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What is the Appeal of Mormon Orthodoxy over alternative ideologies?

June 28, 2014

In my last blog post, I engaged with Jeff G’s post at New Cool Thang that attributes the deterioration and loss of so many Mormons’ testimonies to the adoption of the alternative ideology of “liberal democracy.” There, I wrote:

I think a lot of causes of disaffection are precisely because we live, learn, and work in a society with profoundly different values than the church espouses and the church’s values can’t keep up in competition.

It’s absolutely not a neutral matter. And for that reason, all the values systems don’t appear as equally interchangeable. But most folks are increasingly steeped in modern values and since the church cannot pull people out of external society, it’s an uphill battle.

For example, we increasingly live in a society (and absolutely prefer such a society) where women have equal participation and autonomy in school, work, etc., so the fact that the church doesn’t operate in step with feminist ideas puts it vastly in conflict with what we enjoy and appreciate in the rest of our lives.

It’s absolutely a values mismatch. But the church has to show why its values should be taken over the outside society’s.

I think that last line quoted is particularly important. Because today, an earlier (I didn’t even notice the article was from October of 2013 until I double checked) post by Jeff G at Millennial Star started circulating through many of the progressive and liberal Mormon Facebook hangouts. This post talks about the trojan horses of Mormon intellectuals. Whereas Jeff now speaks about the dangerous of the ideology of “liberal democracy,” Jeff’s earlier post relied upon the intellectuals’ adoption of a “culture of critical discourse” (or “CCD”).

In the post, Jeff details the aspects of CCD that he finds to be incompatible with Mormonism, and also details four manifestations (the “trojan horses”) where these incompatibilities are instantiated. Per Jeff, the CCD/intellectualism is incompatible with Mormonism because of Mormonism’s stance of priesthood, which Jeff defines as being “a tool which is specifically aimed at stifling criticism by certain people against certain people about certain things.” (To the contrary, the culture of critical discourse rejects the idea that “certain people” or “certain things” can be protected from criticism.)

(For whatever it’s worth, Jeff states that the CCD is not just incompatible with Mormonism on this point, but on any system where some folks (the “authorities”) have the “last word” while others do not, such as the military, court rooms, most work environments, and traditional church organizations.)

According to Jeff, the specific trojan horses by which intellectuals mask their incompatibility with Mormon orthodoxy are the overemphasis of personal revelation, the overemphasis of explicit revelation-tagging statements like “thus saith the Lord”, the overemphasis of the importance of church history, and the overemphasis of the fallibility of prophets.

Most of the liberal and progressive folks online responded negatively to Jeff’s thoughts, but as with the NCT post I covered earlier, I do not think I would disagree with Jeff. Instead, the issue I raised earlier remains ever relevant: why should the church’s values be taken over any other ideology’s?

As a setup to that question, I’m going to highlight part of what Jeff said on his section about the intellectual’s overemphasis of the fallibility of prophets. Emphasis added:

This disproportionate focus on the fallibility of priesthood leaders distracts us from the question of who is uniquely authorized to speak (the prophets) and who is not (the intellectuals) in a rather straightforward way. First, CCD does acknowledge a certain kind of authority within some limited field which is based in qualifications such as competence, familiarity, frequency of citations, and other measures of having passed peer review. In other words, any person’s authority (even God’s?) is exclusively derived from their familiarity and competence with the relevant data, qualifications which can be called into question at any time, by anyone and are thus fully compatible with CCD. This construal of authority as competence serves to connect the question of infallibility with the question of authority in a way which is utterly foreign to the restored church. The intellectuals’ focus on fallibility serves to draw attention away from the calling and ordination of the priesthood leader – things which are not at all compatible with CCD – and refocus them instead on the priesthood leader’s familiarity and competence with the relevant information. It is this view of authority as familiarity and competence, then, that is a major source of malcontent regarding who can and cannot hold the priesthood in the church.

