Wednesday, May 15, 2013

If I Don't Believe in Mormonism, What Do I Believe?

There's a hackneyed joke that goes like this:
Q: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Mormon?
A: Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason. [1]
Aside from taking a cheap shot at Mormonism, part of the humor of this joke is the idea that Unitarians supposedly don't believe in anything. This is a fairly common assumption that religious people sometimes make about systems of freethought such as Unitarianism, humanism, atheism, etc. I think this stems from their belief that God and religious values are the immutable source of morality, wisdom, and happiness. I can understand why most people have this perspective since many people are first introduced to questions of ethics and morality in a religious context. Moral behavior is also generally the main topic of discussion in nearly all religious settings. And many people are motivated by their love of God to act in moral, pro-social ways. Therefore, religious people often feel that to reject religion must mean that you reject a belief in moral values. It means you don't believe in anything any more.

While I can understand that perspective, I don't think it's accurate. It's true that I no longer believe in religion any more, but that doesn't automatically mean I condone moral relativism or that I don't have moral values any more. So I wanted to articulate here what I do continue to believe in.

The Virtue of Scholarly Dialogue

Generally speaking, I'm fairly wary about believing in "truths" any more. I am hesitant to make bold, dogmatic statements declaring things to be absolutely "true" or "right." The reason I hesitate is because it's always possible that my understanding of the issue could be limited by cognitive bias, a lack of evidence, shortsightedness, etc. (as has been the case in the past, unfortunately).

But even though I hesitate to believe in absolute truths any more, that doesn't mean I reject the notion that truth exists. I still believe that truth exists---and if push comes to shove, I'd be willing to take a stand for the things that I currently believe to be true based on the evidence available to me. However, I am less interested in believing in Truth (with a capital "T") and I am more interested in how to access the truth. In other words, I prefer to believe in processes that have good track records for helping me to get closer at approximating the truth about important matters.

In my opinion, the process of scholarly dialogue is the most superior process so far. When I say "scholarly dialogue" I'm referring to the process of researching a topic thoroughly, articulating an argument based on your research and submitting it for critique by other scholars who have also researched the topic thoroughly.

Under this system it is important for individuals to be as educated as they can about the topics they discuss---but it's also important to keep in mind that oftentimes the process of dialogue is itself a form of education because it exposes us to alternative perspectives that we might not have been aware. Ideas must go through the crucible of scholarly argumentation. If they emerge from that crucible intact, they are worth considering.

Honesty, Courage, and Respect

With that in mind, I've come to feel that the chief requirements for scholarly argumentation are honesty, courage, and respect. I've created a laundry list of what these three virtues mean to me:

  • Before making your argument, will you research your topic thoroughly to the best of your ability? Are you willing to diligently and objectively search all possible perspectives and information on this topic?
  • As you research, will you use only those sources which are of the highest quality and credibility to support your position on the topic? Will you check and re-check your sources to make sure they are highly credible?
  • Will you cite your resources fully and accurately so that others can verify that your resources are credible and reliable?
  • Will you refuse, on principle, to distort the evidence or another scholar’s point of view? Will you make sure that you do not take quotations out of context or misrepresent them in any way?
  • If an occasion for an argument arises and you have not had enough time to conduct sufficient research, will you mention that as a caveat to your argument? Will you acknowledge any personal biases that inform your argument?
  • Will you make sure that you define key terms in a way that can be mutually agreed upon so that your readers will understand the fundamental assumptions of your argument if needed?

  • Are you willing to change your mind on this topic? Are you willing to risk your own ego for the sake of truth and in order to do what’s best for society? [2]
  • Are you willing to abandon any long-cherished positions when it is clear that there is substantial evidence to the contrary?
  • When your perspectives change, are you willing to acknowledge how and why your mind was changed?
  • If one of your arguments or some of your supporting evidence is shown to be flawed, will you revise that argument or stop using that evidence altogether?
  • Will you recognize the full complexity of the issue and add qualifications to your argument when necessary?

  • Will you acknowledge counterarguments to your own claims in a fair and balanced manner?
  • Will you resist the temptation to disparage the character of persons who take a different position from your own? Will you strive to have empathy for others, recognizing that everyone has valid reasons for believing the things they believe?
  • If another person concedes that your position is reasonable or correct, will you refrain from belittling them, recognizing that the purpose of scholarly dialogue is not to “win,” but to find the best possible solution or perspectives on the topic?

Without these conditions in place, there can be no productive, rational discussion. It is best not to engage in these kinds of arguments for your own health and well-being. However, when these conditions are in place, it can be a remarkably transformative, powerful experience. Those kinds of discussions are worth seeking out because they will benefit all the participants involved. Society as a whole will be a little bit richer because of it.

Caveats to the Process of Scholarly Dialogue

I'm a big fan of Eliezer Yudkowsky (author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality). On his Less Wrong website for aspiring rationalists, he has an article entitled Twelve Virtues of Rationality that are somewhat similar to the three requirements I've articulated above. One of his virtues is evenness, meaning that you need to apply skepticism and argumentation evenly to positions that you agree with as well as positions that you disagree with.[3] So, in the interest of being even-handed, I need to acknowledge some of the problems with the process of scholarly dialogue that I've discussed above.

Scholarly dialogue takes a long time to achieve. It takes a lot of resources to get to the point where a scholarly dialogue can even take place. It takes time and education to conduct scholarly research. Furthermore, scholarly dialogue benefits from involving as many people as possible during the argumentation process in order to get as many valid, creative perspectives in the forum as possible. When scholarly dialogue is working at its best, it becomes synergistic and collaborative. But when more people are involved it, it also slows down the process immensely. Consensus takes an incredibly long time to achieve and the conditions have to be just right for it to occur. It's a long, arduous and messy process. And that's why it doesn't happen very often.

Good research is not freely accessible to the public. My biggest pet peeve with academia is how many barriers it places around open access to good information. Scholarly research is among the most credible information available, but it requires esoteric permission to access it. You pretty much have to work at a university in order to have access to scholarly materials because it is too cost-prohibitive otherwise. Many academic databases and journals have incredibly high subscription costs. One librarian at my work estimated that database and journal access costs my university close to a million dollars a year. That's a big problem for a host of reasons (and one that I applaud Harvard, Princeton, and MIT for trying to combat). Beyond the tremendous cost for access to journals, most scholarly journals are written in "academese," a highly complex and sometimes unnecessarily technical style of writing that is quite difficult for lay readers to understand. Although some of this jargon is justified, it can also just be an excuse for poor writing. The high cost and the obfuscated language in scholarly journals make it difficult for most people to have access to good information so that they can better educate themselves about key issues.

Scholarly dialogue is not intuitive; it has to be learned. Rationality is not the default way in which human beings approach the world for many complex cultural, psychological and even biological reasons. [4] People usually have valid reasons for behaving and thinking irrationally, but that doesn't make the process of scholarly dialogue any easier. It's sometimes difficult to engage in a productive exchange of ideas when the cultural and biological odds are stacked against you.

