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Why I Became a Mormon, part 1

Posted by nebula0 on October 16, 2008

At this point it seems appropriate to share a little of my story.  Things are always so much more interesting when given in some kind of personal context, at least they are for me.

Sociologists tell us that people are most likely to convert when they are at some kind of boundary which disassociates them from their own social networks.  So, adolescents first leaving home, those who have just moved to a new city, those who have just been divorced are all prime candidates.  Also, conversion tends to go hand in hand with the building of a new social network, people tend to become the religion of their new friends.  So it was that I converted after the first year I attended university, as predicted, but I broke the mold in that I came into the Mormon fold with no Mormon friends.

Here is what happened.  I grew up with no religion.  My parents didn’t talk about God at all, neither pro nor con religious belief.  My interest in religion seemed to arise spontaneously, I’m still not sure where it came from, as a teenager.  Like many teenagers, I became intensely interested in those Ultimate Questions: what is the meaning to life?  why does anything exist? and so on.  My answer to that question took two forms, an interest in physics as the most basic of sciences and an interest in religious belief.  I figured that the real way to answer this question was through the most fundamental of sciences, in which I could understand and approve of every step and through which I could touch the deepest structures of reality.  I determined that I would become a physicist and answer my questions. 

On the other hand, I was intensely curious as to how others answered the Ultimate Questions and began to study religious beliefs.  I read through the Bhagavad Gita, Rig Veda, Tao te Ching, Qur’anand ultimately the Bible (among others)- in the limited way available to an adolescent just starting out the process of scholarship.  My initial curiosity then fed into my obsession with debate.  My interest in religion took another form too, that of a deep desire to talk to God.  I can’t explain where this came from without invoking the existence of God.  I didn’t want to believe in God, I thought it was foolish and weak, and yet I felt a physical pressure on my chest and in my hands to pray.  I had to fight it.  I remember finally giving into the temptation one night, on my hands and knees begging for forgiveness and having the most extraordinary experience.  I felt weightless and my whole body tingled.  I felt lifted off the ground as if the hand of God were wrapped around me.  The next day I was so embarrassed at myself, I vowed that I would not pray unless I actually, really believed.  So I suppressed my urges for years.

When I went to the university to study physics I brought with it my secret obsession with religion.  Every chance I got I would debate Christians, street preachers, students.   I would challenge them all to prove to me that God existed and I quickly learned the basic four proofs for the existence of God and the holes in them all.  In fact it was through an evangelical sponsored event that I first ran into the Mormons.  All week evangelicals on campus gathered to a certain location to talk to other students about their religion, and so I came, every day, for hours.  I challenged them all to prove to me God exists.  Finally, on the last day, as I was about to leave, Mormon missionaries showed up.  I made my way over to them, curious.  I didn’t know much about Mormonism then and wanted to learn.  I asked them to prove to me that God existed, and I remember being impressed that they told me that they couldn’t.  I agreed to take the lessons, just to see what Mormonism was all about.

part 2 is coming…


Posted in My Experiences, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Conversion: More thoughts on brainwashing

Posted by nebula0 on October 9, 2008

It seems as though those unfamiliar with Mormonism just cannot get over the feeling that only brainwashed fools would become Mormons.  They point to the ‘strange’ belief system, the hierarchical, centralized authority, and all of the sacrifices which are necessary to become Mormons.  I’ve pointed out previously that Mormons (to make things simple, let’s focus on the LDS today) partly bring this on themselves by refusing to talk about and poorly explaining many elements of Mormon theology.  The LDS church sells itself as Christianity Plus, Christianity plus the Book of Mormon, to outsiders, when the reality is that there is quite a bit more to it.  When outsiders find out about the little extras the LDS church isn’t explicit about, from temple ceremonies to the nature of deity, outsiders make their judgements not only on the fact that the beliefs and rituals of Mormonism are strange (unusual) but that the LDSchurch appears to these outsiders to be hiding things.  This is never a good combination of elements.  Let’s, for a moment, assume that the LDS church simply doesn’t know how to explain itself well, and that’s why it doesn’t get explicit with outsiders.  This, by the way, is what I believe to be the case.  The LDS church is run by businessmen, not trained theologians, and they are afraid that if they get too deeply into the theology that they’ll be misunderstood, which is understandable.  They probably would be.  But, back to the topic at hand, how does a rational, normal person become a Mormon?  No matter how odd the belief system and rituals seem to you, try for a moment to really understand how this could happen without jumping to the conclusion that because it doesn’t make sense to you at this moment, therefore the only option is brainwashing.

