“Believest thou…?”: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D

Bruce Nielson doubt, faith, Mormon 22 Comments

Once upon a time there was a young man that grew up in a wonderful Mormon family. Though he had no regrets about growing up Mormon, he had to admit he was different in one way from his family and others; he was innately an intellectual. Now by this, I do not mean he had a better intellect that others, far from it. By this I only mean he was less spiritually intuitive and often found himself trying to use his intellect on things even if there weren’t enough facts to draw any realistic conclusions.

One day, after many years of finding this that and the other that he wasn’t sure he liked in his religion’s history, he came across an article on FAIR that made a real impact on him. It was called “‘Believest thou…?’: Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience” by Wendy Ulrich, Ph.D 

Here is a teaser, but read the article for yourself.

What complicates this question of belief, of course, is that our belief choices are not black and white. Few of us would consciously choose to believe Satan over God evil over good, but choices are seldom that obvious. On any given issue, which is God’s point of view and which is Satan’s?

We wrestle with God over many issues that surround our faith. We wrestle with issues of whom to trust to represent God, how to discern spiritual truths, and what to expect if we follow God.

People from many religious traditions have “spiritual” experiences–feelings, insights, premonitions, and encounters which they are left to their own conclusions to decipher. It is not unusual for people to conclude from such experiences that God is their God, that He is nearby, or that something associated with that experience is God’s will.

But it seems to me that disillusionment is a very good thing. I do not want to live a life based on illusions, and being disillusioned is very valuable to me. I suspect that I have many illusions, many expectations and beliefs that are not well-founded and that I am well-served to be rid of. My experience is that the hardest illusions for me to get rid of are illusions about control in a relatively dangerous world, and sometimes my religion is more like a set of superstitions to ward off the boogie man than a set of principles for coming to know God.

I have noticed that many of the people I have known who have left the Church did not do so because they believed too little, but because they believed too much. In their excessive idealism, they have held Church leaders or God to expectations which were inevitably disappointed, and they have felt betrayed. They have not believed God when He told them that ours is a lonely, dreary world where we will surely die, and they have chosen instead to believe another version of reality, one which claims that they can be protected from being molested, disappointed, or made afraid. They have been angry at God or other Church leaders for not keeping promises which God has not, in fact, made.

The fourth and final stage of committed relationships is about renewal. Not exactly a renewal of the honeymoon, but a more mature, realistic, and truly loving renewal. We come to accept our spouse or our parents or the Church, and we come to accept ourselves. We allow God to run the universe, and we become more content to let go of things we cannot change. A deeper, more mature love begins to emerge, with fewer power struggles and less disengagement. We do not need to see all the answers, and we do not need perfection by our standards in order to not be embarrassed or ashamed of our Church, our partner, or our God.

We recognize that we can be hurt by being betrayed or we can be hurt by not trusting, but we don’t get the no-hurt choice because there isn’t one, at least not until we simply choose not to read betrayal into every ecclesiastical failure, or abandonment into every unanswered prayer.

This article should be a Mormon (and for that matter, non-Mormon) classic. What are your favorite quotes?

Comments

comments

Comments 22

  1. So how do we free ourselves once and for all of self-doubt, doubts about the Church, or doubts about the existence, nature, or trustworthiness of God?

    Of course, we don’t.

    My first impression, after a quick skim of the article is that it’s not particularly impressive. I will read it later, away from work and with more time for analysis. But it appears that her “take home” message is that faith is a choice; a choice we are free to make or not.

    However, this point was argued ad nauseum at BCC in the thread linked to in the side-bar here, but not settled. I don’t think that she has addressed the inherent propensity some have towards belief and some have towards disbelief. In the end, she appears to be saying “that despite my wrestling and struggles, I believe because I believe.”

  2. I have not read the article so I am going on the quotes you provided. That said this one quote really hit me as odd:

    But it seems to me that disillusionment is a very good thing. I do not want to live a life based on illusions, and being disillusioned is very valuable to me. I suspect that I have many illusions, many expectations and beliefs that are not well-founded and that I am well-served to be rid of. My experience is that the hardest illusions for me to get rid of are illusions about control in a relatively dangerous world, and sometimes my religion is more like a set of superstitions to ward off the boogie man than a set of principles for coming to know God.

    I guess in a strictly definitional sense disillusionment is good, after all you have been stripped of illusions, which one assumes are false. The problem is that if the illusions are institutionally supported where does that leave you? As an example how would you feel if you went to a top ranked university and studied physics. While you were there you studiously did your homework and took your tests. Sometime in your senior year you discovered that your professors were teaching you Aristotelean physics, which is false and completely worthless, at least since the 17th century. Yes it is good that you woke up and discovered Newton and Einstein and are now disillusioned. Now what? Just shrug it off, say no hard feelings, and get on with life? I doubt it will be that easy, you are going to hopping mad.

    I want to make it clear that I am not saying that the church is false or that the church is doing something similar to what I just described. However, to those who become disaffected, I imagine something similar happens to them in their view of things. Saying, “Aw shucks, ain’t it good that you are now disillusioned?” is not going to help anyone. The whole quote seems to be a little too eager to make lemonade out of lemons, and ignores the reality of people who find themselves disillusioned. I have no easy answers to this situation, but I don’t think quotes like that will be of much help.

  3. My favorite quote about the “disillusioned”:

    “They have not believed God when He told them that ours is a lonely, dreary world where we will surely die, and they have chosen instead to believe another version of reality, one which claims that they can be protected from being molested, disappointed, or made afraid. They have been angry at God or other Church leaders for not keeping promises which God has not, in fact, made.”

    And for that reason, I try to steer as far clear as possible from giving any of my children or primary students any such illusions.

