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The irrelevance of (Mormon?) religion

July 9, 2011
Book of Mormon musical

Irrelevant just to African stereotypes?

I see a lot of reasons why ex/post/former/disaffected Mormons got that way. Many had testimonies, and then lost them for various reasons. Maybe they found out aspects of history that soured against them. Maybe they lost confidence in the Mormon epistemology — how they once knew what they knew about the church. Maybe it was church policies and doctrines and activities and things like that.

Reading the stories of various ex-Mos gives me insight into the diversity of the Outer Blogness (do you have this portal saved, yet?), because while many of the experiences do resonate with me, at the very same time many of the particulars are quite foreign.

I didn’t quite become disaffected because I lost faith or because I stopped believing in the truthfulness of the church’s claims, because in actuality, I didn’t really ever have faith, and my process was more of coming into realization of this. The beginning of the end was when I questioned why I felt an obligation to defend scriptures and history that seemed dubious even to me.

So these things weren’t decisive. Instead, I asked myself a far more dangerous question: couldn’t I live my life the same without church as I did with church and have everything turn out ok?

That was a dangerous question indeed. I guess, if anything, what led me to disaffection was my suspicion…then realization…that religion — and particularly my Mormon religion — seems irrelevant to my life.

This is actually something of a point in the Book of Mormon musical, I hear. (I say I hear because I have to admit I have not seen the musical, but have only read about it and listened to the soundtrack extensively) The Ugandans (as portrayed in the musical, at least) are beset by issues that the Book of Mormon doesn’t really touch, to the extent that to “reach out,” Elder Cunningham must make stuff up (that, to be honest, is in the spirit of what the church espouses…just isn’t in the historical narrative.)

Well, I don’t have issues with AIDS or maggots in my…anyway. But I still do have problems with the relevance of the religion.

So, while in my previous article I talked about how interesting it is for me to see people for whom spiritual experiences have played a great deal in their lives, I am also interested by those people — Mormon or otherwise — for whom their religion is integral to their life purpose and direction from a practical standpoint.

I don’t think I’m being so clear, so let me try to explain in a roundabout way.

I have often noted (and still note) that what I did appreciate about Mormonism was its practical life benefits. I think that there’s a clean (if not prudish, as I mentioned before) life therein. I believe that it is a good primer for business sense, for public speaking, for personal management and professionalism. So are these things “irrelevant”?

Well, no. But yes. They aren’t irrelevant in the sense that they can really make the difference between success and failure in many situations. They can really improve one’s life or prevent one from wrecking it.

But they are irrelevant in the sense that I wouldn’t consider my life purpose or meaning in terms of how professional I am, or how closely I abstain from drinking.

I was really touched by this article at By Common Consent about perverting modesty because this is a bit of what I mean. Rules about covering shoulders and knees is helpful in some senses, but in the big picture, it seems…utterly irrelevant.

…maybe I was just doing it wrong. I mean, I know plenty of people who improve their characters through religions. Who change into completely different people (sometimes, unfortunately, not for the better.) But I can’t help but shake this feeling that many people develop moral inclinations and characters independently of religion, and religion is just a kind of “overlay” on top. That’s why I don’t think I’ve changed all that much since disaffiliating from the church.

Kendall Wilcox Far BetweenThis morning I’ve been listening to John Dehlin’s interview with Kendall Wilcox via Mormon Stories. Part of the story seems pretty mundane for a discussion about the fringes of the Mormon church (and I will now proceed to vitally abuse and gloss over the story; listen to the podcast for the nuance and stuff). Guy who’s gay, struggles with his acceptance and understanding of his sexuality and its relationship to his spirituality and his understanding of his Mormonism. The twist might be surprising to some, but I’ve been seeing it often enough that even it is mundane: more and more people are not looking at things as either/or. They aren’t buying that it’s either sexuality or religion — even for a religion like Mormonism. They are coming out and promoting empathy.

There was a line that intrigued me though. From the first part of the interview, Kendall says:

…”Can you [the church] help me learn what it really means, what this experience of sexuality really is  like, and what meaning it has in terms of my theological beliefs and understandings?” The more we [in the church] do that…I think the more people choose proactively…to stay within the church, rather than saying, “I’m completely closeted and feeling  unloved in the church environment, so I’m going to leave, even though it may be the hardest thing I ever do.”

