Saturday, January 28, 2012

Fostering a Good Environment for Independent Thought (and Why the Church Fails to Do It)

I liked a blog entry posted by A Mormon in the Cheap Seats on the Doves and Serpents blog not too long ago. It flowcharted the epistemology (e.g. method for discovering whether something is true or not) that is taught in a traditional Sunday School.

I've modified the flowchart a little bit to discuss why I don't think the church fosters a very healthy level of independent thought---meaning that the church doesn't provide a safe environment in which its members are free to reach their own conclusions on important matters. The key feature of independent thought is being able to question authority figures or express ambivalence, skepticism, or dissent.

I like the way the Jesse Tahrili expressed the value of independent thought in his Growing Up With Scientist Mom comic strip:
Being told how to do something can be great. To bypass that initial struggle for information, to instantly understand that fire is hot without having to burn yourself. Today, you could learn more about gravity in one day than Isaac Newton learned in an entire lifetime! This method of passing down information to younger generations is something that has allowed humanity to thrive and progress for centuries. But this reliance on second-hand information is also one of our greatest downfalls. We live in an imperfect world, and to blindly trust everything we're told can be dangerous. Falsities, especially ones that we'd really like to believe, can infect our collective knowledge and proliferate like a virus. We must constantly question ourselves and seek to ensure that what we believe as truth always has a firm grounding in reality.
With that in mind, let's talk about how the church tells us to do in response to what authority figures within the church say. This is the classical epistemological model of Mormonism, as based on Doctrine and Covenants section 8 and 9:

That all seems pretty straightforward, right?

In its ideal form, I don't have too many qualms with this model of verifying whether our leaders are speaking truthfully or not. Although I don't really think that one should rely solely on emotional instinct to determine the veracity of a particular statement, it's not a bad place to start the process of critical inquiry. I also like that this model places the locus of control within the individual rather than in the authority figure; it's ultimately the responsibility of the individual to seek for and verify truth. This ideal model also suggests a fairly healthy system of “checks and balances” within church government, if you will. Every church member is taught that they have a right and a responsibility to ask the Lord whether our leaders are inspired and that they are entitled to an answer through personal revelation.

The problem is: this flowchart doesn't actually describe the process of revelation in the lived reality of most Mormons' experience. Here's the way the process of personal revelation actually works for most members of the church:

If it isn't immediately obvious, there are a number of problems with this model. The central problem is that there is only one possible conclusion: what the leader has stated is true. Although this process may superficially appear to open up the possibility for dissent and doubt, it ultimately denies it in the end. The only possible outcome is that what the leader has said is true. And if that is the only option, then it negates the possibility that this is a system in which independent thought can be cultivated in healthy ways.

This has a host of negative consequences. A few that I can think of are:
  • Sexism. This is a big one for me. If only males are in positions of power (e.g. they make the bulk of the decisions for the organization and interpret church doctrine) and if these male leaders can never be in the wrong or can never be questioned or criticized, then that's deeply unfair to women in the church. It makes it impossible for women to have any kind of real influence or power within the church, which has serious consequences for women's mental health and for the overall health of the organization in general.
  • Lack of accountability. When leaders cannot be questioned or criticized without fear of negative consequences, that creates a system in which there is no process for people to address grievances, to express valid concerns, or to enact necessary change. When people in an organization feel that they have no control or no voice in how the organization is run, it has the potential to create psychological problems.
  • Low self-esteem or depression. In the flowchart above, you'll notice that the only possible explanation for why you can't seem to agree with your leaders is that there is something flawed with you as an individual. I bristle at the arrogant idea that the church organization and its leaders are somehow above reproach and that all of its problems lie in its inherently weak members. It's reminiscent of abusive relationships in which one person always gives and the other only takes. A relationship in which one party is always right and the other party is always wrong is NOT a healthy relationship.
  • Intolerance. Most importantly, it creates a lack of support for people who do not fit the standard model in their beliefs, behavior or lifestyle. It promotes conformity to the group at the expense of the individual. It creates rigid, inflexible systems that do not adapt well to changing conditions and environments.

That's just a brief laundry list off the top of my head. I'm sure there's more potential negative outcomes that I may not have thought of. But, of course, one of the most serious consequences is that this model shuts down independent thought, moving the locus of control away from the individual members and onto the leader---who is prone to fallibility, short-sightedness, and possible corruption (even when his intentions are good).

The majority of members don't even bother to go through the classical process of asking the Lord whether the things their leader has said are true. Since it's obvious you'll end up in the same place anyway (the leader was right), why attempt to ask God directly in the first place? You might as well just save yourself the pain and skip over the whole critical thinking and evaluation process in the first place. But this is not a good option because critical inquiry and research has been the primary means through which human civilization has been advanced. Organizations which create environments that are anathema to critical inquiry are an impediment this kind of progress on a macro and micro level. This has extremely far-reaching moral implications. As painful and messy as open dialogue and skepticism can be, nearly every individual or society is much better and more healthy after having gone through the crucible of argumentation.

Now, to be fair, I want to point out that nearly all human institutions (governments, businesses, universities, families) have the potential to create environments that are not conducive to independent thought. It's probably an inevitable part of any human organization. But the fact that the church is prone to the same kinds of problems that are exhibited in other "worldly" institutions is probably yet another piece of evidence that it's just another flawed human construction---no more special or divine than any of the rest.


    1. This post is brilliant. I may just have to print out your flow chart and carry it around with me or something, because it so succinctly describes a phenomenon that I just can't seem to explain to friends and family trying to help me "see reason."