Scholarly dialogue doesn't always get it right---nor does it pretend to. Sometimes experts are wrong. Sometimes the scholarly consensus is wrong. It's important to remember that scholarly dialogue is not about giving you THE TRUTH. It's about approximating truth, getting closer and closer to the truth with every new day---even though you know you're never going to fully arrive there. Scholarship isn't about giving you certainty about the way the world works per se; it's about telling you the probability that this is the way the world works given the current evidence that is available to us. You have to stay on your toes and be willing to diligently keep searching for new evidence and updating your probabilities as you go along. And that's the true beauty of scholarly dialogue: it's a self-correcting process. Even though it gets it wrong sometimes or even a lot of the time, eventually it will correct itself.


As costly and seemingly impossible to attain as it is, I still maintain my commitment to scholarly dialogue, to independent thought, and to the openly democratic exchange of ideas. Compared to nearly every other system, I maintain my confidence that scholarly dialogue has the best track record for improving the human condition so far. And so, yes, that's what I believe in today.


[1] Lenny Bruce is also quoted as saying: "I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad that they burn a question mark on my front lawn."

[2] Christopher Lasch’s once wrote: “It is the art of articulating and defending our views that lifts them out of the category of ‘opinions,’ gives them shape and definition, and makes it possible for others to recognize them as a description of their own experience as well. In short, we come to know our own minds only by explaining ourselves to others. The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponents’ arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable---and therefore educational” (qtd. in "The Lost Art of Political Argument." Harper's Magazine Sept. 1990. Web.)

[3] When you fail to apply skepticism evenly to your own arguments, this is also known as "motivated skepticism." See Taber, Charles S. and Milton Lodge. "Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs." American Journal of Political Science 50.3 (2006): 755-769. JSTOR. Web.

[4] There are a lot of people who have written about this better than I have. An interesting book to get started with this concept is Chabris and Simon's The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

When Friends Ask Me Why I Left Mormonism

Today I received an email from a distant friend who had just learned from my family members that I have left the church. Her letter was warm and expressed empathy, but her primary purpose in writing was to "get me back on the straight and narrow path," as she put it. This was my reply:

Thank you for your concern. I am of course unhappy to hear that my life choices have caused my family members to experience pain and grief. However, I must live a life that is true to my own beliefs and convictions. Simply put, I have realized for myself that the church is not true and it is not what it claims to be. This realization came from several years of intense study and deep introspection. I will not go into detail to describe to you how I reached that conclusion because I don't want to be accused of trying to hurt you or "lead you astray." But let me be clear that I am quite certain for myself that the church is not true. [1]

Again, it upsets me to hear that my life decisions make other people upset. I do not like to cause other people to suffer. But I cannot live a false life just to make other people happy. I need to live a life that is consistent with my personal beliefs for my own well-being---even if others do not approve of my decisions. I tried to live the Mormon life for many years despite not believing in it. That was a mistake. It caused me to experience intense depression and severe anxiety to pretend to be a believer when I was not. I needed to leave Mormonism in order to have peace of mind. It was not easy to leave, but I feel a lot happier outside of the church than I did when I was inside.

I will continue to be your friend if you would like me to. I will continue to treat you with respect and warmth. I would hope that you would extend me the same courtesy. Thank you.

Generally in these kinds of conversations with friends, my goal is to be clear and honest about my reasons for leaving without going into a lot of detail (because I don't want to cause the other person to get too defensive). Since these kinds of conversations can be a game-changer for some relationships, I usually try to make it clear how I will continue to act in the relationship in the future, i.e. with continued respect and kindness. I tell them that I would hope to be treated the same way in return. If necessary, I sometimes add a "boundary" (like a clear behavior request).

Family members are a little different. In the first place, it's fairly rare for a family member to want to discuss my relationship with the church directly and openly. But when they do approach me, I tend to be less direct in those kinds of conversations. For example, when my sibling who is on a mission bears testimony to me in an email, I usually don't respond to it directly and I tend to change the subject. Since sibling relationships have much higher stakes, I would prefer to have those conversations in private and face-to-face where I can communicate with love and respect. In other words, my goal with those kinds of conversations tends to be to forestall discussion until the conditions for a conversation are more ideal. Honestly, I'm also fine with avoiding the topic and just letting it be the proverbial elephant in the room.

I'm not sure about the ideal way to handle these conversations. I don't really think there is an ideal way when both parties disagree so fundamentally about the key issues. Especially when it would take several days/months/years of library research to get to the point where a meaningful exchange of ideas about the church could occur.

Most people haven't done the scholarly groundwork to really have an in-depth conversation with me about polyandry, the theodicy, Biblical history/archaeology, church history, Book of Mormon/Doctrine and Covenants/Pearl of Great Price textual criticism, freemasonry, etc. etc. etc. I'm not saying that to be elitist; I'm just saying that until people have done their homework to make sure we're all having a conversation on equal terms with equal access to the same sources of knowledge, then we're not very likely to have a productive conversation. So, usually my goal is to try to communicate that I still love and respect the people in my life, while at the same time remaining true to my own sense of self. If someone does decide to take me up on the library challenge, then we can have a dialogue. But I'm also content to let the status quo remain.


[1] Sometimes people from other faith traditions read my blog. As an FYI for those individuals, Mormons frequently repeat the phrase "I know the church is true" when bearing testimony of their belief in Mormonism. This binary phrasing often strikes outsiders as being oddly absolutist, but it is basically shorthand for the set of beliefs that comprise the theology of Mormonism (and whatever that means to the individual expressing it).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Is Mormonism Harmful?

My husband and I have been engaging in an ongoing conversation over the last several weeks about whether Mormonism is harmful or not. Since it was a fairly interesting conversation, I thought I would record some of the highlights here.

How it all got started...

For various reasons, I ended up listening to several recent Mormon Expositor episodes back to back a few weeks ago. I happened to listen to one episode in which Brandt (one of the Expositor's lovable token believers) mentioned he was sad when people leave the church because he felt that Mormonism was a good way to live. Later that day I listened to another episode in which Matthew Crowley said he felt that Mormonism was a harmful religion. That led me to ask: who is right? Is Mormonism a good way to live or is it harmful? Is it possibly both at the same time? I decided to answer this question for myself.

As an apostate myself, I've rubbed shoulders with a lot of people who have experienced genuine pain as a result of Mormonism. I've met people who have developed eating disorders and other mental issues because of Mormonism, people who have had their relationships with friends/family badly damaged because of Mormonism, and people who have experienced tremendous cruelty at the hands of the Mormon community---some to the point of attempting suicide. I myself have experienced depression and anxiety as a result of my faith transition out of Mormonism. So on the one hand, I think there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mormonism has the potential to cause harm.

