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Are Mormons brainwashed?
More responses from ex-Mormons

How do you see the church? This makes all the difference.

Is it external, but good? Is the church an big umbrella, under which you can shelter and feel safe? All of us at some time look to the church as a monolith that gives freedom and security. Perhaps this is the majority view. To you, arguments are not welcome. Why question it when it works so well?
Is it external, but bad? Is the church an authoritative hierarchy? A place that promised happiness in return for blind obedience? Perhaps the church is a burden. You may feel guilty, or weary, or both. Do you secretly question the brethren but feel guilty for doing so? Do you secretly envy non-members, and see exhortations to missionary work as a trial to be endured?
Is it internal? Is the church an enabler? A way for the individual to discover things and achieve things that she or he could never do otherwise? Is it the key to the wisdom of the past and a better future? Something that respects your freedom and offers you more? Is it something that burns within you, and you cannot keep quiet? Do you see the absolute need for unity, but recognize the infinite scope for development Is the gospel something personal and living?

It seems that nearly all of those who leave the church see it as just a hierarchy. Some people are church members for fifty years and that is all they see - a hierarchy. But to me it is an enabler. It provides opportunities and new approaches, but only if we choose to find it inside. We will not find it much help if we look for the church in the structures and in what other people say.

Luke 17:20-21
"And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you."

Nobody can tell you what the church is. You must discover it for yourself.

See also: 'Are you converted?' and The Mask of Mormonism - looking below the surface.

"The second essential lesson is to learn the commandments, and obey them because you choose to. [No room for blind obedience here!] Before you can obey the commandments, you must know what they are. You LEARN the commandments by being instructed. ... You KNOW the commandments by the spirit: through prayer, through study, and by your own personal revelation." - Elder Harold G. Hillard, April 2000 General Conference, Saturday morning session.

This is important. When we hear the commandments we do not know them. We cannot know them second hand! The commandments are what you understand them to be. Think what this means. Two people will have two different understandings. You canot say 'this is what it means' and demand that someone believes you. We each have our own understanding. And we must each take responsibility for the results of our own understanding. It is an internal thing.

"You will never blame the church, whatever it does"

That is right! And there are two reasons for this:

1. Anything bad cannot be part of the church

"Why is it that ye cannot understand and know..? ...That which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness." (Doctrine and Covenants 50:21-23)

If it seems like some bad thing is part of the church, then I do not understand the situation. I have had over thirty years in the church, and many times I have found things that at first seemed bad. But when I looked closer, I had completely misunderstood the situation!

2. The church is what I make it

I refuse to blame the church for the same reason that I refuse to blame democracy for my problems. Not because the church or democracy is perfect in every way, but because the church, like democracy, is what I make it. Why? Because, as a human being, I have genuine freedom of thought. I was independent before I was a church member, and I will never give up that independence. I choose what I take from my environment.

I refuse to blame my environment for my problems. If I start going down that route, I could blame my parents, my school, my neighbors, my employers, the environment - just about anyone but myself. But to blame others is to deny my own role in the equation. As long as I have some freedom (to join, to leave, to have my own level of activity, to see things in my own way, to become a church leader myself) then my life within that environment is what I choose to make it.

To blame the church is like blaming a computer. Sure, computers can cause a lot of grief, and have been blamed for all kinds of evils. But they are just tools, or enablers. I could of course let the computer control my life, but I choose not to. In the same say, the church can be a curse or a blessing. I think the wise course is to use it as a blessing. It is far more flexible and intellectually strong than most people realize. But as long as we refuse to take responsibility for our own response to the church, we will not be independent beings. We will only have "the forms of godliness but not the power thereof."

Why is the church such a flexible yet powerful enabler? Because of its unique attitude to continuing revelation (including personal revelation). It can accept all truth (see the example of evolution for example) while still maintaining the structures that give society strength. Yes, here are plenty of alternatives organizations and philosophies, but nothing else can achieve both at once. So-called 'free thought' is doomed to be forever divisive. So-called 'Christianity' is doomed to be either divided, or at odds with scientific discovery. But so-called 'Mormonism,' if we choose to be free to interpret, can transcend both obstacles. It really is a uniquely beautiful enabler.

Man is truly independent - each soul is as eternal as God - and our existence is contingent on that independence. That is the why I can choose to use the church for my benefit, and never blame it or anyone else if things do not go right.

"You should talk to more ex-Mormons to learn more"

When I talk to ex-Mormons, they describe a church that I do not belong to: an external organization, where other people do all the thinking. Of course that kind of organization will lead to all kinds of problems. I accept that! I do not need to be persuades on that count. It is only natural that when we give up our ability to choose for ourselves that we will suffer both intellectually and emotionally or worse. That is Satan's plan.

