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Faith separate from Belief; Faith as Choice

May 31, 2014

A few article ago, I wrote about faith as loyalty, commitment, or an attitudinal stance. I mentioned that what I found intriguing about this world of approaches is that it separates beliefs from faith.

Today, someone linked me to an article on Exploring Sainthood provocatively titled A True-Believing Atheist Mormon.

The first thought that went into my head when I saw that title was — how could any atheist claim to be a true believing Mormon?

But the author, Mike B, quickly explains that his approach is to separate belief from faith, and he brings in thoughts from Adam Miller’s Letter to a Young Mormon in support of this:

For you, the existence of God is so unlikely and runs so counter to common sense that even an earnest kind of wishful thinking is more than you can credibly muster. God is just not given to you as part of how things are. . . . Though this common sense godlessness can make things harder, it too can open a path to faith. – Adam Miller, Letters to a Young Mormon

The interesting part of the article is to illustrate that the choice of faith can be like the choice of mathematical axioms. As he writes:

Mathematical systems are built on a handful of what are called axioms, i.e. unproved assumptions that provide the starting point for reasoning. Most mathematical truths (e.g. 2+2=4) are not axioms, but the logically implied results of the founding axioms. A common misunderstanding is the idea that axioms must be self-evident. While many axioms happen to be self-evident (e.g. x=x), some aren’t. A statement becomes an axiom simply by our arbitrarily choosing it as such. No proof or self-evidence is required.

For illustration, let’s consider the continuum hypothesis. If you tried enumerating all the counting numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) you would of course never finish because the set of counting numbers is infinite. The set of real numbers, which includes the counting numbers and other things like the square root of two, isn’t just infinite; it’s infinitely larger than the already infinitely large set of counting numbers; there are bigger infinities still. The continuum hypothesis speculates that while there are many infinities bigger than the real numbers, there is none smaller, except the counting numbers. There’s nothing between the two.

What’s interesting is mathematicians have discovered that the continuum hypothesis is both impossible to prove and to disprove, given our current axioms. The consequence—and what proved so relevant to my posture within Mormonism—is that we are left with a pure choice. With no compelling reason to declare the continuum hypothesis true or false, the question is what mathematicians call undecidable. But it is precisely this undecidability that allows us to make a pure, insupportable, axiomatic decision. The continuum hypothesis will be true, or won’t be, as we choose, and neither choice will be inconsistent with current axioms. At present, the mathematics community is still split on this decision.

Emphasis added.

This was an intriguing analogy, and I think you should read the rest of the article.

That being said, I had concerns about many of his points, and I wrote about them in a comment on the site. I’m not going to repaste here, so again, read the post! But I will address a few thoughts.

As I’ve mentioned on earlier posts, I think that even separating faith from belief raises questions. The question to me is: even if faith is a choice, why should I (or anyone else) make that choice?

Mike B starts very early in his article by saying that he was raised in a white, middle-class, active family. From the name, I am supposing that Mike is a cis-male, and I am just guessing that Mike is heterosexual.

In the article Mike talks about belief as being an “irrational affect,” which cannot hold up as evidence, and certainly not as proof. I agree that belief is not objective, but where he emphasis the objective “undecidability” as offering a choice, I think that he underestimates the subjective aspects at play. Ever if beliefs are subjective (and may be irrational), they are more important to us practically than what is objective. Even if I believe something that is objectively wrong, I will act in accordance to that subjective belief over objective reality. (If I genuinely believe I cannot be harmed by bullets, this won’t end well for me if I try to test that belief, but I will think and believe that it will end well for me.)

So, even if we separate beliefs about, say, God, or beliefs about, say, the Book of Mormon from the choice of faith, the question is…what are the other subjective aspects at play here?

If Mike were not white, were not middle-class, were not from an active family…if he were gay, transgender, or any number of other states, would his subjective experience of Mormonism differ? Would it be as desirable for him to “choose” to stick with Mormonism?

I am totally open to people having the choice to stay in Mormonism, even when they don’t believe. I am totally for people advocating that as a valid possibility within Mormonism (countering those who would insist that Mormonism is only for those who believe.) However, it seems to me that as Mormonism currently is, it’s not a safe, or helpful, or positive, or constructive place for many types of folks. I think about how the church is treating women seeking equality, and I am not optimistic. I think about the church’s approach and treatment of LGBT issues, and ask: why should anyone continue to try to strive here?

