Why Do Older People Have More Trouble Seeing Through Mormonism Than Younger People?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the probability of changing one’s foundational beliefs declines as age advances. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the older we get the less plastic our neural connections become. The second reason, however, is far more compelling from my perspective. Larry Iannaccone explains this using the term “spiritual capital”, which is analogous to “social capital”, a concept developed elsewhere in the social sciences.

The idea, basically, with regard to spiritual capital is that our brains perform a subconscious cost-benefit analysis with regard to big decisions like changing our foundational beliefs, and therefore probably being forced to change most of our social context. If we do not pass this subconscious hurdle, our conscious minds never have the change to decide whether it is a good idea to change our belief system or not. Why is this process subsconscious? The most likely explanation is that we are not truth seekers, but rather were designed by evolutionary forces to behave so as to maximize our survival and reproductive prospects. Being conscious of deeply troubling issues related to the legitimacy of our primary social group was, historically, likely to reduce our survival and reproductive prospects. Hence, except in the most egregious cases, our subsonscious mind suppresses evidence related to this in the same way it tends to suppress the perception of certain risks and costs related to an attractive sexual encounter.

Changing our basic beliefs usually causes a significant loss of both spiritual and social capital. That is a cost. The benefits must outweigh the costs in order for us to incline in this direction. We generally don’t have the information necessary to assess these benefits, but have had the risks drummed into us throughout life (“Without Mormonism, you would probably be a drunk in the gutter somewhere!!!”). Hence, there is a profoundly conservative tilt in this analysis in most of our cases.

However, some of us are more risk-averse than others, and therefore in those cases the benefits must be perceived to outweigh the costs of change even more than in the usual case. And, most of us are conservative by nature. That is, we are more risk-averse than is optimal from our individualistic perspective. In addition to the reasons already noted, this is probably due to the importance of preserving social groups historically – lose your social group and you die was the rule until recently. Therefore, even for those of us who tend toward the more risk accepting the end of the spectrum, the benefits must be perceived (subconsciously) to significantly outweigh the costs before we will move toward changing our basic beliefs.

Think of social capital in the following terms: The longer we remain within a given religious community, the more people we know; the more people owe us favors; the more we know about how the “system” works; the more hymns, rituals and routines we know and hence the more secure and hence comforting we find the institutional and social environment; the more likely we are to be able to get through the dialogue at the veil in the temple without assistance; the more respect we have within the community; the more secure we feel; etc. It is, obviously, difficult to leave all of this and start over in another community where we are not known; we don’t know much about what is going on; we feel less secure; people don’t owe us favors; we are not respected; etc. In order to do something drastic of this nature, we must perceive the benefits to be enormous. The younger we are, the more likely it is that we will see the world this way. In our 20s and 30s, before marriage or just starting to raise our children, it is particularly likely that we will be able to justify starting over. We have lots of time to build those new connections, learn a new system, etc. and if we believe that a new environment will be better for our kids, this is a particularly strong motivating factor that will in many cases move us toward a rebuilding project. In our 40s or 50s, it is much less likely that we will see things this way – the costs are greater (marriage locked into Mormonism; kids locked in; maybe career dependant on Mormon connections; etc. with less time to live and hence reap the rewards of a success rebuild project). It is even less likely in our 60s and beyond, though I know a handful of people who have left Mormonism posts 60. Anyone reading this who is in that category should pat themselves on the back. You are remarkably brave, and unusual, people.

The most fascinating thing about this analysis to me is that it is almost completely subconscious. We can tell this by observing the way in which people in different circumstances and at different ages react in large numbers, and then asking them why they behave as they have. The answers they give relate to things like the “truth” of the Book of Mormon or the Young Earth Creation theory, whereas their behavior is explained by the relatively simple calculus just noted.

James Fowler, in his excellent book “Stages of Faith”, backs this up. He summarizes the progression many people go through with regard to their spirituality as moving from childlike faith (stage one) through the inflexible dogmatic faith that characterizes most fundamentalist leaning religions, like Mormonism (stage three), through the rupture that occurs when one realizes the inadequacies of her inherited faith (stage four), into what in the best cases becomes an integrative, inclusive perspective with regard to spirituality (stage five). The transition from inherited faith, through rupture, to inclusivity in most people occurs in their 30s, according to Fowler. That is consistent with my experience, and makes sense in light of Iannaccone’s and other academics’ empirical work.

There are a couple of additional factors that appear to be relevant to this analysis. First, the extent to which one is orientated toward introversion and analysis as opposed to extroversion and emotion may correlate with a willingness to leave one’s inherited faith tradition. On the Myers-Briggs scale, the first letter (introversion versus extroversion) and the third letter (thinking versus feeling) identify this. The literature with regard to Myers-Briggs, as well as an informal survey I did a few years ago, support the idea that introverts will have less social capital than extroverts because introverts are less dependent upon other people than are extroverts. Therefore, introverts will be more inclined than extroverts to walk away from an inherited social system. Likewise, people who are more oriented toward thinking and analysis than feeling will be more likely to see the flaws in their social system, and therefore are also more likely to walk away.

Second, the only real scientific study that has been conducted with regard to the reasons for which inherited beliefs change found that the only factor the correlated strongly with rejecting one’s inherited belief system was the psychological characteristic related to openness to new experience, adventuresomeness, continuous learning, etc. The explanation offered was that people of this type live in a conceptual world that continues to expand, and it is therefore more likely in their cases that an inflexible inherited belief system will eventually seem inadequate relative to all with which they become familiar.

Finally, I note that IQ, degree of education, wealth, and a number of other factors that one might guess would correlate with an ability to see through a ruse like Mormonism so far have not correlated to with leaving inherited belief systems. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that at least some of the smartest among us have a harder time than most seeing through the faithful fog. These really smart people have the ability to find patterns in ambiguous data better than most of us, and when they find a pattern that seems plausible, their fellow believers immediately rally behind them and congratulate them for being so smart as to be able to justify the inherited belief system. In some cases, we call these “apologists”. This may explain people like Hugh Nibley and many other Mormons whom I know well and respect. It also explains apologists for failed political and economic ideologies, environmental apologists and a wide variety of other similar people.

I left Mormonism in my mid-40s, and feel fortunate that I was able to make that massive change relatively late in life. Kudos to those of you who have done so later. However, those who made the transition earlier should feel doubly fortunate because you have the time necessary to build a new life foundation without having a long-term marriage, teenage children, etc. in tow who have been thoroughly conditioned by their Mormon experience, and whose pain you must share or face further losses.

One thought on “Why Do Older People Have More Trouble Seeing Through Mormonism Than Younger People?

  1. This has been a big help understanding my Mormon friend who is also mid-40’s. Your openness to change in established adulthood is an inspiration. I’m reminded of a quote by Epicurus.
    “He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it has passed.”
    ― Epicurus

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