Bloggernacle Thought: The Slippery Slope of Unbelief

Bruce Nielson doubt 35 Comments

I found this comment out on the bloggernacle from someone named Christopher Smith:

Most people don’t want to believe less. They want to believe more. People who do make the decision to believe less tend to be skeptical types, and not infrequently end up at the bottom of the slippery slope. This is why Whitmerites and RLDS end up as Protestants, and liberal Protestants end up as atheists, whereas fundamentalists and messianic sects continue to thrive and multiply.

Discuss.

Comments

comments

Comments 35

  1. Nah. Smith’s characterization may work somewhat over time with large groups inter-generationally, but doesn’t hold water for an individual’s faith journey.

    Plus, quantifying belief as “more” or “less” is strange. Someone may believe less in the literal Garden of Eden, but they almost always replace this belief (unless they’re Voltaire and live pre-Darwin) with a new paradigm, of evolution driven by natural selection. Plus one could argue fundamentalists by definition may have a fewer number of beliefs.

    There is promise in the statement if one considers only the numerical success of TYPES of groups, with the fundamentalist type gaining, but I think the number of atheists in the U.S. has doubled in the last twenty years as well (from 4-8% of the population).

  2. Certainly, I agree with John that each individual has a different path along their own faith journey, so this may or may not specifically apply. But I would also observe that those of us pretty well secure with our belief (in spite of some doubts) cannot seem to fully understand how someone who seems fully “in the faith” can lose it, while those that lose it cannot be fully objective as to why they did.

    The example I would give are those that immediately assume that the falling away has to do with sin, while those that fall away are indignant to that possibility.

    True fundamentalists seldom question their beliefs and are willing to go along with just about anything.

  3. I’m going to have to second Ann’s “Hah”.

    I don’t know anyone who has woken up one morning and just ‘decided’ to stop believing. I think that’s a huge oversimplification.

  4. You don’t decide not to believe. You want to believe. You want to believe everything you’ve been taught, everything you have dedicated your life to. But then slowly things don’t add up. Prayers don’t seem to be answered, and the ones you thought were answered turned out bad. So gradually you don’t believe as much while hoping God will send that great witness, that God will love you enough to show you what everyone else seems to be seeing. When he never does, you start getting critical of those who profess God’s hand. I never decided to stop believing. I really really want to. I still do everything I’ve always done. But now I just do it to please my husband and be an example for my kids. I don’t want to believe less. I want to believe more. I hope someday I do.

  5. “People who do make the decision to believe less tend to be skeptical types, and not infrequently end up at the bottom of the slippery slope.”

    * Dr. Hugh Nibley: “The Book of Mormon can and should be tested. It invites criticism.” An Approach to The Book of Mormon, 1957, p. 13.

    J. Reuben Clark: “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.”

    * Brigham Young: “Take up the Bible, compare the religion of the Latter-day Saints with it, and see if it will stand the test.” Journal of Discourses, Volume 16, p. 46,
    1873

    Testing,Criticizing,Investigating,Comparing= Skeptical Types to me!! Or does it depend on what conclusion they come up with after?

  6. Someone may believe less in the literal Garden of Eden, but they almost always replace this belief (unless they’re Voltaire and live pre-Darwin) with a new paradigm, of evolution driven by natural selection.

    Not to go down a tangent but it’s pretty easy to believe in a literal Garden of Eden and Evolution. One can buy into the Garden story without buying into the no death before the fall for the world view. Indeed Talmage and many others held that belief. (i.e. that evolution was going on outside the garden and the garden was a local area and descriptions applied just to the garden and not the planet)

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    “Smith’s characterization may work somewhat over time with large groups inter-generationally, but doesn’t hold water for an individual’s faith journey”

    Good point, John. An interesting question is ‘which way was this comment originally intended?’ I did not see it as being about a personal faith journey, yet everyone posting here did see it that way. Perhaps taking the quote out of context makes it seem more about a personal journey rather than a trend of a group of people who have already made a decision to participate in religion.

    Certainly there are people that would prefer not to believe in God because of the freedom of not having a judge while others want to believe in God because such a believe is directly connected to believing all of life (once we connect it to the hereafter that is) is actually just and morality always wins out.

    I find it hard to believe this comment was about all people wanting to believe, period. Instead, it seems more to me it’s about people who attend a religion (thus have already chosen to believe to some degree) wanting to take it more literally and not less literally, similar to Allie’s comment.

    “I don’t want to believe less. I want to believe more. I hope someday I do.”

    This is heart rending to me. It must be difficult to want to believe but not be able to find a way to. I used to be the same way and was for years, so I understand the pain involved, Allie. I wish I could help somehow, but I know these things tend to not transfer because they are so personal.

    “Testing,Criticizing,Investigating,Comparing= Skeptical Types to me!!”

