The Struggle for Goodness, Truth, and Belonging in a Haunted Age



  1. Part One: Ecclesial Secularism, New Atheism, and the Supposed Impossibility of Religious Moderate

           1.1 Ecclesial Secularism

           1.2 New Atheism

           1.3 The Impossible Moderate?

      2. Part Two: Hermeneutics, Humanism, and the Theological Foundations of Secularism

           2.1 Hermeneutics and Contexts of Understanding

           2.2 The (Necessary) Invention of Humanism

           2.3 The Theological Foundations of Secularism

      3. Part Three: Mormonism, Purity, and the Conditions of Truth

           3.1 Ecclesial Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Authoritarianism

           3.2 The Enchantment and Disenchantment of Religious Modernism

           3.3 Cross-Pressure and Diversities of Truth Processes

           3.4 Tribes within Tribes

           3.5 Truth-Formation and the Correspondence Logic of Purity

           3.6 Logics of Different Worlds

           3.7 Truth and Belonging

Full article in PDF format: The Struggle for Goodness, Truth, and Belonging in a Haunted Age


After the recent Brussels attacks, Reddit posted a quote from Sam Harris—one of the New Atheist Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse—from his podcast, Waking Up:

The problem is that moderates of all faiths are committed to reinterpreting or ignoring outright the most dangerous and absurd parts of their scripture, and this commitment is precisely what makes them moderates. But it also requires some degree of intellectual dishonesty because moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside.

In the 21st century, the moderate’s commitment to rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value, values that are potentially universal for human beings, comes from the last 1000 years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there.

Moderates seem unwilling to grapple with the fact that all scriptures contain an extraordinary amount of stupidity and barbarism, that can always be rediscovered and made wholly anew by fundamentalists, and there’s no principle of moderation internal to the faith that prevents this. These fundamentalist readings are, almost by definition, more complete and consistent, and therefore more honest. The fundamentalist picks up the book and says, “Ok, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what god wants from me – I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.” Conversely, every moderate seems to believe that his interpretation and selective reading of scripture is more accurate than god’s literal words.


Granting that in the oral format of a popular podcast there’s only so much one can say, so it’s bound to be simplistic or reductive in some way, but there are some things going on here that illustrate a few common New Atheist themes often encountered in contemporary public conversations surrounding religion and secularism, and representative of common but vacuous ways of thinking about religion in the modern world. That’s worthy of commentary by itself, but some of the contours of New Atheism also mirror a subset of exited Mormons whose ideas and beliefs are championed by John Dehlin and certain others within the Mormon Stories community (though not necessarily representative of every person or issue within that community). It’s not a stretch to say that a similar, obviously more “Mormon,” version of the above passage could easily have come from within that circle. That’s not an inherently damning thing by itself, but it points to the prevalence of a certain kind of orientation toward secularism and religion, one that in some ways parallels religious fundamentalism. There are strong parallels between New Atheist expositions of the roles of religion and secularism and those post-Mormons who see religion in general and Mormonism in particular as nonredeemable sites of toxic fundamentalism directly opposed to human flourishing. More importantly, they insist that “religion” as a cultural system is essentially entirely reducible to “church” as a specific site for religious expression, and that all practitioners of religion are at minimum willfully deluded about the “truth” of the religion they claim, or directly complicit in its evils. This is not only not supportable, but actively undermines the shared project that both secularists and religious people should both be undertaking, which is the curtailment of genuine fundamentalism.

The essay is laid out in three parts. In the first part (below), I lay the groundwork for the operations of “ecclesial secularism” and New Atheism, and how they resemble something like a church of skepticism and reason. I also critique Harris’ general criticism of the religious “moderate,” and show how the moderate not only occupies a legitimate place in modern religions, but is even more invested in limiting fundamentalism than the secularist.

In the second part I address the two more specific problems with Harris’ account, only briefly elaborated on in those short quotes, but prevalent throughout certain corners of secularism: Harris’ shallow or maybe even non-existent understanding of interpretation, especially as applied to textual interpretation, and his lack of understanding with regard to the theological underpinnings of secular modernism. These are both important for understanding how interpretation has religious communities in the past and how it could help to shape them in the future, as well as they various ways in which secularism and religion are intertwined, not simply opposed. 

In the final part I apply the secularism-religion discussion to Mormonism specifically, and use the CES Letter as a case study. I’ve been none too kind to the Letter in the past, but I’ve since realized I missed something important–possibly the most important thing–that prevents certain critics and supporters of the Letter (and the culture from which it comes) alike from hearing one another. The reception of the CES Letter reveals some understated but critically important things about religious and secular values, the meaning of truth, secularism’s fraught relationship with religion, and the importance of understanding and guarding against both religious and secularist fundamentalism. And possibly most importantly, I’ll try to show how the agonizing dissonance that is so prevalent throughout many corners of Mormonism (particularly in online blog and podcast discussions) is at least partly a result of competing understandings of what in the history of philosophy has been referred to as “the Good and the True.”

