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I didn’t even believe it

November 12, 2011

I was glancing over a book review of Stephen Carter’s “What of the Night” at By Common Consent, and a line early on struck out at me (fortunately it was pretty early on, since, as I said, I was only glancing over the post):

Then he said sometimes we have to “bear testimony” as a burden—we have to bear the weight of it, bear up under the everyday struggles of life in faith. Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow.

That reminded me of an event from earlier in my life. I think it was the simplest, purest root of disbelief that I had ever had at the time.

Starting when I was in fourth grade, my family moved to Oklahoma, where I would spend the rest of my elementary school, junior high, and high school. In elementary school, no one really talked that much about religion (I mean, we were all dumb elementary school kids), but in junior high, I remember it got brought up occasionally. I wasn’t afraid to mention I was Mormon, because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.

My peers, good evangelical Christians of the Bible Belt, tried their best to disavow me of that thought, however. And so, I got into a lot of discussions about Mormonism, whether it was Biblical or not, whether it was historically accurate or not, etc.,

I remember, after a discussion in 8th or 9th grade, thinking something that has always stayed with me. What I thought was: why do I have to defend this stuff? Why do I have to defend Mormonism when I don’t even believe it.

I hadn’t read any “anti-Mormon” tracts, or even researched Mormon history or whatever. It just seemed to me, going through Sunday School lessons, that the various events we were learning about in the scriptures seemed highly implausible. But I thought it was a big game: getting the right answers in Sunday School gave you credibility with adults, and that was always nice.

In junior high and high school, I thought Mormonism was this weight that I had to bear, but I was aware that I hadn’t chosen it, and I didn’t choose to accept it, either. I had to defend Mormonism, because that’s what Mormons do. Even if I wasn’t convinced of the explanations I was researching and presenting to others, I felt I was obligated to present anyway.

That’s why I really dislike that my father thinks that my disbelief was something I “caught” from the “liberal university” or from “philosophy” or whatever.

No, if anything, the only thing that going away for college did that I didn’t conceptualize earlier was that it allowed me to think, “Hey, what if I don’t have to carry this burden around? What if I don’t have to defend things I don’t even believe in? What if I don’t have to go every Sunday just because that’s what adults, the Bishop, my parents, etc., expect?”

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15 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    It’s kind of funny. I also didn’t feel like I had much of a choice in being in this religion.

    But I never considered that a reason for me not to defend it. I won’t say Mormonism is “ethnic” for everyone, but it sure feels that way for me.

  2. It’s not the lack of choice in arriving the religion that is a reason not to defend it. The lack of choice is a purely neutral aspect. (In this sense, not having chosen to become Mormon isn’t a reason for defending it either…)

    My issue was that whereas when I was in JH & HS student, I felt obligated to defend it just because I was one.

    It’s the lack of believing in it.

    I like the idea of Mormonism as ethnicity, but this really illustrates the key point in which Mormonism and ethnicity do not analogize well.

    The problem with ethnicity isn’t that you don’t choose to become your ethnicity, but that you can’t choose to change, get rid of, or hide your ethnicity. Mormonism simply doesn’t have that problem. You can STOP being a Mormon. You can CHANGE your religion. You can HIDE your religion. (I think all of these are independent, btw, of belief. I don’t think belief is consciously chosen.)

    But you can’t really stop being black. You can’t change your race. Not everyone can “pass” for another race (although the people who can…often do.)

    …I do think this is a very interesting train of thought, though. With ethnicity, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. You defend it because you can’t escape it, and no one else will defend it for you. So, the choice is either self-sufficiency and survival…or a kind of cultural suicide. It can frankly be kind of polarizing, where you become more “extreme” as your ethnicity becomes more “extreme,” because you have no other option than to.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    No, I’m not sure I buy that.

    I think people actually do try to change their race.

    Some go to extremes, like Michael Jackson did. Others simply reject the attending culture that is associated with their race (how many successful black men who distanced themselves from the NAACP and black activism were called race-traitors, or what have you?).

    A lot of people are running from who they are. And although people may not be able to change their skin color (which actually isn’t true anymore), there’s more to race than skin color. And in all those ways, it resembles religious upbringing quite a bit.

    And one more thing – on the race issue and whether it can be changed or not. I would point out that the unique DNA signature is probably the most trivial and insignificant thing about race. Race is a whole heck of a lot more than a DNA combo.

  4. But I think that what you say still highlights the differences…

    People can try to change their race, but it’s not something they can succeed in. But in trying, it’s not that they are running away from who they are, so much as they are running away from who everyone else sees them as and expects them to be. So, running away from race isn’t completely about running away from something you are, but about something others define you as. The reason you can’t succeed is because you are unable to get those others to redefine you.

    In this extent, I guess I can see how there could a comparison of cultural insiders critiquing individuals actions (e.g., what you say about people being called “race traitors” by other black people) with people within religions doing the same. With a religious upbringing, you have various people inside the religion who define you a certain way and expect certain things of you…and even if circumstances change, they will be unlikely to redefine you or not hold you to those expectations.

    But, that shows the limitations of the analogy. Namely, race has an externally constructed aspect to it, and it’s those external cultural barriers and expectations that prevent one from being able to change his own race.(That is to say, it’s the fact that NON-black people can say, “you’re a race traitor” for rejecting the attending culture associated with the race that makes any individual attempt to change his race fail.) In that sense, DNA isn’t what matters. It’s the external society.

    I’d say there isn’t enough visible about Mormonism to the external world to allow outsiders to peg people as such or to keep people who were once pegged that way continually pegged.

    p.s., I’m vaguely aware that race is different than ethnicity, but I realize that I’m kinda unable to figure out what ethnicity means to me.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    But isn’t that all “race” is?

    A collection of perceptions that others have of you – some of which you yourself internalize?

  6. But religion is *not* that.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    Well, obviously religion is something different than race.

    But the question is whether it’s any different on this particular topic. Or different enough to make a difference.

  8. I’m saying one is constrained by race because of how everyone else views him, but one is not constrained by religion because of how everyone else views him. So, that is a pretty essential difference to have.

    Maybe you could elaborate on what you think an ethnicity is, and how you think Mormonism is ethnic, and how that means someone can’t ever stop being Mormon?

  9. Seth R. permalink

    I don’t think my own ideas on the issue are fully formed.

    But I think we’d both agree that ethnicity is more than just something obvious to view, right?

    I mean, at first glance, you probably can’t tell an Italian from a Greek – but both are ethnicity right?

  10. Sure.

  11. Seth R. permalink

    Well, comparing Mormonism to the unique situation of being black or hispanic – in light of American racism – is probably a comparison that conceals more than illuminates.

    So pick something less charged – is being Mormon like being Italian?

  12. Do Italians have a prerogative to defend other Italians because they are Italian?

    Do Italians have a prerogative to continue Italian traditions just because they are Italian?

    I guess, to the extent that the answer is “no,” then being Mormon can be like being Italian. But then it makes different questions relevant. It’s not a matter of whether someone can ever stop being Italian (for ex), but more, “what does being Italian mean”? It doesn’t have to mean a whole lot.

  13. Seth R. permalink

    I’d say the answer is a “maybe” to all of them. Same as with religious upbringing.

  14. can you elaborate on “yes” instances that make the answer a “maybe”?

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  1. Mormonism as an ethnicity | Wheat and Tares

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