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The (Not-so) Secret of the Mormon Sauce

March 22, 2012

In response to my post at Wheat & Tares, “Who puts the Mormon in Mormon Girl“, Bruce N wrote a comprehensive post at Millennial Star to address the secret behind the fascination with Mormonism that creates cultural Mormons (but that also challenges the idea of cultural Mormonism). But even though his post talks about a secret, his contention is that the reason isn’t so secret at all. As he writes:

It seems to me that the attractiveness of Mormonism is actually apparent and very simple.

What makes Mormonism so attractive and powerful? Sacrificing for a literal belief! 

If you are a believing Mormon then you see the Church organization and the people in the Church as a sort of instrument meant to take a certain message, meant for everyone, to the whole world. This message is called “The Restored Gospel”. As I’ve previously argued, the Church is the organism meant to replicate the message sent from a talking and very active God. The process of replicating that message is the source of meaning in the lives of the believers.

This is all so simple, it’s shocking that many people on Mormon blogs (of all walks) continually fail to understand this even though any believing Mormon — or really any believer of any religion — can easily explain it. In fact the Mormons even have these people called Missionaries with a bunch of ‘discussions’ where they will make it very clear that it’s their literal beliefs that drive them and give them meaning in their lives. This is the worst kept secret of all times.

From there he goes to explain why various groups don’t seem to get it.

Some selections:

When a once believing Mormon comes to doubt the doctrines they are forced to recapture as much as they can by become permanent commentators seeking how to ‘fix it’ so that it’s ‘better’ for ‘the margins’ (which often includes themselves). This act of trying to fix it becomes the new source of meaning in such a person’s life. They will dedicate untold hours to seek after it. They’ll become writers, podcasters, media pundits, playwrites, historians, and authors, and will basically do whatever is needed to replace what was lost. It would seem that this belief in an active and talking God is so powerful that it’s basically impossible to ever go backwards. If you lose it, you will do almost anything to recapture it. Ex-Mormons on the websites spend more time thinking and talking about Mormonism then do the average active Mormon precisely because their need is greater in this regard.

This is the real reason Joanna Brooks finds herself returning to Mormonism — the Mormon God is the most active and talking of all Gods and this is the one she wants her and her children to know. The rest of Mormonism she isn’t so sure about.

and

In other words, the ‘psychic impression’ left by Mormonism is the powerful belief in an active and talking God who directly participates in one’s life. The historicity of the Book of Mormon and the belief in exclusive truth claims is not what hurts the LDS Church — it’s what made it into a religion in the first place and what continues to make it a religion worth existing.

Now, of course all religions believe in some type of exclusive turth claim. And frankly, all religions require sacrifices. So Mormonism isn’t unique in that sense. Nor should we be suprised that all religions leave various levels of psychic impressions for that very reason. It’s just that Mormonism leaves the impression stronger because of the literalness of its beliefs and because it’s a high sacrifice religion. And those two are not disconnected points either. A religion can only be high sacrifice if it has very strong literal beliefs worth sacrificing for.

(If I had to comment sarcastically and cynically on this point, I’d summarize it this way: all religions require sacrifice. But Mormonism leaves the strongest impression because it requires the most sacrifice. And it requires the most sacrifice because it makes the boldest, most unbelievable [pun not intended?] fact claims.)

I really don’t want to focus on snarkasm and cynicism…It’s just that Bruce is, by far, at his best when he is making a case for why he believes, or why believing Mormons find Mormonism inspiring, enlightening, etc…rather than when he is trying to explain the behaviors or motivations of everyone else…but unfortunately, he has entire sections of the post devoted to doing the latter, like so:

Of course Joanna Books can’t truly ever leave Mormonism. She lost her faith in its literalness but still longs for how it made her feel back when she did literally believe in it. So her actions now all stem naturally from the need to keep that one aspect of Mormonism alive in her life when perhaps most of the rest has died.

Pay attention to what the media pundits actually do with their Mormonism. I would argue that a John Dehlin now believes God is talking directly to him about how the Church needs to change for the better. He is still seeking the talking God even while no longer sure God talks.

This is also why Andrew S — as an atheist — spends so much time trying to analyze Mormonism even though there is really so very little to analyze. It’s a way of staying connected to what was lost.

It’s why Dan Vogel (or fill-in-the-blank historian) will devote their lives to studying Mormon history and to freeing people from Mormonism and thereby are actually making sure they will not themselves be free of it. It’s why John Dehlin, after losing his faith in the literalness of Mormonism, has practically made a career out of trying to change Mormonism to be less literal in its beliefs — sadly never realizing the very things he’s trying to change, literalness of belief, is the source of the good parts he wishes to keep. So he is forever chasing his tail.

