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The Church You Doubt, the Church You Love

fascinating New York Times article [1] 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 [2] 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 [3], “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 [4], “(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 [5], 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 [6]. “It’s a very misleading site…”

On the other hand, some who have left Mormonism see no good reason [7] 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.

Follow @rgblong [8]

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#1 Comment By Gracy Howard On July 22, 2013 @ 10:37 am

Interesting post. Mr. Dehlin’s loyalty to the church seems tied more to a sense of loyalty/fidelity than to the truth or falsity of its doctrines.
(Quote: “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.'”)
The question for Mr. Dehlin is this: should a church thrive that is, in fact, touting false doctrine? At what point is it proper for him to step away?
It is a hard question, one that must be personally determined. But if he continues to grapple without answers, his “fierce loyalty” to the church may be harmful – to his own spiritual wellbeing, and that of other churchgoers.

#2 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 22, 2013 @ 11:14 am

Putting religion in the same camp as science or journalism is a big waste of time. Religion is not a about “facts”. It is about values, community, and spiritual meaning. Much of this was, in the past, attached to mythology, because it was an effective medium to reach people through their imaginations. Over the past century Western educated people have begun to think much less in mythologial terms and are therefore less amenable to traditional religious messages. Western religions need to adapt or die.

Anyone who is surprised to read about Joseph Smith’s polygamy must be living in a bubble. Religious founders Moses and Mohammad also had multiple, contemporary wives.

#3 Comment By Brett On July 22, 2013 @ 11:26 am

He’s a “Jack Mormon”. They’re not new – I’m one myself, and there are a bunch of prominent ones here in Salt Lake City like former mayor Rocky Anderson – but he is somewhat unusual in still being dedicated to the organization even if he believes the doctrine is historically false.

#4 Comment By Michael P. On July 22, 2013 @ 11:42 am

A lot of Mormons like myself treat sites and surveys like Mr. Dehlin’s with some skepticism. I will use just point out one reason here. Without further definition, a survey that says 40% of disbelievers have served in leadership positions is almost meaningless. Almost every active Mormon serves in leadership positions at one time or another since we have a lay ministry.

#5 Comment By Robert Long On July 22, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

As you should, Michael–in addition to the issues you have noted, it is also an online survey with a snowball sample. Dehlin freely grants these limitations.

You’re right that “church leadership” is a much lower bar to clear in Mormonism than, say, Catholicism. But it still serves as a good proxy for “Mormons who were quite active at some point,” which is why I contrast it with “marginally committed.” That’s fair, isn’t it? (Again, outsider to all this).

It should also be noted that it’s virtually impossible to conduct a study of doubt in a religious organization with a truly scientific sample, because of the stigma and secrecy that can be associated with disbelief. I think Dehlin plans more research, which I’d be interested to see.

#6 Comment By Michael P. On July 22, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

Robert,
I do think that is fair to contrast it with “marginally committed”. Regarding Mr. Dehlin’s mission, it is also baffling to insiders and for that reason, many of us doubt his sincerity because while he brings up issues, he does so in a way that is seemingly designed to sow doubt and disbelief and suggests that the church is hiding something.

And you are correct that conducting a true study of doubt within a religious organization is difficult. I mentioned in [9] that my main takeaway is that we need to do a better job of educating our membership about these issues. The fact that the questions are phrased the way they are show a lack of understanding of the issues at play. It is a shame that people are leaving the church over things like this.

#7 Comment By Erick On July 22, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

Dehlin’s survey does delineate the respondents “leadership callings” into the specifics, ie, Elders Quorum President, Bishopric, Stake Presidency, Mission Presidency, etc.

I agree with the Gracy Howard, John Dehlin seem’s to have bought into the idea that somehow the Church does enough good for Mormon communities to justify the teachings which implies that he rejects. His interview on Mormon Stories was quite unusual. Dehlin was at a breaking point in 2011, and some of his vinegar towards the Church can actually be seen during his Utah Valley University presentation where he first reported the results of his survey. According to his Mormon Stories interview, at some point thereafter, one of the leading Mormon General Authorities, again he seems to imply that it was Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, put his arm around John and gave him a bear hug…at which point John seems to have picked up the Mormon banner once again, and waived it the only way a disbelieving loyalist can. Frankly, he’s gone from being extreme to just being strange about his whole viewpoint on the value and purpose of Mormonism.