This entire piece is well over 10,000 words and absolutely should be expressed more briefly, but if such a version will ever exist, it won’t be any time soon. Because of its length and the many enormously complex topics it tackles, I haven’t covered any one of them anywhere near extensively, so there is plenty of room for addition and subtraction. Most of these topics are well-worn in philosophy and cultural studies, and those who are familiar with that territory will no doubt find much of this almost scandalously underdeveloped, but I’ve tried to convey larger ideas within a much too-small package. Hopefully the comments will improve it in this regard.

Part One: Ecclesial Secularism, New Atheism, and the Supposed Impossibility of the Religious Moderate

Ecclesial Secularism

New Atheism is a subset of what might be called “ecclesial secularism,” or an ideological understanding and utilization of secularism that makes secularism, for all ironic intents and purposes, somewhat like a church. Ecclesial secularists see in secularism an all-embracing or universally encompassing worldview, the shape and contours—obviously not the content—of which look quasi-religious because of its totality, whose adherents are devout, organized, and committed to not simply maintaining a separation between religions and states, but to actively promoting the erasure of religious institutions and ideas throughout all of human culture, not merely as they touch on political institutions. Ecclesial secularists would like the idea of “separation” to become obsolete for the reason that there remains nothing to be separate from, in the same sense that such an idea would have been nonsensical in the Middle Ages because there was nothing to separate from. All of the above is generally in contrast to other, more conventional (and more common) secularists, who are unqualifiedly non-religious, but merely wish to keep balanced the separation between church and state, particularly as regards to what they see as aggressive attempts from churches to tip the balance in favor of religion (and in this they would not be misguided). But they don’t actively seek religion’s dissolution, nor are they of necessity temperamentally hostile to religion and religious peoples.

Like many churches, ecclesial secularists:

  • claim ideological universality. Their ideas aren’t meant to only apply to certain regions or cultures or government, but to everyone everywhere as the sole possessors of the “truth” of enlightenment and rationality.
  • grudgingly accept the legal reality of separation between church and state (in those areas of the world where such exists), but actively work to undermine and ghettoize religion where possible with the ultimate purpose of eliminating it from competition in the arena of ideas and loyalties. Likewise, churches historically have maintained religious monopolies in order to eliminate their competition.
  • attempt to be closely allied with cultural, academic, and political institutions in order to diversify and intensify the enforcement of their beliefs and ideas. Churches have also almost always tied themselves to state and/or secular powers for the same reasons.
  • attempt to gain converts through aggressive proselytizing.

New Atheism

This last attribute applies especially to New Atheists. New Atheism is ecclesial secularism as evangelism, secularism sermonized and preached and pamphleteered. As David Foster Wallace describes it, this kind of atheism is a mode of worship, “a kind of anti-religious religion, which worships reason, skepticism, intellect, empirical proof, human autonomy, and self-determination.” In other words, ecclesial secularists, with the New Atheists as their self-appointed missionaries, don’t simply value reason, empirical proof, autonomy, etc., not even as the highest values. Instead, they have elevated these values to a status worthy of veneration and devotion.

“Atheist” is barely even a properly descriptive term for the New Atheists, no matter how hostile they generally are to religion. Atheism is more wide-ranging and diverse than simply not believing in a god, but that particular non-belief (or, really, belief) requires a rather thorough understanding of the theism one is set against. Those identifying as New Atheists have virtually never demonstrated anything close to a robust understanding of the theology or theologies they are opposed to, particularly in opposing religions by the measurement of their most extreme and/or simplistic theologies and never the more nuanced and ecumenical theologies that can always be found within their ranks (which are de facto invalidated as not being sufficiently representative). Not being able to speak credibly about theology doesn’t undermine one’s goal to destroy religion as a certain kind of secularist (nor one’s general status as such) but it does undermine one’s credibility in defending anything more than a superficial atheism. At best, these are cheap atheists, their atheism acquired at almost no cost and too weak to confront three dimensional, uncaricatured religion. By the same token there are cheap Christians, Muslims, etc, too weak to confront the array of atheisms that exist, not to mention the ideas of the less extreme or less orthodox adherents of their own religions. New Atheists (and probably many self-proclaimed atheists in western societies) are arguably best understood simply as secularists.

The Impossible Moderate?

You can see all of this play out rather nicely in the Harris quote. His overall fundamental problem, endemic to all of New Atheism, is that he is aggressively uninterested in what a significantly large number of the religious –so-called “moderates”—have to say about their own religion and how they practice it. The underlying assumption here is that organized religion is both ideologically unsustainable and morally compromised, not just because of its dangerous fundamentalists but because of its more ordinary (moderate) practitioners. Why? Because if you are a “moderate” you are in complete self-denial about the One True Reality of your religious tradition, which you have been too cowardly to face. And if a significant number of modern religious practitioners are moderate, then a significant number of religious people in the modern world are deceiving themselves and others, thus religion is a lie and thus again it becomes immoral to belong to a religious organization, therefore and finally, it is imperative that our morally irreproachable secularized societies find ways to be rid of religion once and for all. This is a clever (and long overdue) take, because the usual New Atheist strategy has been to tag fundamentalism as the entirety of religion, which most people have seen as dangerous anyway (and more profoundly seen as such than an atheist would likely understand). But this strategy was easy to deflect because truly detrimental and crippling fundamentalism exists at the extreme edges of religion, and such a reductive argument was no more than a part-whole fallacy, or that something must be true of the whole if it is true of some part of the whole. New Atheists had been conflating religion with fundamentalism and it took some of them a while to actually quietly begin—but only just begin—to move away from this basic category mistake (one that Dawkins in particular is still eye-rollingly prone to make). 