    Yes, I could see someone defining ‘skeptical types’ that way. But I could also see it as meaning someone that is going to disbelieve no matter the evidence to the point of be disinterested in the evidence. I think it just depends on what you mean by the word ‘skeptical types’ here.

    Since I call myself a “skeptical believer” I am not against the word itself. But I doubt I’d call myself a ‘skeptical type’ however.

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    I don’t want to discourage anyone from telling their honest reaction to this comment, however, the part I was most interested in discussing was “This is why Whitmerites and RLDS end up as Protestants, and liberal Protestants end up as atheists, whereas fundamentalists and messianic sects continue to thrive and multiply.”

    In other words, I was not thinking of this as a personal faith journey. Still, the dicussion went it’s own way and I can’t say it was a bad thing.

  9. This is why Whitmerites and RLDS end up as Protestants

    Sorry, no dice. RLDS (Community of Christ) members vary in position as much as any other group. They can’t be characterized by “believing less” than LDS. As a group, through administrative and policy directions, they are more liberal than LDS but its not about sliding down a slope of unbelief. Its about valuing a more critical and democratic process as a good way to protect canon from cultural quirks. Its about respecting the diversity of opinion amongst their congregations, and rather than focusing on orthodoxy as a way to exalt, they focus on the most basic and common agreeable ideas like peace and reconciliation and Christ. Its not believing less in the sense that true things are just let go, but rather a reflection of a different process for determining what is worth believing. If a principle meets the process criteria, the exact same kind of faith as LDS will be employed.

    Also, are fundamentalists really thriving and multiplying?

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    “whereas fundamentalists and messianic sects”

    “Also, are fundamentalists really thriving and multiplying?”

    Clay, one clarification. I don’t think he meant Restorationist fundamentalists here. Christian Fundamentalists sects are thriving from what I understand (even if that term itself now has a bad connotation and is dying out.)

  12. Isn’t it just that fundies are louder and more confident than the rest? Also, they are better organized since they think they are right about everything, so it’s easier to be crisp and decisive. Those who admit more shades of gray are less likely to be in your face about it.

    And what is this “slippery slope”? Isn’t life “the slippery slope”? I would suggest someone at the bottom of the slippery slope is one who hasn’t yet attempted to walk up it, which is how you get to the top and achieve enlightenment. But of course, that may not be what the commenter meant.

  13. Bruce,

    Thanks for highlighting this comment! I suppose I should clarify a little bit. First of all, this is based in large part upon my own experience. I am one of the “skeptical types” I mentioned, and my life story is one of wanting to believe but finding myself drifting further and further down what I called the “slippery slope”. (Of course, it’s only a “slippery slope” if we place religion at the top of it. From the perspective of someone like myself, who rather enjoys faith and faith communities, the term makes sense. From the perspective of a contented atheist, it does not. By no means am I trying to absolutize my perspective, but I must make my observations from it all the same.) On the flip side, I have watched with some fascination as my less-skeptical friends and family members seek out new layers of belief to add atop the old: eschatological schemes, UFOs, Marian devotion, etc. Mormonism is a perfect example of the drive many people feel to believe “more”: after all, Mormon does mean “more good”, does it not? 😉 So there is a sense in which I meant this to apply to individual faith-journeys (though not uniformly to all of them, by any means). But it’s also an observation about larger population groups. Liberal Christianity has never been successful for very long. It only thrives temporarily where fundamentalism has been undercut by historical/political/social/discursive factors; in a few generations, it finds itself replaced by a radical polarity with atheists on one side and fundamentalists on the other. In my opinion, this is the “slippery slope” in action. (As a liberal Christian myself, I say this with some bitterness.)

    When I spoke of a “decision to believe”, by no means did I intend to suggest that belief is entirely an act of will. Obviously there is will and decision-making involved, but I also realize that there is frequently an inevitability to belief and belief that may have as much to do with biology, social conditioning, and evidence as it does with will-power.

    In response to posts 10 and 12, the answer is that yes, fundamentalists are thriving. Pentecostalism, in particular, has positively exploded worldwide, and now constitutes a quarter of the world’s Christians. Its growth has been estimated at 19 million per year. It is now the dominant faith of South Korea. Bishop Spong recently lamented “the twilight of the Anglican Communion,” not because Anglicanism is dying out, but because the fundamentalists are taking over.

  14. “They want to believe more.” “doesn’t hold water for an individual’s faith journey”

    Pt Monson wrote about this:

    “Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other.

    “Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: ‘I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts, to destroy the house of my faith.'”

    I for one agree with Christopher that those who ‘chose to believe less’ are on the road to the bottom of that slippery slop and, from my experience, most ex-Mormons end up as atheists. I known of only one exmorg who ended up a Pentecostal.

