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All or Nothing Part 2 — Switching Dogmas

February 21, 2009

This is a followup to “All or Nothing,” where I highlighted how some aspects of the church reinforce this idea that members have to accept all of these religious propositions…or else he shouldn’t accept any of them. In my article, I gave Mormon examples, because that’s what I know — the church foundationally rests on ideas about Joseph Smith, the Apostasy of the church (and the need for its restoration), the divinity/inspiration of the Book of Mormon, and other things. From there are hinged other ideas that might be doubtful doctrinally, but which are culturally claimed as required. How did the First Vision really go? Does the Book of Mormon need to be  a literal historical account, and what is the right interpretation of such history (full hemisphere, or just localized in a certain area)?

So, there are certainly members who get their faith wrecked because of some area that is conflated to essentiality due to rogue Mormon culture. Mormons don’t believe in prophetic infallibility, for example, but due to cultural expectations, it might seem like if a prophet has said or done something off kilter, that’s sign to head for the hills.

Of course, there are sites designed to help people stay even through these difficulties, so there — I’ve given my equal opportunity time.

It was quite refreshing to see a post of a similar caliber on the blog “slacktivist.” Slacktivist speaks from an evangelical perspective — and he speaks about how culturally, Fundamentalist Christians have created a similar all or nothing house of cards on something that also could easily wreck the faith of Christians — the absolute acceptance of young-earth creationism that utterly rejects evolution. Personally, I’m glad Mormons (may) not have this problem. A quote from the site:

But it’s really hard…to avoid encountering some incontrovertible piece of evidence that the earth and the universe is far, far older than young-earth creationism allows. When they encounter this evidence, they may be able to cling to some desperate form of last-Thursday-ism (the world is 6,000 years old, but was made to seem older) which may provide them with a temporary patch until they get better at living with very high levels of cognitive dissonance and barely veiled self-deception. But just as often, the whole edifice collapses. Hard. They wind up rejecting everything they ever believed.

Everything, that is, except for that pernicious notion that “all of it must be true or none of it is.” These kids…become the mirror-opposite of their old fundamentalist selves. They become as strident and binary in their unbelief as their failed mentors at Bob Jones were in their belief. Yet even their rebellion tends to remain shaped by that world and its narrowly imagined options.

And that’s a tragedy. I think it was Maya Angelou who said there’s nothing sadder than a young cynic, because they’ve gone directly from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

And you know what…I agree with him and Maya Angelou. Even though I am not a believer, I would say to my believing brethren, it is ultimately tragic that people are indoctrinated with the all-or-nothing kind of mentality that ultimately wrecks them when it comes into contact with reality. Please work on that.

…and yet, slacktivist brings up something else. He brings up those who not only become disillusioned and skeptical, but who become the mirror opposite of their old fundamentalist self. They still keep all or nothing! And so, I guess it is with people like these that we have the idea of atheism as a dogma or religion — of fundamentalist atheism. Because we do pick up a lot of ex-theists who want to dogmatically proclaim atheism with the same all-or-nothingness as their old religion did. We need to work on this.

Commenter Geds posts something that ALSO reminds me of something I have discussed recently on other sites:

…And I’ve tended to use True Believer, just like AW does above. I’ve learned that I simply don’t have the knack for True Belief and that part of the problem was I kept forcing myself to have it.

True Belief…I’ve mused about it in my post on faith, but others have talked about a faith gene or whether one can be born to believe.

So this makes me wonder if going from all to nothing isn’t also a personality trait…and one that’s not literally going from all to nothing, but switching which full glass to drink from. As the religious glass empty, one might take a hard skeptic glass. As one politicians goes out of favor, one might jump on ship with a new one.

It makes me wonder who is prone to this trait? Is it something people can change or choose? I, for one, can’t “choose” to *truly* believe…but that goes both ways — I can’t choose to truly believe in a god, and I can’t choose truly believe there is no god. I’ll make a post distinguishing negative or weak atheism (that is, I disbelieve, or lack a belief in god) from positive or strong atheism (that is, how some others actively believe there is no god), and why perhaps I can see the strong atheism perspectively theoretically. I still cringe to see some ex-Mormon comments or atheist comments around the blogosphere, because I wouldn’t take such an audacious stab (although I can take a few audacious stabs too — I’ll write a post about it soon).

I’ll have to make another post bawwing about agnostics who think they are distinct from atheists and theists (which goes back to my idea of weak atheism), but at the same time, the idea is tantalizing — for people without “true belief,” certainly, it might be awkward to commit to an idea that they don’t believe.

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  1. We’ve talked about this a lot on MSP — I wish I could link to it, grr!

