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In the world but not of it…at what cost?

May 31, 2009

I find it funny…I do not believe in the divinity of the church. I do not believe in God. I have written an article at Mormon Matters suggesting alternative ways to believe where the comments quickly evolved into a discussion about what atheism does and does not entail (protip: atheism is mere. It is merely lack of belief in gods…as such, it alone is not a worldview or belief system. More on that later.) And people like my father or people from church or people elsewhere have feared for me, suggesting that if I continue these paths, then surely I am asking for trouble. If not in the near future, then for eternity. But some suggest that I will bring ruination to my temporal life.

I am increasingly interested in ideas like moral error theory and amoralism, nihilism and existentialism, ideas and philosophies that might scare and shock normal people because they thrash cultural normativity even more than atheism does. And yet…contrary to all expectations, I’m doing surprisingly well.

I don’t mean to toot my own horn or anything, because I don’t think I’m that great a guy, but perhaps I’m just pointing out the obvious — just because one is atheist doesn’t mean one is immoral, etc., But, really, I’m having to come to grips with a realization that I am just really, really different.

I was hearing a story about some people who I know, but somewhat peripherally. The person telling me this story told me about their newfound explorations in all kinds of sexual and drug- or alcohol- related exploits. The story hit kinda close, because I didn’t realize that people who were so young (these people just graduated high school this year) or who were so close to me (these people might be considered on one step removed from my circle, if my immediate family or immediate friends are my circle) were doing those kinds of things.

Now, Andrew S. Don’t be so naive. Lots of people have flings and sex. Lots of people don’t care about casual sex. Lots of people drink or smoke. Lots of people party. And even more, people do this in high school. Or even middle school. If you have a will (which comes quite early these days), you will have a way.

But I was just so sheltered from it all. I always thought, “Well, those are people I don’t really associate with.” And even when I heard about people two or three steps away from my circle, I wouldn’t really understand the complexities of it.

Now, it’s beginning to hit home though. This stuff happens, and many people do it. Even people who are close to me. In fact, what is more frightening still is that the people in my circle are probably just as guilty, but I simply am unaware of it!

My mom wonders all the time if I’m doing ‘bad’ stuff (but then again, I don’t think she regards a lot of that stuff anywhere near as bad as my dad or as any devout Mormon should, because she recognizes the naturalness of it…but then again, she and my dad are converts…so they weren’t sheltered from that growing up.) I couldn’t and can’t even pretend to say that I am. I have a running joke going that I don’t believe peer pressure exists, because I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen the DARE-esque situation of someone pressuring me to smoke weed or drink against my will. Heck, I’ve never been to a situation that actually had weed, and wouldn’t know where to look even if I wanted to. Even of people who drink, I see rather sensible people who don’t cross any lines and certainly don’t become crazy.

So, recently, I’ve had to wonder how it was that I’ve been so sheltered and naive…and I think it’s just another sign of the pervasiveness of Mormonism as a culture. Even as I move away from the church theologically and ideologically, practically, I’m still a better Mormon than many members. And actually, that defeats my hypothesis — I can’t be this way just because of Mormon upbringing, because I know many members of my ward who are unworthy to do anything precisely because they have engaged in these discretions. So the church can’t perfectly produce certain kinds of citizens.

So I don’t think this is necessarily sign of the truth of Mormonism…but rather, it’s an interesting look on its social impact, especially on me.

But I also have to think that there are other factors to account. While I could be inclined to think that I’m just personally this prude(nt) virtue superstar and that’s who I am, I’m not even going to suggest that. But rather, I do think that various parts of my personality do seem to create a person who is inclined to appear or give the impression of virtue. As an introvert to the point of schizoid personality disorder, I simply do not put myself out into the situations where partying and drinking and sex would be a problem, and furthermore, even if these things would be available, I wouldn’t be interested and I wouldn’t be convinced by peer pressure because my personality (and its defects) make me immune to these social factors. So if I do have virtuous blemishes, at least they aren’t the highly visible, highly social ones that most people especially like to discuss.

I just wonder…this being so different…which seems to cover the “in the world but not of it” concept rather well (better than certain believers I know, at least)…I wonder what cost it is to me?


