The difference between most disaffected Mormons and me
Over at Back Rubs Lead to Front Rubs (p.s., one of the best blog titles ever…I wish I had a witty blog title), Amy has written about arriving at atheism. And particularly, of the different ways of arriving at atheism.
This is something I’ve noticed myself in the disaffected and former Mormon community, but quickly, you can tell a difference between ex-Mormons. Many people tell the story of being a devout Mormon (with an impressive resume of Mormon callings and whatnot), having a great testimony, etc., until they discovered some piece of Mormon history that unsettled everything. These people reasoned or read their way out. Kylie wrote about it thusly at We Were Going to Be Queens:
Almost all of the atheists or agnostics that I have had conversation with have been those that have left the church. Maybe we are a special crowd of people. We did not come to atheism or agnosticism by some random default or lack of thought. We did not just choose not to quit thinking about God or the mysteries of the world and declare, “I’m agnostic because that religion stuff just isn’t for me.” People who have left Mormonism and become atheist or agnostic have almost always done so through lots of study, reading, and critical logical thought… These are the atheists and agnostics that I am familiar with…
Kylie went on to describe, however, that she has met some agnostics and atheists who didn’t become that way as a result of reading, study, and critical thought…and as a result, these folks can often make some of the same fallacious arguments as anyone else. (But then again, can’t we all?)
But of course, Kylie’s post misses another option, which is what Amy wrote about:
I simply never believed in God (although I tried). When I left the church, I didn’t so much reason my way out of religion and god-belief as it just never “clicked” for me in the first place. Church history was like a cows opinion. So, I don’t really fit in with the “learning-church-history-destroyed-my-faith” crowd and, although I self-proclaim that I have always been an atheist, I don’t really fit in with the never-churched crowd either.
The same is true for me.
I think that our subjective experiences highly influence the way we think, and so we are often most prone to making fallacious or short-sighted arguments because we assume too much about our own experiences. As I conversing with Amy, I felt that she was (unwittingly) making such an argument:
…I’m okay with religious education so long as it follows a pattern like, “This is what I believe and I believe it because I’ve received a sort of peaceful feeling about it. But I don’t KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is true, because there is a difference between emotional evidence and physical evidence and I’ve never actually seen this thing I believe in…”
What I responded was that this position begs quite a few questions. It already assumes a particular epistemology that simply wouldn’t work for Mormons. Namely, that one can’t “know” things from “peaceful feelings.”
Such a statement might be entirely reasonable for someone who have never been convinced by the Mormon model, or even by someone who once was convinced by the Mormon model but “reasoned out” the flaws in it. But someone who believes would not be likely to say the above quote. Instead, their argument would be something closer to this:
“This is what I believe, and I believe it because the Spirit testified it to me, and that’s how I know, because the Spirit is a source of knowledge.”
Although of course, I’m aware of liberal-believing Mormons who would be able to inject the nuance that Amy’s above hypothetical testimony has…the issue is these liberal-believing Mormons get flak from more orthodox Mormons. Are they really believers? Whose side are they really on?
…In any case, as I was thinking about the above testimonies, I realized that these provide a really good example of the difference between ex-Mormons.
Most ex-Mormons would say:
“This is what I used to believe, and I believed it because the Spirit testified it to me, and that’s how I knew it was true, because the Spirit is a source of knowledge. Now, after reading, thinking, and evaluating philosophy, psychology, etc., I’ve come to believe there is a difference between emotional evidence and physical evidence, and that the emotional experiences are not a reliable basis of knowledge.”
In contrast, I would never be able to say that. In fact, I’ve never really had to go through an epistemological evaluation of feelings and emotions as most ex-Mormons probably have had. I’ve never really had to ask, “So, was what I felt all those years really the Spirit?” Instead, my process was something closer to:
“I never believed that, because I never had an experience of the Spirit testifying it. Unlike the other ex-Mormon, I’ve never had to study psychology/philosophy/epistemology to evaluate whether my spiritual experiences could be the foundation of knowledge. Instead, I’ve had to question a framework that asserts that anyone can have these spiritual experiences, and further, that these spiritual experiences are reproducible, repeatable and consistent. Because my experience has been they don’t.”
The interesting thing is that this leads to further differences still. For example, sometimes, people ask atheists the question, “What would it take you to believe in God?” (or, for ex-Mormons: “What would it take you to believe in the church?”) Different people have very different responses. I think that most ex-Mormons, because they’ve had to find a new way to account for what they used to call spiritual confirmations, tend to discount subjective experiences through and through. So, their answers tend to be things that call for objective evidence. (For the church: archeological evidence. Evidence that Nephites existed, that the plates actually existed, etc.)
On the other hand, for me, I have never had to “debunk” subjective experiences, so my answer to questions like these is always far simpler: I just would have to have something — anything — to make me feel convinced that it’s right. If I had an experience that I subjectively perceived to be spiritually confirming, then of course, I would believe. I’ve just never had anything that has triggered that subjective response.