Chapter 4 of Phil Zuckerman’s book on Apostasy, Faith No More: why people leave religion is on leaving Mormonism.
This chapter highlights the problems of Zuckerman’s blanket term ‘religion’.
The chapter tells the stories of two people, Cecilia and Andrew. Reading it you are confronted with the esoteric world of Latter Day Saints (LDS) – of holy underwear, of Jesus visiting America, the Garden of Eden being in Western Missouri and God living on the planet Kolob, and much more besides that Zuckerman does not get into.
The result (in my view) is a system of belief and practice that bears some superficial resemblance to Christianity but is one that is profoundly at odds with Christian orthodoxy in pretty well every key area – Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, the doctrine of God, sin, grace, gospel, marriage, the equality of men and women, and so on
Throughout the book, such deep differences are consistently glossed over. Cecilia and Andrew’s stories are moving and interesting and important, but I’m not convinced that they can bear the weight Zuckerman gives them as being representative of ‘religion’ in general.
The missiologist Andrew Walls wrote that religion may well be best understood by those on the inside. Zuckerman is an outsider and it shows in his general disinterest (taking Christianity as an example since I know it best) in what orthodox Christianity really believes and how this shapes ethics and praxis.
The picture you get of Christianity is of a focus on external behaviour, an emphasis on mere cognitive assent to certain beliefs; a rather legalistic religion rather than life in the Spirit.
With that caveat, what Zuckerman says is measured and thoughtful. The theme here is how Mormon opposition to Gay marriage turned both interviewees off Mormonism.
For many apostates it is not so much a considered rejection of any core belief, but the wider social, cultural and political package that becomes alienating. For Cecelia it was hated holy underwear, social and political conservatism, guilt and fear over keeping yourself pure sexually, and Mormon opposition to Gay marriage. For Andrew, he would still be a Mormon if he was not homosexual.
Zuckerman notes how Mormonism is a near ‘total world’ – an all embracing package of life. To reject it is to reject friends, family, culture, identity, social networks, and even jobs and careers. Apostasy is therefore a daunting step – unlike for most other groups Zuckerman studied. Apostates face excommunication and being ‘cut off’ from their previous lives.
It’s hard to read this chapter and not to think of parallels to Christendom: an all embracing culture; everybody ‘in’ by default; social, political and religious conformity; a relentless emphasis on external behaviour. And in Ireland, how this social consensus is now disintegrating. As it does so, what was formerly one of the most religious countries in the world is becoming a nation of ‘apostates’.
But I wonder how real such faith ever was in the first place. For what is held together by a combination of law, social pressure and fear will inevitably collapse when those external factors lose their grip.
Reading this chapter on the stultifying pressures within Mormonism reinforces the importance within Christianity of grace, the cross, love, forgiveness, humility, and a living personal faith in the power of the Spirit if it is not to turn into a similar oppressive ‘total world’ of its own.
Comments, as ever, welcome