Whether we like it or not – and CCD most definitely does not like it – priesthood authority is not based in the competence or familiarity of the ordained and the fact that our priesthood leaders are fallible does not change the fact that it is their job to speak on certain issues and it is church members’ job to trust and support them. Yes, the prophets are fallible, but their supposed infallibility was never the reason we were supposed to listen to them in the first place. The reasons why we are to follow rather than lead the prophets are the exact things that CCD is designed to dissolve: namely that their social position which they have been set apart to allows them and no others to speak on certain issues regardless of their perceived familiarity or competence on the subject. It is for this reason that while the fallibility of those who carry social standing is of the utmost importance in CCD, the fallibility of priesthood leaders is of marginal importance within a Mormon tradition that does not see competent familiarity with the relevant information as a source of authority. Within a tradition in which people are not authorized to publicly vet prophetic statements regardless of the competence or qualifications of either party, fallibility simply isn’t that pressing of an issue and therefore is rarely mentioned.

As an elaboration of something I wrote in a Facebook comment, what Jeff is doing here is pointing out the ways that Mormonism (at least a conservative strain) really isn’t compatible with secular ideals of critical discourse and evidence. (This isn’t to say that it isn’t compatible with any ideal of evidence or critical discourse, just that it’s not the same standards or ideals.) At best, I think someone might disagree with whether the strain Jeff describes is the only institutionally acceptable form of Mormonism, but here I think recent events continue to show us that the church is far more interested in excommunicating and silencing liberal members than conservative members…

What is crucial is that although Jeff points out there are multiple values systems at play (whether it’s “CCD” as he writes in this article or “liberal democracy” as he wrote in a more recent article at NCT), he doesn’t show why one should rely on one system over the other (although apparently, since he has reconverted, he must have somehow made that determination for himself.) So the real question for liberals to ask themselves is this: “if Jeff is right about what is acceptable Mormon value, just if, then can you comply with that? Would you want to?”

It seems to me that most progressive/liberal folks viscerally react to things like Millennial Star posts, Jeff G’s posts, Well-Behaved Mormon Woman, Mormon Women Stand, and so on, because they would not want to be a part of such a religion. What keeps them in Mormonism (when these folks are saying that that is what Mormonism is) is the conviction that Jeff simply isn’t ultimately right about what the only acceptable or valid view of Mormonism is.

Certainly, there are many possible ways to be a Mormon, but the question is how many of those can credibly be authentic?

I would love if progressive, liberal, big tent, etc., approaches were validated, even as I recognize the conservative critique that in many ways, these sorts of approaches only thrive with a strong conservative base. I think that there are strong cases to be made for these things. But my ultimate, cynical (but in times like these, I feel my cynicism is not unwarranted) conclusion is that Mormonism is not going to validate those approaches, at least not without a lot of heartache and disciplinary action. And the narrower, conservative approaches that Mormonism does institutionally validate will not win out among competing values. Because a lot of people are going to say: “Yes, I like liberal democratic values, even if (and often because) of their difference to conservative Mormon values. I can’t “turn off” critical thoughts, and I don’t see the value of participating in an organization that demands such as a minimal requirement.”

I see your idea that you have fallible leaders that I must follow regardless of their known fallibility simply because they have a social position that demands my loyalty, and I don’t buy it.

But then again, I guess that’s what makes me an apostate, rather than a liberal/progressive member or an orthodox member.

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15 Comments
  1. I think that this is important, but for those that stay, the idea that my personal revelation is more important than that of fallible men, who have misunderstood some important part of the doctrine, has been part of what has allowed me to stay. The big question that I think many of us who believe in personal revelation, is whether we will be allowed to live our lives within the church, following that revelation, if we find others who have also received similar answers, or will any seeking, outside of whether to “follow the prophet” will be allowed. Since the irony is that the church wants you to receive personal revelation right up until you are baptized and confirmed. After that, it is less clear whether person revelation is of much value in members.

    • After that, it is less clear whether person revelation is of much value in members.

      I think it is valued and encouraged after that point — there’s a lot of lessons/talks about the importance of members continually receiving revelations. It’s just that by “personal revelation”, the Church means good ideas that help you within the bounds of your specific callings/roles in the church and at home — they don’t use the word to mean, “do your own thing that feels right between you and God inside your own head regardless of what we officially teach/encourage you to do.”

  2. julia,

    yes, it definitely seems that the church is trying to put a handle on finding others who have received similar answers — a threshold of publicity.