The above quote is clearly aimed at those most likely to hear New Atheist arguments in the first place: those of the practicing religious who consider themselves at least somewhat intellectually informed and sensitive, ethically majoritarian, and averse extreme ideologies. You most effectively take these people down if you can show that they don’t really exist, and then all you have left are the fundamentalists, who at least possess the “virtues” of honesty and consistency. The moderates don’t even have that. And now we are at last left with what religion truly is at bottom: an irrational, hyper-ideological disease that can only be eradicated by baptizing humanity anew in the waters of science and reason.

Using “moderate” to describe self-deceived non-fundamentalists is itself a tactical choice because “moderation” only makes sense in the context of extremism. Referring to the non-radicalized, adaptable, and intellectually curious practitioner as a “moderate” reduces his or her entire worldview to mere reactionary protest against extremism (not to mention the fact that it’s much more familiar in a political rather than a religious context). While not unproblematic and too broad in other more specific contexts (and trying to avoid the largely unproductive debates that so starkly separate modernism from postmodernism), I think the term “religious modernist” (or “modernist” for short in this essay) is a more accurate way of distinguishing the theologically liberal from the more conservatively religious. (Liberal in this context does not directly refer to Progressivism or political liberalism; there are conservative faith practitioners who nevertheless hold to a liberal theology, which is a more unorthodox theology that has developed in the wake of the Enlightenment). Those that are religiously modernist or liberal are attuned to biblical hermeneutics, hold values that are compatible (but not necessarily identical to) the greater modernist milieu in which they live, embrace science and education, and are firmly non-dogmatic. “Modernist,” it seems to me, is more accurate a description than moderate. 

In any case, most of these so-called moderates actually focus more—not less—on the “dangerous or absurd parts of their scripture,” precisely because traditional interpretations have, in a more modern era, made such passages particularly dangerous or absurd, and this because they wish to “moderate” such danger and absurdity, or more accurately, develop better, more relevant, and more holistic interpretations of their religious texts and traditions. For the New Atheists, religious fundamentalism is the primary reason religion cannot be allowed to exist, and in this they’ve not only been consistent (though willfully ignorant about significant distinctions), but they’re also more or less surprisingly on-target, though not in the way they think, because moderates already also perceive fundamentalism as being a principal threat, not only to human societies but also to their own religion. And here’s the real kicker: If your goal really is to rid the world of religious fundamentalism, then because this is happening in their own community, and they therefore understand better than anyone the reasons for fundamentalism and what works and what doesn’t, and, most importantly, because they themselves have managed to escape or avoid the pitfalls of fundamentalism, these moderates are far and away your best shot for doing that. It would be much more effective to find ways to work with them in order to legitimately curb fundamentalism, especially as it touches on politics and culture. 

Part Two: Hermeneutics, Humanism, and the Theological Foundations of Secularism 

Hermeneutics and Contexts of Understanding

This brings us to the first of two very specific errors with Harris’ statement, errors that are illustrative of larger, more systemic trends in ecclesial secularist/New Atheist discourse. This first error is the idea that there is a clear, objective, assumptionless, and timeless meaning of a text, the one that plainly reveals the danger and absurdity of the foundations of religion. In other words, when you read the Bible, it is clear that the only possible reading of it must conclude that it is mostly nothing but violence or nonsense, and therefore it  must be universally condemned. But such a clearly universal reading of almost anything–to say nothing of something as complex as the Bible–is not possible, and the reason is, essentially, hermeneutics. Put briefly, hermeneutics is interpretation, particularly of complex and difficult texts. Interpretation is the attempt to understand. Understanding is mediated or transmitted through language, culture, history, genetics, etc., and it changes over time and incorporates new perspectives while shedding others. Embedded in perspectives, and as a consequence of mediation, are prejudices, biases, prejudgments—ways of seeing and thinking about the world that are simply part of what it means to be human. We cannot understand without these prejudgments, and yet these prejudgments limit our understanding to our individual experiences. We cannot come to a text by stepping outside our prejudgments, prejudices, perspectives, or tradition. But we can cultivate awareness of these conditions and try to understand these limitations, including those of other interpreters.

Because of our interpretive limitations, texts are virtually never perfectly clear. We do not and cannot possess the One True Meaning of a text, even if it existed (which it doesn’t). To come at a text purely objectively, meeting all the criteria for being universally unbiased, unprejudiced, and nonpartisan, devoid of logical, cultural, linguistic, historical, and experiential assumptions is impossible. Nor is it possible to shed our own perspectives even when taking into account (as we must) the history, culture, and language in which the text was produced, or in other words, do everything we can to understand everything about it. We can’t come to any understanding of a text without spilling ourselves all over it. Meaning isn’t frozen in time so that what the author of a text meant thousands of years ago is what the text irrevocably means today. It’s rarely possible even to fully know exactly what an author’s intent is or was. Scriptural meanings and interpretations have radically changed many times over the centuries, and it’s not because succeeding generations just kept getting the original meaning wrong, like a chemist who can’t seem to make thallium acetate because he keeps flubbing the formula. Textual interpretation doesn’t work like that at all. The most profound and impactful interpretations take account of history, culture, and original language, but they also extract relevant applications, metaphors, and narratives for contemporary readers and contemporary issues (think of the modern master of biblical exegesis, Robert Alter). And besides, there is no way of arriving at a totality of original intent. Even studying the history of the United States Constitution, as well-documented as its creation was, doesn’t reveal a singular, uncontestable “original meaning.” Interpretation is a form of story-telling, and there’s more than one way to tell a story.

