The following trio of recent posts outline various perspectives on why Mormon youth and young adults leave the Church and what can be done about it.
- How to Save Youth in a Secular Age – David Bokovoy (December 26, 2014)
- Why Do They Leave? – John Gee (December 29, 2014)
- Getting It Wrong: How Not to Save LDS Youth in a Secular Age – J. Max Wilson (January 5, 2014)
The discussion has already become somewhat politicized, but I think that the similarities in Bokovoy’s and Wilson’s approach outweigh the differences. In this post I’ll talk about reconciling them, and also bring in Gee’s important, data-based perspective.
Bokovoy’s primary point is that the struggles young Mormons encounter with their faith are the result of encountering real, problematic facts from Mormon history. As a result, he asserts that:
We need to alter our approach and stop giving students the impression that there is never any good reason to doubt or question their faith. Instead, we need to help students incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey.
Wilson, as the title of his post indicates, begs to differ. His primary argument is that “It is not the facts themselves that challenge the youth, but the narratives through which the facts are presented and contextualized that challenge them.” Superficially at least, we have a contradiction between Bokovoy and Wilson.
According to Wilson there’s a deeper problem, however: “The more fundamental problem is that often our youth, not to mention many adults, lack the kind of nuanced approach to information that they require to be able to evaluate the facts in distinction to the narratives about the facts.” He later writes that “both apologetic and critical explanations… are merely provisional explanations.” It seems to me that the nuance Wilson is calling for, and the ability to separate facts from narratives, is primarily about being able to avoid taking academic or scientific claims as non-provisional and authoritative and instead “to incorporate questioning.” (Those are Bokovoy’s words.)
The chief difference, then, is that Wilson wants to prepare youth to question secular authority (“They [members] should feel free to take a cafeteria approach to the secular and scholarly information.”) and he blames Bokovoy for stating instead that they should question prophetic authority. But I’m not sure Bokovoy actually did suggest greater questioning of religious authority and, as Wilson admits, both apologetic and critical perspectives are provisional. The two views can, to a substantial degree, be reconciled.
First, however, let me point out that Wilson’s critique of the role academia and science play in society is absolutely correct. He writes that “’Science’ is functionally little more than an appeal to a culturally acceptable authority which they are expected to accept largely on blind faith.” This is true. Nibley’s words about “the black robes of a false priesthood” apply even more today1, and should be expanded to include the white lab coat along with the black graduation gown. This isn’t an attack on reason or the scientific method, but rather an observation that (not necessarily due to anyone’s intentions or desires) the combination of increasingly sophisticated and specialized scientific knowledge and increasing reliance of society on the results of that knowledge have conspired to create a situation where there is a serious risk that any sentiment packaged as scientific will be accepted as authoritative. To a lesser extent, this is true not just of science, but of academia in general.
This means that secularism now functions as a de facto religious outlook without being widely recognized as one. This allows narratives, philosophical claims, and normative judgments made under the banner of secularism to pass as objective and authoritative.2 This in turn means that secular critiques of religion have an unearned advantage (to Wilson’s point) and also that when religious people encounter troubling facts about their own history that don’t require any particular secular narrative to seem troubling (to Bokovoy’s point), secularism is always there on the fringes as the default fall-back position. In either case: the playing field is slanted towards secularism.3
Getting back to a partial reconciliation of Bokovoy and Wilson’s perspectives, Wilson’s central point is a general one about epistemology: “Few narratives can successfully assimilate all of the known data, which, as I have mentioned, is always only a subset of reality anyway.” Or, to use language I’m more comfortable with, we’re all busily engaged in the act of constructing models or narratives from the raw material of the facts and ideas we encounter in our lives. We never succeed in constructing models or narratives that successfully integrate all the facts and ideas that we’re aware of, and even if we could, we’re only personally aware of a very small number of the facts and ideas that are available to be known. Therefore, all our models and narratives are provisional.