And even the entire DAMU league is really a group of people desperately trying to re-find what they lost when they left the Church by collectively choosing to keep a steady stream of bad (but actually exception-based) examples about how the Church hurts people to reassure themselves that they made the right choice andnow they are really on the side of the literal talking God of the Mormons (though they may call him Ethics or Morality now.)

So, yes, one does not give up the psychic imprint made by the literal Mormon God. Ever. For those that fully experience it, its there for life. And frankly, it’s there by choice. We don’t give it up because we want it so badly.

…so forgive me if I’m a little miffed here. Bruce has accurately figured Joanna, John, Dan, the entire DAMU, and myself out. If only we would stop being in denial about it.

OK, let’s start over.

Let’s start from the places where I can see what Bruce is saying, and agree with much of it.

At the core, I agree that what drives a believer is his literal belief. The literal belief is like a falling in love — to those outside who cannot see the beloved (or who don’t understand what is so lovely about the beloved) — it can seem strange indeed why the lover does what he does. In fact, those around may believe that the lover is acting against his best interests for his beloved. Nevertheless, there is no denying that said experience is the essential motivator of a great many actions, if not total life change.

Marital happiness

Click for full size

From this kind of analogy, I can also see that literal belief can motivate sacrifice, and both the literal belief and the sacrifice bind the believer to the believed. I am reminded of an instagram photo of a snippet of a text about marital sacrifice that Tim (of LDS & Evangelical Conversations) reposted on Facebook.)

And I can also even see that when people lose literal belief, they are going to have a lot to process with respect to that. They are going to have a lot they want to “replace” it with.

…and I can see Bruce’s judgment that efforts to try to replace literal belief with substitutes are unlikely to succeed, because the literal belief was the magic, not all the other things surrounding it. And furthermore, all of those other things (the things that “cultural Mormons” end up cherishing or clinging to) would not exist but for literal believers to perpetuate these things through literal belief. When I talk about correlation creating a cultural Mormonism (whether that is right or not), even I must be aware that correlation is perpetuated because there are people who literally believe in the value of those correlated concepts, because they believe literally that they will have impact on human lives now and in the eternities. To the extent that cultural Mormons do not have this urgency to spreading these ideas to the entire world, they aren’t putting their money the same place a literal believer would.

But even agreeing on all of those points, that doesn’t mean I agree everywhere, and that’s partly why I sprinkled the love analogy up above.

There are a few questions to ask: can love and companionship ever be misguided, misplaced, or fabricated? Can you love something that doesn’t exist or that ends up harming you?

Can others who do not experience that love be fascinated in the process of how it happens without then being claimed to “stay…connected to what was lost”?

Because Bruce keeps talking about this “Talking God” and how the Talking God is so inspirational…and sure, sure, I see a lot of people who claim to be inspired by it (and of those, far fewer people who I actually feel are profoundly changed for the better from their mundane, ordinary, flawed human selves), but that’s not the same as seeing it, or even being sure that other people see it when they express contradictory and dubious claims about it.

…and when Bruce tries to classify other people’s actions as being their way to keep following the Talking God (e.g., “And even the entire DAMU league is really a group of people desperately trying to re-find what they lost when they left the Church by collectively choosing to keep a steady stream of bad (but actually exception-based) examples about how the Church hurts people to reassure themselves that they made the right choice andnow they are really on the side of the literal talking God of the Mormons (though they may call him Ethics or Morality now.”), I can’t help but feel as if he’s actually trying to say that it’s all just a metaphor anyone, so there isn’t anything bigger to get from that.

What am I missing from Mormonism?

What did I lose from ceasing activity with the church? And why do I keep blogging about the church?

…was it literal belief? I doubt it, since I never literally believed (and I still don’t understand the what’s it like-ness of literal belief, in fact.)

…Maybe it was all the sacrifices that came with not literally believing (trying to defend what seemed highly unlikely to me from a hostile audience)? But I don’t really think so…seeing as I generally don’t try to replicate that in my blogging experience and I don’t understand those even.

…Maybe it was the god who for me was not there? But I don’t really think even this is the case…I don’t really write posts about God all that often. Whether God exists or doesn’t exist, I still struggle to see any way in which God is relevant (quite different from a literal believer, I would imagine.)

But I think I do miss speaking the language and having people understand what I mean. I can get that from blogging. The funny thing is, you don’t need to have literal belief *or have ever had it* to know how to speak the language.

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5 Comments
  1. FireTag permalink

    I accept your points of agreement with Bruce, but it IS hard for me to understand a God who is irrelevant (much harder than understanding a “God” who was purely mathematical or otherwise totally impersonal, e.g., “nature”).