Consequently, Harris’ description of fundamentalist readings of texts as the honest and clear ones—”Ok, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what god wants from me – I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.”—is ironically the very thing he himself is doing in castigating religious modernists for their “interpretations and selective readings.” In other words, he’s actually advocating a fundamentalist reading of scripture—and relatedly of all texts—by which we should be able to see the obvious “true meaning” of those dangerous and absurd passages, and this because such a method is “consistent, complete, and honest.” Interpretation, on the other hand, is self-deceptive and cowardly, a clever but vacuous way of avoiding hard truths about one’s tradition. Yet everyone, Harris and fundamentalists and modernists alike, interpret. Harris’ argument is itself an interpretation of the best way to read scripture, which, of course, he thinks objectively reveals scripture’s clear and constant advocacy of violent extremism and anti-science absurdity, and that’s all it does (or at least that result is important and dangerous enough to ignore anything else scripture might do). But there is no escape from interpreting, and no universal meaning that can be objectively determined. Every reading is selective. “We must accept what is says at face value” is just a non-starter. There is no face value.

Of course, as noted, interpretation goes all ways. Not just the fundamentalists or the secularists/atheists but also the modernists, also religious leaders, etc. Yes, that’s exactly right. And where religious leaders in particular operate through authoritarianism, their interpretations become particularly powerful and entrenched. But we know they change, and that they can change, that not even authorities can escape their own interpretive natures. Since we are all human beings with particular cognitive functions, we must all of us ultimately be persuaded, not simply coerced. Coercive meaning can attain temporary and immediate victories, but they only threaten to become permanent when there are no alternatives to challenge them (hint: through other interpretations). However lacking in bureaucratic authority others may be, they do hold—at least potentially—the authority of persuasion, which is ultimately a weak power of reasoning, imagination, and love that can and will out-endure a strong power of force and punishment. Interpretations compete with one another and there are none whose shelf-life is indefinite. Authoritarianism attempts to short-circuit this process through sheer power, but all power must be spent and exhausted, and the sheer and dominating kind burns the hottest, but flames out the quickest.

Finally on this point, both the religious and the secular often conflate contexts of discourse, which happens because each wants to impose on the world a singular, binding perspective that will force certain obligations on one side or the other. Both often insist on reading the Bible, for instance, scientifically as a way of squaring or condemning the Creation account. But the context for the Bible is not science, it is religion, and must be interpreted religiously and challenged religiously if need be. Science must be understood scientifically and challenged scientifically if need be. But both religion and science often insist there is only one legitimate context through which to understand the universe, and this is a particularly myopic mistake.

The (Necessary) Invention of Humanism

The other fundamental error here is regarding Harris’ basic understanding of the relationship between secularism and religion, illustrated by his conclusion that religious modernists are intellectually dishonest because they deceive themselves into thinking that their retreat from fundamentalism is due to a (false) enlightenment derived from within their own faith:

…moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside. In the 21st century, the moderate’s commitment to rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value, values that are potentially universal for human beings, comes from the last 1000 years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where we do find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there.

Harris is essentially saying that because modernists see the importance of so-called secular values (justice, equality, human rights, etc), they are halfway to secularism already and they’d be all in if they’d just stop lying to themselves. In theory religious moderation would be great, except that it’s simply not possible, because distancing yourself from the things that make religion dangerous or primitive is equivalent to distancing yourself from the entirety of religion. You’ve now found yourself on the outside of your religion. The very things that you’ve come to believe are important and care about are the antitheses of your religion. You cannot continue to claim to embrace what you admit are necessary modern moral values while at the same time identifying as a member of a religion which is hostile to those values. Both/and is not an option here, not if you’re honest and not if you’re committed to basic logic. The world may not be black and white but this choice is, and it’s your religion that is forcing it. You just need to wake up and take responsibility one way or another.

But Harris is operating within a common, yet far from contested understanding of secularism and its values, one that is far too simplistic to account for the complexity of both religion and secularism. The common view is that secularization is “not-religion.” Whatever value, philosophy, or worldview is not religious in nature is by default secular and opposed to the religious. Where the world was once full of believers who lived and thought by faith, now the world is increasingly filled with non-believers who live and think by the light of evidence and reason. And it’s this “community” that is responsible for all the values that the modernized world collectively considers to be morally good and right.

This is what Charles Taylor, one of the world-renowned thinkers on this issue, has identified as the “subtraction or remainder story” of secularization, the understanding that the Enlightenment was essentially a movement to subtract out superstition and religious belief from human thought and practice, and what is left over is secular rationality, which brings us scientific advancement, human equality, individual freedom, etc. (Taylor is a notoriously difficult and dense read, but James K.A. Smith provides a superb summary of his work which is highly recommended).

