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No, Mormonism can NOT be like Judaism. Mormonism is a religion

November 21, 2010

The BloggernacleI love reading Bloggernacle articles that try to come up with explanations for why people leave the church or what can be done about it. And the current edition — the disaffecting youth — is no exception.

I’ve slowly learned not to try posting in these discussions, because I’m not really wanted anyway, but also because I’m not really the target audience. It might seem to be the case: I’m pretty young (20), I’ve just left home recently to go to college (graduating in 2011, actually), and I have indeed drifted from the church.

And yet, I am not the target audience. I cannot really provide insights here. Why is that?

I know that it’s a well-known psychological bias that most people think of themselves as exceptional. And yet, what I’ve come to realize is that most ex-Mormons on the internet (especially me) are, if not exceptional, at least quite different from the average person who drifts away from the church.

I’ve played around with this idea before. What if the stereotypes about people who leave the church are true? What if they are just being lazy or just desiring to sin? What if the fact is that when people talk about those who “leave the church,” they don’t mean the narrow subset of people who found out some terrible factoid or who had some issue with the theology and who now talk about it on the internet?

(I note that there was a great response to my above article. It may not be that people are lazy; maybe they leave because they are bored.)

Anyway, as usually happens in these contemplative discussions by the faithful…the disaffected parts of the community became aware of the latest BCC topic and began to offer their own insight.  When this happens, I can generally understand why sites like BCC aren’t really open to every commenter (even though, maybe it’s my bias poking through…but I don’t believe I’m that bad of a guy.)

The former Mormons who end up posting end up posting really cringe-worthy things. “I left because I eventually realized that reasoning, science, and facts are better than prayer/fasting.” (But then again, I cringe when anyone assumes that “reasoning” directs any particular way. Really, different premises lead to different conclusions.)

Or

I left because I discovered the blatant inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the church.

Or (and here’s the winner for the blunt-ness award)

Maybe people leave because they realize the church is *obviously* based on a collection of lies and is run by morally bankrupt businessmen?”

I’m not going to say these are dumb reasons to leave. But I don’t think the average 16 – 25 year old member is going to know (or care) about any of that. The problem is realizing that the average 16 – 25 year old is not an honor student who loves to read and is proficient with surfing the internet.

And of course, there are plenty of people who are well aware of the issues of the church, yet stay. Many of whom are also honor students who love to read and are proficient with surfing the internet, but oh well. (Of course, I can anticipate what many former members would say to this.)

…Notwithstanding all of that stuff, I think there were some interesting insights into the issue. Many members highlighted the social role of the ward community — both its positive roles when it is good and its negative roles when it is alienating. I tend to think that for many people, a supportive community is going to matter far more than whether doctrine makes sense or not.

Neveretheless, I had to cringe when MikeinWeHo made his comment:

This is a fascinating post. Thanks, Kevin. It made me think about all the Jewish people that I live and work with. Their religious community doesn’t seem to have this problem at all. You can grow up and attend synagogue weekly, or not. You can keep strict kosher, or not. You don’t have to believe Moses and Abraham were historical figures and you can even doubt the existence of God. But at the end of the day, the community still embraces you as Jewish. Cultural norms restrict aspersions by the more faithful toward the less. There might be something for Mormons to learn here.

OH NO YOU DON’T MIKE. Don’t you dare! Don’t. Go. There.

I’ve taken enough abuse for trying to maintain this position. For trying to bridge between the DAMU, the Outer Darkness, the Bloggernacle, and wherever the heck Mormon Matters used to fit in with this argument. I’d still like it to be true that there is a kind of “Cultural Mormonism” forged from shared experience with the church and shared understanding of the church language of meetings, doctrines, common reactions to outsiders (and separate from “Utah culture,” or whatever.)

And yet what I’ve heard from all sides is that this isn’t the way things are, and this isn’t the way people want things to be.

The Bloggernaclers insist that this isn’t just about people who grew up going to church. This is about people who believe and live the Gospel. If you don’t, get the hell out. Many ex-Mormons are all too glad to agree with that message.

Why? Because Cultural Mormonism is an abomination. Mormonism is a religion. People left their families and communities for Mormonism because they believed it was religious truth, so how dare we try to make this a social club disconnected from the truth of the existence or nonexistence of God, or of the existence or nonexistence of Moses? How dare we try to divorce Mormonism from faith just so we can accommodate obnoxious nonbelievers who only want to ridicule and condescend to those who actually believe in this religion? Or who only want to stay because they are afraid of breaking up their families and losing their friends (as their ancestors were courageous enough to do)?

