Why do some Mormons equate their religion with their personal identity?

In a recent discussion with some devout Mormon family members, I framed the Noah and the Ark myth as just that, a myth. Immediately they took offense and claimed I was attacking them. I proceeded to explain that I do think it is perfectly reasonable – actually, more than that, obligatory – to educate people and disabuse them of patently false beliefs.  In response, they called me intolerant, disrespectful, strident, and fundamentalist in my thinking and went so far as to suggest that I want to rid the world of anyone who disagrees with me.  They insisted that it is an issue of respect that I not denigrate their beliefs.  They also suggested that, by calling their beliefs false, I was insinuating that they were stupid.  I disagree.

To clarify what I mean, let me illustrate.  I, and many others, have heard the Muslim belief that martyrs will receive 72 virgins when they die and go to paradise.  For a long time I believed that to be specifically stated in the Quran, but it is not.  The idea of pure beings – insinuated to be women, but may not be – is in the Quran.  They are called “Houri” and are kind of like angels.  The Quran specifically states that they have “pure” characteristics, but it does not specify that the purity is tied to their virginity.  It also does not specifically state that martyrs will be given 72 Houri as companions in paradise, though it is insinuated that Houri will be the companions of those who go to heaven and there are a number of Hadith (commentaries) that suggest 2 Houri will be given to men as wives.  Even so, those are Hadith and not the Quran.  The specific reference to 72 virgins is not in the Quran but in a narration by a Muslim commentator.  In short, while some Muslims may believe that 72 virgins await martyrs in paradise, it is not accurate to say that the Quran specifies this as a reward.  It does not.  This was explained to me in detail by a friend.

Based on the reasoning of my family members, the guy who informed me that the Quran does not specifically mention 72 virgins should have respected my belief that it does just because it was my belief. He was intolerant and disrespectful to correct me. He should not have eradicated my false belief. How dare he!!!

This leads to my first question: Is it wrong to ridicule patently false beliefs?

The second issue that struck me in this discussion was that my family members consistently said I was intolerant and attacking them, despite me never attacking them.  I said what they believed was ridiculous and clearly false, but I never said they were stupid or ignorant or anything else directly targeting them.  While I know it is not true of all Mormons and is obviously true of other people, I’m wondering why so many Mormons are unable to separate the beliefs of the religion from their own identity. If you criticize the church for its sexist and homophobic policies and doctrines – which are valid grounds for criticism at the moment – you are immediately accused of attacking the members as being sexist and homophobic.  And if you criticize Mormon beliefs as absurd or unsupported by science, they take that as a personal attack as well.

Why is it that some people cannot separate their group identity from their personal identity?  And why can’t some people separate their beliefs from their personal identity?

I get that both of those – group identities and beliefs – are part of our identity (I’m drawing on social identity theory here).  But it seems as though some people cannot have a discussion about the possibly negative aspects of one of their groups without feeling personally attacked.

Another example may help.  The US engages in a lot of sketchy activities.  We’ve deposed or attempted to depose leaders of countries we don’t like.  We’ve assassinated people.  We’ve engaged in wars that are probably based on nothing more than wanting to help some of our corporations become richer.  I fully accept that about the US.  Yet I’m a United States citizen.  By criticizing a group to which I belong, I don’t feel like it makes me a terrible person.  In fact, I think it’s indicative of a more complex way of thinking about the world: I’m part of a group, but I’m not responsible for everything the group does and the group identity is not my identity.

Maybe someone has already explored this phenomenon in detail.  I just spent a couple hours reading about social identity theory and cognitive biases to see if they address this.  The closest I found were: depersonalization (as part of self-categorization theory, which is related to social identity theory), collective narcissism, and the Semmelweis reflex, with collective narcissism coming closest (and it is noted to apply to religions). But none of these talk specifically about the conflation of self-identity and social identity.

If there isn’t any prior research on this, doesn’t it seem like there should be a name for this?  If this is a distinct phenomenon, giving it a name would be nice (e.g., social/personal-self conflation is the one that comes to mind).  Once it’s named, and the name becomes widely used, then when people do this you could simply send them to a Wikipedia page that describes the phenomenon and hopefully it would help them realize that they are conflating criticism of either an institution or a belief with criticism of them. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but it may help us to at least begin to understand this behavior.

Also, I don’t think this is unique to Mormonism, of course. Members of many religions do it. And some people seem to do it with politics as well.

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profxm

I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

29 thoughts on “Why do some Mormons equate their religion with their personal identity?