First of all, what is conversion?  It is the process by which a person moves from one overarching worldview to another.  Simple enough.  But how does this process occur?  How does someone go from being an atheist say, to a born again Christian?  Let’s look at things from an atheist worldview: the scientific method reigns supreme, the only reality is empirical reality, physical phenomena which can be observed.  The supernatural, by definition of being above the natural, does not fit this category and is therefore unreal and belief in it irrational.  For an atheist, for whom the only reality is that which is empirically demonstrable, to become a born again Christian is a momentous change of world views.  For a born again Christian, the ultimate reality that matters is the category of the saved vs the unsaved persons because the eternal, real drama is the ultimate destination of every person to heaven or to hell.  Those who enter heaven are those who have accepted their status as sinner vis a vis an eternal, perfect God and that they cannot dwell in the presence of a perfect holy God as a sinner and are therefore destined for Hell.  Out of this sad realization is the joyful one that God incarnate, Christ, has made a way for the sinner to go to heaven simply by trusting in him and accepting him as one’s personal savior.  For the atheist reality is the physical universe and the striving to understand how the mechanical universe operates, for the born again Christian reality is all about ultimate affiliation- are you committed to Christ or not? all else is scruples.

Only when you think about how utterly different these worldviews are will you be sufficiently amazed at a true conversion from one to another.  You might come to the conclusion that any paradigm shift of this magnitude must involve brainwashing, especially if you happen to be an atheist who thinks anyone who believes in a supernatural existence is irrational.  But any number of ways of thinking and social circumstances can create a passageway in the mind of an individual to consider other possibilities.  Simply meditating on the ultimate meaning of life, the meaning of death and the meaning of existence itself can prime an atheist to consider the possibility that there is some kind of existence beyond the natural.  An atheist might be in a socially unstable position as an adolescence who has just left home, someone in a perfect place to completely reinvent his or herself, for it is a known fact that having extensive social networks in place is the most likely way a person will remain faithful to their worldview, whether atheist, Christian, pagan, or whatever, so disruption of the social network often precedes a radical worldview shift.

Once the possibility is opened in the mind of an atheist, the next step is interaction with born again words.  Ultimately, conversion is about appropriating a way of thinking- a way of speaking- which reflects a new reality.  Atheism has a particular language with certain key phrases which pinpoints a person as an atheist, likewise do born again Christians.  Through extensive interaction with born again Christians who attempt through evangelizing to get prospective converts to appropriate their language, to begin to think about themselves as sinners in need of a savior, to begin to ‘hear the Holy Spirit’, an atheist may, unwittingly, begin to think of the world in these terms.  This process is no more brainwashing than you can describe any process of education as brainwashing.  A similar process happens in any classroom when an instructor attempts to open up a new dimension of reality to his or her students through teaching them a new language, whether that language happens to be that of math, science, history or Spanish.  It’s how we humans share our findings with each other, and in this case, the born again Christians are trying to share their findings with the listening atheist.  Conversion is completed when the atheist is not only a listener of born again rhetoric, but has become a speaker of the same rhetoric (and, to be fair, the same thing can and does happen in reverse as well).

It is this same process which brings a non Mormon to Mormonism.  Missionaries teach prospective converts the peculiar language of Mormonism, inviting the listener to think of the world in terms of Mormon-ese.  If the listener accepts the challenge of listening, he or she will find themselves challenged to think of the world in Mormon terms, and may find themselves speaking about it in Mormon terms.  When the language has been appropriated and made their own, conversion is complete.  The baptism, by that point, is icing on the cake.  Actions naturally follow once the new understanding of the cosmos is appropriated.  Conversion to Mormonism happens in the ordinary way, the same way conversion happens from atheism to born again Christianity (or vice versa).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a relativist.  I don’t think all choices are equal (see my “Why Does Anything Exist?” post for example).  Some worldview languages better reflect the way reality really is than others.  I’m not entirely sure what Real Reality looks like, but I do not think Mormonism is an accurate reflection, which is why I ultimately experienced mental tension and de-conversion.  Though I kept trying to describe my experiences of the world in Mormon terms, I increasingly found Mormonese to be a clumsy language to describe the world, the more I thought about things.  I ultimately realized that I no longer thought about the world in Momonese except on a superficial level and therefore was, for all real purposes, no longer a Mormon.  No one had to do a brainwashing intervention for this to happen, I simply attempted to experience my expanding world as a Mormon and experienced failure in the attempt.