We just CAN’T be like Jews in this aspect. Because we are not a culture separate of a religion. Blood is not thicker than Priesthood anointing oil.

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38 Comments
  1. Andrew, I have, on occasion – endorsed a sort of big-tent Jewish model for Mormonism. But I don’t think my motives were exactly innocuous.

    Thinking about it more carefully recently, I’ve come to realize that the only reason I want a “big tent” that accommodates NOMs and such is because I want them to come back to full-fledged faithful Mormonism, and I think that allowing such enclaves might make it easier to do this.

    So really, I just want to convert you all back to the “one true faith.” It’s just I’m not willing to be pushy about it.

  2. Seth,

    I suspected as much, lol. But how would you propose to bring a NOM back to full-fledged faithful Mormonism?

    Here’s what I don’t get. Some people really get wrecked around by historical events or particular aspects of doctrine. For others, like Ardis, Kevin Barney, etc., it just rolls off like water off the duck’s back.

    What IS it that makes the difference? I don’t think people consciously choose the reaction, so I don’t see what conscious choice can be made to undo the reaction or adjust the reaction.

    And additionally, it doesn’t seem like becoming an Ardis or a Kevin means you’re the same kind of member. It makes you a very different kind of member than the average member. Perhaps it is still a TYPE of “full-fledged faithful Mormonism,” but it is NOT the same thing as the “TBM” derided by the DAMU. (This is probably for the BEST, but still, plenty of people could argue that the lot of you *are* all NOMs. You believe quite differently than how the “average member” would believe.)

    Nevertheless, as long as there are ex-mormons who are, for all intents and purposes, the MIRROR IMAGE of a TBM — except for the other side — I don’t think there will be much progress.

    • Well, people are resilient. They have divorces, lose jobs, get cancer, lose faith, fight with dad, and somehow they manage to come back to equilibrium eventually.

      Sometimes I think that places like exmormon.org and RfM are really just places for people to scream and blow off steam until their willing to be reasonable again. At that point they may or may not come back – but I hope they do.

      I can speak for others, but I know in my case the reason that the “anti-Mormon” material didn’t phase me is because I simply don’t take things personally. I’ve always been very forgiving of people and institutions (lest you think I’m bragging – I am, but I’ve got plenty of faults to make up for my good points – I assure you). So I just never did manage the seething rage that seems to come easily to some.

      Also, the anti-Mormon stuff I did encounter often had truth, but heavily laced with unwarranted conclusions, selective facts, and often outright lies and distortion of the history. I really, REALLY didn’t appreciate this – and I’ve never been able to take the movement entirely seriously since. A lot of the rhetoric over at RfM is frankly – every bit as wide-eyed and gullible as the worst ignorance you encounter in an LDS Sunday School or high school seminary.

      I don’t like being manipulated – by the Church or its critics. So I decided to thumb my nose at both and forge my own theological place out of the landscape.

      • But when they’ve done “blowing off steam,” what kind of believers do they become? Do the issues that they blew off steam over at RfM or wherever just cease to be issues?

        (BTW, I don’t think RfM is the target audience. I’ll get to that later.)

        Maybe it’s just because I don’t have life experience, but I just don’t understand HOW someone comes back unless 1) they have a really awesome experience or 2) they have drastically reduced expectations. But if 2 happens, then we’d still call them a NOM. Or if 2 happens, what kind of incentive is that to go back to the church. I can have drastically reduced expectations without going to a church every week that criticizes me for said drastically low expectations.

        I mean, let’s take what you have said. So it’s great that you don’t take it personally. But the problem is many people DO. That’s *why* we have the charged rhetoric of RfM, etc., E.g., “The church LIED. They are all a bunch of lying crooks.” Because it’s personal to them. They see it as intentional.

        I think it’s over-the-top too. I think it’s every bit as wide-eyed and gullible too — which is why I think that at the core, RfM types are basically TBMs on the other side.

        So, you aren’t even on the same page as these people. You are, like me, “exceptional.” Not the target audience.

        Finally, you say you decided “to thumb your nose…and forge your own theological place out of the landscape.”

        How is this NOT NOM activity? In what sense is this “full-fledged faithful Mormonism”? I know all of these terms are fuzzy anyway…but what is full-fledged faithful Mormonism as opposed to NOM?