However, Taylor argues that the struggle for modernity was not just an attempt to subtract God and religious belief, but also an attempt to replace transcendence (meaning and value derived from an omnipotent God) with immanence (meaning and value derived here below from humanity itself), something he calls “exclusive humanism.” If secularism was merely subtractive, then it might make sense to say that the world could now be divided between those (the religious) who continue to depend on what is essentially no longer there (because it was subtracted) and who therefore must now truly resort to blind stubborn faith and belief; and those (the secular) who hold a worldview that for the first time in human history is rationally and clearly observable and provable, who don’t need to rely on mere belief because they have sure knowledge of the causes and meanings of their world. On this account, religion isn’t even necessarily inherently evil, it’s just primitive. And as a species we’ve simply moved beyond the primitive.

Notice how in this account it becomes much more plausible to reject the idea of pluralistic and non-authoritarian interpretation, because a subtractive secularist sees interpretation as only the unfortunate result of an antiquated worldview whose invisibility in the modern age makes multiple perspectives inevitable. But humanism is an addition to modernity’s carving of the world, not a subtraction. Humanism developed with principles, axioms, theories, experiments, etc. It was not, as the subtractive story would have us believe, what was under religion all along, shiny and new and whole, waiting to be uncovered. This is important because humanism is something that, like religion, must be believed; humanism is no less an invention of humans than religion was, and connecting the invention to the external world requires a kind of faith, faith that this new story (and it is a story) gives us a truer account of that world and our place in it than religion ever could. Therefore, the story of secularism is not about exactly what should be believed or disbelieved, but about the conditions of believability itself. The world is not divided between believers and non-believers, but among various kinds of believers, and belief or non-belief in God is only one kind of belief among many. Our age is one in which no single belief system can be taken as the only true and valid one, not that belief systems are obsolete. Secularists are believers, too. Not in God or religion, of course, but in the system of beliefs that make up their particular humanism (there are, of course, multiple humanisms), and their beliefs undergo revision, expansion, and reduction as well.

The Theological Foundations of Secluarism

But even if we concede that secularists are believers too, what about what secularists actually believe? If secularists champion human rights, equality, freedom, etc, especially in the more progressive forms they appear in today, then can’t we say that for modernists of all stripes secular beliefs are morally superior to religious ones? Surely these are the cultural values that oppose the patriarchy, racism, violence, and economic exploitation of religion, the ones that have improved the quality of life for so many generations of people. As Harris says, when a religious modernist adopts these values, she’s adopting the values of the enemy, not of her religion.

However, certainty in secularism’s singular creation and ownership of modern values is completely misplaced. Enlightenment rationalists (and, importantly, intellectual radicalists within their own religious traditions who significantly contributed to the birth of the modern age) didn’t create the values of the modern age out of nothing. In his 1922 classic Political Theology, Charles Schmitt notes that, “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure.” And over time, theological analogies shifted and adapted to political events that came to define their eras. For example, immediately prior to and during the beginning of the Enlightenment era, the transcendence of the sovereign ruler in relation to the state corresponded to the theological concept of the transcendence of God. By the 19th century, the more democratized idea of identifying the ruler with the ruled corresponded to the theological concept of the immanence of God. Many of our modern ideas and institutions are intimately bound to their analogical religious forbears. Thus, “finding modern ethical commitments within scripture” is not self-deception but seeing broadly familiar themes within a tradition that are more pronounced or pronounced in a different way within the walls of secularism, not to mention through the tools of modern hermeneutics, as mentioned above.

What this means is that the religious and the secular are entangled in one another. The secular didn’t imagine modern liberal values out of nothing; it grew out of religion and extended, adapted, and promoted values that were embedded in religious peoples, texts, and institutions for centuries. At the same time, there was absolutely a need for a pluralization and fracturing of a world order in which religious institutions were the repositories of every kind of spiritual and political power. The Enlightenment was, in most ways, a necessary good that has benefitted the lives of many generations, but its primary threat is from and to religious and secular fundamentalists, not the “moderates” in those camps. Secularism didn’t and doesn’t slow the advance of religion, it diversifies it. The religious modernists have secularism to thank, in part, for a more egalitarian context within which to think more pluralized and ecumenical notions of religion and theology. The insistence by ecclesial secularists, bent on the installation of secularism as the new world order, that religion is a totalitarian singularity and not a multiplicity, is the primary error of secularists of this order. Religious modernists contribute—often more effectively than any others—to what is arguably the best overall reason for secularism’s continued stable existence, which is to curb the excesses and encroachments of fundamentalism (arguably, it is when fundamentalism is collectively resisted that science and egalitarianism advance, not when religion as a whole is decimated or destroyed). But when secularists preach that secularism is a victory of progressive social evolution over thoroughly barbarous or absurd religion; that all religious people are dangerous and/or dishonest and stupid; that there is a simple, clear, singular interpretation of texts and histories, and it’s the fundamentalist one, and this is why religion is both an evil and a waste; that the truly enlightened and honest religious person is already a secularist anyway and has utterly rejected religion; and that secularism owes nothing to religion or anything else for its conceptual foundations and the political and cultural institutions it supports, then secularism becomes itself a kind of fundamentalist offshoot of the greater cultural and political project of human flourishing to which it has ostensibly dedicated itself, and whose own excesses it is in danger of succumbing to.

