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Thoughts for Cultural Mormons by a Cultural Catholic writing about a Cultural Anglican

September 16, 2013

As I read this blog post, Can you have the bells without the believers, I was amazed at how easy it would have been to read this as being a blog post about/for Mormonism…if only it hadn’t used specifically identifying terms like “Anglican,” “Richard Dawkins,” and “Catholic”. Check out this line:

…being a cultural Catholic or Anglican or member of another tradition requires that there be committed members of the same tradition. Of course, Dawkins is in a slightly different situation, since his aesthetic comfort is state-supported. But, even in that case, and even if he is right that many Anglicans don’t actually believe anymore, when there are no more believers, the churches will be just museums and the sepulchers—as Nietzsche’s madman had it—of the dead God. That is not quite the same thing as a functioning church to which you have a cultural affinity, any more than an altarpiece in a museum is the same thing as an altarpiece in a church. Having been divorced from its purpose, it loses some of its meaning. There’s no contradiction in being a non-believing, though culturally-entwined, member of a tradition. There might be something elitist about it, maybe it causes a tension, maybe it might even be bittersweet.

But my point is that being a cultural Anglican or Catholic does place a kind of restriction on one. Since what you love relies on committed others, they deserve respect. You can’t run around with and cross-promote the work of people who claim that religion poisons everything, a la Hitchens; or, that those who pray are no more stable than those who believe God can be contacted by talking into a hair dryer, a la Harris; or, that all religion is a delusion, a la Dennett (and Freud); and, you can’t claim that people ought to lose their jobs because they take their religion seriously, as Dawkins himself has—though that was with a person who believes a religion for which Dawkins has no affinity. …

It reminds me of this Millennial Star post about the secret in the Mormon sauce (warning…Millennial Star post…)

…but as an aside, who knew that Richard Dawkins considered himself a cultural Anglican? I almost feel like all the people who hear the latest things that Pope Francis is saying and think that the Catholic church must be making a heel face turn — while I want to believe this is a big deal, I know that really, it probably is just evidence of my gross ignorance of the subject.

Anyway, the article where Dawkins declares himself thus is from this month, so I’ll take it that it’s a recent revelation.

The interesting conflict for cultural Mormons (and maybe for some cultural Catholics and cultural Anglicans as well, but I don’t know, and the posts about Dawkins don’t really give that impression) is that the relationship is so much more complicated. From Dawkins:

Prof Dawkins admitted he would consider going into a church, and would miss ‘aesthetic elements’ such as church bells if they were gone. And he said he was “grateful” to Anglicanism which he claims has a “benign tolerance” – enabling people to enjoy its traditions without necessarily believing in them.

He told the Spectator: “I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do… I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green.

“I have a certain love for it.”

I can’t pretend to suggest that cultural Mormons are a monolithic cohort, but if I had to (read: decided to out of efficiency/laziness) refer to them/us as if we were, then I would say that “aesthetic elements” aren’t exactly Mormonism’s strong suit, so, cultural Mormons probably wouldn’t miss the corporate, correlated elements of the church in the 21st century.

And certainly, many cultural Mormons — especially ones who have gone through a disaffection process — will note that Mormonism has nothing of a “benign tolerance” for “people to enjoy its traditions without necessarily believing in them” — so there would be no gratitude there.

In a sense, my being a cultural Mormon is descriptive more than prescriptive. My appreciation for my heritage is a good faith identification with myself — perhaps even a rationalization — rather than an endorsement. I certainly recognize that cultural Mormons, as it were, are “parasites” to orthodox Mormons (don’t know where I originally came across this phrasing, but ctrl+f for “parasite” to see me use it in the discussion here).

…but…

that doesn’t necessarily put me in agreement with Tyler’s blog post quoted above. I mean, yes, yes, I think everyone should avoid new atheism because it’s lame, but not necessarily because religion deserves such deference. I appreciate my heritage, but if I had a different one…no skin off my nose.

Looking at Tyler’s final line:

That is, contrary to the program of many New Atheists, if you value what religion has given your society and even want to see it stick around, you can’t deride the people who actually believe it—and create what you like.

What if someone who values what religion has given society (in some limited fashion) isn’t necessarily sold on wanting to see it stick around…or isn’t sold on wanting to see it around in its current fashion (and would suggest changes that would effectively destroy it as it is currently known)?

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5 Comments
  1. Hedgehog permalink

    I can empathise with Dawkins here. Raised Mormon in Britain, there are many things in the Anglican church I love, and which seem to be at the root of English identity. Mormons are aesthetically starved by comparison, as you say.
    So whilst we attend(ed) our Mormon congregation, I grew up singing Anglican hymns in school (they have better tunes, don’t denounce a good descant, and positively encourage brass instruments), summer holidays were spent looking round churches and cathedrals, and every Christmas eve afternoon was spent listening to “9 lessons and Carols” on the radio, broadcast from Kings College Chapel in Cambridge.
    Does that make me a Mormon who is culturally Anglican?

