compartmentWhen I started my faith journey away from Mormonism, I was often met with one request: just ignore the parts of the doctrine that were bothering me. More specifically, I was told to separate my beliefs about social issues like feminism, homosexuality and race in secular matters from my church beliefs. It was fine to apply a feminist lens to the world I was living in, just not the  church. I was asked to compartmentalize.

I found I was incapable of doing that. I was unable to say “I’m not okay with this kind of behavior outside of the church, but I’m fine with it inside of the church.” My bishop said to me, “If you put aside the feminist stuff, how do you feel about the rest of the church.” He didn’t understand that I saw the church as a whole and was not able to just put aside the parts I did not like. My mother is a feminist, but remains active in the church. When I asked her how, she said she doesn’t apply the same criteria to the church as she does to other things. I’ve had Facebook arguments where someone has said in the same post that separate but equal laws are not okay, but it is fine for the church to teach separate but equal ideas. In all of these instances I find myself reeling. How does one compartmentalize like that?

I’ve started to wonder if that ability is the key for some people to stay religious. As I hear people’s stories about Mormonism, I see people in very similar circumstances choose to leave and choose to stay. Of course there are millions of reasons people leave and stay in religions, but is the ability to compartmentalize one of them?

I can’t divide the church from my “secular” beliefs. I can’t divide the church into bits and ignore the ones I don’t like. That inability is really the core of why I left. I wonder if I had that skill if I would still be Mormon.

There is a quote attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald that says: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Does the ability to compartmentalize make one more intelligent?

Can you compartmentalize? How has it effected you?



I'm a graduate from BYU in theatre education and history teaching, currently living in Utah and working at a library company. I've been married since 2009. I love to read essentially anything. I'm an earring fanatic, Anglophile and Shakespeare lover.

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12 Responses

  1. Luna Lindsey says:

    I’ve given this some thought myself, because I write about religious manipulation methods. Compartmentalization and “putting doubts on the shelf” is a control technique to keep people from openly asking difficult questions and to keep them from trying to change things.

    On the other hand, you’re right. The ability to consider opposing ideas, to give them your full attention, and even to sit somewhat comfortably with unresovlable conflicting ideas is a sign of an open mind. It’s a sign that you can live outside of a black and white world, where any given issue can have pros and cons, be partly good with some downsides. It means that sometimes you won’t fully form an opinion about something because there isn’t enough information to commit one way or the other.

    So what’s the difference?

    Firstly, what is the reason for holding onto the conflicting ideas? Are you being asked to ignore problems because that serves an organization you belong to? Are these problems they could solve, but choose not to, so they’re asking you to change instead? Moreover, are they asking you to suppress the doubt? Hide it? Shove it away?

    Notice in Fitzgerald’s quote, how he says, “at the same time”? That indicates that you are fully aware the ideas conflict. You aren’t stuffing anything, or hiding it. If the Church let you bring both ideas to the meetinghouse (and discuss them with others who are also capable of holding two opposing ideas), then it would be a sign of lots of open minded people practicing their right to be intelligent in public. That’s an open, tolerant, healthy organization.

    But that’s not what your bishop has asked you to do. He’s asked you to take 100% of the Church as it is, to ignore it’s unfair treatment of women. He’s asking you to divide your mind into a Church mind and a secular mind, while setting aside your “secular” values at church.

    (As if your “secular” values are incompatible with LDS teachings, I might add. They are actually quite compatible with certain LDS values. This is a further sign of the habit of compartmentalization that as Mormons we are taught. Murder is bad, but it’s okay when Nephi did it because of (flimsy) reasons. Polygamy is bad except when JS and BY did it because (flimsy) reasons. Lying is bad, except when you’re asked to pretend you’re okay with the Church’s stance on women. Etc.)

    I think this is the opposite of the mindset Fitzgerald suggested, which is a fully integrated and self-aware mind. That would be the ability to take “the parts of the Church you like, and leave the rest” (adapted from a 12-Step saying). In this mindset, you can believe in 80% of the gospel teachings, and practice most of them, but refuse to support or practice the rest. If the Church were more healthy, it would let you openly live this way. It would allow you to tell others which parts you disagree with and why, so that they could make up their own minds, and so the Church would have the opportunity to change it’s unhealthy, domineering aspects.

    But the Church can’t handle people who don’t agree 100%. The organization is the one that can’t sit well with two opposing ideas, not you. You actually seem quite good at that. You’re capable of thinking, “I love this Church” and “I hate how this Church treats women” at the same time. Your bishop is not. So he’s asked you to be two different people. 100% Church-love while at Church, and then whatever you want at home where he and the other members can’t see it.

