Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why I don't go to church

It doesn't seem that long ago, but I guess it's been over six months now. I was giving church another shot, not as a believer but as a curious fringe participant. I was interested to see whether the LDS church could be an enjoyable place to socialize even without being a fully invested member of the in-group. You can probably guess how it went.

It goes without saying that I think the supernatural claims of the church lack credibility. I was not trying to make myself believe those claims, nor to pretend to anyone that I believed them. I wanted to see if I could ignore them and find other positive reasons to attend church. At first, I thought it might help to treat the supernatural claims as part of a fantasy epic like the Lord of the Rings, and treat the church like a dedicated book club. It's nice to discuss what we can learn from the fact that Bilbo was the only character to give up the ring voluntarily. Why couldn't discussions about Joseph Smith and the First Vision be the same?

That worked for a while. It was actually kind of fun to treat the entire experience as interactive fiction. But I found I could only go so far before it became very tedious. In a book club discussion, everyone recognizes the meta-reality of the situation and there is common understanding that the story didn't literally happen. You can step outside the walls of the story and take a look from the outside. But the stories at church are not like that, at least not in the LDS church. You don't get to say, "I find Joseph's story to be a good metaphor for the search for the divine within all of us." No, what you're supposed to learn is that God and Jesus are real, and that they are separate beings with ten fingers and ten toes. We're talking about literal truth here. At least that's what the manual says.

So the stories are mostly fiction but everyone treats them as real, and they're not pretending. Which is fine, I expected that. Mormons spend a high percentage of church time simply talking about the stories, and it's difficult for me to ignore being totally disconnected from reality for so long, but I tried. What I wanted to know was, would the remainder make up for it? At church, could I glean insights into my own life like I used to? Would I learn anything worth learning?

As a Christian in high school and college, I went to church because I felt it helped me become a better person. We often talked about compassion, love, and service, and I surrounded myself with others who were dedicated to these propositions. Don't get me wrong, there are many people in the LDS church who also value these things. But as the weeks passed, I began to see that we mostly weren't discussing how to be a good person. We were discussing how to be a good Mormon, which is something else entirely. And in many ways, for me, becoming a good Mormon would run directly counter to becoming a good person.

For example, one of the virtues I value most highly is empathy. I wish everyone could put themselves in someone else's shoes and see things from their point of view. I try to do that often, but not often enough, and I feel that improving at it would make me a better person. But at church we don't generally try to see things from other perspectives. If anything, another perspective might be raised only to show how it is wrong. Again, this stems from an inability to step away from our personal fictions into the meta-reality of the situation to view ourselves from outside.

There are many other examples that are just as fundamentally wrong, in my opinion. The characterization of LDS teachings as "pay, pray, obey" is not too far off, and I disagree with every item on that list. I feel that I need to give money and service to those in need, and to worthy causes that need support. The church teaches us to give money to the church, for them to use as they see fit, but only a small percentage of that goes to those who need it. I feel that I need to find the inner strength to overcome life's challenges and stretch myself to become a better person. The church teaches that we should let a supernatural being take care of the hard stuff, and sometimes even the easy stuff. I feel that I need to determine my values for myself, and that a bottom-up approach to problem solving, with many ideas from many perspectives, is likely to produce good solutions most of the time. The church teaches that they alone hold the authoritative keys to true doctrine and true morality, and that if you stray from their top-down edicts, you will suffer. And the list goes on.

So that's why I don't go to church. I don't believe the stories, and it doesn't help me become a better person. I disagree with much of what is taught, and there is no freedom to have meaningful discussion about why. I've said before that I like to find meaning in my life by contrast with my environment. But when contrast is all there is, it gets tiresome. My approach to life is so fundamentally different from many other people at church that sometimes it's difficult to relate to what anyone is saying. So I think I've finally admitted that church is not really for me. I haven't gone at all for several weeks, and I've probably attended only a handful of times in the last six months. It's nice to skip being irritated for three hours on a Sunday, but I also haven't found anything to replace it. I keep thinking I should, because despite my introversion I know I need social interaction. But so far, the status quo is okay.


Karen said...

