On March 29, 2012, Utah Valley University hosted a fascinating conference entitled Mormonism and the Internet. Perhaps the most interesting exchanges, for me, were those in session five of the conference, which was a panel discussion among John Dehlin, Scott Gordon, and Rosemary Avance. UVU has just posted this particular conference session online, and I just watched it again.
Rather early in the panel discussion, I asked a question of John Dehlin, as a follow-up to his presentation earlier in the day. You can hear my question beginning at about 13:05 into the video:
People often study the same facts or issues and come to vastly different conclusions—some have their faith strengthened, while others have their faith destroyed. To what do you attribute this difference in outcome, and why do you feel that the stories of those who have suffered a negative outcome should be privileged over those with a positive outcome?
This was John’s answer:
That’s a really hard question for me to answer. I’m one of the ones who have lost faith, and so my perspective is going to be really biased. What I can say is that to some degree disbelief appears to be a luxury.
We even saw this a little bit in our data—the more income you have, the more freedom you feel to question and to be honest with parents and siblings and children, etc. You can just imagine that if you are financially independent and you don’t have to worry about losing your job and you don’t have to worry about being written out of an inheritance, you might feel the freedom to inquire without reservation a little bit more than somebody who’s got a job that may be associated with the church, and who needs that inheritance, and who can’t afford to sever social ties that the church might benefit them from.
So, I also think that if we were to do sort of a multi-factorial analysis—what is the person’s spouse like, are they open-minded or are they kind of rigid and harsh and dogmatic? That might be a factor in whether someone’s really willing to look honestly at the data. What happens when they look honestly is a totally separate question, but I think there are factors in one’s environment that are going to make it more or less likely that they can actually look objectively at the data.
Other factors might include… Just imagine if you are making $30,000 a year, struggling to raise your kids, maybe you’re a single mom, and your ward is just this critical social support for you—and you enjoy it—your interests in actually looking at the data objectively are going to be very different. So, I think those are sort of the barriers to just being able to look at things objectively.
At first I thought that John was being evasive; he didn’t really answer my question which was how people can study the same data and come to differing conclusions. (There was actually a very good discussion relative to my question a few years ago on the FAIR blog.) What John did, however, was seem to answer a different question: What do you think are roadblocks to people actually “seeing the truth” about Mormonism?
Of course, that is not a question that I would have asked, as it presumes in its very asking that Mormonism is not what it claims to be and that if we can but remove the roadblocks to understanding, people will inevitably come to their own conclusions about the falsity of those claims. After all, John prefaced his response by recognizing his own bias as one who has lost faith.
It seems to me that a common ailment of those who lose their faith after study is that they look at those who maintain their faith after the same study as somehow dishonest and lacking objectivity. They see in others a lack of what they imagine in themselves—after all, they have only gone where the facts have led them, and to reach any other conclusion is prima facia evidence of a problem or defect in the other.
So I thought I would pose the question here that John raises in the middle of his answer; the one that he seems to obliquely answer by his own faith journey: What happens when a person looks honestly at the facts or issues of Mormonism? Does honesty demand that such questions inevitably lead to a loss of faith, or can one be honest and remain a member of the church?