Wilson directs this observation primarily at secularism and as a matter of practicality that makes sense. Secular authority is ascendant and its status as quasi-religious authority is largely unrecognized. It cries out for critique. But the observation that all models and narratives are provisional is not limited to secularism, and it includes not only auxiliary, apologetic arguments offered to bolster and positively contextualize prophetic and scriptural statements, but the religious conception of the prophetic and scriptural statements themselves.
Assume for a moment that prophets and scripture are infallible and sufficient. Even in that case, we would still have to go through the messy, error-prone, human process of interpreting and synthesizing their words to construct our own narrative or model. Which means that the resulting narrative or model—even in a world with prophetic and scriptural infallibility and sufficiency—would remain provisional. This means that one can affirm Wilson’s trenchant criticism of secular authority and still make room for Bokovoy’s argument that we ought to “incorporate questioning as a meaningful contribution to a spiritual journey.” Not because we ought to necessarily question prophetic or scriptural authority more than we do, but because we need to be prepared to question the provisional models and narratives we construct from those authoritative statements.
This does not, of course, reconcile every difference between Bokovoy and Wilson. The greatest difference that remains is still the question of what is actually causing youth to leave. Is it, as Bokovoy asserts, the mere existence of troubling facts? Or is it, as Wilson argues, a nefarious suite of narratives which accompany those facts? The first response is that the common thread to Bokovoy’s and Wilon’s approach–espistemic humility and questioning–works in both cases. So there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter, since the solution to both diagnoses is the same.
It’s still essential to ask the question of what is really going on, however. And what we find is that from a big picture perspective it might very well be that neither Bokovoy nor Wilson are right about the primary problem. This is where John Gee’s post comes in. Gee’s post is based on analysis of data collected by the ongoing National Survey of Youth and Religion. The project involves tracking the religious lives of thousands of American youths and conducting in-depth interviews with them about their religious lives. As Gee notes:
Unfortunately, the data published by the NSYR does not directly address the issue of why some Latter-day Saint youth become atheist, agnostic, or apathetic. It does, however, delve into the reasons why youth in general choose that path.
Gee then outlines the main factors that (for youth as a whole) tend to lead out of religion and into secular life:
- Disruptions to routine
- Differentiation (e.g. attempt to create separate identity from parents)
- Postponed Family Formation and Childbearing
- Keeping Options Open
- Honoring Diversity
- Self-confident Self-sufficiency
- Self-evident morality (i.e. moral truths are so obvious that religion is superfluous)
What is interesting about this list is that for the most part, intellectual reasons play a secondary role in conversion to secularism. This is not to say that intellectual reasons play no role, or that certain actions have no intellectual ramifications. The list is mainly behavioral or event driven rather than philosophically driven. Doubts in religiously held beliefs do not show up on the list.
It’s possible that Mormon youth are very different from the general trend, and that while youth of other traditions leave because of behavioral reasons, Mormons leave because of doubts. But that’s not a good starting point given the data, especially since advances in understanding of human behavior4 provide us with a model where intellectual deliberation serves as an after-the-fact rationalization of decisions made non-rationally on the basis of psychological, social, and emotional factors.
Luckily, as I’ve noted previously, Mormonism stands out as a group that is able to transmit behavior and information to rising generations better than other faith traditions. Based on our existing relative strength at transmitting theology, culture, and behavior, we are in a good position to pivot and meet this challenge. So let’s get to work on teaching epistemic humility and questioning now. Let’s take Bokovoy’s critique to heart, and prepare our youth to deal with uncomfortable facts. Let’s take Wilson’s critique to hear, and prepare our youth to view secular authority with due skepticism and discernment. And let’s also keep an eye open towards the data-based approaches like Gee’s to see what other changes, especially related to behavioral considerations, we can take to meet the challenge of keeping the flame of faith burning in a secular world.
