My Reaction to the Excommunication of John Dehlin

What follows is a letter that I emailed to my bishop last week. It was written over several days as I contemplated the personal impact of John Dehlin’s disciplinary court on 8 February 2015, the results of which were announced exactly one week ago. This is basically a passive-aggressive way of saying, “Please release me as a home teacher.” (I guess I still am a product of my former religion…)

Please note: I will not be sharing my bishop’s response to this letter. It was written more for me than for him, as a way of finding closure to this chapter of my life. Don’t expect to see much more written about Mormonism on this blog, as it is already receding in the rear-view mirror.


February 12, 2005

Dear Bishop,

I am sure you have followed the recent news regarding John Dehlin’s excommunication trial, the results of which were announced on Tuesday. Although the sentence of excommunication was almost a foregone conclusion, I hoped there might be room for greater empathy and tolerance on the part of stake president Bryan King. But as we saw with Kate Kelly’s trial last year, there was none.

I know your opinion regarding Kate Kelly, having discussed it with you personally. It is not hard to guess your opinion of John Dehlin and the high council’s unanimous decision to excommunicate him. The church is free to do what it will with dissenting or unorthodox members. I get that. And according to the Church Handbook of Instructions, John absolutely fits the definition of apostate.

But this ignores all of the good things John Dehlin has done over the years. He has done more to keep doubting Mormons in the church than anyone I know. No bishop or stake president can find satisfactory answers to the doubts that plague modern members – because there are none. The historical inaccuracies (First Vision versions, Book of Mormon anachronisms etc.) and ethical problems (polygamy, Church-sanctioned racism, opposition to gay marriage, etc.) issues are real, and they are not going away. Members are counseled to “doubt your doubts” and wait until after death or the Millenium when “all things will be made known.” (In other words, put your questions on the shelf and keep paying tithing.) Those who stayed (like me) often remained closeted and marginalized, afraid to be authentic because of the social stigma involved.

John Dehlin’s approach, however, was different. He brought in a range of dynamic speakers and authors, from all over the spectrum of Mormon belief. Historical inaccuracies doubts and ethical issues were acknowledged, not shoved under the rug, yet at the same time he helped people find positive reasons for staying in the community. Many orthodox spouses who suddenly found themselves married to a nonbeliever (or worse, “apostate”) turned to his podcast and the Mormon Stories community for support, and thousands of marriages were saved or strengthened as a result – including my own.

In contrast, what did the LDS church offer those people, aside from silence? When I first admitted to a priesthood leader that I no longer believed, it was in Mongolia in the summer of 2007. I had just told Lorey about my lack of belief and she took it very hard, as you can imagine. And it was the worst possible time, because she was thousands of miles from the only family and friends who could comfort her.

I called the mission president (there were no stakes yet) to ask him to send the missionaries over for a blessing, since I knew that would provide the greatest benefit to her. When I told him the problem, he said, “Well, she can’t possibly want to be with you now, can she?” He may have been right, given the circumstances, but the way he said it was condescending, lacked empathy and sounded final – as if to acknowledge that there was no way our marriage could ever work now. Despite the difficult times that followed, I am happy to say that we proved him wrong.


The excommunication of John Dehlin (and Kate Kelly before him) sends a strong message. The church is more interesting in protecting its public image and finances than it is in making room for unorthodox (read: threatening) members. The modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is managed more like a modern corporation (which, incidentally, includes both the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop) than as a church that truly cares about the poor and needy. For example, it built a $1.5 billion shopping mall to encourage more visits to Temple Square and missionary contacts, when this money could have relieved enormous suffering in the Third World. It has used more member resources (both monetary donations and time spent knocking doors) fighting gay marriage than it has in community service projects, soup kitchens, or other humanitarian activities. (No, home/visiting teaching messages to other middle class, faithful Mormons once a month do not count.)

Why are members constantly encouraged to proselytize – share the Book of Mormon with friends, post their beliefs on Facebook, and invite neighbors to missionary discussions – but the same opportunity is not extended to unorthodox members like me? By simply asking questions and following the evidence wherever it led, John Dehlin found himself guilty of apostasy, and the church’s greatest punishment – excommunication – was used by leaders as an effort to put the genie back in the bottle. Yet he is guilty of nothing more than sharing his beliefs – something that is asked (indeed, expected!) of every faithful member. Why the double standard?


The fact is, I am also an apostate. Like John, I have lost my faith in the truth claims of the LDS church. I have also written articles critical of church doctrines and policies, particularly regarding gay marriage, on my blog. My worldview and approach to LDS truth claims and social policies are similar, although not identical, to John Dehlin’s. I have been an atheist since 2006, when he was still navigating the waters of liberal or “New Order” Mormonism and the Mormon Stories podcast was still in its infancy. I also support the efforts of Ordain Women to achieve greater gender equality in the church, even though I no longer believe in the literal power of the priesthood. I proudly support gay marriage and oppose the church’s recent efforts to exempt itself from anti-discrimination laws (ironically, while appearing to support them at the state level).

The only reason I have not been excommunicated is because I have a much smaller audience than John Dehlin. His podcast has reached tens of thousands of members; my blog has only been read by a few hundred (many of whom were already on their way out). Despite my Provo bishop’s best efforts, the stake president at the time put a stop to my own excommunication proceedings, which were provoked by my confession of atheism, a letter defending gay marriage, and marching in front of the Church Office Building to protest Prop 8. The reason it didn’t go any further is that I was never seen as a serious threat due to my small readership, and the stake president wasn’t as “trigger happy” as my bishop (had their roles been reversed, the outcome could have been very different).


For better or worse, the LDS church is still my community. Indeed, it is the only spiritual community I have ever known, and that is not likely to change in the short term. It is a part of my culture and heritage. Like John, I have many good Mormon friends and the local ward has been incredibly loving and supportive. To a very large extent Mormonism has shaped who I am as a person. Most of my family members still believe and are comforted by the fact that I am still a member (even if not in good standing), because that means my marriage and baptismal covenants are not annulled and the road back to full fellowship and eternal salvation is not as steep. I have no wish to be excommunicated, largely due to the pain it would cause my family (who never desired any of this in the first place). But I also believe in being honest and speaking my mind when I feel that doing so can effect positive change.

I don’t want to have to choose between honesty and my church membership – nor do I expect to. But John’s excommunication has made something very clear. There is no room in the church for people like me. And I cannot in good conscience remain a PR representative (i.e., home teacher) for a corporation that worries more about its public image, growth (missionary work), and profits (tithing, driven by the focus on temples) than it does on becoming a more inclusive and diverse spiritual community.

Late last year, when I asked to be released as a home teacher, you encouraged me to stay, saying that it was an act of service. I accepted, relieved by your statement that I didn’t have to hide my true beliefs in order to participate. Unfortunately, I must now respectfully decline.

Kind regards,

Eric

Living with Epilepsy

I have epilepsy.

For most of the last four years, that has been characterized by sudden, brief bouts of intense depression and the temporary inability to speak (or even to recall words and names in my head). If I was in mid-sentence, I would be unable to finish it. Needless to say, this posed problems for presentations or conversations at work, although they were relatively infrequent and usually occurred when I was working at my desk. (Most of the time, I was able to cope by suddenly pretending to be a more active listener, and no one would notice.)

The depression was by far the most debilitating. The feeling was unusually severe and irrational – enough to make me realize that a few hours in this state could drive me to consider suicide – but fortunately it was very brief, lasting usually less than 30 seconds. My ability to speak would return a minute or so later, with full fluency restored within 5-10 minutes. But I would remain shaken and exhausted for some time afterwards.

Attempts to understand and treat my condition, and conversations with my primary care physician (what used to be called the “family doctor”) led us to conclude that these were “panic attacks” or “anxiety attacks.” That diagnosis never sat well with me, however, because there was no panic or anxiety associated with them at all – just severe, debilitating depression (I didn’t assign significance to the loss of speech until much later). I tried various diets – even eliminating my beloved green/oolong teas and chocolate for one month – with limited results. Fortunately, eliminating tea appeared to have no benefit, so I reintroduced it into my daily ritual.

The primary antagonist appeared to be sugar. Eating more sweets than normal – for example, during the Chirstmas holiday – appeared to significantly reduce their frequency, as if the increased serotonin or dopamine were buffering some reactions in my brain. But as soon as I “went off” the sweets and resumed a low-sugar, hypoglycemic diet, they would come back with a vengeance, often several per day, until my neurotransmitter levels returned to normal about a week later.

Ironically, eliminating carbohydrates altogether (basically, any food with a detectable glycemic index) didn’t help. Eating massive salads with copious amounts of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and meat would often trigger an attack before I had finished eating (it can take up to an hour to chew through the largest salads!). Some level of carbohydrates (preferably the long chain, starchy kind) seemed to be necessary. So a purely Paleo approach didn’t work either, much to my disappointment.

I continued to struggle through this, failing to find the “perfect” diet, while the frequency of attacks increased from one every week or so in early 2011 to one or more per day in early 2014.


Emergency

Everything changed on July 14, 2014.

I was attending the plenary or opening session or ESRI’s ArcGIS User’s Conference at the Convention Center in San Diego. In the room with me were over 15,000 other conference attendees, all staring at the same nine massive, high-definition screens. I love technology, software, cartography and visual data analysis, so this conference was of great interest to me.

ESRI President, Jack Dangermond, addressing the crowd of 15,000 conference attendees

ESRI President, Jack Dangermond, addressing the crowd of 15,000 conference attendees

At 11:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the plenary session would end, I texted my wife – who had joined me in San Diego for a much-needed vacation after the conference ended – and we agreed to meet at a downtown restaurant for lunch. About 15 minutes later, I felt another “attack” coming on. I shrugged it off because I wasn’t in a conversation and it would go unnoticed by my neighbors. Suddenly, I felt my head jerk up and to one side, then the other. Then I blacked out.

I woke up an hour later in the ER.

As I came to my senses, I remember dreaming of being tied down by uniformed men to a bed, unable to move, with a terrible pain in my back. I fought and pleaded with them to let me go, but can’t remember what I said. It was one of those nightmares I couldn’t wake up from soon enough. But when I finally did awake, I realized this dream had been real. Those men in uniforms were paramedics, not evil policemen, and the bed I was (still) tied to was an ambulance stretcher. The back pain was still there. Then I realized that I had missed the lunch date with my wife, and that she had no idea where I was or what had happened to me.