  2. Angela C permalink

    Give me evensong over a cricket match any day! Anglicanism is, IMO, such a tolerant and appealing alternative to Mormonism that the church struggles to really make toehold in the UK even after our long history there. One of the reasons, IMO, is that the “most faithful” Mormons seem to be aspiring Americans. Originally, most converts emigrated to the US. Now, Utah culture is exported to their activities in the form of cookies, cheer leading, basketball, and Halloween celebrations, at least according to Jake Halford’s view of YSAs in the UK. Only those who can endure these cultural imports survive.

  3. Hedgehog,

    Does that make me a Mormon who is culturally Anglican?

    I’ll totally buy that!

    Angela,

    What’s interesting is that I used to analogize the LDS approach to churches in other locations as being something like…say, McDonalds. McDonalds is pretty much the same everywhere, i would say, except for a few regional items.

    But you know, that’s not even all that true. Mcdonalds diversifies a lot more given the area, even to the extent of having a totally different niche, being more like a Starbucks competitor than anything else in some countries. Like, I couldn’t imagine “hanging out a McDonalds”, but apparently, things aren’t so…fast food-y everywhere.

  4. Hedgehog permalink

    Angela,
    Village cricket matches tend to be shorter much shorter than those in test cricket.
    “the “most faithful” Mormons seem to be aspiring Americans.”
    Well, there are many faithful longstanding members who complain about the import of US culture. I guess the complaining may get them marked down as less faithful by the upper echelons. Some people do embrace the culture with a terrifying enthusiasm. There were British converts emigrating to Utah as late as the 1960s.
    “Now, Utah culture is exported to their activities in the form of cookies, cheer leading, basketball, and Halloween celebrations,”
    Too true unfortunately. We had a stake “Hoedown” last weekend. Hoedown? What’s wrong with Barndance? I wish British members felt free to express British cultures, not adopt the US ones. Halloween especially annoys me. We celebrate this (really?), but not harvest festival! I’m sure most denominations in this country would see that as alarming. And in many wards anything more than a red poppy and two minutes silence in a sacrament meeting is frowned upon for Remembrance Sunday.
    Faint glimmer of hope: My Mum mentioned her ward are holding a harvest supper next month, and I almost wept. I’ve never heard of that happening before ever. It’s very English. Some wards do have a bonfire party and fireworks for bonfire night.
    But yes, the guys from Utah seem to regard Britain as an extension of Utah, and make no allowances for culture that might be made in other European countries. I don’t know if this is because we speak the same language, or because so many of their ancestors come from Britain they assume we’re the same as they are.

    Andrew,
    My favourite McDonald’s meal ever was served in Japan in the early 90s, a chicken tatsuta (Japanese-style bun, chicken steak, shredded white cabbage, pickled ginger and soy sauce) with a melon milkshake.

    On your final question:
    “What if someone who values what religion has given society (in some limited fashion) isn’t necessarily sold on wanting to see it stick around…or isn’t sold on wanting to see it around in its current fashion (and would suggest changes that would effectively destroy it as it is currently known)?”
    I think we see a hint of that with regard to Anglicanism. There was a lot of kerfuffle when the vote for women Bishops was lost last year, with some outside voices demanding that change be forced upon the church because there are seats in the House of Lords reserved for Bishops that women ought to have an equal shot at occupying, or so the argument went.

  5. In my six-year experience with Momonism in Finland, I could see cultural Lutheranism in most Mormons in Finland (as well as in most other Finns.) This seems to be because Lutheranism is taught in school, and national holidays are generally religiously-based.

    Also the LDS Church was a clear vehicle for the import of American cultural . For example, basketball was introduced to Finland by an American LDS missionary who today is considered the father of Finnish Basketball.

    What if someone who values what religion has given society (in some limited fashion) isn’t necessarily sold on wanting to see it stick around…or isn’t sold on wanting to see it around in its current fashion (and would suggest changes that would effectively destroy it as it is currently known)?

    This is an interesting question. Being an atheist former Mormon who still has strong affinity for many aspects of the Church and many people in it, I am happy to see some aspects of Mormon culture die and some thrive. I have four children who are being raised Mormon (by my ex-wife.) Some will probably remain Mormon for the rest of their lives.

    Considering how de-conversion can destablize marriages and families, I would like to see Church activity be as positive experience as it can. Along those lines, I might like to see more toleration for salvation-by-grace theology and more sexual equality. However, there is the same dilemma posed by the OP, advocating for those changes may destabilize my relationships as well. Advocating for change from my new outside position, creates distrust of me among those that I love who still believe. It is harder and possibly counterproductive to my goals to advocate for change, because openly criticizing the church could hurt the relationships I am trying to maintain.

    Still feeling out where a progressive/critical voice is needed or helpful.

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