    But I guess another question is…if what’s keeping you in is personal revelation being more important than that of fallible men, then in what sense are you still “in” (since others would define in as following those men, regardless of their fallibility)?

    • I am in within the sense that I believe that there is great truth in the Book of Mormon, I believe in many of the modern day revelations, and I have chosen the LDS faith community for my Sunday worship.

      I recognize that there are members who have litmus tests that I would not pass, but neither would they pass mine. I don’t think that means that we don’t have a right to worship in the same community, but I know that many of them are not as open to multiple viewpoints.

      As the discussion below gets into, the real stress is that a scientist wants something reproducible by someone who disagrees with them. Most TOM (for lack of a more accurate term) are not interested in the experiences of those who are hostile to their faith, any more than a scientist is interested in the experiences of someone who does not accept the scientific method.

      • I don’t know that it’s so much that a scientist isn’t interested in the experiences of someone who does not accept the scientific method — but that a scientist cannot be interested.

        If someone doesn’t value empirical evidence, reproducibility of results, predictive and explanatory power of theories, logical consistency of hypotheses, etc., then it’s not that I’m “not interested” in a conversation with them about our differing viewpoints — it’s that I can’t have such a conversation.

        It simply remains that “most TOM (for lack of a more accurate term) are not interested in the experiences of those who are hostile to their faith” whereas most “secularists” are. There’s a fundamental disconnect in how “religious” people and “secular scientific” people agree on how we can have confidence in knowing what we think that we know.

  3. If a person doesn’t value “critical discourse and evidence”, then what evidence or discussion could you share with them about the merits of relying on one system over the other?

    It’s like a priori axioms — if you don’t already accept that evidence, logical consistency, critical evaluation, etc. are good values, then I can’t get you there by showing you logically-consistent, critically-evaluated evidence. It seems to me that if those aren’t a person’s values already then we don’t have much room to talk about anything substantive from there.

  4. Justin,

    I see your point, but that’s why I stated (albeit parenthetically, and I didn’t go into the comment further) that Jeff is probably distinguishing between secular ideals of evidence and discourse from other (e.g., Mormon-specific ideas).

    However, I actually do think that the same problem arises. Even if one person values a secular model of critical discourse and evidence and another person values a religious model of critical discourse and evidence, then it seems difficult to think of anything that can bridge the gap between the two, or really effectively convince a person to jump to one side or the other.

    I absolutely think that Jeff and other conservative Mormons who think like him accept evidence, logical consistency, and so on, but they also have other axioms that grant that certain things count as evidence (e.g., institutional authority, the Spirit, and so on) that other secular folks (or simply non-LDS folks) would find as untested propositions.

    So, I would rephrase your statement as: if someone doesn’t already accept that the spiritual is not something that can be taken for granted, or that LDS institutional authority is not something that can be taken for granted, then you can’t get someone to that point by arguing in a model that doesn’t take these things for granted. Both sides will think the other is begging the question.

    I guess the one question is…is there a singular standard of evidence and critical evaluation?

    • I’m sure the Philosophy of Science crowd could have a lot to say about there being a “singular standard of evidence and critical evaluation” or not — but I think, as a practicing scientist, that one of the key epidemiological strengths that “secular science” has that “theistic science” is still lacking is the idea of reproducibility by “oppositionally-minded” parties.

      The cliched example of this from the history of science was the Michelson–Morley experiment. But, essentially, “secular scientists” expect to be able to reproduce each other’s experiments even in cases where the two parties disagree and then expect that by so doing they will move towards a common-ground of “truth” that’s based on their shared evidence.

      Something like “Mormon testimonies” don’t have this. If you have failed to have a confirmation experience with respect to this particular church doctrine or that particular church leader, you are never assumed to have valid data that’s worth comparing with the body of evidence “the faithful” have obtained. You and your “evidence” are categorically removed from the conversation because of your “lack of faith” or your “unrighteousness”. It creates ripe territory for confirmation bias and Sharp-Shooter fallacies, and is an epidemiological trap that “secular science” is able to avoid.