I managed to convince the nurses that I was conscious, and they untied my wrists so I could turn over and get some relief from the back pain. They handed back my phone and I called my wife. She arrived a few minutes later in taxi, concerned but composed, and I can’t remember ever being happier to see her. We hugged and I cried, grateful that she was there and I didn’t have to face this alone. My sister (who lived in San Diego) arrived a few hours later, and soon after I was discharged.

I haven’t returned to the ER since, and have no plans to…


Insight

Losing control of my mind and body like this was extraordinarily uncomfortable. I am not referring to the almost crippling back pain and muscle aches that followed my seizure, although for a few days I hobbled around feeling like my body had aged 50 years. I am referring, instead, to the realization that I couldn’t consciously control everything my body did from one moment to the next, and that at any time I could put myself or others in serious physical danger without warning. Extrapolating further, that meant that I could no longer predict with any degree of confidence how or when my life would end, or the degree of physical and mental health in which my remaining days would be spent.

Of course, these are not new insights. Nor were they new to me. A few minutes of introspection are enough to show that this is true of all human experience. But it is easy to lose sight of this in the rush of day-to-day living: raising my family, working full time, obtaining an engineering degree, pursuing my passions/hobbies, and tending a vegetable garden. However important or fulfilling each of those goals might be in isolation, I realized that I had been performing them largely on autopilot, rushing from one activity to the next without pausing to be truly present.

My seizure changed all that. It assigned much greater urgency to the present moment, because that is all I will ever have. However impressive my checklist of accomplishments might look someday, it would mean nothing if I wasn’t happy now. And there is only so much I can cram into my schedule before other, more important items – moments spent with my wife and children, communing with nature, meditating, or loving and serving others – begin to be displaced.

These concepts which had been mostly theoretical – everyone knows they could die tomorrow, but almost no one expects to – now became much more visceral. My (unfounded) sense of certainty and predictability was gone, replaced by a newfound humility in the face of the unknown. This rekindled my interest in secular Buddhist philosophy and mindfulness meditation – not as ways to escape from my current situation, but to accept it with equanimity. (I am still working on that last part…)


Diagnosis

A CT scan and MRI taken while in the ER (and another MRI taken in September) showed the problem to be related to three 7-12 mm cavernomas (essentially, dilated blood vessels) in my brain. Two of these (pictured below) are located in the right hemisphere. I still am not sure which cavernoma causes the seizures, but to my untrained eye these seem like the primary suspects. Their proximity to the amygdala (<2 cm) could explain the sudden depression. There is no tumor, and cavernomas do not spread to other parts of the body.

This is my brain on . . . gadolinium (and 3 Tesla). The upper cavernoma is in the “posterior limb of the right internal capsule” and the lower one is in the “medial right temporal lobe involving the lateral aspect of the hippocampus” (this is the radiologist speaking, not me!).

This is my brain on . . . gadolinium. The upper cavernoma is in the “posterior limb of the right internal capsule” and the lower one is in the “medial right temporal lobe involving the lateral aspect of the hippocampus” (this is the radiologist speaking, not me!).

These cavernomas have probably been with me since before birth, but for the first 32 years of my life I was symptom free. Age, moderate alcohol consumption, or (more likely) the stress and sleep deprivation caused by flying >100,000 miles a year across 14 time zones may have triggered a change (perhaps a mild hemorrhage?) that caused the seizures to start. But when my international travel (and alcohol consumption) effectively stopped in late 2012, their frequency did not decrease.

All but one have been simple partial seizures, meaning only a localized region of the brain is affected, and I retain full consciousness and bodily control. On July 14, however, one of these generalized, spreading across the corpus callosum to affect both hemispheres simultaneously and resulting in the tonic-clonic seizure that put me in the ER.

Having epilepsy presents a unique opportunity to perform what are in effect science experiments on my brain . . . without the need for messy surgery and expensive instruments! While my MRIs are extremely useful, they can’t be used to define functional processing centers. But to a (very) limited extent, the partial seizures do.

Assuming that one of the cavernomas shown above is the one causing the seizures (and a neurologist has not confirmed this), my loss of speech suggests it is near my speech center. This makes sense, because I am left-handed so the right hemisphere is somewhat dominant (although the link is not as clear-cut as I was led to believe as a child). The storm of electrical activity, or neural misfiring, during a normal seizure effectively shuts this area down, making me unable to generate speech (or even recall words in my head). In effect, I temporarily experience expressive aphasia (or Broca’s aphasia): the loss of the ability to produce language (spoken or written). This strongly suggests that Broca’s area is located in my right temporal lobe.

Interestingly, my ability to understand speech is not affected (i.e., I don’t experience receptive aphasia). This suggests that other part(s) of my language processing center may be located in the left hemisphere, as in most people (including about 80% of left-handers). In other words, my brain’s language processing center may have bilateral symmetry, with each “half” possessing unique attributes. (This is just personal speculation, and would require an EEG or fMRI scan to confirm. It is also possible that the other center is also in the right hemisphere, but far enough away that it is not affected by the local electrical storm.)

Fortunately, I found an excellent neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and am taking medication that has almost completely eliminated the partial seizures while simultaneously increasing my general sense of well-being to its highest level in years. My wife still drives me to and from the bus stop as if I were 8 years old, but with a little luck I’ll be back to driving in a few months. :-)

Disclaimer: I don’t want to give the impression that my experience with epilepsy is typical. There are many types, some more severe (and life-threatening) than others. I have been very fortunate that all seizures but one have been partials, and that my condition has responded well to medication. Considering the spiritual benefits, the net effect may well be positive for me. That is not true of most cases, however.

The Buddhist Parable of the Raft

The Journey

The teachings of the Buddha, like those of Jesus in the four Gospels, contain many parables. One of the most famous is the parable of the raft, in which he compares his teachings to a raft that is useful for crossing a dangerous river, but must eventually be discarded if one is to continue their spiritual journey:

A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty—but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.

The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’” The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.

The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?” The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.

The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with—not for seizing hold of.”

This parable stands in stark contrast to another shared by Elder Melvin Ballard, one of the LDS Twelve Apostles, at General Conference this past Sunday, titled Stay in the Boat and Hang On!. He began by describing a whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River:

At the beginning of the trip, one of the experienced river guides reviewed important safety instructions, emphasizing three rules that would ensure the group’s safe travel through the rapids. “Rule number one: stay in the boat! Rule number two: always wear a life jacket! Rule number three: always hold on with both hands!” He then said again, with even more emphasis, “Above all, remember rule number one: stay in the boat!”

Elder Ballard then referenced a talk he delivered to new mission presidents:

The experienced river guides today can be likened to the Church’s apostles and prophets and inspired local priesthood and auxiliary leaders. They help us arrive safely to our final destination…

Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. We will not and cannot lead you astray.

And as you teach your missionaries to focus their eyes on us, teach them to never follow those who think they know more about how to administer the affairs of the Church than Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ do through the priesthood leaders who have the keys to preside.

I have discovered in my ministry that those who have become lost and confused are typically those who have most often forgotten that when the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve speak with a united voice, it is the voice of the Lord for that time

In other words, they leave the Old Ship Zion [yet another boat metaphor!]—they fall away; they apostatize

Our local Church leaders, like seasoned river guides, have been tutored by life’s experiences; have been trained and mentored by apostles and prophets and other officers of the Church; and, most important, have been tutored by the Lord Himself… [emphasis added]

Elder Ballard continued, in a way that can only be described as boastful and condescending:

I have heard that some people think the Church leaders live in a “bubble.” What they forget is that we are men and women of experience, and we have lived our lives in so many places and worked with many people from different backgrounds. Our current assignments literally take us around the globe, where we meet the political, religious, business, and humanitarian leaders of the world. Although we have visited leaders in the White House in Washington, D.C., and leaders of nations and religions throughout the world, we have also visited the most humble families and people on earth.

When you thoughtfully consider our lives and ministry, you will most likely agree that we see and experience the world in ways few others do. You will realize that we live less in a “bubble” than most people…

Along with rule number one as I’ve applied it, remember rules two and three: always wear a life jacket, and hold on with both hands. The words of the Lord are found in the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles and prophets. They provide us counsel and direction that, when followed, will act like a spiritual life jacket and will help us know how to hold on with both hands.

The church’s message can be summed up as follows: “Don’t think for yourself; accept everything we say without question; we are smarter and wiser than you are; we will never teach anything that is not true.” Apply this thought process to any other extreme religion that utilizes mind control – Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. – and it is not hard to see how Mormonism resembles a cult.

I credit Mormonism with many things. It was the reason my parents met, allowed a very insecure teenager to develop confidence and form lasting friendships, kept me out of drugs and alcohol as a youth, immersed me in the Spanish language and Latin culture as a missionary, was the means by which I met my amazing wife and formed our beautiful family, and gave me a world-class scientific education at BYU (which, ironically, is the reason I lost my faith). And that is just the shortlist!

I would be extremely ungrateful (not to mention dishonest) if I didn’t acknowledge the profoundly positive effects that the LDS church has had on my life. To a large degree, I am and will remain a product of those transformative events. And although there have been negative effects – excessive guilt and unhealthy views of sexuality as a teenager, a tendency to judge others who thought or lived differently than me at one time, and others – they have largely been overcome, and do not outweigh the positive effects of the religion. And to my friends and family who still derive meaning and comfort from Mormonism – my love and respect for you hasn’t changed, and I value your friendship as much as ever.

But I also cannot stand in silence and support an organization that opposes gay marriage and gender equality, that refers to those who disagree with their policies as “adversaries,” (Dallin Oaks’ talk last Saturday), and that is so afraid of dissent that it disciplines and often excommunicates unorthodox members for the “sin” of stating their views publicly. (That nearly happened to me because of the contents of this blog, but that’s a story for another day…)

The LDS church’s approach to “truth” is authoritarian (“follow the prophet”) and, in common with other fundamentalist Christian sects, is based largely on the writings of Iron Age tribes that have been discredited by scientific and ethical advancements over the past 300+ years. Scientific discoveries such as evolution and the 4.55 billion year age of the earth—not to mention complete lack of evidence for Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, Nephite and Lamanite civilizations, and other foundational myths—remain unacknowledged and are contradicted each Sunday by “correlated” lesson manuals. And the effort to whitewash the very interesting life of Joseph Smith continues, as evidenced by Neil Andersen’s conference talk.

I will always be grateful that the raft of Mormonism did not sink during those critical, formative years of my life, and that when most vulnerable I had the good sense to stay in the boat and hold on tight. Without that raft, my life would be vastly different right now, and the people I love most would not be in it. However, there is no need to “hold on with both hands” when firmly on solid ground. And doing so would prevent me from continuing my journey of spiritual growth and self-discovery.

