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Orientations of faith and personality

September 7, 2009

True and righteous believing Mormon. Evil apostate ex-mormon. Life was so much easier when I thought people fell in these neat categories.

Even when I discovered nuances in believers (and even non-believers) — New Order Mormon, Liberal Mormon, etc., — I thought I had a grasp on things. So, one of the cool (if a bit disorienting) things I’ve discovered since distancing myself from the regular offline day-to-day drawl of church life are these communities of people — the Mormon Bloggernacle, Outer Blogness, the LDS-Evangelical border, and so on — that I probably just wouldn’t get to meet if I were still dealing in the vanilla of every day interactions. I mean, I guess it must be true that the kinds of interesting people who blog must also exist somewhere in real life…but somehow, I just don’t get the sense that many are in my areas.

Then again, maybe I should just get out more.

In my short stay on the internet, I’ve discovered in particular a way of looking at faith that intrigues me because I cannot fully comprehend it. I’ll try to approach it, but I’ll probably fail.

Quite simply, all the time I’m finding people who shock my pre-established expectations.

Things don’t just fit into boxes of true believing members, ex-members, apostates, and then non-believing members who stay in because of family and culture.

I’ve realized is that the distinctions get deeper than that. There are people in the church who I don’t know how to classify (and I find this out when I try to add a link to a blog, for example…I’ve been emailed a few times from people saying I guessed wrong.) Sometimes, when I read the accounts of people, I try to force them into one of the neat categories (even though even the categories I mentioned aren’t so neat). I might even verbally try to convince them that they really should be one way or another.

I mean, take someone like John Dehlin. You’ve got people on all sides calling him out. He keeps being too edgy for the Bloggernacle, yet from the nonbelieving side, people say he’s a sellout (or worse). How could he know so much and stay in the church? Maybe he’s a saboteur, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? That’s what they say, you know. And yet, he’s not quite new order Mormon or liberal Mormon…at least, not from what I’ve compared between the two groups and him. I can’t even make heads or tails of his previous projects…since he put things like Mormon Stories to the side, and has made statements that suggest with varying levels of ambiguity that sometimes, he thinks the project caused more harm than intended. He’s got that stayLDS project, that’s kinda…unpublicized. It simply doesn’t fit, and I don’t know how to classify.

Some people just seem like magic. You can’t explain magic. You just hope it’s never against your side.

Another person that I don’t get is Seth Payne. I’ve read and reviewed a couple things that he’s written now, and seen a few of his comments, and I still have to wonder…why does he stay in? It’s a little bit more than just family. But I can’t really decode the beliefs (especially when it’s about taking the church’s worldview and putting it into myth or allegory). That’s just…so different…so strange…

Or Seth Rogers? He’s a bit different from the former two, but he always surprises me with his comments. He’s got a visceral quality to his comments whenever I see him comment (especially in the way he responds to how others look at the church). And yet, still, it’s kinda underwhelming. It’s interesting, but not in a way that compels me. It’s interesting in a way that makes me ask, “How do you pull that off?” Or more importantly, “Why?”

How do these people pull off such idiosyncratic (at least, in my opinion) beliefs in or regarding the church with continued participation within?

For lack of a better term, I’ve been thinking about calling this puzzling phenomenon a demonstration of an orientation or inclination of faith. There seems to be something that these people have that gets them to say, “OK, I am affiliated with the church. This is my orientation. I am loathe to change this without persuasive reasoning to the contrary.” And so they have all of these idiosyncratic beliefs…yet make a convincing case that the church is a good place for them.

It seems incomprehensible to me, because I have a different orientation. It just seems so reasonable for me to decide to stay an outsider. I think to myself: I can always add the things I like on my own without making it official. It wouldn’t make sense for me to stay “in,” and subtract (especially when I’d be subtracting things like tithing, “mandatory” meetings (I put that in quotations because…you always have agency…but the “good” member will go to the meetings, right?). And yet, for many others, it makes sense.

I don’t get it. I guess it’s something you just have to experience for yourself?

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  1. Interesting thoughts…

    I think sometimes we like to pigeon hole people, so we can anticipate how they might react to things, and then we they react differently, it freaks us out.

    I was wondering if perhaps this was a Mormon thing, but I think it may just be human nature – it gives us some semblance of control of other people.

  2. Yeah, I’m pretty sure this is a human nature thing. Psychology has tons of research on how we do this in every way — it’s not just people, but with other things in life. Sometimes, it gives us a survival advantage. Obviously, in today’s world, we don’t need to do it all the time, but we still sometimes do.

  3. I think humans that tend to have more black and white thinking struggle with this a little more as well, typically it seems those of us raised with strong religious or cultural backgrounds have a tendency for more black and white thinking and is definitely a left over remnant from a time that this would have had a big survival advantage in the human evolutionary process.

  4. Sofal permalink

    There is nothing wrong with developing mental models of the way people work. We all do that because it is how we relate to others (not just control them). These models just need to be continually revised as new information comes in (rather than having it “freak us out”). Placing people into categories, applying stereotypes, and being biased in your judgments are all mistakenly seen as inherently evil. Our mental models are all imperfect, but they are still useful. I don’t buy the idea that it is a currently useless survival response left over from the sabre-toothed tiger days. The problems come when you are unwilling to revise your model in the face of contradicting data, or are unwilling to make judicious exceptions in order to benefit others or yourself.

