Friday, March 11, 2011

New Order Mormons

Recently I listened to a Mormon Stories podcast with Jared Anderson, a New Testament scholar who is currently completing his PhD in Religious Studies at UNC under Bart Ehrman. I enjoyed listening to Jared discuss the New Testament using an academic approach (an approch much neglected by LDS scholars, who usually prefer learning with "the spirit" instead) and thought Jared was an extremely interesting and likable person.

Jared is clearly not your normal Mormon. He doubts the veracity of most LDS truth-claims - including the gold plates, the First Vision, translation of scripture, restoration of priesthood power, the singularly true LDS Church. He says he "would be pleasantly surprised" if these things were true. That's a nice way of saying he doesn't believe them. He even doubts the atonement of Jesus Christ and the existence of God, calling himself an agnostic theist.

However, despite his unorthodox beliefs, Jared is currently active in the LDS faith. He holds down a Church calling in the Sunday School, bears testimony, uses his priesthood, and (I'm assuming) holds a temple recommend.

Jared is typical of a new type of Mormon called a "New Order Mormon," or NOM, who maintain their participation in the LDS Church, while simultaneously holding beliefs that don't necessarily correlate with the mainstream.

Let me first state my agreement with NOM's out there. I commend NOM's as being free-thinkers who refuse to be told what to believe. Instead they pick and choose among LDS teachings, or believe religious ideas outside LDS orthodoxy.  They usually don't have a problem stating that they disagree with certain aspects of LDS history such as racial discrimination towards blacks, polygamy, or Joseph's use of magic stones to translate the Book of Mormon. They usually think that modern LDS leaders, while inspired at times, also spout-off a lot of unispired opinions. They see their church leaders in more human and fallible terms. They see value in cultural, social, and traditional aspects of the LDS Church, and view participation in it as an opportunity to serve others and learn. They are usually sympathetic to outsiders including homosexuals, feminists, single adults, intellectuals, and even those who become disaffected with the church. President Packer is usually their least favorite LDS apostle, while Hugh B. Brown is one of their favorite.

In short, I find many areas with which to agree with NOM's. But I also have a few philosophical bones to pick with them.

First, in emphasizing the practical aspects of the LDS faith, truth usually becomes a casualty. In the podcast with Jared Anderson, for example, he admits that believing the doctrine of the Church is not as important as the "cost-benefit ratio" of participation.  If benefits of religious participation outweigh its costs, then these costs (such as the fact that LDS truth claims are not very truthful) can be ignored.

It just doesn't seem to matter that much to NOM's that the LDS church was started by a charlatan on false pretenses, and continues to be lead today by self-deceived, out-of-touch, old white guys. Many NOMs don't see things quite so simply, and instead turn LDS history and doctrine into an obscure and contextual "paradox." While NOM's have little difficulty seeing through the  ridiculous claims of Scientology or Jehovah's Witnesses, they engage in mental gymnastics in order to make LDS claims respectable, and even somewhat believable. Such mental gymnastics is easy to discern in others, but trickier to notice when we, or our own tribe, use the same illogic.

Second, by participating in the LDS church, NOM's are quietly giving consent - to their children, spouse, and friends - of what it teaches. Do they really want their kids to get the message, over and over again, that they are a member of God's special tribe, that men and women are expected to conform to traditional gender roles, that magical thinking is normal, that academic and scientific approaches to knowledge are risky to their faith and should be avoided, that homosexuality is an abomination, and that they should obey what church leaders tell them out of principle? These ideas, and others, surely have a cost that many NOM's don't seem to factor into their cost-benefit calculations.

Third, isn't there an element of deception in pretending to believe something that you don't? Many NOM's have to be careful what they say in church in order to not offend others, or to not be judged as heretical. Anderson openly admits to subtly misleading his TBM audience about his orthodoxy while testifying and teaching in church.   Personally, I couldn't pretend to believe something that I didn't, use confusing language to camouflage my views, or blatantly mislead others (including a bishop during a temple recommend interview) about what I really believe. Nor should I have to.

Fouth, there is an underlying assumption among NOM's that religion is important to instill a sense of meaning, values, and tradition in your life. NOM's buy into what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls "belief in belief." They don't necessarily believe everything themselves, but they still think that the idea of belief is still somehow important for human development.

However, people don't need religion to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.   Some of the happiest people in the world (those happy Scandinavians) are also the most nonreligious.  Developing a sense of community and tradition can be found in other ways besides membership in the insular, and all-encompasing, way of life promoted within the LDS church.

People can also develop a moral compass without religion. In fact, religion has little to do with it.  Our innate moral behavior developed because humans are a social animal who evolved certain behaviors, over millions of years, which help us get along with other people.  Just as survival-promoting physical characteristics evolved over time (such as a large brain, opposable thumbs, and an upright posture), so does survival-promoting behaviors (such as reciprocal altruism, language, and the ability to empathize with others). Basic moral behavior is fairly universal whether you are religious or not.

Religious organizations can sometimes even derail our inherent sense of morality towards someone they view as sinful or different. For example, scientists have demonstrated a direct correlation between a persons level of religious participation and prejudice based on race, religion, or sexual preference. If someone's scripture or leaders teach that there is something wrong with another person's race, religion, or sexual preference, then it gives them license to view or treat them unfairly.

Regarding scripture and prophetic counsel, do we really need them to learn truth? Reading religious texts and sifting through LDS teachings in order to find kernels of truth, is like foraging for nuts in a minefield; the religious landscape is strewn about with both the good and the bad. We pick and choose what to believe and follow.  On what basis do some people pick and choose ideas from scripture and "inspired" leaders?  I would suggest that people use our own moral compass independent of religion. If something contradicts our innate sense of right and wrong, people will reject it - whether or not their scripture or prophet said it.

In the same vein, if we reject what is bad in religious thought, why can't we know independently what is right as well? Why do we need religious leaders and textual myths to tell us how to act?  I can learn just as much truth by reading Victor Hugo, Carl Sagan, or Peter Singer (and without all the ridiculousness) as I can by reading the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or General Conference talks.  There are better place to look for nuts of truth.

In conclusion, NOM's are great people who I really like and find much to agree with. However, they underestimate the opportunity cost of LDS participation, while overestimating the perceived benefits. These benefits can be gained through other organizations, or other sources of information (like any reputable bookstore), without all the negative baggage that comes along with participation in the LDS way-of-life.