self-transcendence to the peak of his hierarchy of human needs and motivation after discovering that after self-actualizing, or achieving a sense of accomplishment, people sought experiences that included love, bliss, and happiness. We, and I mean we as an extrapolating assumption based solely on my own experience, can experience self-transcendence through academia, music, nature, politics, and a host of other human arenas but to this day I have to objectively acknowledge that my transcending experiences through religious practices are still “in the lead”. I have had stretches of time when I have had these experiences daily through religious meditation, prayer, and contemplation. I’m not in a place where I could begin to consider giving that up.Recommended reading (Haidt, the Righteous Mind; Seligman, Authentic Happiness; Grant, Give and Take)
  3. Meaning
    Of course, there is plenty of religious and supernatural meaning to be found in religious institutions and traditions that have value. The problem is, when someone is moving to a more secular frame of thinking they are likely to dismiss it and miss out on its philosophical merit. The meaning I speak of here is more along the lines of personal meaning in one’s day-to-day living experience. Purpose. Independent from a perspective on afterlife or spiritual communion, religion can provide a rich meaningful sense of purpose. I am constantly empowered by feelings of utility and competence in my church community. I have positioned myself to be significant and needed. People call me to ask for help in both temporal and spiritual matters. I am a valuable member. I have a role that I play that I believe is integral for the success of the entire operation. My circle of influence has been expanded because of the responsibility I have had placed on me. I feel important and significant. What I do matters and when I do it, I do it reasonably well (at least that’s what the polite people say). Church gives me a reason to wake up, not just on Sundays but every day. This purpose provides intrinsic motivation for me to flourish.Recommended reading (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning; Pink, Drive)
  4. Reverence 

    This is the term that I’m using to describe the feeling of awe. Seeing beauty and sacredness in the world around me. Positive Psychology as well as the mindfulness movement have illustrated empirically that being able to “stop and smell the roses” has immensely advantageous implications and benefits. We only have the present. We only have our living, conscience experience. Yes, we are influenced greatly by our memories of the past and our fears and aspirations of the future but quite simply we can only be certain of our living experience which is the here and now. Mindfulness allows us to be deeply aware of the wonders and beauty that surround at any given moment. It brings gratitude for every breath of air and every pulse of blood in our veins. Similarly, in religious experience, I am offered opportunities for mindful prayer and reflection to allow gratitude to settle in my heart. I was taught as a child and continue to be taught the practice of reverent, pensive mental exercise. Religion is rich in symbolism and ritual that invoke a sacred beauty that can only be experienced so I won’t bother trying to describe it.Recommended reading/ viewing (de Botton, Religion for Atheists; Richard Seymour, How Beauty Feels, Ted 2011)

  5. Tradition
    I am not ashamed to say that at least at some level I practice religion out of respect and honour of the tradition passed down to me by my parents. I think it would be naïve to suggest that tradition plays no role in religious observance. It’s hard to say but if my parents hadn’t brought me up in this religion I’m not sure if I would have gravitated towards it on my own (that being said, neither of them were raised Mormon and they came to join on their own, so who knows). I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus but I remember wanting to keep my parents and siblings thinking that I did. It was fun. It was magical. I remember the awkward dinner conversation when I was 12 and had to pretend to start to doubt Santa’s existence because I thought the farce was getting old. I don’t believe Santa travels around and delivers presents to the entire world in one night but I do treasure the magic of the sentiment behind the symbol and I intend to perpetuate that tradition with my children. There is something warm, familiar, and reassuring about following tradition. I’m all for thinking outside of the box and being original. I love chances to be creative and go against the grain. But I also recognize that certain traditions are worth keeping.(Ramdas, Radical Women, Embracing Tradition, TedIndia 2009)
  6. Building a better world
    As mentioned previously, I am clear about my goals and values for my life, one of which is to be a part of the improvement of the world in which I live. I want to play a significant role in bettering the lives of those within my sphere of influence. A large part of that goal is brought about through quality education. I value learning and the sharing of knowledge as much as any other trait or cause. I also believe that despite the unavoidable fact that much discord and violence can be traced back to religion, the religion to which I subscribe has a similar goal of making the world a better place. We may disagree at times as to how to achieve that goal or what the end product will even look like but one endeavour on which religious and secular people alike should be able to join forces is the altruistic effort to build a better world for future generations. I am interested in having religious and secular, political and apolitical, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations pool resources for the benefit of those less fortunate. To dismiss religious organizations in this effort is a gross underestimation and mistake. Religions might have a different motive than secular organizations when it comes to goodwill but who cares? If we’re willing to help then let us.
  7. Family/ unconditional love
    By no means do I think that a family cannot be cohesive and supportive outside of religion, neither does religiosity guarantee a united family, but having a consistent routine of coming together with a shared purpose brings my family closer more times than not. I’m sure that if someone in our family dissented from religion we would still be welcoming and supportive, but there is an emotional buoyancy that I feel from being on the same page when it comes to values and beliefs with my family. That being said, there is also a deep seated confidence that comes from believing that no matter what happens you have a group of individuals who will love you unconditionally. This is not exclusively taught in religion, in fact sometimes it might be completely missed but it’s something I took from religion.Recommended reading (Solomon, Far From the Tree).

