Mormons dig abstinence. Like many other highly committed Christians, we abstain from premarital sex. But, that’s not all; we also abstain from tobacco, alcohol, coffee, tea, profanity, R-rated movies, dating before age 16, fooling around prior to marriage, and shopping on Sundays. And some even like to add more abstinence on top of that! I had one college roommate who was determined to share her first ever kiss across the altar with her husband.Abstinence makes us feel special, like we are “taking up our cross” and “denying ourselves all ungodliness.” It makes us a “peculiar people” and sets us apart from the world. It also provides lots of opportunities to feel like a superior outsider and to sit in judgment on hedonists and other indulgers. Notwithstanding, abstainers tend to have some admirable traits:
- self-discipline (especially those Opus Dei guys)
- organization (even OCD one might say)
- consistency (predictable?)
- get more done (overachievers!)
- deeply committed athletes (who don’t take steroids) may be abstainers. (They write a book or sell a bunch of cheesy rubber bracelets, and we eat that stuff up with a spoon!)
But indulgers don’t exactly have great things to say about abstainers either. When’s the last time that the self-disciplined, church-going white-collar guy with the tidy apartment and even tidier life got the girl in a Rom-Com? No, it’s always the laid back, blue-collar bar owner with a heart of gold and a huge slobbery dog – right? Indulgers also have some admirable traits:
- tend to be more open-minded (hence Scientology)
- less stressed out (perhaps it’s the marijuana brownies)
- have more fun (play now, pay later)
- life is an adventure; exploration is valued (no holds barred!)
- tend to be more artistic & individualistic (wacky even)
- have more empathy (been there, done that)
Denominational churches are typically set up to reward abstainers; abstainers are highly committed to the church’s rules and regulations and they often end up running the place. And abstainers often view indulgers as “weak” and self-serving, unable to live to the high standards they themselves embrace. Indulgers are often turned off by the rigid environment in churches, which further reinforces the disdain of the abstainers.
So, where do you fit?[poll ID =”136″]
I answered “It’s important to keep an open mind and explore. I only abstain when I have learned through experience that something is harmful. People who over-abstain haven’t lived a full life.”
Personally, I have found that over-abstinence in things leads to destructive behavior later when the rule is broken. Its like when one follows an ultra-strict diet, and then binges because they can’t eat any of their favorite foods: Its not that they would ordinarily down an entire cake, two large pizzas, and a six-pack in one sitting, but since they were living on a diet of saltines and soda water, they went crazy. Similarly, it seems like many of the former Mormons I know who have started drinking tend to go through a second-adolescence where they go crazy on the alcohol consumption. This seems to be particularly true of those who were uber-conservative about the word of wisdom (ie, no chocolate or hot cocoa, and cola is the first sign of apostacy). I think much of it comes down to the fact that they never learned the key of “moderation in all things”.
I think self-mastery is important, but it should not be confused with Asceticism.
I replied that Abstinence is critical to my religious observance, because it is. But I also am on board with the notion that it allows me to keep my choices open. That is not to say that I will choose those things from which I abstain, but rather that by abstaining, I’m able to make other choices (because I don’t become addicted to nicotine or alcohol, for instance).
I used to think that the warnings about alcoholism were way overblown and were nearly fear-mongering from the pulpit to scare kids like me into abstaining. Until I had a son who now admits he’s an alcoholic.
My own experience (and it may not be true for everyone) is obedience to what I consider commandments which are associated with covenants I’ve made have been a blessing to me.
That’s not to say I’m perfect. I am certainly not, but I’m trying to do what is right. And I’m trying to be tolerant of others who see the world differently than I do.
Nicely said Paul.
I agree with Paul too. The issues I struggle with are not health related. I currently do not watch 18 rated movies (not really R-rated it is a bit more than that), but I am struggling to maintain that. I also rarely break the sabbath in the traditional sense but have been to one concert recently. I guess I have tried to remain fairly orthoprax while becoming a little more heterodox over the years. Overall I am definitely more inclined to abstain out of respect for my leaders and the fear of social stigma.
I see things as commandments and suggestions. The biggest differentiation to me is their eternal nature. It has always been against God’s will to commit adultery, and I assume it always will be. So that is fairly absolute and I could consider it a commandment not to ever break. Similarly with murder, etc. It has always been true that we should be honest with our fellowman and have integrity.