I understand that for those who have spiritual experiences or other subjective (in the sense that one’s spiritual experience cannot be exported to another) elements in their lives, then new avenues become open that might justify these things, but not everyone has these things. Not everyone has the privilege to make Mormonism work out for them.

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  1. Mike B permalink

    Hi Andrew, thanks for the thoughtful engagement with my post.

    First, I agree with you that belief is not about objectivity. My disbelief in God does not result from any kind of objective reasoning. To again borrow from Adam Miller, God is just not given to me as part of how things are.

    You and I agree that belief is subjective, but we’re still clearly working from different definitions of what belief is. For you, to say “I believe x” is to say “I accept as true x.” Under this definition, then sure, I believe in God.

    But what I mean by “I believe x” is something more like saying “my natural inclination is to accept x.” I can accept something I don’t believe, but I have to suspend my natural inclination to do it. Under this definition, I genuinely don’t believe in God.

    You ask, “If we have already divorced faith from objective proofs, what I am trying to say is that this doesn’t mean there’s nothing pulling us to or from — it’s just that what we have left are subjective elements. How do those play in your decision?”

    That’s a fair question. In writing the piece and reflecting on my experience, I saw two subjective forces trying to decide my decision for me: belief and preference. And I often hear folks try to justify their decision about staying in or leaving the church by pointing to one of these two forces. What I want to suggest is that neither is sufficient to force our decision on this issue, that we have a real choice. What I’m saying is that a choice to stay or leave is a choice that both can’t and doesn’t need to be justified.

    I think my story is effective at demonstrating the insufficiency of belief to predetermine that decision, and if helps someone who feels, like I did, that they have to leave the church because they don’t believe in it, even though they’d rather stay, then I’ll be glad.

    I go on to infer the insufficiency of preference to predetermine the decision to stay or leave. I’d like for folks to own up to the fact that, belief or not, preference or not, they have a real choice to make. Not because I want to judge them if they make the “wrong” choice, but simply because I believe in the principle of agency. But I’ll be the first to admit that my story is not a good demonstration of acting against preference. For that I’d have to point you to someone like Josh Weed.

    I’ll just make the final point that for me the choice to affirm Mormonism does not entail a choice to affirm the idolatries that parasitically cling to Mormonism, such as misogyny, homophobia, racism etc.

    • Mike,

      I’m with you that for me, belief also implies “my natural inclination is to accept…”. I guess the difference is whether belief is tied to natural inclination or the acceptance.

      I don’t think it is tired to the natural inclination part. But where I think the connection is is that I don’t see it as being possible to go against natural inclination here. That’s what it means for me to say beliefs cannot be chosen. To be able to go against natural inclinations on matters of accepting things as true would be equivalent (to me) to saying that one could choose belief. If I say, as someone who also is in the boat where God is not given to me as part of how things are, “God exists,” This immediately sends a thought or impression in my mind “I don’t buy that. That’s not true.”

      And for me, belief is about the phenomenological effects… I can pretend to accept something, but the natural inclination is what makes me ever aware that all I’m doing is pretending. Does that make sense?

      But I do think this is a separate issue. I am not convinced you can just choose to accept God while simultaneously saying you believe there is no god.

      But I absolutely do agree that your beliefs about God are not deterministic of whether you stay or leave the church.

      Here, though, I do think that you’re silo-ing off subjective details that don’t necessarily need to be siloed. So, you place belief and preference against each other as of they are equally weighted (or rather, both insufficient to force one action or another), but again, I look at the phenomenological effects, where both belief and preference produce certain effects for me. In this case, I still cannot see your choice as being completely unrelated or unrestrained by the phenomenological effects of belief in choice. Instead, I infer from your comments and post that your preference for Mormonism overcomes any effects of belief.

      And I can understand this, but again, your choice then would be informed by subjective considerations, would it not. Suppose you did not believe and you also did not prefer Mormonism? I can understand that you could still choose to participate, but would you? Why would you?