I invite all readers of the blog to set aside insulting, and unecessary, accusations that Mormons are brainwashed and therefore, unlike the rest of us, unable to think clearly.  That is an unnecessary and counterproductive assumption.  If you really want to convert Mormons, take the time to understand Mormonese and communicate with Mormons effectively.  Show them why their Mormon ways of approaching the universe, using Mormonese, do not sufficiently account for their experiences of the world.  Create a rift in their langauge of the world, and their experience of the world, and then show them a way of thinking which better fits the reality of the universe.  By simply getting frustrated that Mormons don’t immediately see how your way of thinking about the unvierse is superior and so claiming that Mormons must be brainwashed, the only thing that you are proving is your own laziness and inability to communicate effectively.

Posted in sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Cult of Motherhood

Posted by nebula0 on October 8, 2008

The men and women Puritans who settled America worked side by side in small family farms.  There was, to be sure, a division of labor, but husbands and wives normally saw each other often during the day.  The Calvinist theology they held preached that both men and women were depraved sinners desperately in need of Christ’s grace.  If anything, women were viewed as snares to men, as Eve was a snare to Adam, so that husbands needed to carefully watch and manage their wives as heads of their house.  It was women in these times who were the sexual beings needed managing, not men.  If that surprises you, it’s no doubt because you too have been indoctrinated into the cult of Motherhood.  In the cult of Motherhood, women, mothers in particular, are creatures close to the angels, pure and spiritual, and through their very presence in the household civilize their men.  How did women go from being sexual temptress to asexual angel?  And, considering this is a blog about Mormonism, what does any of this have to do with Mormonism?

The change happened primarily with the Industrial Revolution.  Men and women no longer labored side by side on their small family farms or running their small businesses from their homes, now men went to the factory or the office and the wife stayed home to tend to the children.  The doctrine of the spheres came into being: the proper sphere of men is the public one, the world of business and industry, the proper sphere of women is the private one, home and family.  Men began to imagine that Industry and Business were cruel and harsh worlds, that they had to become uncivilized warriors of sorts to go and tame it.  Yes, perhaps they put on a suit and did paper work all day, but it was a world of rough morality and cutthroat action nonetheless, suited to their rugged masculinity.  The home became envisioned as a place of rest from the rough and tumblel work place, a place with the calming influence of a loving wife.  Women now were portrayed as naturally more spiritual than men, more moral and less sexual.  The less that men had interactions with women, the more women were put on a pedestal because the more that men could erect fantasies about their wives’ purity.  The private sphere became exalted as the cornerstone of societal morality, and wives as the guardians of morality.  If men were to succeed in business, they would have to dirty their hands, their wives on the other hands, would keep their homes clean physically and spiritually.  This began to backfire when women, encouraged by slogans promoting their moral and spiritual superiority to men, began to take over their churches and enter the public sphere in order to purify society as a whole.  There was a backlash against this as the nascent fundamentalist movement reemphasized the masculinity of Christianity, but mainline Protestantism never did get women out of the church committees.  The cult of Motherhood survives and flourishes in many corners of conservative Christianity.

So, how was Mormonism affected by these changes?  As Mormons began to seek greater respectability with the larger American culture at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th C they began to embrace these trends.  The most obvious example is the Manifesto of 1890 officially ending the practice of polygamy, and the actual suppression of polygamy by the LDS church within a decade of the 20th C.  Interestingly, the practice of polygamy (plural marriage) initially had an insulating affect against the Victorian ethos of putting women at home.  Mormon women were already flaunting Victorian morality in the first place, and were excluded from respectable society for even accepting polygamy even if they didn’t personally practice it.  As a result, Mormon women fashioned their own culture, including one that gave their organization within the LDS church, the Relief Society, great autonomy.  Many polygamous wives used the freedom they had through having helping sister wives to campaign for women’s suffrage (Utah was the first to grant women the right to vote) or to go to college.  Women gave each other blessings and learned to look after one another.  That’s not to say that polygamy wasn’t a hard way of life, but a result of the way of life had unexpected benefits too.

When Mormonism began to embrace the larger culture, suppress polygamy and accept the larger standards of morality, the advances that Mormon women had also crumbled.  Mormon women were encouraged to stay at home, and the Relief Society lost more and more autonomy with time.  In short, Mormonism embraced with special vigor the cult of Motherhood.  This is partly why Mormonism is not in a position at this time to grant women the priesthood: the priesthood has to do with the nitty gritty running of the ecclesiastical organization, women have a more lofty position that shouldn’t get itself distracted with the operations of power.  The majority of Mormon men want to continue to be able to experience their wives as selfless angels doing the direct work of heaven rather than face the reality that perhaps their wives might enjoy the same kind of base pleasures such as public power that they do.

