A fascinating New York Times article about doubt in Mormonism suggests that crises of faith are widespread not just among the marginally committed, but also the true believers and leadership. It points to a survey of more than 3,300 Mormon “disbelievers” released last year that found that over 40% of respondents had served in leadership positions.
Possibly more interesting than the survey itself, however, is the man who conducted it: John Dehlin, a graduate student at Utah State University, the founder of the “Mormon Stories” podcast, and himself a traveler in the gray area between faith and doubt in Mormonism.
When Mr. Dehlin went through an acute crisis of faith ten years ago, he felt there were few people he could turn to to help him, due to the stigma of doubt and disbelief.
Now, his mission is to create more acceptance inside Mormonism for people struggling with the historical and doctrinal problems of Mormonism–anguished souls like the respondents to his survey who write pleas like, “Please make sure the Church encourages its believers to avoid ostracizing a fellow member for such member’s disbelief” and “I try to participate so that our family can be together at church, but it is so hard when there is such a negative attitude towards people who have lost belief.”
(Mr. Dehlen’s survey defines “disbelievers”— perhaps problematically—as people who once believed but now deny that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” a key statement of Mormon belief.)
Post-crisis, Mr. Dehlin himself seems to deny that teaching. “I do believe in God,” he writes, “(though I don’t quite know what that means)”
And I believe that while God’s inspiration can often be found within the LDS church, I also see God’s inspiration in most churches, in nature, and wherever love and goodness abound (including amongst scientists, atheists, etc.).
I have no idea how much of “the gospel” is true/literal, and how much of it is symbolic/metaphorical.
However, like 20% of the disbelievers who filled out his survey, Mr. Dehlen also attends church weekly, where his bishop and stake president are aware of his activities and encourage him to remain active.
His current position is a strange mix, then, of skepticism and a desire to help people deal with contradictions in Mormonism. As he enumerates those contradictions in a video on his website, he pauses to assure his viewers, “There are believers who know all this, and who have found ways to have this not disrupt their testimony.”
His approach manages to draw anger from both sides: by believers who see him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and by ex-believers who see him as an accomodationist and coward.
“It seems the purpose of the board is to lovingly coax people out of the church, all while making them feel really great about it,” writes one commenter. “It’s a very misleading site…”
On the other hand, some who have left Mormonism see no good reason for him to still be sticking around.
Dehlin, for his part, wants the Mormon church to thrive—and to him, that means mostly sticking with the same orthodox beliefs he rejects. “I don’t want the church to fill up with members like me,” he says. “I don’t think that’s good for the church.”
“I’ve read enough about Judaism to know that a church can’t thrive with predominately liberal members. Historically speaking, my understanding is a church needs a strong core of orthodox and orthoprax members to stay healthy and vibrant.”
This strange admixture of beliefs—a disavowal of the orthodox teachings of his church paired with fierce loyalty to the institution; a desire to help doubters stay in the church as liberals paired with hope that plenty of orthodox remain left over—is baffling, perhaps incomprehensible for outsiders to Mormonism.
And unfortunately, I could not speak to Mr. Dehlin for as long we would have liked. He had to leave for church.