Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Double Consciousness of the Non-Believing Mormon

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
             ---W.E.B. Dubois, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" from The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

I want to borrow W.E.B. Dubois's term double consciousness in my essay today. My intention in using this term is not to imperialistically appropriate black identity or to diminish the very real conditions that this term was originally coined to describe. Rather, I want to describe a peculiar sensation that I feel as a non-believing Mormon: a strange sensation of simultaneously being both inside and outside Mormonism, of belonging to both worlds and belonging to neither. I use Dubois's term because I just can't seem to find a better term to describe this condition. So, I use it as an homage to Dubois's keen insight in describing a condition that I can empathize with---even though I am not black myself.

As I've stated before, I no longer believe in Mormonism. It might seem odd, but this last year as I've made my intellectual journey out of Mormonism, I've found that I express my testimony in terms of percentages---meaning the percentage of myself which sincerely believes in the possibility that Mormonism is the true church of God. For example, prior to the October 2010 General Conference, I remember distinctly feeling that my belief was hovering at 30%, meaning that 30% of me still believed there was a chance that the LDS church was the true church. Today I would place that number at a mere 2-3%. In other words, I feel fairly confident that the church's truth claims are improbable.

And yet I still attend church and outwardly appear to be the exact same person I was a year ago. This duality of orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy (conformity in practice but not belief) leads me to feel a great deal of inner conflict. It has also caused the strange sensation of "double consciousness" that I want to describe in this blog.

Most of the time I consciously self-identify as a non-believer. But there are occasionally times when I talk about Mormonism with believing members in which I must perform Mormonism in order to maintain the appearance of being a believer. That is to say, I adopt the codes and conventions of speech that Mormons use to describe and perceive the world.

On some level I am consciously aware that I am only performing Mormonism as I am speaking with these individuals, that there is a dissonance between who I seem to be and who I really am. But sometimes as I'm talking, there is suddenly a strange transition in which this dissonance fades away and I start to feel like I really do believe, like I'm the old me---that I'm just putting on a familiar, comfortable old coat I haven't worn in long time. Here's some specific examples:
  • My husband's family came to visit us a few months ago. As we were sitting around watching the kids play with toys in our basement, we started to discuss what my brother-in-law (who is a member of the high council in his stake) might say the next day in his talk about teaching children the gospel. At one point, the conversation turned to a discussion about the Atonement, and I began to argue very strongly that we should remember we are ultimately saved by grace and not by works alone. And I really meant it at the time---even though I had ceased believing in Christ's Atonement several months prior to that conversation.
  • I most frequently experience this sensation of double-consciousness when I teach Relief Society. Two Sundays ago when I was teaching my lesson about the Word of Wisdom, I got to the section of the lesson in which I asked them to list some words or phrases that would describe the temple. Then I read the line from the manual that says "our bodies are temples" and asked them if they ever use those words to describe their own bodies. The discussion we had was phenomenal. We discussed how women's perceptions of their bodies evolve as they grow from childhood into adolescence. There were some really good discussions about how we can counteract the negative messages about women's bodies in the media or at school. We talked about how parents can teach their children to find the balance between caring about their appearance but not obsessing over their physical imperfections. Everyone was weeping when it was over. I got hugs and pats on the shoulder when the lesson was over. I got phone calls later thanking me for the lesson. And it's hard for me to say that I didn't feel sincere when I helped guide that discussion and talked about the difference between the message of "the world" vs. the Lord (a binary construct I have long rejected). Despite not fully believing in what I was saying, my eyes got moist during that discussion too---and moistened eyes tend to be a signal of sincerity.
At any rate, it's a very odd sensation. And I don't think it will ever go away necessarily, even when I leave the church. I've known other ex-Mormons who have described this sensation too. I remember reading a comment by a man on the Exponent blog that said something to the effect about how he was a gay, Marxist, feminist atheist who hadn't attended church in a decade. And yet he said that part of him will always feel Mormon. I could see myself experiencing that too. When you've been raised in a certain religious culture and you've sincerely believed it at one point, it's probably largely impossible to fully leave it behind, to fully extract it from your identity. (Nor am I sure that I would want to.)

Although up to this point I have been describing a different kind of double-consciousness than the one that W.E.B. Dubois used, I also experience some of what W.E.B. Dubois was talking about when he coined the term "double consciousness." He meant it to refer to the sensation of being despised (and internalizing that contempt so that you begin to despise yourself on some level) while at the same time knowing that you are not a despicable being.

As discussed in an interesting article entitled The Believer and the Apostate, most religions treat apostates as contemptible. By necessity, apostates must be marginalized by the institution in order to minimize the threat of apostasy to the members who still believe. One of the strategies religions use is to argue that the apostate couldn't possibly have fallen away through any kind of rational process:
This strategy seeks to reduce the believer’s dissonance by assuming that the apostate fell away due to some unacknowledged sin, or some other flaw on the part of the former adherent. It is extremely important, for the believer’s state of mind, that the blame for the apostasy must fall squarely on the shoulders of the apostate himself. It is quite literally unthinkable that the fault could lie with the system itself. This line of reasoning must be avoided at all costs.
Our church is no different. We are told by our leaders that the only reasons people leave the church is because they are sinful, prideful, or easily offended. This is most certainly not true of all cases, as those of us who have come to doubt the church's claims through academic means are fully aware. And yet we non-believers cannot help but see ourselves through that lens of apostasy that other members of the church would apply to us. This has lead me to have a heightened consciousness of my public actions. I find that I look at what I do "twice," if you will. I look at my actions from my new, non-believing perspective and simultaneously look at it from a true-believing Mormon's perspective. ("If I say X or do Y, they will think Z about me.") And that does influence how I behave. It's strange because, on a strictly logical level, I realize how futile it is to try to control other people's perceptions of me. But, on an emotional level, I still care about what believing Mormons think about me.

My dad once sent me a quote by John W. Gardner that said something about how one of the lessons you learn in maturity is that a) most people are neither for you nor against you, they are just thinking about themselves and b) no matter how hard you try, some people will not like you---a fact that feels overwhelming at first, but eventually can become empowering. I think this sensation of double consciousness---the internal conflict of my inner duality---will hopefully lead me to internalize these truisms of maturity that Gardner spoke about. So, at least some good might come out of the resolution of this inner conflict.

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