The cult of Motherhood may seem on the surface to be a boon to women.  Who doesn’t want to be seen as nearly supernaturally good by nature?  But the result has been reduced autonomy of women’s organizations and increased sequestering of women away from the public sphere.  Women who ascribe to the cult of Motherhood soon find that they have to live up to these expectations of angelic proportions, or at least make an appearance of it, and suppress whatever human urges they have for public power and increased recognition.  The cult of Motherhood does serve them in a practical sense, encouraging their men to provide for them and their children, and to protect them, in a way that perhaps would not happen if the cult did not exist.  So, women find themselves in a bind, to continue to suppress that part of them for serious respect and public recognition, or to deal with the possibility of less security, financial and otherwise, that is found with their men who especially ascribe to the cult.  This is a very real dilemma, and many rational, intelligent women have decided to opt for the security for themselves and their children in a world in which men no longer feel bond by societal constraints to stay with their ‘first’ wives and provide fully financially and temporally for their children.

Posted in Historical Thoughts, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Nicety Niceness

Posted by nebula0 on September 26, 2008

Let me state from the outset that my purpose here is not to argue that Mormons are meaner than anyone else.  I don’t think that.  What I am going to argue though is that Mormons aren’t nicer than anyone else either.  I’d say if you could get into the heads of Mormons you’d discover that they are thoroughly human, no nicer or meaner than any other large group of people.

Now if you don’t know about Mormonism, the above might seem trivial to you, but consider this, when people talk about knowing Mormons, what is one of the things they are bound to share?  Probably something like: oh, they are so nice!  Now this was my reaction when I first got involved with the Mormon community, first as an investigator then as a new member.  It wasn’t the primary reason I got involved, but I thought they were some of the nicest people on the planet.  So what changed my mind?  Experience, that’s all, and not even bad, traumatic experience or anything like that.  Just everyday experience with lots of Mormons all over.  This is my discovery: what I call nicety niceness is a cultural element.  It’s like saying please and thank you if you are a polite person.  Mormon culture obligates people to avoid conflict (because, contention is of the devil, after all), and just be nice.  The Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints take this to an extreme with their women whose motto is “keep sweet”, a phrase which helps illuminate the larger Mormon culture.  So, smiling, avoiding contentious topics, a sense of eagerness, all of that are a part of what it is to be polite in Mormonism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the inner attitudes of those speaking.  Why would I say this, you might ask.  The reason is because I’ve seen people be nicety nice to someone, and whether male or female, turn around and immediately gossip about them.  Actually this happened, well, a lot.  At first it was discouraging to me to realize that Mormons weren’t as nice as I thought, but then it was something of a relief to know that they weren’t robots after all.  Another thing I observed is that if one Mormon wanted to get someone else to do something, or find out why they are inactive, or cover some other potentially contentious ground, they tend to go round and round but never actually touch the topic they wanted to get to or only get there after ten minutes of nicety.  As you can imagine, this tends to lead to plenty of passive aggressiveness.  Mormons who have a problem bottle it up and take it out in bizarre ways, such as the cold shoulder.

In short, if you are going to become a Mormon, one of the best things you can do is be someone not afraid of a little conflict because then you can get away with doing whatever you want.  Chances are, no one will quite know how to deal with that.  I much prefer just coming out and saying whatever it is you mean, even if it isn’t nicety.  I’m certain that this is one of the major reasons Mormons think everyone else is so darned mean because in other Christian cultures (especially the reformed, I’ve noticed) it isn’t considered rude at all to “state things as you see them”.  So you’ll see Mormons and some kind of other Christian apologists going back and forth, the Mormons aghast that someone would be so darned mean, and why are they trying to pull other people down and and… while the Christian apologist starts to accuse the Mormon of being brainwashed because why else would they avoid the topic?  and both sides don’t get it.  In Mormon culture you have to be nicety nice to have effective communication, no matter how distasteful or simply annoying you may personally find it.  If you don’t, the other person assumes you are a rude brute, that doesn’t mean that they are brainwashed or anything else, it means that you are ineffectively communicating with Mormonism.

