Saturday, January 12, 2013

Self-torment and infallibility, reprise

After certain bits of feedback on my previous post, Why I Resigned From the Mormon Church, I feel it necessary to clarify something.

An issue bigger than Mormonism

* I think you are describing an issue much bigger than Mormonism and you are mis-characterizing Mormonism for someone like me... I see value for me, my family, and the world really in being "one with the Saints". I think that people who struggle often expect too much of themselves or the Saints; would be much happier if they took things more on their own terms; and can find validation in that approach by drinking deeply of the doctrine and advice of past leaders.
* I do disagree with you on one point: I think all churches are like that - just others are nicer and less insistent about it all. There is something about the mono-theistic god of Abraham that just leads to the creation of diseased, power hungry, organizations.
It seems that I started writing a blog post about the reasons I chose to resign from the LDS church, and ended up describing "an issue much bigger than Mormonism." The way that I described it may have made it appear that I was criticizing Mormonism in contrast to other religions. I apologize. While I was speaking of my personal experience (which is specifically with Mormonism), I wish to clarify that "this issue" is much larger than me, and much larger than any one religion. In this sense I may have spoken too narrowly. Again, I apologize.

I also want to mention that my perceptions and characterizations of Mormonism are not universal; they are probably most characteristic of "Utah Mormons" and growing up in the church, but even so your experience may vary. In this regard I may have spoken too broadly. Again, I apologize.

However, do note that I have also received several pieces of feedback echoing my experience and confirming that this is indeed an issue present in Mormonism. I don't highlight these to boast of my writing skill, but rather, to add weight to what I've said. I highlight these responses to help you, dear reader, to understand that mine is not a unique and unusual experience. This is much bigger than just me, but for taking the liberty of sharing my personal experience I do not apologize.
* ... never once in my whole life (well, the part when I started doubting) was I able to explain what was going on and why I felt that way, and you have done it.
* I've been making my own journey with the church and have realized many of the same things.
* Wow. This is so close to the open letter I wrote to friends and family.
* I felt like I was reading my own journal.
* Nice story... sounds almost identical to mine
* ... [this] really resonates with me and I had a pretty similar experience.

The larger problem of self-torment

The self-loathing problem is an issue that all people deal with. Anyone that fails to meet expectations (aka is human) is vulnerable: the addict that succumbs once again to addiction; the person that hates his body, forms an eating disorder, and then hates himself even more; the perfectionist that procrastinates. Guilt and shame are dangerous feelings, but it is important at least to recognize them and allow yourself to feel them. These feelings start causing the most damage with the addition of uncertainty, and accelerate into self-loathing. It is easy to wonder if you are the one "at fault" for something, and then place the burden of proof upon yourself, assuming guilt until proven innocent. Of course, it is just as dangerous to place blame on others. This whole idea of blame and fault has caused a lot of damage to the human race.

I am going to expand the "problem" to a classification larger than "self-loathing." This term implies an active and conscious hatred of the self. This is indeed a serious and very real problem, but I don't quite feel it accurately describes my experience. Mine was a passive and subconscious hatred. It was fueled by uncertainty, of questions left unanswered. It manifested itself not in the form "I hate myself," but rather in the subtler and more commonplace "I hate life right now; I can't wait until this phase of life is over." I feel this is closely related to self-loathing. I will use the term "self-torment" as an umbrella term for the general idea behind both the conscious and the subconscious torment I have described.

Some beliefs about God can exacerbate self-torment

As I detailed in my previous post, beliefs regarding a God that cares about and intervenes in the littlest details of our lives, and a God that causes or allows us to suffer the consequences of our own actions (particularly of sin), can lead to unintended guilt and shame. The failure to receive "blessings" at some given  moment when they are needed can make one question why. Some choose to blame God, but religions counsel strongly against this. "God is perfect; He is never to blame. If you feel angry with God, it is your own fault for doubting; God's ways are higher than ours, you should trust His wisdom." Some choose to blame themselves, assuming guilt in the absence of tangible ways to prove their innocence. Sometimes this blame may be justified. If guilt can be proven, then it can be accepted, digested, and resolved. What is worse is when you are left wondering, when that sneaking insinuation seems like it might be unjustified but you still can't dismiss it entirely.