18 thoughts on “Working Together to Save Youth in a Secular Age”
Great post. An observation — I think that part of what Wilson is objecting to is this: Imagine a young member of the Church comes and asks, “I read online that Joseph Smith had 40 wives, including young women… is this true?” There seems to be two approaches to this question. On a factual level, the answer may be “Yes.” But that’s not the question that the young person is really asking, is it? The real question beneath the stated question is, “I read online that Joseph Smith was a sexually charged womanizer… is this true?” The answer to that may be “No.”
Wilson, I think, interprets Bokovoy as saying that we should respond, “Yes,” and then maybe follow it up with a bit of context. However, simply answering “Yes” to the stated question — without first supplying a whole host of contextual information — is tantamount to answering “Yes” to the unstated question. I think that is what Wilson may be referring to by “fact bombs.” Once the “Yes” answer is given, the bomb goes off, and an un-nuanced mind might cease listening altogether, as the subsequent explanations are drowned out by the blast and the impending faith crisis. Because a trusted teacher/scholar/mentor has just affirmed that what was read was true — even though what was read was far, far more than just a list of facts, but an implicit accusation that is actually untrue (see below).
Wilson, in contrast, is suggesting that instead of interpreting and responding to questions at a factual level, we first look at the real question being asked, and address that first. E.g., “No, Joseph Smith was not a womanizer or sexual predator, despite what internet sources may say or imply.” That is, deny the narrative before affirming the facts. Then, work on helping the young person understand the history — the same facts — from a less-charged perspective/narrative. Explain what Joseph Smith claimed about polygamy. Talk about his well-documented reluctance. Show how, like Nephi, he obeyed anyways, perhaps at great cost to him and his family. Talk about how the principle was learned line upon line, precept upon precept, and little bit of trial and error, that early attempts to obey may have been a bit messy. Etc., etc.
I’ve seen scholars and bloggers chafe at the claim that much of what we read about Joseph Smith online is not true (I’ve seen multiple rebuttals to Elder Anderson’s talk in Conference to that effect). They argue that this approach leads people to reject as untrue many facts that are, actually, true, and that this sets them up for a faith crisis later. I think Wilson is saying that yes, much of what we read about Joseph Smith online is not true, even if the stated facts are true — because the unstated narratives in which those facts are presented is untrue. The narrative that accompanies facts can in that sense falsify them. For example, when people read a list of Joseph Smith’s wives, they are not just reading facts, they are reading an accusation (that Joseph Smith was a womanizer) that may in fact be false.
Anyways, my two cents.
As someone who initially agreed much more with Wilson than Bokovoy, I think you did a great job reconciling their perspectives. After all we are all on the same side here.
When I started college several years ago at a public university, I did so with 4 LDS youth I knew… All active. By the end of our freshman year, I was the only active one left. Distractions, parting and disruptions to routine really are powerful forces. That transition to college can be a brutal one. We certainly lose youth to “troubling facts” and what they read online. But it seems to me we lose many more youth to an often overwhelming culture that just isn’t compatible with religious observance.
It is useful to think about several things going on. Rather simplistically:
The “facts” that Bokovoy worries about have a tendency to erode the uniqueness of Mormonism (“one and only”, infallible, historical (restored gospel, historicity for the Book of Mormon))–beliefs upon which much LDS conviction depends. (And which probably account for relatively higher continuity from teenagers.)
Whereas secularism has a tendency to erode a general belief in God and miracles upon which much of religious conviction depends.
I can read Wilson as accusing Bokovoy of giving up on uniqueness and going for spirituality (only), and Wilson arguing “not so fast”. (Not dissimilar to the Maxwell Institute arguments flying around.)
I enjoyed the part where Wilson criticized scientists for not following Feynman’s advice: “I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is [more than] not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong.” Scientists who fail to give the whole picture when explaining, even if it means you no longer fit into a sound-bite culture, should be criticized.