Hey, nice to see a post from you, Saganist. :) I relate deeply to what you're saying. I haven't been to church in almost two years, so I don't know how I would process it now. Every once in a while I feel like I'd like to go, just to see the people (and see if any of the 25 ward members who friended me on Facebook would actually talk to me), and support a friend who is teaching RS and is stressed about it.

But then I think about my children being taught how to be a good Mormon and I know I can't go back. My brother and I both followed the TBM route because of church and BYU indoctrination instead of following our parents' example. My mom still says "I told you not to go to BYU!" I don't want my son being pressured to go on a mission; I don't want my daughter being told that the most important thing she'll ever do is to get married in a certain building.

My husband has started attending the Episcopal church. I asked him how he reconciled that with the fact that he's not actually Christian. Turns out, he views it entirely symbolically. Who knew you could do that? For instance, he said that making the sign of the cross for him signifies a desire to be open to the universe, in touch with the earth, and connected with the people around him. Nice, huh? I don't know how to do that. The literal interpretation of mythological events is too ingrained now.

I was reading a book on meditation and there was passage that hit me. It said, essentially, that morality based on obeying those in authority is a weak and immature morality. I think it's true. An atheist I know whose morality comes from within herself seems to live it and feel it so much more deeply than most Mormons I know (including me!).

There's not much I miss about church. Except the hymns. I do miss the hymns, in spite of how they're all played at dirge tempo. I even miss the ones about Joseph Smith.

dbd said...

Hi Saganist,

I remember your post describing your proposed experiment from some time ago and wondered what happened. It is good to read your post again. It is interesting to follow your experience.

Saganist said...

Thanks, Karen and dbd. It makes me sad that I can't really interact with the LDS church in an entirely symbolic way as your husband does with the Episcopal church. Or rather, I could choose to do so but the literal-minded environment makes meaningful interaction tremendously difficult. It takes way more effort than I'm willing to expend right now, especially for questionable benefit. I think it's better for me to step away from the experiment but it still is disappointing.

Burk said...

You could always use those three hours to blog ;)
I, like so many others, have experienced the exact same things at (LDS) church. I enjoy reading about your experiences because it helps me to know that I'm not alone.
Unlike you though, I was raised LDS and nearly every friend and coworker is as well. Breaking away has been incredibly difficult.
I haven't tried the methods you suggest, but I doubt they would work for me either.
My point is that what you do here is important, and those of us that can't write well appreciate it.

Saganist said...

Thanks for your kind words, Burk. Blogging during church time is a pretty good idea. I kind of felt like I was doing something churchy today while my family was away at church. Writing about not going to church counts, right?

Burk said...

Absolutely. What you have written here took more reason, thought, and logic than any of your instructors at church would have used.

Maclavarius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carla said...

I can completely relate to what you say too. I don't believe the stories, it doesn't help me be a better person, and I don't really agree with a lot of what is taught. That's pretty much why I don't go to church either. You summed it up perfectly! :D Cheers!

Saganist said...

Thanks! It's good to hear I'm not the only one who feels this way. It's really too bad, because I know most LDS members are trying to be good people, and for many of them that is synonymous with being a good Mormon. But it's not for me, and the difference in attitudes makes it very difficult even to participate. It's frustrating because I don't think it has to be that way, but that's how it is.

kuri said...

Sam also gave up the ring voluntarily when he returned it to Frodo. Just sayin'. ;)

Saganist said...

Whoa, you're totally right! I traced the entire history of the Ring in my mind and completely forgot about Sam. After posting this, I also discovered that Tom Bombadil held it briefly and voluntarily gave it back to Frodo as well.

kuri said...

I didn't think of Bombadil. But maybe he doesn't really count, since the ring had no power over him. It didn't even make him invisible, as you may recall.

Saganist said...

I also kind of lean toward not counting Bombadil, but that doesn't seem quite right either. Although he was able to relinquish the ring because he was immune to its power, it's still the case that he did relinquish it voluntarily.

Sam's feat is more impressive since he was vulnerable to the ring, and of course Bilbo's choice was the most difficult of all since he had held the ring and come to cherish it over decades. I find it interesting that both Sam and Bilbo gave up the ring because of friendship (Sam for Frodo, Bilbo for Gandalf). I think this shows that love is stronger than the lust for power. Man, I need to read these books again.