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Suspension of Disbelief and Compartmentalism

Written by Bill Law

How the ideas of “Suspension of Disbelief” and “Compartmentalism” relate to each other and how this dynamic affects an individuals relationship to their religious organizations.

As a person who struggles with their relationship to the LDS church I do a fair bit of thinking about why that is.  A lot of people who struggle with the church say that they had no idea the church had these troublesome things in its past and when confronted with reality can know longer be in the church and still maintain their integrity.  That is not my story.  Others say they knew some things about church history, but put them on a shelf.  Eventually the shelf got so heavy it crashed and left them without a testimony.  That is closer to my story, but I still don’t think it is a good explanation.

For myself, I don’t think it really matters how much stuff is on the shelf.  Something else external to the shelf has caused me to look at the history of the church and look at it more objectively.  This is one of my attempts at trying on an explanation and seeing if it makes sense of my relationship with the church and how it came to its current state of being.

We learn how to behave and interact in the world largely by trial and error.  We learn what is socially acceptable by doing things that aren’t socially acceptable or watching other people do things that aren’t socially acceptable and seeing the reaction of society.  I suppose this is a bit negative.  We also do things that are socially desirable and see the results of those actions, which reinforce the behaviors that are acceptable.

These lessons are highly situational.  What is acceptable or desirable in one environment may be very unacceptable in another.  We compartmentalize our behavior.  We behave very differently at home, at school, at work, at church, and when alone with our friends.  It gets even more complex than this as your position within the environment also affects what is appropriate or desirable behavior. 

There was a study that argued that work environments where cussing occurred had a stronger sense of community. Why would that be?  Does the sense of community allow people to be more relaxed and allow them to feel free to cuss, or does the cussing increase the bond within the members of community?  I believe that both occur simultaneously. 

Relationships of any sort are really just about trust.  A relationship between a supervisor and employee is really about a manager trusting the employee to act in a way that will reflect well on the supervisor and the company and that the supervisor will act in a way that meets the needs of the employee to feel valued for their efforts.  This trust builds in a transactional sort of way. 

To illustrate, imagine yourself on a work team that has to fix a problem because another group failed to foresee how a change they made would affect your team.  The manager says with a smile something like “those bastards over in IT did it to us again.”  One reason the statement builds community is because it creates a common enemy for the team, but another reason is because of the word “bastards.”  By using that word the manager is being “open” and in a sense is sharing vulnerability. 

Your team knows that your manager won’t use that word in other environments, therefore her willingness to use it with you, is a demonstration that there is a closer bond or rapport that isn’t shared with those other groups.  This invites members of the team to be more relaxed.  Maybe the team isn’t relaxed enough to also use the word “bastard”, but surely feels more freedom to express frustration at the IT department.  In a small way both the manager and the team allowed themselves be a little more vulnerable.  After the exchange, both the manager and the team feel a great sense of community.  Both parties trust that the others won’t use the increase openness and vulnerability to hurt the other.

Another example is friends who rib each other about their recent performances during some sport.  One friend says something derogatory about the other and the other returns the favor by flipping him off.  Neither is mad. These are displays of friendship.  This behavior would never be used while at work or while serving in their religious positions.

Everyone must learn to compartmentalize behavior in order to interact positively in society.  Religions attempt and in some respects are successful at moderating behavior in all “compartments” of individuals’ lives.  Now we will look at the concept of “suspension of disbelief” and then attempt to show how that concept is related to compartmentalism and then tie that into the religious sphere.

The concept of “suspension of disbelief” is often used in terms of movie watching.  We see good guys get shot at by guys with automatic weapons and manage to escape unharmed, yet the good guy is able to take a 9mm,pop out from behind a barrier, and pick a bad guy off the top of a building with a single shot.  Another example was a man in a convertible who drove up a ramp sitting on the side of a freeway causing his car to do a 365 degree spin.  While upside down he connected a hook (which is attached to some immovable object) to the bad guy’s car.  He lands the car, does a bit of fishtailing, but otherwise escapes into the sunset unharmed. Meanwhile the bad guy’s car has a spectacular wreck and explosion.

