Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Mormon Disaffection, and Atheism
Dan Wotherspoon has his latest two episodes of Mormon Matters up, and this time, the episodes are dedicated to James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Dan holds the stages of faith extremely highly (as is evidenced by the fact that I have listened to several Mormon Stories podcast episodes where they have come up), but I think this might be the first time they have been brought up on Mormon Matters.
One thing that Dan (and co-participant Marybeth Raynes) raised several times in the episode was that the Stages of Faith are not about belief content. Consequently, the stages of faith don’t just apply to Mormonism or Christianity or any one religion, but are broadly applicable.
…at the same time, the common understanding — especially within an LDS context — does assume certain things about the stages.
Certainly, the Wikipedia won’t do justice (and I have yet to read the source book), but I’ll link to the wikipedia instead of trying to rehash the relevant stages. As far as Mormonism is concerned, however, online Mormonism is full of the narratives of those moving from Stage 3 faith to Stage 4 faith. The so-called “faith crisis” of Mormonism feels exactly as it is named — like a great crisis. And yet, in the stages of faith, Stage 4 doesn’t represent the end of faith, but merely a shift from a faith that conforms to religious authority to a faith in which an individual takes ownership for his or her own beliefs.
As I listened to the podcast and thought about my experience with Mormon disaffection online, this raised a question in my mind:
Could it be that many cases of disaffection aren’t actually a complete shift to stage 4?
The narrative seems clear. The stage 3 Mormon believes wholeheartedly what he or she has learned from childhood in primary, sunday school, priesthood or young women or relief society or seminary or institute or whatever. S/he believes in the words of the General Authorities at General Conference. S/he believes in the words of the scriptures.
Yet after finding out about some historical or theological issue, or becoming aware of a lived disagreement with some policy or doctrine (for example, the church’s treatment of LGBT issues or issues regarding women’s roles in the church), there are doubts. And as a result of whatever research process, the individual no longer believes either some or all of it.
Shouldn’t that be a slam dunk case for Stage 4?
I often say that many disaffected Mormons seem to me to have the same sort of mentality and conceptualization of Mormonism as the stereotypical TBM. That the two are two sides of the same coin. You can see it in how both the TBM and the disaffected Mormon will often disagree with liberal or uncorrelated Mormons using similar argumentation. When an uncorrelated Mormon proposes a different way of looking at religion (or particularly, Mormonism), both the TBM and the disaffected Mormon will usually protest similarly that the liberal Mormon is now no longer accurately describing Mormonism. To the TBM, Mormonism is x, y, and z (which are true), while to the exmormon, Mormonism is x, y, and z (which are false).
So could it be that many cases of disaffection aren’t really a shift to stage 4, in the sense that the disaffected member doesn’t actually take ownership for his or her own beliefs?
Looking at the definition of stage 3 (faith confirming to religious authority), even that could still describe many disaffected Mormons…except instead, the religious authorities become sources like MormonThink, the Letter to a CES Director, or new atheist writers like Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
Instead of looking at a shift from Mormonism to, say, secularism, as being a religious deconversion, what if we saw it as a religious conversion? Would we say that someone going from Mormonism to Catholicism has moved from stage 3 to stage 4 simply by that move? Or would conversion often maintain stages?
As I thought about the possibility that disaffection could still be within stage 3 — that even atheism and the absence of any formal religious practice could be within stage 3 — that made me wonder how stage 4 and other stages could be reconceptualized in a constructive way. What does stage 4 look like beyond the first impression of it being any disaffection narrative? What does taking ownership of one’s beliefs and feelings really look like, rather than just shifting the focus of one’s beliefs and feelings from a religious centering to a secular centering?
There was a comment on the Mormon Matters discussion that intrigued me:
…I wonder, though, what about those who get to stage 4 in their transition and then transition out of the Church? Is this a common phenomenon? Truthfully, this was my own experience and it’s raw enough that I am still trying to piece it together to understand what happened. I just couldn’t see a way past stage 4 that involved staying…
If the stages are not about belief content, then what about the prescribed actions? I get that stage 5 doesn’t necessarily involve moving back to the “belief content” of stage 3, but does moving past stage 4 involve moving back to the activity patterns abandoned in stage 4? Does it mean going back to church (albeit in a reconstructed/uncorrelated/more individualized sense)?
I don’t know if I would say I “just couldn’t see a way past stage 4 that involved staying,” but then again, I’m also 24, and it is said that stage 4 usually persists through late 30s, so I apparently have some years to go.
However, I do wonder where I am supposed to place myself “in comparison” with other folks I see in disaffection narratives.
I chat with many others whose pain is raw. Whose emotions run high, and who are vocal to express those emotions. I chat with many others who are confident in their sense that the church is not what it claims to be, and that consequently, it is not worth dealing with. I chat with many others who “don’t get” liberal or uncorrelated Mormons. Who think that these things are just apologetics and mental gymnastics.
I chat and engage with these people, and I can feel why they feel this way, but I don’t see myself in this boat.
I see liberal Mormonism and think it is super neat. I think I “grok” it enough that I can explain it and defend it, but I am well aware that I am not “living it” (not attending church, although I sometimes think it would be a neat experiment to go back and see if I can handle it.)
I can “see” many of the conservative religious views too, but am certainly not living those either (and feel less confident I could live those).
I recognize that I may be in this position because my path has been somewhat different. I have had a relatively easy life — I didn’t experience as much pain as many others. My parents were and are very accepting, liberal, and chill. My “disaffection” has been incredibly soft — I can’t say I’ve ever lived as a “TBM”, so there was no shock or crisis there. I can’t say I’ve ever had any profound spiritual experiences or anything that would personally make me seriously consider the existence of that realm (in fact, the only reason I do consider such is because I imagine all the folks talking about their experiences can’t be just…making it up), so it’s not like I’ve had something, and then lost it, but at the same time, if having that sort of connection or sensibility is a prerequisite for “faith development,” then I am absolutely blind and deaf on that dimension.
Ultimately, I feel like I understand many of my personal and interpersonal flaws, and I have enough to work on without adding religion on top of that.