Claims of infallibility can exacerbate self-torment

This is the concern I have particularly with Mormonism, though please recognize that again this sort of problem is much bigger than just this one religion. I touched on this already in the previous section: "God is perfect; He is never to blame." Most religions have some central kernel of truth which is considered infallible. For many Christian religions, it is the Bible. For some, it is the divinely chosen leaders. Even if the documents or people are considered fallible, there is often a sentiment that certain things they say are obviously the absolute truth, straight from God.

Whenever an individual reaches a personal decision or conviction that is in conflict with this perceived absolute truth, she experiences cognitive dissonance. How could I reach this feeling that is in conflict with the truth? Either I'm wrong, or my religion is wrong. Of course, this is often a false dichotomy; the religion may retract or rescind that particular teaching and illustrate that this particular teaching was not part of the infallible body of absolute truth. Nevertheless, this doesn't change how people feel prior to such a change. If the teaching is presented as if it were infallible, then the religious follower will probably take it that way. When she feels this way, the individual must then weigh this one issue against the entire truthfulness of her religion, and there is immense pressure to conclude "I'm wrong" leads her to wonder, why.

And thus the doors open again for self-torment to take hold. "I'm wrong because I've sinned, or failed to repent fully of past sin." Perhaps the sin is simply a sin of omission. "Did I do any good in the world today? ...if not I have failed indeed." High standards are dangerous things to a person that is already struggling with self-torment; every slip up becomes an opportunity to blame yourself for doubt, because the church's infallibility means that you are wrong.

Social pressure exacerbates the infallibility problem

Within Mormon culture, I've felt a lot of social pressure to conform. Again, this is hardly unique to Mormons; the related concepts of "holier than thou" and "keeping up with the Joneses" are widely known. In my Wikipedia-editing days (I'd like to say those aren't over, but I've not attended to Wikipedia for quite some time) I worked alongside a passionate ex Jehovah's Witness. I tried to temper his seemingly venomous desire to "expose" that religion as fraudulent and manipulative. Considering his experience in light of my own recent experiences leaving my church, I now understand his feelings much more clearly.
Over the years I became increasingly disenchanted with the regimentation of Witnesses and the imposition of rules, the denial of personal choice in many areas, the senseless parroting of stock phrases and ideas and the smugness of Witnesses about their own religion and their arrogant, derisive dismissal of the lifestyles and life choices of non-Witnesses. 
I became sickened by the mindless acceptance and sometimes ecstatic reception of empty and repetitive talks given at Witness conventions and assemblies. 
My concern grew over the ceaseless demands by the Watch Tower organization to report "field service" and I felt betrayed when I came to realise that the number of hours' service one was expected to report was used by congregation elders as the ultimate measure of one’s spirituality. 
I became dismayed to realise that for most Witnesses, their regular attendance at field service groups and congregation meetings was done mainly to satisfy the expectations of other Witnesses and to avoid accusations that one was "slacking off". Yet eventually that became my prime motive in attending meetings and pretending to "go witnessing" as well — to avoid the judgmental comments of other Witnesses. 
And so, after enduring much unhappiness, frustration and silent anger as a Jehovah’s Witness — for one cannot voice these criticisms, even to one’s closest friends, for fear they will report you to elders as an apostate and a murmurer — I chose to cease associating with the Witnesses. Those Witnesses I count as true, close friends were dismayed at my withdrawal, but because they have been well primed by Watch Tower publications and talks to be wary of anyone who strays from the norm, they also became immediately suspicious of my motives, even though I declined to give them any reason for my decision.I realised after some time that within their closed community — a claustrophobic, sycophantic, incestuous community they describe as a “spiritual paradise” — gossip and backbiting are the norm. One is always watched by other Witnesses, who are always waiting to judge, criticise and condemn the people they call their "brothers and sisters".
(Read the rest of the old version of that user page. I would link to a better source if I could, but I was in fact one of the people involved in suggesting that this content be removed due to its irrelevance to Wikipedia. Here's a text dump just in case it gets permanently removed.)