This list is not extensive and will probably be amended/added to in time. The references to literature are from completely secular authors/viewpoints. I cite them mainly to share ideas that I found poignant and purposeful. I did not mean to discredit religious points of view or texts.

Why you should support charitable organizations outside your church

This is a guest post written by Holly Whitman. Holly is a freelance writer and journalist, originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman and more of her writing on her blog, Only Slightly BiasedTo submit a guest post, email ourthoughts@gmail.com.

Giving is at the core of who we are as Christians. Of course, prayer and involvement in the church community are critically important, but philanthropy allows those beliefs to have a positive impact on the world around us.

Sacred Scripture is filled with reminders and urges to be charitable. It includes the call to give of the first fruits of our harvest, the parable of the poor widow who donated more than the rich men around her, and the reminder that God loves a cheerful giver.

Perhaps the most well-known call to charity comes from Matthew 25:37–40,

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

So there is no doubt that as Christians, we have a special vocation to be generous with our time, our talents and our money. But often, we give to the collection plate at church and think we have fulfilled our Christian duty. Not so! Let’s explore why you should support charitable organizations outside of your church.

International organizations

Thanks to social media and a globalized society, we are able to hear stories of those in need from across the globe. The persecution of Christians and other religious groups, children in need of food and clean water as well as victims of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis inspire us to donate to causes around the world. Potential international giving partners include Charity Water, Pencils of Promise, and Catholic Relief Services.

Think beyond the chequebook

If your family budget doesn’t have room for more charitable giving, or if you are looking for a way to grow closer to family or coworkers while improving your community, consider volunteering your time instead of (or in addition to) your dollars.

Volunteering improves workplace morale and inspires self-reflection. Simply put, volunteers can often come away more changed and blessed than those they serve.

Local charities and events

In day-to-day life, we often hear of worthy causes. Make it your mission to take note of these organizations or needs and follow through with generosity.

If a coworker mentions that their special needs child has benefited from a local therapy program, donate a lesson for another child in need. If you lend a book to a new mom who is struggling, donate a copy of that book to your local library so others can access it as well. There are opportunities to bless those in your local community every day — you just have to be on the lookout.

Online giving

Remember a couple of years ago, when you couldn’t log on to social media without seeing video of a friend or celebrity dousing themselves with ice water? The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is an example of online giving gone viral.

You may also receive requests to give to friends participating in 5Ks, fun runs or other fundraisers that provide easy online giving mechanisms. This is a great way to learn about new causes and the wide net cast by these campaigns means even a small donation can make a difference.

Supporting your church home is important. Practically speaking, the electric bill needs to be paid, and your church also provides support to people and families in need, education to children and other important causes. But giving generously means donating both your time and money beyond church as well. Remember, whatever you do for your brothers and sisters in need, you do for Him, too.

Joseph Smith and the democratization of religious worship

In our elders quorum class today, we were discussing chapter 5 in the Howard W. Hunter Manual: Joseph Smith, Prophet of the Restoration.

Typically, this topic tends to amount to running through a list of Joseph Smith’s accomplishments and how great of a prophet he was. (That’s how it went down in the Relief Society class today.) When I was preparing my lesson, I knew I wanted to approach it in a unique way because I knew it would garner better discussion, which ultimately results in better introspection.

When I came across this quote, I had a good idea how I wanted to approach the lesson:

When Joseph announced that he had seen a vision and had seen the Father and the Son, the query came to the minds and lips of the neighbors, the ministers, and the townspeople: “Is not this the farmer’s son?”

The following quote just a few paragraphs later closed the deal for me:

within God’s hands and under the direction of the Savior of the world, weak and simple things should come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones.