But on the other hand, I have to admit that prior to my de-conversion, Mormonism did not cause me any personal harm. It worked fine for me while I believed in it. The same seems to be true for my believing family members; they seem genuinely happy and healthy living as Mormons. My husband's family also appears to be happy and healthy in their Mormon lifestyles. Therefore, there is also probably enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mormonism has the potential to be a good influence on people's lives.

So, that was the general idea that my husband and I discussed at first: Mormonism works great for people who fit the standard Mormon narrative. If you're faithful, white, middle-class, employed, mentally healthy, extroverted, American, married with kids, politically conservative and you fit the traditional norms for your gender, Mormonism is likely to be a good fit for you. Even if you don't fit every single one of those criteria, you should still fit in and feel relatively comfortable within Mormonism if you've got most of them down at least. And there are a number of people who can (more or less) fit into those social categories without too much trouble. I did. My husband did. My family did. And things were relatively stable and normal in our Mormon lives (until the faith crisis came, of course).

The problem is that anecdotal evidence like this isn't really a good basis for a sound argument. Both sides can easily cherry-pick all the anecdotal evidence they want to prove their side is right. And while qualitative data like that can be helpful for understanding the key issues that are in play, it doesn't necessarily get us any closer to understanding the way Mormonism systematically operates in people's everyday lives. After all, it's possible that the harm caused by Mormonism is not unique to Mormonism at all; it might instead symptomatic of religion in general. So my husband and I decided we needed to examine the theology and culture of Mormonism itself to determine whether it was uniquely more or less harmful to people's lives compared to other religions or social institutions.

What happens if we put on our feminist glasses and look again?

Since I dabble here and there in Mormon feminism, I frequently come across a lot of personal stories of pain and malcontent related to gender problems in the church. As my conversation with my husband continued, I began to wonder if approaching the topic from a feminist lens might be useful for examining the church systemically. So, I suggested that we work our way through LDS Wave's I Feel Unequal list as a way of continuing the conversation. We combed through the list, discussing each item as it related to our larger question of whether the church is harmful or not. Our purpose was to brainstorm whether there were specific aspects of Mormonism as an institution or an ideology that made it uniquely more or less harmful than other social institutions or ideologies.

I'll spare you the details of our lengthy conversation about the Wave list, but we did ultimately agree that the church had a harmful stance on gender. As the list makes fairly clear, gender inequality (and its related issues) are fairly deeply woven into contemporary Mormon theology and culture. Although the list never states it explicitly, it's clear that many of the problems are caused by one of three general problems: 1) the fact that women do not hold the priesthood equally with men and consequently do not have an equal role in church governance, 2) LDS doctrines about gender essentialism, and 3) antiquated institutional/cultural practices that endure because of historical tradition or short-sightedness (rather than for theological reasons). The gender inequality within the church is quite extensive and most certainly has the potential to cause a great deal of harm---such as domestic violence, gender stereotyping, double standards, self-esteem issues, mental health issues, etc.

But the real question we were examining was whether the gender inequality of the church is unique to Mormon ideology or not. While there are some unique aspects of Mormon theology and culture that reinforce gender essentialism, these basic gender ideologies did not entirely originate in Mormonism. Most were simply inherited from Christianity or from mainstream American conservative culture at large. Mormonism perhaps differs by degree, if anything. (For example, Mormonism ups the ante by asserting gender was determined in the pre-existence and that marriage is necessary to achieve godhood---possibly even polygamous marriage depending on which kind of Mormon you're talking to.) But the basic gender ideologies are the same as those found in other Western religious and conservative social institutions---which means that sexism pre-dates Mormonism. For example, women cannot hold the priesthood within Catholicism (as was the case for most Christian denominations up until fairly recently) and conservative religious groups like the Missouri Synod Lutherans still strongly advocate for traditional gender roles---to a degree that sometimes surpasses the discourse about gender within Mormonism, in my opinion. [1]

The conclusion that we came to after reviewing the WAVE list was that, while Mormonism does indeed have the potential to cause harm, it doesn't necessarily cause any more or less harm than other religious or social institutions. If we were to examine the utilitarianism of Mormonism from the perspective of race, cultural imperialism, and sexual orientation, I'm confident the same pattern would emerge.

The virtue of checks and balances

That doesn't mean I'm excusing Mormonism for its potential to cause harm. Nor does it mean that I'm trying to minimize the very real pain that Mormonism has caused to many individuals. Rather, my argument is that these same harmful patterns can be found in many different human institutions---religious or otherwise. (Governments, businesses, unions, etc.)

Humans create institutions because they can accomplish their goals more effectively when they work together as a collective body rather than as solitary individuals. But there's no such thing as a perfect institution---and it's worth noting that some institutions are a lot healthier than others. The primary element that separates healthy institutions from unhealthy ones is whether they are capable of self-correction. In other words, healthy institutions are ones which are capable of 1) recognizing when a certain belief or practice is somehow wrong or harmful, and 2) adapting its policies to correct beliefs or practices that have been proven wrong or harmful.

Here's a few institutional elements that are important for self-correction (off the top of my head):
  • Does the institution have a system of checks and balances in place to ensure that no one individual or governing body has carte blanche to makes all the decisions for the group (creating the possibility for tyranny or for myopic decisions being made in an echo chamber)?
  • At any time can someone inside or outside the institution offer sincere, well-meaning criticism or alternative perspectives to its leaders without fear of reproach?
  • Does the institution promote the free exchange of ideas and independent thought? Does it seek to understand and possibly adopt good ideas that come from inside and outside of the institution?
  • Does the institution allow for grass-roots communication from the bottom up between those who are in power and those who are not? Is there a process by which people both inside and outside of the institution can address grievances if they are hurt by someone within the institution?
  • Does the institution foster a homogenous monoculture or a culture of hierarchy or elitism, whether consciously or not? Does it welcome diversity and alternative perspectives?
  • Does the institution actively seek to promote individuals with diverse social backgrounds into leadership positions---not because of tokenism but out of a sincere desire to welcome a diversity of viewpoints when making important decisions for the organization?
  • When it becomes clear that a change needs to be made, does the institution have a mechanism in place for quickly adopting that change?
  • Is the institution's government centralized or de-centralized?

Again, some institutions are going to be better than others in terms of this checklist. There are very few that will be perfect. But admittedly, as I wrote this checklist, it was clear to me that Mormonism doesn't stack up very well. It might very well be a less-than-healthy institution when compared to others (although I'm sure there are others that could give it a run for its money). Although it does have a system in place for self-correction---i.e. prophetic and personal revelation---that system is clearly flawed as I have argued on this blog before.


The big take-away that I got from this conversation was that it helped me to better clarify my own beliefs and values independent of Mormonism. I think there are two big impediments that prevent Mormonism from being healthier than it could be: 1) the belief system is founded on principles that are ultimately flawed, and 2) the culture of dogmatism that pervades the church. By dogmatism I mean a hardened, inflexible commitment to "truths" that are not necessarily so. When any group of people dogmatically insists on clinging to flawed or false beliefs and practices in spite of evidence to the contrary, it has the potential to cause harm. (And, by the way, these problems are NOT unique to Mormonism---or even to religion in general. Not by a long shot.)