#8 Comment By Kevin D. On July 22, 2013 @ 2:19 pm

The strangest part about this interview is the very last quote. If I had to guess at his intentions based on his work so far, I would assume he was interested in a pluralistic “Reform-Mormonism”, where I’m okay and you’re okay, and we focus on being nice.

But since he says he wants a church full of true-believers, I’m not sure what his angle is. He certainly talks about the Church as if it were fairly conspiratorial and untrustworthy at times.

His editorial decisions don’t make much sense for an ideologue–but they’re brilliant moves for a guy with a website who’d like to quit his day job.

#9 Comment By J On July 22, 2013 @ 3:26 pm

This isn’t complicated. Dehlin feels a loyalty to the community, not to the doctrine. He’s trying to find some middle way of preserving the first without suffering as much of the problem posed by the second.

Which is dandy and intriguing and all, but the problem will resolve as elsewhere- by an ever larger proportion of the young walking out anyway, the orthodox aging and dying, internal blaming and infighting to pass the time, and then organizational shrinkage.

#10 Comment By Daniel Ortner On July 22, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

The problem I have with Dehlin’s study and the times article is it fails to actually provide evidence that such doubt among Mormons is common or growing. Instead, it merely shows that doubters have been very effective at organizing online and drawing media attention.

I don’t doubt that disaffection is a big problem, but from what I experienced as a missionary doctrinal concerns are rarely the main problem and often emerge later as a form of justification. On the other hand, I know many that are sincere seekers of truth struggling to understand Church History and other things that generate doubt. The truth picture is of course quite complex.

Unfortunately, by failing to actually give voice to the many detailed responses that exist to such criticism or dismissing it all as apologetic, people tend to only hear the concerns and never hear the answers. Groups like Sunstone or Dehlin’s project suggest to those seeking that the only answer is doubt and cynicism rather than faith.

As a member, I have chosen faith and have chosen to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit even when I don’t understand everything. Over time more and more answers have come to me as I have continued faithfully.

#11 Comment By Robert Long On July 23, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

Fellow TAC blogger Noah Millman responds to my post [10]:

In my experience, only a very small minority of people in any religious tradition truly affirm that religion’s teachings intellectually, and most of the world’s religions aren’t organized around creedal affirmation anyhow. For the overwhelmingly majority of people, they want to be able to live with their church – to experience life cradled within its arms – not to think with it.

#12 Comment By Laura On July 23, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

If Dehlin thinks there is more net good in the world with the mormon church existing than not existing, then I am not sure why we need to try to pidgeon-hole his beliefs into one camp or the other. His actions are perfectly logical.

And Michael,
Of course this feels like he is trying to coax people towards unbelief. The church considers it a sin to even research cynic views of the church.

For others not familiar with the LDS church, reading so-called “Anti-Mormon Literature” has a huge stigma and people are taught that if they are even thinking about it that it is satan’s voice in their head. The circular logic moves one step further and promises mormons that if they do read this literature then god will stop helping them believe and make decisions (through the holy ghost), so when a person is finally confronted with logic and would stop believing this becomes a symptom of their sin, not really a result of the knowledge. Crazy.

#13 Comment By Trevor On July 24, 2013 @ 1:05 am

@Laura,
Your attempt at educating others not familiar with the LDS Church on the teaching of “Anti-Mormon Church Literature” is crazy.

This is what we teach:

“We are a question-asking people. We have always been, because we know that inquiry leads to truth. That is how the Church got its start, from a young man who had questions. In fact, I’m not sure how one can discover truth without asking questions. In the scriptures you will rarely discover a revelation that didn’t come in response to a question…. Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony. “Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a precursor of growth.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf

#14 Comment By Terry On July 24, 2013 @ 1:46 am

Laura stated;

“For others not familiar with the LDS church, reading so-called “Anti-Mormon Literature” has a huge stigma and people are taught that if they are even thinking about it that it is satan’s voice in their head. The circular logic moves one step further and promises mormons that if they do read this literature then god will stop helping them believe and make decisions (through the holy ghost), so when a person is finally confronted with logic and would stop believing this becomes a symptom of their sin, not really a result of the knowledge. Crazy.”

Not sure where you got this from, I have been a member for 43 years and have never been taught this. I have my own opinion, though. I collect anti-Mormon literature and came to the conclusion that it is a waste of my time. There are so many faith promoting, enlightening things to read, why my spend time on things that are designed to raise doubt & confusion? Most of the writers don’t really want the truth, they want a target. Life is too short to dwell on negativity.