So I’m afraid it’s time for me to set this raft down. There are still many miles left in my journey, and the vistas are breathtaking.

Image credit: jon.noj on Flickr, via Dominique Allen on her blog, Heaven Can Wait.

The Foundation Beyond Belief has Launched!

Foundation Beyond Belief

I’m excited to begin the New Year by announcing the launch of the Foundation Beyond Belief: a non-profit charitable and educational foundation created (1) to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists, and (2) to provide a comprehensive education and support program for nontheistic parents.

The Foundation’s executive director, Dale McGowan, has been one of the most influential voices in my life on freethought and secular humanism through his blog, The Meming of Life. Full of humor, compassion, and empathy towards opposing viewpoints, it should be on everyone’s favorite RSS feed! His two recent books — Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief — have both been valuable references to me as I navigate the waters of humanistic parenting within a mostly Mormon family and community.

The Foundation Beyond Belief’s mission is to demonstrate humanism at its best by supporting efforts to improve this world and this life; to challenge humanists to embody the highest principles of humanism, including mutual care and responsibility; and to help and encourage humanist parents to raise confident children with open minds and compassionate hearts.

To accomplish its mission, the Foundation has been set up in the following way:

  • The Foundation will feature ten charitable organizations per quarter.
  • Members join by signing up for a monthly automatic donation in the amount of their choice, and distribute it however they wish among the categories. Contributions are fully tax-deductible.
  • Members can join a social network and forums centered on the ten categories of giving, advocate for causes, and help us choose new beneficiaries each quarter.
  • Featured beneficiaries may be founded on any worldview so long as they do not proselytize. At the end of each quarter, 100 percent of the donations are forwarded and a new slate of beneficiaries selected.
  • On the educational side, the Foundation will help create and fund local groups for the education and social support of humanist/atheist parents.

I really like where the Foundation is headed, and I am proud to be a supporter. The first ten charities selected include some very worthy causes. The ability to support multiple causes (peace, child welfare, animal protection, education, health, environment, human rights, poverty, and the Foundation’s humanistic parenting initiatives) among a changing list of highly qualified organizations with a single recurring monthly donation is very appealing to me. And the social network being built will allow everyone a voice in selecting future aid groups.

Don’t miss the introductory video below, and check out their website for more info on each of the selected charities. The Foundation fills an important need for the growing nontheistic U.S. population, and it has the potential to achieve great things with our support.

“Golden autumn” in the Bulgan countryside

Mongolia’s harsh winter continues to deepen as with most Mongolians I flee inside from the cold and smoke. Holed up in my apartment, sipping green tea, I grow nostaligic for that other Mongolia. It is hard to believe that only two months ago, this was a very different place. I am referring to Mongolia’s “golden autumn,” which has to be experienced to be believed.

I was fortunate this summer and fall to spend about half of my time in the Mongolian countryside in the highlands of Bulgan aimag (province). Here the vast Asian steppes meet the taiga forests in the highlands, and meandering rivers draw the nomads and their herds of sheep, goats and yaks. During July and August, frequent summer rains nourish the steppe and it becomes a lush green carpet dotted with wildflowers. As September approaches and it begins to freeze at night again, the steppe grows a golden mantle and the larches begin to turn color. Cool evenings follow warm days and everywhere the nomads are busy securing enough food for the harsh 6-month winter ahead.


Mongolia’s Golden Autumn.

Against this background, my work this year put me in contact with the local government officials and business leaders. This gave me the opportunity to meet some amazing people and be invited into their lives in ways that are uniquely Mongolian. Only in Mongolia will a governor come to visit you at your work site carrying a dead marmot as a gift. (Background: Marmot hunting is illegal in Mongolia. Not only has excessive hunting reduced the population, but the marmot still carries the bubonic plague which occasionally causes an outbreak in humans. The most recent, in 2007, killed several people and forced the government to quarantine an entire city.) I have to say, though, that same marmot tasted pretty good later that day, cooked inside its own skin with stones taken from a hot fire.

Only in Mongolia will you get invited to go wolf hunting by a governor at the close of a successful cooperation agreement. And only in Mongolia does said agreement require you to share a bottle of vodka in celebration. :-)

It is an interesting place. My feelings for Mongolia have evolved over the last 3 years, from curiosity to ambivalence to a kind of weary fascination. I’d love to paint a complete picture of life here, but I am limited by space and the amount of stories there are to share. But there is enough space for a quick snapshot of one beautiful afternoon:

On October 4, I was invited by the local soum (subprovince) governor and the citizen’s committee representative to join their families for a Sunday afternoon picnic on the banks of the Orkhon River. The day was beautiful and warm despite freezing temperatures the night before. We arrived at a secluded riverbank to find two bulls fighting and a lonely yak wandering along the riverbank. The adults gathered some dry branches while the children played at the riverbank. They prepared a delicious Mongolian barbeque consisting of chunks of goat meat and fat cooked over a small fire with chopped wild onions and no other condiments. This was accompanied only by bowls of airag (fermented horse milk) and hard curds. Airag’s unique combination of protein, fat, carbohydrates and alcohol (2-4%) is very filling. Mongolians often go for days in the summer with nothing but airag, and I personally have lasted 18 hours on an airag-only diet.

After the meal, the men decided to go to the river and bathe. It was the second full moon of autumn, the Mid-Autumn Festival or luckiest day of the year. I was told that bathing in the river on this day would bring good fortune. At first I was hesitant — after all, it had been freezing for most of a month! — but decided I would give it a go. A chance like this wasn’t likely to come again. So we walked barefoot some distance to where the river channel widened, stripped to our underwear, and waded in. The water was cold but shallow, and I was glad I didn’t have to wade up to my chest! I splashed water over myself, gasping at first but enjoying the rush of feeling that came over me. For those few moments, standing in the fading sun in a cold river on the most fortunate day of the year, I felt truly alive.

As the evening got cooler, we picked up camp and went to a nearby nomad’s ger. He and his wife had a number of mares with young colts, and I was able to see how Mongolians milk their horses. The mares seemed to take it well but I was warned not to walk behind them while being milked.

Mongolians never drink fresh horse milk. I have been told that the lactose content is too high and almost always causes indigestion. Apparently the fermenting process breaks down the lactose into more simple sugars, aiding digestion. It has a creamy, heavy consistency with some carbonation and a tangy taste which is hard to describe. Often small balls of milk fat rise to the top of the bowl; these are normally filtered out with the teeth. Needless to say, it is an acquired taste, but it grows on you the more you try it…

At sunset, everyone went back in the ger and the airag bowls were passed around again while songs were sung and the small ger filled with laughter. Sitting on the floor with these remarkable people, I couldn’t help but note their difficult living circumstances. But despite the hardships they endure and the lack of Western comforts, they do not lack happiness. Indeed, there is something we Westerners can learn from their simplicity and spontaneous embrance of life “as it is.”

Mongolia’s Working Children

On Tuesday, I visited the Kharkhorin Market in Ulaanbaatar with employees of the Christina Noble Children’s Foundation (CNCF), an international charity serving disadvantaged children in Mongolia and Vietnam. I was invited to come with them on a nightly clinic visit to approximately 40 children who work in this market, one of Ulaanbaatar’s “black” markets (mostly a large flea market).

The children all come from very poor homes, often with abusive and alcoholic parents. They work hard in the market and make an average of 10,000 tugrugs (US$8.70) per child per day. Many children are the only working members of their families and must support a network of parents, siblings and grandparents. Most will not attend school. In addition to their work in the markets, some children help their families heat their gers and provide supplemental income by picking up coal that has fallen alongside the railway track.

CNCF makes nightly clinic visits to over 250 children in Ulaanbaatar, visiting a different location each night of the week. About 50 children are orphans with no families who live in the streets. In the summertime they live outside and in the winter months sleep under manholes in the streets or inside the doorways of public buildings. The other 200 children, such as those we visited at the Kharkhorin Market, come from dysfunctional homes, don’t attend school and spend most of their time in the streets.

A group of children pile into CNCF’s UNIMOG van for their health checkups and fresh khuushuur.

Once we had all piled into the Unimog, the staff passed out vitamin drinks to the children and performed brief health checkups on each child. Then each children was given several pieces of khuushuur (famous Mongolian meat pastry), which they enjoyed very much! There was enough for them to take home several pieces for their families as well.

Enjoying fresh, hot khuushuur inside the mobile clinic.

The working children, despite the disadvantages of their circumstances, are better off than their peers in the streets. However, CNCF is dedicated to providing medical services to these children and giving them one hour a week where they are warm, sheltered, and loved. They hope that these brief contacts will help anchor them as they grow up eventually motivate them to attend school.

After seeing their smiles and laughter, I am confident that CNCF’s hopes are not misplaced. Mongolians are known for their resiliance in the face of adversity, and no group exemplifies this characteristic better than their working children. Winter has come to Ulaanbaatar, and that night the temperature fell to -15° C (5° F). These children work all day in the unheated outdoor market stalls. Yet there were no complaints, just grateful shouts of “bayarlalaa!” (“thank you”) to their nurse as they ran back into the market.

One boy shows his appreciation for his nurse, Dagva, who has been serving the children in the streets for over 8 years and is loved by all of them.

These two girls were visiting the clinic for the first time, and were a little shy of the foreigner with the camera. :-)

This boy rents a bike as part of his daily job as a courier. The bike rental costs him about 3,500 tugrugs (US$3.00) per day, about 1/3 of his daily income.

A Growing Rift

Over the last few years, as I have gradually grown more comfortable with my new humanistic worldview, my relationship to the LDS church has become more and more distant. At the same time, I still derived satisfaction from my fellowship with other members on Sunday and the extracurricular activities of our ward, whose members I deeply respect. I considered myself a “cultural Mormon,” because while I no longer believed the church’s doctrine I was comfortable with its culture.

The church’s fervent, in-your-face opposition to marriage equality in California changed all of that. I am ashamed to be associated with a church that has worked so hard to deny people their rights. Whatever residual goodwill I harbored towards the church (as an organization) has vanished.

I have considered resigning my membership over this issue, but several factors have restrained me. First, after all the pain my disaffection has caused my family, I don’t want to cause them any more, especially when it is completely avoidable. For many reasons, my loss of membership in the church would be a devastating blow to my family. Second, as long as I remain a member of this church, I have a voice in it. A small voice, perhaps, but a voice which allows me to represent a liberal minority of Latter-day Saints. Resigning my membership would diminish my ability to effect positive change in the church and culture in which I was raised.