Why do we participate in and enjoy something so spectacularly impossible?  Well to be honest, sometimes the implausibility becomes too much and pulls us out of the movie and our suspension of disbelief fails and we don’t enjoy the movie.  But we are willing to suspend a whole lot of belief and still find movies worthwhile and entertaining.

The concept of suspension of disbelief is largely an argument that the audience has a role in their movie going experience.  In any work of fiction there are going to be things that don’t completely make sense.  The audience acts with faith that there is some human interest and semblance of truth to make the movie worthwhile.  Some of the burden of whether a movie is successful falls on the shoulders of the moviegoer.  The moviegoer can choose to suspend disbelief or can be distracted by the inconsistencies to the point where the experience fails.

This doesn’t mean that the creators of the movie are free to do whatever and blame the moviegoer for being nitpicky if a movie isn’t well received.  If movie creators want a movie to be well received (and they do) then they need to create a film that doesn’t overly challenge the viewer's sensibility.

So far we have only talked about suspension of belief in terms of "over the top" action sequences.  There are much more subtle ways that a movie can make itself too implausible to be believed.  Sometimes movies are criticized as being too derivative.  Another way to voice this complaint is to say that the movie was so formulaic and the plot had been seen so many times before that it was overly difficult to suspend disbelief due to its predictability.

If you have watched very many scary movies, and you see a character go up to a monster to confirm that the monster is dead, you may find yourself laughing in anticipation of that character being eaten.  If you see a minor Star Trek character in a red shirt leading the way into a dark tunnel, you can bet something bad is going to happen to that character.  If there’s another hour left in the romantic comedy and one of the lead characters is about to divulge their undying love to the other main character, you can bet that other character is going to start dating someone else before they get the chance to express their feelings.  You can also bet that right before the end they will have "the talk" and be together.

When you know what is going to happen in a movie before it happens it pulls you out of the movie.  The movie is no longer authentic.  It just becomes actors on a screen performing a role.   Instead of being inside the movie you take a step outside the movie.  Sure you always knew the two dimensional characters on the screen weren’t real, but on some level you could relate to them.

This brings us back to compartmentalization.  We compartmentalize our knowledge that the movie isn’t real, with our belief in the characters as people we know and like.  In a 100% rational world, we would never find any movies enjoyable.  We couldn’t never resolve the cognitive dissonance between knowing that Leonardo Di’Caprio was paid to pretend he was sacrificing his life for Kate Winslett, and the emotional belief that Jack truly cared for Rose.  Instead we compartmentalize.  The story and actors may be completely fake, but we believe in and have faith in the meaning or emotions expressed by the made up story.

My struggles with the church doesn’t stem from the fact that the first vision story is implausible.  My problem is that I know longer relate to that foundational story, because the characterization of Joseph Smith has become so contrived and simplistic that I no longer relate to the correlated church version of the story.  I have been pulled out of the story by the lack of authenticity.  Correlation has made the teaching of church doctrine so derivative and simplistic, that I can know longer suspend disbelief as my more complex views aren’t accepted in the narrow and shallow universe that correlation has created.  Interactions within the religious setting have become role playing exercises where we say all the appropriate things.  The plot is so predictable, that it is no longer meaningful or helpful.  Interactions now lack any conviction or believability.

For example, Home teaching is now viewed as duty of assigned friendship and not about friendships based on trust where vulnerability and honesty are shared for the benefit of both.  When the home teacher asks “is there anything we can do for you.” This isn’t an honest interaction.  Sure, the person asking may be willing to do the service, but that service would be rendered out of a sense of duty.  We don’t care about the characters in the interaction.  The foundational interactions that gain trust and allow people to be vulnerable haven’t occurred.  The people in that interaction don’t trust each other as evidenced by the fact that they don’t know what the other person needs.  Home teaching is too simplistic and doesn’t provide the means for authentic relationship building where people trust each other enough into their real authentic lives.  Instead we frantically clean our homes to present an image of what we think the culture wants us to be, even though that’s not who we really are.

