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The Never Converted Mormon

January 3, 2013

I think one reason that I’m really interested in deconversion stories or stories of faith crises is because these represent a change in beliefs. The people who tell these stories can (however imperfectly or however distortedly from their post-deconversion perspective) talk about what it felt like to believe, and what it feels like not to believe.

I don’t have that.

Instead, my Mormon experience is full of incredulity, skepticism, and doubt. It is not a story of thinking it was true, and then coming to suspect that…but rather of always being incredulous…just at different levels of self-awareness over time.

I think at other times I have called my crisis not a faith crisis but a lack-of-faith crisis. It really came fully when I was coming of age to consider a mission — the crisis was: how could I try to teach people stuff that I didn’t personally believe in? It was not a crisis of a worldview falling apart, but a crisis that came with radical awareness of a worldview that I had never held.

(Interestingly, I have a similar problem in far more mundane matters…when someone asks me to recommend a tech gadget to them [since they know that I have some familiarity and interest in technology], I am paralyzed, because they have constraints and needs and wants that I myself do not have. How can I recommend a sub $500 laptop when I myself would not buy a laptop for less than $500? But I digress.)

The crisis, as I have stated countless times probably, became fuller when I then started to realize that while all this time, I was treating church something like a quiz game (where you answer the questions in the way that you know will score points, regardless of if you think the questions or answers themselves are incorrect — throughout junior high and high school, I was a part of a lot of academic competitions where factual inaccuracies were a reality that you just had to deal with — because the chance that you could successfully launch a protest about an incorrect answer or a poorly worded question was iffy), whereas everyone else (or so I suspected) was really believing it.

I treated my duties as a priesthood holder with the pomp and circumstance I treated marching in band. When I had shoes that could be shined, you better believe I shined them. You better believe that when I was passing the sacrament, I thought about the smoothest roll step to make moving around the congregation an ethereal glide. I took a lot of pride in what I was doing, but it was more because I was raised to do everything with quality, not because I particularly gave any stock to the church’s claims.

The crisis was in realizing that if I don’t believe, then what I’m really doing is lying. And if I’m the one play acting but others aren’t, then I can’t call this a socially agreed form of lying like acting in a play would be.

This is all stuff you’ve probably read before on this blog, and I apologize because I keep trying to write these basics down in the hope that I will draw some clear, simple conclusion from it all. In the hope that with another permutation, I can tease out something new.

But the thing that strikes me about my “lack-of-faith” crisis, as it were, is that behind it were some axioms, presumptions, assumptions, whatever you want to call them — that I had, and that resonated to the core of my being — but which utterly disagreed with Mormon teachings.

For example, the radical free will of Mormonism — especially with its doxastic voluntarism. Mormonism simply never meshes together if you don’t take for granted that you can choose what you believe (and thus, if you have any doubts, then you can quell them.) With this situation of radical choice, the natural man becomes a human hurdle to overcome, rather than the block that can only be surmounted by divine assistance that it is in other theologies. But for me in particular, the idea that someone can consciously choose what they believe doesn’t register as a reality, much less my personal reality.

This is pretty much a show-stopper for many conversations with Mormons. There’s just no way to reach across the aisle with such very different premises undergirding the worldviews.

…of course, when you’re growing up, you don’t realize that people can have these different premises. So, instead, you think that everyone is basically like you — and when you come to realize that people are different, you wonder if you or they aren’t broken. Of course, being in a Mormon community where you are the minority, you are more likely to think that you’re the one who’s broken. And of course, many of them are all too glad to entertain that suggestion, if you don’t have the personal strength to reject that and reject them.

I think I’ve gotten off lightly. As a minority in so many other aspects, I’ve gotten used not only to being misunderstood, but in having my basic life experiences be incompatible with others’ worldviews.

…Still…I don’t think I’ve fully come to terms with this. I want to think that with just enough conversation, everyone will understand. That we will all basically come to agreement with just the right amount of data. That we all are basically the same.

And so, even though I have tons of experience to the contrary, I find myself running at brick walls. Hoping that maybe if I run just hard enough, then instead of colliding and breaking my nose and all the bones in my face and bruising my arms and skinning my knees…then maybe instead I’ll get through.

I haven’t become comfortable enough in realizing that the brick wall is there, and it will not be phased through before I have destroyed myself.

…I digress again, however.

I still read things from Mormon perspectives (running into brick walls, see — I never learn my lesson), hoping that one way or another, I’ll phase through the brick wall. And that can be in either direction — that I’ll get through to the other person or that their perspective will get through to me. Maybe one day, I’ll get it or theism in general.

But my reaction tends to be the same: absolute incredulity. Do people actually believe this? Do people actually think this way? Do people actually feel this way?

Sometimes, I will have enough meta awareness to go past that first reaction to the more disturbing ones — since I not only do not believe, think, or feel this way but also find it so inconceivable that others would, what does that say about me?

A younger me might ask: am I broken? Horrifically flawed?

In a dark day, I might still ask that.

But the present me would put things in context. I don’t have to be “broken” if I don’t “get” these things, because it’s not like the dichotomy is between ‘fixed’ or ‘in proper working condition’ and ‘broken.’ But maybe the dichotomy is something like: “Mormon” and “not Mormon”.

So, the disturbing question is: for me to not have these beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, does that mean I’m not a Mormon?

If these sentiments only occurred post faith crisis, then I might think to answer, “Yes.” I might think, “If you once felt x, y, and z, but no longer do, then that’s a sign that you aren’t Mormon anymore.” (Of course, this is assuming that I’d buy into the premise that being Mormon is about thinking, feeling, or believing certain things. On most days, I wouldn’t buy into that premise.)