Even the values that secularism prizes the most are always being contested within its own house. Freedom, equality, gender and human rights, feminism, etc., do not have universally agreed-upon meanings and ways of implementation. We too casually throw modernism around like it’s a pre-manufactured, all-purpose, and unbreakable toy, when in fact the battles for those values are constant, and those values are always undergoing revision. They are constantly subject to the very debates and struggles that, even in spite of authoritarianism (and usually because of it), religious values are subject to within religious communities and sub-communities. There’s an immense intellectual, cultural, and spiritual intra-plurality within religion that is often not seen or purposefully overlooked. People who feel most at home living within these spaces move in and out of the secular and religious worlds with ease, as if they were seamlessly coherent. They think in both secular and religious terms. If not for the fundamentalists and official priests in their midst (not to mention the secularists), they would likely not make a substantive distinction between those two worlds.

Part Three: Mormonism, Purity, and the Conditions of Truth

Ecclesial Secularism, Fundamentalism, and Authoritarianism

Both fundamentalists and ecclesial secularists exploit the authoritarianism found in all organized religion to one degree or another. The inherently conservative nature of authority allows the fundamentalists to use the religious authorities in their tradition to repudiate the modernists or unorthodox and advance their own worldview. Many authorities, of course, are not strictly fundamentalist, but the structure in which they operate is conservative enough to allow and sometimes encourage the advance of the overall fundamentalist agenda of keeping modern/liberal elements within the faith in constant check, if not excluded entirely (though there is a good sociological case to be made for moderate checks).

But by this same token, ecclesial secularists also deride the modernism/liberalism found in these otherwise conservative traditions and exploit religious authority, obviously not because they wish to preserve or return to the mystical or supernatural fundamentals of the faith, but in order to show that the faith itself is not viable. Here, religious authority is used against the modernist by showing the modernist that their modernism is not possible (as already discussed in Part 1). The religious authority is posed as the embodied expression of the totality of the religion; by its nature, authoritarianism imposes itself in such a way that it attempts to overtly or covertly influence and control every aspect of religious life. Authoritarian appeals to anything within the faith—sacred texts, rituals, teachings, spiritual feelings or experiences, etc.—are ultimately self-referential appeals to authority itself in order to continually reinforce its own power as the creative fountain and/or boundary line of legitimate religion within the community. Because authority is inherently conservative and wary of extra-religious developments in the wider world, the modernist’s status as a modernist is automatically threatened.

However, expulsion from the community is the least effective and most narrow way in which modernists are tamed. Much more potentially damaging for the ecclesial secularist is to show that the modernist is deceiving herself and that she cannot morally or logically live in a “middle space” without coming undone completely at some point. Ecclesial secularists hold up the supposed totality of authority as evidence that the religious modernist has lost the battle before it even began. However creatively she can interpret, however well-versed she is in history, however adept at harmonizing the secular and religious worlds, the modernist is one who has elevated willful blindness to an art form. Or, worse, the modernist is fully aware of the contradictions of the religious and secular worlds and feels helpless in the face of authority, yet chooses to remain anyway, purposefully violating morality and logic in such a way that she becomes just as dangerous as the fundamentalist. There is no escaping authority when your religion is reducible entirely to that authority (which we can also call a “church”). If the religion is no more or less than the church, and the church is controlled by the authorities, then losing against authority is losing your religion.

The Enchantment and Disenchantment of Religious Modernism

All the prior elaborations of the weaknesses of the ecclesial secularist’s position apply here, yet there is no doubt that the primary struggle for religious modernism is with authoritarianism. The secularist is right to attack here because though the limitations of authority help to shape the modernist in certain ways, authority is manifestly the modernist’s Achilles heel. Typically, though, the modernist doesn’t address the legitimacy of authority directly. Instead, she provides more contemporary or novel interpretations of scripture and history that go well beyond orthodox readings. Instead of overtly questioning authority regarding social issues, the modernist employs various reasons why those issues don’t have to be a problem for her wider tradition. In other words, the modernist has learned how to fence with authority. She doesn’t often win, but she has learned how to lunge, feint, parry, and counter-attack in just such a way as to not lose outright, which enable her to make meaningful advances within the tradition on a number of fronts (artistically, literarily, academically, etc).

This dance is something the ecclesial secularist cannot abide. For the ecclesial secularist, the very necessity of the dance is a sign that authority has already won. But he doesn’t necessarily want the modernist to challenge authority directly. They both know that when a modernist decides to directly face down authority she will usually be crushed, and so most modernists will not be persuaded to do this. No, the ecclesial secularist merely wants the modernist to see that she is in the truly impossible situation of having to choose between the constant struggle to creatively re-define the middle ground without succumbing entirely to one end or the other, or face certain death through direct confrontation.