Wilson follows up that wag of the finger by noting how lucky Mormons are that they needn’t follow the same rule “because the truths of the church are arrived at through Revelation, not scholarly supposal, Feynman’s exhortation applies in a more limited fashion.” “The truth claims of the church, on the other hand, were not arrived at by gathering facts and proposing supposals to explain those facts. They are assertions of truth received by Revelation from God. They are confirmed through a personal, spiritual experience with the Holy Ghost.” … “that kind of personal evidence is non-transferable. It must be experienced individually.”
How lucky, that Mormon ground truths are so solid and unquestionable, except when they conveniently are questionable, which Wilson notes in a few examples. I, of course, can’t even question them because they haven’t been revealed to me, so what do I know?
I don’t know why Mormons are leaving for secularism, but having the integrity to apply the same rules to yourselves that you expect of others is a good place to start.
“This means that secularism now functions as a de facto religious outlook without being widely recognized as one.”
My own impression is that science as religion is, in fact, fairly widely recognized among educated people.
Just not the scientists themselves.
I don’t think that that’s what Wilson had in mind. As far as I can tell, his point is that in our society there’s a tendency to be over-deferential to scientists, including giving scientists a sense of authority even when they are speaking well outside their area of expertise and possibly outside the realm of science altogether. Feynman’s rule counteracts that tendency towards undue deference.
Religious claims that are based on private, subjective experience rather than repeatable, objective, quantified data are far less likely (in our society) to be given undue deference. A journalist interviewing a religious authority (in our society) is highly unlikely to fall into undue credulity. So, Feynman’s rule applies less to religious authorities simply because they have a lot less social authority to begin with.
For me, at least, trying to be consistent is a big part of my religious outlook. That’s why I made the argument (in my original post) that hey: even if we grant prophetic and scriptural sufficiency and infallibility we must still concede (even in that unrealistic, extreme scenario) that our religious faith is provisional… just like all our beliefs, models, and narratives are provisional.
The only difference, I think, is that most people already know religious claims are provisional. Your average lay person is not always as aware that this applies in academia and even in the hard sciences as well. (Which is not to say that religious and scientific claims are equally provisional, which would be absurd.)
I think the cohort is bigger than that. It includes not only the scientists, but also large swathes of your average citizen in a Western nation where science is treated with reverence that is almost entirely unconscious.
Just look, to use a kind of mean example, at how worked up your average humanities PhD can get over global warming or evolution: topics on which they have precisely zero specialized knowledge. The point is not to debate global warming or evolution, it’s just to note that a lot of (ostensibly) highly educated people have a reflexive deference to science that they never appear to suspect is religious in function.
In the first part of Wilson’s post he discusses the Documentary Hypothesis declaring it a secular idea that should be taught with the caveat because its a secular idea it is provisional. No problem there. But then he never addresses whether the current teaching that Moses is the sole author is a revealed doctrine, which then should not be questioned or taught with the same caveat. However, if its *not* a revealed doctrine then shouldn’t we apply Feynman’s advice to how we teach it? I’m not trying to make a sweeping argument that everything should be taught that way, but what I found lacking in Wilson’s piece was he used the DH as an example of secularism without making any further comment on it. (I actually submitted a question asking him about this but it didn’t survive moderation.)
I get that some things can and ought to be taught as being revealed doctrines that we are asked to accept (at least provisionally) as the will of the Lord because they have been declared as such, but what about the HUGE number of things the typical member believes is a revealed doctrine when in fact it is not (I know Wilson hints at this but he really doesn’t address it).
I can’t really speak for Wilson on that one, Carey, although I’m curious to hear his views as well.
For myself, I became moderately convinced of the basic contours of the Documentary Hypothesis after reading Who Wrote the Bible?. For me, at least, I felt the DH offered a lot of great insights in how to understand the Bible better, and I’m not aware of any conflicts between the DH and Mormon doctrine. I don’t think, for example, that embracing the DH entails a sweeping rejection of Old Testament historicity. It changes our perception of who recorded it and what agenda they may have had, but doesn’t necessarily undermine the big events (e.g. the Exodus) themselves.