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  1. This makes me think about two things: 1-hearing the “in the world but not of it” a lot growing up was kind of misleading. Yes there is all kinds of stuff going on that I don’t want to be a part of, but it almost became an “us vs. them” mentality, when in all reality there are a lot of good people with high standards who are not LDS. For example, another atheist friend of mine doesn’t drink alcohol at all. None. He’s also never been religious. He just doesn’t think it is good for you.

    2-For the most part, I haven’t considered it a “cost” because generally what I have chosen to refrain from (e.g. drinking) I am happy about, and has benefited me.

  2. I think you have deeply absorbed Mormon values. It’s pretty clear that you consider not having sex, not drinking, and not using drugs to be “virtuous choices” on your part rather than considering them, say, risks you don’t want to take or morally neutral actions that you simply aren’t interested in pursuing. It’s interesting how much a part of you that “worldview” is even though you don’t believe in the religious aspects.

  3. C.S. Lewis said that asking whether there are virtuous atheists or bad Christians is the wrong question altogether.

    The correct question is whether Christianity or atheism IMPROVED the person who signed up or not.

    So you may find a narrow-minded, gossiping, suspicious woman down the street who goes to church living next to an open-minded, virtuous and honorable atheist. But that has nothing to do with showing whether atheism is better than Christianity.

    The real question is whether the woman would have been even worse if she wasn’t going to church, and whether the atheist would be all that much better if he was going.

  4. re adamf:

    I agree that it is creating a kind of us v. them mentality, but at the same time, I am seeing that this us v. them mentality is not so far off. For example, I will agree with Seth R. and C.S. Lewis that asking whether there are virtuous atheists or bad Christians is a bad question, but where the us v. them mentality comes into play is *why* people appear to be virtuous (and of course, we have different ideas of virtue…this post assumes that the Mormon normal LoC and WoW virtues are virtuous, but others could disagree)…really, I have to say that between personality and then from cultural and parental upbringing, my reasons are interesting and different from others. As an ex-mormon atheist, I have very different experiences from a never-religious atheist.

  5. re kuri:

    I agree with your message, but with caveats. Like I said in my comment to adamf (and I am writing in a future post at MM), after I wrote this article, I thought, “Wait a minute…why do I think these things are indeed virtuous?” Because in the end, I RECOGNIZE that these things aren’t indicative of anything virtuous, but rather of cultural narratives about virtue — I’ve grown up in the Mormon narrative for way too long, so I still have these things.

    However, even I’m moving past this. I don’t believe I’m virtuous. I don’t believe anymore that the WoW or LoC is necessarily the paragon of virtue. My amoralism is tending to turn these things into what you say EXACTLY: “morally neutral actions I am simply not interested in pursuing.” So, now, I’m coming to the point where I’m saying; “this isn’t morally bad or morally good, because it’s not morally anything!” But at the same time, where Mormon culture pervades is that I still SPEAK in terms of the Mormon narrative (saying certain things are virtuous and certain things are not), and I am impacted by what I am or am not interested in pursuing.

    So, isn’t that so strange? I recognize now that I don’t NEED to think drinking or sex are bad, and at some level, I’ve realized that I’ve liberalized and do not think they are (but then again, even inside the church, I’ve never seen so much the fuss). But it’s not complete. I still doubletake at what I feel are abuses of these things (in other words, when I say “drinking and sex aren’t bad like the church says,” it’s because I only see or think of social or responsible drinking, or I only think of safe or reasonable sex. When I see people who get totally wasted and black out, I am not quite condemnatory, but it makes me realize that I’m not completely in the clear.)

    And it IS so interesting how this becomes part of a worldview without the religious aspects, but I realize too that it’s flexible. Because I think what matters is that even though I’m using language of virtue, I’m very cautious about it. In my post, I try to put it in quotations, because I’m not certain about it. Or I try to say the “appearance” or “impression” of virtue, because I’m going by the eye of the beholder (e.g., the Mormon community I came from.) I talk about the difference between ideology and practicality.

    In a future post, I’ll try to reconcile this with amoralism…especially with what you had said, “Morally neutral actions that I am simply not interested in pursuing.” Because I think that says a lot about the difference between prudence and morality, and why we may not even need the latter even though everyone thinks we do. That’ll be my shock article of the week.

