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What are we seeking as religious (de)converts?

May 14, 2013

I was listening to an episode of Mormon Stories from 2010 — the one where Dan Wotherspoon interviews Randy Snyder and Tyson Jacobsen about atheism.

Anyway, I only have finished the first episode so far (I’m listening as I drive to and from work each day, so it’ll take me weeeeeks before I’m through it), but late in the first part, Randy says:

“Basically, the way I describe it: when I was a true believing Mormon, it was like i was in a small little box, and I was afraid to look around the world outside the box…(snip)…once I got out of that box…the roof of the box opened up, and I saw this whole beautiful universe that I had yet to explore, and there was all this knowledge out there, and when you get rid of all the cognitive dissonance associated with trying to make Mormon theology and Christian theology fit the rational world and the natural world…everything comes into focus, and now I’m free to follow the evidence wherever it leads me. And it’s a fascinating and exciting journey.

[snip]…to me it was freedom that was so appealing.”

Now, plenty of people have done research on the similar constructions of ex-Mormon deconversion narratives to Mormon conversion narratives — check out Seth Payne’s paper and Rosemary Avance’s presentation for starters. But I’ll say that the commonalities I find in Randy’s “exit” narrative and others’ religious conversion narratives is striking. 

The fact that there are commonalities isn’t really what I want to talk about…at least, not directly. And I don’t necessarily want to approach it from the perspective that others might have — looking at how people are socialized into telling the narratives that they tell (whether it be a narrative on the way in or a narrative on the way out). But I do want to talk about what the commonalities are, as I see them.

So, as I see it, it’s this: many people may find themselves (wherever they are, whatever their current circumstances are) stifled and limited. They feel they are “in a box.” They either can’t make sense of their current situation, or they can, but they suspect that the tool that they currently use to make sense of their situation is limited and unwieldy.

But then they find something momentous. This new thing allows them to open up their world, step outside of the box, make sense of their situation in a way they couldn’t before. And this new information *frees* them to live *better*.

The thing is that the “thing” in particular is variable. I haven’t listened to the entire podcast, but for Randy, the thing was *NOT* Mormonism (because Mormonism was the box). But for other folks, Mormonism might be that thing. And I mean, Christianity in general — when I read the New Testament, the parts that stick out (especially w/r/t the quotes from Randy) are the parts where Paul talks about how *freeing* it is to be Christian. One is *free* from sin and the wages thereof. I was listening to a video from a friend who was talking about how when she really engaged Christianity, she was able to free herself from checklists and “performing”.

So it seems to me that that sense of “freedom,” “enlightenment,” “focus,” and so on is something that we should be striving for. And yet, here’s the tricky part — it’s not all in one place. The destination isn’t the same for everyone. One size does not fit all. So for some people, the church might be that place. but for others, the church will be the limiting box. (Like, for some people, religion might free them from checklists…but for other people, religion might be the thing putting the checklists in place…)

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  1. I see a lot of truth in this. All three of my husbands joined the church after we were married. For all three of them, it was something distinct that made them decide to join the church. What *that thing* was, was different for all of them, and while they were living with me and became familiar with Mormon things because of that, *that thing* did not actually involve me. For two of them, I didn’t know what *that thing* was until quite a while after they joined the church.

  2. Victoria permalink

    Very like the allegory of the cave. Once you’ve been outside and touched and smelled and tasted and heard what’s outside of the cave, you can’t just go back in and stare at shadows anymore. Or, you make the choice to do it, but you always are aware that there is an outside of the cave, but you set it aside in order to remain in the group and accepted.
    It’s as natural a response to stay within the cave as it is to get out. Maslow placed acceptance in a group as a fundamental to not only psychological well being, but also as an essential element to survival.

  3. Yep, I think the allegory of the cave is applicable here. But the curious thing is that we can’t really nail down what the ‘cave’ is. One person’s cave may be another person’s outside-the-cave.

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