There are many other things that are suggestions. Rated R movies is an example. The principle of avoiding bad influences is good, but there are good R rated movies and bad PG-13 movies. To me they are just letters. Similarly, the obsession some people have with the color of one’s shirt or facial hair or tattoos or earrings. These are all suggestions, as they aren’t eternal principles.
Regarding things like the Word of Wisdom, it’s a mixed bag. I follow that one for the mere reason to keep a temple recommend. It’s not an eternal principle as Christ and Joseph Smith drank wine. And while I understand the point about alcoholism, I don’t think that’s the reason. Moderation is the key. While some people who drink alcohol become alcoholic, most people don’t. We know the Word of Wisdom isn’t an eternal thing, because it really has become whatever the current generation wants it to be. Some people expand the interpretation of hot drinks to somehow mean Coke. At the same time, most people ignore the black-and-white requirement to only eat meat in times of famine completely.
I guess sitting here, sipping on hot chocolate and espresso next to my liquor cabinet after having already at 7 a.m. indulged my lusty pleasures twice since awakening, I’m in the indulgence camp.
As with almost every poll here on Mormon Matters, I’m consistently dismayed that the indulgence, heathen side is given such short shrift. What about the following poll questions:
1) I feel closer to God when indulging in earthly pleasures.
2) There are more things in life than are dreamt of in your philosophy, such as self-discipline and self-mastery of indulgence is an important principal to live your life by.
3) Religious observance is not dictated by either indulgence or abstinence. From early Old Testament times religious traditions have relied on both. The paradox is that most of the comments here are in an over-indulgence in abstinence.
Probably the most insidious aspect to this debate is that it creates a false causality that is painful. Paul’s post is the most evident of this problem. The “abstain or else” is a false logical premise.
“I used to think that the warnings about alcoholism were way overblown and were nearly fear-mongering from the pulpit to scare kids like me into abstaining. Until I had a son who now admits he’s an alcoholic.”
“Abstain or else” thinking particularly in light of any activity that has risk creates a false cause and effect scenario. I think what Paul is saying is really the “warnings about alcohol,” not “warnings about alcoholism”. I remember the urban Mormon legends of the teenager who was held down and forced to drink a shot of tequila and ended up in the gutter. It is a lie. It was fear mongering from the pulpit and it was meant to scare us. This “abstain or else” edict has the neat and tidy effect of eliminating (ironically for Mormons) free agency. You disobeyed, you didn’t take it seriously enough, now you must suffer.
An easy illustration of the logical abstinence fallacy is “abstain from driving or else you will get in an accident.” Every auto accident is a result of someone driving, but driving is not the cause of every accident.
Actually, I feel Paul’s pain on his child’s alcoholism, but I also feel the tinge and pain of “I should have taken the warnings more seriously.” This is the guilt induced by an abstinence culture, based on a logical fallacy.
Maybe, just maybe, much of the guilt, shame and damage comes from demanding abstinence in order to belong.
Give my vote for tolerance, self-mastery, indulgence and self-discipline. To quote a Mormon guy, “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”
“As with almost every poll here on Mormon Matters, I’m consistently dismayed that the indulgence, heathen side is given such short shrift.”
Until I read the rest of the comment, I thought this was meant to be sarcastic. Either way, is it too early to nominate this sentence for a comment of the year Niblet?
“Whatever restricts me in my pursuit of personal fulfillment and meaning is wrong. Abstaining is primarily a control mechanism devised by joyless people.”
This is my vote. Most people wouldn’t admit this because we’re viewed as hedonistic. I’m sure I’ve conjured all sorts of debauchery, lunacy and hedonistic mayhem with my vote. But what if….
My personal fulfillment included giving to people less fortunate than myself (it does), being true to myself, having integrity and being honest with others? My personal fulfillment included creating beauty, serving others, the environment, and having compassion toward those with different viewpoints than me?
My personal pursuit for meaning includes spending time with my children, serving them, loving them, accepting them; spending time with good friends and unconditionally loving them and enriching their lives? Enjoying “lusty delights” (twice this morning, how ironic)in order to deepen my intimacy, bond and spiritual connection with my partner. Who is a woman. I kid. It isn’t a woman, but what if it was, would that be wrong? Why? Because God said? God created everyone in his and her image. That means either god has a mate and they created together, or god is a hermaphrodite.
