Monday, July 22, 2013

Mormon Doubters, Repressive-Authoritarian Believers v. Seekers-Doubters, and Future of Religion

A footnote to what I posted yesterday about Laurie Goodstein's New York Times report re: Mormon doubters: in Goodstein's video interview with former Swedish Mormon leader Hans Mattson attached to the report, Mattson speaks about how Joseph Smith was a seeker. He notes that Smith prayed specifically because he doubted.

Mattson contrasts this approach to the life of faith--the seeking-doubting approach--with the approach that has come to dominate the hierarchy of his LDS church. He notes that the church hierarchy told him to suppress his doubts, to shut his mouth about them. The church hierarchy told him to obey when he asked questions about the foundations of the LDS church. Mattson was instructed to obey the truth, which means, he was told to obey the leaders of his church.

This approach to the life of faith might, I think, be called the repressive-authoritarian approach. The repressive-authoritarian approach to the life of faith assumes that someone somewhere has the correct answers, and the obligation of believers is to adhere to the answers as articulated by that someone somewhere. As I noted yesterday, that someone somewhere is very likely to be a heterosexual (or pretend-heterosexual) male (and usually a white one), so that the life of faith has come to be identified at the point of history through which we've been living with the authority and control of--the repression by--heterosexual males, who have convinced themselves that the God they proclaim via the nuggets of truth they dispense to others is themselves writ large. 

And so I'm struck by the fact that Hans Mattson is a heterosexual white male up in years, who is willing to be vocal about his doubts in a religion not conspicuous for its openness to questions, to expressions of doubt, to disobedience. This means something, I think, this willingness of some heterosexual white men of mature age in repressive-authoritarian religious bodies to raise their voices about the repression and the authoritarianism--because that's what Mattson is doing in letting himself be interviewed by the New York Times. And he also states--correctly, I think--that increasing numbers of other Mormons, including, one assumes, other Mormon men like himself, are taking similar steps.

Where does this leave us, the disaffection of even the core group of people who have bolstered the repressive-authoritarian approach to religion during the period of history through which we've been passing? Well, the disaffection of some of those core-group of people: what does this mean?

To me, Mattson's public statements about his doubts, and his willingness to ground his doubts in the life of the founder of his church, Joseph Smith, point to the realignment that many commentators on religion are now calling a movement away from religion to spirituality. In response to repressive-authoritarian readings of the life of faith, more and more people within religious traditions dominated by that approach are shrugging their shoulders and walking away in one way or another.

But they're not, as Mattson underscores, walking away from the life of spiritual pursuit itself, from spiritual connection--from the life of faith as a journey into the unknown, to an unknown destination. It's precisely this way of framing the religious life, which they're discovering to be not incidental but foundational to their religious traditions, as Mattson notes, that is attracting them, and keeping them connected to a spiritual life in ways that transcend the straitened set of possibilities offered to them by repressive-authoritarian religious leaders.

I think, too, that what Mattson has to say about Mormon doubters points to the validity of the findings released last week by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute (and also here). These data show that the trend in American religious life is away from the repressive-authoritarian approach to religion that is congenial to political and religious conservatives, and in the direction of precisely the seeker-doubter model to which Mattson points. A model that yields progressive approaches to social and political problems, in contrast to the repressive-authoritarian model, which predictably reinforces conservative approaches . . . .

Commentary on the new PPRI-Brookings report:

Robert P. Jones at the PPRI website, "Religious Progressives Hold Stronger Appeal Among Millennials"

Katie McDonough at Salon, "The Rise of the Religious Left"

Steve Benen at The Maddow Blog, "This Week in God"

Katherine Bindley at Huffington Post, "Religious Progressives Predicted to Outnumber Conservatives, Survey Finds"

Peter Montgomery at Religion Dispatches, "Capitalism and Christianity"

Thomas Reese at National Catholic Reporter, "Religious Caricatures Undermined by Data"

Paul Moses at Commonweal, "Survey: 1 in 5 Americans Are Religious Progressives"

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