Religious Differences

I have two friends in particular, one Catholic and one Protestant, with whom I find it remarkably easy to have religious conversations. In terms of explicit doctrinal teachings, we’re often coming from quite different places. Yet somehow we seem to be on the same wavelength religiously. I’ve also met numerous Mormons whom I don’t seem to connect with at all, and in talking to such people I’m not always sure what exactly it means that we’re in the same religion, because we seem to be worlds apart in our religious views.

When it comes to religious diversity, I’ve often wondered–to what extent are people’s differering religious views a result of the teachings of particular traditions, and how much are they a function of other factors, perhaps even ones related to personality? With a variety of questions–how important is it to follow the rules to the letter? how closely is God involved in your day-to-day life? how do you balance faith and reason? how optimistic are you about human abilities?–someone’s denominational affiliation isn’t necessarily going to tell you how they think about the issue. Certainly there are general tendencies (e.g. Lutherans emphasize justification by faith, or liturgy is central for Episcopalians), but I suspect that often these broad differences are overshadowed by the individual variations within churches.

In the context of contemporary Christianity, many have made the case that the sharpest religious divides are no longer between Catholics and Protestants, but between conservatives and liberals within traditions. A liberal-leaning Lutheran, for example, is likely to have more in common with a liberal Baptist, Methodist, or even Catholic than with a conservative-leaning Lutheran. I’m curious–does this hold true for Mormons as well? Or are we distinct enough from other Christians that an Iron Rod, “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over” Latter-day Saint and a Sunstone-reading, “when the prophet speaks, the debate has just begun” Latter-day Saint still have more in common with each other than with other Christians of whatever denomination?

Interestingly, I find myself having more religious disagreements with my fellow Church members than with those of other faiths. I’m not sure that this is because I actually disagree more, or simply because I’m more likely to care about those disagreements and thus pay more attention to them. I suspect the latter plays a not insignificant role. Still, I notice that often the place in my life where I feel the most tentative about sharing my religious views is, ironically, church. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.


  1. “I notice that often the place in my life where I feel the most tentative about sharing my religious views is, ironically, church.”

    Just look for a congregation with a minister whose views are more closely in line with yours. Oh, wait…those of other denominations can group themselves into congregations of choice, making it easier to find a community that truly does share their religious views. But Mormons aren’t allowed to. Sorry. As a last resort, you could try looking for kindred spirits in the Bloggernacle.

  2. That’s an interesting point, Beijing. I wonder whether local Protestant congregations are more likely to be homogeneous (despite some of the deep divisions within denominations at a broader level), given that people often shop around until they find a place where they feel comfortable. I have mixed feelings about whether that’s a good thing; ideally, I’d like to think that the potential diversity of geographically-based congregations would be a strength. Yet I have to admit that I’ve felt jealous of Protestant friends who’ve found local religious communities where they really feel at home.

  3. I think that’s such an interesting observation that you have fewer disagreements with those of other faiths. I completely agree, and I think a reason might be that those in other faiths are less judgemental. If you express views contrary to popular belief with other members, they sometimes feel an obligation to steer you towards a more accepted view. Also, members usually adhere to the “one true church” ideology, while other religions sometimes have a little more gray area; all churches lead to God. (I realize that not all are like this, but some are.) Because of this, they are more open to discussion and don’t seem to feel as threatened by opposing (or at least different) beliefs. A little sad though, that we’re more open to discussing religious ideas with those of other faiths, don’t you think?

  4. Thanks for the comment, Rilkerunning; you’re raised a good question. I do wonder how the “only true church” thing plays into this. My non-LDS religious friends are mostly moderate-to-liberal Protestants and Catholics, and in addition they tend to be pluralists (i.e., the multiple paths to God mentality that you mention). And that outlook definitely plays a role in shaping the kinds of religious conversations we have.

