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?