William James

William James
We must get by on what truth we have today, and be willing to call it error tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On "Fickle" Membership In The LDS Church

The question was put:
"One of the concerns I have always had is what appears to be our fickle membership. You hear tales of stalwart members who were past Bishops (amazing how many Ex-Mormons are past Bishops), went on missions, married in the temple, had a real testimony, but then not only gave up on it all, but had their name removed over say Proposition 8.

There are other examples too, people leaving over single events, tossing away a lifetime beliefs.

What it appears to me is that we look for a religion to fit us, rather than believe in our religion because we find truth in it. I knew a girl who just couldn't give up smoking, but really did believe in many of the things the Church taught, even claiming to have felt the spirit over the Joseph Smith translation story of the Book of Mormon. People often say "I don't think God would do that", choosing religion on what their ideal vision of God is.

But isn't this ultimately a problem? God's decisions simply won't appease everyone, and we as a society will have to assume some of us won't like some aspect or attribute of God. For example, I don't like Polygamy but I accepted God wanted it for some reason. I can't simply toss out all my proofs of my beliefs because I don't agree on one aspect. I won't even cafeteria the religion, just tossing away Polygamy as a manmade idea. I accept it, and accept I don't exactly like the idea.

Is the problem of our membership (perhaps even all Church memberships) that we have moved into a very poor perspective on religion? Have we stopped looking for real truth and started demanding our religion go OUR way?

I see this more with parents of Children who have fallen into some trap. Parents of Homosexual children, desperate to maintain their relationships with their gay children have often been seen walking away from Church, tossing away entire lifetimes because they can't believe their children could be doing something against God's will?

And on a similar note, how many of these stories are real? Do you believe that all these people who left over Prop 8 were really that easily swayed away or do you think they likely were building up to leaving the Church anyways and this was just the final straw?

Ultimately, of course, is there anything we can do to help our membership not be this fickle?"

To which I responded:

I think we should start by asking two critical threshold questions, including:

(1) What is the basis for our belief in a particular religion in the first place?
(2) Are there ANY criteria which we will use to decide whether to accept/reject particular doctrines/policies/positions/practices, or do we just automatically accept everything wholesale without any filtering or critical analysis?

And now I will try to give the answers to these questions, because I think they will be insightful in helping you to understand what can prompt people to abandon long-held religious beliefs.

First, why do people believe in the first place? Our religious beliefs generally stem not from God physically delivering truth in person straight to us, but rather from our subjective hopes, experiences, backgrounds, perceptions, and intuitive sense of the nature of God. There are perhaps a few people who believe in God primarily out of fear, speculating that they will suffer some kind of unbearable torment if they do not adhere to a particular set of religious beliefs. But I think most people, especially more educated people, who choose to believe in God do so because of hope that God is loving and that adherence to religious beliefs in that God will bring joy and happiness into their own lives and the lives of others. Think about it. The LDS religion is peppered with references linking God to individual and societal human happiness. We often refer to the plan of salvation as "the plan of happiness." We constantly talk about God "blessing" us. We preach about heaven, exhaltation, and celestial glory. We glorify temple marriages as having the greatest chance of providing fulfillment to both spouses. Canonized scriptures are full of anecdotal lessons about how obeying the commandments brings happiness. Jesus is praised for his compassion and love for the people. It seems the examples of LDS theology linking God and righteousness to human happiness are endless.

But most of us realize that living a religion is not all bliss, and that obtaining our reward of happiness takes work, patience, sacrifice, etc. There can come a point at which our minds, subconsciously perhaps, start to come to a realization that we are not actually getting the level of happiness we thought we would get when compared to the sacrifices we are asked to make. When the balance of our lives becomes so tipped towards hardship, it is a very human reaction to say, "Wait a minute, this isn't worth it."

In some ways, sorting through religion is like a maze, with an entrance that we all pass through, but getting to the destination involves trial and error, and you may not know that a particular path is the wrong one until you reach a dead end and have to turn back to the last fork in the road. That process, of reaching the dead end, and realizing we cannot go any further, highlights the fact that we usually do have limits on what we will accept. For many members of the LDS faith, polygyny represents such a "dead end". They reason that, if the net effect of their set of religious beliefs is that God commands/commanded polygyny, then there must be some error in that set of beliefs, because such an action on God's part would be inconsistent with an intuitive view of human happiness, and there does not appear to be a rational/sufficient justification for God to issue such a commandment.

