The Ethics of Speaking Up

Hi everyone, I’m honored to join the Main Street Plaza crew. My name is Mike, and I chose the nickname Saganist because Carl Sagan has been a big influence on my thinking. Just a bit of background on me: my religious history is long and complicated, but I joined the LDS church in 2000 at age 22. I was a believer until between two and three years ago, when I finally admitted to myself that the evidence was pretty damning, and that I needed to fit my beliefs to the evidence and not vice versa. My wife is still a believer, and we get along great despite the occasional disagreement. I still go to church with her most weeks because wrangling our three little kids alone in sacrament meeting is a babysitting job from hell.

One thing that’s confused me ever since I joined the church is knowing when to speak up and how much to say. Before I was baptized, I did a lot of research on the Internet, and I learned plenty about peepstones, papyri, polyandry, and prehistory. But a big part of me wanted to join the church anyway, and I found other sites with possible explanations of the problems, plausible or not. Finding explanations became a real testimony building experience, even more so than if I’d never heard of the problems at all.

I wrongly assumed that everyone else in Sunday school had worked through the issues as I had. It was a little awkward the first few times I brought up topics like Limited Geography Theory and the Kinderhook plates, and got blank stares and raised eyebrows in response. This was in a singles ward, so maybe that was the problem. But I quickly learned to shut up about anything controversial. What was controversial? I was never quite sure. Frankly, I’m still not sure.
I came from a liberal Christian background that encouraged questioning and exploration as part of discussion groups, including Sunday school. In an ideal world, I still think Sunday school should be a place for that kind of discussion, but I have come to appreciate that in the LDS church it’s more of a place for people to get together and reinforce their beliefs through hypnosis. I’ll probably never understand why people who claim the ultimate importance that they claim for Joseph Smith, for example, wouldn’t want to know everything about him they possibly can. But I accept that this is the case.

I respect believers and I’m not trying to tear down anyone’s faith, at least not at church. Occasionally I will reference some historical facts that don’t seem too threatening, like the fact that the Doctrine portion of the D&C was removed in the 1920s and is known as the Lectures on Faith, which you can buy at Deseret Book. But because I’m never sure what is taboo and what isn’t, these days I usually shut up completely. Except online, of course. I figure anyone who is participating in discussions online has the ability to go elsewhere if they’re uncomfortable, but that’s not really true at church.

This is not just a problem at church, of course. I live in Utah, and my wife’s whole side of the family are devout Mormons, so people around me are talking about church all the time. I’m often tempted to ask hard questions, but I’m pretty sure they don’t have any better answers than I’ve already heard. It seems unfair, not to mention pointless, to ask difficult questions of people you know don’t have the answers. At the same time, the subject is of mutual interest and I’m sure I’ve missed out on interesting conversations by silencing myself.

Any of you who still go to church, or deal with believers of any stripe on a regular basis, what do you do? Where is the line between respect for others and unnecessary self-censorship? I’m trying to find a balance, but is there any balance to be found? In what circumstances is it ethical to ask questions or raise issues that may challenge someone’s faith?

15 thoughts on “The Ethics of Speaking Up

  1. Congratulations on becoming part of the Main Street crew Mike! I’m really looking forward to hearing more from you. I love your blog and I’m excited that you will be posting here as well.

    As to your question of how to respect others beliefs and when it is appropriate to raise questions. This is a very complex problem, IMO. I think you have to approach it on a case by case situation. If the person you are talking to appears to be open enough to a “faith threatening” question, then hit them up with one. But there are many that just aren’t ready for those “faith threatening” questions. Each person is different and each situation is different. In other words, let the spirit be your guide. :)

  2. Hi Mike! There is nothing unfair about confronting each other about our ignorance. It may be uncomfortable and unkind but it is not unfair.

    In my mind, the pay off is between keeping the peace and being honest to one another. If you cannot be honest with each other then you can never really know each other.

    Therefore, I would recommend to be honest with the people you really value and keep the peace with everyone you only have a superficial relationship anyways.

    In reality, of course, I have no self-control and can never shut up.

