Substituting Religion for Sentimentality

by: Jake

February 23, 2012

A recent trend in sociology claims that there is a rise in sentimentalism, that increasingly we are substituting sentimentality for real emotion.

Both religion and sentimentality end up failing to be what they seem upon closer inspection. It has been argued that if Christianity were inspected by the Trades Descriptions Act it would be found guilty of false advertising. Increasingly, it can be argued that many Christian sects have substituted sentimentality for substantial religious experience; they are giving out a fake product instead of the real deal. Religions should instill wonder by connecting to the supernatural realm.  Yet, modern Christianity substitutes vague fuzzy feelings for a transcendental moment with the divine.

Recent commentators in the book Faking It: the Sentamentalisation of Society, said regarding the modern Church of England that the doctrine has been watered down and down-played, the substance of sermons reduced to emotional stories based upon vague humanist principles, and truths now justified by feelings not logic.  All that remains  are general emotional topics that feel good to the listeners. One attends a modern service and hears a never ending cycle of songs that proclaim “He is love” with nothing beyond that, no engagement intellectually or any form of doctrinal exegesis other than a reiteration of established dogma; nothing is being communicated except sentimental, emotional manipulative proclamations of the superior privileged in-group. Church attendance has been reduced to a bonding ceremony of the like-minded rather than a platform for doctrinal discussion and a wake up call for improvement.

The criticism leveled at the Church of England could equally be pointed at Mormonism.  Recent years have seen a substantial watering down of doctrine in General Conference with more emotional stories and talks based on generic principles.This can be seen from this talk in 1981 from Noel B. Reynolds, vice-president at BYU, who observed that

“We are observing a widespread difficulty in distinguishing between sentimentalism and true spiritual experience. Too much of the literature used, seen, and quoted in the Church today is just sentimental trash which is designed to pull our heartstrings or moisten our eyes, but it is not born of true spiritual experience. The tendency of our youth to use sentimental stories in Church talks creates a culture of spiritual misunderstanding in which thinking and learning are discouraged.”

Since Reynolds gave this talk this trend has in my experience only got worse. The increasing prevalence of church endorsed EFY programs across the globe, runs the risk of conflating the spirit with emotion and sentimental thinking. The use of sentimental stories and songs is the basic currency of the EFY generation but it only increases the danger of substituting religious experience for sentimental feelings.

A product of this sentimentalisation of religion is that truth has been substituted for something we call truth but it is far from it. All truths are contestable. For truth to emerge there must be room for debate and contest, and this requires a language that is substantial in which to debate the truth. Christianity is resorting to an emotional language that revolves around feelings and is stripping language of all substance. When truths are not expressed in substantive language but merely in the vagueries of good feelings and emotions it is no longer a crucible of truth but a vehicle for emotional manipulation and the manufacture of feelings. The result is that people are not invited to think about the truths presented to them, but to feel about them. This sentimentality corrodes truth and renders it ineffectual in the lives of people. It seems almost absurd to use feelings as a litmus test and means to discuss truth, just imagine a scientist presenting his research and saying: ‘I think this theory is true because it feels good’ and not having any evidence to support it beyond his own subjective feelings. The relience upon an emotionaly charged language deprives religion of its substance.

The religious experience that transforms lives, that caused the individual to transcend their own life, and strive for a higher purpose has been reduced and eroded to simply being instructed in dogma and the emotional manufacturing of feelings. It is a faded hollow shell, stripped of the vibrancy that it once had. We are being sold a bad cover version of religion and told to accept it as the genuine thing.

Thoughts

  • Do you agree? Have modern religious organisations (ours included) substituted sentimentality for spirituality?
  • What differences exist between sentimentality and genuine emotion?  Between sentimentality and spiritual experience?
  • What can be done to reduce the levels of sentimentality?
  • To what extent can we use feelings to talk about truth?
  • Does sentimentality result in spiritual misunderstanding, or is it a means to help people understand the spirit?