The modernist feels this deeply, swims in it unceasingly. There truly is a constant inner struggle to honor one’s own multiplicity amidst competing familial, religious, axiological, and intellectual loyalties. And many of course do choose to leave their religion for a variety of reasons. But there are two points to be made here. First, cultural systems as old and entrenched as religion are enormously complex. It is usually very difficult to see where I chose religion versus where religion chose me, and conversely where and when exactly I began to leave it behind. By the time we become aware that we feel positively entangled and converted or negatively disentangled and disenchanted, numerous elements we never saw coming have already impinged on us, shaping and colorizing real contexts for choice and belief. Our beliefs usually hold us, not the other way round. This is only to say that adherence to either religion or secularism cannot be described as purely rational (or irrational) choice. The nature of living in a complex world with well-developed cognitive functions is to find ourselves aware of being embedded in the world in such a way that distinguishing between what causes us to hold one view versus another and what choices we make within our embeddedness are usually not possible to ascertain, and of course this is true of everyone. Therefore, we are not in a good position to make clean, ethical judgments about why and how a person sticks with religion or leaves it behind.

Cross-Pressure and Diversities of Truth Processes

Another observation from Charles Taylor illustrates my second and more important point. To live in an age of multiple competing worlds—the secular age—is to live in a “contested, cross-pressured, and haunted world” (to quote James K.A. Smith). “Cross-pressure” is the experience of feeling counterpoised forces like doubt and longing, faith and questioning, existential loneliness and belonging, not in succession but simultaneously. But the escape into secularism is not an escape from this situation. To live in a secularized world (as opposed to the fundamentalist tunnel vision that insists that sees the purely religious world is the only true world) is precisely to live within this constant cross-pressure. Both the religious and the secular experience doubt and longing, faith and questioning, existential loneliness and belonging, and other competing forces. They might experience these in different ways and within different contexts, but unlike previous ages, this is the heart of the secular age in which we live.  And this is where ecclesial secularism dovetails most closely with fundamentalism, in that both see a single, rationally comprehensible, cleanly moral world, and that vision must be defended, even (and especially) at the cost of de-legitimating and exiling or destroying all other worlds. They both would insist that cross-pressures, contestation, and hauntedness only exist for the weak and less faithful (the charge of fundamentalists) or for the self-deceived and psychologically and morally compromised (the charge of ecclesial secularists). They have wheeled from one certainty to another.

Nevertheless, we’re still missing something here, something that’s much further down below our various criticisms of one another and the tribes we’ve declared loyalty to. My wager is that this missing something is the critical importance played by how we process and speak truths within the religion and secularism wars (and within religion and secularism themselves). In order to understand what is fundamentally going on in the ongoing wars over values and how those values impact actual lives, we shouldn’t focus so closely on what we believe is true, but how and why we believe what is true. I’ll illustrate this through a relevant and contemporary Mormon example: the reception of the CES Letter.

I’ve been pretty cold to the CES Letter in the past. My thoughts about it have received both praise and condemnation (which you can clearly see in the post at the above link), but upon some reflection I came to the conclusion that there was something important I had been missing that made my approach to the document and its reception not entirely fair. To see this, I had to take a careful and measured look at my own background.

Before I entered grad school to study religion, I had been a fairly representative sample of many if not most American Mormons. Though I moved around a lot, I mainly grew up in a conservative household in Utah. I held nominally conservative beliefs (not particularly vigorously) and was intellectually curious, but I was no culture warrior by any means. At one point in early adulthood I had aspirations to teach within the CES program, but a series of events put that possibility out of reach. I still wanted to teach and write about religion, though, and I eventually made my way to the Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, California, and then, after an M.A. in Religion, to Claremont Graduate School across the street to study for a PhD in philosophy of religion and theology.

I arrived in Claremont just in time for the inauguration of the first large-scale Mormon studies program, headed by eminent historian, itinerant fireside speaker, and all-around excellent human being, Richard Bushman. I spent my years there studying both Mormonism and philosophy and theology. It was a challenging but immensely rich experience. I attended religion classes with Mormons, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists, as well as representatives of nearly every political persuasion. We had what are surely some of the best teachers in the academic study of religion on the planet. Our readings and discussions were wide-ranging, and I spent most days discussing and arguing various aspects of religion with students of other faiths and no faith, followed by just as rigorous discussions with my fellow Mormons and former Mormons. We argued with and taught one another in equal amounts. We always came away with more questions than answers, and frequently our discussions were peppered with rants about something that made us angry or sad about the Church and its members, as well as stories of spiritual loss and fulfillment. My experiences in Claremont were both glorious and demanding, for which I am enormously grateful, and whose location in the relatively distant past sometimes causes me tremendous heartache.

My grad school experience was, in essence, the absolutely ideal experience for any religious person trying to live in a secular world (and for the secular trying to relate to the religious): relentlessly challenging, brimming with the best expositions of a variety of world views, staffed by world-class professors, men and women who ranged from the militant atheist to the devout in several religions and everything in between, connected only by their seriousness about the study of religion. Nothing was off the table, and we talked about the best and worst of religion and secularism, and traced their movements and impacts from ancient history to the present. I’m convinced that replacing the CES program with a variation of the Claremont experience would revolutionize the church, and entirely for the better.