  1. The way I think about it is not so much a psychological thing, but more of a historical development over the last couple centuries. Religious groups in America today know that they live in a pluralistic society and are thus “alone” in their beliefs. This aloneness translates into concerns over political and media representation, property rights, growth/maintenance of the faith, etc. This is why Christians will often claim they’re being “persecuted” even as Christianity remains the majority — because there are lots of competing interests within Christianity. Meanwhile, us secular types continue to feel bogged down by how much Christian discourse continues to control public policy.

    This development of a persecutory attitude can be traced through events like the 1925 Scopes trial that pitted “religion” against “science” in the Courts and “science” won (ostensibly). Certainly, the history of Mormonism is littered with feeling persecuted by outsiders…

    I think a goal of a religion should be a kind of inner peace, including inner peace about one’s beliefs in a pluralistic society, as opposed to cultivating outward-directed stress about how “mean” the world is. I don’t think the Church equips its members well in this regard.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure why you feel compelled to dispel “patently false beliefs,” categorically-speaking. Believing that Noah’s Ark happened is not as harmful as, say, believing that only men should be in control of policy, or that homosexuality is a “sin.” Would you force false beliefs from your children, or would you let them hold onto them? Generally, I’m less concerned about “falseness” than “harm.”

  2. This is human nature. How many people criticized Galileo, took his theories as personal criticism? I don’t see this as mormon at all.

    So it’s not unusual for people to feel they are being personally attacked when their religion, political worldview, national identity, even favorite celebrity is questioned.

    I do think it’s a sign of maturity when someone can listen to different perspectives and narratives and separate that from a personal attack. But beliefs are a core part of personal identity, even beliefs (like alien abduction) which have no scientific objective proof.

  3. Imagine, if you will, that you were born into an organization, and from an early age, you were indoctrinated with a set of beliefs. You were taught these beliefs more than just on Sunday’s, but those beliefs were re-enforced by family home evening, family scripture study, family prayer, youth activity night, boy scouts, seminary, institute, ward and stake activities, general conference, quarum socials, home teaching, visiting teaching, missionary visits, bishopric visits, quarum presidency visits, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. Add to that support from the church whenever you are in need, neighborhood and other social re-enforcement. Now imagine that beyond those activities and interactions, you don’t feel the need for personal investigation, whether in the form of scripture reading, church history reading, or searching the internet, because you believe that what you have been surrounded with and taught since you were a baby is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and because any time that isn’t taken up by all of those things is taken up by other things; such as school, homework, work, spending time with family, house chores, running errands, extracurricular activities, TV, video games, reading, writing, hanging out with friends, preparing for college, volunteering at some church function or some charity and any number of other things that you could be doing.

    Given all of that, is it really that much of a logical gap to believe that members not only believe in the Church, but believe that it an integral part of who they are? Isn’t part of the reason that you go to this blog, because, even though you have left and no longer believe, that you still, deep down, feel a personal connection to the church?

  4. Chris… I actually don’t feel much of a connection to the church anymore. Right after I left I still felt like it was part of me, but today, unless someone asked me about specific parts of my past, they would be unlikely to guess that I used to be a Mormon. I’m still interested in Mormonism because of my career and my family, but at a personal level it means nothing to me.

    Your example is, of course, precisely what I’m getting at. I know it matters to Mormons, and matters a lot! But why are some people able to disassociate criticism of the institution from criticism of themselves while others cannot? I honestly don’t know if I used to be like my family members; if I felt personally affronted by criticism of my religion. I know I don’t feel that way when it comes to: my nation, my state, my employer, or pretty much any of the groups to which I belong. Maybe I used to. But I don’t today. Why don’t I and why do they? What’s the difference?

  5. Aerin, actually a little-known detail of Galileo’s story is that he did personally attack his hugely generous and supportive benefactor by lampooning him as the character “Simplicio” in an imaginary dialogue between himself and this simple-minded character.

    Galileo did this because he was pissed off that the benefactor pointed out that his theories were not adequately backed up by proof. The benefactor was correct. Galileo had not adequately backed up his assertions.

    They turned out to be correct assertions, but Galileo’s astronomical model was rather amateurish and needed a lot of work. But Galileo, being a rather arrogant prima donna, decided instead to lambast his sponsors.

    Which just goes to show that sometimes brilliant men can be the biggest idiots of all.

  6. profxm, you should check out the other promo videos for the game “Team Fortress” – “demoman” “pyro” “heavy” “sniper” “engineer” etc.

    I sometimes amuse myself on forums by trying to figure out which character most matches the personalities of regular posters.

  7. Profxm, I would submit that it equates to you trying to force your beliefs on them. It would be similar to if a missionary were to try, insistantly, to convert you. There is a certain amount of violating going on when someone won’t back off from trying to change what you know to be true. Just as you would likely prefer that they let you believe that everything that the missionaries would teach you is false, your family would likely prefer that you let them believe as they do.