I have found that I'm less interested in believing in truths these days. I certainly want to continue seeking for the truth, but I don't want to make a hardened commitment to any one ideology any more. I don't want to set my beliefs in stone any more. That's because I've discovered that I'm often wrong, I'm often misinformed, and I'm often short-sighted. I often fail to grasp the full complexity of a given issue when I rely on my own understanding of it.

But the beauty is that I don't have to rely on my own understanding of anything. I can come to understand the complexity of an issue and expose myself to other points of view by engaging with other people in my society---especially those who are different from me. Humans and human institutions are a big part of the problem---but they are ironically part of the solution too. I may not believe in any one institutional ideology any more, but I firmly believe in the institutional processes of education and scholarly dialogue. These dialectic processes improve our lives as individuals and as a society on the whole.  They have a proven track record for success. Through education and scholarly dialogue, our society is becoming more humane, more equitable, and more moral.

That's part of what makes me proud to be a member of an educational institution---despite all of its own institutional flaws. I'm proud to teach students how to communicate better and how to engage in the process of scholarly dialogue. I'm glad to be part of something that is truly making lives better (with quantifiable results to boot!). I hope that in my own small way I can work with other people to make all human institutions a little bit healthier---whether it be the institution of Mormonism or something else.


[1] It's also worth mentioning that Mormonism does contain some potentially pro-feminist elements too (such as the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, the idea that Eve's choice was not only necessary but good, the existence of female ordinance workers in the temple, the Second Anointing, etc.). But, with the exception of Eve, most pro-feminist Mormon theologies are frequently censored by the institution. ---Err, I mean correlated out of the institution.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gospel Principles #3 - Jesus Christ, Our Chosen Leader and Savior (NOM version)

I actually didn't teach this lesson in Relief Society because of the way the schedule was arranged that particular year. I taught lesson #2 instead, but it didn't seem like a terribly interesting one discussion-wise. Therefore, I decided to do this one instead. For reference, see Jesus Christ, Our Chosen Leader and Savior in the Gospel Principles manual.

Growing up I always had a fairly strong personal belief and relationship with God ever since I was 14 years old (as I wrote about earlier), but it took me considerably longer to develop my relationship with Christ, most likely because I felt closer to God through prayer. (For those of you from other faith traditions who are reading this blog, Mormonism posits that God and Christ are two separate individuals.) My freshman year at BYU I experienced a period of intense disillusionment with church culture and felt very estranged from Mormonism although I continued to attend church. My sophomore year of BYU, I started to warm back up to Mormonism again as a result of some loving roommates. One day, after listening to a BYU Devotional with Neal A. Maxwell, I felt the strong desire to recommit myself to God and Mormonism. The day of my re-conversion I spent several hours in prayer and repentance. It was then that I developed a close, intensely personal relationship with Christ, which I maintained as a strong source of comfort and direction for nearly a decade.

But these days I am highly skeptical of the divinity of Christ. My current worldview was very painful for me to accept, but it was the result of my study of the research conducted by scholars of New Testament textual criticism over the last 300 years. I'll discuss why I find their evidence persuasive and I'll end this blog entry on a positive note by talking about how I still feel the concepts of grace and the Atonement are still psychologically useful.

Problems With the New Testament
When I try to accept the divinity of Christ, I find myself in an epistemological quandary. That's a fancy way of saying that it's difficult for me to trust the authority of most sources that claim to provide me with direct, credible knowledge about Christ's divinity. Aside from personal or prophetic revelation (which have their own epistemological flaws that I won't get into here), our main source of access to knowledge about Christ's life and teaching is the New Testament (as well as some extra-canonical Christian literature such as the Gospels of Thomas and Mary). Although I sincerely believe that Christ existed historically and that we can re-construct fragments of his life and original teachings, it is extremely difficult to do so---especially if we use the New Testament in its current form as our exclusive source of knowledge about Christ.

The first problem that I've had in trying to access the truth about Jesus has come as I've studied the history of how the New Testament came into existence. The books of the New Testament were not written chronologically in the order they appear in the New Testament. Here's a nice little graphic I got from Jared Anderson that shows the timeline of when the books of the New Testament were written, according to scholarly textual research:

I don't have the time to rehearse the scholarly methodology used to construct this timeline. You'll just have to trust me when I say that this timeline represents the prevailing scholarly consensus of the dates these books were written. I've listed some helpful sources in my footnotes of this blog entry for further study, if you're so inclined. [1]

As you can see from the chart above, the first books of the New Testament were written by Paul, composed nearly 20 years after the death of Jesus. The Four Gospels were written in the decades after Paul's death in the latter half of the first century. Most contemporary scholars accept something called the "Q hypothesis," which posits that "the material common to Matthew and Luke, but lacking in Mark, probably came from a source no longer extant and commonly designated as 'Q' (from the German Quelle, meaning source)." [2] It was a text that was hypothetically based on an oral tradition dating back to Jesus's time.

Most modern scholars also assume that "despite the identification of these gospels with individual men, we have no reliable historical information about the actual authors of the gospels." [3]  Most scholars assume that John was written by a particular religious community---typically referred to by scholars as the Johannine community. They also infer that the Book of Acts was written by the same author(s) who wrote Luke.

Furthermore, most Biblical scholars agree that the books of the New Testament were written for specific theological and rhetorical purposes. Kraemer and D'Angelo describe the prevailing scholarly consensus:
All presume that early Christian gospels, whether included in the canon of the New Testament or not, reflect the intentional activity of ancient authors and ancient transmitters of traditions about Jesus and about those who made up the early communities of his followers. All recognize that the fundamental character of these traditions is theological, which means, among other things, that their primary concern is to interpret Jesus called Christ to diverse communities of followers, and they are only incidentally at best interested in what we might understand as "history." All acknowledge that a significant portion of these traditions is unlikely to be historically reliable. [4]
Simply put, the writers of the New Testament were less concerned with creating an accurate historical representation of Jesus and were more interested in putting a particular spin on Jesus and his teachings for specific audiences---and for shrewdly calculated rhetorical purposes. (For example, the gospel of Matthew may have been written for the purpose of creating a Jewish-Christian hybrid religion. The gospel of John is decidedly more gnostic in its tone and reflects the fundamental values of the Johannine community that produced it. And so forth.) What this means is that the representation of Jesus in these books is constantly being mediated by the particular rhetorical agendas of its authors. In other words, in these books of the New Testament, we're getting a varied interpretations of Jesus that are being filtered through and colored by specific worldviews, theological values, and rhetorical agendas. As Mormons we're used to reading the Gospels in parallel with each other in Sunday School, cherry-picking our favorite parts to reinforce our contemporary Mormon views. There is some value in this approach, but it can also potentially blind you to other more useful or accurate interpretations of the texts.

