My Belief

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When I was growing up in Portland, Oregon, in the 1930s and 1940s, I always thought of myself as a believing Latter-day Saint. My parents were believers; even when they were not attending church regularly, they still believed. All of my relatives were Latter-day Saints and so far as I could tell accepted the gospel like eating and drinking, as a given of life. In Sunday School I tried to be good. I answered the teachers’ questions and gave talks that brought compliments from the congregation. From the outside, my behavior probably looked like the conventional compliance of a good boy. But it went deeper than mere appearance. I prayed faithfully every night, and whenever there was a crisis I immediately thought of God. I relied on my religion to redeem me. I often felt silly or weak, and it was through prayer and religious meditation that I mustered my forces to keep on trying.

After high school, partly because of the student government responsibilities that fell to me as a senior, I was admitted to Harvard and left my family and Portland for Cambridge in the fall of 1949. Harvard helped redeem me, too, but it also eroded my faith in God. I went to church regularly and made good friends with Latter-day Saint graduate students, a faculty member or two, and the small circle of Mormon undergraduates. The undergraduates met Sunday afternoons to discuss the scriptures. We debated everything about religion, but we all were believers. I do not known why it was that by the end of my sophomore year my faith had drained away. Logical positivism was at a high tide in those days, trying to persuade us that sensory evidence was the only trustworthy foundation for belief. At the end of my freshman year, I wrote a paper comparing Freud and Nietzsche and confronted the assertion that Christian morality is the ideology of servile personalities who fear to express their own deepest urges. Up until then I had prided myself on being a servant of God. Was I also servile? These ideas and perhaps the constant strain of being on the defensive for believing at all must have eaten away at my belief. The issue in my mind never had anything to do with Latter-day Saint doctrine specifically. I was not bothered by the arguments against the institutional Church, which so trouble people today, or the problems of Mormon history, another current sore spot. I was not debating Mormonism versus some other religion; the only question for me was God. Did he exist in any form or not? I was not worried about evil in the world, as some agnostics are. I suppose Mormon theology had made the existence of evil perfectly plausible. I simply wondered if there was any reason to believe. Was all of religion a fantasy? Were we all fooling ourselves?


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