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Of Faith and Fear 2 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Judaism, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.

On my train commute tonight I listened to an interview with Hella Winston, a sociologist who has been studying the various Hasidim of New York City. (This is the second time I've had this kind of resonance with experience of orthodox Judaism, the first being when I saw Trembling before G-d, a documentary about the experience of gay orthodox Jews.) Winston's research studied the phenomenon of resistance and dissent within these relatively closed religious communities and the ways that people with doubts or questions, or people who feel restrained or oppressed by their communities deal with being "outside" the accepted norms. She spoke of sneaking books from libraries that had to be hidden from family and neighbors; going to movies or watching television that was forbidden; blogs and online communities; half-way houses in Manhattan; losing ties to family and community; depression and emotional turmoil; etc.

Many times in the past, I have been struck by the similarities between my Jewish friends' experiences and my experiences in Mormonism. Although I think that qualitatively speaking, Hasidic communities are far more tightly scripted than most Mormon communities are, the combination of Faith and Fear that marked the relationship of individuals who were, for whatever reason, "oustide" of the norm of their hasidic community also mark my personal experience of leaving Mormonism.

The Faith side is the all-encompassing theological (or Talmudic) representation of the world, such that one's perceptions are completely filtered through it. It also includes, in the case of the Hasidim, a powerful authoritarian structure of elderly men who are treated as prophets or, in some cases, messiahs. In the case of Mormons, it is a geriatric "priesthood" authority structure, which functions for all intents and purposes without check. Dissent in both communities is punished, sometimes mounting to being cut off or excommunicated. But I think what makes these religions so powerful in the lives of adherents, even those who are out of step, are precisely the communities that they produce. There is an incredible psychological strength that comes from being a part of this kind of faith community, a surety of knowledge about who one is and one's place in the world. My sense is that many minority or alternative religions develop this kind of communal bond, us against them.

These tight and all-encompassing religions, which are out of step with mainstream American culture, nearly always have built into them cultural hooks to keep individuals in, the Fear side of the equation. For the Hasidim, this outsider status is much more pronounced, as the practices of Hasidic Judaism mark an individual obviously to non-Jews as being outside of the dominant culture. Mormons also have practices that separate them from the mainstream, such as wearing garments, but these practices are more subtle and so Mormons can often "pass" among "Gentiles." For Hasidimm, there is often manipulation of their emotional ties to community, where their leaving or falling will adversely affect their families and friends after they leave. Both Mormons and Hasidim fear the loss of community and family; and must undergo the painful process of rebuilding a new world view structure after rejecting all or parts of their belief structures. Mormonism, being closer to the mainstream, also builds in theological claims, that if the church is true, then you are giving up eternity by leaving; older Mormon practices, such as blood atonement oaths and covenanting to die rather than give up the community have gradually fallen away since World War II, but it seems to me in my experience that many of the emotional sides of those bodily threat covenants endure within Mormon culture (my own temple experience was before the blood oaths were removed in 1990). For the Hasidim, it's more ethnic: they have a responsibility to maintain or perpetuate Jewish tradition into the future, and are abrogating their connections to thousands of years of tradition and to the true form of Judaism.

Being "other" in either of these two complex religious cultures and communities requires covering, or a constant self-monitoring to make sure not to accidentally reveal oneself as out of step.

In trying to figure out why Jewish experiences resonate with me, I used to talk with David Katzman at University of Kansas about the parallels between Mormonism as an ethnicity and the experience of Mormonism with the experience of Judaism. Although the histories are different and Judaism is older, larger, and more diverse, I continue to feel that resonance with my Jewish friends who have had similar experiences with their communities. Dr. Katzman didn't really understand what I was talking about until he visited southern Utah on his way to California; after his road trip, he was excited to tell me that he now gets it and sees why I think of Mormonism as much as an ethnicity as a religion. But there is also a kind of understanding that grows from being raised in such ethno-religious communities. Winston's equanimity toward her subjects touched me, as she was able to see these communities in their richness and complexity and she really liked and cared about the people she studied. Winston herself is a secular Jew, who approaches her critiques evenhandedly but with compassion. This resonated with my almost tribal connections to Mormonism, despite my atheism, sexuality and politics.



1. Diana S. - 3 March 2006

I’ve found that I also relate to people who’ve been in creepy cult religions like Scientology.

2. diana s. - 3 March 2006

by the way…you are very prolific!

3. Randy - 3 March 2006

Todd, how do you react when a non-Mormon criticizes the Mormon Church–and/or Mormon culture–on bases you know are false? I still find myself trying to correct them, rather than simply ignoring them.

4. Todd - 3 March 2006

Are you saying I write too much? 😉

5. Todd - 3 March 2006


Yeah, I tend to be pretty tolerant of people criticizing the LDS Church until their critiques are wrongheaded, historically inaccurate, or based on stereotypes. I also get irritated when people criticize mormon culture for doing things that any conservative religion does, when in fact, mormonism is pretty much right in step with those other cultures.

I have been deeply hurt by the church and its culture, know that it’s historical claims are bullshit, know that it’s institutional structure is unethical. Yet I often have a kind of tribal response about it, which I’m trying to let go of as I get older.

Part of that process is going to be resigning from the church, which I tried to do last fall, but apparently the local bishop “lost” my request, so I have to do the whole thing all over again.

6. Todd - 3 March 2006

I just added this language to the main post:

But I think what makes these religions so powerful in the lives of adherents, even those who are out of step, are precisely the communities that they produce. There is an incredible psychological strength that comes from being a part of this kind of faith community, a surety of knowledge about who one is and one’s place in the world. My sense is that many minority or alternative religions develop this kind of communal bond, us against them.

7. diana s. - 3 March 2006

no. i’m impressed!

8. d - 3 March 2006

This post has been removed by the author.

9. diana s. - 3 March 2006

i was thinking about trees last night because the late Joe Strummer started an organization to plant trees as a way of helping with global warming. doesn’t that make sense? i’m suddenly wondering why we all aren’t planting trees everywhere. have you ever thought about this?

10. Todd - 3 March 2006

I do know that some climatologists estimate that up to 40% (maybe higher) of warming gases can be traced back to deforestation of the tropical and temparate zones, in addition to leading directly to desertification in Africa and the western U.S. It makes sense to me!

11. Equality - 9 March 2006

Todd, I did not realize you had not officially resigned long ago. Funny that ME beat you to the punch, eh?

12. Todd - 9 March 2006

I had basically just not even thought about it until last summer when I had some conflicts with extended family. This past fall I wrote a resignation letter to the church, but didn’t really know the process well, and sent it to the local bishop. He was very cordial with me, but says he never received it. Now I’m gearing up all the emotional baggage to try again, this time sending to the Church membership office. Hopefully that will take care of it.

13. Anonymous - 9 March 2006

Dude, I got my confirmation today that they have my letter. they are returning it to the local bishop. wtf? the whole point of sending it to slc and asking for it to be confidential was to not deal with the local bishop. but, nevertheless, it acknowledges that they have my letter. i am out. sunsabitches.


14. Todd - 9 March 2006

rock on. from what i understand from the internet, that’s the normal order of things. the local penis-holders have to remove your name. the trick is to tell the records office you’re expecting it to be done, give them a time-line, insist that there be no court or you will sue. They are legally obligated to remove you within a certain amount of time from the request.

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