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Religious cross pressure in a secular world

April 1, 2017

One of the big terms in Mormon disaffection circles is the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” The idea (at least when talking about religious disaffection) is that one faces two alternative narratives — a narrative one was raised with in the LDS church, and a narrative that increasingly seems more supported through secular evidence standards that contradicts the church’s narrative. This dissonance is uncomfortable, so people seek to resolve it, by figuring out which narrative is true, and then making changes to their lives accordingly.

This way of explaining things seems a bit too simple, though. Lots of people have written about it, but today, I wanted to link to churchistrue’s blog post on the subject, and a variety of other related topics. As he writes:

I want to do more study on Charles Taylor’s work here that Sam is riffing on.  And especially the commentary James K. A. Smith has done on that.  I highly recommend the interview Blair Hodges did with Jamie Smith.  The idea here is that secularism is not bad.  Through it, we are extending life, solving many of the world’s mysteries, and increasing quality of life.  But it doesn’t answer everything.  Humans still have a God itch.  We seek for higher meaning.  We understand intellectually the traditional, literal narratives of world religions don’t make sense.  But we also feel secularism is inadequate in addressing our spiritual needs.  That conflict is a cross pressure.  We need to find new religious narratives that can balance the two.

I like the term cross pressure better than cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance implies to me that there’s a right and a wrong, I’m doing the “wrong” and I’m feeling the underlying dissonance of the “right”.  Exmormons use this to describe the uncomfortable feeling of disbelief before testimony is shattered, sometimes only seeing two options belief or disbelief in a literal narrative.  I love the term cross pressure which seems more agnostic on the morality or priority of the two competing ideas.  There’s something important about the modern message of secularism.  And there’s something important about the non-modern message I’m getting each week in church.

There’s a lot of stuff in this blog post that I should read more into. First, I should probably read more Samuel Brown. I should also read more Charles Taylor/Secular Age stuff (although I have read articles about A Secular Age, such as hawkgrrl’s summary of a book about the book A Secular Age and Rachael Givens Johnson’s multi-part series.

But, since that probably won’t happen soon, I’ll just riff based off the blog posts I have read.

The basic concept, which I think is fairly easy to understand and fairly noncontroversial, is that as societies have transitioned from pre-modernity to modernity and post-modernity, the primacy of religion in those societies has changed. We have moved from a system in which religion was assumed as primary to a system in which religions are one of many options, and a suspect option at that.

Our issues with faith crisis come in light of this “secular age” — we now judge religions that were built up in pre-modern times under modern, secular rubrics, and then critique those religions mercilessly for not meeting up to modern, secular standards.

This is not just a problem for ordinary people. Religious leaders of many denominations have contributed to their own problems by trying to battle on the same turf — in Mormonism particularly, we have a religion that wants to make bold proclamations in a secular/empirical sense about the history of the Americas, about the DNA of its inhabitants, and so on.

This is increasingly untenable. So, what churchistrue has summarized from Samuel Brown is one voice (among many) discussing that what is needed is not to try to prove out religion on secular modern terms, but to recognize that religions have always been an anchor to something pre-modern, and then to recognize the value of that. To recognize that modernity and post-modernity are lacking something, and that religion attempts to engage that missing piece.

Here’s another quote from churchistrue’s article, from Samuel Brown:

My sense is that Mormonism in its natural expression as a not particularly modern faith full of angels and demons and miracles and deep loyalty in an essentially ethnic identification is really a beautiful thing and it’s a beautiful thing on average for the people for whom it is natural as breathing and is a beautiful thing for people like me who have never been able to make that work.  I was an atheist agnostic until I was 18 and although I am a devout theist since age 18, I am always intensely cross pressured. And I find that having Mormonism, speaking now about both the LDS church institutionally and about the majority of my coreligionists, be non-modern allows the kind of balance in my life even as someone who does not remotely fit the stereotype of the believing practicing Mormon. I feel like I’m better off for the institution being non-modern and letting me be cross pressured.

emphasis added by churchistrue.

So, there are a few things about this quotation I find interesting.

  1. Samuel acknowledges that the fantastic claims of Mormonism (like “angels and demons and miracles and deep loyalty in an essentially ethnic identication”) are essentially non-modern things. There’s going to be “cross pressure” against a modern view.
  2. I don’t know Samuel’s history (so I don’t know what motivated his agnostic atheism of his past), but one thing that bothers me about a lot of apologists (even pastoral apologists) is when they fail to recognize that spirituality doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Samuel acknowledges that the non-modern may not appeal to something within all people — that there are people who might not be “able to make that work”, but for whom the non-modern still ought to have value for. He insists on the value of non-modernity as a balancer even in those cases.
  3. Following from point 2, Samuel turns “cross pressure” from being a bad thing that must be resolved into something that we can live with to be better off. (FWIW, I know many other people have done the same. I’ve heard of “living the questions” and living in tension and all these kinds of things, but there’s something about this statement that makes me “understand” that perspective a bit more.)

At the same time, I do not know if I am personally sold on this, and that for me is what I would want to research Sam’s history — what does it mean for him to be a devout theist? What was the change?

To me, I think about a different quote churchistrue had…this one is for Adam Miller, another person I really enjoy reading:

Given my careful, decades-long cultivation for doubt and skepticism, still even in that context it would be dishonest and in bad faith to say that regardless of how unlikely some of these beliefs are something very real and powerful and real is happening to me in the pew on Sunday when I bring myself back again. When I come back, again. When I kneel down, again. When I read the Book of Mormon, again. Regardless of all my skepticism of all the different kinds of questions we could raise, something is happening to me in a substantial, first person way that I can’t deny regardless of what doubts I have of these peripheral, historical third person questions. The pull for that is sufficiently strong that there’s no place else for me to go.

(One note…I suspect there is a misquote in the first line. I think he meant to say it would be “dishonest…to say that…something very real and powerful and real is not happening to [him]. If he means to cast doubt on the reality of his Sunday experience, then I really don’t know how to read this entire quote.)

To me, this makes sense for a person who does in fact feel something “when [they] come back, again. When [they] kneel down, again. When [they] read the Book of Mormon, again.” I think it makes sense for someone to counsel that they shouldn’t let all of the evaluation of secular data ruin the first-person subjective experience of their religious life, if they have that.

But what if someone doesn’t have that? What if kneeling down leads to nothing? What if reading the Book of Mormon leads at best to nothing but at worst to revulsion?

This has continually been my question to folks like Dan Wotherspoon who assume that those experiences will be forthcoming to anyone who engages in religious or spiritual practices, simply because it’s been their own experience. To folks like Gina Colvin who says she has always been a “God girl” and doesn’t seem to even consider that some folks don’t have that orientation.

Not everyone’s disaffection is simply arm’s length consideration of historical third person questions. Sometimes, disaffection is about a real world disengagement or dissatisfaction with the pre-modern ethical or moral claims of the religion.

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