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    Kari,

    While I think she does cover the element of “I believe because I believe” I think she covers a ton of subjects and that is just one of them. The reason I liked the article was because she was very candid but still believing. She is willing to talk about many subjects that don’t get talked about much on a site like FAIR’s. But she does it without even once stooping to blame.

    David,

    I don’t think she is contextually (in that quote anyhow) talking about whether or not we should feel pain over having an illusion shattered. I think she is simply saying that it isn’t a bad thing. Elsewhere I think she covers the pain issue.

    As a side note, I recently read A Grief Observed and Lewis seemed to take a similar stance. He is in pain over his wife’s death and is finding that he doesn’t have as strong of faith as he thought. But then he remembers that his wife would have told him “If you need your house of cards knocked down, then get it knocked down as fast as possible so you can start rebuilding.” But the pain and anger he felt were very real.

  5. I have referenced her talk for a while now and found it wonderful when I heard her give it. You should watch the video, she tells a couple of stories (faith promoting) that aren’t in the transcript.

    I have finished transcribing Blake Ostler’s FAIR presentation from last year: Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment and once he finishes reviewing it I’m sure it will be posted at FAIR. It deals directly with the concept of how we treat spiritual experiences at how we interpret them. I think these issues are at the heart of what Mormonism means and more discussion of them is immensely beneficial.

  6. I read this talk shortly after it was posted a few years ago, and it’s been on my list of Mormon Classics since then. It’s a pretty remarkable talk, addressing the tension between faith, truth-seeking, and the human experience better than anything I’ve read. Wendy Ulrich also just published a book through Deseret on self-forgiveness.

  7. I only want to say that I am a big fan of Wendy Ulrich, having found much of value in this talk and several others of hers from her days as President of AMCAP (Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychologists). She is a source of whole-grain goodness to me. I wish we had more voices like hers. She’s really cool in person, too. Thanks, John, for the link to the youtube version of this talk.

  8. A lovely article. I’ve read an appreciated it before. Nice to know she made an impact.

    I’ve long been fascinated by the difference between shattering disilliusion and mind expanding enlightenment as responses to the same information. My own spiritual journey has been, for the most part, one long, fascinating experience of enjoyable enlightenment. The closest I came to disillution was my reading of Anthony Hutchinson’s Dialogue article on the differences between the four LDS creation accounts. What happened instead of shattering disillusion, came within a couple of days pondering a diagram of the Hebrew Cosmos in his article. It had a literal firmament, holding up the waters above, four literal corner pillars, a flat earth, and waters below. While looking at it, something in my memory tickled, and I wondered, where have I seen something like that before? And I remembered a passage in Hamlet’s Mill, describing the framework of an archaic astronomy, in which the “flat earth” was the portion of the sky through which the planets move, bounded by the solstices and equinoxes, the four corners, or pillars. The waters above and below too, in this thought scheme, were portions of the sky. The whole system was dominated by a star in the rudder of the constellation of Argo, Canopus, conceived as the celestial center, the one stable star relative to the motions of the precession of the equinox, which motions periodically “flooded” the portion of the sky they conceived of as the flat earth. And according to Hamlet’s Mill, as also observed by Nibley, Canopus was called by the Arabs, Qalb. For me, that moment was akin to the scene in Time Bandits, where the dwarves start pushing the bedroom wall, and it slides back.. on.. and falls away, revealing the whole universe from what had been a confined, walled in bedroom. I quickly wrote an article that Dialogue published in the Fall of 1991. “New Wine and New Bottles: Scriptural Scholarship as Sacrament.”

    What could have been shattering disilllusion became expansive enlightenment. I’ve since made it a practice, when I run into something difficult to give things time, keep my eyes open, and periodically re-examine my assumptions. And always, for me, enlightenment happens.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

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  10. I do like some of Ulrich’s perspective, but I love how she can’t let it pass without taking a jab at those who find betterment by leaving the LDS faith. All those I know who have “wrestled with angels”, and have chosen to remain LDS, still end up kicking orthdoxy (and orthopraxy) in the nards to some degree so they can find some peace with thir “mature, realistic, and truly loving renewal.” That still, in many cases, keeps them on the fringes where they don’t enjoy the love of being openly embraced for who they are. For us, leaving was not only due to matters of idealism, but moreso for truly pragmatic and practical reasons, too.

    But for each who seeks enlightenment and comes out on whichever “side” they have my respect for walking that valley of shadows.

  11. Favourite:

    ‘More often the spiritual promptings and confirmations I receive come very quietly as something simply occurs to me with a kind of rightness that has no real emotion attached to it at all’

    I really worry when testimony meetings turn into a cry feast or when we describe spiritual experiences as ’emotional’.

    We really need to differentiate more between spiritual events and emotions.

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  13. Carlos,

    I was puzzled by the difference between spiritual, emotional, and mental health as a kid. I remember reading some well-meaning text which said Mormons should strive to be healthy in all three areas, and I thought, my goodness, aren’t they all the same thing? I mean, they’re all valid yet subjective. I still struggle with this, although I’ve had moments of clarity which seem to have no emotion attached to them, so I think I know what you mean there.

    I do get tired of the idea that women are more spiritual than men, which when you boil it down means they cry more… 🙁

  14. John,

    yep, worldwide women seem to be more ‘spiritual’ -no macho attitude intended 🙂

    But I understand what you say about the spiritual, emotional and mental thing. I think its one of the greatest problems in the church because how does one describe the spiritual to, especially, lds kids? who grow up in that spiritual atmosphere without knowing it.

    Today I prefer to describe the spiritual more as a light, warm and separate to any earthly event -but still that doesn’t completely describe all that is a witness from the Holy Ghost. I guess its the one main thing in life that one can only live and remember but not sell to anyone.

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