Guilt is used as a tool to suppress independent thought

This is what makes me mad. This is what makes me wonder if I will ever believe in God again. Self loathing is bad enough, but is especially so when it is compounded with the "doubt is your fault" issue heaped on top and reconfirmed by both doctrine and social atmosphere. It is bad because it does unnecessary harm to the questioning mind, but worse because it suffocates the healthy habit of asking meaningful, hard questions, and coming up with different, novel, unique answers.

This issue is larger, even, than religion. Pressure to conform to "the system" is present anywhere that a good system is sought after. I've seen it in schools, in politics, even in programming language communities. A particular dogma is upheld, and a group or organization's very existence revolves around it. Then people related to the group raise questions that challenge ideas that have, until that point, simply been assumed.

Asking the wrong questions

Let me pick on my favorite programming language, Haskell, as an example. Haskell is a fascinating language because it enforces certain things that other languages don't. It very strongly encourages a particular style of programming. A great community of people has formed around this language. There is a sort of "Haskell mentality" that must be learned in order to be effective with this programming language, because there are a few things that make it fundamentally different than most of the popular languages: C, Java, Python, etc. It is often the case that someone will come from another language, and try to learn Haskell. They will ask the Haskell community, "How do I do X?" Now, very likely, he has overspecified X. He wants to do something the same way that he did it in his old programming language. Although Haskell is fantastic at supporting multiple paradigms, it is common for the educated Haskeller to take this opportunity to indoctrinate the newbie in the ways of Haskell. "What you really want to do is Y." If we can just indoctrinate this newbie into "the Haskell way" of thinking, then it'll be much easier for him to use Haskell. This sounds fine to "insiders," but can alienate "outsiders" and come off as arrogant or annoying. (Whenever you have an "us vs them" situation, red flags should be going up in your mind.)

A few friends in the Haskell community were talking about another programming language which shall remain unnamed. Consider how similar this is to the religious/infallibility situation (names changed for anonymity/fun):
Alice: In the [Blub irc channel] it's impossible to get answers to deeper technical questions. Instead of admitting that they don't know the answer, people resort to annoying "you don't really want that questions".
Bob: “You don't really want to do that” kind of answers really bug me. And I wish people were happier with not knowing something. There's a tendency on IRC in general for people to try to maintain some kind of “clean sheet” of always being right, or appearing to be. That's profoundly unhealthy. Come on guys, no one thinks or cares that you don't know everything, they're happy that you're paying any interest at all.
Eve: I tend to do that (try to appear right) as well, and I find it's harder than I might think to change. It takes a lot of self-awareness to catch myself doing it.
 Alice: I wanted to [X] ... and I was asking if someone knew [about related thing Y]. Apparently I'm wrong for wanting this and it's not possible to answer this question [Y] (according to a couple of people on the channel) unless I explain why I want [X].
This is a tricky topic to talk about, and I want to touch on another aspect of it before I return to my main point. Jesus was a master of not answering the question asked, but instead striking at the heart the underlying issue. This is because the pharisees often asked Jesus questions with the malicious intent of tripping him up. I don't believe that it is inherently wrong to respond to a question with "you're asking the wrong question." However, it is nevertheless a warning sign that the respondent might be in a reality distortion field.