Finally, the Mormon church is well-known for censoring dissenting opinions by excommunicating its members (e.g., Equal Rights Amendment supporter Sonia Johnson and the intellectual and feminist September Six). Excommunication is very damaging to public perception of the church. When members are excommunicated for voicing their opposition to certain policies, it nearly always backfires, increasing public awareness of bigotry.

I don’t expect to be excommunicated over my opposition to this issue, nor do I wish to be. But who knows what future battles of conscience may be fought over this or similar issues, and how tolerant the church will be of dissenting opinions. A forced excommunication over a principled ethical stand would send a much stronger message than a simple resignation. The church has learned from its negative PR in the past, and I only know of one threatened excommunication over the Proposition 8 issue. Still, it’s a wild card, and I’m keeping all my cards on the table for now.

So I will retain my membership, even if it is primarily a strategic decision at this point. In the meantime, I will continue to respectfully voice my opinion on matters of equality and human suffering. I will not be confrontational, but I want to retain my ability to “vote” on issues which matter to me.


Evolutionary biology has shown us that the most resilient species are those with the most genetic diversity. These are the species which adapt the quickest to climate change and environmental stresses. Species with the least genetic diversity more easily succumb to diseases and are less resilient to both short- and long-term changes to their habitat.

It is a lesson which applies equally well to churches. I am concerned that the strong emphasis the Mormon hierarchy places on obedience, conformity and authoritarianism has stifled diversity and weakened the organization. I may not be a conventional or orthodox Mormon, but I am proud to represent a growing chorus of liberal voices which for various reasons continue to identify with the Mormon church. Let’s hope that out of this diverse group will arise solutions to to the church’s increasing inability to deal with the winds of social, cultural and environmental progress.

Labels

In an effort to describe my worldview to others, I can draw on a range of labels that I sometimes identify with. The problem is that society has assigned a number of stereotypes to these labels. These stereotypes do not mesh with the way I and others like me have experienced these worldviews, so I would like to examine them here.

 The following 22 labels are sometimes used to describe my beliefs. While I dislike a few of them, I include them all here for completeness:

Is anybody still reading?

If I were a U.S. president, my job approval rating would have just fallen below that of George W. Bush. (Recent polls place it around 25%, an all-time low.) My blog is probably now banned in school districts across the country, and in countries like China and Iran. My bishop will be pounding on my door any minute…

Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. After all, witch hunts and the burning of heretics at the stake ended 300 years ago (in North America, at least). Yet at the dawn of the 21st century there is still residual distrust of people who have a naturalistic or godless worldview.

But why? None of these labels says what my ethics are. They say nothing about my decency, capacity to love, integrity, or honor. But the moment I identify with them, I lose most people’s respect. What is there in these labels that is automatically assumed (by many, at least) to describe a person of the basest moral character?

A few of these terms are applied by religions to dehumanize the people who leave them: heathen, infidel, apostate, heretic. A few others describe me by saying what I am not: atheist (“not a theist”), nonbeliever, irreligious, post-Mormon, godless.

While these may be a good starting place for discussion, they are too vague to be of any real use in defining a person’s character. Yet I find that these terms, ambiguous as they are, are the most offensive to people with religious sensitivities and carry the strongest connotations.

We get a little more detailed with the following: skeptic, freethinker, doubter, intellectual, rationalist, materialist, evolutionist. These describe how I think and the way in which I determine truth and values. But they still don’t say much about what I think or value.

The last of my labels come closest to describing my ethics. They jump around a bit, but here they are: secular humanist (my favorite), secularist, naturalist, pro-feminist, pro-gay rights, and liberal (as if it weren’t obvious!). Now we tread, finally, on the turf of values and goodness.

I won’t enter into a discussion about what each of these labels mean (see the links if you’re curious), or exactly what it is I believe. These are topics for future posts. But I would like to examine why most people consider those who identify with one or more of these labels to be somehow less ethical.

I propose three possible reasons for this:

  1. Religions stereotype people like atheists, skeptics and secular humanists whose values are believed to be a threat to religious dogma. People growing up in these religions hear the stories and automatically assume atheists are less ethical or happy than are the religious.
  2. A secular or godless worldview makes no sense to the faithful, who have to rationalize it to prevent cognitive dissonance. If people believe that faith is necessary for a happy, ethical life they may automatically assume that an atheist can be neither as happy nor as ethical as they are. Of course, when they meet an atheist who is happy and ethical, it can be quite a shock!
  3. There are some atheists who are bitter or antagonistic and reinforce the stereotypes in (1). This is unfortunate, but it is hard to see how this could lead to almost universal contempt for atheists, the vast majority of whom are friendly. Could it have something to do with the fact that the friendly variety is more likely to remain closeted?

If any of my readers (assuming I still have any!) believe that any of the labels I described are in fact immoral, please express yourself in the comments. Rather than use ad hominem arguments (“I know atheists who do such-and-such, therefore atheism is bad”), provide examples of how thinking or believing in a certain way really is bad for the individual or society. Be specific.

Perhaps it is time we examine our stereotypes and get out of the “us vs. them” mentality. There is plenty of room, and an overwhelming need, for more diversity and tolerance in this world.

 

Note: A recent post on Daylight Atheism provides an excellent assessment of how our human tendency to tribalism causes us to use labels to separate other humans into out-groups, and makes a compelling case for the equivalence of racism and anti-atheist bigotry.

My Letter: In Support of Marriage Equality

(The following letter is addressed to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was hand-delivered to the Church Office Building on October 17, 2008, and appears on the Signing for Something website, which inspired me to finally write this letter.)

 

Dear Brethren,

I am writing to express my deep opposition to your actions to fight against marriage equality in California. You do not understand the amount of human suffering you stand to cause by trying to step into the sphere of civil rights and deny marriage to gays – most of whom do not share your faith and thus are not bound by your doctrine. The Church has absolutely no right to project its own understanding of doctrine or scripture onto the public policies of a pluralistic nation. In fact, given its own turbulent marriage history, it is hypocritical in the extreme to be doing so now.

         


 

First, some personal background. I am a returned missionary and two-time BYU graduate. For most of my youth, the Church formed a major part of my life and personal identity. This changed several years ago, beginning prior to my graduation from BYU. My course of study (geology) taught me critical thinking skills and encouraged skepticism in all areas of inquiry. As I began to base my reasoning on rational thought rather than authority and tradition, the lens through which I viewed the gospel changed. The framework which had appeared so solid to a trusting, uncritical youth now began to show significant holes and structural weaknesses. Over the course of several years, I lost my faith completely.

In spite of this, I continued to serve until recently as my ward’s Cubmaster. I still attend sacrament meeting with my family. Although my core beliefs no longer align with those of the Church, I find that in general local congregations provide a stable, welcoming atmosphere in which to raise my children. It is my interest in seeing this loving atmosphere maintained that has motivated me to speak out against the Church’s efforts to defeat marriage equality.

For me, personally, doctrinal issues matter less than the Christ-like principles upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ is based. Although I no longer believe literally in the gospel, those differences melt away when I interact each Sunday with my believing brothers and sisters. The culture of Mormonism is still, to a large degree, my culture. I have observed this culture in congregations across the world — in over 6 U.S. states and in the countries of Canada, Mexico, Peru and Mongolia. It transcends language and cultural barriers and, more recently, even personal doctrinal disagreements. It is this culture of love which I seek each Sunday, despite the fact that the rituals and teachings no longer contain any meaning for me.

This is why I have been angered and saddened by the Church’s actions in support of Proposition 8. Following a recent talk by Elder Holland (Ensign, October 2007), I genuinely hoped that the Church was becoming more tolerant and open towards homosexuals. However, your very public sponsorship of Proposition 8 and the prejudiced discourses we have heard over the pulpit recently have dashed my hopes of any real progress in this area.

     


 

On August 13, 2008, you released a statement called The Divine Institution of Marriage. While I applaud your efforts to engage people in a respectful dialogue regarding this issue, I fundamentally disagree with many of your reasons for supporting Proposition 8, and have prepared a refutation of your arguments on my blog (https://uncommonvistas.wordpress.com). I invite you to consider my response and decide if it is not in harmony with the Christ-like attributes that this Church claims to embrace.

In the Divine Institution of Marriage statement, you claim that:

 

Protecting marriage between a man and a woman does not affect Church members’ Christian obligations of love, kindness and humanity toward all people.

There are two problems with this statement: (1) Nothing about gay marriage threatens marriage between a man and a woman. Straight or “traditional” marriage is not under attack. This is like arguing that interracial marriage threatens “traditional,” Caucasian-only marriage. The only thing the Church is trying to “protect” is a legal distinction that allows it to justify its narrow interpretation of scripture which describes gays as sinners. (2) Our obligations of love, kindness and humanity do not include an obligation to deny others the rights and privileges which we enjoy.

It is hypocritical in the extreme for a church that was once so persecuted for its nontraditional marriages to seek to deny nontraditional marriages to others. The Church believed for many years that plural marriage was protected under the freedom of religion clause in the Bill of Rights. This is one reason it continued the practice, though illegal, until threatened by the U.S. government. Yet it now seeks to limit the state’s definition of marriage to a fundamentally religious one, a definition which is not even shared by all religions. Other churches, including the United Church of Christ and some Presbyterian and Anglican branches, have embraced the homosexual community and, where legal, are already performing same-sex marriages. Is their definition of marriage any less relevant than yours? By seeking to prohibit gay marriage, the Church would deny other denominations (like the United Church of Christ) the religious right to make marriage more inclusive. Limiting social structures based on one religion’s views is a clear violation of the separation between church and state.

Has the Mormon Church forgotten what it feels like to be discriminated against? Read Joseph Smith’s own statement on the role of religion in government:

 

  4 We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul….

  9 We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied. (D&C 134:4, 9, emphasis added)

This very reasonable position was taught by the first prophet and forms part of the “canon” of scriptures, your primary source of doctrine and policy. The LDS Newsroom refers to this scripture whenever the topic of political neutrality comes up, yet you fail to acknowledge that you are acting in clear violation of your own policy.

It is interesting to note that the political causes the Church has become involved in over the years tend to be causes which limit the rights of citizens. Over the last 80 years, the Church has publicly opposed the appeal of Prohibition, the right of stores to open on Sunday, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the woman’s right to choose an abortion, and now marriage equality.