The question itself doesn’t appear all that special, I don’t think. But underneath it lies exactly what I’m talking about. As things are now, the church really isn’t that relevant to gay people. I mean, it was a bit amusing to read John G-W’s encounter with the sister missionaries regarding why he can’t fully participate in the church, but it was also kinda sad.

blackfaceIt just seems to me that the one thing that is missing to me from religion on a lot of different aspects is accurate answers about what various experiences are like and accurate situations of those experiences in terms of theological beliefs and understandings. Religion just doesn’t seem to “get it,” when I should expect that religion (or God, separate from religion) should “get it” more than anyone and anything else. This is true with respect to sexuality in particular, but race too.

What can Mormonism tell me as a black person about blackness? Well, I’m glad that it’s not saying the same things it used to say, but even if cultural baggage regarding race is expunged from present and future doctrine, the issue is that Mormonism has no proactively relevant doctrines here. (And I can imagine that many people will say that race is irrelevant so perhaps it shouldn’t have any doctrines about it.) This is a point that Chino Blanco jabs at in his reddit link and tweets about a HuffPo article of the diversity of Mormons, but instead of talking about leadership representation vs. membership representation, I feel there’s something ideological here. Maybe it is that the leaders don’t have the collective lived experience to promulgate relevant ideology? Maybe the apostles just can’t project that radically from their current vantage point.

(As an aside, since I’ve only gone to a “black church” once [bad experience...for other reasons] and have only kinda read about the dynamic…I can only say that I suspect things are very different. My reading suggests to me that the experience is very tied to things that are quite relevant to the social issues and social justice of the black community. But I feel like this can’t be a good answer for me, since now I am so tied to Mormonism, so to speak, that I would be a fish out of water in a “black church.” [This gives me an interesting point to wonder from a genealogical point of view. My parents, converts to the Mormon church, have raised me in a way that makes much of their life history foreign to me, which is quite filled with Pentecostalism, Southern Baptism, and other very different religious backgrounds. Will I in turn raise any children I may have in a way that makes much of mine just as foreign?])

…Maybe I would feel differently if I were a white, straight, cisgender male. Maybe Mormonism is far more relevant in that case because it caters to that case. Maybe people find great value and inspiration from Mormon doctrines about the family and the purpose and centrality of the family to the plan of salvation because they “fit” within that narrative, and when they don’t, that’s when there are problems. But for me, it feels quaint, something that need not be religious (and that religion sometimes sullies), and irrelevant at worst.

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13 Comments
  1. What a great post, Andrew!

  2. I think the “Big Tent” people that you frequently reference want to make the church relevant to more groups of people than just the middle class straight white people that it kind of caters to right now… I really like the idea that people can kind thumb their nose at the general authorities and reinterpret things as they may… In some ways it seems that the membership its self (or rather a small group of people who claim “Mormon”) is pushing to uncorrelate the church.

    You said that you really don’t feel that the church is relevant to gay people and I almost want you to explain that more… I think relevance is kind of subjective and depends on the individual. I’d bet that J G-W feels that it is relevant to him. Even with my complete lack of belief in the church I don’t think I would say it was irrelevant to me either. (If it were irrelevant why do I and so many others crave to engage?)

    I’m just not sure that the value of religion rests solely in faith though I would not say that you are wrong either – you can certainly live a perfectly good, or even great life without it.

  3. MoHo,

    Thanks for the compliment!

    Kiley,

    Thanks for commenting. One thing I fear about the Big Tent crowd (in whatever iteration they have) is that what they are doing is not distinctly Mormon…precisely because they operate outside of the regular channels. So whether they are creating something equivalent to a religious splinter (although of course, they will always say that they are doing nothing of the sort) or decreasing Mormon affiliation (e.g., you’re Mormon…but what it means to be Mormon becomes less defined), I just don’t see that as becoming sustainable. As you mention, I really like the idea too that people can kind of thumb their nose at the GAs and reinterpret things as they may, but I think this will have consequences.