  2. hence, I do not talk of “God” all that much. I mean, would it be better to try to believe in a god but not find any relevance or use for it/him/her/whatever, or just to say I don’t believe in god?

  3. I basically agree with Bruce that it’s the intensity of Mormonism that makes it attractive to most active Mormons. I also agree that that’s what makes “reform” projects such as Dehlin’s ultimately futile. But I think Bruce’s post utterly fails to see the larger context in which Mormonism exists.

    What makes Mormonism so attractive and powerful?

    That Mormonism is “attractive and powerful” is a completely unwarranted claim. Out of a world population of 7 billion, there are (generously) about 7 million active Mormons today. That’s one out of every 1,000 people, 0.1 percent of the population.

    So a better question to begin with might be, “Why is Mormonism so unattractive and weak?”

    Failure to see what the real question is leads to failure to see that the phenomena that Bruce describes, far from being unique to Mormonism, are completely banal and commonplace. People change their beliefs but are still interested in their old beliefs. People change their activities but are still interested in their old activities. People change their lifestyle but are still interested in their old lifestyle. People who used to be or do something or other still like to write about it on the internet. Wow, really?! How insightful. (Not.)

    I mean, I don’t play football anymore, but I still like to watch it and talk about it. I’ve even written about it. Maybe I should write a blog post about how uniquely attractive and strong football is.

    And here’s another thing:

    …permanent commentators seeking how to ‘fix it’ so that it’s ‘better’ for ‘the margins’ (which often includes themselves).

    Let’s talk about “the margins” for a second. Who are really “the margins,” the 35 to 50 percent of Mormons who are actually active, or the 50 to 65 percent who aren’t? The 0.1 percent of people who are active Mormons, or the 99.9 percent who aren’t? Bruce’s perspective reminds me of the famous story about the newspaper headline in England when the British isles were socked in by heavy fog: “Continent isolated!”

    And again:

    …the entire DAMU league …collectively choosing to keep a steady stream of bad (but actually exception-based) examples about how the Church hurts people…

    What is the exception? The good the church does for the 0.1 percent it suits, or the harm it does to some of the 99.9 percent it doesn’t suit? I said I think Dehlin’s project is ultimately futile. What I mean is, if the church were to change in all the ways he liked, it would probably lose even most of the 0.1 percent. OTOH, maybe he can help tweak the church so it does less harm to anyone else. In that sense, I suppose he’s doing good work.

  4. kuri,

    Great points…although I would anticipate that he would generalize and say that what he’s saying applies on a more general level of theists/religious folk vs. atheists/non-religious folk. In fact, although he doesn’t call atheism “unattractive and weak,” he does say “Atheism is a zero value proposition and no amount of mocking by atheists can disguise that fact.” which is similarly charged.

    But I was definitely thinking about the problem for Bruce that most Mormons *aren’t* active, so Mormonism isn’t really showing them the “talking God” (and, for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that many *active* religious people are hearing anything like a “Talking God.”)

  5. I would anticipate that he would generalize and say that what he’s saying applies on a more general level of theists/religious folk vs. atheists/non-religious folk.

    Well, if you take my football example a little farther, I’d guess there are as many or more — maybe far more — ex-jocks talking and thinking about sports in America than there are ex-religionists talking and thinking about religion.

    In fact, although he doesn’t call atheism “unattractive and weak,” he does say “Atheism is a zero value proposition and no amount of mocking by atheists can disguise that fact.” which is similarly charged.

    I suppose that’s fair enough in itself, except that I don’t know (or even know of) any atheists who are just atheists. The ones I know are humanists, rationalists, etc. They believe in things like science and reason. And, of course, those ideas are just as powerful as religious ones. (If not more so — it’s not science that for centuries has been retreating in the face of religion.)

    …for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think that many *active* religious people are hearing anything like a “Talking God.”)

    I was one of the ones who did hear a talking god. And I was often puzzled and frustrated that so few other people — including so few active Mormons — seemed to hear him as loudly and clearly as I did. For a long time, I thought that I could hear because I was oh so spiritual and anyone else could too if they’d just try hard enough.

    But eventually, even while I was still a believer, I realized that it was a more or less random phenomenon. Some people are simply able to “hear” and some aren’t, and the church and “spiritual levels” have nothing to do with it. (My mother had it and I have it, but my sister doesn’t, for example.) A “gift” is what I called it then. Now I suspect it’s just a random quirk of brain physiology, maybe hereditary.

    So anyway, IME, firsthand experience of a talking god isn’t all that common among Mormons. I think it’s even less common among ex-Mos.

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