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Fowler’s Stages of Faith, Mormon Disaffection, and Atheism

June 4, 2014

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?

Maybe not.

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.

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3 Comments
  1. Andrew-
    Interesting post. Also, I am the one who made that comment you referred to on the Mormon Matters discussion. I enjoyed the podcast but hoped they would discuss how more members could move through the stages without abandoning the religion altogether. It seems to me “stage 4″marks a significant crossroads.

    I also like the idea of “uncorrelated” Mormons who thoughtfully consider and own their beliefs, decisions, etc. I think those members can (eventually) fuel the most change in the culture/practices, while valuing and participating in the good aspects of the religion.

    Ultimately, however, that’s a difficult road to take in an organization that does not encourage belief/faith beyond the literal. Because the need for community is powerful, I think many who leave would happily participate if there was less emphasis on literal belief/obedience and more opportunity for intellectual and spiritual freedom. (Also full inclusion of women, LGBT members, singles, etc.)

    But for me, I tried the “liberal” Mormon path for a while– but after losing belief, it felt disharmonious to continue participating in something that I no longer believed to be true– especially in a system heavily structured around the importance of that “truth.”

  2. JL,

    Thanks for commenting! I don’t think I made the connection since you had commented as JH over there.

    If the thought I was having about stage 4 in this post is correct (meaning that many cases of disaffection aren’t a clean shift to stage 4), then interestingly enough, that opens a window for the stage 4 to stay in the religion.

    What do I mean? Well, when I reread the wikipedia article after listening to the podcast, something struck me that hadn’t struck me before. Stage 4 is defined there as The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feeling.

    But how far does this taking personal responsibility go? And how does that work in contrast to the definition given for stage 3, which is “characterized by conformity to religious authority”?

    Well, if my new thought is right, then what that would mean is this: being stage 4 without abandoning the religion altogether would a process of exploring Mormonism *without relying on what the religious authority says*.

    You say later in your comment:

    Ultimately, however, that’s a difficult road to take in an organization that does not encourage belief/faith beyond the literal. Because the need for community is powerful, I think many who leave would happily participate if there was less emphasis on literal belief/obedience and more opportunity for intellectual and spiritual freedom. (Also full inclusion of women, LGBT members, singles, etc.)

    But for me, I tried the “liberal” Mormon path for a while– but after losing belief, it felt disharmonious to continue participating in something that I no longer believed to be true– especially in a system heavily structured around the importance of that “truth.”

    In stage 3, we conform to the institution…and the institution sets the stage that belief/faith should be literal, one should obey, etc., etc.,

    In disaffection, it appears that we are no longer conforming to the institution, but in a sense, many people still do, indirectly. We say, “Mormonism is defined by the institution” — which is really more of a stage 3 thing to say, I think. And since (as you note), we don’t believe what the institution is saying, it feels disharmonious to continue.

    I think, in simple, that stage 4 may actually involve a radical casting off of the institution’s demands. Certainly, leaving is one way to accomplish this…but staying on one’s own terms, even if the institution doesn’t validate those terms, is another way.

    I think about people who have been excommunicated from the church (for example, because they are openly gay, openly in relationships) but still attend regularly, believe, etc., Does their belief make them stage 3? Does their excommunicated status make them stage 4? But they aren’t really the stereotypical disaffected Mormon. And because the church has already “done its worst” by excommunicating them, they can’t be pressured by conforming to the religious authority.

    But your comment raises a more crucial question: what is it that allows some people to go through with that, while others feel disharmonious?

    I don’t know either. I know that for me, even though I can conceptually understand it, a lot of it feels disharmonious to me too.

    At my most cynical, I would imagine that it’s something inborn, that you either have or that you don’t have. Or maybe that it’s a matter of privilege. (For example, whenever I read stories of people who make the church work out, they usually have favorable wards, priesthood leaders, etc., Or perhaps they personally are not affected by certain issues. [e.g., they may be straight, white, middle-class, etc.,]) At the most basic level, I feel like some people have experiences that keep them going that I simply never had.

    However, when I’m not cynical, I think about a phrasing Dan uses a lot — that you have to “live into” it, that you have to “do the spiritual work.”

    What could this mean? Well, he and Marybeth gave a few glimpses on the podcast. They mentioned about taking note of what “triggers” one at church, and to try to pay attention to what was said or done, so that they can contemplate/think/assess that.

    One final thought I have…there is just so much time in life. While I certainly know many people who leave the church and stay out for the rest of their lives, I also know many people who left the church, had no plans of ever joining back, but then came back decades later (maybe in some very different capacity). I can see myself as having “left” the church, but I can’t say for sure that things will never change.

    • Andrew-
      Thanks for the response and the clarification. I absolutely see your point and I think it’s a good one, worth considering.

      I don’t know the answer either as to why some stay on their own terms and others feel compelled to leave. I listened to an “On Being” podcast recently where the host interviewed a physicist about how we make decisions. In short, he commented that although he does still believe in our ability to choose, there are so many biological, environmental and situational influences (often unseen) on us when we make decisions that the concept of “free will” is somewhat of a myth.

      I’m still thinking about that, especially as I process my own disaffection and listen to the stories of believers and nonbelievers alike. The idea of “choosing” to believe or not seems simplistic and reductive to me. However, why someone chooses a certain course of action based on those beliefs/non-beliefs– that’s something I don’t think we’ll ever have clear answers for but I still think is worth exploring. If anything, it can help us develop self-awareness.

      And I agree with your last paragraph– there is a lot of time and we all evolve and change. Who are we to say what doesn’t appeal to is now won’t appeal to us later and vice versa?

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