I still think it’s a great example of viewing things provisionally, however, because the DH is basically just the best way to make sense of a certain collection of facts as we have them today. Change the facts, and the DH will have to change with them. Additionally, a lot of the individual claims within the DH (e.g. attributions of specific verses or phrases) are really very, very speculative in nature. The overall contours make sense to me, but I would never want to place a large bet on any one of the particular attributions. Thus: it strikes me as an entirely reasonable example to use for the provisional nature of secular / academic theories on religious topics.
Nathaniel, I like your effort to synthesize these various attempts to analyze the centrifugal forces pushing LDS youth out into the secular world. I especially like your discussion of “model building”.
Because I work in the field of environmental regulation, and resolving disputes, I am very aware of the fact that each person involved in a dispute has his or her own model of (a) the basic facts of the matter in controversy, (b) the rules that apply to those facts, and (c) the principles of science, of law, and of government policy which provide the REASONS for the rules and the principles for making decisions in the face of uncertainty (which is always present). When I am negotiating to try to reach a resolution of a dispute, I try to understand the models of these elements in the minds of each of the participants. The biggest difficulty in reaching agreement is that many of the players think that their own interior mental models are the ONLY possible rational model, and do not invest any energy into trying to understand how the mental models of other players differ, and focus on those differences in order to try to reach agreement or at least an acknowledgement that there ARE differences.
Basic communication theory, which is fundamental to the computer-mediated communication we are all enmeshed in nowadays, points out that any particular symbol, word or sentence does NOT carry its own inherent meaning. Rather, meaning and intent and understanding existed in the mind of the person who composed and dispatched the unit of “information”, and it has been encoded in the written, spoken, or visual medium. The receiver of the “information packet” then has to DECODE the incoming stuff, using as a reference all of his or her prior accumulated experiences and models, in order to create a new mental picture in their own mind. As the Studio C song and sketch says, “Context is Everything.” I might say something that I think is simple and clear and reflects my own understanding, but the words I say may end up creating a very different picture in the mind of my audience, because their own prior knowledge and belief systems are materially different.
Anyone who has served as a missionary knows that there is a very Mormon language that does not translate well in English, let alone in Japanese or Russian. In Japan, we had a special Mormon to Japanese dictionary that showed us all the special terms that had to be created in Japanese to create equivalents to Mormon terms. In many cases, the Jpaanese Saints have just given up and use a transliteration of the english Mormon terms, like “bishop” and “stake” and “ward”.
Let me call this special vocabulary “Mormonese”. One of the challenges of Mormon parents and teachers of youth is to teach them this specialized dialect of their own language. It is not simply memorization of words. It requires providing context for each term so it can be understood as mature Mormons understand it.
Someone who has grown up in secular society, which is all around us, in our entertainment, and personal relationshiops, and workplaces, and sports teams, and stores, and schools, etc., has been building mental models that include certain assumptions about reality, and about the reasons people do certain things. If your mental model discounts the whole idea of supernatural beings or miracles, hearing a typical Mormon testimony meeting is not going to make sense. Even things that they see that are accepted as miraculous by Mormons will not be accepted. And the fact is that there are lots of Mormon youth who do NOT have parents who carry their own Mormon mental models, or who cannot transmit those models to their children effectively, and it can be a struggle for such youth to construct a mental model that can accept the miraculous and supernatural as real.
One of the great values of the Book of Mormon is that reading it carefully can lead a person to construct a mental model that has room for the miraculous and supernatural. The final invitation by Moroni to ask God, an invisible being, for an answer to whether the world shown in the Book of Mormon is real, is asking the reader to make a decision whether to believe that God may really be there, and may really answer his or her questions.
