Over at Wheat and Tares last week, Mormon Heretic posted a transcript of a 2007 Mormon Stories interview with Richard Bushman. It sparked a few interesting conversations, one of which centered around the asymmetry of empathy between believers and the disaffected. Who does — and who ought — to understand the other better, believers or the disaffected? I weighed in somewhat heavy-handedly, claiming that the disaffected do understand believers, and that believer ought to try harder to understand the disaffected:
The disaffected remember (to an often limited extent, however) what it’s [like] to believe, so they can relate to their family and friends, but if the faithful don’t even try to understand what it’s like to doubt, you get a one-way street: the believers are permitted to preach repentance to the disaffected, while the disaffected are required to remain silent. We already get you; if you want to help, you should try to get us.
Upon further reflection, however, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong.
This weekend I was at a function with the local Stake President, and he asked me to explain my disaffection. Our conversation was perfectly civil, but after a few minutes it became painfully clear that I wasn’t getting through to him. Nothing I said breached the barrier of worldviews dividing us. I’m convinced that he understands disaffection no better for having spoken to me.
It’s hard to say exactly who was at fault. Certainly Mormonism lacks the vocabulary to describe well-intentioned disaffection, and perhaps no explanation would have been sufficient.. But I also must admit that I’ve lost much of my ability to speak Mormon. My empiricist talk of “burden of proof” and “null hypotheses” failed on a fundamental level to engage my Mormon audience. I don’t know exactly what I should have said, but it’s likely that a native speaker of Mormonism would at least have been intelligible. Instead, I was the newly-returned missionary who, having not spoken English in two years, struggles not to lapse into Portuguese.
If I can’t get inside the mindset of an orthodox Mormon well enough to explain something as central to my life as my disaffection, can I really claim that I remember what it’s like to believe in orthodox Mormonism? Can anyone who has experienced a faith transition — either to full-on disbelief or to a liberal or heterodox Mormonism — make such a claim?
I’m convinced that we can’t. We might claim to remember, and surely we can recite the facts in which we used to believe, but it’s likely that few of us can accurately recreate our former worldviews. We don’t empathize well with our former selves. What hope do we have of empathizing with our orthodox family and friends?
My argument comes from cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s a fascinating book, one that I will likely mine for future posts. Very briefly, he argues that most of our thinking is governed by heuristics rather than structured reasoning, which results in cognitive bias. Among those biases is what Kahneman calls hindsight bias, a tendency to react to new information as though we “knew it all along”. We don’t just change our minds in response to new information, he argues; we forget that we ever believed differently:
A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.
Many psychologists have studied what happens when people change their minds. Choosing a topic on which minds are not completely made up — say, the death penalty — the experimenter carefully measures people’s attitudes. Next, the participants see or hear a persuasive pro or con message. The the experimenter measures people’s attitudes again; they usually are closer to the persuasive message they were exposed to. Finally, the participants report the opinion they held beforehand. This task turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Asked to reconstruct their former beliefs, people retrieve their current ones instead — an instance of substitution — and many cannot believe they ever felt differently.
We should be careful not to take this too far, of course. Obviously those of us who have been through faith transitions — and especially those of us who have transitioned fully to disbelief — can’t escape that their beliefs have changed. I haven’t forgotten that I once believed in an anthropomorphic God or that the Book of Mormon is a literal record of an ancient people. And I doubt that those who transition to heterodox belief fail to recognize that their beliefs have shifted away from the institutionally-sanctioned mainstream.
Nevertheless, I suggest that we fail to notice as many shifts as we can. We can’t help but recognize the changes in literal belief, but it’s harder to recognize the subtler shifts in worldview that accompany transitions. I don’t forget that I used to believe in an anthropomorphic God, but I do forget that such a belief was once perfectly sensible to me. I forget that I ever judged truth claims according to scriptural agreement rather than evidentiary support. I forget that there I was ever the guy nodding along to a correlated lesson in Gospel Doctrine. In short, I forget the components of my former belief that I now find most ridiculous.
To protect myself from those beliefs, I construct a narrative that minimizes them. Kahnemen notes that our biases encourage us to put together an oversimplified explanatory narrative:
Good stories provide a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions. You are always ready to interpret behavior as a manifestation of general propensities and personality traits — causes that you can readily match to effects… If we think a baseball pitcher is handsome and athletic, for example, we are likely to rate him better at throwing the ball, too… [I]f we think a player is ugly, we will probably underrate his athletic ability… [G]ood people do only good things and bad people only do bad things.
Instead of acknowledging these parts of my old beliefs, I invent a masturbatory narrative in which my transition to a new worldview — which, of course, is thoughtful and mature in comparison — was an inevitable “manifestation of general propensities and personality traits.” I was always skeptical, I tell you. I was never one to swallow orthodoxy. You’d better believe I gave my seminary teachers hell! I never nodded along with the rubes in Gospel Doctrine; I was the one thinking daring, subversive thoughts that led inexorably to my disaffection.
Fine, I’ve hammed it up a bit, but narratives like these aren’t uncommon. If we trust Kahneman, they usually are false. My faith transition is less likely about my imagined superiority and more likely about arbitrary, unpredictable events. My old beliefs represent me just as well as do my new beliefs. There likely is nothing intrinsic to me that precipitated my disaffection. Change a few arbitrary details in my life, and I’d be the same person I am now — but I’d still be a believing Mormon.
Back to the original question. Sure, believers should work harder to understand the disaffected, and the disaffected ought to remember what it’s like to believe in chapel Mormonism. But, on the whole, we don’t remember. We need to work harder than we think to empathize with the orthodox. Instead of spinning narratives that minimize our old beliefs, make us feel superior, and make nodding rubes out of the orthodox, we should admit that we aren’t — and weren’t — special. Only after we’ve leveled the playing field are we in a position to empathize with anyone.