Furthermore, it is important to note that several of the books of the New Testament that are attributed to Paul are believed by many scholars to be pseudepigrapha, meaning that they were letters falsely written in the 2nd century in Paul's name after the fact. These writings were written by well-intentioned individuals who likely saw no real ethical harm in what they were doing. They merely wanted to authoritatively settle the theological disputes that were plaguing early Christian communities (for example, issues of high or low Christology, gnosticism, monotheism, and---most importantly to me as a contemporary Mormon feminist---defining the role of women in the early church).

So, that's how the New Testament was constructed timeline-wise, but that's only the tip of the iceberg as far as problems with the New Testament are concerned. As Bart Ehrmann, a well-respected New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, explains:
It is one thing to say that the original [manuscripts of the books of the New Testament] were inspired, but the reality is that we don’t have the originals—so saying they were inspired doesn’t help me much, unless I can reconstruct the originals.

Moreover, the vast majority of Christians for the entire history of the church have not had access to the originals, making their inspiration something of a moot point. Not only do we not have the originals, we don’t have the first copies of the originals. We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals. What we have are copies made later—much later. In most instances, they are copies made many centuries later. And these copies all differ from one another, in many thousands of places. …

[T]hese copies differ from one another in so many places that we don’t even know how many differences there are. Possibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. Most of these differences are completely immaterial and insignificant. ... Even so, what's one to make of all these differences? If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don't have the very words of scripture? In some places, as we will see [later in this book], we simply cannot be sure that we have reconstructed the original text accurately. It’s a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t even know what the words are! [5]
As Ehrman is alluding to here, the New Testament has changed dramatically as it has been passed down through the centuries. We have no access to the original manuscripts of the New Testament, nor do I think we have any hope of being able to have access to the originals one day. The existing manuscripts that we have today are copies of copies of copies and they contain a multitude of discrepancies---some changes made on accident by the unprofessional scribes of the early centuries and some changes made deliberately for politically and theologically motivated purposes. I also feel that the process of canonization was also a very political process that was particularly oppressive to views that gave an equal role to women in Christian communities.

In short, I feel that the New Testament is a very unstable, unreliable text. We cannot un-complicatedly state that it gives us pure, direct access to Christ and his teachings. We simply do not have access to any kind of authoritative, genuine record of what those teachings really were in any kind of pure form. We only have access to a murky shadow of what it might have been.

Mormons have an "out" for this, of course. According to the 9th Article of Faith, Mormons are only obliged to believe the Bible is the word of God "as far as it is translated correctly." I'm not going to claim to know what Joseph Smith really meant when he penned those words. However, by this logic it almost stands to reason that since the "translations" of these Biblical texts have been proven to be so utterly riddled with centuries of errors that the Bible should practically be rejected in its entirety---which I'm fairly certain was not Joseph Smith's intent. Furthermore, I am extremely hesitant to trust Joseph Smith's supposed translation of the Bible as being authoritative in any way---especially given the multitude of problems with the Book of Abraham. (And we haven't even mentioned that if, according to Mormon theology, the Great Apostasy began shortly after Paul's death, which is traditionally believed to be around 67 A.D., then that throws suspicion on nearly 2/3 of the New Testament as being corrupted by apostasy---including the four Gospels.)

We simply have to accept that the New Testament and its representation of Christ and early Christianity is problematic at best. I just can't trust the authoritativeness of the New Testament any more, as much as I may want to on an emotional level. If it truly is the word of God, then it is clearly a very flawed vehicle for it---and it has the suspicious imprint of human hands all throughout it. [6]

My Current View of Christology
I want to point to Mark 16 as an example of a particular disputed chapter in textual criticism that illustrates my current perspectives on Christ. There is an intense debate about whether verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were in the original Markan manuscript or not. Mark is, of course, believed by scholars to be the first gospel that was written and is known to be one of the sources of material used by the authors of Matthew and Luke when composing their gospels. The disputed verses of the final chapter of Mark provide an account of Jesus's resurrection.

The controversy between scholars about these verses comes from the fact that these verses are missing from two of our earliest and most complete Markan manuscripts: Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dated mid-300's A.D. To be fair, I should also mention that the scribes who wrote these two codices left some blank space after verse 8, indicating that they were possibly aware of a longer ending to the Gospel of Mark, but they did not have it available from the manuscripts they were copying.

Most other manuscripts of Mark 16 and early versions (such as translations into other languages) include verses 9-20. There is also evidence that the early Christian church leaders immediately following the apostles' deaths may have been aware of these verses. [7]

Nevertheless, I personally think it makes sense that they were not original to Mark. The Gospel of Mark seems to have a very low Christology, meaning that he does not seem to be terribly concerned with proving that Jesus was divine (at least not the way Luke or other gospels seem to be). And it's important to note that many early Christians would have had differing views on Christology in general. Christian communities which had low Christologies were certainly in existence at the time Mark was written.

This is just one key example of several important verses that are either in dispute by New Testament scholars or which are considered by scholars to be later additions by scribes. While many of these changes are inconsqeuential, some have a very direct impact on our understanding of Christology and Christ's original theology.

My own personal belief based on my study of the New Testament is that when Christ was alive, his followers sincerely believed that he was the predicted Messiah who would deliver the Jews from political bondage under the Romans. Christ and his followers likely believed that the end of the world was coming soon and the Kingdom of God would soon be established on the earth. When the Romans assassinated Christ, it threw the early Christian community into theological chaos. How could he be their liberator if he was dead? Paul helped to make sense of this theological problem by preaching that Christ would return in glory soon and would bring about the kingdom of God. As is clear from the original letters of Paul, he and his followers were millenarians, which means they sincerely believed that they would one day live to see the Second Coming. As time passed and the original Christians converts began to die, the younger Christian communities had to deal with the theological cognitive dissonance caused by the fact that Christ hadn't come yet. I think that the theology of grace (the Atonement, as Mormons call it) and resurrection were later theological adaptations created by Christians as a way to make sense of Christ's absence. We've seen this kind of pattern for resolving millenarian cognitive dissonance emerge time and time again with many Christian sects in more contemporary times (and I include the Mormonism in that category, given that many early Saints fully believed the second coming would occur in 1890). In short, I think the version of Christianity that has survived today is a complex, man-made theological construction that is very different from what the earliest Christians believed---including possibly Christ himself.

I recognize this view is a bit naive, underdeveloped and awkwardly expressed. I'm not a Biblical scholar; just a Biblical enthusiast who likes to read scholarly Biblical criticism. As such, my views are liable to change as more information and evidence comes in. But, nevertheless, that's where I currently stand on the matter: the Atonement and other high-Christological concepts were theological innovations that emerged later in the development of Christianity (or were at least in strong competition with other views of Christ in ancient Christianity). I therefore am skeptical of the evidence that Christ is a divine being.