  3. It’s amazing the things that can get you in trouble. I taught relief society in a student ward 20-some-odd years ago, and once mentioned in a lesson that Santa Claus wasn’t real. There was a single mom who attended our ward because it had the most single men in it, and she always brought her six-year-old daughter to RS with her. She was VERY ANGRY that because of me, her daughter found out that Santa didn’t really come down chimneys and leave presents, and complained to the bishop and the RS president. Mercifully the RS pres said, “If you don’t want your children to hear adult conversations, don’t bring them to adult forums,” and that was the end of that.

    HOWEVER, when I once mentioned casually what I considered an absolute, undisputed fact that all Mormons had accepted, that Joseph Smith had dozens of wives, the uproar was considerable and I was released within weeks.

    So if you really want to avoid controversy, the only way is to do what you’re doing and remain silent.

    Ill probably never understand why people who claim the ultimate importance that they claim for Joseph Smith, for example, wouldnt want to know everything about him they possibly can.

    Because if you know everything about him that you possibly can, you realize he was an extremely flawed human being who lied and who craved power he then abused, not some saint singularly worthy of direct communication with god. And that knowledge most likely threatens your entire world view, your political beliefs, your view of your community, and your view of yourself.

  4. Tom, follow the spirit, heh! I love it, thanks. I agree with your point though; it’s a complex equation with many factors to be considered. What makes it especially difficult for me is that I don’t think I have a good grasp on what the inputs are, so it’s hard for me to gauge the output.

    Hellmut, I totally agree with everything you said. I’m mostly interested in being a peacemaker, though I also have a hard time shutting up. Yet I do it week after week, and I’m not happy about it. Ugh.

    LdChino, great video! And they escorted him out, too. Wow. I think I feel the spirit telling me I need to testify…

    Holly, that’s exactly the kind of thing that drives me crazy. It’s like I don’t even know what constitutes an adult conversation with believers anymore. Maybe there’s no such thing. I would think that bringing up documented facts would be fine, especially as they are extremely relevant to the conversation. But apparently it isn’t.

    My instinct is that the unwillingness to learn everything about the second most important person in the history of the world betrays lack of faith. If he’s really who they say he is, why would a believing world view be threatened? But even as believers, we all heard stories about how the devil is out to get your testimony. It might no be the facts that are so scary, as much as the magic evil spirit who’s out to destroy your faith. With magic evil spirits around, certain lines must not be crossed. But that’s not faith; it’s fear.

  5. I usually try to sandwich my controversial tidbits between comforting layers of scripture.

    Meet em halfway.

    And back off as soon as someone gets upset or defensive.

    Realize the real point of Mormon Church services is not doctrinal exploration, but fellowshiping.

    You all know what fellowshipping is, right?

    Well, that is why the vast majority of your fellow ward members are there. A lot of them have very tiring and difficult lives. Parenthood is tough. Jobs are tough. Sickness and hardship is tough. And there’s plenty of it to go around in a typical Mormon ward. For a lot of people, this is the only break from those oppressive realities that they get during the week.

    So a lot of them just aren’t interested in going to Church and being challenged. They don’t go there to be uncomfortable. They go there to find rest and reassurance from their fellow worshipers.

    And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not my cup of tea. But that’s also because I have ADD and my mind is never at rest. I have a hard time sitting still mentally and rest just doesn’t factor into the program for me all that often. But I don’t look down on it simply because it’s a need other people have.

    So – cardinal rule here – don’t pick fights. Don’t upset people. If you get any kickback from anyone at all during Gospel Doctrine class, back off, nod your head sympathetically, and say in a slightly audible voice, “that’s a good point” (even if you don’t think it’s a good point, be open to the possibility that it actually is better than you are giving it credit for).

    Having a benevolent face helps. I think I get away with more stuff because I have a benevolent face. But I doubt that’s going to help you out much….

    That’s how I get down on Sunday anyway. And I get a lot of people in the halls thanking me for my comments. Which makes me feel like I made a positive contribution. And I didn’t have to ruin the community to do it.

  6. Seth,

    I must have been doing it wrong, because I went to church faithfully because I was supposed to. Am I the only one who didn’t feel that much relief from the three hour block?

    You have an interesting strategy, but does it make a difference in the long run? It seems like the antithesis of the strategy people like Ghandi and Dr. King pursued to effect positive change. Perhaps we need people following both strategies, but I don’t know.

  7. I recently asked some capitalist-minded LDS folk on Facebook how they understood the communal living arrangements in the New Testament, 4 Nephi, and early Mormon history. I’m not sure how to take their responses, but I ended up frustrated that they seemed unable to comprehend the question.