What if pursuing personal fulfillment included eating healthy, exercising, indulging only occasionally in alcohol for the pure pleasure of noting the different nuances in the wine I drink?
What if the only thing from which I abstain is judgment, moral pseudo-superiority and fast food?
Semantics? Perhaps. But perhaps this is the problem with the concept in the first place. Abstinence tends to engender a sense of moral superiority in people who are miserable. Face it, when a person feels morally superior and considers others inferior, he or she is not happy with themselves. Those who are happy with themselves are open and understanding toward those who are different.
I am a hedonist. I seek pleasure in all it’s forms. Being organized gives me pleasure. I am blessed with copious amounts of work. I enjoy accomplishing things; I revel in meaning what I say and saying what I mean. I celebrate my consistency and dependability. I avoid sugar so that my body is healthy.
I’m joyful, I’m comfortable in my own skin (brownies notwithstanding), I’m quite wacky (or wacko, take your pick), and love to explore and try new things that bring a sense of adventure and LIFE to my life.
The point of all of that is this: either/or is dangerous. Balance is the key, and in abstaining, using that word and having the mentality that certain things are “bad” therefore should be avoided is to quash the human spirit’s desire for experiencing new things. We enjoy colorful paintings because of all of the nuances of them; plain black or white doesn’t stir emotion the way color might. Most religions push black and white thinking as a means to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. I say nothing is evil unless it’s done with the intent of hurting one’s self or another. Evil, and the concept of evil is when we take the dark parts of ourselves and externalize them, rather than own them and make a conscious choice to seek the light.
I have seen too many former Mormons pendulum swing to destruction because of the fallacy of abstinence and “evil”. I have seen too many Mormons over-indulge in “righteousness” or, to put a point on it, “Self-righteousness”.
I have always believed that men are that they might have joy.
JulieAnn, I am the other vote for “Whatever restricts me…” and for all your same reasons. I hold a current TR, I work hard at what I love and I’m not obese, so obviously, I have some restraints, but only where I want to have them. You said it all so well, I’ll just ditto what you wrote.
I wrote poorly, I think.
I continue to be troubled by the “abstain or else” preaching. But now, because of my own family’s experience, I acknowledge that the most drastic result is not as distant for me as it once was.
That I’m troubled by it doesn’t mean I don’t understand why some well-meaning people may still use that argument, however unsatisfactory it may be.
Oh — the meat thing: famine only? What about winter and times of cold?
JulieAnn – “Abstinence tends to engender a sense of moral superiority in people who are miserable.” Well said.
There is an emotional intelligence instrument that measures hedonism, and I always score high on that scale. The risk, from an emotional intelligence perspective, is that you may get less done in a work setting, and you may have poor impulse control and negatively impact the people who have a lower hedonism score (or be held back by them). And one’s hedonism can change over time. But in general, I feel that people who are too in love with an abstinence mindset are getting joy from feeling superior or from their imagined rewards for the same.
This post is really interesting; I have recently been considering the whole abstinence thing, I have been raised LDS and so has my wife, we are Mormons through and through, however my wife finds it difficult to relax before … and so we have considered occasionally drinking a glass of wine before it, I’m not sure if it is a good thing, but the justification cogs are spinning. “it’s medicinal” but would I feel comfortable disclosing that type of information to my bishop.
JulieAnn – Abstinence tends to engender a sense of moral superiority in people who are miserable. Face it, when a person feels morally superior and considers others inferior, he or she is not happy with themselves.
Another amen! from the peanut gallery.
But in general, I feel that people who are too in love with an abstinence mindset are getting joy from feeling superior or from their imagined rewards for the same.
If they actually get joy from it, what’s the problem?
Excessive abstinence can be criticized as resulting from excessive “legalism” — the idea that salvation is a function of checking boxes off a list. That can lead to “mechanical Christianity,” which the experience of history suggests leads to spiritual malaise (and the decline of the religious traditions that operate the “mechanism”).
