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Authenticity, congruity, faith, and the ex-Mormon

April 7, 2011

For the most part, since I’ve dis-identified from the church (…for it doesn’t feel right to say I’ve “left” the church, since I haven’t sent any Big Exit Letters) I haven’t really talked to many members I’ve personally known about it. My parents know, although I certainly did not send a letter about that either, but for the most part, I guess I was able to mask a lot by going away to college. So, I imagine that everyone thinks I’ve gone off to school and am attending a student ward here. I guess they are only half-wrong.

If someone really wanted to know, it wouldn’t be tough. On Facebook, I am fans of the Mormon Alumni Association, Outer Blogness, Main Street Plaza, r/exmormon, and a number of post-, ex-, and former Mormon groups. My religious views section still says “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” but that was only because Facebook now allows a blurb underneath. Mine is as follows:

 …but an apatheist, agnostic, mere atheist, Mormon Alumni Association, secular, cultural Mormon type of LDS guy.

 But I guess I couldn’t blame someone for not checking that. Anyway, recently, I reconnected with an old friend from my ward, and she began to notice all the exmormon stuff. And she was curious for explanation.

Unlike many of you who have had pretty terrible experiences with member friends, the conversation we had was pretty pleasant (although that may be because the only people who chat me up are reasonable people.) Yay.

Anyway, even more recently, this same person forwarded me something she had read as part of her assigned readings for her studies. I was pretty intrigued:

…there is a sense of yearning to find congruity, coherence, and purpose. Such yearning is not as salient in the processes of identification and imitation (unless these processes are being utilized to resolve an incongruity). Underlying this yearning is human faith–what Erikson (1968) refers to as fidelity. Faith is the ability to know that we will reach the goal, resolve the incongruity. In essence, to become aware of incongruity and to resolve the distress a person must have some degree of faith.

Some of you may already be aware that I talk about an idea called “authenticity”. A lot. I think I do it because I’m not sure what the best way is to elaborate what I mean by the concept (maybe I don’t even know)?

Anyway, as I read this, I thought: this has something to do with authenticity! Even if it uses different terms, it matches my feels of growing up in the church and of grappling with it.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t have a lot of fuss from “disaffecting,” but I do remember my father and I having some discussions. He wasn’t too aggressive about it, but he just couldn’t get how anyone could not believe in god. He said something to the effect that while people might disagree on the specifics, anyone who was sincerely paying attention to the universe should conclude that there is some kind of higher power.

I’ve heard this argument around the internet in a few ways. They argue that faith is integral to a coherent worldview or universe-view, and so atheists only claim to be atheists because at some point, they don’t “take their atheism” seriously. All atheists must have some kind of faith somewhere, or else they are nursing an unexamined, yet surely self-defeating worldview.

I’ve had people argue to me that without faith, there is despair. So at the very least, one should have “faith” for a God so that there will be ultimate justice. Without that, one “despairs” that some wrongs will win over good.

…I’ve never understood these arguments. Maybe I’m just not “examining” hard enough, but I don’t feel this kind of “despair.” (In fact, I countered that more worthy of “despair” of a lack of ultimate justice is the despair of trying to force a hope for justice that you just don’t think is so.)

Well, I guess that was a bit of a diversion…getting back to the quote, I was really intrigued by the definition of faith. Not only is it radically secular, but it can in specific instances lead away from religion and religious affiliation. I might be misreading it, but for me at least, growing up in the church was like being given a package to identify with. Much of growing up in the church for me specifically was a game of imitation — I thought everyone was just playing a game, and so I was playing along too.

But then came the realization of incongruity. Others weren’t playing a game. They actually believed this stuff. I knew that I didn’t, and so first I tried what I could to believe what I didn’t. In the process, I had the human faith that, one way or another, I could resolve the incongruity.

Ultimately, I resolved it by dropping the imitation act.

So, where does the faith come in? Particularly as it relates to despair?

The one overriding existential despair I can think of is precisely the idea that one has an incongruity that cannot be resolved. Many “church” solutions feel like that. The church’s position on gay people? It essentially is an incongruity that cannot be resolved except through continuous denial of what most internally feels to be integral to the individual. And in the afterlife, some members say homosexuality won’t exist. It is like saying the gay person won’t exist — for whoever goes to heaven in his stead is an impostor.

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36 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    I’ve found a common atheist version of “faith” (at least from what I’ve encountered), is a strong sense of optimism in the inevitability of human progress.

    Now, there really is no rule out there that humanity has to progress. Or that uninterrupted scientific advance will ultimately make everyone better off. Or that we can only keep improving.

    But many atheists seem to hold this brand of faith anyway.

  2. openminded permalink

    Yea, Seth has my new type of faith down.

    And arguably, advancing is better for humanity right now than stalling. Even more so, advancing in some areas and not others.

