Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why do I do the things that I do?

When I was a young person I struggled with doubt. You might say that I wasn't born with the "gift of faith." Don't get me wrong. I believed what I was taught; it just took constant effort. I served a mission, married in the temple, had kids, went to church, performed my callings, honored my parents, etc. In retrospect I think my efforts were no less sincere than those who felt they knew with certainty.

Mormons say that anyone can gain a testimony through prayer, fasting and study. I did all those things and really never had anything to show for it except almost overwhelming cognitive dissonance. When I eventually lost my faith, I felt a sense of relief. It was like putting down a heavy stone.

You might chalk this up to a moral failing on my part. Like many people, though, I think my behavior improved after I discarded my prior system of belief. I became more generous with others, less judgmental of difference and showed more personal integrity in various areas of my life. (My theory: people tend to behave better when they are under less stress.)

A question I have is this: why does belief come easier for some people than for others? Is it just a character trait like curiosity, assertiveness, extroversion, etc.? If you can get past the official position that prayer works for everyone (it doesn’t), what are you left with? The usual LDS explanation (faithfulness in the pre-mortal existence, being a "choice spirit," etc.) just deflects the question by pushing it back to a hypothetical earlier phase of existence.

This is not an easy question.


Juditude said...

It is an interesting question. It could be approached from many directions, but in the sense of belief in religion, faith, and that kind of thing? Well, I think "believing" is easier for the naive, the gullible, those less inclined to study and learn outside of what they have been taught. The majority of the truly faithful, zealous religious types are also afraid to reach out beyond the books and literature of their faith or religion. They shy away from indepth scientific study and when they do come across conflicting issues, they fall back on the "Faith Card." Faith will always see you through to the truth, won't it? Not.

I suppose that's a pretty simplistic way to look at it, but it's what came to mind as I read your post. You don't seem the type to just believe at face value or because someone told you to. I think that's a good thing (for what it's worth!)!

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: "Mormons say that anyone can gain a testimony through prayer, fasting and study. I did all those things and really never had anything to show for it except almost overwhelming cognitive dissonance. When I eventually lost my faith, I felt a sense of relief. It was like putting down a heavy stone."

I completely relate. It seems like a lot of people feel this sense of relief about no longer feeling compelled to rationalize and explain away all the things that don't make sense. See the story BYU.

Not everyone reacts that way to a deconversion epiphany though -- some feel more a sense of loss, no longer having their former certainty. I think you're right that it's related to character traits...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hey Juditude!

I don't think all believers are naive. What I've come to is that religious feeling resonates with some people more than others.

Hey Chanson!

Yup, I agree with you that certainty, or strong belief in general, has an associated personality trait. I think that’s why I think the phrase "gift of faith" is apt. We could call it the "choice spirit gene."

But what do we make of this? I think there are two possible conclusions.

The first is that people who have less believing natures are morally disordered ("hard of heart," etc.) and should coax themselves into belief in order to right this moral failing. The idea is that prayer works for everyone if they would just give it a chance and be patient when listening for the answer. The answer received (for example, a testimony of The Book of Mormon) will be the same for every right-minded, sincere person.

The second is that religiosity is not a universal moral good. In this view, prayer works for some people but not for others. Some people might pray about The Book of Mormon and receive a testimony. Others might pray but feel nothing. Others might be so highly skeptical of the whole enterprise that they wouldn't even try to pray. None of these people can claim moral superiority. Instead, it is their moral duty to work together to solve common problems and live in peace with one another.

The problem with any religious claim of universality is the risk of sectarianism. Once there are multiple, competing groups with a claim on universal truth, conflict ensues. “Certainty” is a dangerous thing.

spinning jenny said...

Hey, I got to your blog through By Common Consent - you left a really insightful comment that I want to address. But first, your post:

Like you, I felt enormous relief when I realized I didn't believe in Mormonism. Unlike you, I rarely doubted that it was the truth. There were things I had problems with, but I had a rock-solid testimony. That might sound strange coming from someone who left, but I stand by that statement - I had the "gift of faith." Until I didn't. One day I just...let it all go. I was totally in until the minute I was totally out. I realized I didn't believe it, and it was like letting go of a rubber band I didn't know I'd been holding taut. What a great feeling.

Now for your comment on BCC. You wrote: "To me the word gay indicates a particular orientation of the natural human instinct for pair bonding, which is much more fundamental to personality than sexual desire alone."

You know when you encounter an idea you've never thought of before, but it just rings so true? That is a GREAT comment.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hey spinning jenny!!

I can relate. (I love the fact that blogging gives us a forum to find out each other's experiences.)

I'm glad my BCC comment made sense to you.

Take care.

J G-W said...

The way I look at it, the real tests that we are supposed to pass in life, by their very nature, have to be the tests we pass without "knowing" or without having the "gift of faith." Listening to your heart, being honest with yourself, and focusing on becoming a more compassionate, loving, patient person, is far more important than intellectual assent to a bunch of faith propositions you find dubious. Don't force yourself to believe in something you can't. Embracing dishonesty even for faith takes us down the wrong road.

Personally, however, I've found as I get older that I know fewer things than I thought I once did. The more I learn, the more mysterious and amazing place the Universe becomes. I'm willing to be open. At a certain point, abandoning faith helped me move forward. Now I've gotten to a new place where embracing faith and listening to the Spirit has helped me move forward. It's all part of the same journey...

MoHoHawaii said...


Your comments (and your example) mean a lot to me.