    • DefyGravity says:

      Thanks for your comment! What you say makes sense; the different between holding two ideas and putting one on the shelf. I’m still exploring this issue and your comment is very helpful!

      On a side note, I’m excited to read your newest book. I read about it on Facebook. I didn’t know you also wrote fantasy. I’ll have to check it out since I’m a fantasy junkie.

      • Luna Lindsey says:

        I’m still exploring the issue as well. 🙂 That’s the most interesting part of the topic of control right now for me, is testing the edge cases, looking at the contradictions, and looking at “what is freedom of thought”? I often look at my own subcultures and my own beliefs, and examine them for flaws, to see if I’m deluding myself in anyway. Constant questioning and doubt.

        I hope you enjoy my book. It covers this topic much more in depth.

        I write sci-fi, fantasy, horror, whatever inspires me. My novel is urban fantasy about fairies in Seattle. 🙂 I don’t have any classic fantasy published anywhere, sadly. Maybe I should make that happen. What’s your favorite fantasy novel?

      • DefyGravity says:

        My favorite fantasy books that I read over and over again are Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Beauty by Robin McKinley. I also really like the Walker Papers series by CE Murphy and the 500 Kingdoms and Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey.

      • Luna Lindsey says:

        Oh cool, I’ve read Neverwhere. Loved it. Have you seen the BBC miniseries? Low budget but cool.

        I’ve not read the others. It feels like I’m never caught up. 🙂 I really like dark fantasy. Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series comes to mind. And Tolkien of course. And the Gormenghast trilogy by Peake. Not much story but beautiful, witty prose and memorable, quirky characters. And I’m a sucker for any popular long running epic series that takes all year to read. The usual suspects, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Goodkind, GRRM.

        Now that we’re way off topic.. lol

  2. Mary Ann says:

    I really like Luna’s description of the difference between compartmentalization vs. holding 2 conflicting ideas in mind at the same time. For me, it comes up any time I tell people I majored in archaeology at BYU. 😉 A lot of people (especially some BYU religion professors) believe that it is impossible to believe in evolution and be a member in good standing in the church. I don’t. I see God’s power in inspiring men and women towards miraculous discoveries and innovations. I also see God’s power in my own life via the doctrines of the gospel (especially the scriptures). Do I understand exactly how creation occurred? Nope, but since I know that God is truth and both science and religion are the pursuit of truth (via different methods), it’ll join up eventually. In the meantime, I can enjoy all the cool discoveries that science makes and still find joy in the scriptures. A major doctrinal conflict is that of Justice vs. Mercy — both are correct and true, but often the application of those truths leads people to different conclusions. The Atonement provides one way for both Justice and Mercy to be satisfied in a specific situation, but what about other times in our life? When should we be applying justice vs. mercy? Well, that depends heavily on the situation, but the New Testament indicates we should probably err on the side of mercy in most cases. When your bishop asks how you feel about the church outside the feminine issues, he’s asking you if you have a testimony on the basic doctrines. You already clearly have a testimony of the feminism and other social issues. If you don’t have a testimony of the basic doctrines of the gospel, though, then you’ll never be able to find a personal peaceful option in balancing the two conflicting ideas because they aren’t equally “true” to you.

  3. JB says:

    I do think this is exactly how most people stay in the church. Compartmentalazation is how I stay employed and how I put up with most things in life including marriage and church. When the totality of pluses fall short of the minuses then it is time to move on. We often blame one or two things like offensive people or anti-women comments but really it is more than that. You get to a point where your spirit is more damaged than strengthened and you can no longer separate into the pieces. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  4. Caroline says:

    Great post, Defy Gravity. I do think compartmentalization is a major coping strategy for a lot of Mormons. I don’t think I’m very good at that however. I love Luna’s vision of holding two competing ideologies in mind at the same moment, and the good that can come of being honest about those competing ideas. “If the Church let you bring both ideas to the meetinghouse (and discuss them with others who are also capable of holding two opposing ideas), then it would be a sign of lots of open minded people practicing their right to be intelligent in public. That’s an open, tolerant, healthy organization.” I would love for this to be possible someday, but for now, I’m thrilled with places like Exponent, FMH, etc. that allow me to be honest about the many things I value which often conflict on some level.