    Going back to some of my earlier thoughts, that’s also precisely one of those issues on which the dividing lines seem to cross denominational boundaries–if you accept a pluralist point of view, are you more likely to find yourself disagreeing with a fellow pluralist from another religious tradition, or someone from your own faith who takes a more exclusivist outlook?

    Of course, there’s also the issue that it’s easier to listen politely to the religious ideas of someone from another faith, even if you think they’re basically nuts, than to politely listen to even the exact same crazy ideas from someone of your own faith. At least, it is for me. 😉 (That also might account for why my friends politely listen to stuff about angels and gold plates and so forth.)

    But I am kind of intrigued by some of my own assumptions. I was pondering this thought experiment: imagine that you discover that the person sitting next to you on a plane is also LDS. What’s your initial reaction? Do you kind of assume that they see the world in a somewhat similar way, religiously speaking–or do you think, hmm, I’d better be careful what I say? I have to admit that I usually fall into the latter category. (Of course, that beliefnet quiz always tells me that I am in fact a liberal Protestant, so maybe that’s the source of my confusion about all this.)

  5. I have *lots* of conservative Protestant and conservative Catholic friends and I definitely get along a lot better with them than I do with liberal Mormons. It probably has something to do with the fact that I just don’t care as much about they ways in which they are wrong (which means they’re not threatening to subvert the faith from within or whatever). I also think that being a religious liberal or a religious conservative is only partly a matter of doctrine and intellect. A lot of it is a matter of temperament and emotion, so even though I and the liberal Mormon both say ‘Joseph Smith was a Prophet,’ and my conservative friends will say ‘I respect your belief but, uh, there is certainly evidence that Joseph Smith was a pious fraud and, uh, how can you believe that stuff anyway?” I *get* where my friends are coming from. Given a few factual assumptions and different upbringings, I’d be where they are. But I don’t get Mormon liberals. I seem to hear asterisks when they say ‘Joseph Smith was a Prophet,’ but this is probably my imagination. More likely, we’re just coming at that truth from very different directions. We’re at the same point in the road, but I’m in the east-bound lane and they’re in the other.

  6. It probably has something to do with the fact that I just don’t care as much about they ways in which they are wrong (which means they’re not threatening to subvert the faith from within or whatever).

    I think this sheds light on the reason some of the difficulties I have with discussing faith with many of my fellow Latter-day Saints. The “one true Church” concept (and the absolutist approach to spirituality that comes with it) is such a central factor of Mormon identity that we sometimes find ourselves thinking of what people say, both inside and outside the Church, in terms of right vs. wrong, when they might merely be saying something different (but not necessarily wrong).

    When speaking with someone of another faith, at least we don’t have the expectation that we will have similar views, so differences may be better tolerated (even if there’s the back-of-the-mind thought that what they are saying is wrong). But when speaking with another Mormon, it seems that many of us expect or even demand that they conform to certain beliefs. If we come across a Mormon who doesn’t conform to these views, all to often we jump to conclusions that they’re not just “wrong,” but that they’re “threatening to subvert the faith from within.”

    Honestly, I think that stepping away from absolutism will improve our conversations with both Mormons and non-Mormons. Focusing on the core teachings of Christ and the practical application of religion are probably roads to better tolerance and acceptance of diverse thinking, both in and out of the Church.

  7. Thanks for your perspective, Adam. I think I’m in a similar place, though on the opposite side; I “get” liberals of other faiths in a way that I struggle to “get” conservative Mormons. And like you, I suspect that this is more than an issue of particular doctrinal commitments, that temperament also plays some role.

    Which leads to the question that Steve M. raises. What do we do with religious diversity within a tradition? Interfaith dialogue is something strong emphasized at my school, and I’m quite supportive of it. But honestly, I think that there are ways in which intra-faith dialogue can be at least as difficult.

