Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

No Offense

Well, I succeeded in my goal of seven consecutive days of posting. Which means, since the goal has already been met--yesterday's post was the "seventh"--today's post is not made to further that goal, but just because there's something I've been wanting to post about. The reason for my wanting to try posting for seven consecutive days in the first place was to get myself in the habit of posting more regularly; it seems it may have worked. We'll see how long that lasts.

Anyway, I've mentioned at least once before (in this post) the fact that church lessons in the LDS church go on and on about people leaving the church due to being offended at the actions of another member. The way this gets repeatedly stressed, one would think that was the main reason for people leaving the church. I have serious doubts that that's actually the case--as I've said, offense certainly has nothing to do with my own deconversion--, but again and again the connection is made in church lessons. People usually apostasize initially because they get offended and stop coming to church--that seems to be what all this emphasis is implying.

Well, last Sunday (or a week ago last Sunday, I guess, more specifically), the entire lesson in the Elders Quorum meeting was about that theme. More specifically, it was about a talk by David A. Bednar, one of the newest members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, about that theme. And yes, once again he claims that most people who leave the church do so because they've been offended.

Elder Bednar speaks of having, as a stake president, made "hundreds and hundreds" of visits to "members who commonly are described as 'less active'". A bit of definition of LDS terminology may be in order here. A "stake" in the LDS church is an administrative district comprising a number of local congregations (called "wards" or (where the church is less developed) "branches"); the stake president is, of course, the main person presiding over the stake. And the term "less active" is used to refer to people who are on the records as members of the church but who do not regularly attend church meetings--including those who don't attend at all, and haven't for years. (There used to be more of a distinction made between "less active" and "inactive", but the term "inactive" has latterly been deprecated, presumably because it's too pessimistic; "less active" seems to draw less of a distinction between these members and the church regulars, and therefore imply more hope they can be coaxed back to full activity.) So what Elder Bednar is saying is that he paid visits to people within his ecclesiastical area of authority who were listed on church records but who weren't coming to church.

And he insists that, in most cases, their reason for not coming to church was because they had been offended:

Each individual, each family, each home, and each answer was different. Over the years, however, I detected a common theme in many of the answers to my questions. Frequently responses like these were given:

"Several years ago a man said something in Sunday School that offended me, and I have not been back since."

"No one in this branch greeted or reached out to me. I felt like an outsider. I was hurt by the unfriendliness of this branch."

"I did not agree with the counsel the bishop gave me. I will not step foot in that building again as long as he is serving in that position."

Many other causes of offense were cited—from doctrinal differences among adults to taunting, teasing, and excluding by youth. But the recurring theme was: "I was offended by..."


It's that same claim again, only more explicit than usual: Most people fall away from the church not because they disbelieve, but because they are offended. This had never made sense to me, and doesn't make any more sense to me now. If someone truly believed in the church, believed that its doctrines were necessary for salvation, would they really cut themselves off from it just because of personal differences? Elder Bednar's talk didn't make this seem any more credible:

Most of the "less-active" people I have ever visited had a discernible and tender testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. However, they were not presently participating in Church activities and meetings.

And then I would say something like this. "Let me make sure I understand what has happened to you. Because someone at church offended you, you have not been blessed by the ordinance of the sacrament. You have withdrawn yourself from the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. Because someone at church offended you, you have cut yourself off from priesthood ordinances and the holy temple. You have discontinued your opportunity to serve others and to learn and grow. And you are leaving barriers that will impede the spiritual progress of your children, your children's children, and the generations that will follow." Many times people would think for a moment and then respond: "I have never thought about it that way."


It seems quite unlikely to me that anyone who firmly believed in the church wouldn't have thought of it that way.

But Elder Bednar insists that these people, yes, did firmly believe in the church. "Most of the 'less-active' people I have ever visited had a discernible and tender testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel." And the fact that he feels it necessary to emphasize that makes me think I might finally understand why this claim is being made.