How did this all come about?  A few things: Mormons are supposed to be really, really happy.  It’s part of the gospel in Mormonism, man is that he might have joy.  If you are not happy, then you aren’t doing something right.  Hence, act happy, all of the time (and plenty of Mormons are not afraid of taking anti depressants either, however you want to interpret the fact, Utah is the anti depressant capital of the country– I don’t think Mormons are any more, or less happy than the average outside person either).  For example, take the saying that goes something like “no outside success can compensate for failure at home”- family harmony and happiness is considered in the complete control of the parents, particularly the father and so if it lacking it is all his fault, so darn it, act happy.   Another element is that there ought to be total harmony amongst the Saints, after all, they are part of the one true church on the face of the planet led by a living prophet.  Contention, any contention, is from Satan.

hmm, if I think of anymore background elements I will add them, feel free to add your input too.

Posted in Reflections, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Paradoxes of Authority in Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on September 25, 2008

Mormonism has at its heart a tension between the concept of free agency and that of authority.  This tension plays itself out in Mormon life on all levels, between a democratic impulse and an authoritarian one, between personal revelation and the strict levels of the priesthood with their respective domains.  What makes any tension like this interesting is the fact that the practitioners are not consciously aware of it playing out, they hold fast to the notion of freedom and authority simultaneously, privileging one element or the other as the situation demands.  How did such a tension of opposites come about in a single religious system?  What is the theology which supports these ideas in a single system? What are the implications?

Mormonism was born in a colorful time of American history, and more specifically, a turbulent time of American Christianity.  As any beginning student of Mormonism is aware, it was a product of the Second Great Awakening in American religious life, a time of large revivals, a time of itinerant preachers, a time of anxiety of one’s salvation.  Joseph Smith’s account of his seeking religious guidance in his First Vision accounts all point to the confusion that this could have on Americans involved (check out the canonized version of his story here: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/contents).  The area Joseph grew up in in upper New York was known as the Burnt Out District because of the all of the revivals that had come through.  Joseph, having been exposed to the views of many preachers, became concerned about the state of his own salvation and that concern led directly to his First Vision.  These revivals were directly influenced by American values such as freedom and individual rights which preachers on the vanguard of the movement had internalized and used to rebel against Puritan Calvinism which was once so influential.  This in turn influenced the church Joseph was to form, evidenced in terms such as “President of the church” and the practice of the body of members to sustain leadership.  Joseph’s environment leaves a deep mark in Mormonism’s basic theological notion of free agency and the American value of free enterprise and ability for anyone to rise in the system finds its most exuberant expression in Mormonism’s eternal progression which allows for any person to become a god or goddess.

Joseph soon found that this impulse to freedom and rising in the ranks would have a negative effect on the cohesion of the church he founded.  Soon, not only Joseph was getting revelation, but many others in the early Mormon community were as well, and their revelations undermined the authority of Joseph.  It was at this moment that the notion of priesthood authority was refined and its proper domains categorized.  So it was that only the Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church, Joseph Smith, could have revelation pertaining to the entire church (as well as the globe, incidentally).  Other church authorities could have more circumscribed authority, patriarchs could have revelation pertaining to their family, and women revelation pertaining to their own limited spheres.  Not only was this priesthood authority conceptualized to order life on mortal earth, but also to extent to the eternities and order the life of the gods. So it is that our heavenly father will always have authority over us, even if we attain godhood ourselves and women are said to become priestesses and queens to their husbands, while the men become priests and kings to God.  The domains of the priesthood find their most unit in the family structure, which is envisioned to be the fundamental order of intelligent beings throughout all eternity.

The implications of these two elements in tension, personal revelation for all on one hand, rigid church authority on the other; free agency on one hand, the necessity to enter into binding covenants to progress on the other plays itself out in interesting ways in ordinary Mormon life.  Take for instance the practice of sustaining leaders.  Mormons are asked at various meetings to show their support for their leadership and also show support for sundry callings that every active Mormon will accept. The opportunity is also available for any member to express opposition to any leader or calling during these occasions.  The interesting thing is, it is culturally taboo to express dissent to what is understood to be an inspired decision.  So it is that in all my years as a Mormon I have never seen anyone dissent, and if you ask around, many other Mormons active all their lives have never seen anyone dissent and of those who have, it is usually just once or twice that they have seen it.  The notion of personal revelation is satisfied through going through the motions of sustaining and at least hypothetically allowing for dissent, while the reality of rigid church structure through which inspired bishops and stake presidents make their personnel choices is played out in the reality that opposition by other members is very rarely expressed.

Perhaps you, readers, have other examples.  Anyone care to share?

