On the Process of Coming to Consciousness

This is a paper I wrote for a course called Writing for Social Change in 2019, then presented at the Utah Valley University Conference on Writing for Social Change in March 2020.

It’s 6:00 in the morning and still dark outside. The tiny white chair I’m sitting in feels like I’m perching on a wood fence, and ceramic tile radiates cold under my feet—both of which are probably good things because I’m so tired that otherwise I’d fall asleep. The year is 2002; I’m a senior in high school, sitting in my early morning seminary class, and I’m about to take the first hit to my Mormon belief system.

Sister Paulson is explaining the special names Mormons receive when they go to the temple for the first time. To give us an example of faith from her own life, she tells us with her trademark cheerful enthusiasm that her husband knows her name, but she’s never allowed to know his. Ever. I feel this like a punch in the gut. Something like dread or shame floods my whole body, and for a minute I think I might throw up. I’ll struggle with this information many times over the next several years, unable to comprehend why it bothers me so much, why I can’t get on board with something so important and sacred as the temple ceremonies. I know it can only be a lack of faith on my part, and for years I fight my own mediocrity to try and gain the perspective I need. 

***

It’s 2008, and I am twenty-two years old. I’ll be getting married in two months; in just a few more than that, the foundation of my life is going to start dissolving under my feet. For now I sit in my half of the bedroom, back against my pillow, my laptop on my thighs. As I write on my blog, feminism is dawning on me.

It’s been coming on for a long time, but my new political exploration is the catalyst which kicks it off in earnest. This is the first campaign season I’ve ever followed, and I’m coming to it in near-total political ignorance; my family never talked politics growing up, so my only ideas about it are those I’ve absorbed passively through the culture around me.

March 3, 2008. Thoughts. You know, I've just thought about something. Maybe Hillary never really had a chance at this presidency. I mean, do you really see the people of the United States voting for a woman to be their president? I hate to say it, but I don't. In my head I've been thinking that Clinton and Obama were kind of equal in their “first”ness—she'd be the first woman president, he'd be the first black president, so either way it'd be something cool for our country. But let's be honest—it's not like that. Sure, Barack Obama is black, but that's not going to affect anyone's vote. (Okay, my naivete was showing.) No one's going to say “a black man can't run our country,” because hardly anyone believes that anymore. Maybe just some of our racist grandparents. But we all know that people still think women can't do this stuff as well as men, and Obama is still a man. For all our “progress,” I think we're still a pretty sexist country, and I don't see that getting put aside for people to elect our leader.

My friends and I have been blogging for over a year now. We respond to each other’s posts, carrying on extensive conversations in the comment sections. I don’t know it yet, but we’re your typical conservative Christians: pro-patriarchy, anti-homosexuality, anti-separation of church and state (though we wouldn’t put it in those terms). Although this kind of political and philosophical exploration is new to me, none of it remotely questions my faith—in fact, it’s because of my Mormon beliefs that I find these new liberal ideas of social justice so intriguing. And yet because of this, I’m about to be publicly declared an enemy by some of my best friends. 

In April BYU updates its Honor Code policy regarding gay students, saying they won’t be kicked out just for being gay, only if they act on it. My friend Drake has made a name for himself by having “repented” of homosexuality, and he is enraged by this capitulation to “political correctness” on the part of the Lord’s University. Seeing his distress, mutual friend Melissa and I comment to say that we don’t think BYU is saying they’re “in favor of homosexuality,” as Drake put it in his post (called “David vs. Goliath”)—they only mean that you won’t be kicked out simply for struggling, which we think is very compassionate. Drake and his sister, our roommate Lisa, are shocked by these opinions.

Two days and several uncomfortable conversations later, Drake writes a post about how people he “thought were friends and allies” have “suddenly turned on him” with “hatred and intolerance.” Now I am shocked, because I have certainly not turned on my friend. As if she’s attempting to be as hurtful as possible, Lisa asks me when I became an “anti-Drake activist.” This is the first time I’ve encountered absolutism directed toward me, and it’s as bewildering as it is upsetting. Because I have thoughts on Drake’s post rather than fully agreeing with him, because I won’t blindly condemn BYU’s update to the policy, two of my close friends literally declare me their enemy. It takes at least a couple years before I can think of either of them without breaking down.

***

At the end of 2011 I start a new blog, which I name after Emma Smith’s words: “I desire the spirit of God to know and understand myself[.] I desire a fruitful, active mind, that I may be able to comprehend the designs of God, when revealed through his servants without doubting.” My political exploration of the last four years has led me to the realization that most of the people I know are very uncomfortable with questioning, even on non-religious subjects; I’ve had multiple traumatic experiences with friends and family members calling me “anti-Mormon,” telling me I’m “immoral,” and unfriending me on social media. But I have started to notice—partly because of their behavior toward me—that there are some things about my worldview that I need to work out. So I keep writing.