My problem is that the church has become fake.  A parody of what it should be.  I have been pulled out of the religious experience and am no longer able to compartmentalize my knowledge of certain aspects of history with the truths I have found within religion in the past.  Some of the blame may fall on me as an overly picky movie goer unwilling to suspend disbelief.  A large portion of the blame goes to some suits who have insisted on editing the cultural experience into an overly simplistic derivative plot.  I now stand as an analytical outsider of the culture, no longer able to relate or interpret my own experiences through the broader religious culture.  I am no longer able to compartmentalize my knowledge of history and science with my knowledge of what is true spiritually within the church.


Thomas Mesaros said...


You raise valid points in a quality manner. I find myself in agreement with much of what you have written. My perspective, with respect to home teaching, is different, though. I'm not asserting that my viewpoint is the only correct conclusion at which one can arrive, but I do feel that with respect to this one issue a paradigm shift can be valuable to some. It is, at least, to me. Simply, while home teaching is a contrived, or forced, friendship of sorts, it does not need to remain as such. I have found that reaching out and being available to others to whom I have been assigned, I have grown to know, care about, and, dare I say, love those assigned to me. It is a process and, by no means, not immediate, but cultivating those relationships seems, to me, to be the point, rather than a continued obligation or drudgery. I recognize that the home teaching program is not always, or even often, approached in this manner and I do not purport to be a perfect practitioner. I do believe, though, that the program can be a very effective tool and valuable opportunity. I sincerely hope that this is not coming off as being too "preachy" and I am in no way the poster child or salesperson for the home teaching program, but I have struggled with this very issue in the past and a shift in my attitude has been quite a welcome change for me. Thanks for reading my drivel.

Anonymous said...

I know that the church works great for many people. I am very happy it does. But for me hometeaching is more of a hinderance than a help. When HTers do do something nice, the assumption is they are doing it because of assignment, not because they care. My last HT offered on their own to do something for my son, but got released the next month and never did it. I'm not mad or anything, don't get me wrong. But I am done with the pretending and the fake it till you make it stuff. I wish I had some friends in the ward. But no friends is far better than pretend friends. I am not trying to say I am offended, because I really don't believe that anyone is obligated to be my friend. But, HTing hinders my ability to make real friends because it makes me question motives. Last christmas we got invited to a persons house. I would bet money the invite came as a result of ward council. We turned the invitation down. I want people to like me for who I am, not because they pity me. Judging from facebook comments, I don't think I am unique in not liking HTing. If people are constantly wondering if the HTers are judging your house keeping skills while they are there, perhaps there is too much judgementalism in the program and some relationships need to be built before they invite themselves into your home. Especially if that invite always comes with cultural repurcussions if you decline.

I like the idea over at times and seasons where the ward has dinner groups that rotate and no lesson. Just people get to know each other with no pressure. HT has way to much pressure and way too much guilt inflicted because of it. I'm beyond feeling on the guilt, so I just become socially ostracized.

Unfortunately, I don't feel I can be who I really am at church, even though I think I am more spiritual than anytime in my life, including my mission, and meet all the TR questions, except maybe the literal belief in some things.


Anonymous said...


Another point I would like to make. In the example I gave with the boss and her employees I said that both parties trusted that neither party would take advantage of the increased vulnerability.

With Hometeaching, The HTer has a religious obligation to inform ward leadership how you are doing. How can someone truly be open about any struggles they have when the very relationship is based on a the HTer "returning and reporting" on your issues? HTing is just one illustrative example of my issues, but the church has serious issues respecting peoples boundaries.


Angela Felsted said...

Interesting read. I agree that the stories as taught from a young age about the first vision and the like are too sugar-coated to be entirely credible.

That said, I don't know that I would have believed so deeply in the prophet Joseph for so many years if the church had just been honest.

At some point (probably sooner rather than later) I would have used my own life experiences dealing with "misunderstood" people to notice the patterns I do now which are all too consistent with JS not being entirely credible.

If, however, the church had been more honest about it's history, and weren't so heck bent on painting people who leave the church in a negative light, that realization would not have been so painful.

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