Religion Answers Everything (and That’s a Problem)

Several years back, I was devoutly faithful in the LDS faith. My future DH was serving a mission, I was waiting for him loyally (because I prayed about it and “felt” it the right thing to do), and I was trying to stay busy and earn money. At the time, I was represented by an acting agency, and acting was my dream, but acting is a difficult path to follow when you’re staunchly religious in a faith that separates itself from “the world.” Undeterred by the dismal prognosis, I had eagerly applied for any gig I could get with the LDS Church’s film and production department — a safely modest and righteous source for work. But since I don’t look like a Mediterranean Mary, there was rarely an opportunity for me to make any money. Hence, I started working with a temp agency.

One day I responded out to a job that had me packaging products I was morally and religiously opposed to (actually, there’s a slight chance I misinterpreted the meaning of the product, now that I look back, but that’s beside the point…). Being the Crusader and pillar of righteousness that I was, I simply couldn’t stay there any longer, even though I needed the cash. So I checked the agency rules, called in, and let them know I could not stay at the job on account of religious conflicts.

And then came the miracle.

That very night, lo and behold, I got my first callback from the LDS production studio. It was just as an extra, but hey, it was something. AND it was going to pay me more than what I had missed out on by leaving the temp site. Miraculous! Tender mercy! God cares about his children and even their minor challenges and smallest dreams!

I happily testified about this very thing the next Sunday at my congregation’s Fast and Testimony meeting (where members bear testimony on the fly rather than hearing a prearranged lesson or talk). This happenstance meant something. It meant that God was real. It meant that God answered prayers. It meant that God rewarded righteous acts. And I “knew” that.

(But I had to quiet a voice in order to “know” that.)

(I had to quiet the voice in my head that asked “But how can we really know that’s what it means when there’s a faithful answer either way in any given situation? I mean, if you had received a call stating that you didn’t get the gig, you’d say that God has a purpose in all things; you’d say that God gives us trials to make us stronger.”)

(I had to quiet the voice that I had been quieting since I was a child. The voice that wasn’t very loud or hard to quiet anymore. The one that had gotten used to being quieted. The one that asked “Is faith never more than choosing one of several fitting faithful answers?” The one that said, “And if never more than that, if it’s really never more than just a choice to be faithful, then why do we pretend these happenstances are proof of it? Why don’t we just own that it’s a choice and nothing more? Why do we claim knowledge born of these ‘fruits’?”)

There’s a name for finding meaning where none is intended. It’s called Apophenia.

Apophenia: The tendency to attribute meaning to perceived connections or patterns between seemingly unrelated things.

So here’s an apophenial anecdote for you to mull over:

Yesterday, the DH did something that is totally abhorrible and abominable to mainstream and staunch members of the LDS faith. This is something that a prophet of God — one whose words are “the same” as though God himself were speaking — said was “grafitti on the temple of the body.” (And it was something DH had wanted to do for nearly 20 years). That’s right, DH got — gasp — a tattoo (a really beautiful one).

He literally did the opposite of what I did several years ago walking out of that temp site: he did something he wanted in the face of something his past religion demanded.

And then came the miracle.

That very next day, lo and behold, he received a call from a new client offering him double his top package price to shoot an amazing wedding (complete with lascivious liquor, riotous reveling, and loud laughter). Wonderful! Amazing! Proof that…hard work and integrity pay off. Proof that…customers care about quality and approachability. Proof that…no unknown being gives a damn whether or not DH has ink on his arm (or at least not enough of a damn to immediately punish him for it).

So now I have a new testimony that I’ll share with you:

I know that we humans have the ability to find meaning in any given set of random facts — related or unrelated. I know that finding meaning often helps people feel good and happy. I also know that sometimes someone else’s meaning can make others feel guilty when they shouldn’t, suffocated when there’s plenty of air outside, like dying when there’s so much to live for, like they’re forced to be something they’re not (when they are good and beautiful exactly as they are).

I’ve stopped quieting that voice, even though it’s scary, because it’s worth listening to. It’s worth admitting that if you can support your faith in any given situation no matter the facts and no matter the outcome, then that’s a problem. If your religion can tell you that you’re righteous no matter the outcome of any given situation, that’s a problem. If your religion can answer that “God did this because…” no matter the situation, then that’s a problem.

If your religion can confirm its divinity in any given outcome — if you can answer any question in support of your own beliefs, no matter the situation or scenario — then that’s a problem.

Because if you can do that, then you can also walk around completely free to condemn whoever you will, whenever you will, with whatever proof fits the situation.

You can say that good things happen to bad people as a trial to the righteous or as proof of their rebellious lifestyle. You can say that bad things happen to bad people because God is punishing them. You can say that bad things happen to good people because God wants them to be stronger or because they need that particular trial. And then you can feel better about not helping them, or you can feel smug or falsely humble about judging your neighbor, or you can feel vindicated when your enemy is in pain. And you can miss out on wonderful opportunities to learn and grow and be a true friend.

So be careful as you find your meaning. Be careful to build with it as a tool and never wield it as a weapon. Be careful to know the difference. Because having all the answers means you might not get to ask the questions that allow you to grow. And that’s a problem.

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Thoughts. About Stuff. On purpose.

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