March 12, 2012. Activism vs. Negativity. I've been getting accused a lot lately of being negative. I can understand this; sometimes I have that thought myself. And I will freely admit that I often do feel quite negative when I think about the issues we’re facing. When you're trying to effect change, that involves a lot of pointing out what's wrong with the system. And it's very hard to make criticism sound positive.
But that is precisely what I am trying to do—I am trying to bring about change. I always knew there was a lot of inequality and oppression in the world, but I didn't know how much of it exists right here in the United States. Since I've become aware of it, I've felt the need to do what I can about it. And part of what I can do is talk. Before there can be change, there needs to be awareness. I'm trying to help with the awareness.
I saw something the other day that explains perfectly what I'm experiencing now. I thought I'd share it with you (without naming the source because this came from a secret Mormon feminist group where many of us were pretty terrified of being “outed” to our families):
It’s like taking Spanish for the first time in high school. Before that, you were barely aware when Spanish was spoken within your hearing; it just blended into the background, like white noise. Once you started learning the meaning of those words and syllables, Spanish began to jump out everywhere you went. Have you ever learned a new word and suddenly started hearing it all over the place? Did everyone learn that word on the same day you did? No. It was being used all around you the whole time, but you didn't know what it meant, so you didn't notice it.
Learning about sexism and other forms of discrimination is like learning a new language. You learn the common usage first (say, sexual harassment in the workplace), and move on to more advanced topics later (understanding the scope of patriarchy and rape culture). As you learn, you see things that used to be ordinary before you knew what they meant. As you become more fluent, you see sexism everywhere. You see that it is our world. It is in the air we breathe. And this is why, the person who posted it said she doesn’t write shiny happy unicorn and rainbow posts. She writes to show the world a small portion of the inequality in it, in the hopes that someone else will start to see the matrix for what it is.
I will probably always write book reviews on my blog, and tell you about commercials I hate and share ridiculous/awesome memes I've come across on the interwebs. But my reason for blogging has always been to write about my thoughts—and these are my thoughts. This is what I'm thinking about now. This is what concerns and interests me.
So please stop complaining about how “negative” I am. Activism is not negativity. There is room for change in the LDS church, and there's even more room for change in the United States of America that is not at all what I was taught growing up. It freaking sucks to learn this second language, to find out that these things have been happening all around you. I hate it, and there are times I wish I could go back to not knowing. But I can't; no one can. And for me the only way forward is to do everything I can to help others see too, so we can start making things better.

The next two years feel like running downhill, as my beliefs continue to morph in response to the philosophical exploration I’m doing. I get deeply involved in politics and the online Mormon feminist community; I spend the vast majority of my time reading, thinking, or talking about the intersections of feminism, politics, class, race, and religion. Every few days, it seems, I learn about an injustice or oppression I’d never known could exist. I spend countless hours discussing these topics, not to mention fighting misogynistic internet trolls. I begin to realize that, while I was taught some good values growing up, the behaviors associated with those values were not what I’d been told. 

December 24, 2013. On Misunderstanding Your Own Moral Philosophy. I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth.
I'm not qualified to know whether or not a person's morality is lacking, and neither is anyone else. I can judge a political philosophy, though, and personally I do believe that there is a lack of morality in the philosophy described in that quote. The thing is that people might adhere to their political philosophy for any number of reasons, not least of which is the possibility that their own philosophy has been misrepresented to them. (This is what happened to me, after all, and I feel certain that it has happened to many other people I know.)
If you accept, unexamined, the political philosophy that dominated the culture in which you grew up, then there is an excellent chance that you do not know the extent of what you've accepted. You see your philosophy only from the inside, a perspective that emphasizes certain facts and excludes others, attaching specific political beliefs to morals they don't logically fit. This, I imagine, is how one ends up with a “pro-life” stance on abortion that constitutes total disregard for the life of the woman involved, or the life of the child after it is born. If you believe abortion is wrong even to save a woman’s life, then it’s not “life” you care about protecting.
Whatever the morality inherent in that philosophy, a person's tacit acceptance of it doesn't necessarily mean that their personal morality is the same; it might just mean they’ve never actually considered it for themselves.

These are golden years, in a way. They’re traumatic years, too, in which I lose not just my friendships and community and the entire structure of my life, but the faith that was deeply personal to me. I cry, a lot. I agonize over my online posts and comments, checking and rechecking to be sure I haven’t said anything offensive or incorrect. But at the same time, this kind of intellectual community is something I’ve always wanted, and I’ll spend most of my time trying to replace it once I no longer feel I can participate in a religious group—which is something that happens, actually, within two years.