      Is there a “singular standard of evidence”? Yes. It’s that the experiences of others count. You can’t “hand-wave” away the millions who’ve tried to have the faith-experiences of the conservative-Utahn and have failed. Someone on the “true believing” side would have to describe how the other group’s “experimental conditions” were fundamentally different than the true believing faithful’s in a way that doesn’t beg the question.

  5. Justin,

    I definitely agree with what you’re saying. But it seems to me that the Mormon challenge would be that truth is not simply that which can be reproduced by oppositionally minded parties. In other words, the idea that faith or righteousness is a prerequisite is not seen as a dealbreaker.

    Would you say then that Mormons of this mindset do not follow standards of evidence (given your comments on what a singular standard of evidence would entail)?

    • Would you say then that Mormons of this mindset do not follow standards of evidence (given your comments on what a singular standard of evidence would entail)?

      Yes — I would say that if someone’s standard for evidence necessarily implies that I already agree with them, then that’s no standard in deed. “Evidence” should be that which would get a “non-believer” to change their mind.

      • And yet you want someone to already agree with you, that the scientific method is the only valuable way to find truth, before you are interested in discussing truth with them. You too want someone who *already agrees* with you.

        • And yet you want someone to already agree with you, that the scientific method is the only valuable way to find truth, before you are interested in discussing truth with them.

          Incorrect.

          I don’t “want” someone to agree with me before I will engage in a profitable discussion with them. It’s just that if someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence could I give them as proof that they should value it? Or if someone doesn’t value logic, then what logical argument could I provide to show the importance of logic?

          You can’t get your metaphysics ahead of your epidemiology. The problem with non-scientific methods such as “religion” is that it allows people to start from not only the fact that “God exist”, but that a very specific “God” exists. I’ve heard it put that: Religion is arguing that a diamond the size of a refrigerator is buried in your backyard — and Theology is arguing over the brand of refrigerator.

          As a “scientist” you’ve got to poke people’s epistemology — “How do you know that?”, “Based on what evidence?” What people call “secular science” is simply humankind’s finest realization of how to deal with universal epistemological hurdles.

          • I am not saying that you have to interact with people of faith at all, but there is a science department at BYU, and one of the high councilors in our stake teaches biology and his wife is a physicist. So there are people who straddle both worlds, and see different types of knowledge as requiring different approaches.

            I am not saying that I think anyone else can or even should choose to live life, or make decisions in the way that works for me. It makes me an outwardly bad missionary, and a good friend to people of a variety of faiths, as well as those who have no room for religious faith and instead choose reason and the scientific method as their world view of choice.

            For many things, the scientific method is extremely useful, but for philosophy, ethics, and political science, it has it’s limits. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be used to inform those areas as well, but that I think that there are experiences that are incapable of being replicated, precisely because, we don’t have a way to replicate an individual’s life experiences, and I am unwilling to tell someone that their life is less valid than mine, because it includes experiences that I don’t, or can’t understand.

          • So there are people who straddle both worlds, and see different types of knowledge as requiring different approaches.

            Sorry — but there are not two ways of knowing. There’s “knowing” and “not knowing”, and those are the only two options in the world.

            As your example about the science department at BYU, the high councilor who teaches biology and his physicist wife demonstrate, many people do not apply the same degree of “secular critical thinking” to their religion that they would apply in other contexts. Someone who I know to be a practicing scientist said [during a Sunday School class] that the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon prove that Joseph Smith’s story about the Gold Plates was true because, quote: “You couldn’t get three other people to agree with you if you weren’t telling the truth.” I wondered if he applies that same criterion to matters related to evolutionary biology or medicine, etc. Methinks not.

            For many things, the scientific method is extremely useful, but for philosophy, ethics, and political science, it has it’s limits.

            Sorry — but it does not. Or if it does has “limits”, then they are limits in practice — not limits in principle. For example, there’s a perfectly valid theory of a science of morality — something for which most people would say that science “can’t have any say”. And even if someone could present some historical examples of “scientific limits”, the response to bad examples of science-in-practice has always been more science and better science — it’s never been more religion.

            Look, I wouldn’t doubt that people who’ve claimed to have had religious experiences have experienced what they claim they have — it’s just that I don’t see how we can be willing to grant those experiences objective, metaphysical weight.

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