The widest angle lens I have found while trying to understand my experience on the way out of Mormonism was handed to me by a friend as I was going through some of my darkest moments of that birth canal. She referred me to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell. I found him and others like him to be immensely helpful (see in general here in rs.mythology v. history and out of my faith starting at page 36).
Campbell describes mythology as those beliefs used to make sense out of lifels most basic questions: Why do we exist?; why do we suffer?; why do we rejoice?; why do we die?; what happens after death?; etc. He notes common threads in these myths, and patterns related to the nature of myths and the human groups that believe them. For example, people who live in environments where resources are scarce and hence fought over by competing human groups tend to have myths that justify killing other humans, whereas people who live in environments of abundance don’t tend to have such myths. Mythologies, Campbell would say, are mostly functional â€“ they help us to make sense out of what we have to do to survive.
Mythologies are, in general terms, of great use if used as metaphor and dangerous if taken literally. Think, for example, of the carnage that has been inflicted on mankind by those who take literally the idea that God has a â€œchosenâ€ people. There is nothing wrong with this idea in metaphor, and it is a killer when taken literally.
Another way to think of mythology is as a form of extended or meta-analogy. That is, myths are not explicitly based on empirical truth that prove cause and effect relationships to exist, but rather suggest broad cause and effect relationships that can be taken in many different ways. We will consider below one of these below in the form of the â€œHeroâ€ myth, which encourages us to leave the safe confines of our social group and ideology to break new ground. This thirst for exploration and learning is basic to humanity, and is responsible for our continual learning about how to control our environment. As we continue to learn, we become more powerful. One of the longstanding concerns of some of the most insightful members of society has been that human power will outstrip human wisdom to the point at which we will destroy ourselves. I think that concern is, by and large, healthy since the more aware we are collectively of these risks the less likely we are to be harmed by them.
Analogies are dangerous because a false analogy that supports the status quo or what we for some reason want or need to believe tends to persuasive. Such analogies are often based on limited data that suggest spurious cause and effect relationships. A nephew who was in Thailand when the tsunami hit in December of 2004 told me a story recently that nicely illustrates this point. He was not in the area that was devastated, but met many people who were. One fellow told him that he and some friends had planned a boat trip for the day of the tsunami. However, he foolishly got so drunk the night before that he was sick when the others left for the cruise. They died, and he lived. Magical thinking people (including superstitious, or religious people) could draw many conclusions from this event. Maybe getting drunk is a good survival strategy overall? Maybe each time the urge to get drunk is felt, that is God’s way of protecting either that particular man, or mankind in general? Maybe being spared disaster in this bizarre way was God’s method of communicating something to this man“ maybe he should continue to do something that he was doing, or stop doing something he was doing, or start doing something new (like join the Mormon Church if he had been thinking of doing that or if he met Mormon missionaries a short time after his brush with disaster)? Etc. For the magical thinking person, there are innumerable ways to use an event of this sort to justify doing or not doing countless things.
The naturalistic interpretation of same event would be, quite simply, shit happens. This man was incredibly lucky. Full stop. The event has no more cosmic significance than my stepping on and crushing one bug as I walk across my lawn, and narrowly missing another. However, a brush with death may make us introspect, and perhaps appreciate the fragility of our existence a bit better (for a while at least) and so change our behaviour in some ways that we find valuable.
A much more important, and infamous, false analogy is the “survival of the fittest” aspect of evolutional theory that was used to justify human eugenics of the type that underlay the Holocaust.
One of my favorite false analogies within Mormonism is that between feelings and truth. For example, most humans have strong feelings for their families, and when they are put in a situation that brings those feelings out it tends to feel like something “good” has happened and hence whatever seems to have caused this to occur should also be “good”. Feelings of this kind tend to accompany things like marriages, expressions of love between family members, surviving crises related to health and other things together, etc. Mormon belief routinely gives credit for these good feelings to the Mormon institution, and hence uses these common human experiences to suggest that Mormonism is “good”, and hence is what it says it is God’s one and only true church on Earth. The logic works like this:
- Families are good;
- Whatever makes you feel good about your family is good;
- Whatever is good is “true” (“By their fruits ye shall know them”);
- Mormonism has taken control of many important family occasions (weddings, funerals, public expressions of love for family members during testimony meetings, etc.; private expressions of love through father’s blessings, etc.);
- Therefore, Mormons often feel powerful, healthy emotions related to their families and friends as a result of participating in Mormon activities and rituals;
- Therefore, Mormonism is good;
- Therefore, Mormonism is true;
- Therefore, Mormonism is what it says it is God’s one and only true church on Earth.
- Therefore, the Celestial Kingdom exists and if I want to be there in a state of incredible happiness with my family I must obey Mormon leaders.
The naturalistic explanation for this phenomenon is that countless other religions and ideologies have used similarly spurious cause and effect connections to control people’s behaviour. Some of these are more or less benign, and others are terrible. Nazism, for example, amplied the natural socially useful forces of human pride and allegiance to the social group, fear of outsiders and insecurity related to recent German history, to cause World War II and the Holocaust. American democracy was created through the use of similar forces.
Mormon testimonies, hence, are in my view fully explained by social forces of type just described and the nuerology described at Out of My Faith? Or Draining Theology’s Swamp starting at page 77.
I have become increasing orientated toward empirical analysis and the naturalistic explanations derived from them as I have moved through my recovery. That is, I place increasing weight on what science can tell us with some degree of certainty about cause and effect relationships. When science conflicts with long cherished ideas, usually based on a false analogy of some kind, I try hard to allow the insights gained from science to govern. So, I have becomes sceptical of the use of analogies that are not backed up by data that confirm both that the analogy really works as advertised, and that the frequency of the phenomena in question supports the point it is used to make.
However, myths that have stood the test of time and have cropped up in human culture after human culture often are found to contain kernels of truth that have been explained reasonably well by science. Mythology can help us to understand both the workings of our own minds (or souls â€“ use the term your prefer) and social groups. They are, in a sense, collective dreams. And there are some myths or parables that are particularly helpful to those who are struggling through the massive personal and social transition that is recovery from Mormonism. Here are a few of my favourites â€“ The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Social Masks, and The Child, Camel, Dragon and Lion. After reading these summaries, you might want to go back and re-read the recovering Mormon transition steps above and see how they been transformed by this ancient context.