Posted in Historical Thoughts, sociological thoughts, Theological Thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

The Exclusivism of Mormon Truth Claims

Posted by nebula0 on September 22, 2008

All this talk about whether or not Mormonism is a part of Christianity, or whether or not Mormons can be Christians got me thinking about this from another angle.  This goes back to my original question: why are Mormons so concerned about whether or not the conservative Christian community accepts them as Christians?  This question is quickly complicated when you take into account the fact that Mormons proclaim themselves to be members of the one and only true church on the face of the planet, the only church with the authority to baptize, the church to which one must belong and be a faithful member of if you want to have eternal life.  Given the exclusivism of those truth claims, is it so surprising that the conservative Christian community reacts?  -particularly given that Mormon theology is truly different.  Are Mormons really passive victims of a smear campaign, or is it time that they own up to their complicity in this problem?  I vote for the latter. 

Mormons, acknowledge that you preach exclusivist truth claims, truth claims which are truly unique as compared to normative/traditional Christianity.  By putting that forth on the table from the start, perhaps a fruitful discussion about where and how Mormonism fits into the Christian world can begin.

Posted in Basic Background, Controversial Topics, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

More Thoughts on Mormonism as a Rational Choice

Posted by nebula0 on September 20, 2008

My original post on this topic created a big debate, so I wanted to expand the discussion.  This issue isn’t restricted to whether or not someone can rationally become a Mormon, no the issue is a much bigger one, which is, how much responsibility do we have for our choices?  Our entire judicial system depends on the notion that we are rational agents making choices that we can be held accountable for.  When “anti-cult ministries” label groups they have deep disagreements with as brainwashing cults, what they are doing is setting a precedence that undermines our entire way of life.  That’s right, I said it.  If someone can be so easily malleable as to have their ability to make choices stripped from them by a couple of teenagers dressed up in cheap suits running the standard “commitment pattern” on them, how can that same person be trusted to be a rational member of society?  Such a person, with their rationality so easily suppressed, ought to be locked up, because next thing you’ll know they’ll go on a murdering spree because the latest movie they saw glorified it.  As to Mormon “love bombing”, the same thing happens in churches across the nation.  I’ve seen it first hand, people notice a newcomer, they often go out of their way to make that person feel welcome with the ulterior motive of converting that person.  Once I showed up at a BBQ only to find out it was a church sponsored event that included prayer and plenty of befriending.  The same thing happened to my roommate at the university who was personally befriended by a woman only for her to try to get her saved.  I suppose every church that encourages its members to reach out and be nice to people while at the same time maintaining the ultimate goal of converting whoever seems open to the possibility is now a brainwashing cult.  Is that right?  How far do we want to go?

I argue that we are becoming a nation of softies.  It’s not enough to make alcoholism a disease, now people can be addicted to food, or addicted to shopping, and claim they have no control over their actions.  “It wasn’t my fault, I had PMS, I was on a sugar rush, I was drunk,…”  This way of thinking has directly influenced those “Christian anti-cult ministries” who label Mormons as brainwashed, they literally think that people are that easy to control.  I say enough of this nonsense.  We all make bad choices, wrong choices, choices that we look back on them and think “that was so stupid, why did I do that?”  It’s part of being human, but that doesn’t excuse us either.  I say, take responsibility for your choices and learn from them.

I know that trying to leave Mormonism is more difficult for others than, for example, me.  But there are plenty of ‘mes’ out there, converts who stick around for 7 years or so, some who go so far as to serve a mission, get married in the temple, some who never even make it through the temple, who are leaving.  Mormonism isn’t alone in this, this is common to all religions, including Christianity.  People fall away once they fully taste what they’ve gotten themselves into.  Likewise, I see plenty of people who left once they passed 18 or so, having been raised in the church, deeply bitter.  Why?  Really, why waste time and energy, particularly if you happen to be 38 now?  Twenty years is a long time to ‘get over it’ (what exactly are you getting over, anyway?).  But then again, there are people born and raised, who have served missions, married in the temples, and raised families in the church, who have come to the sad conclusion that the whole thing is traceable to a series of lies told by a single  person.  Yes, I know individuals in this category too, and I agree that this is much harder.  Even so, this is a condition that anyone can find themselves in, in any group.  Mormonism, I suppose, makes this condition more likely by its emphasis on family ties and its concentrations of members in the Mormon corridor.  Even so, should we call such people victims?  They could leave, no one would shoot them, it’s just hard.  Even really hard.  They are not victims.

What I am saying is that Mormonism is just another religion.  There are lots of them out there, you know.