    At least this faith can be tested on Earth. Religious faith takes death to be proven, ours just takes time

  3. I guess I’m too jaded to have that kind of faith…the way I see it, progress is way too difficult and elusive to consider it an inevitability.

    • Yet we still progress.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    Yeah, World Wars I and II kind of put a bit of a damper on all that early optimism you saw from atheists around the turn of the century.

    • Despite those wars, the world is a better place today than it was in 1913 or 1938.

      • Seth R. permalink

        I think it’s a mixed bag personally.

      • I think the question of whether we’ve progressed in the last 100 years is way open to debate… Polar ice caps melting, no serious efforts to address the problem of global warming, a population that’s simply growing beyond the planet’s capacity to support it, oil supply that’s peaking, without replacement technologies that can even begin to fill the need (China — nation of 1 billion people — industrializing), metastasization of nuclear technology (and terrorist groups willing to use it), growing disparity between rich and poor (both globally and within the U.S.), increasing political and religious extremism and polarization…

        Americans’ primary concern has been about “jump starting the economy” (and it’s still kind of flat-lining…) Truth is, I think, we are still kind of in denial about the real reasons why Americans are less prosperous now than we were 20 years ago. Much of it is stuff that we have no control over; and much of it is connected to the deeper structural problems faced by global civilization that I’ve described above.

        To me, the world does look a lot like the way it did in 1938, but add to that a profound ecological crisis that could translate into a major extinction event, and you’ve about captured it.

        I dunno… This is progress? Really?

        • Poverty, down. Infant mortality, down. Literacy, up. Life expectancy, up. Democracy, up. Individual freedoms, up. Starvation, down. Disease, down.

          And on and on. By most measures of human “progress,” for people on average (though very much not so for some individuals or groups) the world is a better place today than it was 100 years ago, or 50, or even 20.

          • Seth R. permalink

            Yeah Kuri. If you’re an American.

            For the rest of the planet, you’re more likely to be wiped out in a war or other calamity. The period FOLLOWING both world wars has been far more violent and bloody that the 19th century or any century preceding it.

            And the prosperity of the “First World” is dependent upon and premised upon the exploitation of the “Third World.”

            Which I think is another factor in why atheists tend to flourish more in sheltered and privileged societies.

            It’s easier to maintain the illusion of their own assumptions about morality in that bubble.

          • Seth,

            You are dead wrong on this. Things are better for human society as a whole, not just in the “First World.”

            China and India in particular have made enormous progress in most of the areas I mentioned. So has most of the rest of Asia, as well as most of Central and South America and the Middle East. Sub-Saharan Africa lags behind, but even there things are certainly better than they were 100 years ago.

          • Seth R. permalink

            Yes, all of which are very short-term trends and not at all guaranteed to lead anywhere lasting.

          • (Moving this over because the nested commenting is starting to cut off lines.)

            By objective measure, human society is better today than it has ever been. This is fact. So it may be that in 100 years or 500 years people will look back at the 2010s as the Golden Age of humanity (if they are able to look back at all). But I doubt it.

            Both long-term and short-term trends support optimism. Look back through time, and human history is one of steady (though far from unbroken) progress towards better and better lives for more and more people. “Past performance is no guarantee of future results,” but it is reason for guarded optimism.

          • By objective measure, human society is better today than it has ever been. This is fact.

            Whoa there, slow down. “By objective measure?” “Better?” What do you mean by “better?” What kind of rubric are you using? Are you sure the categories you are “objectively” measuring are really the ultimate indicators of what is “good” in society?

            I’m not arduing for total ubjectivist reduction, but I’m pointing out that you’re talking about evaluating the “good” versus “bad” of something immense and immensely complex.

          • I’m talking about concrete measures of well-being such as life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, access to sufficient food, income, literacy, and health care (and you can throw in personal freedom and democracy too). Are you prepared to argue that it is not “better” for human societies to have longer life expectancies, lower infant and maternal mortality, greater access to sufficient food, less poverty, greater literacy, and more access to more effective health care?

          • I dunno. Is any of it making people happier?

          • “I dunno. Is any of it making people happier?”

            I don’t know either. But tell me this, Kullervo, even if it hasn’t made people happier, would you rather be long-lived, well-fed, with your spouse and children alive, not living in the most abject poverty, literate, with some access to effective health care, and miserable, or short-lived, hungry, with some of your children and maybe your spouse dead, illiterate, with no access to effective health care, and miserable?

          • Seth R. permalink

            All of which have happened only in the last 200 years, and have been accompanied by equally disastrous negatives.

            200 years isn’t much time to extrapolate an overall trend Kuri.

          • People today are better off on average than people 200 years ago. People 200 years ago were better off than people 1,000 years ago. Where exactly do you think this trend ends?