In The Divine Institution of Marriage, you also state:

 

Those who favor homosexual marriage contend that “tolerance” demands that they be given the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. But this appeal for “tolerance” advocates a very different meaning and outcome than that word has meant throughout most of American history and a different meaning than is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior taught a much higher concept, that of love. “Love thy neighbor,” He admonished. Jesus loved the sinner even while decrying the sin, as evidenced in the case of the woman taken in adultery: treating her kindly, but exhorting her to “sin no more.” Tolerance as a gospel principle means love and forgiveness of one another, not “tolerating” transgression.

In today’s secular world, the idea of tolerance has come to mean something entirely different. Instead of love, it has come to mean condone – acceptance of wrongful behavior as the price of friendship. Jesus taught that we love and care for one another without condoning transgression.

Here is the core of the Church’s anti-gay marriage stance: homosexuality is a sin, a transgression, wrongful behavior. By attempting to redefine the word “tolerance” to a definition which fits the Church’s agenda, you are only trying to justify your intolerance and homophobia. You also condescend to sexually active gays by suggesting that heterosexual members of the church must forgive them for their transgressions.

This is a double standard. The Church considers all sexual relations outside of matrimony as sin. You allow heterosexuals the opportunity to marry and thus be sexually intimate without condemnation. However, gays are told they cannot be sexually active without suffering often severe ecclesiastical consequences, including excommunication. At the same time, they are told not to marry and, indeed, are prevented from doing so by every means available to the Church. By not allowing gays to marry – and not recognizing as religiously valid gay marriages performed in states where this is legal – you are forcing gays to choose between sexual and emotional intimacy with a loving partner and their eternal salvation.

To be considered “worthy” and avoid Church discipline, gay members are expected to remain celibate for their entire lives. Is this realistic? Do you really think that homosexuals have less need for sexual and emotional fulfillment than heterosexuals? How many heterosexuals do you know who have been celibate for their entire lives?

It should come as no surprise, then, that the incidence of suicide is so high among gay Mormons (http://www.affirmation.org/suicides/). Surely Jesus’ teaching to “love and care for one another” would suggest a different course of action than discrimination and denial of marital happiness to two committed and loving adults.

In The Divine Institution of Marriage, you claim that the government “presume[s] to redefine the nature of marriage.” In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Of all the groups in America (secular and religious), it is the Mormon Church which has most redefined marriage! And it is the Church, in association with other fundamentalist religions, that seeks to modify the constitution in order to change the existing legal definition of marriage. Those of us who support gay marriage just want to leave California’s constitution the way it is.

   


 

The Church should be ashamed to be pushing for the first constitutional reduction of rights in American history. Constitutional amendments should only be used to add freedoms, not take them away. It is important to remember that homosexuals outnumber Mormons in America (approximately 2-5% vs. 1.9% of the population, respectively). You should be exceedingly cautious about using your influence to limit the rights of a minority when you are an even smaller minority. This sets a dangerous precedent, one which could easily backfire on the Church someday.

I take a firm stand against the Church’s actions to deny adults the right to marry the person they love, regardless of their gender. I express my concern for those who are thus marginalized and hope that, regardless of the outcome of Proposition 8, compassionate members of the Church can eventually succeed in overturning the bigoted policies of the current leadership. Let’s strive to make the Church more and more like the Christ-like organization it professes to be, and extend a warm hand of fellowship and acceptance to all.

 

Sincerely,

Eric Robeck

The Divine Institution of Marriage: A Rebuttal

On August 13, 2008, the Mormon church released a statement titled The Divine Institution of Marriage, explaining the reasons for its support of Proposition 8. The church’s statement is well-written and comprehensive, and it seems to invite open, rational discussion on the issue. However, many of its arguments are flawed. I wish to respond to the church’s invitation (whether intended or unintended!) to discuss the issue openly, and will proceed by responding, item-by-item, to excerpts from the church’s release.

I have been preparing my rebuttal to the church’s release since I first read it in August. However, last week’s official broadcast by church General Authorities to California members – which repeated almost all of the same arguments – provided renewed motivation to finish this and get it on the web. In the broadcast, church members were told to “go viral” in mobilizing their friends and family in support of Proposition 8. I may not have been the church’s intended target, but oh well — the message stuck…

The release is fairly long (3,363 words), so I have omitted much of the original release in order to keep this post a reasonable size. I encourage you to read the entire release first, if you haven’t done so already, and then come back here.

This refutation is far from exhaustive. Lack of time prevented me from cross-referencing as much as I would have liked and fully fleshing out my arguments. Others have written excellent critiques of the church’s arguments, including this one by Richard Packham. Another good source is the 300+ letters at the Signing for Something website.

 


 

The church states that it joined the ProtectMarriage coalition because it “[r]ecognize[d] the importance of marriage to society.” What does this mean, exactly? If marriage is important to society, why deny it to a large group of people?

From The Divine Institution of Marriage:

 

The focus of the Church’s involvement is specifically same-sex marriage and its consequences. The Church does not object to rights (already established in California) regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference.

What the church is hinting, as noted by Kaimi in By Common Consent, is that it may be open to domestic partnerships and civil unions which grant some of the legal benefits of marriage without the title. If this is true, it is a major step forward for the church. However, it falls far short of providing equality.

 

The Church has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a husband and a wife united in the bonds of matrimony.

The accuracy of this statement is questionable. Historically, the church has held more than one standard of sexual morality, and intimate relations were also considered proper between a husband and multiple wives. The church was once heavily persecuted for its nontraditional definition of marriage. To now discriminate against another minority seeking to marry in a nontraditional way by denying them the right to marry is very hypocritical.

The Mormon church is not the only religious organization that adheres to this standard of morality. By the church’s own standard, premarital sex, dating before 16 and masturbation are also morally wrong. Yet it is obvious that these morals are religious ones, based upon the complex LDS understanding of its scriptures, the teachings of current leaders and its origins in puritanical America. People of other religions, as well as people of no religion, have different morals. The proper place for such morals is in the teachings and policies of the church, not the laws of a pluralistic society.

Seeking to pass a constitutional amendment that would limit the rights of a minority, nearly all of whom do not subscribe to the church’s moral standard, is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

 

Protecting marriage between a man and a woman does not affect Church members’ Christian obligations of love, kindness and humanity toward all people.

There are two problems with this statement: (1) Nothing about gay marriage threatens marriage between a man and a woman. Straight or “traditional” marriage is not under attack. This is like arguing that interracial marriage threatens “traditional,” Caucasian-only marriage. The only thing the church is trying to “protect” is a legal distinction that allows it to justify its narrow interpretation of scripture which describes gays as sinners. (2) Our obligations of love, kindness and humanity do not include an obligation to deny others the rights and privileges which we enjoy.

 

 “We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” (emphasis added)

This proclamation fails to recognize that monogamous marriage historically was not the only form of marriage considered ordained of God. Although plural marriage was practiced since the early days of the church, beginning with Joseph Smith’s marriage to 16-year-old Fanny Alger in 1833, the practice wasn’t announced publicly until 1852.

In 1862, the Morrill Act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, making polygny (the marriage of one man to multiple women) a federal offense. For 28 years, until Wilford Woodruff published a Manifesto officially discouraging the practice, polygamous members (including most leaders) lived in violation of U.S. law. The practice was only rescinded when the U.S. government, via passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Bill in 1887, threatened to confiscate the church’s property and denied the right to vote and hold public office to polygamous members.

It is hypocritical in the extreme for a church that was once so persecuted for its nontraditional marriages – and which was willing to break the law to practice them! — to seek to pass a law denying nontraditional marriages to others.

 

The sacred nature of marriage is closely linked to the power of procreation. Only a man and a woman together have the natural biological capacity to conceive children. This power of procreation – to create life and bring God’s spirit children into the world – is sacred and precious. Misuse of this power undermines the institution of the family and thereby weakens the social fabric.

The church’s argument makes no sense. By definition, a homosexual couple does not have the “power of procreation.” So how, exactly, is sex in a homosexual relationship a “misuse” of this power? Misuse of the “power of procreation” (i.e., unwanted pregnancy) is only possible in heterosexual relationships.

The Mormon church no longer claims that sex in a heterosexual marriage is only useful for procreation. On the contrary, the church teaches members about the numerous other benefits of sex in marriage – emotional, psychological, intimacy, etc. These many other benefits of sex can be enjoyed equally in heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

 

Marriage is not primarily a contract between individuals to ratify their affections and provide for mutual obligations. Rather, marriage and family are vital instruments for rearing children and teaching them to become responsible adults.

As it is worded, this argument appears to favor of gay marriage. If a homosexual couple wants to raise children (either their own from a previous marriage, or adopted), then I agree that the responsibility and commitment provided by a marriage contract will enhance the stability of that home. By denying two committed people the ability to marry and forcing them to keep the status of “domestic partnership,” the church would minimize the elements of commitment and long-term devotion that marriage has come to represent. Children being raised in this family would be at greater risk of having their parents separate.

 

High rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births have resulted in an exceptionally large number of single parents in American society. Many of these single parents have raised exemplary children; nevertheless, extensive studies have shown that in general a husband and wife united in a loving, committed marriage provide the optimal environment for children to be protected, nurtured, and raised. This is not only because of the substantial personal resources that two parents can bring to bear on raising a child, but because of the differing strengths that a father and a mother, by virtue of their gender, bring to the task…. In an ideal society, every child would be raised by both a father and a mother.

I largely agree with the church on this position. Although gender stereotypes are overused, and individual personalities vary widely, most children benefit from having both a father and mother in the home. However, I am not aware of any scientific surveys which demonstrate that two-father or two-mother families are inferior to father-mother families, and I would suspect the difference is very small.

My gut feeling is that, on average, gay parents would be more effective than straight parents. This is because adopting or raising children within a gay marriage is vastly more difficult than in a straight marriage. A gay couple planning to raise children will likely have given serious consideration to the family and would be relatively more dedicated to the children than in many straight marriages where pregnancies are often unplanned and there are insufficient resources to raise them.

The primary issue, however, is this: despite the suboptimal nature of single-parent families, they are completely legal. There are no laws requiring single parents to remarry lest they lose their children. If our society has no problem accepting single parents, what about gay parents? It seems to me that two fathers or two mothers are even better than one father or one mother. More parenting resources generally means more quality time spent with children. Even if you accept that a mother and a father are biologically optimal, two of either should be better than just one of either, right?

The fact is that many homosexuals are unable to live in a heterosexual relationship. For many years, the church coerced homosexuals into heterosexual marriage in order to suppress homosexual urges. In many cases, this proved disastrous, and the church has since retracted its position, instead urging gay members to remain celibate in order to participate fully in the church. Since “traditional” marriage is out of reach for many gay parents, it is cruel to deny them the only option which is available to them, and which would improve the stability of these families.