Posted in Controversial Topics, sociological thoughts | Tagged: , , , , | 27 Comments »

Can Mormonism be a Rational Choice?

Posted by nebula0 on September 10, 2008

This is revisiting a theme I’ve already visited on this site, but this isn’t the last time I’ll discuss this issue.  There are intelligent, thoughtful people who are Mormons, and not just that, they are intelligent and thoughtful about their religious choice.  Many people who are not familiar with Mormonism and looking at it for the first time often think it’s so kooky that no reasonable person would be a Mormon.  Likewise, embittered ex Mormons sometimes come to a similar conclusion when looking back on their own involvement “How did I believe that?”  But what I want to demonstrate is that weirdness is a relative quality and it is possible for a completely level headed person to willingness choose to be a Mormon.

First, about weirdness:  All of Christianity is rather strange, if you think about it from an objective standpoint.  It was certainly weird to the Jews who first encountered it two thousand years ago.  What kind of Messiah is nailed to a cross and killed?  Christianity is such an integral part of our culture now, that we are all used to the idea and therefore it is no longer weird.  Weirdness simply means something not known, literally, something that is strange and new to us.  Mormonism, for non Mormons, is certainly full of uniqueness and strangeness, and it is human nature to label something like that as… well… weird.  For some this acts as a lure, for most, as a deterrent.  With repeated exposure to these ideas, and meeting many others who hold strange ideas, strange ideas and practices cease to be strange.

Part of this Mormonism brings upon itself as the LDS church, the largest group of Mormons, tends to make strange ideas doubly suspicious to outsiders by avoiding talking about them.  The most obvious example is the rituals of the temple of course (which is why I posted my temple experiences online), but also other ideas such as exaltation (the notion of humans becoming gods and goddesses).  In an attempt to avoid the appearance of weirdness, the LDS church has taken the tact of painting itself as just another Christian church, with the addition of the Book of Mormon, that’s it.  “Good people, strong families, look, we believe in Christ!”  This is a terrible approach to take because when people inevitably do find out about the elements that the LDS church attempts to downplay those elements now take on not only a strange quality, but suspicious because they are kept hidden.  Hence, the LDS church puts itself in a bind- it wants so badly to be viewed as normal that it downplays its more unique doctrines and practices, which makes it appear even more not normal to others because 1. people need repeated exposure to strange ideas and practices for them to cease to be strange and keeping things hidden hinders that process and 2.  hiddenness immediately makes things suspect.

Okay, so we’ve discussed the strangeness issue of Mormonism.  Now let’s look at how people can rationally choose to be Mormons.  Mormonism has a lot to offer prospective members- instant community; instant unique and strong identities; strong sense of meaning and purpose with life goals laid out; a way to view the cosmos and how one fits in with it; unique access to the cosmos.  By listening to many others who testify that Mormonism is ‘true’, and by being trained to ‘listen to the spirit’ by earnest, young missionaries, prospective members are also given an epistemological path to embracing Mormonism’s truth claims and therefore accessing all of the benefits I just mentioned (ultimately I think that path is insufficient, but that’s another post).  Likewise, it is true that we don’t always understand our own motives, and often in the attempt to be like our friends we accept their beliefs without really coming to that conclusion through thorough thinking.  But, that doesn’t constitute brainwashing, that is common to all of humanity and is simply part of our social nature.

In conclusion, while I would argue that Mormonism is not true, that there are far too many flaws in its truth claims, and while I have many critiques of its communities and church organization, that should not blind me to the fact that people choose, perfectly rationally, to become Mormons.  Just because someone is basing their decisions on what I argue is skewed or bad information, doesn’t mean that person isn’t trying to sift through the information.  Just because someone has what I consider ultimately a bad line of argument, doesn’t mean that they are incapable of argument.  We need to grow up and realize that disagreement, deep disagreement, does not automatically suggest that the other person does not have a brain, or must have a lower IQ than we do.  If we think their arguments are bad, then we should point out how so and not revert to cop out claims of brainwashing which ultimately demonstrates our lack of ability to express our disagreements, not the other side’s inability to think.

I want to add a person postscript to this.  When I was a Mormon, I had a well thought out defense of my faith.  I took the time to learn about the history, to learn about the apologetics arguments pro and con, about how Mormonism differed from other religious systems and so on.  I was being a rational person.  All of my arguments however, were built on a false presupposition, and once I uncovered it and discovered it to be false, I knew the arguments I had refined were no good.  I know many of you Mormons out there will think, “that’s so sterile, what about the Spirit?  DIdn’t the spirit testify anything to you?”  Yes, I thought it did, but here’s the thing.  There is no such thing as pure experience.  As soon as you identify your experience from God, from the Spirit, testifying of something, you’ve entered the realm of arguments because you’re applying concepts to your experiences.  How do you know those concepts are valid?  You have to investigate them.  That’s why as my conceptual structure changed as I investigated and learned, so did my understanding of my experiences.