        • The difference Andrew is that I take my own faith position very seriously actually. My message is not that “Peter Priesthood” and his family who sit a few rows up from me in Sacrament Meeting need to “lighten up” and “not take it so seriously.”

          My stated place is that this all is vitally important, and that the conventional mode of participation is doing it wrong.

          For instance, I don’t do what a lot of Mormon “liberals” do online and say that the conservatives need to lighten up and quit taking it all so seriously.

          Rather, I simply call the ultra-conservatives in Mormonism dangerous heretics, and have done with it.

          When I used to actually participate on the bloggernacle, I used to do this quite a bit. I just don’t hang out there much anymore, so the issue no longer comes up.

          • So, would the ideal NOM who has come back into full-fledged faithful Mormonism do the same thing? Speak out against ultra-conservatives in Mormonism as being dangerous heretics?

            Again…how do you get a NOM to move to this position?

  3. Jews aren’t the only ones with shared blood, Andrew. According to Joseph Smith, “the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually of the seed of Abraham.” Thus Mormonism is a racial identity as well as a religion.
    ;)

  4. But Chris,

    all humans are the same “race” as God. We are all literally brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God.
    ;)

  5. I left because the evidence against everything that I believed eventually overwhelmed me. I was pulled away from it against my will by thinking too critically about it all. The more I examined my beliefs, the more the alternate hypothesis made sense. It would stare me right in the face and I would try to look away.

    This is why I’m not afraid of being wrong about the church. I’ve spent so much energy wanting to be wrong about it in the first place that there is no hope or fear or second guessing left for that hypothesis. If someone were to convince me that the church is actually what it claims to be, obviously I would thank them in tears.

    I don’t feel bitter, just annoyed at times. Like when I’m misunderstood or something. That’ll happen more when I come out to my family. I don’t really enjoy the RfM mentality for the same reasons mentioned by y’all.

    I often wonder what the average reasons for leaving the church really are. As much as I’d like to think that most people leave because they, like me, take the red pill, I’m not confident that this is the case. But it sure is pretty common in my little internet DAMU bubble.

    Likewise, I’d like to know how many people stick with the church because they have a strong belief in the actual reality of the teachings, and how many because it’s just who they’ve been their whole lives and they’re not prone to exploring. I stuck with the church even when friends became uninterested and fell away because I really believed that the gospel was reality.

  6. The Church isn’t old enough yet to successfully pull off the “cultural Mormonism” contingency. Give it a couple hundred years. If the Church can outlive the atheism movement and continue to grow, then I think in that period of time people may be removed enough from the founder’s story that it can all fade to mythology. That is really the only hope there is for an “open-tent” Mormon movement. So long as we require literal belief for temple attendance, the Church will remain squarely in the “fundementalist Christian” camp in terms of the type of belief expected by members of other members.

    It also doesn’t seem as though the Church hierarchy wants the church to head towards cultural Mormonism. The recent changes in the CHI support the idea that the Church is moving away from any “cultural Mormonism” movement. For example, if the leadership were to embrace cultural Mormonism, you wouldn’t be seeing rules against fathers confirming their sons if they don’t hold a temple recommend.

    The argument can be made (and has been, most notably by Quinn) that Joseph Smith actually intended for more of a blood lineage-based religious experience. The whole notion of being born in the covenant, or “adopted in” seems to speak to this. The LDS Church we know now largely distanced itself from that model with the ordination of Brigham Young over Joseph Smith III. So, in a way, we are living in Brigham Young’s ideal model of the religion more than the Prophet Joseph’s. Thus, the founding story that would be most similar to the story of Abraham – that of a Patriarchial Priesthood, passed from father to son from Joseph Smith, Jr., heir to the house of Israel – was rejected. And with it any hope for an immediate cultural Mormon framework.

  7. Mme Curie,

    while at first I was primed to disagree that the church isn’t old enough to pull off a cultural Mormon constituency, some of the things you said later were pretty interesting, and are making me rethink.

    I think there’s something to the idea that currently, not enough time has passed and therefore, we are too “close” to the founding story to allow it to be mythology. This is certainly a distinction in other religions or certain other denominations

  8. Yes, except that Mormonism isn’t a religion, it’s a family of religions. The CoJCoL-dS wantsyou to believe that they’re the only Mormons and/or that they own the word Mormon, but they’re not and they don’t.