    The fundamentalist simply don’t allow themselves to ask the doubt creating questions, which are seen as a sign of weakness, and because of this they continue to thrive.

    They probably will continue to thrive until the veil is lifted.

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    Christopher,

    Thank you for the additional explanation. It is pretty close (I think anyhow) to how I took your original comment. It’s obvious now that your comment could have been read in other ways that I had not expected however.

    I did find it interesting that you take it as, in some cases, about a personal faith journey, which I did not foresee. But I see your point now that you have explained it more fully.

    To everyone else here, I feel I probably should have mentioned that Christopher was no “TBM” (I HATE that term) and was not attacking a position but just making a comment based on his observations.

    I was even thinking of pointing out that he was a religous pluralist and a “skeptic” himself based on reading his website. But the problem is that I didn’t want to speak for him and I was afraid maybe I had read him wrong. Also, I have no idea if he’s a menu Mormon or a Jeff Needle-like non-Mormon that is just interested in Mormons. He probably says somewhere, but I didn’t find it in my short review of his site.

    Christopher, I really enjoyed your article on New Testament writers use of the Old Testament. It’s a point I’ve noticed myself and documented for myself, but I had never considered it a case for religious pluralism before as you advance.

    What I really appreciate about your approach to religious pluralism is that you seem to entirely avoid the contradiction (which I believe to be a form of intolerance) of calling Mormons belief in being “the one true Church” immoral or arrogant by simply treating religious pluralism as a positive truth claim and advancing it as such. Kudos to you for practicing what you preach there. I was very impressed and may have to visit your site more often now that I know about it.

  16. The current generations questioning everything do not connect so much with the group identity concept. I think that might be a problem in and of itself for religions. The focus of the poster was group faith. Few people so far seem to be able to connect with that. It keeps coming back to personal faith and our individual stories.

    Yes. I believe that groups who cease to believe they are right are heading towards their own demise. What happens to an army that doesn’t think it has a moral cause to fight? What happens to a business organization that doesn’t think its product or service is any good? Religion is a sacrifice. People don’t give up their comforts now for a future they don’t really believe in much.

    The LDS Church needs to be right. It has to be that way, or it won’t work.

  17. Thanks, Bruce. I’m glad you found that post interesting. I didn’t think anybody had read it! lol.

    To answer your question, I’m not and have never been a Mormon. I was raised Pentecostal. Attended seminary for 6 months or so with a high school girlfriend, though. (Stay away from those bishop’s daughters!) I’ve been interested in Mormons and Mormonism ever since. I don’t know who Jeff Needle is, but it’s probably something like that. 🙂

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    #13 and #14 –

    Stephen and Ray, can you please explain yourself further? I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean here. Could have been refering to anything.

    Christopher,
    Thanks for stopping by and telling us more about yourself. Hope it was okay for me to quote you like this. I wish more people had understood the original point of your quote before replying. It would have led to a more interesting discusison.

    I’ll have to debate you on your conclusions about New Testament quotes of the Old Testament some other time. 😉

  19. Bruce, I can’t speak for Stephen, but I am fascinated by those who look at various things and see connections (like Hawkgrrrl’s post on Chakras and the WoW – or the link between reincarnation and the Mormon view of stages of life and eternal progression) and by those who look at the exact same things and see no connections. I also am fascinated by how those conflicting perspectives play out in how testimonies are expressed and religion in general is viewed.

    I didn’t mean my comment to be derogatory in any way; I was agreeing with the word “interesting” – meaning “causing interest”. It is very interesting to me – even fascinating.

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    Alan,

    Thanks for your comments on this post. Your quotes were insightful too. I particularly like the one about faith and doubt, which I believe defines faith and doubt a bit differently then many of us (including me) are used to.

    Hawk,

    I like your idea about life being the slippery slope. But I am not so sure this is the same thing in this case.

    I think about Clay’s comment in #10. It’s obvious he thinks very highly of the Community of Christ because of their democratic process. But if Christopher is correct, this “positive” is also the death of them.

    I think this slippery slope is something different then what you are referring to. (Though your point is valid also.) Once one decides that a democratic process and open interpretation is a superior way to an authoritarian approach, there are certain logical consequences — at least at the group level if not the individual level — that I believe will naturally follow.

    One of these consequences is that “Cafeteria Christian” Churches don’t seem to perpetuate themselves, as per Valoel’s point in #19. You be a Cafeteria Christian with a personal vibrant living faith, but apparently not as a growing living vibrate religious movement. (Though Clay is correct that being fundamentalist hardly guarantees success.)

    This is what I saw in Christopher’s comment and I think it is an interesting perspective that rings true to me, at least at some level. I’m sure it’s more complicated in real life and that this is just one factor amongst many.