    I learned long ago, that just as it is a sign of maturity to be able to listen to a perspective that is counter to yours without getting upset or judgemental, it is also a sign of maturity that you can allow someone to have a perspective that you know is wrong. Everyone is on their own path, and either they will get to the point of knowing the truth, or they won’t and that’s ok either way. Unless you are in a specific position in which you have an obligation to change their mind about a specific topic (ie their school teacher), it more often does more harm than good to try to change their mind.

  8. The problem also is that we don’t know the family history.

    Are his siblings like “oh boy, here goes profxm again telling us all why we’re soooo stupid”?

    Or are they really behaving immaturely and unreasonably?

    No way for me to know – that’s why it’s best not to get into the middle of other families’ dynamics. You don’t know the backstory.

  9. Noah’s ark is a an interesting case because if you believe that the Garden of Eden was in the America’s, then you need the global flood to explain how people got over to the Middle East. In a similar way, to be a literal believer in Mormonism, you have to believe that the “Tower of Babel” story really happened (since it is referenced in the Book of Mormon). These myths obviously did not happen, but I can see how questioning them could be perceived as chopping at the foundation of one’s faith.

    To me it’s more frustrating when Mormons take criticism of actions of the church leaders as a personal attack on themselves.

  10. In response, they called me intolerant, disrespectful, strident, and fundamentalist in my thinking and went so far as to suggest that I want to rid the world of anyone who disagrees with me. They insisted that it is an issue of respect that I not denigrate their beliefs.

    I’m surprised no one has pointed out that this is projection yet.

    The Mormons I heard speak in local and general conference meetings spent an awful lot of time talking about how stupid everyone else in the world is. They mischaracterized atheists and other Christians, and they made everyone of non-Abrahamic faith traditions out to be completely beneath contempt.

    They taught me to “seek friends that share my values,” meaning to exclude people who broke Mormon taboos like the dress and language code. And for all the time I personally spent making fun of people who liked different things or lifestyles, I don’t remember anyone in the church ever calling me on it.

    From Holland’s talk on the Book of Mormon to the recent reiteration of the Fourteen Fundamentals, the Mormon leadership encourages a kind of fundamentalism which I feel excludes introspection and empathy. They have tens of thousands of missionaries trying to convert others to their lifestyle on their own dime, and their scripture says “every knee shall bow, every tongue confess” that their god is supreme.

    Their religious doctrine mandates the annihilation, or at best marginalization, of everyone who’s not part of their faith. And their culture reinforces this through methods from microaggressions to outright legislative violence. It’s highly disingenious for a Mormon to complain about being “attacked because of their beliefs,” especially when the “attack” consists of stating facts which are incompatible with their worldview.

    On ridicule: Weapons are best used against the powerful who don’t deserve their power. I count Mormons in this category. I don’t count atheists, when it’s the religiously privileged who are doing the attacking, or people of marginal faith traditions.

    On identity: They equate your statements of fact with attacks on their identity because that’s what the powerful Mormons at the top want them to do. This is the “why” behind most self-destructive Mormon behaviours, such as why they haven’t stormed the COB and demanded their tithing back already.

  11. Chanson, you don’t need a global flood to mesh Noah with Eden in North America.

    Anyone with even a little motivation can work this one out.

    Civilization on the Mississippi floodplain destroyed by flooding. Man and family and some livestock escape on a boat which washes out to sea and ends up somewhere else on the globe.

    Bang – you’re done. Simple.

  12. @16 OK, but you’re still using Noah’s flood as the explanation for how people got from the Americas to the Middle East, right? You’re just arguing that it didn’t have to be a global flood. So it’s threatening to people’s worldview to say it didn’t happen.

  13. Chanson, I manage to interject alternative views about the scriptures regularly in the Gospel Doctrine classes I attend and teach, and I’ve never once gotten a negative reaction.

    Perhaps the way one does it matters.

  14. Taryn@14:

    Their religious doctrine mandates the annihilation, or at best marginalization, of everyone who’s not part of their faith. And their culture reinforces this through methods from microaggressions to outright legislative violence.

    This is true, but good luck trying to convince faithful folks of this. No one wants to think that the solitary act of tithing toward one church over another actually counts as a “microaggression” toward other faiths that are consequently being marginalized. It takes a viewpoint of seeing a kind of violence in the everyday (personally, I see it in economic terms, since under capitalism, everything becomes a kind of competition of space). This violence is easier to see when it’s on a larger scale, such as legislation. But then folks call this “democracy.”