 

Gender differences increasingly are dismissed as trivial, irrelevant, or transient, thus undermining God’s purpose in creating both men and women.

Each family has a certain number of roles that need to be fulfilled, depending on the ages of the children, the occupations of each parent, and other factors. These are all necessary for the proper functioning of the family but aren’t necessary gender-specific. The father has traditionally been viewed as the breadwinner, but I have seen successful examples of families where the mother was the breadwinner and the father stayed home to care for the children. Many fathers with working wives spend much of their time “mothering” their infant children, performing roles that were almost unheard of a few decades ago. In my own family, my wife is the financial genius who pays the bills and keeps track of the budget. This is because I am terrible with finances!

The fact is, each relationship needs to define its roles based upon the strengths and weaknesses of each partner. Gender may predispose us to have certain qualities, but it does not have the final word on what makes a successful marriage.

Again, the argument presupposes “God’s purpose” and thus is inappropriate in the debate over civil liberties in a pluralistic society.

 

In recent years in the United States and other countries, a movement has emerged to promote same-sex marriage as an inherent or constitutional right. This is not a small step, but a radical change: instead of society tolerating or accepting private, consensual sexual behavior between adults, advocates of same-sex marriage seek its official endorsement and recognition.

This is a double standard. The church considers all sexual relations outside of matrimony as sin. You allow heterosexuals the opportunity to marry and thus be sexually intimate without condemnation. However, gays are told they cannot be sexually active without suffering often severe ecclesiastical consequences, including excommunication. At the same time, they are told not to marry and, indeed, are prevented from doing so by every means available to the church. By not allowing gays to marry – and not recognizing as religiously valid gay marriages performed in states where this is legal – the church is forcing gays to choose between sexual and emotional intimacy with a loving partner and their eternal salvation.

To be considered “worthy” and avoid church discipline, gay members are expected to remain celibate for their entire lives. Is this realistic? Does the church really think that homosexuals have less need for sexual and emotional fulfillment than heterosexuals? How many heterosexuals do you know who have been celibate for their entire lives?

It should come as no surprise, then, that the incidence of suicide is so high among gay Mormons. Surely Jesus’ teaching to “love and care for one another” would suggest a different course of action than discrimination and denial of marital happiness to two committed and loving adults.

 

Court decisions in Massachusetts (2004) and California (2008) have allowed same-sex marriages. This trend constitutes a serious threat to marriage and family. The institution of marriage will be weakened, resulting in negative consequences for both adults and children.

On what basis? The words used – “serious,” “weakened,” and “negative” – are emotionally charged, but none of the arguments in the church’s release provides solid evidence for this claim.

 

Those who favor homosexual marriage contend that “tolerance” demands that they be given the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. But this appeal for “tolerance” advocates a very different meaning and outcome than that word has meant throughout most of American history and a different meaning than is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior taught a much higher concept, that of love. “Love thy neighbor,” He admonished.  Jesus loved the sinner even while decrying the sin, as evidenced in the case of the woman taken in adultery: treating her kindly, but exhorting her to “sin no more.” Tolerance as a gospel principle means love and forgiveness of one another, not “tolerating” transgression.

In today’s secular world, the idea of tolerance has come to mean something entirely different. Instead of love, it has come to mean condone – acceptance of wrongful behavior as the price of friendship. Jesus taught that we love and care for one another without condoning transgression.

Here is the core of the church’s anti-gay marriage stance: homosexuality is a sin, a transgression, wrongful behavior. By attempting to redefine the word “tolerance” to a definition which fits the church’s agenda, they are only trying to justify their intolerance and homophobia. The church also condescends to sexually active gays by suggesting that heterosexual members of the church must forgive them for their transgressions.

 

While it may be true that allowing single-sex unions will not immediately and directly affect all existing marriages, the real question is how it will affect society as a whole over time, including the rising generation and future generations. The experience of the few European countries that already have legalized same-sex marriage suggests that any dilution of the traditional definition of marriage will further erode the already weakened stability of marriages and family generally. Adopting same-sex marriage compromises the traditional concept of marriage, with harmful consequences for society.

Where is the evidence that legalization of same-sex marriage has already weakened marriage and family in these European countries? The church uses serious-sounding words – “dilution,” “erode,” “weakened,” “compromised,” and “harmful” – yet it again fails to provide evidence to substantiate its claims.

This is a straw man argument, because marriage in European countries has been declining for decades, not just as a result of legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. In fact, some experts argue persuasively the opposite: that allowing same-sex marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage for both homosexuals and heterosexuals.

 

When a man and a woman marry with the intention of forming a new family, their success in that endeavor depends on their willingness to renounce the single-minded pursuit of self-fulfillment and to sacrifice their time and means to the nurturing and rearing of their children. Marriage is fundamentally an unselfish act: legally protected because only a male and female together can create new life, and because the rearing of children requires a life-long commitment, which marriage is intended to provide…. By definition, all same-sex unions are infertile, and two individuals of the same gender, whatever their affections, can never form a marriage devoted to raising their own mutual offspring.

Here the church claims that the main purpose of marriage (or at least, the primary justification for legalizing it) is to produce offspring. This ignores instructions in the official Church Handbook of Instructions, which says:

“Married couples also should understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”

How are two homosexuals who desire to marry for the purpose of “expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds” engaging in a selfish act? The claim that homosexual marriage is inherently selfish reveals the church’s (homophobic) view that homosexual intimacy is purely physical (lust) and not emotional or spiritual (selfless love). While there are cases where this is true (just as there are heterosexual men who chase prostitutes), it is absurd and insulting to think that two gays who wish to marry are doing so for purely selfish and physical reasons.

Not all heterosexual marriages are devoted to the raising of “mutual offspring.” Leaving aside those who choose not to have children, many people marry partners with children from previous marriages, and LDS Family Services actively encourages couples (fertile and infertile) to adopt children. These are the primary options available to gay parents as well.

The last time I checked, heterosexual couples were not required to perform a fertility test before a temple marriage. Why does the church encourage infertile heterosexuals to adopt, yet uses infertility as a justification to deny marriage (and adoption) to gays?

 

In the absence of abuse or neglect, government does not have the right to intervene in the rearing and moral education of children in the home. Strong families are thus vital for political freedom. But when governments presume to redefine the nature of marriage, issuing regulations to ensure public acceptance of non-traditional unions, they have moved a step closer to intervening in the sacred sphere of domestic life.

First, the government does not “presume to redefine the nature of marriage.” In fact, it is exactly the opposite. Of all the groups in America (secular and religious), it is the Mormon church which has most redefined marriage! And it is the church, in association with other fundamentalist religions, that seeks to modify the constitution in order to change the existing legal definition of marriage. Those of us who support gay marriage just want to leave California’s constitution the way it is.

Second, it does not follow from this that the government is intervening in domestic life. In fact, preventing two people from marrying and raising a family would be considered an intervention in domestic life. The public acceptance of non-traditional unions is just that, public, and should have no effect on the domestic life of traditional marriages. What the Mormon church is trying to protect is its “freedom” to teach homophobic and intolerant ideas in the home without being criticized for it.

 

Strong, stable families, headed by a father and mother, are the anchor of civilized society. When marriage is undermined by gender confusion and by distortions of its God-given meaning, the rising generation of children and youth will find it increasingly difficult to develop their natural identity as a man or a woman. Some will find it more difficult to engage in wholesome courtships, form stable marriages, and raise yet another generation imbued with moral strength and purpose.

 “Gender confusion,” as used here, seems to refer to the potential for nontraditional gender roles. Yet is that really a bad thing? Do we really want to keep the traditional patriarchal, macho father figure and the sweet, submissive mother figure? These are the gender roles fostered by the church, but they are not the only healthy possibilities. Is it bad if boys raised by lesbian parents develop more empathy than their peers? Is it bad if girls raised by two gay fathers develop more assertiveness than their peers? In either case, I submit, there will be no “confusion” as to the identity of each, just healthy differences. One’s gender identity is not a key which has to precisely fit a lock in order to be real or meaningful.

How does the church get from the idea of “gender confusion” to the inability to form stable marriages? This would imply that the church believes stable marriages only result from the union of a very masculine man with a very feminine woman. This harks back to the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, which it feared would destroy the church’s ability to maintain its patriarchal society.

The church should not project its own understanding of God-given meaning onto the public policies of a pluralistic nation.

Signing for Something

Signing for Something - Salt Lake Tribune Image

Peter Danzig, left, and Andrew Callahan, center, speak with Church spokeswoman Kim Farah. (I am the guy behind Andrew's right shoulder.) (AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Trent Nelson)

Last Friday, October 17, I had the great honor of participating with a group of about 50 people representing Signing for Something, a group of members and friends of the LDS Church who oppose the Mormon Church’s actions in support of California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which would prohibit gay marriage and annul the over 11,000 gay marriages which have been performed since the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in June. In attendance were Andrew Callahan, Peter and Mary Danzig, and Andee Joy Duncan, all of whom were influential in organizing the this group of diverse people who nonetheless share a single voice on this issue. It was a pleasure to meet all of them.

At 2:00 pm, we delivered packets of over 300 letters and a petition with over 600 signatures opposing the Church’s stance on Propositon 8. There were 15 packets in all, addressed to each member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. I was late submitting my letter to the Signing for Something website, so I printed and signed a single copy of my letter and hand-delivered it with the rest.

The activity started with a prayer, then the group of us started walking across the street and along the North Temple sidewalk to the Church Office Building. Nearly all of the adults carried a packet of letters or a petition, and the children carried carnations in memory of the numerous gay Mormons who have committed suicide. As we walked, everyone softly sang the popular LDS hymn “As I Have Loved You” (based on John 13:34-35).

When we arrived at the north entrance of the Church Office Building, Church representatives, security guards, and the press were there to meet us. The spokeswoman, Kim Farah, spoke with Andrew Callahan, then requested that we place our letters, petitions and flowers on a cart outside the door. Though nothing was said, it was clear from the positions of the security guards that we were not welcome inside the building. After everything had been delivered, the cart was wheeled inside the building (to what end, I have no idea). Then Farah disappeared inside the building where she delivered the Church’s prepared statement, in which she said it was the Church’s “moral obligation to speak out on issues that affect the moral fabric of society as it has in this case.” She also said that the Church would continue to take this stand in the future. Not exactly progress… but then, I didn’t go with the highest expectations, either.

(For more coverage on this event, see the following video clips and news articles.)