As a communist, I was intrigued by the idea that Joseph Smith—despite his flaws and regardless of how authentic he was in his actions—was a revolutionary in his day. That was something I hadn’t consider in much depth before.

The bulk of our conversation on the topic revolved around 2 ideas found in another quote in that chapter:

the claim that God had spoken, that Christ’s Church was again organized and its doctrines reaffirmed by divine revelation, was the most outstanding declaration made to the world since the days of the Savior himself when he walked the paths of Judea and the hills of Galilee.

There were 2 main ideas that Joseph Smith’s First Vision changed: God was a nebulous, formless entity distant from us and revelation had been closed off with the death of the 12 apostles. These principles solidified the position of religious leaders of the day to be the gatekeepers of biblical interpretation and gospel explication.

The First Vision shows us that God looks like us: he’s a glorified, perfect human who is intimately familiar with the mortal experience, which makes him highly approachable, the opposite of how he was treated by Christian sects of the time.

In addition, the First Vision showed us that God can speak to us. We don’t need religious leaders to counsel us on our individual beliefs and aspirations; we can skip the intermediaries and petition God directly.

This revolutionized religious worship. It empowered the people with autonomy over their own religious beliefs. In fact, this idea is encapsulated in one our Articles of Faith:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

This leaves me with one question, however: if God could use Joseph Smith as a weak and simple thing to come forth and break down the control the religious establishment had over the people, how might we, too, be weak and simple things and what mighty and strong things might God have us break down?

An Evening with a General Authority

Last night, in a devotional directed at Church Educational System (CES) employees, Elder Ballard spoke of challenges that many youth face, including questions asked on social media.

(Kids these days and their FaceSpace, amirite?)

From a Deseret news article about Elder Ballard’s talk:

“Drawing on the scriptures and the words of the prophets, [students] will learn how to act with faith in Christ to acquire spiritual knowledge and understanding of His gospel,” he said. “And they will have opportunities to learn how to apply the doctrine of Christ and gospel principles to the questions and challenges they hear and see every day among their peers and on social media.”

Applying the doctrine of Christ to questions of church doctrine makes sense. Is it true and is it helpful? Does it follow the golden rule?

Elder Ballard continued, comparing faithful interpretations of history to vaccinating the youth against topics that are “sometimes misunderstood” — a polite way of saying, negative toward the church.

You know, we give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field, so they will be protected against disease that can harm and even kill them. In a similar fashion, please, before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful and accurate interpretations of gospel doctrine, the scriptures and our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.

And in a praiseworthy show of transparency, Elder Ballard listed a few topics which in some circles (or at least in the not so distant past) would have been considered anti-mormon.

To name a few of such topics that are less-known or controversial, I’m talking about polygamy, and seer stones, different accounts of the first vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon [and] of the Book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, or a Heavenly Mother. The efforts to inoculate our young people will often fall to you CES teachers.

Perhaps if I’d been further inoculated as a youth, I wouldn’t have found these topics so difficult to digest when I finally found them too hard to swallow. So roll up your sleeves while I share with you what I remember being taught about this list while at the same time you’re going to get inoculated.

Before you run off searching high and low looking for how far the rabbit hole goes, Elder Ballard warned of the dangers of access to too much information:

It was only a generation ago that our young people’s access to information about our history, doctrine and practices was basically limited to materials printed by the church. Few students came in contact with alternative interpretations. Mostly, our young people lived a sheltered life. Our curriculum at that time, though well-meaning, did not prepare students for today — a day when students have instant access to virtually everything about the church from every possible point of view. Today, what they see on their mobile devices is likely to be faith-challenging as much as faith-promoting. Many of our young people are more familiar with Google than they are with the gospel, more attuned to the Internet than to inspiration, and more involved with Facebook than with faith.

For the sake of Elder Ballard’s concern about Google, I’ll only use church approved sources for the inoculation and I’ll stay far away from Facebook.

Continue reading An Evening with a General Authority

Cutting Your Nose to Spite Your Face

“Cutting off the nose to spite the face” is an expression used to describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem.

According to a report by KUTV, The Church has issued a statement responding to a bill on Utah’s Capitol Hill that would toughen penalties for hate crimes against “ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion, or sexual orientation”. The church doesn’t want it to pass because it thinks it shifts the balance too far away from religious liberties in favour of gays:

“The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year in arriving at legislation that protected both religious liberty rights and LGBT rights,” said church spokesman Dale Jones in a statement Wednesday afternoon which was released in response to media inquiries. “Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained.”