    That said, I agree with you that for most people Mormonism doesn’t provide enough shared culture/heritage for it to make sense to stay with it if you don’t believe/practice an LDS religion.

  9. chanson, true, true.

  10. rockwaterman1 permalink

    You’re spot on, Andrew, but I’ve noticed another little hitch. You can accept the doctrine of Mormonism, but if you reject the corporate hierarchy as irrelevant as I did at Pure Mormonism, you can be branded by some as a dangerous Anti-Mormon. For some, adoration of the Brethren is THE FIRST requirement.

  11. A matter of course, Rock.

    If there is continuing revelation, and the corporate hierarchy believes itself to be the heirs of that chain of revelation and authority, then to reject the hierarchy is to reject Mormonism itself.

    Unfortunate, yes, but I can’t really imagine the church breaking out of that.

  12. Mike S permalink

    I like this comment: Maybe it’s just because I don’t have life experience, but I just don’t understand HOW someone comes back unless 1) they have a really awesome experience or 2) they have drastically reduced expectations.

    It describes me in many ways, although I’ve never left. I suppose my story is one of cowardice. I was born and raised LDS. I have ancestors born in Winter Quarters in 1846/47. I did all the “Mormon” things. But I’ve never felt, in my heart, that I was “Mormon” as a religion – culturally yes, spiritually no. I never got the conversion. I never received an answer to Moroni’s promise despite reading the BofM 10-15 times. I’ve known all of the historical things for years, but they’re not my main problem.

    Over the years, I have drifted towards #2, holding out a hope for #1. Why don’t I just leave? I don’t really know. I suppose there’s that hope in the back of my mind that #1 will happen, that God will someday reward my hanging in there for (at this point) 4+ decades with an answer. I also hang on for family reasons. It would be hard on my family were I to do something else. It would also be hard on my kids, living in Utah where social circles are intertwined with religious circles.

    Mentally, I consider my thought process at this point as much Buddhist as LDS. It actually gives me more peace and helps me deal with the world in a much better way. I suppose I’m still active because of a) inertia, b) cowardice, c) glimmer of hope, d) all of the above.

    But, knowing myself. If I were at an earlier stage of my life, I’d likely be in the “young person” category of drifting away. If I didn’t have kids and roots in a community, etc., it would be easy to do.

  13. rockwaterman1 permalink

    Well you know, if the hierarchy at least came up with something that they claimed was an actual, bona fide REVELATION now and then, I probably wouldn’t be so hard on them. My problem at the moment is that they claim the church is guided by modern revelation, but if you look for any of these revelations you can’t find even one.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Well rock, just putting my apologist hat on for a second…

      It should be pointed out that the lions-share of a prophet’s job – even in the Bible – is testifying of Christ. Not the creation of original content, nor prediction of the future.

      The later two are actually relatively rare, and most of the prophet’s job – most of the time – is declaring to the people stuff that has already been said before.

      Just going off the pattern in the Bible, mind…

    • Rock — what’s your opinion of the CofC (formerly RLDS)? They have continuing revelation, and (like the early church) they believe that the windows of heaven have been opened to the whole congregation (not just the official hierarchy).

  14. rockwaterman1 permalink

    Seth, I don’t disagree with your statement, but I was raised to believe that what makes us unique is continuing revelation. Any church can rehash and re-quote the same old scriptures again and again. What is it that makes us unique? God has further light and knowledge to share with the world, and we’re told that comes to us through the prophet.

    And what about that other traditional role of a prophet, to speak truth to power, to call the civic leaders to repentance?

    Our leaders prefer to hobknob and gladhand with the brotherhood of Satan. They don’t dare criticize the State directly because that would violate their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. That’s why we’ll never see an Abinadi or an Alma come out of this bunch.

    • Well, I’m not going to push the point since I’ve complained of it myself in other discussions.

      But from a purely mercenary standpoint, you could very well make the case that if you really believe in the whole Restoration thing, that getting the Gospel spread is more important than any social agenda.

      You might well say that making the Chinese (for example) Mormon is more important than freeing them from Communism.

      If you buy into it all, that is.

  15. rockwaterman1 permalink

    Chanson,
    I’m not very up to speed on the CofC, but I no longer accept the authority of any man or organization of men, so I have no interest in switching my allegiance from one churc of the restoration to another. If the current Brethren of the LDS church were to at least proffer a revelation from God, I would at least give it prayerful consideration. But that isn’t likely to happen, methinks.