Our voices on this issue are small, and we are drowned out by the vast chorus of Mormons, Catholics and people of other faiths with much greater financial resources. But if our small voices can encourage a few others who are now stifled into silence to speak up, then we have accomplished something.

And that’s something I’m willing to sign for.

Love Makes a Family

On March 7, 2000, California ballot initiative Proposition 22 passed with 61.4% approval, preventing California from recognizing same-sex marriages. The previous June, the Mormon church sent letters to over 740,000 members asking them to support the initiative. It is hard to say if the galvanization of support by the church was responsible for passing the initiative, but it probably didn’t hurt.

At the time, I was serving a two-year mission for the Mormon church in southern California. I was well aware of the church-led effort to pass the ballot, which was called, ironically enough, the “Defense of Marriage Act.” (As if the way to defend something is to deny it to certain groups of people!) I saw the picket signs in members’ lawns; I heard the official letter read over the pulpit; I watched while leaders pressured members to contribute money and time.

I regret that I did not oppose my church’s stance then, when I was in California and in a position in which my voice would have been relevant. But I did nothing. My own views at the time were relatively orthodox, I was too busy teaching people about the church, and my work within the Spanish-speaking population largely removed me from the debate.

Eight years later, history repeats itself and the church has come out against marriage equality and mired itself in politics again. It’s about time I make up for my earlier pacifism and add my voice to the many which are in favor of marriage equality for all people. If marriage is good for heterosexuals, then why the hell isn’t it good for homosexuals? I fail to understand how my straight, “traditional” marriage can be threatened by someone else’s.

I may have more to say in this space as November nears and the debate intensifies. This time, I won’t be staying quiet.

Mongolia Wins its First Olympic Gold Medal!

I haven’t been able to observe the Olympics as closely as I’d have liked to this year. Although I was in Beijing exactly one week before the Olympics, when the the Games started I was in the Mongolian countryside without any way to observe them. I still haven’t watched a recording of the opening ceremony, which I hear was the most fantastic display in the history of the Games. But tonight, entirely by accident, I got to be part of a special experience.

I arrived back in the capital yesterday but was too swamped with work to consider watching the Olympics. While I was having a haircut this evening, all of a sudden the room grew quiet.  The winners of the judo competitions were being announced on live TV. Everyone stopped working and turned to the TV behind me. People began pouring in from other parts of the store. The winners were announced one by one, culminating with the announcement that Tuvshinbayar Naidan of Mongolia had won the gold medal! The room filled with the sound of clapping.

This is Mongolia’s first Olympic gold medal ever. I share the enthusiasm of the Mongolian people in applauding Naidan’s remarkable achievement. And I am happy to have been able to share in the celebration of his fellow citizens this evening.

Go, Mongolia!

The Natural Man

Today I took an invigorating bath in the river near our camp. It was the first time in years that I had done so, and it felt wonderful. The sun was shining, the weather was warm but not hot, and the water was brisk and clean. Following my bath, I stood on the banks of the river for some time, naked and alone, soaking in the sunlight and the rich sensations of nature.

It felt in a way like I was going back to my roots. The “civilized” part of my nature, concerned with modesty and manners, rarely is able to connect with the simpler, more animal part. Moments like these come too rarely in my life, mainly because I fail to seek opportunities to create them.

I was raised in the LDS (Mormon) church, and its moral teachings were a strong formative influence in my youth. The Mormon view of the human body, including sexuality, is somewhat self-contradictory. On the one hand, it teaches that the body is a temple, to be reverenced and respected. On the other hand, it teaches that “the natural man” (i.e., bodily desires and passions) “is an enemy to God” and should be repressed or ignored.

As a youth, I grew up simultaneously respecting and abhorring my body. I was never tempted to smoke, drink alcohol or do drugs (although this could have as much to do with my limited social circle as anything else). I enjoyed running and kept myself active hiking on and near my family’s 120-acre mountain ranch. To this day, my favorite drink is water, followed very closely by green and oolong teas.

However, the flip side of this bipolar view of the body inflicted lasting damage to my self-esteem. As a young teenager with a healthy dose of testosterone, I struggled during several years with masturbation. I believed the church’s condemnation of it as an evil, selfish act to be correct, and that my inability to stop for any meaningful length of time made me unworthy of God’s approval. During this period, I received minor disciplinary action from my ecclesiastical leaders (disfellowshipping, or the temporary removal of church privileges). However, my leaders could never have been as hard on me as I was on myself. Trying to live by every letter of the law, I tormented myself over my inability to live up to my high standards.

That was a few years ago, and my knowledge of the human body has come a long way since then. My understanding of the “natural man” is based squarely upon a foundation of evolutionary psychology, not the religious paradigm of my youth in which unseen evil spirits were constantly tempting me to do the wrong thing. An action is not “bad” just because authority or scripture say it is, but only to the degree that it harms another living being (and is otherwise avoidable). Are there potentially destructive tendencies in the human psyche? Absolutely. However, I no longer see these as evil or degenerate (weaknesses to be exploited by the devil for his unholy ends), but instead as unfortunate relics of once-adaptive traits that allowed our distant ancestors to survive and reproduce.

I will be forever grateful to my parents and church leaders for the strong moral upbringing they provided me, which was largely positive and forms much of the foundation of my character today. However, I believe morals can be taught without fear, without creating unrealistic expectations of our youth, and without invoking evil spirits and devils. Jesus and Paul may have been justified in referring to such spirits — they lived 1,800 years before the advent of modern medicine and psychology. But it is past time that we adopt a more organic view of the human body, one which fully appreciates its marvelous complexity yet allows us to work healthily within the limitations imposed by our biology.

The natural man (or woman) is, after all, a man or woman of nature. And standing naked today at the river’s edge, I connected again to that glorious heritage, our common birthright.

Waterfall Before Breakfast

I woke up this morning to the sound of a murmuring waterfall as the first light of morning caressed the taiga forests of northern Mongolia. How romantic, you say? Well, yes. The thing is, that waterfall was rainwater gushing through a hole in the roof of an old Russian miner’s cabin, where I happen to be lodged for a few weeks. Like most waterfalls, mine was quite pleasant to listen to. So once I had checked that my computer and gear were not in the line of flow, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

I’m back in Mongolia, and I’ve finally decided to put myself back on the radar screen! I have lost many blog opportunities in the past year as I have traveled extensively — China, South Korea, Toronto, Vancouver, Denver, London, Switzerland, Seattle, the Utah desert, Colorado, and the Washington State coast, among other places. I keep telling myself I need to blog about these places sequentially and add photos. Well, that’s probably not going to happen! :-) I need to start somewhere, so why not right now, right here?

I am giving myself permission to be a little sloppier with this blog. My perfectionist tendencies amplify my desire to procrastinate posts. So don’t expect journalistic masterpieces, just random thoughts and experiences which may (or may not) have anything to do with each other. I am also going to diversify from the pure “travelogue” tone, and begin sharing thoughts about life, religion, politics, etc.

Consider yourself forewarned! :-)

Back in time for Easter

Happy Easter, my dear readers (should any remain)!

After 200+ days of silence, this station is ready to start broadcasting again! This seemed to be as good a holiday as any to get back to writing. The weather is warming in Utah, the grass is greening, and the trees are beginning to put out new leaves. And I thought it was time — long past time, actually — that I put out a few new leaves of my own.

My silence has not been for lack of desire or of things to write. Unfortunately, it seems that there is an inverse relationship between the number of interesting experiences one has and one’s time to write about them…

The last few months have been some of the busiest of my life. From September through early October, my family and I spent three weeks in the eastern Mongolian steppe, five days touring Beijing and the Great Wall, another week in parts of Washington State, and finally drove, exhausted but with great relief, to our home in Utah. Home Sweet Home never felt so right.

I would like to say that that is where I stayed, but I’m afraid that’s not what happened.

October and November saw trips to Vancouver, Toronto, and Denver for a series of conferences and meetings. Then I returned for two particularly frigid weeks in Mongolia during the middle of November, returning just in time to share a turkey dinner with my family at Thanksgiving. In December we drove up to spend 10 days with our extended families in Washington State, returning after the new year. In all, I flew over 50,000 miles in 2007 and spent a total of only 10 weeks at home.

For the first time in my life, I have begun to feel old. My unofficial definition of that word involves the relationship between one’s desire to be out exploring and one’s desire to sit back in an armchair and, well, just sit. Let me tell you, that armchair looks a lot more inviting these days! Maybe those armchair travelers had it right all along…

2008 also started off with a series of adventures, which I promise I will write about soon. I’ll not spoil them by writing a hurried summary here.

Well, I’m back, and I hope to provide semi-regular updates here as time permits. Don’t hold your breath, however — neither I nor this blog can be held responsible for any injuries sustained during oxygen deprivation. :-)

A Journey of 2,415 Kilometers…

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Gobi Desert on a reconnaissance exploration trip. This is the other Mongolia, the polar opposite of its twin in the north. Here, in one of the rockiest deserts on earth, there are no steppes or taiga forests. But the stark contrasts and endless variety of the landscape make this one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. And worth a few words here, I think.


A day-by-day map of our journey to the Gobi Desert and back.

Our journey of 2,415 km (as tracked by GPS) started in Ulaanbaatar on a Tuesday morning and returned the following Monday night. We drove from mid-morning until well into the night each day, stopping only to eat, visit interesting outcrops, and to fix flat tires (about 16 of them, in fact). Only about 200 km of our entire journey was paved. The other 2,200 km were a true Mongolian experience: bouncing over two-track roads or roadless desert — and thousands of potholes — at the highest speed possible. Fortunately, my three-hour school bus commute as a child had inoculated me against carsickness, so I buckled in, held on, and generally enjoyed the ride.


Looking back on our tracks at sunset.

When the drivers became too tired to drive further, we stopped. My fellow geologists set up tents and the drivers slept in the backs of their cars. I opted for a more cinematic experience: I laid my bedroll out under the stars and gazed upward until, overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all, I finally drifted to sleep.

Those nights were extraordinary. Hundreds of kilometers from the nearest population center, our galaxy came alive each night. It was impossible to walk around camp without the Milky Way catching my eye and drawing my gaze upward. This was mid-August, and the Perseid meteor showers were adorning the sky with their own celestial fireworks. It was heady stuff.

Two days into our journey, the roads disappeared. We were entering trackless territory in an area so dry and rocky that it doesn’t support even the hardiest nomads. For three days, we saw no roads, no gers, no vehicles, and no camels. Our drivers had prepared well: We entered the desert with two full tanks of gas and 200 liters of extra gasoline in gas cans fastened to one roof. Each vehicle carried loads of bottled water, canned food, and dried mutton for rehydration in soups.