You see, there is, in the LDS church, a great emphasis on "gaining your own testimony"--on getting your own personal witness, by the Holy Ghost, of the truthfulness of the church. (Of course, this "personal witness" is really just a form of self-delusion, but it took me far too long to realize that.) People are supposed to be members of the church not because they like the other members socially, not just because it sounds good to them, but because they know it's true, because the Holy Ghost has testified to them.

So if someone leaves the church...well, what does that mean? Why would they do such a thing?

Obviously, it would be difficult for a Mormon to accept that someone would leave the church just because he concluded that it wasn't true, that the testimony he thought he'd received from the Holy Ghost was an illusion. That couldn't be; the witness of the Holy Ghost was supposed to be unmistakable; a person couldn't leave the church because he'd honestly decided it wasn't true, without other inciting factors first. So there had to be some other reason for not coming to church. And taking offense arose as a plausible reason. If all these "less active" members couldn't really have stopped coming to church because they didn't believe, then it must be because someone at church has offended them. That way, the members of the church are supplied with a plausible explanation for the often high levels of inactivity (or less activity) that doesn't call the whole basis of their testimonies into question.

Did the church leadership intentionally work to come up with such an explanation for apostasy, or do they honestly think that people do mostly leave the church because they're offended? I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but I suspect the latter. The impression I get, while I could be wrong, is that the leaders of the LDS church are earnest but misguided men who really believe what they're saying. They're not con-men; they're just as self-deluded as the common church members. But regardless of whether the offense explanation is a conscious ploy to salvage the doctrine of spiritual testimonies in the face of the apparent counterevidence of apostates or something the church leadership has convinced themselves of as much to soothe their own misgivings as those of the other members, this does strike me as the best explanation yet for why, despite its inherent implausibility, this claim that most people who leave the church do so because they've taken offense continues to be repeated. After all, it makes a more acceptable explanation--as far as the faithful members are concerned--than that they could have left the church due to honest disbelief.

5 Comments:

At 3/07/2007 2:44 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I would agree with you: if the church is necessary to salvation, then leaving it because you're offended by someone makes no sense. You'd be more likely to try and drive that someone out.

 
At 3/07/2007 4:12 AM, Anonymous Liz Case said...

For myself, for many years after I stopped going to church, I would say that I was seen to be in the category in the category of having "discernible and tender testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel".

If someone asked me direct questions about God and the LDS church (for example: Do you believe in God? Do you believe that the Book of Mormon contains the word of God? Do you believe in the Gospel?) I would answer yes. However, I have since realized that what I meant by "yes" was very different than what the person asking meant. This is where the confusion comes in.

I did not believe that the "church" was necessary for salvation and did not agree with many things taught.

Believing that the gospel is true is quite different than believing that the church is necessary for salvation. Those who believe both find it difficult, if not impossible, to accept that others do not see this. It's like the "Book of Mormon true == Joseph Smith is Prophet == EVERYTHING he said is right == LDS Church only true way to God" argument. Logically, this is crap. But I can't convince anyone who really believes this that the logical argument doesn't hold up. So, when I said, yes, I think the Book of Mormon is true (meaning: I think it has many spiritual truths and has helped me a lot in my religious journey), they heard "Ah! She Believes!"

 
At 3/27/2007 11:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people leave the Church because they are offended, but not like they were offended by something mean an individual said to them or anything...

I'm a fideist, meaning that believe in God for personal reasons without trying to prove his existence.

Up until a few years ago, I went to church with my family, who are Catholic. Ultimately, I left not because I don't believe in God, but because I was offended by the sexist, homophobic views of the Catholic Church. When the priest starts saying things that are anti-gay and anti-women (like condemning contraception and abortion). Plus being closed-minded against non-theists and people of other religions. I didn't want to be a part of that.

I don't know if this would fall under "being offended" or "no longer believing" in the "rules" of the religion.

~Shayla
shayladuval@yahoo.ca

 
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