  16. @Andrew said “We just CAN’T be like Jews in this aspect. Because we are not a culture separate of a religion.”

    Is Judaism really a culture seperate from religion? How?

    Also, Utah Mormons may not have been around long enough to have a seperate culture, Mormons in Utah and not in Utah do see a distinction–so maybe we can call it a sub-culture.

  17. Wayne,

    Not only is Jewishness a culture separate from religion, it is an *ethnicity*. That’s why “secular Jew” doesn’t have *any* hint of contradiction.

    Also, I’m not saying that Utah Mormons do not have a particular culture. I just am saying that Utah Mormon culture is not what I am referring to when I say “cultural Mormonism.” A lot of people, I think, equate the two…but what I am referring to is the fact that correlation has created a global Mormon culture — people who have grown up “correlated” speak a similar language and have similar experiences because that’s how things are organized

  18. Mike S permalink

    I really DON’T like the cultural aspects of Mormonism, to be honest. As I’ve traveled around the world and visited other faiths, I love how each church and congregation presents the same beautiful truths reflected through the eyes and heart of their local culture.

    As I’ve visited LDS Churches around the world, there is a bland sameness – almost like visiting a McDonalds. The buildings look the same, the people look the same, the lessons are the same. All hints of local culture are stamped out. Some people may find comfort in this, but I personally find it blah…

  19. The reason I go to McDonald’s is because I know what to expect, worldwide.

    To the extent this is not the case, I don’t have an anchor wherever I go.

    I’m not saying I eat McDonald’s all the time, or that McDonald’s is the model for every restaurant, but I’d also like to note that I’m apparently not alone in my thoughts because McDonald’s seems to be doing pretty well.

  20. Seth R. permalink

    The grass is always greener…

  21. Mike S permalink

    But I think it’s cool that they have spam on the McDonald’s menu in Hawaii. :-)

  22. Wayne W. permalink

    Yes Jews are an ethnicity with DNA evidence etc. Anyone who tries to tease out Judaism form Jewish culture would need a lot of time on their hands or a lot of funding. Similarly, go to a Buddhist country and try to find someone who is Buddhist the way we used to be Mormon. I got your larger point though, that Mormonism is a religion not a culture.

  23. Wayne,

    I don’t see why teasing one from the other would be difficult at all. “Judaism” is a set of BELIEFS and RITUALS. But Jewish culture is an identity that can be distinct from the beliefs, but may often participate in several of the rituals in a secular way.

    That’s the entire reason we can speak of “secular Jews” without having any problem.

    My argument is that Mormonism COULD have such a cultural aspect, but the problem is as soon as you stop believing, there are plenty of believing Mormons who are perfectly willing to ditch you like a bad habit. They don’t WANT a big family. They want people who believe.

  24. At least McDonald’s doesn’t bore me. I don’t have to stay there for three hours, either. I can leave as soon as I’m edified.

    Of course, we all know McDonald’s is not good for us. I can be better fed at home.

    I can also feed myself better spiritually at home, by personal study, delving into the doctrinal meat that I will never find at Church.

  25. It is the hierarchical and monolithic organization of Brighamite Mormonism that precludes it from becoming an ethnicity.

    Judaism doesn’t have a hierarchical organization. There are all sort of opinions about what it means to be a Jew. If Mormons started to explore a variety of meanings of Mormon scripture, they might get excommunicated.

    You can’t get expelled from your tribe for an opinion. You can get expelled from Mormonism for an opinion. Therefore, Mormonism is neither a tribe nor any other kind of ethnic group.

    In Jewish families, the child that is most valued will be the one that conforms least. In Utah, open-minded is a bad thing. That’s why Judaism can accommodate an endless variety of Jews but Mormonism wants only one variety of Mormon.

    Finally, family ceremonies are a control mechanism to enforce conformity with the brethren. If you leave the Church, you can’t attend your siblings and your children’s wedding anymore. Your mother believes that she will suffer for all eternity because you are no longer a member of her eternal family.

    Leaving the Church also means that you do not get to procreate within the community’s boundaries. That means that by definition Mormonism is an ethnic group.

  26. (oops, your comment got trapped in pending…I fished it out)

  27. Mormonism can’t be like Judaism not because Mormonism is a religion, but because the religion is essentially coterminous with a specific organization. Its a club you are an official member of or not.

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