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15 Responses to Substituting Religion for Sentimentality

  1. ji on February 23, 2012 at 3:02 PM

    I agree that we often substitute sentimentality for true experience, but I cannot support any notion of bad faith. When religion is industrialized as it is today, this result is inevitable and unfortunate.

    What is the solution?

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  2. Paolo on February 23, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    Witness the moving “talk” by TSM at the last conference about $5.00 left in the pants! I hope that one day the prophet actually tells us something!

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  3. FireTag on February 23, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    I think it is particularly a problem for faiths like the Restoration or Evangelicalism because so much of the conversion experience depends on a sense of the Spirit being interpreted by people who are LEAST experienced in defining the difference between good emotions and encounter with the Divine.

    There are a lot of people who don’t think the latter actually exists, after all.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on February 23, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I’m not sure I agree this is a new trend. Didn’t the unwashed masses in the middle ages respond to sentimentalism just as much as we well up over a particularly touching television advertisement? It seems to me that the cathedrals are full of images designed to evoke sentimental response.

    My other thought is that maybe sentimentality is spiritual – our connection to humanity, the collective unconscious, all that rot.

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  5. LovelyLauren on February 23, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    Hawkgirll, I’m studying some middle English Marian miracle stories right now and I can affirm that sentimentalism was just as prominent/responded to then as it was now.

    However, I think that in simplifying doctrines and overusing stories in the Church, we promote sentimentalism to an extent I’m often not comfortable with. There will always be people who go out looking for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, but I think we do ourselves a disservice by providing it and (sometimes) condemning intellectualism.

    It’s funny when I saw the title, I immediately thought of some of my experiences as EFY as well as my husband’s intense disdain for incredibly tearful testimonies. I think it’s important to distinguish that feeling strong emotion is good and normal, but that we also need to think and examine what we feel and why we feel it. In a discussion during RS last week, one woman mentioned it is important to actually know church policies and doctrines if you want to be open about your religion and another responded that she didn’t need to “know” everything because she knew it was true in her heart and that was enough. I see the same sentiment when people quote the prophet as saying that he almost understood the temple ceremony and I had a missionary once tell me that the Atonement was so great that he didn’t understand it and didn’t want to understand it. The latter half may have been a slip, but certainly a Freudian.

    I guess I see sentimentality as a problem when people are substituting feelings for thinking, considering, and learning about various aspects of the gospel. Not to mention, stories like the $5 one from President Monson are really boring if you aren’t really affected by sentimentalism.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on February 23, 2012 at 6:51 PM

    Lovely – I do agree with you that the combination of sentimental stories and anti-intellectuality is substituting treacle for substance. It also gives people an excuse to be lazy. Opiate of the masses, indeed!

    And yes, Pres. Monson definitely falls into the Chicken Soup for the Soul side of things (IMO). I know for some that is all they want. I actually laughed out loud (inappropriate reaction maybe, but it was involuntary) when he told the story about the woman burying her children in the frozen ground with a spoon, one after another. It just went too far for me. I actually thought “Next he’s going to say it was a plastic spoon!” The point of the story was just emotional manipulation, or so I think. I don’t like it in the movies, in advertising, or in General Conference.

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  7. Jake on February 23, 2012 at 8:01 PM

    Paulo,

    That story, along with the 50 cents for a piece of chicken, simply astounded me. Moses parted the red sea, Elijah burnt up stones, Nephi built a ship, Samuel the Lamanite avoided arrows, Thomas S. Monson had $5 saved in the wash.

    Ji, Agreed, industrialised religion seems to destroy the dynamic vitality of religion. Just as industrial processes destroyed art, films and music. For me personal the solution is to devolve back to the basics. But then I am nostalgic for the old days before corporations ruled the world.

