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4 Spiritual Practices for An Atheist Ex-Mormon

November 11, 2014

One of the reasons I often hear/read people give for being religious is that religion gives them opportunities to become better people. In fact, arguendo, religion in some ways demands that we become better people by prioritizing service, community responsibility, and so forth in a theological narrative. No longer is it just something “nice to do”, but it is an obligation. A calling.

And so, even if the factual claims that any religion (but especially Mormonism) preaches don’t necessarily check out, that’s ok because people can say that they have become a better person by being religious.

This argument doesn’t even have to apply to any religion in specific. In more general terms, it can be phrased in terms of maintaining connection with spirituality. (I am reminded of a thought I had a long time ago: it seems like ecumenism can easily become, “Well, we’ll put aside our religious differences, because at least we aren’t atheists.”) From a long conversation online with Dan Wotherspoon (first in the comments to my “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtains~!” but then it migrated to the comments of his podcast on negotiating adult faith within a developing institution), there was something in particular that struck me. I was trying to express to Dan (and pastoral apologist types in general) that there are many reasons why many folks don’t necessarily want to stick with the Mormonism — especially if they don’t think it’s true. Dan wrote the following:

…More than anything, I’m not overly stressed when anyone decides to leave Mormonism if they still are open to spiritual journeying and exploring themselves beyond just the sorts of things that our senses and rational minds can work with.

Dan recognizes that leaving Mormonism might not be the end of the world…if an individual is still open to spiritual journeying.

This isn’t quite the same as throwing atheists under the bus in the name of ecumenism, since I know that Dan would approve of some atheist “traditions”. I mean, just a few lines after, he writes: “Know, however, that I do appreciate many great paths that are non-theistic and even fully secular.

I get that Dan is trying to address a sort of hyper-rational, “new atheist” sort of critique of Mormonism and religion. And you know what — I can understand that. I can get it, because I too would make similar sorts of criticisms of the hyper-rational, new atheists sort of mindset.

So, you know, I am totally open to spiritual journeying. But as I said in a comment to his podcast discussion, my issue is more subjective than objective — I subjectively just don’t experience anything that I would find worthy of calling spiritual. I’m open to divine experiences — it’s just that I don’t have any. Part of me wonders if I just need to do drugs, but then superego reminds me that #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, they would surely use that against me. So, no to drugs. Not Even Once.

Man, I digress again.

Anyway, one comment Dan made in the podcast comments section that related to one’s openness to spirituality was this:

And I’m not sure I would have known or ever become “open” to letting Spirit be part of my life were it not for how badly my ego did running things. It took pure brokenness, nearly choosing to end it all, final desperation before I could admit failure. Then I could finally begin to yield. Slowly, surely I began to feel those energies, and the long road (one I’m still on) to transformation began. So perhaps you’re just luckier/wiser than me that you haven’t totally effed things up as much as I did/do when just working on my own.

I think that’s interesting. I mean, I can say that I haven’t had anything really traumatic happen, so it would be reasonable to me that one needs to be “desperate” before one can feel anything. That said, I’m not convinced that this is a great explanation — different people process things radically differently. Two people can undergo similarly rough periods in their lives…and one can come away with a renewed spirituality, while the other comes away with a broken and diminished faith.

Still, my life isn’t perfect. And I would venture that most atheist ex-Mormons’ lives are not perfect. So, I was thinking: what are some things in my life that I would like to work on?

I don’t know if I would call these things “spiritual” because I just think of them as good life projects, but I can say that these are things I would like to work on in my life, and that I don’t think I necessarily need religion to help me with (and with which, I actually think sometimes that Mormonism hurts.) Please feel free to let me know if you have any practices you are working on.

~4 Spiritual Practices for (this) Atheist Ex-Mormon~

  1. Seeing the other person’s side —  I am a lifelong learner, but one thing I want to particularly focus on is learning how to see another person’s side of things, especially when I completely disagree or do not understand where a person is coming from. I understand the impulse to dismiss someone else as being basically and fundamentally wrong (and perhaps even harmful to boot), but I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and understand why they sincerely believe what they believe. This is much of why I read a variety of Mormon blogs — conservative, liberal, and other — because ultimately, having never had a testimony, having never been a convert, having never been a liberal Mormon, etc., all of those things are still foreign to me. I cherish when someone tells me that they feel I did their position justice, even if we do not agree. I cherish when someone says that they think I am a reasonable person to discuss with.
  2. Controlling my emotional responses — I am a very subjective person. I live in my head…tossed by my emotional state. In particular, one of the thing that gets me occasionally is that when someone is saying or doing something (especially to me) that I find wrong or unjust, I will become very angry.

    I’m not knocking anger. I think it can be a great motivator and there can be reasons to be angry. For me, however, I’ve had to learn many, many times that anger does little to resolve the situation — and will usually make the situation worse — and the biggest thing it does is it makes me feel worse. So, I want to work on controlling my emotional response. I don’t think I can change the world, so eventually, I want to come to a place where I am immune to what other people say or do to me. That I can take anything anyone says in stride, letting it roll like water off a duck.

  3. Being radically independent — I think that for many exmormons, leaving the church feels like becoming free. This was true for me too, but when I first learned about pastoral apologetics, liberal Mormonism, etc., I started to feel that I wasn’t exactly as free and independent as I had originally thought. When I started investigating these positions, they felt extremely foreign to me. They didn’t sound all that Mormon. But over time I realized that ultimately, even though I had left the church, I was still tied down to the conservative/orthodox view of the church.