The church I belong to is not the church you left

The church I belong to is not the church that the ex-Mormons left. My church is the one described by Jesus. It is not a rigid structure. It is a group of independent (truly independent) souls. Some choose to follow others' thinking and are happy with that. Some choose to think for themselves. But all see real benefits in being united, in listening to the prophets, and in contributing to the organization.

Perhaps you will reply but nobody else in the church says that - wake up and hear what others say." I do hear what others say. And I interpret it for myself. Then I take responsibility for that interpretation. I am an independent soul, and you are too. I can choose to benefit from my environment (of which the church is a significant part), or I can choose to let it control me. It seems to me that most ex-Mormons have chosen the latter and, as thinking people, it has naturally made them miserable.

Finally, some people will just see this as proof that I am controlled at a deeper level than I realize. I could say the same about you. But I think, as seekers after truth, we are a lot closer than we might think.


The third reason for leaving the church
"I am cleverer than you" (the three reasons are introduced here)

"I am not claiming to be 'cleverer than you.' I just do not see the evidence as you do".

One correspondent suggested that a person who disagrees is not saying "I am cleverer than you." He is simply saying that "the apologist arguments fail to alleviate the problems I have found." But they amount to the same thing:

  1. If we both see the same argument
  2. and the apologist finds the evidence to be satisfying (unless the apologist is a liar)
  3. and you find the same evidence to be not satisfying
  4. then, one or both of you must be either (a) using faulty logic, or (b) relying on faulty assumptions.
  5. So, one or both of you is lacking in intelligence.
  6. But if you trust your conclusion enough to act on it, you must have rejected the hypothesis that you yourself are stupid.
  7. Ergo, you see yourself as cleverer than your opponent.

Please do not take offence at this. It works both ways. If I think your arguments against the church are not logical, then I (a Mormon) am claiming to be cleverer than you (a non-Mormon). So why not say so? If we both see the same evidence (and this is a closed-system argument) and both come to different conclusions, then either we are both stupid, or one of us is more clever than the other.

Perhaps my British approach is a little too blunt. I recently heard Stephen Fry comment on the different approaches to academic arguments. He noted that, while a British academic might say "you are wrong," an American is more likely to say "I entirely agree with you on every point. But have you considered that the complete opposite may be true?" Actually, I prefer the American approach, but I am not very good at it. :-)

"You cannot say the church is true, thus all arguments that are based on this are illogical"

The reasoning is that we would need to assess far more evidence than can be seen in one lifetime. This issue has been discussed on the page about you can know the church is true, in the section on the philosopher John Langshaw Austin.

"The experience of many people who have left the church is valid"

And so is the experience of the vast majority who choose to stay (or drift away without any bad feelings). The question is, how do we interpret this evidence? I see it as evidence that people have had a hierarchical view of the church (because they have said so). Whether one person or a million people leave, if the reason is the same it does not make the reason any more or less valid.


"Brainwashing"?

"When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done"?

Many people, who claim to be well informed, like to quote the statement, "When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done." This statement came from from a 1940s ward teaching lesson. People conveniently forget that the president of the Church immediately repudiated it (Dialogue 19:1/35-39). It is a false teaching that has no place in the church.

It is possible to find the occasional quote since that time about "follow the brethren" or "do not trust opponents of the church," but these statements are invariably taken out of context. Why do people not want to remember the various quotes that stress freedom and individual choice?

I know plenty of people in the church who like to think for themselves. In fact, we have to - we cannot know the commandments in any other way (see quotation). Everyone in the church can think for themselves - and come to conclusions with which others may disagree. Hence publications like Sunstone and Dialogue. On the Internet there are various forums for informed debate. So I can only conclude that if people do not think for themselves it is because they as individuals do not want to. They are free to choose.

Non-Mormons are unthinking too

The fact is that in any group of people, very few people think for themselves. For the record, I find that most (no all, but most) humanists are naive and simplistic about religion. Ignorance is in the eye of the beholder.

I first became aware of blind obedience in the academic world when I was at university. I soon discovered that creative work took longer and received lower marks, whereas merely repeating what the lecturer said was easier and gained higher marks. I have since observed that the majority of human activities (social, economic, or whatever) have serious flaws, or are fundamentally pointless, but nobody seems to question them.

Observers have been aware of this fact for centuries. In any society, there is a small group who question things (called "the intellectuals" for want of a better word) and the vast majority who (generally) do not. If Mormons are generally an unquestioning bunch, it is because we are human. If we seem especially unquestioning to outsiders, it is because outsiders live by a different set of unquestioned assumptions.

Members do not think for themselves?