Nevertheless, the Atonement is Still a Useful Concept
That being said, I generally keep my agnostic beliefs about Christ to myself. On one level, I do that because I don't want to start a fight with anyone. But on another level, I don't want to hurt anyone's beliefs in the Atonement. Although I think there are some potentially damaging elements of the idea that God hates sin and requires suffering as recompense for sin, I nevertheless see value in the concept of Christ and the Atonement. [8]

Let me relate a brief story without going into too much detail. A while ago I broke an important promise that I had made to someone. It was a promise that no longer had any intrinsic meaning to me and which would have meant nothing to someone who didn't understand the context. But I felt tremendously guilty about my actions the next day---a feeling that I had not in any way anticipated. I knew that I couldn’t undo the effects of my actions because I couldn’t change the past---I couldn’t un-break my promise. All I could really do to learn from the event so that I could avoid making the same mistake in the future. And although I had stopped believing in the literal Atonement long before that event occurred, I admittedly mourned for my loss of faith in it on that day.

Guilt can sometimes be a productive, pro-social emotion---but when we wallow in it or experience it unnecessarily, it can become unhealthy. And so I think I mourned for my belief in the Atonement because I wanted to displace guilt/pain the way I used to by just handing it over to Christ. It had been so much easier, so much more convenient really, before my beliefs about Christ had gotten so complicated.

As I was reflecting on that, I was thinking about how psychologically useful the concept of repentence is. From a certain point of view, it’s like giving us a way to “change” the past even though we can’t actually change the past. And repentence allows us to psychologically put our guilt about the past behind us and move forward doing good works in the future—with our psychological image of ourselves as “still a good person” relatively intact (which is itself another very useful social fiction). [9]

The problem for me is the dilemma of the placebo effect: the Atonement doesn’t work if you know how it works. I see value in the concept, but I can’t personally psyche myself into it believing it—even though I miss the function that it used to have in my life. Now, let me state that I do believe it is possible to train yourself to let go of the past and be optimistic about the future without the aid of the Atonement---but it is a lot more difficult to do on your own because it does require deliberate training and personal discipline.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I wouldn't ever want to take someone's placebo effect away from them. If their beliefs are working for them, why try to disabuse them of it? But for me, I'm personally more interested in having an accurate view of the world than believing in social fictions---useful though those fictions may be.

 [1] For a good and accessible summary of the history, methodology, and evidence accumulated over the last 300 years of New Testament criticism, I would recommend reading Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why a trade book written for a lay audience by Bart Ehrmann, a well-respected New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill. I would also recommend listening to Jared Anderson's "An Academic Introduction to the New Testament" on the Mormon Stories podcast. Lastly, I'd recommend investing in a study Bible such as the New Revised Standard Version. (I believe my husband and I use the Harper-Collins edition.) I list my sources here so that you know I'm not just pulling this stuff from Joe Schmoe's Anti-Christ website. This is legitimate scholarship being made by individuals who have devoted their life and careers to the study of ancient Greek languages and the New Testament manuscripts. They study the Bible in a league of their own and to disrespect their scholarship shows incredible audacity, naivete and ignorance of this field of study.

[2] Kraemer, Ross Shepherd and Mary Rose D'Angelo, eds. Women and Christian Origins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ehrmann, ibid.

[6] Just as a humorous side note. An image was floating around the Internet that said: "To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click 'I agree.' "

[7] This is a very complicated debate and one that I'm not fully qualified to retrace, so I'll refer you to Wikipedia's entry on Mark 16 for more information about the debate.

[8] It's useful to acknowledge that there are many different ways of conceiving of the concepts of grace and the Atonement.

[9] My friend who is a New Testament scholar with an LDS background wrote a beautiful Middle Way Mormonism post expressing similar ideas: "Jesus: Savior or Symbol."

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

An Email Exchange about the ERA

For various reasons, this week I found myself doing a little bit of research on Lavina Fielding Anderson and I read this paragraph (pp. 12-13) from an article she published in Dialogue 26.1 (1993) entitled "The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology":

This was a tad on the disturbing side for me. I couldn't help but see the parallels between the anti-ERA movement and the recent Proposition 8 issue. So, I was interested in getting some perspectives from a faithful LDS woman who has researched the ERA extensively. For that, I decided to contact my old BYU roommate who did her senior history thesis about the ERA. It's been a fairly interesting conversation so far, so I thought I would post selections from it here. I should note that I haven't mentioned to this roommate that I am an inactive from the church, so I am writing with sensitivity to that issue. Also, out of respect to her privacy, I can only include my half of the conversation, but here's some selections from my half of the exchange (sans all the personal chit-chat):

I'm writing because I was just curious about your perspectives on the church's involvement with the ERA. I've been a big fan of Mormon Studies for the last couple of years and my studies usually delve deep into past church history as well as contemporary history. This past week, my studies have been taking me into the church's involvement with the ERA. I've actually been somewhat surprised by how extensively the church was involved in lobbying against the ERA. It concerns me a little bit from an issue of separation-of-church-and-state and also as a feminist. I am interested in hearing your take on this particular issue since you researched it extensively for your senior project. How do you feel about the ERA these days? What have your thoughts been on the matter? I'm open to whatever opinion you have on this issue. What conclusions have you come to?

Thanks in advance!


I think your assessment that the church's official position of non-partisanship being promoted somewhat "unevenly" throughout the nation is a very reasonable perspective. Admittedly, I've been somewhat discouraged about what I've read about how local leaders (with a certain level of unofficial approval from general authorities) have acted in ways that appear to violate the church's policy of political neutrality. The fact that women were encouraged by their local bishops to attend the International Women's Conference and vote down all measures to give women equal pay is kind of eyebrow-raising when viewed retroactively from a 21st century perspective. That women were given anti-ERA callings and that ward meetinghouses were sometimes used for anti-ERA rallies is disheartening. That bishops raised funds in their wards for groups like FACT and ward newsletters were used for anti-ERA lobbying is similarly troubling. Sonia Johnson's excommunication (along with other disfellowshipments of high-profile Mormon feminists) is similarly discouraging, but it's difficult because you don't get to hear the church's side of the issue on those kinds of proceedings. I have also read accounts of women feeeling fairly hurt about the church's position on the ERA, including one LDS woman who felt so disenfranchised that she committed suicide. So, it's sometimes hard to feel positive about the church's involvement with this issue at times.

Nevertheless, I think your explanation is probably a fairly good one: that well-meaning local ecclesiastical leaders may have been perhaps too overzealous in trying to show their loyalty to the Brethren. Perhaps they began to go beyond the mark in terms of what the church headquarters officially sanctioned. That sounds like a plausible explanation to me. It doesn't necessarily make me feel happy about the events that occurred, but it does humanize them.

Thanks for sharing your perspectives and feel free to continue the dialogue if you so desire. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say.