      I'd like to add that I think that in the very-long term, church leaders are not quite above reproach in the minds of members. For example, if you find one of the many bigoted things Brigham Young said and ask a member about it, they will insist that B.Y. was speaking "as a man" and it is silly to expect perfection of the leaders of the church. What I don't know how to communicate is the fact that this small allowance throws a rational monkey-wrench into the entire truth-divining process offered by the church and its members. Ah, well...

    2. Thanks for the kind words, Dave. (Full disclosure: after you read it, I made a few small edits to the second to last paragraph to correct some grammar issues and tighten up my thesis a little bit.)

      I do think you're right that every now and then, Mormons can be faced with a very stark cognitive dissonance when it becomes clear that something a past prophet has said is either in direct contradiction with current church doctrine or the current prophet. I think that the easiest way for Mormons to get around this dissonances is to use the "speaking as a man" thing. But, of course, they often apply that logic fairly inconsistently---letting it only apply to past leaders rather than the present ones, and only when it is convenient to their current system of beliefs.

      (Side note: I don't fault Mormons for this kind of behavior, by the way. I think confirmation bias and rationalization is an key component of human psychology. But it is still problematic to creating a good environment for independent thought and healthy organizations.)

      Now, the real problem is that resolving the cognitive dissonance by saying he was "speaking as a man," actually creates a new kind of cognitive dissonance. Because as soon as you allow one prophet to "speak as a man," it opens up the can of worms of when you can truly discern when any prophet is speaking as a man or as the Lord's mouthpiece. It creates an uncomfortable space for moral relativism. And things can potentially unravel from there.

    3. Has this always been the case, or have we somehow gone wrong since the days of BY:
      "I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inqure for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not." (Brigham Young, JoD 9:150)

    4. Here's another good one from President Joseph F. Smith: "We talk of obedience, but do we require any man or woman to ignorantly obey the counsels that are given? Do the First Presidency require it? No, never." (Journal of Discourses (JD) 16:248)

      I agree with you, Malkie, that it hasn't always been the case. I'm ambivalent on whether Joseph Smith felt that people could usefully disagree with him. There's evidence both for and against it.

      However, it's fairly clear to me that Brigham Young actually didn't really conceive of himself as the Prophet. (Maybe he thought of himself as a prophet (with a lowercase "p"), but certainly not the Prophet (with a capital "P" in the same sense that Joseph Smith was). There's a lot of evidence that he tried on multiple occasions to persuade Joseph Smith's sons to lead the church and become their new Prophet. At the same time, he had a very strong hegemony over the church after Joseph Smith died and until his death.

      Scholars dispute how the church began to develop the cult of the prophet that exists today. In his dissertation about correlation, Daymon Smith argues that it started after the rift over polygamy. In order to maintain confidence in his presidency, Joseph F. Smith began to argue that he was the Prophet (capital P). I can't remember who said it, but I heard someone argue recently that David O. McKay is responsible for it because of the cult of personality that surrounded him (read the first chapter of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism to see what I'm talking about).

      And I think correlation has definitely played a role. I also think there's some truth to this statement by Randall Paul (that I cited on my Family Responsibilities NOM lesson): "When I was growing up, the marker [of loyalty to the church] was the Word of Wisdom. It was not sexual morality and it had nothing to do with the authority of the prophet. But now the Word of Wisdom has become so ubiquitous in Western culture that we've lost that marker and we're searching for a [new] marker. And we want it to be that the prophet literally is out there healing people on the streets, having angelic visitations all the time, stories about Jesus appearing to him in the temple telling him when the Second Coming is coming. We want another section of the Doctrine and Covenants every couple of years. That's what we really want a prophet to be doing. If you're a prophet: deliver! To me, the further we get away from Joseph Smith, the more it's becoming obvious that the Ensign and the Conference talks are not the Doctrine and Covenants. So in our own hearts, we want to give more and more power to the prophet for whatever he does because we know that's part of Mormonism. That's our marker: that we have a prophet."

      Your thoughts, Malkie?

    5. Brigham Young was, however, sufficiently confident of his role as a prophet to say that his preaching could be taken as scripture: "I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture. Let me have the privilege of correcting a sermon, and it is as good Scripture as they deserve. The people have the oracles of God continually." (JoD 13:95)

      I believe that most faithful members are probably best served by taking the word of the 15 + 70 as "gospel", and harmonising contradictions as best they can, including the idea that we have a prophet who does not prophesy. That is, I believe, an acceptable "marker" for today's LDS, as far as the church is concerned, even if we pay lip service to the idea of independent thought.

      Imagine, however, trying to tell a non-member friend about the prophet, and why it's such a big deal for us, and the friend saying: "Wow, neat! What has your prophet said lately?"

    6. Note that this post has been nominated for a Brodie Award for insightful discussion of the practices of the CoJCoL-dS. You can vote for it here.

    7. I appreciate this flowchart. It explains the frustration, anxiety, and depression I felt for years, but in a logical way. Just following the chart, I felt the same tightness in my throat and fuzziness in my brain.

      I've encountered several members who DO question and are comfortable with saying the prophets don't know what every individual needs to do. (It's more of a, listen to what they say, and then pray to see how it applies to you. If it applies, great. If not, no worries.) That way of being never worked for me. I tried to do everything they said, even when their counsel contradicted itself.

      Anyway, THANKS! I'm glad someone nominated this, so I could find it.