Where there were no roads, we were sometimes forced to make them.

We brought along a satellite phone for emergency calls but unfortunately forgot to charge it before coming: the battery was low when we started. We carried a small 2,000 W generator for this very purpose. Unfortunately, the generator failed to start, and we realized that the last time it had been used it broke and was never fixed. So the last day in the trackless Gobi, the satellite phone battery was critically low and we were unable to use the satellite imagery on my laptop to navigate through the difficult terrain, adding even more distance to our trip.

All’s well that ends well, of course! On that critical day, after sunset and with our fuel almost exhausted, we finally passed a vehicle. One driver flagged them down to find out they were border officers on duty at the Mongolian/Chinese border. They showed us the road back into the border town where we found a hotel for the night, charged the batteries, and refilled the tanks.

It took us another two days and 928 km to return to Ulaanbaatar. We passed some more beautiful sights on the way home – including the Gobi’s most famous sand dunes and tourist camps – but without straying too far from the established tracks.

Our trip to the uncharted reaches of the Gobi Desert had both humbled and exhilarated us. In that landscape as old as time, we were intruders. Between the flat tires, dead batteries, broken generator, and dwindling fuel, we came close to suffering a real emergency. But it was impossible to enter that place without drinking deeply of its timelessness and rugged beauty.


Paused on a hilltop at sunset, we search for a way down.

Lake Baikal, Russia

For our anniversary, my wife and I (with kids in tow) spent four days on the shores of Lake Baikal. Our primary destination was the small fishing village of Listvyanka, about 70 km from Eastern Siberia’s capital Irkutsk.

Lake Baikal is an extraordinary place. It is the deepest lake in the world (over 1 mile) and the largest by volume. The lake contains over 20% of the earth’s fresh surface water, or as much as all the Great Lakes combined. The water is so clean that the visibility depth is as low as 50 m.


The water is so clear that the bottom can be seen for some distance through the waves.

Listvyanka is a peaceful fishing village located on the western shore where the Angara River exits Lake Baikal. Although it now has a few tourist hotels and a fantastic souvenir market, the town still remembers its roots. Fishing boats traverse the coast during the day. In the evenings mothers and youth leave their homes to collect drinking water from local wells. Many villagers tend immaculate vegetable gardens, the more remarkable given the cold climate.


The first rays of the sun begin to wake the sleeping fishing village of Listvyanka.

On the morning of our third day in Listvyanka, we caught a ferry across the mouth of the Angara River to the train station at Port Baikal on the other side. Here we caught a train on the Circum-Baikal Railway, which follows the most scenic portion of the historic Trans-Siberian Railway before returning to Irkutsk in the evening. The first 84 km passes along the most scenic portion of the lake, through 48 tunnels and arches, and over countless bridges. Not only is the natural scenery breathtaking here, but the architecture is also stunning. The train stopped several times to allow passengers to walk through the old tunnels and spend time swimming and boating on the lake. The last 88 km of our trip, on the modern portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, took us through pristine taiga and birch forests and small villlages before arriving at Irkutsk.

The boxed lunch provided by the train proved to be inadequate for the ten-hour journey (and two hungry youngsters), so we augmented it by buying smoked omul fish from local fishermen and women at stops along the way. We have never tasted such delicious fish. No trip to the lake would be complete without it.


This train may not look like the ones that preceded it, but the track and scenery have not changed much in over 100 years.


A precipitous view of fellow travelers on the Circum-Baikal Railway.

In Listvyanka, we stayed on the third floor of a small, immaculately furnished hotel with a fabulous view of the lake. All day and night, a cool lake breeze would ruffle the curtains. On the night of our anniversary, with the kids in bed, my wife and I sat in the open window looking out over the lake. The full moon shone bright over the lake, its reflection glimmering off the crests of a thousand small waves. Three stories below our window, a woman was singing haunting, beautiful Russian ballads. The music floated up to our window, enveloping us in the nostalgia of a Russia we had never known but already loved. For a few brief minutes, our hearts, the universe, and that beautiful place converged. It is a moment I will never forget.


Our hotel window, where we sat to view the moonlit lake on the night of our anniversary.

It’s Summertime in Mongolia

Northern Mongolia is a paradise in the summer! You don’t have to take my word for it — the photos below can speak for themselves. For 9 months of the year, the country is brown or, when the snows fall, white. But for a two-month period between mid-June and mid-August, the steppe and taiga forests in the northern half of the country come alive in a profusion of color and blossoms.

On my first visit to the country last year, I had to leave before the summer really began. Now, after more than a year of anticipation, I finally can say I’ve seen my first Mongolian summer … life’s work accomplished. (Well, not quite!) I’ve inserted a few more photos than normal into this post because I want to convey the sense of wonder I felt in such incredible surroundings.


Taiga and larch forests on the hilltops transition to the mixed steppe grasslands in the valleys.

In contrast with the stark, rocky landscape of the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, the northern half of the country consists mostly of grassy steppes, with an increasing mix of taiga forests as Siberia is approached. The Zelter River valley, where my team recently conducted a week of field reconnaissance exploration, is a perfect example of these alternating biomes. Its northern watershed boundary is in fact the Russian border, only 120 km south of Lake Baikal. The border was only 3-10 km from most of our field areas and it was almost constantly on the skyline.


A view across mostly larch forests to the Russian border.

In contrast to the relative drought ongoing in Ulaanbaatar (whose hills are still mostly brown), the last couple of months have been very wet near the border. This has resulted in a profusion of wildflowers and vegetation that, while not unusual for Mongolia, was unlike anything I had experienced here or the western U.S., which typically has hot, dry summers.


This bulbous flower is the most abundant of the June wildflowers. Its root is edible and has been harvested by the nomadic steppe dwellers for hundreds of years.

The taiga forests (mostly Siberian larch) are spectacular. The forests are surprisingly light, allowing for a dense undergrowth of tall grasses, mosses, wildflowers, and strawberries. Perhaps it is an instinct left over from the time our primate ancestors left the security of the trees for the dangers of the open savannas, but a part of me comes alive in these forests and I feel a spiritual connection with the universe I have never felt inside a church or temple.


The forests are light and open and support healthy undergrowth.

During our last few days in the countryside, we were favored with some beautiful sunsets and a few awesome thunderstorms.


The sun, setting over the Russian border, illuminates our final hour of field work on a grass-covered mountaintop in northern Mongolia.


Scattered taiga forests contrast with newly planted grain fields as the trees cast long shadows on the landscape.


An evening storm descended from the mountains, bringing showers and lightning. The skyline is the Siberian border.

On our final morning at camp, I got up — somewhat reluctantly — to pack my supplies for departure. The evening’s thunderstorm had left “dew” drops on the grass and spiderwebs. The night was cooler than usual, and a thick morning mist came off the river and masked the hills. Except for the singing of a few birds — including the cuckoo — everything was silent. I went for a walk to some nearby 3,000-year-old burial mounds, nearly not finding them in the mist as I had left my GPS at camp… :-) (I’ll write more about the burial mounds, or khirigsuurs, in a later post.) It was the perfect way to end an adventure.


A dew-encrusted spiderweb glistens on a misty morning.


The Zelter River flows by our camp as the fog begins to lift on a cool morning.

On one of our excursions, we drove past a larch tree that had been utterly shattered by a lightning strike. The devastation was remarkable. Several large sections of the trunk lay scattered in a 20-m radius around the tree, and the trunk had been splintered down the middle, as if by a massive splitting mall. Strangely, no part of the tree appeared to have burned, and the needles were still green.

A reminder that, for all its beauty, nature must be taken seriously.


A recent lightning strike has completely shattered this tree, splitting the trunk down the middle. Surprisingly, none of the tree was burned.

Adventures Down Under

Two weeks ago I was in Perth, Australia, for a software user conference at which I was a presenter. Like a lot of my trips, it was physically exhausting but exhilarating. I was only in Perth for 3 days, so after the one-day plane trip from/to Mongolia is factored in, almost 40% of my trip was spent on the plane or in the airports at Singapore and Incheon, Korea.

Perth is in the same time zone as Ulaanbaatar, so my first reaction was: “Great! No jet lag on this trip!” That was, well, premature. My flights from Ulaanbaatar and Perth left at 12:20 a.m. and 1:05 a.m., respectively. I was counting on catching up on some much-needed sleep. What I didn’t anticipate was the airline’s insistence that all of their passengers be well-fed, even in the wee hours of the morning. :-) (There must be a rule somewhere that says if a flight exceeds a certain length, a meal must be served, no matter what.) So I set a couple of new records: my Earliest Breakfast Ever on the flight from Ulaanbaatar (2:00 a.m.) and my Latest Supper Ever on the flight from Perth (2:30 a.m.)! How one airline can serve supper after another serves breakfast is beyond me. Anyway, by the time meals were finished and lights were dimmed, there wasn’t a lot of shut-eye to be had on those flights…

Back to Perth. It is a lovely city, the capital of Western Australia, and considered the most isolated capital city in the world. The city is located where the beautiful Swan River enters the Indian Ocean. It has some of the most awesome beaches I have ever seen (this from a boy who spent two years in Southern California!). The winter climate was very mild and reminded me of that of San Diego, which shares the same latitude. In fact, it really wasn’t much cooler than the late spring weather in Ulaanbaatar.


The central business district of Perth as seen in the morning. The Swan River is just visible at the right edge of the photo.

After four months in Mongolia, I wasn’t so much interested in the tourist attractions than I was in seeing a truly modern supermarket. I was not disappointed. Seeing aisles and aisles of fresh produce (i.e., not shrink-wrapped) was almost a spiritual experience. Almost, because I knew they wouldn’t make it past four airport quarantines. Darn. I was also hoping to find a few of the Mexican ingredients missing in Mongolia (we like to make our own corn tortillas and traditional dishes). Unfortunately, the Mexican population in Perth doesn’t seem much larger than Mongolia’s…

On my last day in Perth, after the conference ended, I visited the beach and traditional markets in Fremantle, Perth’s sister city and port. The beautifully sunny weather of the previous two days turned dark and menacing just as the conference ended, and the rain began to fall in sheets. This didn’t stop me from visiting the beach and taking a few pictures. (Besides, cold showers are so old hat.)


The sandy beaches of the Indian Ocean between Perth and Fremantle. The surf is more choppy than usual due to the impending winter storm.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Australia and would love to return. My only regret is not planning a couple more days to see the other attractions, like real live kangaroos. Next time I’ll turn it into a real vacation…

No worries, right?