    I think J G-W’s story is pretty interesting as it relates to this topic. I’m sure he’ll come here eventually and put his side (since I interpret a lot of his story differently than he does, haha), but the way I see it is this. John is someone who CLEARLY should be accepted and embraced by the church. But he is excommunicated. The church doesn’t “get him.” The sister missionaries he met with probably hope for a day when John decides to leave Goran and join the church (or, notwithstanding that, they’ll always feel sad that he won’t have full participation.)

    So, I don’t see John as having a whole lot of relevance in the institutional church as it is now. I see his experiences with the spirit as something beyond the constraints of the current church…something the church *could become* or that the church *should strive for*.

    All day today, I have been sucked into CivWorld on Facebook. May people are sucked into games like Farmville. That we crave to engage in these things does not make these things relevant. (OK, so maybe that’s taking things to the extreme.)

    • Seth R. permalink

      Andrew, that kind of just assumes that the Correlation Office has a monopoly on what is “distinctly Mormon” doesn’t it?

      • more broadly, I assume that liberal/loose/open religious traditions don’t retain the distinctiveness of conservative/orthodox ones.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    Conservative and liberal are kind of vague terms as well. I think it’s debatable that McConkie’s stranglehold on 70s to 90s Mormonism really counts as “conservative.” In many ways, the Talmage-Fielding Smith-McConkie triad was quite a departure from the main thrust of Mormonism.

  5. For me, the academy was a good place to glean spirituality. Perhaps it’s just where I’m at in Seattle, but gender and ethnic studies classes (at the graduate level) always felt to me like spiritual classes and that I was learning and teaching and sharing about things that mattered — in a way that fostered a high level of spiritual growth. Unfortunately, they’re so expensive. =|

  6. I think that religion is (or can be) less of an irrelevant overlay and more like an elaboration. People like what they like and make up reasons for it afterwards, but going through the process of thinking about and writing down those reasons can help to solidify one’s identity and reaffirm one’s values.

  7. Jonathan C permalink

    I found this because of your reference to the Mormonstories podcast. I have had two thoughts about the relevance of religion, neither of which attempts to deal with the truth of a particular theology. One is not quite a parroting of Tachyon Feathertail’s comment. My understanding of current psychology is that we are not motivated by reason, but by emotion. Reason can be justification after the fact, and can also be a stimulus to our emotions. As far as religion stimulates us emotionally to greater morality, it can be relevant. My second thought is that institutions have more influence on society than individuals. This can be good or bad, but I see value in belonging to institutions that do much more good than harm and working with the institution to achieve the most good and minimize the institutional harm.

    I am a practicing Mormon, but I have a sister who has drawn roughly your same conclusions regarding the relevance of Mormonism to leading a moral life. I think you have a valuable perspective, and I’m glad you’re willing to share it publicly without rancor. It helps me make more sense of my sister’s choice.

  8. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the comment.

    One thing I guess I would reiterate is that much of this post is meant as a summarizing of my experiences, so others’ mileages may vary. So, for example, I do not deny that for those that religion stimulates their emotions (or better yet, stimulates their emotions in a positive or uplifting way), then obviously religion will be relevant to them.

    But my point is to the point that there are non-negligible swaths of the population for whom Mormonism is not “designed” to stimulate their emotions, or if it is designed, it is so designed often to cause heart-ache. I don’t really like identity politics all that much, but I can’t help but feel that if one were to ask themselves if Mormonism is more of a religion for a) the middle class white heterosexual cis-male or b) the minority, non-middle class, non-heterosexual, non-male (or transmale), then most people would easily pick the former over the latter. For a religion that wants to be the one true church, a conduit for all people to be redeemed, etc., this is problematic.

    • Jonathan C permalink

      I agree completely with each thing you just wrote. That is one of my struggles as a Latter-day Saint. If I believe I belong to Christ’s true church (the meaning of that is another discussion), how can we as a church do so many things which drive so many away rather than welcoming them in? If we are never able to change that (both institutionally and individually), then we probably aren’t true disciples of Christ. That is a hard reality for me to face. My optimism and trust in God say that we are improving and will continue to improve with time. I hope one day we truly will welcome all who wish to belong. I wish you all the best in your life’s journey.

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