    I took this article to mean that Andrew is interested in revising his mental model to accommodate people that don’t fit into his current one. This is a good honest exercise, and has nothing to do with forcing (pidgeon-holing) people into categories. It has everything to do with reaching out and trying to understand others.

  5. Sofal,

    the problem I’d point out is that unwillingness to revise the models (since you basically shifted the “problem” to that…and I agree with you here) is often what people do when they have mental models, stereotypes, etc., So, the two are most often a package deal. You have a mental model formulation…and then, more often than not, unwillingness to revise comes with them. So that’s why I can see WHY coventryrm would say what he says.

    Quite simply, to a certain point, it’s easier to stick with your model and be resistant to changing it. If you stick with “TBM vs. apostate and that’s it,” you can easily put people in boxes and then deal accordingly. Dealing with people as nuanced, specific, heterogeneous individuals is a lot more difficult because we have to get rid of more and more of our broad stereotypes.

    In trying to revise my mental models, I come to find that my inclination with any kind of model formulation is one of a couple of things: ease of use and laziness Quite simply, it’s easy to use the broadest brushstrokes that are still reasonably accurate.

    I can see about what coventryrm says about a “remnant from a past time.” Basically, think about it like this: when we are trying to determine “enemy” vs. “friend,” and our enemies are trying to kill us or harm us and our friends are helping us, preserving and defending, then the models are really important. And they don’t have to be specific. If you overclassify your enemies, no problem.

    In today’s world, we really don’t need this. Our “enemies” become “people who annoy us or who we don’t agree/understand” and our “friends” are “people we like/who we agree with/understand.” But there isn’t such a need to shun enemies based on disagreement. In fact, if it’s just a mental or social difference, we can’t afford to shun or kill or destroy our enemies. We MUST learn to deal and work with these people in civil society.

  6. I puzzle even myself sometimes, Andrew. So I guess I can’t help you. 🙂

  7. yeah, your report on Christian pluralism. I read through it, and at the end I was like, ‘SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW, GUYS?!’

    next time, make a report on why infidels should be tortured slowly. have some EXCITEMENT. DISAGREEMENT. CONTENTION, etc.,

  8. Ha! Yes, I suppose exclusive views of religion do tend to be a little more interesting…

  9. not more interesting. more engaging. Because if someone’s wrong on the internet, I can get fired up about that.

    But if someone’s saying something that…really…isn’t…all…that…controversial. Well, who am I going to yell at now?

  10. Sofal permalink

    The unwillingness to revise mental models I think is just a manifestation of the general population’s resistance to change. I think stereotypes are a lot more ubiquitous and nuanced than we give them credit for in normal conversations, and in many cases I think they serve a purpose other than protection, like identity for example (though I would argue that the protection benefits still apply in dangerous or prison-like environments, e.g. middle school).

    I know you meant to emphasize the negative connotations when you said “ease of use and laziness”, but in a sense ease of use is what models are generally for. As a programmer, I often use or hear the term “laziness” used as a sort of synonym for “efficient”. The idea is that you do not do any more work than you absolutely have to in order to successfully accomplish a task. I think as humans we understand the world through the imperfect structures we build in our minds, giving us leverage to build more complex models on top of those.

    That being said, I agree that there is a natural tendency for crude “us versus them” models and it does strike me as an evolutionary response that is completely unnecessary and unproductive in civilized circles. One of the reasons I like your blog so much is that I’ve seen you show a sense of maturity in avoiding that mentality.

    Asid: What about sports teams though! How do we deal with that? Gentlemanly us-versus-them?

  11. Good point on the analogy to programming — that’s actually true. That’s why I’m pretty torn here (because I do recognize some benefit to these kinds of models and mechanisms…it’s just figuring out where they are).

    Re: sports teams. As long as fans don’t swarm the field and beat up the other team’s mascot (ugh…I came from an HS where people did that once…not good publicity for my HS) or trash the field/town the game’s being held in, I think we’re about as gentlemanly as can be applauded in the sports realm.

  12. I’ll have to cook up something good and controversial just for you, Andrew. How about a post about how the Bible promotes pre-marital sex or something?

  13. if you could find something like that, that would be pretty excellent.

  14. I probably just wouldn’t get to meet if I were still dealing in the vanilla of every day interactions. I mean, I guess it must be true that the kinds of interesting people who blog must also exist somewhere in real life…but somehow, I just don’t get the sense that many are in my areas.

    Just last night, I was discussing with Mister Curie a post on NOM that talked about whether you would prefer to be “love-bombed” or ignored. I think I would have preferred to have had a NOM-like mentor… if they even exist. I think that would have helped. To have had someone IRL to help me tangle out the contradictions in the faith.

    I recognize all of the labels, but never know which one to apply to myself. Mormonism is not my tribe, so I don’t really have that cultural pull towards tribalism. That seems to be a common denominator for so many of the groups. If I stay, its for me, not for someone else. I like categorizing, just because it helps me see the world easier. It feels good to “belong”. But I think its often a mistake to push such generalizations too far because, as I’ve proven in my own life, individuals are not generalities.

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