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What is Free Will When Individuals are Enmeshed in Systems?

One of the classic experiences of stepping outside of Mormonism is seeing the posts online of happy, proud parents of eight-year-old children who have “chosen” to be baptized within Mormonism. Ex-Mormons are frustrated at the idea that a young child has chosen anything of the sort. Instead, they complain that the children are choosing to make their parents happy, to have a party focused on them, to get presents, to do what all the adults and children around them have marked as a passage to adulthood and greater responsibility.

But my question is: in what sense do adults enmeshed in systems make choices that are any more based on free will than my example of this child who “chooses” baptism. There is somehow this idea that once you turn eighteen (or whatever other arbitrary measure of adulthood you choose), then you are more clear-minded and somehow able to make choices for yourself that are real, adult, and outside of the systems that you are involved in. And I say to this assumption — poppycock! Adults are just as likely and perhaps more likely to be unable to make clear choices as children are.

As an adult who stepped away from a fundamentalist religion at the age of 48, after many opportunities to step away previously, in the years I spent at Princeton getting a PhD when I was in my early twenties, to the many visits to visit my New York publishing and writer friends throughout the years of my national publishing career, I had chances to see the world outside of Mormonism. I had chances to talk to people who lived lives that were distinctly unreligious. I knew that they had happy lives, or at least lives as happy as mine, and I also saw that their lives had purpose. But those moments did not, in fact, give me the kind of freedom or clarity that might be assumed to be part of being an adult.

Am I saying that I was a slave within Mormonism? No. That would be too simplistic a narrative, and I find myself with a penchant after fundamentalism for a more nuanced view of the world. I wasn’t a child who wanted to make my parents happy. I wasn’t someone who was unable to see that there were other choices possible. I was a highly intelligent and creative writer, the sort of person most likely in many ways, to step out of a system of rules and roles. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that I had stepped out of those rules and roles in many ways. I would have said that I had completely sovereignty over myself. I would have said that I had free will, and that I was choosing every day to follow what Mormonism’s leaders had taught me was right for me in my life. I would have said I was happy.

But when I try to explain to people who have never studied fundamentalist religious systems that my choices were limited because the way I saw the world was shaped by the way in which I had been raised, and then the ways in which I had “chosen” to raise my own children, they tend to say something to me like “but you were an adult — you made a choice.” Yes, I did. And also I didn’t.

If it sounds like I’m saying that I’m a victim, that is also not what I’m getting at here. I’m not interested in eliciting pity from my readers, nor in arguing that I was a “poor, oppressed Mormon woman.” That is not at all what I thought at the time. It would have been highly offensive to me to hear anyone direct such a label to me. And I know many Mormon women today who remain devoted to the church, sure of their own free will and choice, and who do not see themselves as victims, but as actors and even saviors of others in their own narratives of good and evil.

What happened when I stepped away from Mormonism was that I began to question seriously whether anyone has free will, whether any human can exist without a system that tells them who they are and what their purpose in life is. We are social creatures (even autistic people like me) and on some level, we look to others to see what we should do and who we should be. What makes my head spin sometimes is the recognition that I’m just as enmeshed in systems now as I was as an active, believing Mormon. The system is just a different one. Did I “choose” the new system I’m in? Or did it choose me? I try to see more clearly now, try not to believe in the dangerous illusion that I’m “free.”

So instead of trying to run around and tell the Mormons around me that I’ve found “the truth,” to tell them that they are slaves or victims or that they need to “see the light” in some hideous reverse of the Mormon missionary experience, I find myself more interested in observing the ways in which I and those I see most are or are not able to make choices. What information do we hear? What information do we actually understand? What is the price for making one choice over another? Who do we lose and what community can we step into after those losses? These are more interesting questions than whether or not an eight-year-old is “choosing” to be baptized.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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