#15 Comment By Raymond Takashi Swenson On July 24, 2013 @ 11:22 am

Dehlin recognizes the paradox pointed out by sociologist Rodney Stark, that churches which demand more sacrifice and commitment from their members INCREASE the total value of membership because the benefits of that sacrifice are shared. It is the orthodox (right believing) and orthoprax (right acting) Mormons who make the LDS Church.valuable for Dehlin and others like him. A congregation made up of Dehlin’s associates could not function.

Why do other Mormons continue to embrace John? Because time and again they have seen members discover that their faith and confidence have been rekindled by some experience within the body of the Church. That is why every Mormon is contacted every month by someone from his congregation, so he knows the Church is still concerned about them and ready to welcome them back to a higher level of participation and active faith.

#16 Comment By Raymond Takashi Swenson On July 24, 2013 @ 11:22 am

Dehlin recognizes the paradox pointed out by sociologist Rodney Stark, that churches which demand more sacrifice and commitment from their members INCREASE the total value of membership because the benefits of that sacrifice are shared. It is the orthodox (right believing) and orthoprax (right acting) Mormons who make the LDS Church.valuable for Dehlin and others like him. A congregation made up of Dehlin’s associates could not function.

Why do other Mormons continue to embrace John? Because time and again they have seen members discover that their faith and confidence have been rekindled by some experience within the body of the Church. That is why every Mormon is contacted every month by someone from his congregation, so he knows the Church is still concerned about them and ready to welcome them back to a higher level of participation and active faith.

#17 Comment By Terri On July 24, 2013 @ 11:24 am

I think anyone who is religious (or otherwise for that matter) goes through changes in their feelings about their beliefs. I think it would be odd if you did not. The whole point of faith is that it is not pure knowledge. How you handle those moments is probably more important than the fact that you have them. Job comes to mind here.

#18 Comment By Raymond Takashi Swenson On July 24, 2013 @ 11:39 am

If a member of the LDS Church is interested in reading the criticisms that so many people have written of the Church, its beliefs, and its founders, there is nothing stopping them. Some of the best collections of it can be found in the central Church library and at BYU. The proper caution is that one should not take it as an exclusive mental diet, anymore than one should read nothing but left wing publications. The fact is that reading the criticisms does no harm if you are willing to study what the Church.and its more educated faithful members say in response, and truly make it a matter of honest study.

All too often, I suspect that some people seize on such criticisms as an excuse to back away from the burden of their commitments to the Church and the covenants they have made. Tithing, chastity, service, all require sacrifice, and some people tire of the sacrifice. Such folks often claim that the complexities of Mormon history were hidden from them by Church leaders, but that is bunk. Since ours is a church run by unpaid amateurs, your local bishop may not know much about Church.history himself, while the general Church leadership is preoccupied leading 14 million members worldwide to worry about keeping YOU in the dark. If you were ignorant before, it was your own fault. And there are plenty of sources of authentic and faith-supporting scholarship available if you try to look for it.

One good central source for answering questions is the private organization FAIRLDS.org. They are holding their annual symposium soon, which will tackle controversial issues with the best modern scholarship, and it can be viewed online!

#19 Comment By Raymond Takashi Swenson On July 24, 2013 @ 11:47 am

Contrary to Noah Millman’s comment, Mormon is a challenging set of beliefs that forces its members to make a decision at some point in their lives whether they really believe it or not. It happens with every teen raised in the Church, and every person converted by the missionaries. In monthly testimony meetings, Mormons affirm their belief in core doctrines about Christ and God’s restoration of prophets to the earth in front of their neighbors and family, all on a voluntary basis. Often it is people with the most educational attainments who are firmest in those beliefs.

#20 Comment By Aaron L. M. Goodwin On July 24, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

As somebody well-acquainted with the controversial matters of church history and doctrine, I only ever found that the process of confronting these issues built my faith. So, from an experiential standpoint, Dehlin’s conclusions just don’t hold much weight to me.

As for my friends who have found their doubts insurmountable and left the church—they usually posses the twin traits of an inflated ego and lack of self-discipline. Thus, it’s not their intellectualism that’s the stumbling block, but rather their pride in their intellectualism and their unwillingness to accept that they may not have a monopoly on understanding.