Conservative Mormons ("True Believing Mormons" or "TBMs"), though many would probably not admit it, are happy to reject religious beliefs on grounds that those beliefs are intuitively wrong, WHEN THOSE BELIEFS ARE ALSO OFFICIALLY REJECTED BY THE CHURCH. Some great examples would be the issues of baptism for the dead, original sin, and infant baptism. TBMs reject infant baptism in part because it presupposes the existence of original sin, which in turn assumes that God would consider us guilty even though we ourselves have not yet sinned. Such would be inconsistent with a just and loving God. TBMs likewise embrace baptism for the dead because it would be extremely unfair for anyone to be denied salvation because they had no opportunity to accept Christ in this life, and a God who denied salvation on such capricious grounds would be inconsistent with a God whose goal was to bring about human happiness. But strangely, in other areas, TBMs toss intuitiveness out the window, for no apparent reason other than that doing so is necessary in order to maintain beliefs which are consistent with the official stance of the LDS church. Examples include the issue of blacks and the church's century-plus-long refusal to confer the priesthood on them, coerced polygyny, and the denial of the right of homosexuals to have intimate relationships with one another.

For me, in deciding which religious beliefs are plausible and which are most likely erroneous, I begin with the premise that God possesses at a minimum five attributes, as follows:

1. God is powerful
2. God is wise
3. God is merciful
4. God is just
5. God is loving

If God lacks any of those five attributes, then there is no logical reason I have to believe in him at all. Consequently, if any purported doctrine would require me to envision God as lacking any of those attributes, then I will reject it. These are my initial guiding principles. In applying these principles, I rely heavily, as I must, upon my own life experience and ability to reason, for what else do I have to go by?

Because there is rarely a time when we have perfect information to decide our views on issues, we must be willing to revise our views as we gain more information. We must be open to giving fair consideration to new information, although it is natural to expect that we will process the information in light of what we have already come to believe/understand.

So, turning to your example of Prop 8, you seem to be saying that people should simply accept the Church's stance and actions because those people have otherwise adopted LDS doctrines. But if, in those people's views, God's refusal to allow gay relationships is inconsistent with a loving God, then it makes sense that they would determine that the church is wrong on the subject. This is not being "fickle" as you imply. It is being consistent, at least to the extent that a person's religious beliefs are based upon a sense of intuitiveness, rather than upon a pre-determined set of religious dogma.

I'd bet you that I could come up with a very long list of beliefs which, if held by the LDS Church, would cause you to reject the Church and leave it. Perhaps you think it is sufficient to answer that the Church would not ever adopt those beliefs and that the hypothetical is therefore meaningless. But such a response is missing the point. We either have standards for determining the plausibility of a purported doctrine's correctness, or we don't. I think history has shown that those who toss out standards of intuitiveness are on very shaky ground, and that a great deal of serious mistakes and even atrocities have been committed because of unwillingness to use some common sense before accepting doctrines/positions/commandments, etc.

All of that said, I certainly agree with you that God's decisions won't appease everyone, at least in the short term. I may not like the obligation to love my neighbor when I am feeling angry, for example. But I can intuitively understand how the world will be a better place, and I will be a better person, if I exercise a reasonable amount of self control over my desire to retaliate, and sacrifice that desire for something better- peace and harmony. We are asked to make sacrifices sometimes, and that can be difficult, but I do not believe that God generally requires us to make huge sacrifices without deigning to give us a logical reason that justifies the sacrifice and helps us to accept it. It is not fair to compare one category of people (those who are willing to exercise self-discipline to make sacrifices which are intuitively justified by objectively available information) with people who are so lacking in good faith and compassion that they are never willing to sacrifice their own short term desires unless there is an immediate or virtually immediate and realizable benefit to themselves.

In the case of gays who have no hope of eliminating their gayness, an injunction by God against any homosexual relationship would probably feel like torture to them, and for what? Appeasing a longstanding tradition that homosexuality is an abomination to God? And what is that based off of? The only reasons I can discern are ignorance, fear, and hatred towards people who are different. Because I cannot perceive any rational justification for the prohibition on all homosexual behavior, I conclude that God did not and would not issue such a prohibition. When the Church elects to entrench itself in positions which are repugnant to intuitive notions of a just, loving, and merciful God, and to force the issue by pressuring closet-dissenters to support the Church's view, we can only expect that people who previously were willing to keep their mouths shut so long as they were not confronted, will openly dissent and sometimes even leave the Church. Likewise, parents of homosexual children are often only confronted with the reality and dynamics of the issue once they are in that situation. You cannot expect them to have the same level of understanding before they have homosexual children. Probably many of those parents supposed that homosexuality was a depravity and could be "cured". When they suddenly realize that that is not the case, they are forced, by coming to a "dead end" in the proverbial maze, to go back and re-evaluate the set of beliefs that brought them to the point of condemning their own innocent children.

Parenthetically, it seems to me that the Catholic priest scandal, along with the tremendous problems fostered by the Catholic Church's centuries-old prohibition on priests getting married, ought to have taught us a lesson about the dangers of suppressing sexual expression. When normally-functioning sexual beings are prohibited from having healthy sexual outlets, you are asking for serious trouble. There is, in my opinion, no virtue in self-discipline for self-discipline's sake. The commandment to refrain from certain sexual practices can only go so far as is rationally justified to accomplish other legitimate ends.

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