Thanks for sharing your perspectives. I agree with you that there needs to be room for free thought in the Church in order to maintain the overall health of the organization, but I wonder if that ideal might potentially be in conflict with the proscription against publicly criticizing church leadership. I have concerns that not allowing people to publicly criticize leaders creates a system in which there isn't enough ecclesiastical accountability.

On the one hand, I can understand how criticizing church leadership can be divisive. I can see how it has the potential to disrupt the harmony of a ward, a stake, or even the church in general. I can see also see that criticism can potentially be motivated by pride or selfishness or rebellion. Obedience, respect for others, and humility are certainly laudable virtues.

But on the other hand, I also think that virtues come in pairs. An excess in one virtue usually needs to be balanced out with another. For example, obedience, respect and humility also should be tempered with a healthy sense of self---an honest understanding of what you personally need to feel safe, happy and fulfilled. It's not healthy to serve and sacrifice for others to such a degree that you begin to neglect your own needs or do harm to yourself.

I've been speaking a little bit in the abstract terms, so let me speak a little more concretely. One way in which I am concerned about the blanket generalization that church members should never criticize their leaders is that sometimes criticism and negative feedback is actually useful and necessary. Sometimes criticism can actually make the organization aware of important concerns that need to be addressed.

For example, I have a friend who works with rape victims, helping them get counseling and legal advice. Since she's here in Utah, a lot of women who are referred to her are LDS. Most of these women talk to their bishops about the rape before they talk to anyone else. Most of the time, the bishops give rape victims good advice by helping them get in contact with the police and/or my friend's counseling program. But every once in a while, there will be a bishop who responds inappropriately by disfellowshipping the rape victim, claiming that it was her fault in some way. I am of the opinion that rape is never a woman's fault in any way. Women never, ever ask to be raped. I've also personally witnessed the emotional trauma caused by rape in some of my students' lives. What's equally disturbing is that sometimes when the rape victims will appeal their bishop's decision to disfellowship them with their stake presidents, the stake president unfortunately often sides with the bishop---usually because they trust the judgment of their bishops who they work with on a fairly close, personal basis. When that happens, there really is no recourse for a rape victim. She can possibly try to appeal to an Area Seventy, but that generally doesn't work. And since you can't write letters to the General Authorities any more, that option isn't available either. If that's the case, the only options left open to some women are to just suffer in silence, become disenfranchised from the church, or to speak out publicly about it. The fact that the Church Handbook of Instructions is sometimes followed (or not) in a fairly uneven way has the potential to be a bit of a problem in these kinds of cases---especially when there is no real recourse for a women except to speak out publicly.

So, for me, I think it's okay to have a proscription against publicly criticizing leaders. But I think that if the church is going to have such a proscription, then it needs to have a better internal system for handling members' grievances with their leaders. And there needs to be a better system through which members can express their valid concerns and opinions too (from big things---like asking whether Relief Society presidents can be given offices in the ward building the way Bishops have offices---to fairly innocuous things---like having a baby changing table in the men's bathroom or having a recycling bin available in the ward library room). Mormonism has got the top-down method of communication working really well, but the system for communication from the bottom-up still needs some work. Because allowing people to faithfully voice concerns makes the church healthier, safer, and more effective for everybody.

Thanks again for a good conversation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Are You Experiencing Ex-Mormon Stereotype Threat?

Recently the concept of stereotype threat has made it onto my radar.  I think this particular concept might possibly explain some of the source of the anxieties I've been experiencing in relation to the church lately (e.g. I've been having panic attacks every time I have to interact with a ward member or discuss church-related issues with family members). Read on if you think you might relate...


What is Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threat is the anxiety or concern caused when a person is in a situation that has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group.

The concept of stereotype threat made it onto my radar last week when NPR did a really fascinating story about how stereotypes can drive women to quit science. The NPR story reported about the recent findings of a group of researchers (Mehl and Schmader) from the University of Arizona about the gender gap in math and science. To study this phenomena, the researchers attached something called electronically-adapted recorders (EARs) to both male and female scientists. The EARs recorded 70 soundbites of conversation a day for 30-second intervals every 12 minutes. This provided the researchers with a good random sampling of the way male and female scientists talked with other male or female colleagues.

Follow-up interviews with the test subjects found that female scientists often reporting feeling disengaged about their work after having a a conversation with a male peer. Disengagement is a key predictor of the possibility that someone might leave a career, so the scientists dug into their recordings to find out what was causing this phenomena. Listening to the recordings, the researchers found:
When female scientists talked to other female scientists, they sounded perfectly competent. But when they talked to male colleagues, Mehl and Schmader found that they sounded less competent.
One obvious explanation was that the men were being nasty to their female colleagues and throwing them off their game. Mehl and Schmader checked the tapes.
"We don't have any evidence that there is anything that men are saying to make this happen," Schmader said.
But the audiotapes did provide a clue about what was going on. When the male and female scientists weren't talking about work, the women reported feeling more engaged.
For Mehl and Schmader, this was the smoking gun that an insidious psychological phenomenon called "stereotype threat" was at work. It could potentially explain the disparity between men and women pursuing science and math careers. ...
When there's a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling. ...
"For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it's possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype," Schmader said.
All this worrying is distracting. It uses up brainpower. The worst part?
"By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent," Schmader said.
Mehl and Schmader think that when female scientists talk to male colleagues about research, it brings the stereotype about men, women and science to the surface.

You don't have to be a woman or an ethnic minority to experience the anxiety caused by stereotype threat. Everyone is a member of some social group for which a negative stereotype exists. Which leads me to the next section of this essay...

Negative Stereotypes about Ex-Mormons

Ask any current or former member of the church and they will confirm for you that Mormons have very clearly defined cultural stereotypes about ex-Mormons. There's the standard "Sunday School" answers for why anyone could leave the church: they left because they were offended or they left because they wanted to sin.

Here's a few more:
  • They left because they never had a deeply rooted testimony in the truthfulness of the gospel. They didn't receive a spiritual confirmation of the truth. They were converted to the church and not the gospel.
  • They became too focused on things that were not essential to their salvation.
  • They stopped doing the things that would invite the Spirit into their lives (reading the scriptures, praying, going to the temple, etc.).
  • They were deceived by Satan's lies (anti-Mormon literature, the philosophies of men).

And on and on.

And, of course, you also have the stereotypes about how people behave after leaving the church. There's the stereotype about those who "leave the church but can't leave it alone," the angry, bitter apostates whose only desire is to fight against the church and attack faithful believers. Or there's also the idea that people leave the church and descend into utter depravity and misery.

My purpose here is not to refute these stereotypes, although I do find them inaccurate and offensive. My point is just to mention that these stereotypes exist---and, like all stereotypes, they have the effect of reducing a complex group of people and their individual experiences to a biased, flattened caricature of reality.

So, Do Ex-Mormons Experience Stereotype Threat?