    Hawkgrrl, I don’t know if I would agree about sentimentality in the middle ages. Sensationalism, perhaps. I just don’t think that it was as contrived and emotionally manipulative as it is today. Certainly, emotional manipulation has been done through all humanity, just not on such a large scale. If you look at the sermons of Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, there doesn’t seem to be the same amount of sentimental stories. The same with the Ensign. Over the years I have noticed more heart string pulling stories appearing in it. I think we have far more of it then any other time. But that might simply be the increase of publications and mass media.

    Lovely,

    By the very nature of focusing on feelings, I think it automatically distracts people from thinking. If you are caught up in emotion, at least for me, its difficult to think clearly about something. Its funny your tearful testimony reminded me of my experience bearing testimony as a child. I used to get up and say how much I love my family and things of that ilk every time, as I knew that saying it would make people cry in the congregation, and I got a kick out of having the power to make people cry.

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  8. Heber13 on February 24, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    Hawk and Lovely make the point it may be just as common throughout all ages for this sentimentalism as we are social beings, but I wonder if churches or religions trend or go through progressive cycles from startup with more unique teachings and doctrines which initiate a congregation, and trend to exploring ideas until debate among the congregation settles on the lowest common denominator (love), which then leads to sentimentalism to appeal to the most or maintain the flock, but rely less on doctrines at that point. This is all based on my own thinking, I haven’t looked if history supports this in any way, but it makes sense to me.

    I have always thought TSM is less doctrine, more loving stories. Many people really like that and respond to that. He has a big heart.

    The danger for Mormonism is if this becomes the only diet we are fed on Sundays, Reynolds points out later in his talk the danger of unsustainable expectations:
    “It may be that some sentimentality is a good and necessary thing, and certainly there is a place for it in our relationship with our loved ones. But it should never be leaned upon as a substitute for spirituality. Reliance on sentimentality will stunt our own spiritual growth by misleading us and filling our understanding with false experiences.”
    (Noel B. Reynolds, 30 June 1981, “Reason and Revelation”)

    I tend to agree with this quote…perhaps it should be a side dish to compliment our religious experience, but not the whole diet. Could this be related to recently published survey data on Why Mormon’s Leave?

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  9. J. Madson on February 25, 2012 at 12:22 AM

    Hauerwas on sentimentality.

    http://vimeo.com/6852729

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  10. Ron Madson on February 25, 2012 at 2:14 AM

    I no longer conflate the office of President with the gift of prophecy. They might intersect and I “sustain” or rather hope they would, but see little or no evidence of the same.
    Prophets? More often then not the “words of the prophets are written on the subway walls or tenement halls..” or rather comes from the wilderness.
    Stanley Hauerwas (see clip in #9) is a prophet imo. And he sees “sentimentality” as a larger threat to Christianity then “atheism.” I agree. “All is well” is more then a cliche it tells us that we no longer preach real christianity in a world of great social injustice.

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  11. hawkgrrrl on February 25, 2012 at 7:06 AM

    Heber13 makes a great point. While I didn’t like the spoon story, we had a get together with friends after that session of GC, and several of them said that was their favorite talk. I don’t knock that others may like it. To each his or her own. It’s just not my cup of herbal tea. I think that’s one reason we have so many apostles. Not all of them speak to all of us equally. Some talk a language that works for us while others do not.

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  12. J. Madson on February 25, 2012 at 5:08 PM

    Heber

    Love is not the lowest common denominator or if it is it’s because we don’t understand it scripturally. Love is actually very demanding and different then sentimentality. Remember president monson even mocked love last conference.

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  13. Anselma on February 25, 2012 at 11:33 PM

    J. Madsen, I really enjoyed that video clip. Do you have a suggestion of which books of his to read, just as an introduction to the rest of his thought?

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  14. J. Madson on February 26, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Anselma

    The hauerwas reader is good. The peaceable kingdom as well. I also recommend anything by John Howard yoder who inspired much of hauerwas’ thought

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  15. Anselma on February 26, 2012 at 8:00 AM

    Thank you so much! I’ll have to get hold of those from the campus library.

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