…but for me, I can’t say, “Once I believed, but now I don’t.” Instead, I always found these sentiments foreign and incomprehensible. So, that raises the question: was I ever Mormon?

To answer no seems just as absurd to me. (And that’s why, even though I can’t really define what a Mormon should be, I can’t comfortably answer that being a Mormon means that you think, feel, or believe x things. At least, I would have to be pretty particular about what “x” would entail…)

…I apologize if this post seems too theoretical so far. But I’ll illustrate with some concrete examples. I started reading Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. This is the book that I’ve said I would read since I critiqued Terryl Givens’ Letter to a Doubter elsewhere on this blog. 

This book is extremely popular in the Mormon internet sphere, so I thought I would check it out.

But…as I read, I find that there are yearnings and inclinations and ideas that the Givens take for granted (and clearly expect the reader to do as well)…that I just don’t.

Like this from the introduction:

The call to faith is a summons to engage the heart, to attune it to resonate in sympathy with principles and values and ideals that we devoutly hope are true and which we have reasonable but not certain grounds for believing to be true. There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension.

Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose t embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.

I’ve already talked about much of my issue with this in my post on letter to a doubter. But moving on into The God Who Weeps, Chapter 1 doesn’t get better for me. After arguing for faith in God via the fine-tuning argument and then via the argument from beauty, the Givens offer us a poetic reformulation of the C.S. Lewis’s Argument from desire — we have a God-shaped hole:

…One of those larger realities toward whom we incline may reasonably be posited as God.

This conclusion seems warranted by another observation. Every raving that we experience finds a suitable object that satisfies and fulfills that longing. our body hungers; and there is food. We thirst; and there is water. We are born brimming with curiosity; and there is a world to explore and the sensory equipment with which to do so. Other ennobling passions both encompass and transcend bodily longing. We crave intimacy and companionship; and there is human love, as essential to happiness and thriving as any nutrient.

…The Greek playwright Aristophanes…captures brilliantly our sense of incompleteness and longing for wholeness, for intimate union with another human being who fits us like our other half. Yet even when we find true love and companionship in the rediscovered other, the restoration that should fulfill us falls short…It is as if, coming together, we are haunted by the memory of an even more perfect past, when we were even more whole and complete, and this suspicion lends an indefinable melancholy to our present lives.

Having settled that we all must have these desires and yearnings and they are a pointer toward God, the Givens then go to make their case about the kind of God that is worthy of worship. (And of course, this God will be like the Mormon God…or at least, the Givens spin on it.)

To be fair, I don’t think the Givens are trying to make an argument. They are trying to explain their viewpoint.

…but the way they do so is by just assuming that everyone has the same experiences they have. And that, to have these experiences is intrinsic to being human. (So if you are different — which to be fair, the Givens never state this, because they never even entertain the possibility of difference – …you are some wretched, subhuman thing.) In chapter 2, where they introduce the premortal existence, they move on from merely assuming that everyone will have certain experiences to pointing out that these shared experiences are evidence of the knowledge we have from pre-mortal existence.

Who has never felt the utter inadequacy of the world to satisfy the spiritual longings of our nature? Why the heart’s persistent inkling that we are adrift from our origins?

…how can we be stirred by our sense of the eternal, how could we even resonate to such music, if we were not tuned to the same scale? Something analogous to the pre-wired mind is going on.

…In a more fundamental way, we are pre-wired to speak the language of the Spirit. Our powers of reason and sense don’t give us access to many things that lie beyond the physical. Yet we recognize and respond to this larger realm we call the infinite, the eternal, the holy, or the sacred. How odd that such intimations strike us, not as the babble of a foreign tongue, but as a song heard long ago…

If you are not thus pre-wired, then what?

Mormonism, or at least Givens’ Mormonism, just doesn’t work if you entertain these sorts of questions.

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  1. Yeah, I’m not pre-wired that way either. I just had a Mormon operating system installed right away.

    But I discovered, when I stripped away the software, that the hardware felt complete on its own. The human brain works fine without an operating system (or at least mine does). I feel no God-shaped hole in my life and I don’t suffer from an indefinable melancholy.

    I think a problem with a lot of these people is that they make the mistake of mistaking their own mental framework for being a universal hardware setup. While many people may experience that feeling of unfulfillment that an active theistic religion can assuage, many of us simply don’t work that way. It’s truly difficult to make any kind of broad, metaphysical statement along those lines that will apply to the entire human population. It may be impossible.

    And I think that might be one of the reasons why there are so many varied, bifurcating belief systems in the world–each of them appeals to different hardware.

  2. phanty,

    While I do like the metaphor of hardware and software (and I think I wrote a post somewhere on that), for me, I don’t imagine it being the case of having hardware without software, but of having different kinds of software.

    To translate…it’s not like religion = value, and then a lack of religion = lack of value. Rather, there are different values that nonreligious folks have that often get in the way of running the religious OS, so to speak.

    As for having different hardware completely (as opposed to just different software for similar hardware)…the thought is intriguing, and that may well be the case, especially with the diversity of belief, as you point out. But I think it’s somewhat scary to think of that. Deep down, I want to believe that we are all basically the same…but maybe the answer is that we really aren’t, and that is the reason for many of our differences.

  3. I suppose the hardware isn’t necessarily hardware. I think we’re born with certain characteristics–which may be quite similar to everybody else’s–but then our early experiences shape us further. So maybe the most accurate analogy is somewhere between what I said and what you said!

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