    I tried to reach out and start a dialogue without ulterior motives, but sometimes it seems ideology is an insurmountable barrier to mutual understanding (especially when combined with us-vs-them thinking). It’ll be a while before I try that again.

  8. @Seth (and this is by no means an attack on you)

    I think that mentality is at fault for most of the problems in Mormonism. People who are intellectually lazy and never want to be challenged are the ones who are propping up the abusive hierarchy and giving room for the sexism, homophobia and anti-intellectualism, and the culture of fear and guilt. The church only gets away with all that because nearly all the members let it. If they were to challenge the church doctrines which are harmful they would change. To sit back and try to never say anything controversial is the worst way to affect positive change – which the church sorely needs.

  9. Seth, I agree with much of what you’ve said, though I’m like you in that I never went to church for “rest” and I have a very hard time disengaging my brain from what’s happening around me. I think a lot of people at church are as you describe them, though as a believer I went to church to try to experience deeper meaning in an otherwise relatively absurd and meaningless existence. I don’t think I was unique in that regard, but I have no way of gauging how many churchgoers want to be challenged versus how many do not.

    I’ll work on the benevolent face. :-) I would like to effect positive change by raising ideas that may challenge people; I myself love to be challenged and find that I rarely grow unless I am. But I am not out to pick fights, just to explore ideas. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether most people at church perceive any difference.

  10. Hi Mike! Good to see you as part of the MSP crew! I’ve always enjoyed your Saganist blog, and I think it’s phenomenal that you’re part of the the team here. I know you’ll make an excellent addition here. :)

  11. I just don’t see that people making a stink changes things either.

    One of my friends tried that once and got in a heated debate with the wife of one of our stake leaders. It didn’t accomplish much except making the sister mad.

    Keep in mind as well that Mormons are rather clannish.

    You can get away with a lot if your loyalty is beyond question.

    Hugh Nibley, for instance, said some pretty damning things about BYU, Mormon culture, and even the LDS Church itself (read his “Leaders vs. Managers” essay sometime and realize he was directing it at TOP LDS leadership). But he got away with it because his loyalty and commitment to the clan was beyond question.

    It’s the way Mormons (and probably all people) are.

  12. Sometimes making a stink does work (it’s easy to think of examples if you try) but it hasn’t been tried much in the LDS church. I guess when it has been tried it’s usually led to schism.

    I couldn’t bring myself to sit in a church that’s about 30 years behind on civil rights and sit mutely while all manner of nonsense it paraded as eternal truth. I get the twitches just thinking about it sitting through Sunday School instead of spending my time doing something more worthwhile.

    Incremental change has its place to be sure, but I don’t want to spend my time being the conciliatory agent of evolution. It’s either revolution or defection for me.

  13. I have to disagree with that, Seth. Frederik Douglass got it right: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has. It never will.”

    In Mormonism the tolerance for dissent is so low that it undermines the capacity for self-correction.

    People make mistakes. People abuse power. That’s human nature. I agree with you about that.

    But that means not that we shut up. It means that you have to design an institution accordingly. You want to privilege dissent because its human nature to suppress it.

    From Homer to the founding fathers and Lord Acton, the leading minds in western civilization have understood that. Mormonism wants to be exempt from that logic. That’s why so many bad things happen in our community.

  14. Yeah. I guess one of my big problems in the church was that I never did learn when to shut up and act like everyone else.

    One day when I was teaching a Relief Society lesson, I asked the women to number off, 1 through 4, then instructed all the 1s to go to one corner, all the 2s to another, and so on, to discuss one particular aspect of the lesson for five minutes and then come back and report on the conclusions they had come to. I don’t know which was funnier, the ones with the “deer-in-the-headlights” looks on their faces, or the ones who looked at me like they thought I was going to be struck by lightning because I’d asked them to discuss something during a lesson.

    But the best one was the time when one of the men asked me (for the four millionth time, or so it seemed) when I was getting married. I was tired of the question and not in a very good mood at the time, so I gave him a serious look and said, “Never. I’m not interested in selling myself into slavery.” Never got asked that question again.

    I guess I just don’t have it in me to be a well-behaved woman. Then again, as a friend of mine’s shirt says, “Well behaved women seldom make history.”

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