So the challenge of persuading Mormon youth to not fall away into default secularism, or Therapeutic Moral Deism, is much more difficult than simply presenting certain information to them. We have to diagnose their inner mental model correctly, through discussion and questions, before we can know how to correctly communicate an understanding of what is in our own mental model. It is quite possible that there will be great variation in response from youth who hear and see the exact same message. We need to perceive before we can prescribe. And we need to help them get insight into their own mental model, what they really believe and why, so they gain some control over it, and adjust it when new information and templates are offered, and not allow the unspoken assumptions of secularism, that get automatic support from many of their peers, to control their thinking and perception.
I think that what Jeffrey Holland and Dieter Uchtdorff have been teaching about living with an incomplete testimony, with enough confidence to press on so they can get the experiences that will make it more complete, is reaching toward this goal.
Though I would still add to (and perhaps even differ) on a few minor points of discussion, I’m so very grateful to Nathaniel Givens for providing this outstanding analysis. Nathaniel has clearly modeled an approach that all of us should emulate. He allows for kind, constructive dialogue through building upon common ground in order to gain greater understanding.
This was also helpful since I had a difficult time understanding precisely why Wilson felt concerned with my essay. I’m grateful that Wilson emphasized the importance of placing facts into a proper context or “narrative.” If I understood his post correctly, then despite our differences (and there certainly are some), I believe we’re both trying to convey the same basic point.
He writes, “facts are presented from within a narrative that attempts to connect the data points into a coherent model that seeks to explain those facts.” Though admittedly not fully developed in my brief essay, this was precisely the idea I was trying to convey through the statement, “I believe that we need to do a better job helping our students process challenging facts into their religious convictions.”
Nathaniel breaks through some of the rhetoric and shows that perhaps where Wilson and I differ is in our approach to prophetic authority. I recognize that pointing out prophetic limitations and/or mistakes raises concerns. But this is precisely the approach that the new Gospel Topic essays on the Book of Abraham, Race and the Priesthood, and Joseph Smith’s Polygamy lead us. And I believe that they are inspired. More importantly, our own scriptural record demands that we factor prophetic limitations into our religious paradigm.
To quote Terryl and Fiona Givens’ insightful commentary on the subject:
“Airbrushing our leaders, past or present, is both a wrenching of the scriptural record and a form of idolatry. It generates an inaccurate paradigm that creates false expectations and disappointment. God specifically said that He called weak vessels so we wouldn’t place our faith in their strength or power, but in God’s. The prophetic mantle represents priesthood keys, not a level of holiness or infallibility. That is why our scripturally mandated duty to the prophets and apostles is not to idolize them but to uphold and sustain them ‘by the power of faith;’” in The Crucible of Doubt, pg. 70.
This is so wise. Despite their “weakness,” prophets fulfill an essential role in the religious life of the believer. They hold the keys to revelation and as I expressed in my original essay, I believe that their words should be taken very seriously. I believe, however, that since ultimately we should have faith in God and manifest that faith by sustaining his prophets, we need not fear the possibility that some of our youth may at some point in their lives come to a conviction different from one that a prophet holds. Prophets are essential spiritual guides, but the responsibility for our relationship to divinity is our own.
We should, therefore, never give youth the impression that if they differ on a particular issue from what a prophet has said that they must abandon either that conviction or their Mormon faith. Instead, we must allow room for agency and spiritual growth, while encouraging them to prayerfully consider what the prophet has said. The goal, however, as I understand it, is not to rely upon the prophet. The goal is to use the prophet to access a higher level of spirituality and self-reliance upon divinity.
As Brigham Young so insightfully observed:
“Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming Gods. They cannot rule themselves, to say nothing of ruling others, but they must be dictated to in every trifle, like a child. They cannot control themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them, They never can become Gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. They never can hold scepters of glory, majesty, and power in the celestial kingdom. Who will? Those who are valiant and inspired with the true independence of heaven.” Brigham Young in JD 1: 313.
I love the way Brigham expresses the goal as “the true independence of heaven.” His words, I believe, are truly inspired.
Best wishes to all,
I don’t think that debating whether the NSYR is more applicable than http://whymormonsleave.com/ is useful, but do want to discuss the latter.