I believe much of religious practice that is not directly related to loving one’s neighbor as onesself, arises as much from lack of faith as from faith: You can be a fundamentally decent person, and still have doubts about your standing before God. You can either accept that as inevitable, or you can question whether if you just deny your mortal self a little bit more, the visions and blessings of old that people talk about will finally be manifested. So there can be a tendency to multiply religious duties, to set you apart from the quotidian world and give you a sense of specialness. For there to be a discernible “elect,” there has got to be a contrasting group of the non-elect — a “reserve army of the damned.” (“When everybody’s special, nobody’s special.”) In addition, there is a tendency for competition in ascetic abstinence. The Mormons don’t drink wine, and the Jews don’t eat bacon? The Muslims will see that and raise you abstinence from both. Someone else will see “We wear long underwear in hundred-plus-degree summer heat” and raise us an actual hairshirt. We don’t watch R-rated movies? The Amish don’t watch movies, period. We make a show of “coming out from Babylon”? The FLDS really come out. We abstain from premarital sex? The Jains and Shakers abstain from sex, period.
Thus, the idea that there is an unchecked tendency towards laxity in religion is incorrect. There are also impetuses to seek more demanding religious practices. Primitive people didn’t go from rudimentary ceremonial burials to human sacrifice by taking religion too lightly. Left unchecked, the impetus towards extremism in religious practices can be destructive.
On the other hand, I think there is some value in ritualistic religious observance — i.e., observing religious duties that seem to have no connection to everyday love-thy-neighbor morality. By observing practices that really make no sense, we confess the limitation of our mortal understandings. These practices, then, symbolize a belief that God is a being whose kingdom is not of this world — that we need something that genuinely transcends our experience, to come into this world and redeem it. No matter how hard we strive to make the world a better place, evil will always prevail to some extent. By doing something that seems completely random, like wearing garments or abstaining from tea, maybe we are supposed to be reinforcing our hope for salvation from a Source whose reality is radically different from what we experience.
That said, I think a religion has to be careful to limit its demands for “random” abstinences or observances. Once the symbolic communication has been made, further repetition starts to get numbing — just like the effect of watching the same commercial twenty times in a row.
#14 — The question, I suppose is whether the “joy” is the real thing, or a counterfeit. We hear that often in LDS culture — “Yes, those people relaxing on the beach on Sunday sipping caiparinhas may look happy, but they’re really not.”
Thomas – as always, great insights! “I believe much of religious practice that is not directly related to loving one’s neighbor as oneself, arises as much from lack of faith as from faith: You can be a fundamentally decent person, and still have doubts about your standing before God.” Well said.
I also think the real question about #14 is whether it is “joy” we feel when we “rejoice” in our superiority. A religious scarcity mentality seems to be more about the bottomless fear of our unworthiness than actual lasting joy. Rejoicing in one’s moral superiority is not really joy so much as disdain for others.
The requirement to abstain is just one more way to reinforce the “us” vs. “them” mentality. A person usually wants to be part of the “us” they were raised in, so they abide by the rules to avoid becoming one of “them”. When the WoW was introduced, it was merely a suggestion. But when it was made a commandment, it became a controlling yardstick with which our mormon-ness is measured. Seems rather manipulative to me. And isn’t it interesting that only the commandment to ABSTAIN from certain substances is used when determining temple worthiness?
“my wife finds it difficult to relax before … and so we have considered occasionally drinking a glass of wine before it”
anon, to say nothing of the morality of alcohol, in that situation I would wonder if the issue was deeper than just being “difficult to relax.” If something simple can solve a problem, that’s one thing. But often our solutions are not really getting at the real issues. Just my two cents.
#15 – Great post. I agree whole-heartedly. I understand the need to prove devotion to the church and to God, but I think that in some measure the abstinence we see in the church is simply conforming to rules that are overt and visible. To ‘show’ that we are devoted. Much of the sincere devotion to the most profound commandments are not overt, they are subtle. They are not to demonstrate to our fellow brothers and sisters that we are worthy, but to show God that we will do his will in fundamental ways.
We are told often that we are to be ‘in the world but not of the world’. Sometimes I think that the barrier of ‘specialness’ created by the WoW and such do not so much keep out the sins of the world as keep us boxed nicely in place.
#12: It provokes the desire, but takes away the performance. Or so some English guy said.
