Ask Richard: Atheist Father Disturbed by Church Asking Son Personal Questions


Feb. 10, 2010

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Dear Richard,

When I married 17 years ago, I was a true-believing Mormon. Since coming out as an atheist to my wife several years ago, she has only become more fervent in her Mormonism. Consequently, there is a heightened tension when it comes to issues regarding our children.

Our eldest is 15, and occasionally is requested to undergo what Mormons call a "temple interview," where members of the church are asked a series of questions to determine their moral worthiness in preparation for a trip to the temple. Among these questions is one  regarding masturbation.

Masturbation is supposedly forbidden in the church (so, obviously, everyone is forced to lie about it), and I believe that this belief and its enforcement is detrimental to both the physical and mental health of everyone. Is it wrong to have issues with an arbitrary religious authority asking my son about what he may or may not be doing in private? I am inclined to write the Bishop of my ward informing him that he is under no circumstance to question or authorize anyone under his authority to question my kids regarding sexual issues.

My dilemma is how this will go over with my wife. In order to enforce this restriction, I feel that there must be some repercussions threatened for violating it, such as withdrawing my kids from church attendance for some duration. This would require a discussion with her that, because of her religious beliefs, she would find hard to comprehend.

Is this issue worth addressing?



Dear Barry,

I have read that the actual question that might lead to a discussion with your son about masturbation is, "Do you live the law of chastity?" How deeply that discussion goes with a 15-year-old boy might be at the discretion of the interviewer. If you know the interviews rise to the level of emotional abuse then that is a matter for immediate intervention, but I can't tell from your letter whether that is warranted.

Rather than intervening on your son's behalf without consulting him, it might be more helpful for you to ask him if he has any problem with these interviews and that particular question. Giving him a safe opportunity to talk to you about it is probably the better place to start. If he has questions, answer them honestly and let him know that masturbation is a normal part of life. 

If your son says he's okay with these interviews, then set the issue aside. In this way, you will be empowering him to have the confidence to deal with this, rather than reinforcing a self-image as a helpless victim. In addition, the consequences of an unnecessary rescue could be worse than the discomfort he actually experiences in the interview. This is because he is in a delicate position of divided loyalties, caught between you and his mother and your differing opinions about the Mormon Church.  

Caught between you and his mother, your son is always vulnerable to becoming a rope in a tug-of-war. If you increase the tension between you and your wife over this, or if he feels pressure from both of you to agree with your differing opinions about the Mormon Church, then the strain on your son from trying to somehow please both his father and his mother may be much worse than his having to brood over telling the lie that everyone knows is a lie, but they pretend to believe.

I can certainly understand your resentment over pious pretenders asking him about his private sex life. The religious injunction against masturbation is based on ridiculous superstition. But be careful not to misplace your disdain and anger at the LDS by inadvertently using your son as a weapon against the Church or your wife.

As his father, be a refuge of reason and a resource of high esteem. Give him accurate information and reassurance that his humanity is completely acceptable. Always be watchful for signs of distress, but, unless he really needs rescuing, let him work his own way through things. Show your admiration for him as he solves the problems that come his way.

You'll be proud of each other.



(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.)