  6. re Seth R:

    I agree. But then again, as with my philosophy, I think this is an individualistic and subjective thing. So I can’t say that Christianity will always improve someone or will always disimprove someone. As an atheist, I think it helped me tremendously, but I can’t say that this should become a general rule for everyone. And at the same time, I recognize too that we should be able to synthesize different ideas.

    Even the question you propose becomes disingenuous. for example, it posits that the only thing a theological position should do is improve someone’s life. But it’s certain possible that by going to church and participating in church, one’s life can be improved and that will have nothing to do with the spiritual precepts of that church. Should Christianity then continue to try to confuse the issue and attribute the improvement of its adherents to Jesus or God, when for some it could be a spiritually-motivated improvement and for others, it could be cold, hard, concrete socially-motivated improvement? Or does this even matter? I mean, you might say that if churches can only raise social capital, then that justifies their existence in and of itself regardless or not of their theological truth.

    I’ll have a post on Mormon Matters next Saturday about just that issue — what is the one thing one should get from the church, if someone can’t get everything?

  7. This is really interesting in that there seem to be at least three levels to this — language, thought, and feeling — and they don’t seem entirely consistent with each other. You tend to drift into the language of “virtue,” yet you don’t think that there is anything particularly “virtuous” about abstaining, but still you feel a sort of moral wrongness when you witness an extreme case.

  8. Along the lines of what Seth said, when I’ve heard people complain about someone’s behavior “even though they’re a Christian” or “even though they’re a Mormon” and use that as a criticism of religion, I’ve often responded, “Yeah, but think how bad they’d act if they weren’t a Christian.” I was always half-joking, but maybe there really is something to the idea.

  9. re kuri:

    But that’s another thing…I don’t really feel a moral wrongness. I feel that they are being imprudent, but it is not to the level of “moral” wrongness.

    I think the difference is subtle, but clear. The danger of prudence vs. imprudence (not to be confused with prude-ness vs. nonprudeness) is something of a self-help or a self-harm. So, when I see people blacking out, I think, “Wow, that was not very smart. Look at all of the embarrassment and silliness and stupidity you’ve done.”

    But this isn’t the same kind of reaction someone who would have a moral wrongness attached would have. When someone looks at what they think a morally wrong action is…like, let’s say, if someone disagrees with the church’s actions in prop 8. Then they don’t just say, “Wow, that was not very smart. Look at all the embarrassment and silliness and stupidity you’ve done; I have no desire to do that morally neutral action.” RATHER, they say, “That was abhorrent. You should have some kind of retribution for your actions (whether divine or from human causes.)” The attitude against a moral wrong is indignation or rage…but the attitude against imprudence is pity or something like that.

    So, at this time, if we have 3 things, language, thought, and feeling, then I’m not two for three (language and feeling). Rather, each part is confused…I’ve got some feeling, but it’s not as strong as it should be if I were a “good Mormon” (e.g., should be moral outrage, but it’s not), but it’s stronger than it possibly could be if I were completely out of the Mormon moral loop (many people wouldn’t even think the aforementioned activities are imprudent. So, I have a stronger-than-average reaction on that part.) And with language, I’m paying respect to traditional ideas like virtue, but I’m trying to move away from them (but I’m still stuck in between.) The belief part is perhaps the least confused, because I’ve always been in a position where, “I don’t believe.” It’s just it’s hard to come out of the nonbelief closet (which is a language and feeling thing) and fully realize what that entails.

  10. I have intellectually accepted something like amoralism a while ago, yet I find myself reflexively applying the good ol’ Mormon judgment and condemnation. I’m slowly learning to see things in terms of healthy vs. unhealthy or skillful vs. unskillful, but it’s taking time.

  11. “But, really, I’m having to come to grips with a realization that I am just really, really different.”

    You think? *grin*

    That realization helped me long ago be comfortable with who I am.

  12. it’s a bit lonely up/down/around here. which wouldn’t be problematic on its own, but it’s problematic because we’re in a world specifically where we have to be dealing with others.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Amoralism and moving past morality « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. If someone should get only one thing out of the church, what should it be? | Wheat and Tares

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