I was reading Andrew S’s article about Joanna Brooks over at Wheat and Tares: Who Puts the Mormon in Mormon Girl? I’m good friends with SilverRain and I was enjoying her comments on this thread as the commenters all chime in what what they think it is about Mormonism that makes it have such a ‘psychic impression’ that a Joanna Brooks can stop believing in it doctrines and even its culture but still want to be fully involved in it. Here, she tells us herself why:
I went back to church so that my daughters could know the same loving, kind, and powerful God I was raised to believe in
It is too bad that the rest of the comments on the thread seem to not really seem to understand this. Instead they became bogged down with discussions about who isn’t or is a Mormon and how to best extend the ‘big tent’ to anyone that wants to belong and how people that believe in “The Church of Jesus Christ of People Just Like Me.” (Score one for Adam for correctly rebuffing this in comment #19.)
Is There Really a Mystery Here?
But is there really isn’t a mystery here why Joanna Brooks can’t leave Mormonism even if she can’t believe in it?
It seems to me that the attractiveness of Mormonism is actually apparent and very simple.
What makes Mormonism so attractive and powerful? Sacrificing for a literal belief!
If you are a believing Mormon then you see the Church organization and the people in the Church as a sort of instrument meant to take a certain message, meant for everyone, to the whole world. This message is called “The Restored Gospel”. As I’ve previously argued, the Church is the organism meant to replicate the message sent from a talking and very active God. The process of replicating that message is the source of meaning in the lives of the believers.
This is all so simple, it’s shocking that many people on Mormon blogs (of all walks) continually fail to understand this even though any believing Mormon — or really any believer of any religion — can easily explain it. In fact the Mormons even have these people called Missionaries with a bunch of ‘discussions’ where they will make it very clear that it’s their literal beliefs that drive them and give them meaning in their lives. This is the worst kept secret of all times.
What if You Don’t Believe In God?
Even if you want to start with the assumption that there is no God, nothing changes. I wrote about this a while back. The belief in a message from God meant for the world – even if you assume it’s just a delusion – is still an incredible experience that gives powerful meaning to people’s lives and even produces improved well-being. The power in religion has always been the idea that God has spoken to the world and has a message for the world. This is a truly inspiring and powerful message. For one that believes in the message, it is the most powerful source of meaning possible in life.
This is the difficult truth that atheists keep avoiding because it means that even if they are right that there is no God, all they ended up proving was that religion was actually better-than-true. Atheism is a zero value proposition and no amount of mocking by atheists can disguise that fact. That is why believers are healthier and happier on average than atheists. The truth will not set you free unless that truth is that God exists.
The Talking God of Mormonism
All surviving religions are effective as creating meaning in a believer’s life through literal belief — but is there anything special about Mormonism here? There seems to be. As one commenter (Jeff) pointed out, ex-Jews don’t obesse over the Jewish religion the way ex-Mormons often do after Mormonism.
Even a moment on Mormon themed websites — especially less believing or non-believing ones — quickly drives home the point that having once believed deeply in Mormonism, you can’t really ever give it up. You must stay in some way connected to it for the rest of your life. Why is this?
Again, the answer is remarkably simple. When it comes to making a powerful religious impression upon people, the LDS Church is the best bar none at producing an active and talking God in a person’s life. And people just can’t give up such a talking and active God for anything. We do not want to believe in a passive God.
When a once believing Mormon comes to doubt the doctrines they are forced to recapture as much as they can by become permanent commentators seeking how to ‘fix it’ so that it’s ‘better’ for ‘the margins’ (which often includes themselves). This act of trying to fix it becomes the new source of meaning in such a person’s life. They will dedicate untold hours to seek after it. They’ll become writers, podcasters, media pundits, playwrites, historians, and authors, and will basically do whatever is needed to replace what was lost. It would seem that this belief in an active and talking God is so powerful that it’s basically impossible to ever go backwards. If you lose it, you will do almost anything to recapture it. Ex-Mormons on the websites spend more time thinking and talking about Mormonism then do the average active Mormon precisely because their need is greater in this regard.
This is the real reason Joanna Brooks finds herself returning to Mormonism — the Mormon God is the most active and talking of all Gods and this is the one she wants her and her children to know. The rest of Mormonism she isn’t so sure about.
What Joanna has failed to see is that these two are not only connected — but they are one and the same. For what is it that makes the Mormon God so active and talking? It’s the very beliefs she is now not so sure about.
The Psychic Impression Left By Mormonism
In other words, the ‘psychic impression’ left by Mormonism is the powerful belief in an active and talking God who directly participates in one’s life. The historicity of the Book of Mormon and the belief in exclusive truth claims is not what hurts the LDS Church — it’s what made it into a religion in the first place and what continues to make it a religion worth existing.
Now, of course all religions believe in some type of exclusive turth claim. And frankly, all religions require sacrifices. So Mormonism isn’t unique in that sense. Nor should we be suprised that all religions leave various levels of psychic impressions for that very reason. It’s just that Mormonism leaves the impression stronger because of the literalness of its beliefs and because it’s a high sacrifice religion. And those two are not disconnected points either. A religion can only be high sacrifice if it has very strong literal beliefs worth sacrificing for.
All the Problems Are Easy to Define — It’s the Solutions That Are Hard to Find
Once you realize this, it’s very easy to sort out this entire discussion Andrew S started on W&T. Of course Joanna Books can’t truly ever leave Mormonism. She lost her faith in its literalness but still longs for how it made her feel back when she did literally believe in it. So her actions now all stem naturally from the need to keep that one aspect of Mormonism alive in her life when perhaps most of the rest has died.
