Last Updated on May 18, 2020 by Jason Harris
“Black and white” thinking or “all or nothing” thinking is a classic cognitive distortion of reality that can lead to poor mental health outcomes because most things in life are not black and white. This dichotomous pattern of thinking is a hallmark of some psychiatric disorders, in particular Borderline Personality Disorder. The instillation of “black and white” thinking is also a very common thought control technique found within cults.
Many high-demand religions, including the Mormon Church, commonly stress “black and white,” “all or nothing” thinking. It is either true or it isn’t. It is either of God or of the Devil. It is either good or bad. There is NO middle ground. So often, these are false dichotomies.
When adherents of high-demand religions leave these organizations, it is common for the black and white, all or nothing type thinking and approach to life to continue for some time. Even when the former adherents no longer believe the truth claims of the organization. The contents of the container of the mind may have changed, but the operations of the container itself often remains largely the same. It often takes time, reflection and even therapy to heal. It is common for former adherents of high-demand religions to go from the extreme of thinking their organization is good, even nearly perfect, from God, Divine, and its leaders inspired and of highest integrity, even prophets, etc. to the opposite extreme of thinking the organization is evil, from the Devil, an outright fraud, its leaders liars and con artists. This is completely understandable given many former adherents come to recognize spiritual, emotional and psychological manipulation, gas-lighting, deception and even institutional abuse to which they were subjected. And it may also be there is still some reality to BOTH their prior and their new perspectives… Gray… or varying shades of color. People don’t commonly devote their entire lives to organizations that lack any good.
This isn’t the way all people leave high-demand organizations. Some people change to viewing life and religion in more “nuanced” and “ambiguous” fashions. Uncertainty. Some leave the organization(s), some don’t. They appreciate different shades of color and gray. Maybe the literal claims aren’t true, but maybe there are deeper metaphorical truths leading to some higher truth, goodness or unity… etc. Maybe there is some harm, but maybe it is outweighed by the good… (or not). At the extreme end, “nuanced” thinking is also very “black and white”… “all or nothing.” The “nuanced” belief that “nothing is black- and white” is in fact a very black and white belief. And an incredibly invalidating one at that for those who come to believe certain concrete literal religious claims can’t possibly be as claimed, or that the harm received from a certain religious organization (often based on personal experience) can’t possibly be outweighed by the good. Given this, it is common for the black and white “nuanced” thinker and the black and white “black and white” thinker to clash very strongly with one another… Both parties often thinking in condescending extremes of the other with very little validation for the other’s views or experiences.
So what is reality? I believe many aspects of reality depend squarely on the perspective of the one viewing it. I believe it is impossible for all of us to view the whole all the time… so we all have different valuable perspectives. That said, I personally believe some things ARE “black and white,” sometimes with an extraordinary degree of evidence supporting such… and other things are gray, or in color… or even outside the visible spectrum of light (to extend the metaphor).
For instance, Jesus was either resurrected or he wasn’t. Nephi either lived or he didn’t. The Book of Abraham was either written by a literal Abraham or it wasn’t. One may argue about how verifiable these various claims are, but I believe such literal claims usually ARE at their foundation, “black and white.” I believe it is intellectually dishonest to claim otherwise. That said, to add some gray to what is frequently otherwise “black and white” literalism, one could argue many scripture stories today are based off of actual events or even writings in the past, but have been modified or changed over time for a variety of purposes. For instance, there is very solid historical and archeological evidence the Babylonian captivity of inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah actually happened. And this is mentioned in the Bible as an actual event.
My personal view is that Jesus probably lived (I know others will disagree). I find many of the sayings attributed to him profound and absolutely life-changing. I hope he was resurrected, though I believe this is strictly a matter of faith. I believe the evidence is overwhelming death has always existed upon this earth and that we are part of a long succession of life going back hundreds of millions of years. As such, I don’t believe in a literal fall of Adam 6,000 years ago that brought sin and death into the world (or even just to humanity). This is a foundational pillar to an orthodox understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. He came into the world to overcome the fall of Adam. I don’t believe this foundational pillar is literally true. But I also can’t claim to have rock-solid physical evidence to prove the resurrection of Jesus didn’t happen, other than the scientific community has never seen a dead person come to life again three days after the fact.
My personal view is that Nephi never lived other than perhaps as a composite of characters within Joseph Smith’s mind. I think the Book of Mormon is a product of the 1800’s. Any Hebraic or presumed ancient influences in it I believe are from the same Hebraic influences that Joseph Smith was subject to in reading of the Bible and other works or are the product of confirmation bias on the part of the believing readers. I don’t believe the Book of Abraham is literally from the hands of Abraham. I believe the existence of Abraham as an actual historical figure is doubtful. I believe Joseph Smith probably believed there were literal Nephites and that the Book of Abraham was literally from Abraham. I won’t outline in this post why I believe Joseph believed. Given I think he did have authentic belief, I don’t think Joseph fits the category of an outright fraud or con artist as some maintain… even though there is evidence to support elements of this as well. Sometimes the easiest people to deceive are ourselves. It is very common for fortune tellers, psychics, spiritualists and others to come to believe what they say as being actual truth.
I believe many of the stories in the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham and Bible carry valuable lessons. On a metaphorical level, I believe some of these lessons can be even more powerful than what a literal reading might lead one to believe. Other stories I believe are less valuable or even harmful, illustrating the societal prejudices and ignorant, poorly informed beliefs of the past.
In my own life, in many ways my life was improved as I applied many of the lessons conveyed from the stories found in the Book of Mormon and the Bible, “likening these” to myself. I will never deny this. My life (and the lives of loved ones around me) was also harmed as I applied and internalized other stories from these works. Do I believe the stories in these books reflect the culture, attitudes and biases of the authors from the time these stories were created? Absolutely. Do I believe there is often Divinity and goodness found within these stories? Yes. Because I believe there is Divinity and goodness found within humanity… the source of these stories, in my view.
Regardless of where one ends up in regards to these exact beliefs or perspectives, it is very common for those of us who’ve left a high demand religious organization to report a rebirth, resurrection or an awakening. To feel as if we are really seeing the world for the first time. More compassion. More empathy. More uncertainty. To paradoxically vividly recognize the world is in color… even while still healing from the use of forced black and white lenses. Black, White, Gray and Shades of Color.
Jason Harris is a Neurologist/Neuro-Ophthalmologist, Dad and Husband who shares his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View. He believes all religions and scripture are man-made and believes there is Divinity in all of them.