This is not true - if only for the simple fact that most members (at least outside the United States) are converts. They questioned the church a great deal before choosing to join. Even lifelong members are surrounded by non-members, TV, newspapers, etc. Anyone who is able to question is going to question.

If you think that ten million Mormons obey everything the prophet says, you don't know the church very well!

Even among faithful members, if you scratch below the surface, you will find numerous differences of opinion in every conceivable area. That is how it should be! Just as in any well run organization, faithful members will think differently but act together.

Members ARE TOLD TO obey uncritically?

The church does give a simple message ("obey") to those who wish to listen uncritically. But if you are clever enough to be critical, you are clever enough to see the truth behind the simplified message: individual freedom.

"You are brainwashed"?

This is a favorite attack from people who should know better. "Brainwashing" is not a scientific concept. That is not that we are free from attempts to guide our thoughts. It is just that there are so many of them that we are ALL brainwashed to some extent. There is no measurable difference between the techniques used by the most extreme "cults" and those used by the army, schools, or mass marketing.

I was amused to read an article about sleep deprivation techniques used by one "cult." Part of their discipline was to allow members to only have six hours' sleep a night. The next week, several people wrote in to comment on the article. One was a mother with a new baby. Her comment was "six hours uninterrupted sleep? Wow!"

"Most speakers at the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] panel on brainwashing agreed that the concept of brainwashing has dubious merit. [It is] 'replete with science fiction.' Truly involuntary psychological control without resort to physical coercion is almost unknown, or cannot be distinguished from voluntary behavior." - New Scientist, 23 Feb 1991, p.22

Maybe I am brainwashed, but in the average week I get maybe three hours of information from church sources and thirty hours from non-church sources. So I am probably brainwashed by non-Mormons.

For the record, as a British person, I think that all (or most) Americans are brainwashed:

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea. I do genuinely admire Americans (we British have plenty of our own sins), but it is too easy to level the charge of "brainwashed" at anyone who thinks different.

Self-brainwashing?

The usual second line of attack is that we are not brainwashed from outside, but we are taught to brainwash ourselves - to produce feelings on demand, for example. Disproving a feeling sounds just as difficult as proving one, but personally I think the whole issue of feelings as communication is a red herring.

I cannot speak for other members, or ex-Mormons. Perhaps every ex-Mormon spent 20 years trying to conjure a feeling out of nothing? If so, that is very sad. I have known people have dramatic "burning" feelings, but they are not necessary. The feelings described in the scriptures are everyday, ordinary good feelings. Learning to live according to those feelings is a healthy thing - as I think most atheists would agree. As you will see from my testimony, the feelings described by Alma are feelings that are familiar to anyone who has studied and made (to them) exciting discoveries. Even atheists must have felt these feelings (though perhaps not when reading Alma!) "But that does not prove that there is a God,"you say. I never claimed that it did. And here is the crux of the whole matter.

My reasons for believing the church are listed here. Yes, feeling good is part of it. What is wrong with that? Feeling good is a good thing! But it is wrong to suggest that this is the only reason, or even the main reason, for believing in the church.

"A warm fuzzy feeling is not evidence."

This is like saying that "noises in your head are not evidence." However, if the noises are in the context of other people opening their mouths, and you begin to recognize a pattern, then these noises become speech and are perfectly acceptable as evidence. Indeed, speech is accepted as a perfectly legitimate form of communication. Feelings are just a little harder to measure. But the context makes all the difference.

Good feelings are only a small part of a much bigger picture of evidence.

"Critical material, or new and challenging ideas, are frowned upon in Mormonism"?

This is a common misunderstanding. The church today teaches obedience and orthodoxy more than anything. Why? because we all live in a society where we are constantly bombarded by non-Mormon messages. This is healthy - there has to be opposition in all things. But the church has to give a loud and clear and simple message to be heard.

The church teaches just one side of the argument, knowing that he world will provide all the others. Just pick up any newspaper to have all the challenging ideas you could want. Amid that cacophony of confusion, the best thing the church can do is give a clear message, like a lighthouse in the storm.

The church continues to encourage its members to get involved in the local community, and in education, and in any way that makes a difference. It thus encourages its members to come into contact with as new and challenging ideas all the time.

"Anti" material

It is true that many church leaders encourage us not to read 'anti' material (e.g. material that criticizes for the sake of criticizing). This is not the same as avoiding all critical views. The average member can come up with plenty of criticisms on his own, and the media and schools can provide plenty more. But anti material, in my experience, does more harm than good, by exposing people to material where, at best, the member does not know the context, and at worst it is a deliberate distortion.

But why are leaders sometimes so dogmatic? Why not say "yes you can read it, but be aware of this or that"? This is an organizational thing again. Any large organization needs to give a clear and simple message. Since the risk of harm is greater than the risk of benefit, the simple message must be "no".

