How it all got started...For various reasons, I ended up listening to several recent Mormon Expositor episodes back to back a few weeks ago. I happened to listen to one episode in which Brandt (one of the Expositor's lovable token believers) mentioned he was sad when people leave the church because he felt that Mormonism was a good way to live. Later that day I listened to another episode in which Matthew Crowley said he felt that Mormonism was a harmful religion. That led me to ask: who is right? Is Mormonism a good way to live or is it harmful? Is it possibly both at the same time? I decided to answer this question for myself.
As an apostate myself, I've rubbed shoulders with a lot of people who have experienced genuine pain as a result of Mormonism. I've met people who have developed eating disorders and other mental issues because of Mormonism, people who have had their relationships with friends/family badly damaged because of Mormonism, and people who have experienced tremendous cruelty at the hands of the Mormon community---some to the point of attempting suicide. I myself have experienced depression and anxiety as a result of my faith transition out of Mormonism. So on the one hand, I think there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mormonism has the potential to cause harm.
But on the other hand, I have to admit that prior to my de-conversion, Mormonism did not cause me any personal harm. It worked fine for me while I believed in it. The same seems to be true for my believing family members; they seem genuinely happy and healthy living as Mormons. My husband's family also appears to be happy and healthy in their Mormon lifestyles. Therefore, there is also probably enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Mormonism has the potential to be a good influence on people's lives.
So, that was the general idea that my husband and I discussed at first: Mormonism works great for people who fit the standard Mormon narrative. If you're faithful, white, middle-class, employed, mentally healthy, extroverted, American, married with kids, politically conservative and you fit the traditional norms for your gender, Mormonism is likely to be a good fit for you. Even if you don't fit every single one of those criteria, you should still fit in and feel relatively comfortable within Mormonism if you've got most of them down at least. And there are a number of people who can (more or less) fit into those social categories without too much trouble. I did. My husband did. My family did. And things were relatively stable and normal in our Mormon lives (until the faith crisis came, of course).
The problem is that anecdotal evidence like this isn't really a good basis for a sound argument. Both sides can easily cherry-pick all the anecdotal evidence they want to prove their side is right. And while qualitative data like that can be helpful for understanding the key issues that are in play, it doesn't necessarily get us any closer to understanding the way Mormonism systematically operates in people's everyday lives. After all, it's possible that the harm caused by Mormonism is not unique to Mormonism at all; it might instead symptomatic of religion in general. So my husband and I decided we needed to examine the theology and culture of Mormonism itself to determine whether it was uniquely more or less harmful to people's lives compared to other religions or social institutions.
What happens if we put on our feminist glasses and look again?Since I dabble here and there in Mormon feminism, I frequently come across a lot of personal stories of pain and malcontent related to gender problems in the church. As my conversation with my husband continued, I began to wonder if approaching the topic from a feminist lens might be useful for examining the church systemically. So, I suggested that we work our way through LDS Wave's I Feel Unequal list as a way of continuing the conversation. We combed through the list, discussing each item as it related to our larger question of whether the church is harmful or not. Our purpose was to brainstorm whether there were specific aspects of Mormonism as an institution or an ideology that made it uniquely more or less harmful than other social institutions or ideologies.
I'll spare you the details of our lengthy conversation about the Wave list, but we did ultimately agree that the church had a harmful stance on gender. As the list makes fairly clear, gender inequality (and its related issues) are fairly deeply woven into contemporary Mormon theology and culture. Although the list never states it explicitly, it's clear that many of the problems are caused by one of three general problems: 1) the fact that women do not hold the priesthood equally with men and consequently do not have an equal role in church governance, 2) LDS doctrines about gender essentialism, and 3) antiquated institutional/cultural practices that endure because of historical tradition or short-sightedness (rather than for theological reasons). The gender inequality within the church is quite extensive and most certainly has the potential to cause a great deal of harm---such as domestic violence, gender stereotyping, double standards, self-esteem issues, mental health issues, etc.
But the real question we were examining was whether the gender inequality of the church is unique to Mormon ideology or not. While there are some unique aspects of Mormon theology and culture that reinforce gender essentialism, these basic gender ideologies did not entirely originate in Mormonism. Most were simply inherited from Christianity or from mainstream American conservative culture at large. Mormonism perhaps differs by degree, if anything. (For example, Mormonism ups the ante by asserting gender was determined in the pre-existence and that marriage is necessary to achieve godhood---possibly even polygamous marriage depending on which kind of Mormon you're talking to.) But the basic gender ideologies are the same as those found in other Western religious and conservative social institutions---which means that sexism pre-dates Mormonism. For example, women cannot hold the priesthood within Catholicism (as was the case for most Christian denominations up until fairly recently) and conservative religious groups like the Missouri Synod Lutherans still strongly advocate for traditional gender roles---to a degree that sometimes surpasses the discourse about gender within Mormonism, in my opinion. 