  5. jks says:

    For me it is about which lens I choose to view the world through. My “gospel is true” is my primary one. If I have those on, I can then be feminist within that, viewing feminism through that perspective. If the church is true and I am committed to it, how do I view feminism? Male/female equally important. If men are sexist, they should stop and this can be accomplished if men and women live the gospel better. The good of having a male only priesthood outweighs the good of having male & female priesthood at this time.
    I make these types of decisions all the time. If I operate under the assumption that my marriage is crucial and my husband is worth investing my effort in having a good marriage for the sake of my family, then if I disagree with him (if he wants to watch TV during dinner) I can sometimes easily choose happy marriage over being “right” about watching less TV and know that the happy marriage is the better part. If I operate under the assumption that raising my children with my exact media rules is the most crucial thing, I would end up choosing that over a happy marriage over and over again. If the marriage ends over me insisting on being right (even if I was right) my children would not be raised in a home with two parents, plus, even if I now get my own home with my own rules about media, but when the kids visit Dad I would not have control, so I wouldn’t win.
    So, I don’t compartmentalize, I simply choose a priority. There are times I choose the marriage. Even when I choose to stand up and say “no” it is because I still choose the marriage. It is not healthy for a marriage if it is always his way, anymore than it is healthy for me to insist on my own agendy 100% of the time.
    I live on church is true island. Feminism island is miles away. I see the problems and ideals on feminism island, but they are smaller than the problems and ideals here on church is true island. I can tell they are smaller, because if I hold up a cup of church is true ideals and look at it as I am looking at that far away island, it takes more more of my field of vision. Sometimes feminists try to get me to move to feminist island, but I know if I move there, the close proximitity of the ideals will seem so big and the ideals of the church is true will seem far away and unimportant and I will think that the cup of feminism ideals are so important that if I held up the cup I could completely block out my view of the church is true island.
    I understand people who have moved to liberal island, or feminism island, or gun rights island, etc. I choose to stay on the church is true island. I can see so many, many islands all around me. I think too often people stay on their island and refuse to even imagine the view from other islands. Their cups of ideals and cups of problems from their one island eclipses everything else in the world. I visit the islands to understand others. I see the ideals and problems on each island and think that they are important. But I leave because I know that none of them are more important.

  6. Katie says:

    I stay although I don’t necessarily compartmentalize my beliefs. As I focus on the Savior and on my love for others, including the members in my ward, I am learning to love myself and others better. I give leaders in the Church the same grace that I want from my Savior. I realize that no one who has lived in perfect or omniscient but Jesus Christ, my Lord and Redeemer. I find joy in serving the sweet children in Primary, in my years of visiting teacher, which have allowed me to minister to sisters who are widowed, divorced, young, old, married, never-married, active or less active. I find joy in getting to know my ancestors and serving them in sacred temple ordinances. I watch myself and others grow spiritually as they serve one another in the Church.

    I have thought about leaving and do not judge those who do. Then, I see the myriad of ways that we can minister to one another in the Church and outside of the Church and realize that there is nowhere else right now where I could feel more loved or valued. I look forward to the day when the Savior will return to the earth and heal the Church and the world. As I read the New Testament, I see his love for women, for the disenfranchised, the forsaken and forgotten, and try to teach out to others with love and compassion.

    My study of Buddhism has been invaluable in helping me stay peaceful amid the sorrows of the world. I also enjoy the comforting words of Psalms and read them often. I seek to forgive others, knowing that I will be forgiven as I forgive others. I do not ignore the failings of the Church and will continue to speak up in respectful and meaningful ways. I also hope that my life will radiate in some small way my love for my Father and for His Beloved Son.

  7. TopHat says:

    What I compartmentalize is my relationship with the Church and my ward. Yes, things come from the Church that are cringe-worthy: Primary outlines with too much modesty rhetoric, Sunday School lessons that don’t talk about the actual scriptures, conference talks that are hurtful to LGBT people, etc. But my ward and the people there aren’t the Church, they are my friends and support people. They at least have more tact if they harbor anti-LGBT opinions. 🙂 I keep going to Church because I like the way my ward does the gospel, even if I don’t like the way the Church does it.

  8. Mike C says:

    Defy Gravity, I really appreciated this post. It is a hard problem.

    For me, I think I started out by compartmentalizing, but over time I’m more inclined to treat it as a scale or balance–does the positive outweigh the negative? Then I see if there are ways to maximize the positive and minimize the negative, not in my mind, but rather in the way I engage or relate to the Church or to my ward. For instance, if giving myself a calling as ward greeter is a positive experience, then I do that. If General Conference is a negative experience, then I read the Bloggernacle-recommended talks in the Ensign rather than listening live.

    Anyway, so far it seems to be working for me, but I sympathize with the difficulty. So often it seems that those who have a good local environment can manage to stay in spite of the dissonance, while those with a more toxic ward have a harder time making it work over time.

    I just wish some of the structural issues could be addressed that would make the local ward environments more positive.

    Best of luck!

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