It is wrong to suggest that the church always says "do not read it." For example, the church now officially sponsors FARMS (stop spitting - I can see you!). FARMS publishes the "review of books," which often includes "anti" books. The average member should be able to work out that if it's OK for a FARMS contributor to read "Shadow and Reality" it's also OK for a regular member. Of course, most people will be happy for others to do the reading for them, but that is the same wherever you are. Most people are also happy for newspapers to filter their news, without accusing them of censorship.

It could be argued that the church would censor more if it could get away with it - and did in times past. But in times past the average person had less access to information in general. If getting just the church viewpoint was bad, so was just getting the non-church viewpoint. In both cases, the individual is free to get the in-between viewpoint (e.g. the mass media), and in both cases the individual is free to choose. The interplay between church and critics is quite healthy, even though each side mistrusts the other!

"It takes weakness to obey, and courage to leave"?

Trusting someone who knows more than you do (e.g. blind obedience to the church when you are new) can be a wise strategy. All of us have to rely on others until we find our own feet. If we then decide to continue to obey blindly, that also takes a kind of strength (I certainly could not manage it - it would drive me mad). And what if leaving the church does take courage? It undoubtedly does in many cases. It also takes courage to jump off a cliff, but I would not recommend it.

By the way, it must be said that as a Branch president I did once agree with someone that leaving the church was the right move (I think that surprised the Mission President!) It was a very unusual case. It was mainly because the person got baptized before they even understood faith. The person was liable to get very confused and go nowhere. My hope is that this person will take another look at the church, starting at the right place this time. But it is their choice. Either way, we remain good friends and they have nothing against the church.

Other churches ("cults") rely on feelings, so the LDS church is the same as them"?

This does not follow, of course, because (a) a similarity in one way does not imply a similarity in every way, and (b) good feelings are only one of many tests of the church. I apply the same tests to the church that I would apply to any organization. If we come to different conclusions, it is only because the church is more complex than, say, testing a liquid with litmus paper. I will not give up the test of feelings, because good feelings are an end in themselves (though not the only end).

Interestingly, another person rejected the church for the opposite reason. They felt that the test of feelings was so valid that they did not need anything else - "When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad." What is so bad about making yourself feel good?

Finally, if a cult is bad, but teaches its members to follow good feelings, maybe that is its one good feature? :-)

"A cult is defined as a group that will not accept objections"?

Sometimes the church is accused of changing due to outside pressure - e.g in the case of polygamy or priesthood restrictions. Sometimes it is accused of never listening. You cannot have it both ways! But perhaps these are due to pressure and not dialogue? Then what about the smaller changes in policy that happen all the time - e.g. regarding temple work, the church attitude to helping gay men, etc. Are all these the result of pressure? I was recently reading a Sunstone article about a bishop in a singles ward that has a high proportion of gay men. They talk to him, he listens, and he talks to the general authorities. There is a dialogue, but it is quiet, and it is slow. It seems to me that the church is constantly responding to objections, but critics will not admit this.

The issue of course is speed - the church tends to run slowly. This is to be expected because the church is not some kind of giant ant colony, where the head ant issues a command and all the other ants instantly obey. The church is the sum total of millions of church members, who each have their own views and experiences. Major changes have to be gentle and they take time. In this respect, the church is like the scientific community. Hence Max Planck's famous lament that "new scientific theories supplant previous ones not because people change their minds, but simply because old people die." (See http://www.newscientist.com/nsplus/insight/quantum/5.html)

There are of course some issues that the church stubbornly refuses to back down on. If this makes it a cult then we are all cults. If someone tried to make you believe something that was not true, would you back down? How about if someone said "you cannot tell the difference between salt and sugar," or "this thing you did [an innocent mistake] was deliberately malicious"? Or "you do not exist - you are a figment of my imagination." Extreme examples perhaps, but some things are difficult to prove to the skeptic.

For more about changes in the church, click here.

"The church treats the opposition with disdain"

I think it would be more accurate to say that many people in the church do no understand the opposition and hence sometimes mistrust them, and fails to communicate. As someone who has offended plenty of people without meaning to, I know that a cold, hard attitude is not always intentional.

This situation is not unique to the church, but is apparently unavoidable in any group - religious, political, social, economic, or otherwise - that has a strong identity. See the comments about ostracizing ex-members for details. The suggested alternative - liberal religion - has its own problems. I don't know how it is in the USA, but in Britain the mainstream churches are so all-inclusive that they stand for nothing. They are slowly dying, and it is painful to watch.

Part one: responses from ex-Mormons
Part three: "More reasons for leaving"

The bottom line:

Ex-Mormons reject an idea of the church that I reject as well!

 

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