Pay attention to what the media pundits actually do with their Mormonism. I would argue that a John Dehlin now believes God is talking directly to him about how the Church needs to change for the better. He is still seeking the talking God even while no longer sure God talks.
This is also why Andrew S — as an atheist — spends so much time trying to analyze Mormonism even though there is really so very little to analyze. It’s a way of staying connected to what was lost.
It’s why Dan Vogel (or fill-in-the-blank historian) will devote their lives to studying Mormon history and to freeing people from Mormonism and thereby are actually making sure they will not themselves be free of it. It’s why John Dehlin, after losing his faith in the literalness of Mormonism, has practically made a career out of trying to change Mormonism to be less literal in its beliefs — sadly never realizing the very things he’s trying to change, literalness of belief, is the source of the good parts he wishes to keep. So he is forever chasing his tail.
And even the entire DAMU league is really a group of people desperately trying to re-find what they lost when they left the Church by collectively choosing to keep a steady stream of bad (but actually exception-based) examples about how the Church hurts people to reassure themselves that they made the right choice and now they are really on the side of the literal talking God of the Mormons (though they may call him Ethics or Morality now.)
So, yes, one does not give up the psychic imprint made by the literal Mormon God. Ever. For those that fully experience it, its there for life. And frankly, it’s there by choice. We don’t give it up because we want it so badly.
Who’s a Mormon?
Consider now the forever debate over “who is or isn’t a Mormon?” Rationally, it’s obvious it shouldn’t matter because anyone can call themselves anything they want any time they want. But for some reason it does matter. Why?
But the answer here is again obvious now. The debate isn’t about whether a non-believing Mormon has a right to call themselves a Mormon. It’s about whether a believing Mormon has a right to call them a non-believing Mormon.
Practicing-but-not-believing-Mormons need a connection to literal belief — and thus literal believers — in a way that believing Mormons don’t need practicing-but-not-believing-Mormons. So the debate over “who is a Mormon?” is really an attempt to assert what moral duties believing Mormons have to practicing-but-not-believing Mormons. The debate is really over which moral duties are the right ones. That is why they are never really asserted as moral duties of non-believers to believers.
I wish we could save a lot of time by just admitting that the real discussion that needs to happen is around how to integrate a non-believing Mormon into a Church that is effective because it’s so literal in its beliefs. The dilemma is obvious once stated in this way and real solutions will only be found by understanding the real problem.
I suspect the reason people avoid really looking at the real problem is because there is no easy or even good answer here. For if you embrace practicing-but-not-believing-Mormons via a ‘big tent’ approach where all beliefs are treated equally, you kill the very thing that made Mormonism worth having in the first place. And by extension, you kill the very source of need that the practicing-but-not-believing Mormon need as well – the existence of literal belief. You make it into a club instead of a religion and it withers and dies.
But if you favor the believers over the non-believers – and this is what currently happens – it does leave out the practicing-but-not-believing members to some degree. So the need is real enough, but the answers won’t be found until we admit what the real problem is.
Book of Mormon Historicity
SilverRain, in the comments on the W&T post, suggests that a person that doesn’t believe in historicity of the Book of Mormon probably doesn’t really believe in the truth claims and beliefs of Mormonism. She suggests that one is really only a “believing Mormon” if they (tautologically) believe in it.
I have made that argument myself in the past. However, I will now admit (after talking to many friends on the Bloggernacle) I’ve come to accept that there are some exceptions. But one thing I’m sure about, its that we make this more complicated than we need to. SilverRain might not be right in every circumstances, but she is right about so many circumstances that it would be easier to talk about the exceptions rather than argue with her main point which is essentially correct.
And what is the main point? Again, it can actually be stated remarkably simply and without all the confusion people try to make it into. (Does it really matter if the translation is loose or not? Is this really just a matter of falling somewhere on a spectrum?)
Once you realize that it’s the literalness of belief that makes Mormonism the powerful experience that it is, you see immediately the problem with the Church ever giving up on the historicity of the Book of Mormon and trying to bring a message to the world of a fictional Book of Mormon.
Consider a hypothetical person that can accept a non-historical Book of Mormon while also accepting the Book as “inspired” but rejects that it’s a message for the rest of the world. Such a person is naturally going to struggle with the idea of a Church missionary program meant to take the Book of Mormon and the message of the Restoration to the rest of the world — even if they already have a religion. So our hypothestical person has therefore already undermined the two main sources of Mormonisms strength – a message from God meant for the whole world and the need to make sacrifices to take the message to the world.
For an ‘inspired but fiction’ approach for the Book of Mormon to really work comfortably in the Mormon religion it has to also believe that the Book of Mormon is still a message that God has commanded the whole world to accept. And here the dilemma is obvious now: how does one respond to the obvious problem of a God and Prophet that lies? (i.e. the Problem of the Plates.)
It’s Not About Being Mormon — It’s A Message To the Whole World
Yes, we are all Mormons. I have no doubt of this. But we are not all in favor of spreading the beliefs of the Church to the rest of the world. But the beliefs of the Church is the thing that is worth spreading about the Church. In fact, the Church exists for the beliefs and not the other way around.
Saying “no, the Church exists for the people” is a red herring. What the people come or return to Mormonism for again and again (even when they no longer believe) is the literal beliefs and the desire to make sacrifices for it. So for the Church to exist for the people it must exist for the literal beliefs. For what people want is to selflessly give their lives to the talking God.