      For an extreme example, if you had not been raised Mormonism, you could still choose Mormonism. But if you still did not believe in God, still found several book of Mormon scenarios literally absurd, and also had no preference for Mormonism, would you?

      So, it seems to me choice isn’t as free and open.

      I can also appreciate separating Mormonism from, say, homophobia, misogyny, etc, but to many, these aren’t parasites clinging on, but actually parts of Mormonism. Someone making the choice to continue participating with Mormonism would have to deal with the effects of going to church and hearing lessons against lgbt folks, hearing church leaders of the newsroom insinuate that feminist concerns are apostate, and hearing members who wholeheartedly believe that if you don’t agree with the church’s position on lgbt issues, women’s issues, etc., then you are not sufficiently Mormon. I buy that someone can choose to do so in spite of everything but it is not a free and unbounded choice.

  2. Bill permalink

    I too read Mike’s article, and was reminded of a method I used for decades to structure a state for myself that justified my staying in Mormonism. My method was to describe myself as an “existential” Mormon. So a philosophical framework rather than a mathematical framework gave me what I thought I needed to be both atheist and Mormon.

    As a young man I read some Sartre and other existentialists in an effort to understand the philosophy. At the risk of way over-simplifying (and never trying to imply that I fully understand existentialism or any other philosophy), the things that appealed to me were the notions that “existence precedes essence” and that we are ultimately responsible for the meaning we individually apply to things and to our own existence. I added to these notions the observation that I was born within the Mormon framework, and thus inherited a certain “language” that I could use to articulate otherwise difficult or impossible to articulate notions and feelings. Utilizing this language, I could build meaningful community with others who also accepted and used the language. Thus, the meaning I was responsible for was an application of the language I received by accident of birth. My logic was that we all have to start with what we are given, and no one enters the world without experiencing some sort of context.

    Where things started to come apart was precisely when I realized that the Mormon “language” that I had been granted a) takes as a fundamental given that there is essence regardless of existence — that meaning is external to all human experience and needs to be discovered (or revealed); and b) facilitated actions taken by leadership in the name of Mormonism that were often counter to my own sensibilities about “meaning” or fairness or justice. In your comments you rightly pointed to racism preached and promoted by church leadership in the past (and continued today in the canon of Mormon scripture). Other examples range from sexism, to materialism, to homophobia, to explicit worship of hierarchy and power (i.e. priesthood).

    The coup de grace for me was the realization that I had abdicated my existentialist responsibility to this “language” and its associated hierarchy and power structure. When I began to contradict the explicit Mormon framework and instead derive meaning from a more humanist framework, I experienced a freedom of thought and emotion that confirmed for me that twisting the Mormon framework into what I wished it would be was not only counter productive, but was ultimately harmful to me.

    I get that people experience meaning and joy in the context of Mormonism. I get that the organization stands for many things that are good and right. But ultimately, the Mormon framework stands for the sacrifice of true freedom to the structured theology and communitarianism that is the essence of being Mormon. And I realized that my embrace of that framework, as twisted as is was by my misappropriation of existentialist notions, contributed legitimacy and authority to Mormonism through me — in my very tiny way, I was raising my hand and saying “I agree and support” the inherent racism, the impossible perfectionism, the paternalism, the sexism, the anti-science, and everything else that hit me wrong about it.

    That’s not to say that there is some other alternative established framework that is perfect. But it is to say that embracing a framework that ultimately demands the sacrifice of my search for truth and authenticity on its alter of faith in things I don’t agree with was no way for me to live. Sartre spoke of being “condemned to be free.” Understanding that notion, I would rather be an existentialist humanist than any sort of Mormon, existentialist or otherwise.

  3. Alma 7:14 seems to have the sequence of repentance and faith reversed.

    “Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.”

    That is, first one is baptized, which in turn washes away sin, which in turn confers faith. And yet in the Book of Acts, chapter 8, Philip requires a confession of faith from the eunuch before he will baptize him. This is an important distinction because the act of baptism is purely on a human initiative, which essentially makes a demand on God to justify the sinner if the gift of faith comes before baptism.

  4. …if the gift of faith comes AFTER baptism I meant to conclude.

  5. Jesus commanded Baptism, so then He is in it. He never commanded us to do anything where He would not be present in it…for us.

    This says it very well:

    [audio src="" /]


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