The Baby and the Bathwater
When I first left the church (about 20 years ago), I kind of assumed that the experiences of people who left the church were pretty much like mine. Or, more precisely, I didn’t really have any idea of how other people’s experiences might differ, and — before discovering the online exmo community (about 10 years ago) — I didn’t have any way to connect with other exmos and find out what their experiences were like.
Discovering the incredible range and diversity of mo/exmo experiences has been a joy — a never-ending fountain for my curiosity about the human condition — that holds my interest lo these decades after I should have long ago started “leaving the church alone” (according to the conventional wisdom).
Even before rediscovering my online fellows, I had grasped that religion is tied to a number of different (otherwise unrelated) aspects of life:
- A long-term communiy network
- An opportunity for leadership
- An opportunity for service (that others will appreciate)
- A sense of purpose (+ a set of rules to follow)
- An identity
- Answers to the “big questions”
- A source of comfort in the face of the unknown
- A framework for understanding altered states of consciousness and for interpreting one’s natural sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature
- probably a bunch of other stuff I haven’t thought of. 😀
Personally, when I was an active participant in the CoJCoL-dS, I loved the theatrical productions! I loved the road shows, and playing “Emily” in a Stake production of “Saturday’s Warrior” in 1979 when I was 7 years old was probably the high point of my entire Mormon experience. I loved the fact that it was possible to organize these sorts of amateur productions and expect to generate an audience simply because, hey, we’re a community and we do stuff together.
I also loved being part of this “peculiar” out-of-the-mainstream current in American History.
On the other hand, I hated the petty, arbitrary rules, divorced from their real-world consequences, I hated the “lessons” where there was hardly even a pretense of actual information transfer, and I hated, hated, hated the emphasis on conformity and the way the conventional “worldly” popularity ladder was doubly (perhaps quadruply) re-enforced by Mormon culture. Coming from something of an Asperger family, I think my Mormon experience was best portrayed by Rudolph and Hermy in that one Christmas special:
Hermy: Just fixing these dolls’ teeth…
Hermy’s boss: What? Listen, we have dolls that talk, walk, blink, and run a temperature — we don’t need any chewing dolls!
Hermy: I just thought I’d found a way to… to fit in.
Hermy’s boss: You’ll never fit in!! * slam! *
But, upon reflection, it is obvious that the whole thing would look very different for those for whom “fitting in” was never a challenge. Such folks would logically have an entirely different set of reasons for leaving, and, no doubt, an entirely different set of fond memories that make them sad to leave. The combinations of which parts of Mormonism one might love (and respectively hate) are almost endless.
If you go to any randomly-chosen congregation of the CoJCoL-dS, there’s probably someone sitting in one of those pews thinking: “Heavenly Father wants me to be here at church and I am demonstrating my faithfulness to Him by sitting through this and making my best effort to pay attention and try to convince myself that I am learning something new (or, failing that, at least trying to not fall asleep),” — as I was thinking every Sunday, back when I was a true-believing Mormon teen. Someone else in that same congregation is probably sincerely thinking “I fell such joy and peace here, surrounded by the saints, singing with them, sharing their spirit. This is the high point of my week.” Both of these reactions are normal and common (as are many others).
But what happens when those two people have a “faith crisis” (as it is called), that is: a change of belief. What happens when they get the picture that the CoJCoL-dS isn’t what they thought it was?
Most likely they will react very differently because they value different parts of the Mormon experience. And very often they will begin to judge each other — wrongly, unfairly — because they don’t understand each other’s perspective.
Person A will likely be saying: “Woo-hoo!! I am so. outta. here!!!”
Person B will perhaps say: “I will re-interpret my faith and find a more nuanced set of beliefs so that I can continue to stay LDS and continue to feel the joy that I feel here.”
Then person A may ask person B: “Why are you living a lie?” Especially if person B is in a marginalized group (woman, gay, intellectual, poor). “Why are you torturing yourself here when you could be free?!”
Person B judges back: “Your thinking is too limited and black-and-white. You were unable to trade in your literal belief for a nuanced belief like mine, and that’s why you threw out the baby with the bathwater.”
I contend that neither person’s choice is necessarily wrong, but that both judgments are wrong.
People who leave the CoJCoL-dS (and or God-belief) aren’t throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They simply have a legitimate difference of opinion about which part was the baby and which part was the bathwater.
I’ve already said most or all of this before, but I wanted to explain my point of view in one simple article to have something to point to when I see these “Grayer Than Thou” essays, like the recent interview with my brother. I agree with John that modern ideas about the discipline of History have colored people’s expectations about how literally true the Bible should be. But, ultimately, that isn’t the reason I rejected it, and I doubt it’s the reason for most atheists. Even if the Bible were literally accurate as a secular history, that wouldn’t justify treating it as Holy writ or as wise stories (literal, symbolic, or otherwise). I’ll respect it as wise if it’s wise. I’ll treat it as good advice if it’s good advice. OTOH, given that it’s an ancient work that isn’t even as wise as some much earlier ancient works, I’m not going to revere it and treat it as though it were somehow magically relevant to my life. Period.
I get that the whole “It was never meant to be taken literally!” argument is very comforting to people who cherish the Bible. But, please don’t turn that around and use it as a barb to poke at those who don’t see the Bible’s relevance as justified, as though we are somehow limited and unable to imagine that the Bible could be “symbolic” instead of “literal.” We don’t all have to have the same faith journey! Our differences are beautiful! 😀