#21 Comment By Q V On July 24, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

Interesting read. I wonder how Mr. Dehlin’s findings (or more importantly the actual numbers) with other major denominations of Christianity and other religions as a whole. Closet disbelief cannot be an issue related only to the LDS Church. Mr Dehlin’s efforts online bring to mind an article I recently read about The Clergy Project (www.clergyproject.org) a website dedicated to providing a digital safe haven and advice to religious leaders (all denominations welcome as far as I know) who have become atheists/agnostics.

#22 Comment By cory huff On July 25, 2013 @ 11:12 am

I have a dear friend who left the church, but still has strong feelings of affection for it. She has expressed to me a desire to be at church, to be within a culture that gathers together and cares for each other, but she can’t get past the unbelief.

If Dehlin’s work convinces the rank & file of the church to be more open and charitable towards those who don’t believe, then I applaud him.

#23 Comment By Heavy B On July 27, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

What some folks may see as the contradiction in Dehlin’s position might really a venerable — and conservative — sensibility at work.

For example, not just DeMaistre but at least of his Enlightenment opponents believed that, without the force of religion and the sacred among the many, functioning communities will break down. A civilized, vital society requires, in this view, a compelling and cosmic narrative to underwrite the active cooperation in it of ordinary people. I think that is the meaning behind the Voltaire quote: “To believe in God is impossible — to not believe in God is absurd.”

Certainly this is an elitist perspective. But it is deeply conservative at least in the sense of a belief that any society seeking to comprehensively organize the lives of its constituents, generally, cannot base itself entirely on Reason, on the fullest historical and analytical transparency.

So while elitist, it is also humbling for the skeptic: because the mind capable of his type of irony and doubt can never be a model for the public at large. Moreover, such people must face being largely parasitic on the “sociological effectiveness” of pervasive belief.

Dehlin, then, is the uncomfortable spot of being an outlier and parasite in a community and upon its benefits he himself recognizes his type of belief cannot itself create or sustain. Because “outside” this community — at least for him — exists others more resonant with his religious composure.

Whatever the “validity” of this attitude, it does resonate with that of many quietly “non-observant” Conservatives, from ME Bradford to George Will in recent times, that treasure the value of religion and the religiously-saturated common life — even as they confess their own disbelief. It may indeed, as I suggested above, a useful and venerable theme within the overall Conservative tradition.

#24 Comment By Bobby On July 27, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

I have to concur with Noah Millman’s commentary, at least in part.

I grew up in an evangelical Calvinist church that was probably more Calvinist than evangelical. The denomination was fairly homogeneous socially, so much so that no one even appreciated it. Therefore, I think we fooled ourselves into believing that we were all about “truth” and not much else. In reality, we were bound together by common sociological experiences.

As leadership is being transferred to the next generation, new struggles have ensued. People’s experiences have begun to diverge a bit, and much of the old “truth” has been revealed as only partially true–the residue of our parents’ common sociological experiences in the post-War era. But I still feel myself to be a part of this community, and feel a certain bond with those who, like me, emerged from this church background. We may doubt certain aspects of what it meant to be a conservative Calvinist in the 20th Century. But we don’t want to toss out the baby with the bathwater: We’d rather work to retool our denomination for the next 2-3 generations.

So, I can understand why certain LDS members stay despite disagreeing with certain aspects of the church’s doctrine. I just don’t think they’d know where to go otherwise. They would rather stay with the community that nurtured them, and work to reshape it around the edges.

There are few viable church options available for those of us who are orthodox theologically (i.e., assent to the teachings of the three ecumenical creeds), have a common social experience of having grown up in evangelical churches, but who disagree with a lot of the more sociologically driven aspects of church doctrine. I suspect that the same phenomenon exists in Mormon churches too.

I’m not sure that that makes any of us doubters. It makes us pragmatists. We’re waiting for the next generation to die off. When they do, our “doubt” can become “truth.”

#25 Comment By Jettboy On August 15, 2013 @ 10:44 pm

The problem is that Dhelan doesn’t want to “work to reshape it around the edges.” He wants to transform it into a secular liberal institution, regardless of his nice little saying that he wants to keep more Orthodox inside. If that were the case, then his approach would be far different than it is. From a theological standpoint, staying Mormon because of the community is an attack against the reason a sense of community exists; to bring about Zion and re-create the God fearing Israel.