As I've mentioned earlier and in previous blog entries, I've been experiencing anxiety when I'm around my ward members or when I have to talk about the church with family members. I experience problems like increased heart rate, dizziness, and stress hormones flushing through my body. I've also developed a fairly mild case of social anxiety disorder---a chronic fear of being judged by others or being hyper-aware of my actions when with a group of people. It's causing me to avoid social situations. (Like I can't even go for a walk outside with my husband without feeling anxious about encountering a neighbor approaching from a distance.)

I'm starting to wonder if stereotype threat could possibly explain this phenomenon. I realized this during a Facebook conversation I had today. I was talking with someone about how to manage visiting teachers and she gave me the advice to just be real about who I was. She talked about how having visiting teachers has actually been a good way for her to help believers deconstruct misconceptions about ex-Mormons. I responded:
I really, really want to be like you and show Mormons that you can still be an ethical, pleasant person with genuine reasons for believing in the things you believe or acting the way you act. You know---a human being.

I think you're absolutely right that the best approach is to just be respectful and authentic at the same time. I think the real challenge for me is that I'm suffering from "stereotype threat," which is the anxiety that gets produced by imagining that other people will view you in a negative way because of your social group (in this case ex-Mormonism). What I mean is that while I am comfortable with the new life path I've chosen for myself, I anticipate that everyone else will be highly critical and judgmental about it (which has definitely been the case with some people). So, I basically have come to expect the worst possible reaction from everyone about my decision to leave the church. And that makes me feel extremely emotionally vulnerable and unsure about being my honest, authentic self around them---for fear of disapproval. Unlike a person's gender or race, you can "hide" your religious beliefs and I've been passing as a believing Mormon to avoid displeasing people for so long that it's been difficult adjusting to just being out and real about it all, you know?
One thing that helped me to manage my anxieties in my first few months away from the church was to repeat a mantra to myself: "I will not take personally the reactions that other people may have about my decision to leave the church." You can't control how other people respond to you and it is futile to try to please everybody, but it can be hard to let go of the desire to make everyone happy sometimes. You can't let other people to cause you to abandon your sense of self.

I'll get there eventually!

Friday, June 15, 2012

An Analogy About the Correlation Program

One of my many academic degrees (too many) is in Film Studies. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (who happens to be an ex-Mormon) had seen an indie film that she absolutely loved, but which wasn't in wide theatrical release and wasn't making very much money. She messaged me on Facebook to ask me whether my film studies classes discussed why mediocre or awful movies make a ton of money while truly good films often fail to turn a profit. The other day, I happened to re-read my reply to her because I was sending a message to her on Facebook. I was somewhat amused by it and since it was relevant to the content of this blog, I thought I'd re-post it here.


What really is to blame for the fact that truly good movies (the ones that challenge our thinking and broaden our perceptions of the world) consistently fail to rise to the top of the box office while the Shrek 2s and Transformer 2s of the world take their place as all-time box office record-setters? We do explore questions related to this in film classes. It's a complicated question to answer because it takes a certain level of knowledge about film history and the mechanics of the current film industry.

My personal theory is that capitalism is to blame. For example, let's take your average big-budget, A-list Hollywood movies---the ones with all the expensive marketing designed to get butts into seats on opening night. These movies are calculated to appeal to large numbers of people (the mainstream movie-goer), which means they must appeal to the lowest common denominator of audiences who buy movie tickets. (Typically, the lowest common denominator is the pre-pubescent teen male. If the low brow, young male audience likes it, producers are willing to take a gamble that it will be broadly accessible to other audiences too.)

What that means that nearly every film goes through the "sausage machine" of Hollywood before it makes it to the theater. Producers usually reject original properties for tried-and-true standards with built-in audiences. ("Yay! Another Twilight or comic book movie!") Screenplays get all their originality edited out. ("We musn't offend!") And films get screened before test audiences and edited like crazy until they barely resemble the original screenplay. Then, they market the hell out of them. Because they know that even films that pretty much suck will still turn a decent profit after making the full rounds in international theaters and DVD sales (Tron 2, anyone?)---as long as they get enough butts into seats on opening weekend, since that's the only real benchmark of success. They don't care if you brought your mind into the theater with you or not. All that matters is whether you brought your wallet.

The best analogy I can make about this process is to compare it to the church's Correlation program. Anything weird or quirky about church history or doctrine gets edited out over time to appeal to the lowest common denominator: the new convert or investigator. Anything that goes through the sausage machine of Correlation comes out looking clean, orderly, and entirely unoffensive---but ultimately empty. But that doesn't matter as long as your butt's in the pews on Sundays. (Oh, and that you brought your tithing slip with you. Downtown malls don't build themselves, you know!)

Both Hollywood and the church think that we're happy to have a diet of popcorn and soda (because that's what test audiences have told them they prefer). But everybody knows this diet is neither sustaining nor satisfying. And those audiences/church members that are smart enough to realize it are finding other ways to fill the void. The real threat to Hollywood isn't pirated DVDs. And the real threat to Mormonism isn't "anti-Mormon literature." (Notice that both of these threats share the Internet in common.) The real threat is the system itself---and the empty sense of dissatisfaction created by its own hollow lack of substance.


In all seriousness, the correlation program is pretty close to being at the top of my list of deeply felt concerns about the church. I literally wept while listening to Part 2 of Daymon Smith's Mormon Stories interview in which he described his dissertation about the Correlation program. It's hard to describe why it made me so emotional, but it bothered me on a very personal, gut level. It felt like the Correlation program was almost intentionally designed to make the church a place that was inhospitable to intellectuals like me. It made me feel profoundly alienated and alone.

And it furthermore made me realize that the church wasn't the way it is today as the result of any kind of calculated conspiracy by the individuals at the top. (Not that I ever really believed it was anyhow.) Rather, the fault lies in the institutional system itself. I recognize that nearly every institution is deliberately created by human beings to serve some noble purpose or meet a need of some kind (Correlation included). But after a point, most institutional systems begin to take on a life of their own, transcending and defying the conscious intentions of any individuals that belong to the institution. That's what the Correlation program has become. To state it bluntly, I feel that it is an anti-intellectual, patriarchal force designed to keep church members under control by shutting down any productive, evidence-based dialogues that could effect change (and thereby potentially threaten the organization in its current form). It is the institutional system itself that is reprobate.

Up to that point (this was around the summer of 2010), I had believed I could find a way to remain in the church even though I no longer accepted its truth claims. I felt that perhaps I could be a catalyst for positive cultural change in my own small way. But the more I learned about the Correlation program and its incredibly far reach, the more I began to realize that trying to be a change agent in the church was like being Don Quixote. I do admit there is a certain beauty in the quixotic pursuit of noble, foolishly impossible dreams. And in that same vein, I actually have a lot of admiration for people who preach the gospel of Middle Way Mormonism. But at the end of the day, I think it's absurd to try to fight a windmill. And my level of tolerance for the absurd is fairly low these days.