When single pieces of conflicting evidence appear, many members can integrate them slowly, and put them aside as “not critical for salvation.” They can integrate many conflicting ideas this way, even so far as constructing elaborate hypothesis or absurd hypotheticals to explain discrepancies such as “carbon dating is unreliable.”
However once the collection of evidence reaches a saturation point, neither the ability to integrate doubt into the religious experience nor the capability of bending the narrative is all that helpful when the resulting narrative conflicts directly with the claims of the church.
The rhetoric of the church neither allows for integrating doubt, nor does it allow alternative narratives. To wit:
Not everything in life is so black and white, but it seems the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its keystone role in our belief is exactly that. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from his lips, eventually receiving at his hands a set of ancient gold plates which he then translated according to the gift and power of God—or else he did not. And if he did not, in the spirit of President Benson’s comment, he is not entitled to retain even the reputation of New England folk hero or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, and he is not entitled to be considered a great teacher or a quintessential American prophet or the creator of great wisdom literature. If he lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he is certainly none of those.
Jeffrey R. Holland.
Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.
LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, Interview “The Mormons”; PBS Documentary, April 2007
So, ultimately, all of this discussion is apologetics with no effect.
I am appalled when I learn of an individual leaving the Church because they have “learned” that some cherished factoid is false. I become particularly appalled when the factoid in question is entirely peripheral to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and when anyone who had simply read the words in the historical record could have known the factoid was false.
One of the side benefits of my years of doubting the Church (yet remaining active) is that I developed habits of speech that sidestep the traditional Mormonese. So I’ll speak of congregations rather than wards or branches, I’ll talk about the Children’s Ministry rather than Primary, and I’ll speak of the killing of Joseph and Hyrum Smith rather than the martyrdom. I can also use the Mormon terms, but I don’t have to.
I would disagree that the recent scholarly articles on lds.org highlight prophetic limitations, though I have no doubt that’s what some see when they read these things. They do, however, demonstrate that many factoids that we learned from Primary teachers and others were false.
Here is the lovely thing with factoids – they are patently false (not just small facts, as implied by how so many of us use the term).
I would challenge all to strip their teachings of factoids and seek for the truths suggested by the actual history. Maybe thus, we can transform Mormon culture from a group all-too happy to accept false twaddle into a group willing to look at all the facts and see how a loving God could have allowed or even directed the events we know occurred.
Nathaniel: “Feynman’s rule applies less to religious authorities simply because they have a lot less social authority to begin with.”
I don’t think “with great power comes great responsibility” was what Wilson said at all. He claims that information from certain sources should be presented as tentative while information from other sources needn’t be qualified with any doubt. It sounds like your claim is that religious statements, from any speaker, are so obviously doubtful that there’s no need to say so explicitly. In charity to the gullible I think all doubtful statements should be qualified as such.
It says a lot about religion when people say science is becoming like religion because (science’s) leaders are making wild claims beyond what they could possibly know! and people blindly believe (science) leaders more than it makes any sense to!
I think it’s worth being honest with ourselves what this whole effort is about, vs what it claims to be about. It’s not “saving youth”; it’s getting youth to stay Mormon. To a Mormon who believes the afterlife claims, that’s redundant. To the rest of us this all looks a lot like those mailers urging you to renew a magazine subscription. Given that the objective is to appeal to non- and barely-believing Mormons, it’s worth speaking to that point of view.
James’ comments about the inflexibility, all-or-nothing faith requirement, highlight the difficulty of making an honest appeal to those on the edge of faith.
I wish that time permitted me to discuss these issues with you in more depth, but it is difficult enough for me to find even enough time to write blog posts, let alone consider and respond to others.
I do want to take a minute or two to thank Nathaniel for his charitable effort to understand my viewpoint and find common ground. I am not offended in the slightest by your post. A lot of good thoughts here.
I also appreciate David Bokovoy’s measured response as well. I recognize that we do share some common concerns and that our approaches converge in some helpful ways.