January 21, 2014. Conventionality and Religion. “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” This is from Charlotte Bronte's prologue to Jane Eyre, and I'll be surprised if I haven't shared it here before. I just had another thought, though: Religion is not morality, either. To attack religion is not to assail morality. Not even close. I think this is probably obvious on one level—everyone knows, after all, that terrible things have been done in the name of God, and everyone probably also knows “Sunday Christians” (or whatever the equivalent is in another religion). Being religious doesn't necessarily make you a good person.
Here's the second level, though, the one that was more surprising to me: I'm no longer a religious person, but I think I'm a more moral person than when I was. As a devout Mormon, I thought morality was not watching R-rated movies, not having sex, being straight, loving church, not drinking or getting tattoos or swearing. Now I know that none of that is a question of morality; those are just rules. You can follow all of those rules without being moral. You can break them all and be a deeply good person. It's not that I wasn't a good person—but my obsession with those superficial rules was just that: superficial.
When I thought about my personal growth, I counted the days I'd missed reading my scriptures or felt guilty for not getting up during testimony meeting. I worried about my reputation as a Good Mormon, and whether other people saw me as an Example; I didn't think about injustice or civil rights or trying to make a difference in the world. I believed that being good meant not associating with people who didn't share my values; I ignored the fact that that's fully the opposite of what Christ did and taught. My concerns were shallow, really—either shallow or judgmental—and totally unimportant in any kind of larger scheme. What I think now is that morality is respecting life (human, animal, and planet) and fighting against oppression. You don't even need to believe in God for any of that, much less be religious.

***

Starting out in 2008, the only thing I intended was to watch the presidential debates, like the new adult I’d recently become. But this turned out to be a crack in the dam holding back the flood of who I really was, in contrast to the person I’d been raised to be. Because I started thinking about politics and feminism, I began to see that my religion required shutting off certain parts of my brain. I saw that questioning was not welcomed, and I felt that this was wrong. Most importantly, I saw that claiming to follow Jesus Christ was not an indication that someone would be committed to social justice; in fact, it was much more likely to be the opposite. The contradictions inherent in conservative Christian culture led me away from everything I’d ever believed. Instead of worrying about sleeve length and what people were drinking, I now worried about dismantling the racist, misogynist, ableist, classist structures which keep the vast majority of people in the entire world living in misery. 

November 7, 2015. I'm not Mormon anymore. A lot of you know that; most of you guessed. Many of you watched that process happen, but it was probably more confusing to you than anything else. And I never told you what, specifically, the reason was. So now I will.
It was this. Not same-sex marriage exclusively, but all the ways in which the church actively fights human rights. Patriarchy and the institutional powerlessness of women. The blatantly racist policies denying priesthood and temple access to black members. Prop 8. Essentially: the fact that every single time an oppressed group fights for equality the church must be dragged kicking and screaming along BEHIND the rest of society, when if they were truly led by God as they claimed to be, they should have been the only ones exemplifying equality all along.
	What it came down to, in the end, is that my conscience told me one thing, and my church consistently told me another. So . . . that was it. My brain couldn't support that cognitive dissonance anymore.

When people say that no one ever changes their mind, they really mean that they are unwilling to change their own minds. Because of the metamorphosis my beliefs have gone through, I know that people do change their minds. I know that if we want to commit to social justice, we must be willing to change our minds—and to challenge inequality wherever we find it, no matter how sacred the place. 

The world is slowly becoming more secular, and I honestly think that’s one of the best things that can happen for all humanity’s sake (not to mention the rest of the planet). The belief that “God will sort things out in the next life” prevents people from doing what they can to fix things in this one. The belief that “God has ordained things” in a certain way closes people’s minds to what actually exists in the world. The idea of faith teaches people that it’s virtuous to believe something for no reason, and actually in spite of evidence against it. Religious thinking is both the problem and the thing that prevents us from fixing the problem.

Up until the last few decades, it’s been nearly impossible to even discuss that idea without having your life destroyed, if not taken away. Now that we can talk about it, I think it’s important that we do. Losing my religion was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I can say with certainty that I’m a better person as an atheist than I was as a Christian. Some people will always be terrible, with religion or without it. But the more people who take conscious, thoughtful steps away from religion, the better off we will all be.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky said, I believe that we are all, individually and collectively, responsible for becoming more ethical than the society we grew up in. Waking up is desperately hard to do, but the process of coming to consciousness is worth the pain of seeing the world for what it really is. 

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