The conclusion that we came to after reviewing the WAVE list was that, while Mormonism does indeed have the potential to cause harm, it doesn't necessarily cause any more or less harm than other religious or social institutions. If we were to examine the utilitarianism of Mormonism from the perspective of race, cultural imperialism, and sexual orientation, I'm confident the same pattern would emerge.
The virtue of checks and balances
That doesn't mean I'm excusing Mormonism for its potential to cause harm. Nor does it mean that I'm trying to minimize the very real pain that Mormonism has caused to many individuals. Rather, my argument is that these same harmful patterns can be found in many different human institutions---religious or otherwise. (Governments, businesses, unions, etc.)
Humans create institutions because they can accomplish their goals more effectively when they work together as a collective body rather than as solitary individuals. But there's no such thing as a perfect institution---and it's worth noting that some institutions are a lot healthier than others. The primary element that separates healthy institutions from unhealthy ones is whether they are capable of self-correction. In other words, healthy institutions are ones which are capable of 1) recognizing when a certain belief or practice is somehow wrong or harmful, and 2) adapting its policies to correct beliefs or practices that have been proven wrong or harmful.
Here's a few institutional elements that are important for self-correction (off the top of my head):
- Does the institution have a system of checks and balances in place to ensure that no one individual or governing body has carte blanche to makes all the decisions for the group (creating the possibility for tyranny or for myopic decisions being made in an echo chamber)?
- At any time can someone inside or outside the institution offer sincere, well-meaning criticism or alternative perspectives to its leaders without fear of reproach?
- Does the institution promote the free exchange of ideas and independent thought? Does it seek to understand and possibly adopt good ideas that come from inside and outside of the institution?
- Does the institution allow for grass-roots communication from the bottom up between those who are in power and those who are not? Is there a process by which people both inside and outside of the institution can address grievances if they are hurt by someone within the institution?
- Does the institution foster a homogenous monoculture or a culture of hierarchy or elitism, whether consciously or not? Does it welcome diversity and alternative perspectives?
- Does the institution actively seek to promote individuals with diverse social backgrounds into leadership positions---not because of tokenism but out of a sincere desire to welcome a diversity of viewpoints when making important decisions for the organization?
- When it becomes clear that a change needs to be made, does the institution have a mechanism in place for quickly adopting that change?
- Is the institution's government centralized or de-centralized?
Again, some institutions are going to be better than others in terms of this checklist. There are very few that will be perfect. But admittedly, as I wrote this checklist, it was clear to me that Mormonism doesn't stack up very well. It might very well be a less-than-healthy institution when compared to others (although I'm sure there are others that could give it a run for its money). Although it does have a system in place for self-correction---i.e. prophetic and personal revelation---that system is clearly flawed as I have argued on this blog before.
ConclusionThe big take-away that I got from this conversation was that it helped me to better clarify my own beliefs and values independent of Mormonism. I think there are two big impediments that prevent Mormonism from being healthier than it could be: 1) the belief system is founded on principles that are ultimately flawed, and 2) the culture of dogmatism that pervades the church. By dogmatism I mean a hardened, inflexible commitment to "truths" that are not necessarily so. When any group of people dogmatically insists on clinging to flawed or false beliefs and practices in spite of evidence to the contrary, it has the potential to cause harm. (And, by the way, these problems are NOT unique to Mormonism---or even to religion in general. Not by a long shot.)
I have found that I'm less interested in believing in truths these days. I certainly want to continue seeking for the truth, but I don't want to make a hardened commitment to any one ideology any more. I don't want to set my beliefs in stone any more. That's because I've discovered that I'm often wrong, I'm often misinformed, and I'm often short-sighted. I often fail to grasp the full complexity of a given issue when I rely on my own understanding of it.
But the beauty is that I don't have to rely on my own understanding of anything. I can come to understand the complexity of an issue and expose myself to other points of view by engaging with other people in my society---especially those who are different from me. Humans and human institutions are a big part of the problem---but they are ironically part of the solution too. I may not believe in any one institutional ideology any more, but I firmly believe in the institutional processes of education and scholarly dialogue. These dialectic processes improve our lives as individuals and as a society on the whole. They have a proven track record for success. Through education and scholarly dialogue, our society is becoming more humane, more equitable, and more moral.
That's part of what makes me proud to be a member of an educational institution---despite all of its own institutional flaws. I'm proud to teach students how to communicate better and how to engage in the process of scholarly dialogue. I'm glad to be part of something that is truly making lives better (with quantifiable results to boot!). I hope that in my own small way I can work with other people to make all human institutions a little bit healthier---whether it be the institution of Mormonism or something else.