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More Thoughts on Mormonism’s Success

Posted by nebula0 on September 4, 2008

In my last post about this topic, “Why is Mormonism Successful,” I suggested that one major reason for Mormonism’s success can be attributed to its ability to generate meaning through concertizing identity.  Hence, the sacrifices that Mormonism asks of its adherents serves not as a deterrent to growth, but rather increases its appeal to those hunger for real meaning in their lives.

What are some other reasons for Mormonism’s success?  One thing that is a great stabilizer for Mormons is their social network.  I mean that in the sense that even if an individual Mormon goes through a period of great doubt, the single most important thing that will keep him in is his Mormon friends and family.  This is the greatest predictor, by the way, of whether or not a new member will remain in the church- do they have Mormon friends?  The LDS church realizes this by the way, which is why it put policies in effect to try to ensure that every new member meets plenty of Mormons on a regular basis through Home and Visiting teachers, ward missionaries and so forth.  Because Mormon identity tends to set them apart socially, excluding them from coffee drinking and after work beer, excluding them from rated R movies (at least some Mormons), and also because Mormonism requires so much time from any individual active Mormons, Mormons tend to befriend other Mormons primarily.  That makes it that much more difficult to sever those ties to leave the LDS church, but also makes it that much more rewarding to be a Mormon in a mobile and disconnected society.

Anything else?

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Why is Mormonism Successful?

Posted by nebula0 on September 3, 2008

Very few new religions succeed though they are started every day.  People getting revelations, visits from angels, visits from God himself are not exactly uncommon events so not surprisingly one of the favorite questions that religion scholars ask is: what makes for a successful new religion?  Why Christianity and not one of the other many Jews claiming Messiahship during that turbulent time of Christ?  Why Mormonism out of that fervent time of the Second Great Awakening out of all of the other revival movements?  The faithful will answer: because it’s true, because God ensures the success of his religion and so on, but what if we put aside the question of truth for a second and look at things as if God weren’t involved.  What does Mormonism have to offer?

For many Mormonism may not look like an attractive offer.  Joining the LDS church requires a time and money commitment (three hours on Sunday plus time doing callings, 10% tithing), obeying the law of chastity (no sex outside of marriage, including masturbation), obeying the Word of Wisdom (no coffee, tea, alcohol or tobacco, though many Mormons substitute Coke or Mountain Dew), not working on Sundays and if you become temple endowed the wearing of undergarments which for women means no sleeveless clothing.  Besides this, the truth claims of the religion are rather unusual when compared to majority of other successful religions– sure, claiming that God incarnate died and was resurrected is rather strange, but that was supposed to happen thousands of years ago and people are used to the idea by now.  There are other things to add to the list but this is a good place to start.  So why in the world would anyone want to do this?  Many people stop there and assume that the only reason anyone would be interested is if they were brainwashed because it seems so unreasonable, no rational person would subject themselves to it.  The faithful might look at this as evidence of divine intervention; no one would want to make these sacrifices unless the spirit told them the whole thing is true.  But, what if their are worldly benefits to these restrictions?  I argue that there are.

One thing that Mormonism offers in abundance is identity.  These restrictions make Mormons stand out like a sore thumb in certain circumstances (think of going drinking with your buddies after work, think about trying to find an attractive evening gown, and so on).  There are innumerable opportunities for Mormons to feel, well, Mormon.  Think about this for a second, how exciting this can be.  It gives people a sense of purpose and mission in the world that is reiterated day after day every time a Mormon turns down a cup of coffee or dons garments or attends the temple.  They are a part of a real people, set apart, a peculiar  people.  I think of this attraction akin to the attraction that role playing games have over people- Mormonism posits the existence of an alternative universe in which there are elaborate rules and secret knowledge.  Mormons know that they alone have the ‘fullness of the gospel’ that they alone are a part of the church with the full authority of Christ, that in the last days they will be the ones to say ‘aha, told you we were right, now let us help you’.  Mormons aren’t the only ones touting this appeal, but they make it concrete in the daily lives of members with rules to organize everyday life.  Mormonism is great at making mundane life meaningful and significant.

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