    On any given day, I probably won’t think that liberal Mormons are really living Mormonism as it actually exists. I will probably think they are being aspirational. But what I do appreciate is this sense that they are independent enough to do so without getting hung up on the expectations of others (including the institution! including friends! including family! and so on).

    Like, pending how well I can work on (1) and (2), I think it would be interesting to go back to church in this radically independent mode. Like, not caring about getting excommunicated. Not caring about being judged by other ward members. Not caring about others insisting that I am not a Mormon (or that what I’d be practicing is not Mormonism). Just doing my own thing.

  4. Living Responsively to Others’ Situations — This isn’t a particularly Mormon one, but has potential Mormon applications. I definitely think one of the things I’ve learned from being in a relationship is that I am a pretty selfish person. But even more, how hilariously naive I was about relationships before being in one. Like, I don’t know if I would have ever consciously said this, but for some reason, I had this feeling that being in a relationship meant being able to osmose your significant other’s feelings…but nope. It’s very easy to be oblivious of their feelings (and vice versa). Even more fun is when they have a very different personality, very different likes and dislikes, turn-ons, turn-offs. My default is to always do the thing I like, take the approach I want to take, do the things that fit with my personality…even though I know my boyfriend doesn’t prefer these things. I want to learn how to become more responsive.

    I of course see implications for ex-Mormons in general. It seems a lot of fallout from disaffection is in interpersonal relationships — especially for people who married in the church, live in heavily Mormon areas, etc., I know as someone who really likes authenticity how it can feel to be stifled…but I would definitely like to develop a joy in making those I love happy, even if it doesn’t do anything for me directly.

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  1. I really didn’t have anything to add at the moment — but I wanted to comment that I’ve enjoyed these most recent posts.

  2. These are good practices, but I wouldn’t call them “spiritual”. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to reclaim/redefine the word “spiritual”.

    The problem is that a huge portion of our culture holds the belief that human consciousness resides in an invisible/immaterial “spirit” that is separate from the body, and that “spiritual” emotions and actions are actually manifestations of such spirits. Given the fact that so many people use this word so literally, it’s impossible to avoid calling up this connotation in people’s minds. So, if you use it to mean something totally different, you end up either causing misunderstandings or wasting a bunch of time explaining “when I say it that’s not what I mean…” — which distracts focus away from your real points.

    Personally, I think it’s better to select a word that communicates your meaning more clearly, without so much unhelpful baggage.

  3. chanson,

    In a way, this gets back to the basic criticism of the liberal Mormon/pastoral apologetic approach — they are using terms to mean different things than what most people would take them to mean. But this is somewhat of a feature, not a bug — because of the misinterpretation, they avoid “rocking the boat” as it were with their fellow ward members, etc.,

    We see this as inauthentic, perhaps even dishonest or duplicitous. They see it as meeting people on their level. *We* waste a bunch of time explaining “when I say it, that’s not what I mean” because we don’t want to cause misunderstandings. *They* don’t waste that time not because they don’t want to cause misunderstandings, but because per their view, any misunderstandings are superficial and at a deeper level, they are still conveying the truth.

    That all being said, I really am getting what you are saying here, and I am really torn.

    I am torn between wanting to convey, “Hey, we don’t need to be claim to be spiritual to have meaningful, important life goals!” and wanting to convey, “Here are the things I could conceivably claim as spiritual in my life [although most of me wants to say these probably aren’t spiritual], but I don’t think your traditional/conventional view of spirituality/religion can help me with that.”

    What if “my real point” is precisely about the complicated role something like “spirituality” plays here?

  4. I understand how the ambiguity can be the proverbial “feature not bug” — helping people to connect with a related-but-not-identical concept in another person’s mind. But for myself, I don’t like it. I prefer to make it crystal clear that profound life experiences don’t depend on believing in spirits.

    For example, when walking through a forest or watching a sunset, I’d rather use words like “awe” and “wonder”. Everyone understands what emotion I’m talking about, and the word connects the emotion with curiosity and the joy of life, rather than with belief in spirits and the supernatural.

  5. chanson,

    but “awe” already is a term that was appropriated from a theological context. Albeit WAY long ago (to the extent that no one uses the word “awesome” or “awful” in a theological context).

    then again, i don’t get anything from walking through a forest or watching a sunset either, so to me that sort of description of wonder/awe is just as unfamiliar as traditional spirituality.

  6. I like your “spiritual” practices. I would only add that belonging to some form of community – not necessarily a religious one, even – can be helpful in becoming more empathic, calm, and responsive even while maintaining your independence.

  7. Walker,

    I definitely agree. But I am also too much of an introvert to actually personally commit to a community, so it’s not part of my personal goals…yet.

  8. but “awe” already is a term that was appropriated from a theological context. Albeit WAY long ago (to the extent that no one uses the word “awesome” or “awful” in a theological context).

    All words have their histories and a range of connotations. The baggage of some words is more problematic than others. I may be wrong on this, but I don’t think the word “awe” carries the same immediate association with the supernatural that “spiritual” does.

    then again, i don’t get anything from walking through a forest or watching a sunset either, so to me that sort of description of wonder/awe is just as unfamiliar as traditional spirituality.

    Interesting. Then I suppose I have to take back my claim that everyone understands. I wonder whether you really don’t know this emotion, or whether I’m simply using the wrong examples to connect it to your particular experiences.

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