You're holding it wrong: shifting the blame

Keeping the discussion light before we delve back into the depths of seriousness. Apple fans are sometimes accused of succumbing to the "reality distortion field." I googled "apple holding it wrong" to refresh my memory on the iPhone 4 issue where holding it a certain, fairly standard way caused it to lose reception, and Steve Jobs simply suggested not holding it that way. I was amused to find more recent articles on the iPhone 5 "purple lens flare" camera issue. Apparently some unfortunate AppleCare support employee suggested angling the camera differently, and the internet again took the opportunity to make fun of Apple's reality distortion field.

So what should Apple have done? "No good deed goes unpunished," so the saying goes. Just because dearly departed Mr. Jobs or some AppleCare employee tried to suggest holding the phone in a way that avoided the issue, they got a lot of flack. Was this justified? Perhaps. People wanted a full apology, a public admission that serious mistakes were made, especially considering the level of care, thought, and pride that Apple invests in its user experience. Instead, by this sort of suggestion, the blame subtly got shifted from Apple to the consumer. Having a problem with your iThing? It's your fault. Now, Apple didn't say this, but nevertheless, the connotation was there. It was felt. The unspoken infallibility. The upheld dogma and ideal, the discouragement of doubt in the organization. Do you see how this issue infects not only Mormonism, not only religion, but the entirety of our society? Do you see how it isn't just a problem with the ones transmitting the message, but also with the ones receiving it? There is something wrong with the way we perceive the world, the way we value dogma and high standards. But there is something right about it, too; it's not all wrong.

Infallibility, insufficient apology, and suppression

The Mormon church, starting at an unknown time and up until 1978, denied blacks the priesthood, and therefore, also denied them temple ordinances, which are (according to Mormon theology) necessary for exaltation in the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. The first presidency issued an official declaration in 1949 called the "Negro Question" declaration.
The attitude of the Church with reference to the Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the Priesthood at the present time.
It goes on to imply (though does not state in clear terms) that blacks would become white and then be given the priesthood, but only after "all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood," which seems to me to refer to the resurrection. In 1978, the first presidency issued and the church membership accepted what is now known as "Official Declaration 2." Here are some excerpts:
Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood... He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come... Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.
If we are to believe both of these documents, then we conclude that God for some reason banned blacks from the priesthood, and then later un-banned them, without supplying a reason. Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle of the church, had the following to say at a CES Symposium:
... all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet... It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year.
Absolutely chilling. Throw out all logic, all reason, all questions, and get in line. And if you don't, then you obviously need to repent; your disbelief is your own fault. I used to look up to McConkie as a great scholar, but this disgusts me. Nothing could be farther from the spirit of scholarship. This breaks my heart.

In 1997, the church was asked to officially repudiate the 1949 declaration, but President Hinkley responded "The 1978 declaration speaks for itself ... I don't see anything further that we need to do." This saddens me. President Hinkley was my hero. How could he not see the damage the church has done? How could he not see "anything further that we need to do," in the face of a direct request for apology? Ironically, in 2004 (While Hinkley was still president), the state of Illinois issued an official apology for the persecution of the Mormons which drove them from the state in the mid 19th century. Wasn't it enough that Illinois laws now prohibit such discrimination based on religion, and welcome Mormons with open arms?

A related aside: The Family

As a gay man, President Hinkley has dealt me yet another slap in the face, issued in 1995 by the first presidency, known as The Family: A Proclamation to the World.
WE, THE FIRST PRESIDENCY and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God... We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife... Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.
In other words, my natural inclinations to seek and love a male partner are not of God, and children are entitled to better than being raised by me and my true love (whomever that turns out to be; it will certainly be a man). Why don't you just stab me in the heart, it would probably hurt less than this. This proclamation additionally makes some claims about gender which invalidate the feelings and choices of transgender people. I am not transgender, but as I have learned more about the LGBT community I have learned more about these wonderful, terribly misunderstood people. It just breaks my heart that the church I loved so dearly, the church I believed in so sincerely, would say these things. I hope that one day the church will issue an apology for this hurtful proclamation. If there is a God, then there is no possible way that these wonderful feelings of love and affection inside of me are not from Him, just because they are for the "wrong" gender.

