The World Cracks Wide Open

Skepticism’s foundations come from the child’s persistent questioning of the world, demanding answers that fit coherently together.
—Comment on Pharyngula

I grew up in the fifties, a third generation Mormon in Louisiana. Yes…a Mormon. Yes…Louisiana…Cajun Catholic Louisiana.

The Dunn Family on the Salt Lake City temple grounds the summer
after my high school graduation. I’m the tall one.

Like most Mormon girls, I was hyper-vigilant, obedient, a good student. My sister Donna recently told me she used to pray, but it always felt like showing off. I knew the feeling. Tribal loyalty and fear of planting doubt in my younger siblings kept rebellion in check throughout childhood and adolescence. When I was well into my twenties Donna announced, “Mama, Sharon and I aren’t going to church any more.” And that was that.

Donna, The Emancipator
Donna, The Emancipator

I’ve softened since then. After forty plus years away, I’m living back in the house where I grew up, and I go to church from time to time. It’s the only place around here where I recognize anybody. Though Mormons don’t shun their lost sheep, I feel like an outsider. Since it’s how I feel everywhere, it doesn’t bother me so much any more. Nearly all my old friends and relatives are believing, practicing Mormons, and there are many intelligent and accomplished among them. Most are much better off financially than I am, and I take that as an appropriate Calvinist rebuke. That original congregation of sixty or so has grown to almost a thousand and has a respectable reputation I played no role in building. Like the Pentecostals Bill Clinton speaks of so highly, Mormons live their religion. I don’t believe in Mormonism any more, but I believe in Mormons.

Crack I

Ironically, the first big crack in my world view came in the ninth grade when I read the Book of Mormon. By then I was also reading the standard public high school literature: Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Dickens and Eliot. The BoM was indeed, as Mark Twain put it, chloroform in print. That wasn’t such a problem. When you’re a good Mormon, you put your shoulder to the wheel.

I wasn’t much of a literary critic, but I was a good English student. I couldn’t help but notice some really bad writing in the BoM. The best parts were almost word-for-word from the Bible. An unwelcome thought crept in: I wonder if Joseph Smith did what I do when I rearrange words from an encyclopedia entry for term papers. I felt like the only one who puzzled over why the BoM was written in archaic English. Wasn’t it supposed to be translated for the latter day saints? I’d been hearing the Bible quoted my whole life, but BoM passages sounded like a bad British accent to me. I felt queasy when I heard Mormons say the BoM was so deeply inspiring it could not have been written by the hand of man. Huh? A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court had moved me to tears. The BoM…not so much.

Crack II

In 1961 the poet Miller Williams(singer Lucinda Williams’ father, incidentally) did a stint as my tenth grade biology teacher at Gonzales High School. In Cajun Dogpatch, Mr. Williams was an exotic. With his gaunt, almost skeletal face, he both fascinated and scared the bejeezus out of all of us.

Back then, the first question…an awkward one for me…was, “What church do you go to?” It hit us like a thunderbolt when Mr. Williams answered evenly, “I don’t believe in God.” My best friend Jane, a Catholic with a flair for drama, burst into tears. “If I didn’t believe in God,” she sobbed, “I couldn’t live!” I sat there blinking, thinking, “No … If you didn’t believe in God, you just wouldn’t believe in God.” Somehow I knew human viability does not depend on faith.

I’d been liberally exposed to mockery of my testimony that I belonged to the only true church … something I’d been dutifully parroting in church once a month since early childhood. To that point I’d had no existential thoughts about the fact of God. I accepted the idea of God. But … I’d also accepted Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. They gave me stuff. There was evidence. But God? Like Winnie the Pooh, I started to think, think, think, firmly believing I could think my way out of this conundrum.

Crack III

After my sophomore year at LSU, I went to see one of those shockumentaries of the Mondo Cane ilk popular in the 60s. In one scene an Indian woman in a sari squatted, quietly forming cow manure into patties with long, brown fingers. While everyone around me was going eeeew, I was having an epiphany. No…I wasn’t stoned. “That could be me,” I thought. “Where does she end and I begin?” Then it hit me how improbable life is and the thing that connects all living things is life itself. The startling fact of life made the idea of God seem trivial and the question of religious truth downright silly.

Crack IV

That fall I moved to Salt Lake City hoping to snag a returned missionary and put all this infernal thinking behind me. My Aunt Nancy had done exactly that a generation earlier and I stayed with her and her family until I got my first job as a proofreader for the LDS Genealogical Library. The library was a sweatshop and another faith buster, but I digress. One day, as I was helping Aunt Nancy with dinner, she said, “You know I sometimes ask myself, ‘What if the church isn’t true?’ and I think, ‘Well what if it isn’t? It’s a good way to live.’” I was gobsmacked. How could the truth not matter?

Growing up in the Mormon hinterlands, Salt Lake City represented the pinnacle of civilization … Zion. What I found was a provincial place with nothing of the diverse culture I’d been exposed to in Louisiana living along the rural corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I was anything but worldly, but it rankled when my returned missionary boyfriend treated me like a child, saying things like, “Where’d a little girl from Looosiana learn a big word like that?” After a year, I returned to Louisiana an angry Mormon atheist.