Discussing loss of faith always proves to be controversial. Not only brazen statements about loss of faith, as we have seen recently, meet with no small degree of umbrage, but also much more muted attempts to explore the topic seem to provoke indignation even as to terminology used.
One observation that I have made in the back and forth between believers and ex-believers is that, although it might seem counter-intuitive, those who maintain their belief in (testimony of) the Gospel through the hardships of life, theodicy-related doubts and evidence-related doubts, and developments in policy and doctrines often display a certain resiliency of belief. This resiliency or flexibility seems to flow from a solid conviction in underlying principles in general terms and expresses itself in relation to dogma and policy. From this view, the life/culture/policies of the Church are experienced as an overlay on these general underlying principles, which form the core of the Gospel. From what I can tell, these general principles approximate the standard set of beliefs most members list in their testimonies on Fast Sunday: God loves us; Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the World; Joseph Smith was a latter-day prophet of God called to restore the Gospel; the Book of Mormon is a tangible fruit of the Prophet Joseph Smith and a powerful witness of Jesus Christ; God calls living prophets to guide the Church today. The edifice of the Church rests upon these principles but can change in appearance or practice from time to time without any implication for the underlying principles, much like an old, cherished building being remodeled, whether incrementally or in large phases, without affecting the foundation beneath the building.
In essence, I suggest that members who retain their faith/belief often do so by taking a nuanced view of Church life and policy — seeing many aspects of how culture or policy apply to real life situations as falling into a gray area that their flexible faith is able to accommodate.
By contrast, I have observed ex-believers saying that members of the Church view things as black and white and that things are really gray. But in taking this approach, I have seen some ex-believers attribute black and white type of beliefs to members of the Church that very few, if any, believing members actually hold. One example among several that I have personally witnessed within just the last year on blogs and forums is the argument that because members of the Church believe in prophets (i.e. as noted above, they believe in the underlying principle of a living prophet and apostles guiding the Church through revelation/inspiration), that they therefore believe that everything the prophet says must be direct revelation or that those called to those positions are infallible. Although there is perhaps far too much mystification of our Church leaders by many believing members, I must say I don’t know many — if any — who actually believe that the leaders are infallible or that everything they say must be revelation. This is not to say that most believing members don’t accord enormous respect and deference to them based on their respect for the offices they hold, to the extent of strictly obeying or incorporating even statements that realistically speaking are recognizable as life advice or personal preferences. It also does not ignore the fact that each member must and does navigate the tricky territory of sorting that which is inspiration and revelation in the statements of Church leaders from life advice or opinions (which can also be inspired and worth special attention) on their own. In this sense, far from being limited to a black and white view of things, believing members are quite adept at negotiating the gray areas of life and our relationship with God through his Church.
I have often wondered, in reading and/or hearing scathing criticisms and mockeries of the Church in which this approach is sometimes taken, what the purpose of attributing such views to believing members could be. One possibility, of course, is that it is done in bad faith in a deliberate use of a straw man that can easily be knocked down. I suspect this has been the motivation in some of the instances I have witnessed.
Another possibility is that perhaps this is done in good faith and is a result of the fact that the ex-believers making those claims did indeed take that view themselves when they were believers. Now that they no longer believe, they perhaps attribute this black-and-white view to those who still believe and then criticize or ridicule it. It is worth asking, however, whether taking such a inflexible view on matters of belief could itself have been a factor contributing to loss of faith or a decision not to believe.
I read one quick and dirty expression of this effect by a FAIR contributer (Dave Keller) a couple of years ago that noted the role that a lack of flexibility in matters of faith can play in this process:
[Some Ex-Mormons] might cling to things they were taught in their youth, even though such things were simplifications of a more complex, abstract truth. Faithfulness is then judged on how rigidly those earlier, youthful beliefs are maintained and there is failure to separate the baby [from] the bathwater. Because this particular type of Mormon can’t adapt or modify belief when complex, non-faith promoting facts are learned they can’t cope. They might lose trust in the Mormon church because it emphasizes uplifting, devotional material, sometimes at the expense of missed opportunites to prepare a member for intellectual challenges. For those that can’t bend, there is a breaking point and the fall from Mormonism can be rough. At best that can only be part of the story, but even I feel my inner fundamentalist acting up some times when I learn new things.
I think that one must have a flexible faith to maintain belief — when a solid conviction in the underlying principles is coupled with a flexible approach, the challenges of faith can be greatly diminished.