    The popular myth “they just switched from one type of fundamentalism to another!” is, frankly, a way of simplistically (and self-servingly) dismissing an unfamiliar perspective.

    The thing is this:

    Suppose your root belief was that gospel truth (what you learn from church or prayer or the Bible, etc.) trumps physical evidence. So whenever the two are in conflict, the gospel is right, and the worldly evidence is wrong. If one day you stop believing that for some reason, your new belief inherently applies to everything that you had previously believed based on religious faith/authority. At that point, you’re not going to say “Okay, I don’t think we can determine the truthfullness of this Bible verse based on prayer and faith, but for this other Bible verse, prayer and faith can certainly tell us it’s right!” That would represent an artificial and nonsensical distinction.

    People who say “You’re going too far if you throw it all out just because you questioned this one claim!” have fundamentally misunderstood which (single, simple) belief the person questioned.

  2. “The popular myth “they just switched from one type of fundamentalism to another!” is, frankly, a way of simplistically (and self-servingly) dismissing an unfamiliar perspective.”

    Chanson, it’s impossible to draw any other conclusion when the people on routinely refuse to even consider the possibility that a man could be both a “racist” and a prophet (Brigham Young). The discussions on the subject tend to be awfully dogmatic.

    So yeah, a still-active Mormon COULD use that as a way of writing half the crew of off as unhinged zealots. And that writing-off would probably not be a useful response.

    But it doesn’t change the fact that half of them are, in fact, unhinged zealots.

  3. I agree with slacktivist that its much, much easier for a person to abandon his religion than to abandon his “fundamentalism.”

  4. Re: Chanson,

    but what the all or nothing part is, why include “gospel truth” with so many parts. After all, that means you’re equating the chance that one part could fail, (say, The church or scripture) with the chances that all of them fail (church, scripture, personal revelation, spiritual experience, etc.,)

    So, let’s say that you find that scripture is not reliable. It does not follow from that that spiritual experience is unreliable, or that other scriptures are necessarily unreliable.

    (I just happen to think there are other reasons why those other things are unreliable).

    You can’t denounce and deny the possibility of *all* from *one*.

    And that kinda leads me into my kinda position. Do I think that Joseph Smith *could not* have been a prophet? And do I continue to go through the line and say that it is *impossible* for any of them to be prophets? No.

    I really don’t know, so I can’t say what impossible or not. But I recognize that I don’t have the faith or belief to take that they are prophets. Whether they are or not, I am not convinced. Whether there is a god or not, I’m not convinced I should believe in any, so I don’t. I’m not convinced by the idea that I should simply “desire to believe” or accept that I don’t have that particular gift or accept what I can’t see because of hope and faith and whatnot, so I don’t believe.

    But I’d like to think that that is just a touch different than rejecting all of everything in anger and fire and gnashing of teeth. I guess someone will call me out on any of those things eventually 😀

  5. Todd permalink

    Your mention of Mormons not believing in prophetic infallibility reminds me of a favorite saying of one of my BYU roommates:

    “The Catholic church has a doctrine that the Pope is infallible, but most Catholics don’t really believe it. The Mormon church has a doctrine that their prophet is fallible–but most Mormons don’t really believe that.”

  6. aha, I had heard that quote before but I hadn’t remembered it for the post.

    what a small world indeed…

  7. Todd permalink

    Speaking of small world, I was just reading your comment agreeing with my comment over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

    I keep waiting for E.D. Kain to realize that his strong aversion to the idea of Mormons as Christians is primarily based on emotional prejudice rather than any coherent analysis of what it means to be Christian. But for someone who favors an analytical style of writing, he seems remarkably resistant to reason, at least as far as Mormons are concerned.

    A rational outlook regarding religion is so much easier to maintain when one no longer believes!

  8. hah, I was wondering why the name was so familiar, but I just figured that there are lots of Todds around the internet.

    I agree — I get the sense that Kain is only willing to concede that Mormons are Christians under a “self-identification” paradigm, when really, he hasn’t suggested any reason why according to a shared meaning of what Christianity, why mormons shouldn’t be considered christian.

  9. >>I, for one, can’t “choose” to *truly* believe…but that goes both ways — I can’t choose to truly believe in a god, and I can’t choose truly believe there is no god.

    This is a great way of putting it. I find myself in the same boat. It’s an uncomfortable way to live, questioning everything and having difficulty committing to a particular paradigm. But it’s the way I’m wired, and I think it’s ultimately a more constructive way than dogmatism of any kind– atheist or Christian. I, too, wonder if maybe this isn’t at least partly genetic/inborn.

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