    I tried to convince my partner of this dynamic the other day. He believes in the immaculate conception, in this case that Jesus was God on Earth (my partner was raised Catholic, not LDS). I said, “Well, what about the Qu’ran, which says that Jesus was a mere prophet? You are marginalizing the beliefs of Muslims by suggesting that Jesus was more than a man.” But he wouldn’t have it, lol. It’s not so much that the belief itself (whether it’s true or false) is harmful (which is why I disagree with profxm in the OP), but the harm comes in relation to the choices people make toward others as a result of “upholding” their beliefs. For example, it’s easy to see the harm geared toward a Muslim kid in a mostly Christian school if the kid has no friends, is marginalized, simply as a result of having different beliefs. On a larger scale, xenophobias.

    Mormons will tell you that they’re not xenophobic. But that’s because, at its heart, Mormonism is interested in breaking down xenophobias so that the Gospel can more readily penetrate cultural differences. This is the same way the Church is currently reacting to homophobia. “Get rid of homophobia because it makes it harder to convince same-sex attracted people of the Gospel.” The Church simply cannot see outside its own interests.

  15. Alan, everyone who has ideals or ideology thinks this way. You and every other person on this blog not excepted.

    Everyone has views they want eradicated.

    Everyone.

  16. Indeed, Seth…the problem is that most folks are not taught to see this way…to be attentive to this kind of “violence.” Instead, they are taught that their beliefs are nothing but wholesome goodness.

    Edit: Although, I’m convinced that the leaders of the Church see the dog-eat-dog nature of religion under capitalism.

  17. So isn’t it pretty worthless to complain about stuff like “oh my gosh – those people think they are right”?

    I mean – no duh. Hardly even newsworthy.

    CS Lewis coined a term for this – “bulverism.” It has its own Wiki entry if you’re interested.

    Instead of arguing whose views are correct – we hide the apple, and waste time arguing about WHY the people we disagree with are wrong.

    Oh, he’s just close-minded… he’s a bigot…. she’s just scared….

    Can’t you see that this is a complete waste of everyone’s time? Start focusing on which views are right, and we can all do without the pointless analysis of why people are wrong.

  18. But Seth, isn’t that kind of the problem? I mean, if someone still believes in Noah’s Ark, we know they are wrong. So, we can focus on which views are right (i.e., there was no ark). But then the question becomes: Why do some people continue to believe in Noah’s Ark?

    Once we’ve established what the “right” beliefs are, shouldn’t we ask why not everyone holds those beliefs?

    Also, Alan, I don’t think we really disagree in the OP. I used the issue of the LDS Church’s position toward homosexuality to illustrate the harm that can result from people retaining false beliefs (e.g., that homosexuality is a sin) in my discussion with my family members. While that is clearly more damaging, teaching kids about Noah and the Ark is damaging in other ways, like the possibility that it can lead to the rejection of science later in life. I, personally, see that as harmful to society. Anti-science attitudes reduce funding toward science, restrict the activities of scientists, and keep scientists from pursuing potentially life saving and life altering advances. In short, believing in Noah’s Ark is still harmful, just not as directly as is believing that homosexuality is an abomination.

  19. Except we haven’t established there is no Noah’s ark.

    But that detail aside, no, just establishing what the “right belief” is does not mean we need to expect everyone to hold it.

    Life would be far too tiresome if everyone had to have correct beliefs about everything. Best we can shoot for is having correct beliefs about things that truly matter.

    Part of being a mature adult is not sweating the rest of it.

  20. But doesn’t that start us back at step 1? Now we have to decide which beliefs truly matter. And how, precisely, do we do that?

    Step 1: Determine which beliefs matter.
    Step 2: Determine which beliefs are right.
    Step 3: Encourage everyone to hold the right beliefs that matter.
    Step 4: Repeat.

    Problem 1: Good luck with Step 1!

  21. Oh, and I think the number of people out there who are all for actively damaging our geology classes over Noah’s ark is vanishingly small – even in the US.

    But as for your dismissal of step 1 – isn’t that rather cynical of you?

    Anyway, I think you’ve gotten steps 1 and 2 possibly reversed in order.

  22. I’m not dismissing Step 1. I’m simply saying that it is going to be very difficult to agree which beliefs matter.

    There are a lot of evolutionary biologists who think evolution matters, and a lot of other people who think it doesn’t.

    I think Noah’s Ark matters – a little. You don’t seem to.

    So, I’m not dismissing it. I’m just pointing out the problem with emphasizing it: who gets to determine whether it matters?

  23. I side with evolutionary biologists about the amount of time it would have taken for the earth’s current organisms to have evolved. And I think the story of Noah’s ark is fine.

    I even know of some Young Earth Creationists who are able to compartmentalize enough to study evolutionary biology and master it sufficiently and keep their religious beliefs compartmentalized somewhere else.

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