These things don't just make me sad. They make me angry. I feel rage when I think about it. I feel furious. I feel betrayed. I feel vulnerable, and wounded, and put on the defensive. I feel like lashing out. I feel like decrying the Mormon religion as an awful lie. There are so many good aspects to the church; decrying it as a complete fraud would be a very skewed view of what it really is. But can you see why some people feel driven to speak out against the church after they leave? The church teaches that this is because they hate God, hate the light, hate the truth. They have joined Satan and his cause: they are hellbent on destroying God's work. This illustration is so terribly mistaken.

It isn't because of Satan, or sin, that I feel like speaking out against the church. It is because of the pain, the rage, the betrayal. It is because the church made it so agonizingly difficult to leave. It is because of how deeply I loved the church and the ideals I thought it stood for. It is because the church broke my heart. As the saying goes, the only ones that can hurt you the most are the ones you love most dearly. I will avoid pointing to things and saying "look, this is evidence that the church is wrong," despite the temptation to do so. Instead, I will merely point out the things the church does that I feel are hurtful, and I will share my personal feelings and experiences. But I can see much more clearly now, why some people do speak out. Why after they leave the church, they want to tear it down.

Validation and understanding

The next time someone asks an uncomfortable question, or raises a serious doubt, that challenges your own dogma, your own assumptions, your own beliefs, do yourself a favor. Don't blame them for questioning or doubting. Don't just try to indoctrinate them with your dogma. It is unhealthy to just ignore it. You don't have to have all the answers. It's OK to say "I don't know." But remember, people need validation. People crave acceptance, they want to be heard and understood. When you tell them "you shouldn't ask that question" or "you shouldn't have that doubt," or to "fall in line," or that "it doesn't matter," you are invalidating them. You are telling them that you don't care, that it's their fault, and they need to go fix themselves. This hurts. It damages relationships, and drives them away from you and your dogma, because nobody likes feeling invalidated. Voicing honest questions and doubts puts people in a vulnerable position; the last thing you want to do is betray that trust by taking advantage of the temporary vulnerability.

Instead, try to reach a mutual understanding. What does that person feel? Why? It is extremely therapeutic to hear the words "I know how you feel," when they are sincere. (They can be very insulting when perceived as insincere or inaccurate.) The next best thing to hear is "I understand why you feel the way you do." You have the opportunity and responsibility to heal the self-torment of those around you.

Additional advice

If you are the one with questions and doubts, then I applaud you. That doesn't mean you have to abandon your beliefs. That doesn't prove that your church is wrong. It just means that you have a healthy, functioning brain and a good sense of curiosity. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions and raise the doubts. The truth will outshine everything else. Again, it's OK to not know all the answers. That doesn't mean that you should stop looking for them, though. And that certainly doesn't mean that you should "fall in line" and mindlessly join the rest of the drones. You are unique. No one on earth has the same biology or the same experiences as you. We are all lenses through which the truth can be discovered. Don't just rely on the tradition you grew up with. Use your head. Follow your heart. Ask a Mormon convert to share her story with you; you should recognize these elements in her story: questions, doubts, individual experience, breaking from the norm, being true to one's self. Never succumb to the idea that you just "got lucky" and struck gold on the first try, that you stumbled upon the whole truth and need look no further. Always reach for more. Always be open and receptive.

If you are dealing with self-torment, know that you can change this. Inspect your feelings and admit to yourself that sometimes you lay too much guilt on yourself. Forgive yourself. Talk with those you love about it. Give them a chance to validate you. Find the people that can help you, and don't expose yourself to people that consistently invalidate you. Seek out a therapist or support group as appropriate. There is healing. There is hope. There are people that will love you and help you. Even if you think you have no one else (which is probably not the case), you can always shoot me an email.

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