I’m trying not to have a knee-jerk reaction here, but the article points out that according to the Utah Department of Public Safety, the rates of reported hate crimes are staggeringly more likely to be based on religious intolerance rather than homophobic bigotry. I’d say this is a clear case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. I just don’t get it.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Kick Them out

Last night I bumped into an LDS acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. He asked me what ward I lived in and I told him that I didn’t attend church and I started to explain. He tried to cut me off, assuring me that no explanation was necessary, however, I pressed forward just getting out that, “It was my inability to suspend my disbelief.”

It never fails to surprise me, when the topic of my disillusionment with the church comes up, members (for the most-part) don’t seem to want to know why I’ve lost my faith. I think it’s because members of the church don’t like to acknowledge when someone leaves the faith because of tough questions. Recognizing that there are questions that have ugly answers says ugly things about themselves and the church.

The feelings I have about the church are certainly a mixed bag. One of the things that bothers me is my own fear of speaking up. I’ve been trained not to speak of my disillusionment for fear of church disciplinary action even though it’s just an honest search for truth that has brought me where I am today.

Having concerns about the church is not grounds for excommunication, however it’s in publishing those concerns that can get you in trouble. Is there trouble for publishing even this short blog post about my own disillusionment? Probably not, but the fact that I’m so worried about telling my story demonstrates the level of fear the church has instilled in me.

This morning I found a link to a press release about a member, Jeremy Runnells, facing excommunication because of his widely publicized questions about the church. To my knowledge, he’s never said anything that anyone can demonstrate is false — if he’s like me, he would LIKE to be shown that the church’s claims and history are what it claims it is. However, it’s disciplinary action like this that spreads fear. Instead of answering hard questions, the church takes punitive action against those that dare query.

From Jeremy Runnells’ press release:

Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular Letter to a CES Director faces excommunication from the LDS Church on charges of apostasy

American Fork, UT (February 9, 2016) – Jeremy Runnells, author of the popular Letter to a CES Director (also known as CES Letter), has been summoned to a disciplinary council by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on charges of apostasy. CES Letter represents Mr. Runnells’ sincere attempt to obtain answers to legitmate questions and doubts through proper church leadership channels. Instead of providing pastoral support to Mr. Runnells, the LDS Church has chosen to continue its recent trend of excommunicating members who openly question or doubt church teachings.

CES Letter began as a letter Mr. Runnells wrote to an LDS religious instructor (CES Director) outlining his questions, concerns, and doubts about LDS Church foundational truth claims (e.g., Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham historicity, Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry, LDS priesthood restoration, multiple first vision accounts). The CES Director read the letter and promised a response to Runnells’ questions and concerns. No response ever came.

Upon its public release, CES Letter went viral and immediately became a Mormon internet phenomenon, providing validation and support to tens of thousands of questioning current and former LDS Church members. CES Letter has been downloaded an estimated 600,000 times to date, and over 12,000 LDS Church members have reached out to Runnells after reading the CES Letter.

Runnells reports that he met twice with his LDS Stake President, Mark Ivins, in the fall of 2014. During these discussions Runnells sought answers for questions posed in CES Letter and raised concerns about the LDS Church’s recent historical essays (http://lds.org/topics/essays). President Ivins assured Runnells that he wanted to help, and that he would obtain answers. Runnells did not hear back again from President Ivins until January 25, 2016 when Ivins telephoned Runnells to inform him of his intention to challenge Runnells’ LDS Church membership. Runnells requested a delay until March 15th, citing a close family member in hospice care, which was originally accepted by Ivins. On February 8, 2016 Ivins reversed his decision and informed Runnells of his disciplinary council scheduled for February 14, 2016.

A public press conference has been scheduled for Runnells on February 10th, 2016 at 7:00pm Mountain Time at 50 West Club & Cafe in downtown Salt Lake City (50 Broadway, Salt Lake City, UT). The venue is open for dinner prior to the press conference at 6:00pm. Parking is available in surrounding lots. All interested media, along with supporters of Runnells, are invited to attend and show support.

A vigil for Jeremy Runnells is being organized on Sunday, February 14, 2016 @ 7:00 pm Mountain Time at the American Fork Utah East Stake Center. Address is: 825 E 500 N, American Fork, Utah.

For more information and developments on this story, see http://cesletter.org.