A few days ago, someone made the comment to me that (full or partial) Mormon disbelievers sometimes choose to stay in the church and the community for reasons that are both honorable and dishonorable. This, to me, is a provocative thought. Many, both among believers and disbelievers, assert as a matter of principle that there can be no honorable reasons to stay in the Mormon world for those who are not full believers, or at least believers in the core tenets of standard Mormon testimony. Others claim that there are a range of such honorable reasons. Who is right?
The problem, I think, involves deciding about the word “honorable.” One perspective on honor raised in these discussions is that of Moliere’s misanthrope. In this view, honor involves full and unguarded candor at all times and in all places. Any omission, polite equivocation, or simple silence can constitute dishonesty — or, in the overheated language of the internet fora in which this account of honor finds its most congenial contemporary habitat: fraud, self-deception, delusion, cowardice, being a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Of course, this view is so problematic that it is only just barely worth spelling out the central problem. Absolute and total disclosure of the self is impossible. We do not know ourselves that well. Even when we do know some aspect of our thoughts and motives with great detail, it is difficult and exhausting to keep up a steady narrative of even the main highlights of our internal stream of consciousness. Finally, if we self-disclose as constantly and thoroughly as possible, we effectively shout down the rest of the world. So to live well, we must all, and almost always, fail to disclose.
Yet some failures to disclose are obviously dishonorable while others are not. If I have stolen your money, it is clearly dishonest for me to keep my peace. On the other hand, if I think your new haircut is unfortunate, no dishonor attaches to silence or even equivocation (“It’s so striking,” said with a warm smile). Where, on this spectrum, should we place failure to disclose religious doubts or disbelief? Views will certainly vary — but it is clear that an additional argument is needed about why these particular thoughts are especially honorable or dishonorable to withhold.
So perhaps the most common argument for why it is dishonorable to stay in the Mormon fold while doubting or disbelieving is incomplete, at least. No doubt there are other arguments to be made in this direction. But are there also honorable reasons for someone who lacks full belief in the key claims of Mormonism to remain in the church and community? It seems to me that there are several possibilities, some of which are quickly sketched below.
- Epistemological modesty. In the presence of uncertainty about the best course of action, one might argue that a viable path forward is to retain all affiliations, behaviors, and identities, until or unless a powerful and hard-to-contradict counterargument is offered. Hence, a disbeliever may remain an active and committed Mormon because she has doubts about her own disbelief and therefore chooses to perhaps err on the side of personal and family tradition until those second-order doubts are clarified in one way or another.
- Love of family. For Mormons, family and faith are profoundly intertwined. Because eternal family sealings are conditional on faithfulness, the decision to leave Mormonism also often reads to believing family members as a decision to abandon the family. If doubting or disbelieving Mormons silence their views and stay in the fold, they may sometimes do so as a way of communicating (after the manner of Mormon language) their love for and commitment to their family members.
- To be a better and more loving person. For lifelong Mormons, the rituals and rhythms of Mormon worship often become an incarnation of the moral themes of Christianity. Sacrament meeting serves as a moment of communion, of course, but also as an institutionalized reminder of the importance of seeking to understand others on their own terms. Sunday School and other classes both remind us of and enact the fact that the moral insights of the group both emerge from and shape the values and perspectives of the constituent individuals, even those we tend not to like. The undervalued ritual of the church foyer and hallway is a tutor in the virtues of charity and unity. These aspects of Mormon life, I think, have the potential to make believers, doubters, and disbelievers better and happier people.
Not, of course, a comprehensive list — if such a thing were possible. In any case, I eagerly await a wave of helpful and friendly comments explaining why my proposed reasons are in fact dishonorable, as well as any loving clarifications of why all doubters have the moral obligation to loudly and immediately declare their state of mind in all particulars.