  8. I participate in the bloggernacle mostly because I get to hear other people who are good and often smart say things I never would have thought of by myself. I often have this experience at church, too, and I find it liberating. I think the fact that we are organized along geographic boundaries is one of our greatest strengths, because it forces us to learn patience and to often re-examine our own assumptions. We joke about the church being white, middle class, and conservative, but the reality is that we are probably the most diverse church in the U.S. My own ward does simultaneous translation into two languages besides English. We have people with PhDs and high school dropouts, and those people work side by side in presidencies and as HT and VT partners. If our church ever developed a “reform” and “orthodox” schism, it would be a tragedy.

    Here are my two strategies for managing differences with other members. First, I don’t think church classes or large gatherings are a productive place to explore differences, so in those settings I stick to generalities. But I’ve learned that I can often find a listening ear in a one on one setting, and I try to cultivate friendships that will allow for those conversations. Second, I try to keep in mind something much like what Adam said. Given a few factual assumptions, a different temperament, and a different upbringing, I would probably be very much like the person I don’t understand.

  9. I don’t get Mormon liberals. … We’re at the same point in the road, but I’m in the east-bound lane and they’re in the other.

    I agree with your implied assertion that Hell is in the West. 😉

  10. Adam, Please tell me that’s not what you meant when you made that comment!

    I have some friends from other faiths with whom I have a great deal of affinity, Conversely, there are those who believe that I as a Mormon am going straight to hell and it is their responsibility to call me to repentance.

    Same thing in the Church. I’ve developed wonderful friendships with all sorts in the Church. But the ones with whom I clash are those who believe I am “trying to subvert the faith from within” or am traveling on the “wrong” path.

    By and large, I feel less of a religious divide among fellow Latter-day Saints, conservative or liberal. With members of other faiths, it’s too hard to explain some of my thoughts, comments, or actions without going through 200 years of Mormon history and philosophy at the same time making sure I don’t alienate a potential convert from the Church.

  11. With members of other faiths, it’s too hard to explain some of my thoughts, comments, or actions without going through 200 years of Mormon history and philosophy at the same time making sure I don’t alienate a potential convert from the Church.

    A conundrum, indeed.

  12. Mark, I like your outlook on this. I have to admit that while sometimes I’ve thought it would be nice to be in a “Sunstone ward,” so to speak, I’m not sure it would really be the best thing for the Church for us to segregate ourselves in that way. And I think your strategies for dealing with differences are good ones.

    Something else I’ve been thinking about–looking at my own experience, I’ve noticed that it’s far easier for me to appreciate differences when I have some basic sense that there’s room for me in the Church, too. When I’ve been in wards where I’ve felt completely isolated, where people like me don’t even seem to exist on the radar screen (as demonstrated by comments which assume that all Mormons are conservative Republians, for example), it’s very hard not to feel constantly on the defensive–which is not a state of mind really conducive to learning from the perspectives of other people.

    I’m also thinking about the close friends I’ve had who are much more conservative than I am. Even when we’ve strongly disagreed on particular issues, I think what’s enabled us to maintain the friendship is a basic sense of respect for the legitimacy of the other person’s perspective–not in the sense of agreeing with it, but in the sense of not seeing it as a moral defect that needs to be fixed.

    Bored in Vernal, that’s a good point. I’ve also struggled a lot with that question of how to talk about the Church to non-members. The people whom I spend a lot of time with tend to gradually pick up on various aspects of Mormonism, I’ve noticed, which makes it somewhat easier to explain things as time goes by. Also, I used to feel this horrible pressure that I had to perfectly represent the Church in every conversation I had about it, and I think I’m a bit more relaxed about that now; I figure that the best I can do is to be honest about my own experience, and a reasonably balanced picture will emerge over time.

    Beijing, I’m sorry, but at the end of Return of the King, Frodo sails away to what is essentially heaven–and he sails West. 😉

  13. In the Old Testament, both noxious influences and divine judgment come from the east. See for example Gen 41:6, Ex 10:13, Isa 2:6, and Hos 12:1.


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