  21. So the premise is that doubting one point leads to more and more doubts and they build momentum away from faith. There is probably some truth to that. I think it speaks to the tenuous nature of an organized set of beliefs. i.e a belief system built on a foundation. I feel like my beliefs were not individually tested and qualified, but that they were arithmetically accepted because something else was accepted (i.e. Book of Mormon is true so JS is a prophet so etc. etc.). This foundational approach to faith, which is a deeply key component to Mormon faith (missionaries don’t have to convert someone to every doctrine, BoM will do), is the reason why the slippery slope exists. Maybe its not so much like a slippery slope, but like a pyramid of oranges at the supermarket, and if you take one from the bottom of the pile (upon which many others were supported) a whole bunch of them will fall to the floor.

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    “Maybe its not so much like a slippery slope, but like a pyramid of oranges at the supermarket, and if you take one from the bottom of the pile (upon which many others were supported) a whole bunch of them will fall to the floor.”

    Interesting analogy. Don’t forget though, Clay, that we aren’t just talking about Mormonism here. Do you believe this analogy applies to other religions where we see the same “slippery slope”?

  23. This quote doesn’t make sense. First it appears to be talking about “belief” in general, but it appears to close by referencing a specific set of beliefs, or at least a certain strain of beliefs (i.e. fundamentalist beliefs vs. metaphorical beliefs). So what are you asking?

    Today I believe less in conventional Mormon doctrine, but I believe more in what I believe. I see no “slippery slope,” only a faith journey.

  24. #25: Of course. Mormonism is just the one I know best and I have experienced the personal building of the orange pyramid. I was a convert at age 17, through missionary discussions and the whole nine yards. The [feels good to read the BoM] == [Joseph was a prophet and the church is true] formula was the basis of that conversion and from the inside I have seen that formula promoted as the ideal path to conversion.

    Other religions have their foundational beliefs which would topple the pyramid when doubted. Priesthood passed down from Peter through Popes, Mohammed spoke to God, the bible is the literal word of God, etc.

  25. Today I believe less in conventional Mormon doctrine, but I believe more in what I believe. I see no “slippery slope,” only a faith journey.

    To connect this point with the orange pyramid analogy, the key is that you *can* replace the oranges after they fall, but if you want to replace them in a way where they are less likely to collapse again you will need to change the shape, or clear more space, on the table.

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    “if you want to replace them in a way where they are less likely to collapse again you will need to change the shape, or clear more space, on the table.”

    Or you can replace them with a bunch of oranges on the ground and not build a structure at all.

  27. I believe there is a difference between belief in the divine and the precepts of men. For many, coming to conclusions about the “truthfulness” of the restoration as opposed to a belief in God and his role in our lives are completely separate issues. While I do feel a certain sense of betrayal from the church, I haven’t let those feelings effect my belief in a supreme being. Coming to the conclusion that there is no God after discovering that the LDS church is just another man made religion is probably the biggest danger in being a member of the church, if true. I tend to think this isn’t a fair assessment…

    As a missionary, we strongly encouraged people to look at their own religion, see it for what it really was, and join God’s true church. Why is it that Mormons can’t abide someone putting their own religion to the same test and determining that God works with men in a different way? In other words, we love those who investigate themselves out of their chosen religion and in to ours, but despise those who investigate themselves out of the LDS religion and into another belief system. We even infer that they will most likely end up as an atheist. You’ll excuse me for saying this, but that’s a lot of hypocrisy in my humble opinion.

    As approximately 2/3rds of the church is inactive, I have a hard time believing that most are because they just can’t live the religion. While this is certainly true for some, I would guess the vast majority doesn’t believe in all the dogmatic teachings and therefore chose’s not to associate with “the saints”. I doubt too many of them are atheist, they just don’t believe the church has anything meaningful to offer them. This, of course, is just my opinion and worth what you’re paying for it. Perhaps it’s my own optimistic view that most people are good natured, caring, and God fearing whether or not they participate in a particular religion. Your world view may lead you to different conclusion and that’s ok as well…

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    DougG,

    As always, I appreciate your comments. However, you took this solely as a question of personal faith journey (as many did) when it wasn’t intended that way. Read Christopher Smith’s comments on this thread and I think you’ll see that you are misreading when you say “We even infer that they will most likely end up as an atheist. You’ll excuse me for saying this, but that’s a lot of hypocrisy in my humble opinion.”

  29. Bruce,

    Perhaps I should clarify; I was more concerned with Alan’s comment (#17) then the original post. I think it’s also fair to point out that Alan is not alone in his views about the slippery slop of unbelief. If I’ve offended, I certainly apologize. I just get so tired of hearing that I’m on the way to becoming an atheist and no one in their right mind would ever wake up one day and not believe. Neither of these statements are true for me nor do I think they apply to many of the inactive members of the LDS church.

    Again, just my two cents worth…

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