          • Seth R. permalink

            Kuri, I think it is an utterly disputed point that people in the year 1700 AD were actually better off than people in the year 600 BC.

          • Seth R. permalink

            What I see is a long history of slow steady climbs to prosperity (such as the height of the Roman Empire) – followed by dramatic collapses, which continued cyclically.

            And then in the last mere 200 years, an astronomically rapid pace of progress and growth along with a skyrocketing level of consequences (such as apocalyptic wars of unprecedented destructive power). But honestly, the last 200 years are a drop in the historical bucket. And I’ll believe that they constitute a general “trend” when I see it.

          • You see if you look only at European history. While Rome was collapsing, other civilizations were rising and flourishing. While they were collapsing (if they did) still others were rising. And even in the case of European history, the post-collapse rises have generally been higher than the pre-collapse ones. The general trend worldwide is and has been towards better lives.

          • Seth R. permalink

            Yes, which pretty much supports my point of history being stuck in a cyclical rut. Until the last 200 years or so, I don’t really see much of this “slow steady climb” you are talking about.

          • No, if post collapse peaks are higher than pre-collapse peaks, that means “progress” is being made. Steady but not unbroken progress, as I said.

          • What assumptions about morality could be more delusional than the idea that there is a precise, objective, and universal standard for it and that religious texts of all things contain its essence?

          • “I assume that morality is a planet-sized, sky-blue largemouth bass.”

  5. I think the quote’s definition of faith lacks the enabling factor that people typically ascribe to it. It describes faith as the ability to withstand cognitive dissonance by shelving the incongruities you see.

    Faith is the thing that fills the gap between the amount of confidence we can reasonably have in a proposition based on evidence and the amount of confidence we would like to have. It can be empowering and good, but too much of it applied to the wrong proposition can be very bad. Use with care.

    Shockingly, I’m going to agree with Seth. I’ve seen that a lot of atheists do have a sort of faith in the interminable progress of humanity. I don’t think I share this faith. Just the other day I was mulling over the idea that pockets of intelligent life have possibly been springing up in lots of places around the universe, lasting for a while until they become smart enough to destroy themselves and then they quickly fizzle out. Seen from a larger perspective of time, they’re like little bubbles of life, slowly growing and then popping all over the universe. Some atheists dream about humans colonizing the galaxy, but I see us already with the power to destroy all surface life and nowhere near close to having the ability to colonize another planet.

    Yet with all this lack of faith I somehow still live a happy, purposeful life. Is it because I have faith in other things?

  6. Duane Reade permalink

    Seth romanticises a past when, regularly,
    •8 of 10 children born to a mother would die before they were 6 years old,
    * a majority of people were forced to work 17 hours a day, 7 days a week, and
    • their Landowners could cut off their ears of put them in a dungeon at will.

    BUT, they were much happier in those good old days.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Part of some of my comments got cut off.

      I wasn’t saying that people TODAY are worse off than people in 600 BC. I was saying that people in the 1700s were not necessarily all that better off on quality of life issues than people in 600 BC.

      • Duane Reade permalink

        Seth: you ARE correct that the Big Leap Forward in most all the reasonable measures of Quality of Life began around 1800.

        • Seth R. permalink

          The main point I was trying to make from that (which you can agree or disagree with) was that what many atheists view a long unbroken march of inevitable unbridled progress is only a short-term trend of the last 200 years. And I don’t think there is any particular reason to have confidence that it is going to last without a serious collapse. I’m not saying collapse is inevitable. But I am also saying that progress isn’t inevitable either.

          • Duane Reade permalink

            You’re probably right Seth. BUT, I see no consensus on the part of “atheists” (a notoriously variable bunch) on this issue either. As many atheists as fundamentalists seem to be predicting Armegeddon (usu by environmental catastrophe or nuclear blast).

  7. Wayne W. permalink

    Faith—-for me is a lot of things.
    Going to school is an act of faith…I don’t know how it will turn out, but I believe the outcome will be better than what I might have had without it. My Zen practice is an act of faith, I don’t know what the Buddha experienced or my teacher, but I believe that if I practice as they suggest…I will be better off than if I did not practice.

    I guess faith is one thing, that some actions will be beneficial in the short and long term.

  8. Wayne W. permalink

    @ Kuri— I think this idea that humans are better off now than we were in the past, is a very subjective view. Individually–by country or region, you may have an argument. Globally not so much.

    I think you should hang out with an evolutionary biologist for a little while and listen to them talk about stress. I suggest Robert Sapolsky’s book “why Zebras don’t get ulcers.” fascinating stuff.

    • Wayne,
      I think it’s a pretty objective view (well, quantifiable anyway) in terms of physical well-being. I wrote a post explaining why I think so.

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