But I’m not sure that my concerns can be so easily chopped up into isolated concepts that can be more easily synthesized with those to which I was responding. It all hangs together.
I do think that Brother Bokovoy is right that our difference revolves around prophetic authority and fallibility. But it would be a mistake to construe that difference as minor or tertiary. The issue of fallibility and authority is central.
We agree that prophets are human and fallible. That is not in dispute. At least not by me and most of the people with whom I tend to agree on the topic.
So it is simply inaccurate to construe my concerns as an effort to “airbrush” our leaders and pretend they are infallible. That is a convenient oversimplification. The issue of fallibility and authority is _far_ more complicated.
I submit that individual fallibility is counter-balanced by collective deliberation, unanimous action, and accumulative consensus over time.
Appeals to fallibility must also consider the distinction between discerning what God wants, and understanding why God wants it. Were they wrong about _what_ the Lord wanted them to do? Or where they only wrong about _why_ he wanted them to do it?
And we must also ask by what measure those who cite fallibility determine that the prophets or apostles were wrong and why _that measure_ is less fallible?
Facile appeals to fallibility are often really just a masked claim that God is unable to communicate His will clearly to even his own official representatives. It is a lack of faith in God, not man.
My own, more comprehensive effort to treat these issues is here:
I also want to say that, in my view, a more comprehensive review of Brigham Young’s statements surrounding this topic than the brief excerpt provided by Brother Bokovoy above will make it clear that President Young disagreed with the notion that members could be saved by simply following blindly, not because the directions given by apostles and prophets might be wrong, but because following the directions simply mechanically, for extrinsic reasons, undermines their purpose.
If the members obey only because it is their culture or tradition, or because of fear of social consequences, without a personal testimony that they are guided by God through their leaders, then the obedience fails to contribute sufficiently to their salvation and eternal progression.
The idea that somehow this justifies rejecting the teachings of the prophets in favor of contradictory information received through our own personal relationship with heaven is not a teaching of the church and it never has been.
Thanks for reaching out.
J. Max Wilson
The issues I have with Wilson’s portrayal of “science as religion” lie in the practices and implications of both science and religion ( especially Mormonism). Because science is a practice based on generating hypotheses that must standup to critisisms and failure when not supported by evidence, it is inherently self-correcting and inherently aimed at arriving at the best approximation of truth possible. Course corrections may be embarrassing for some, but the enterprise at large is both strengthened and gains in credibility.
Religion, the other hand, especially prophetic religion, is inherently unable to accommodate critisisms and weight of evidence to the contrary. It is inherently non self-correcting since the basis of prophetic religion is that all prophecy comes directly from the fount of all truth, God, and therefore if the prophetic utterances are proved false by reliable evidence or even by a later change in religious doctrine ( as with polygamy, treatment of black males, and claims concerning the provenance of the “Lamanites”), significant “course correction” weakens the truth-claim foundation and damages credibility.
Perhaps the most concise statement is that science needs no apologetics, only clearer explanations.
The problem with this approach is that the church leaders don’t understand the history and don’t even try to explain it. The public acknowledgment is good (at least I won’t be accused of promoting anti-Mormon lies anymore), but it doesn’t give much in the way of doctrinal clarity.
In my personal experience, the millennials are leaving “in droves” because they simply don’t believe anymore. And (as I’ve written) I respectfully disagree with Meg Stout who says, “anyone who had simply read the words in the historical record could have know…” (Yes, I’ve also read a number of her posts about JS, etc. I disagree with the conclusions.)
I think there is no question that the church systemically and intentionally sanitized the history to remove those problematic and inexplicable issues and often sanctioned those who addressed them. (Just look at the RS/PH manual bios for heaven’s sake.) And that “faithful history” has come home to roost.
In any event, Nathaniel, I thought your analysis very interesting. Thank you.
P.S. My husband is a scientist who well-recognizes it as a necessarily faith-based endeavor.
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