#21 (Thomas): I agree with said English guy, based on first-hand experience (insert blushing emoticon here)
#22 – hence the title of the Dead Kennedys breakout 80s album. 😉
“hence the title of the Dead Kennedys breakout 80s album”
One of my personal favorites!
Thomas #15 — love the whole thing. So well said.
Abstinence from some things makes good sense, spiritually and ethically.
But on the whole, I agree that it’s primarily a form of border-control, especially with nitpicky things like tea and tattoos. Too much of that makes me weary. Still, like Rico said above (#4), I comply to avoid social rejection and to place myself within the borders of the community.
I answered:”Self-discipline and self-mastery are important principles. I abstain from things to maintain self-control and keep my choices open.” However, I thought about choosing: “It’s important to keep an open mind and explore. I only abstain when I have learned through experience that something is harmful. People who over-abstain haven’t lived a full life.”
I didn’t pick this one, ultimately, because while I think it’s important to understand why we’re following something, I don’t feel like I have to learn through experience (which I read to mean, my own experience). I’ve learned plenty of things I’d rather not experience personally by watching those around me.
I agree with “Whatever restricts me in my pursuit of personal fulfillment and meaning is wrong. Abstaining is primarily a control mechanism devised by joyless people.” to some extent, but I don’t think that the things I choose to abstain from are restricting my pursuit of personal fulfillment and meaning. 🙂
Man have I ever come down on all sides of this discussion. I went from over abstainer to over indulger pretty intensely. I have noticed this trend especially among young men who have failures of faith. It is really easy to jump into that forbidden deep end without ever learning how to swim.
A few years and a few really painful consequences later I am learning that self control is a critical part of life, but moderation is the real goal.
I really like this post, Hawkgrrrl. Regarding the point about over-abstaining perhaps leading to later overindulgence raised by Madame Curie and Kirk (and others) I know I’ve run across research in social psychology (I think) that suggests that we tend to have a limited supply of self-control. If it’s depleted in one area, it’s likely to be more difficult for us to maintain in other areas. If this is true (sorry I can’t link to any specific research) then extra abstaining to show our devotion is not only pointless, but dangerous to our ability to maintain the abstaining that’s more central. So perhaps abstaining from cheez doodles just to make a point will make it more difficult to abstain from relatively more important things like extramarital sex.
Thomas, I really like your point about people between (or within) religions raising the abstinence bar on one another.
#28 – I am all for Extra Marital Sex! (I know not what you meant but, truly struck me as funny)
So in abstaining from speaking falsehoods I create all kinds of problems for myself. If I am completely honest I hurt feelings, piss people off, cause marital strife, etc. So how does one abstain from lying without the major fallout that comes from being completely honest? I think most would agree that honest is a good thing but, it often gets me in more trouble then it is worth.
So do I indulge in telling a white lie to improve my relationships in life? When is it ok to bend the truth? And, once I make a distinction between when it is OK and when it is not what is to keep me from continually expanding that distinction?
I think the church teaches complete abstinence in cases because, people have a hard time moderating. Balance is the key in life but, it is as easy to become imbalanced in the abstinance side as it is in the indulgence side.
#29: “… it is as easy to become imbalanced in the abstinance side as it is in the indulgence side…”
This was the Buddha’s fundamental observation. In his journey to find Truth, he tried the strict asceticism espoused by many Hindus around him. He also came from the other extreme, a life of luxury. At the end of the day, his profound insight was that neither extreme was ideal, but the Middle Way leads to more progression as a person.
it seems to me there is value in abstinence on a personal level of self-control, commitment, diligence, and strength.
I don’t understand why those who are striving so hard for abstinence feel they need to make others to the same. “If its right for me, it must be right for everyone.” That’s where the pride comes in to override and ruin the values I listed above.
If you can keep your personal commitments to yourself…great…more power to you.
I find most people in all churches translate that self-control into superiority, unfortunately.
There is no worse advertisement for Mormonism that the self-righteous abstainers–the ones who won’t like lick their lips on fast Sunday (according to Robert Kirby). C’mon, you know them, you might even be related to them. at the best, they are mildly annoying, at the worst, they are toxic.
Couldn’t we be carpe diem kind of people instead (you know, optimistic, Joseph Smithy-we are that we might have joy). That would be a lot easier to sell.