I didn’t fully realize until I left Claremont how formative the experience was, and much more importantly, how few people had the privilege of similar experiences.  Around that time I began to engage in the ongoing online discussions of religion in general and Mormonism specifically and eventually fell in with the By Common Consent crowd. It was a natural fit; BCC was perceived (for good and ill) as a group of faithful intellectuals, and I identified with that (rather reductive) label. Predictably, this is also how I would engage others in conversation. For a long time, I felt frustrated with many of the discussions, whose participants insisted that the conversations proceed from particular caves—apologist, intellectual, feminist, progressive, conservative, post-Mormon, etc. If you spoke from a particular cave, certain others in other caves would automatically invalidate you based on your cave alone. But then, I played along with the identity politics, too. I invalidated others on this basis as well (and often still do; I’m in slow recovery).

Tribes within Tribes

In online Mormonism, the name for “religious modernist” is often “faithful intellectual,” or even just “intellectual.” It’s a term of derision as much as it is a self-identification (and often a smug one), and it’s also generally a misnomer because others within the wider range of Mormonism (including fundamentalists, ex-Mormons, apologists) could also accurately be characterized as intellectuals, but the name has stuck to this particular group. Every religious group has its modernists or “intellectuals”—they’re well-educated, but usually in the humanities and social sciences more than the the hard sciences and business. They engage their religion intellectually, often finding themselves nearly incapable of engaging with it on a spiritual or sentimental level. They’re not traditional apologists; although apologists are often well-educated and are plenty comfortable in the realm of the intellect, apologists adopt a defensive posture oriented toward institutional authority. The apologist’s tools are intellectual, but preservative and stabilizing. The reputed intellectual, by contrast, has no direct interest in defending the institution per se, but rather in thinking of alternative ways to live in it or alongside it, ways that honor her worldviews and competing commitments. Critics of the intellectual from the left accuse the intellectual of nevertheless being a stealth apologist for the institution by looking for and creating unorthodox ways to live within the institution rather than confront it directly as the purveyor of destructive values it is perceived to be. Critics of the intellectual from the right accuse the intellectual of disloyalty and undue reverence for the life of the mind at the sacrificial price of faithful acceptance of institutional norms.

The intellectual sees this opposition from both sides as confirmation of the rightness of her position. She is unendingly uncomfortable with or disturbed by orthodoxy, yet sees her education and forging of alternate paths within her tradition as themselves part of her religious practice. In other words, part of her reasoning  for why her education and interest in books and texts and citations and high-level argumentation and credentials are so important to her is that they are just as much a part of her religious world as ritual and communion. She makes no significant distinction between her intellectual orientation and her religiosity, and naturally she believes that this is an ideal religious existence. But at the same time, this puts her in tension with her surrounding environment, with both her worlds inversely informing her that she is not sufficiently authentic to be considered a full-fledged citizen and that she needs to finally decide which world she is going to live in.

She agrees wholeheartedly with many of her critics from the left about the flaws of the institution, critics who would otherwise be her political allies, and with whom she feels more of a natural affinity. In fact, she considers many of these folks to be oriented intellectually like herself. She agrees (sometimes less enthusiastically) with her critics on the right that there is something worth preserving in the institution, something worth fighting for. That relative lack of enthusiasm is largely due to the pain she sees that various institutional mechanisms inflict on certain of its members and on herself, and this reveals that she isn’t really a pure centrist; she usually (though not exclusively) lives and thinks from somewhere to the left. (Where this isn’t the case you have that rarer creature whose individual views are genuinely pluralized, so she’s starkly left on this issue, starkly right on another, but her general orientation is to the right).

The burning question here is: what is keeping her from simply fully accepting her tentative lean toward one world and going all-in on secularism and repudiating her religion as just as damaging as she often complains about it, and almost always for the very reasons that secularists give their salute? The answer, I believe, resides within competing notions of truth.

Truth-Formation and the Correspondence Logic of Purity

Competing understandings of truth form the basis for all substantive arguments about values, and are the ultimate reasons for war and attrition of all kinds. To illustrate this with one example, we often hear some variation of, “All things being equal, I would rather have a church that is good than one that is true.” This is actually a false dichotomy. It pits what we think is morally right or just or worthy of enacting in the world (the Good) against what we see as disclosed to us, or unconcealed, unhidden (the True). Yet this competition between the two looks inevitable when our idea of goodness seems completely opposed to our idea of truth, with no apparent way to reconcile them. In contemporary Mormon discourse, goodness and truth are more or less structurally equivocal, so that they are harmonized, and what enables them to be in harmony is the idea of purity. Goodness is material or personal purity (also referred to as righteousness or worthiness), a state of innocence before God and humanity, either as the natural state of small children, or as a result of personal repentance and obedience to God and God’s chosen leaders. When we say that something or someone is good, we are saying it is materially pure, without stain or sin, uncorrupted and clean. When we say that “He is good,” we are saying that he is righteous, that he has done what is necessary to be worthy, whether through baptism, repentance, re-commitment to leaders’ teachings, living the standards, etc. Truth is institutional purity, in that the institution was given to us whole and complete, and therefore what flows from the institution is pure and untainted. So when we say that the church is true, we are really saying that the church is pure: It is the only entity of its kind that is unsullied by human hands, given to us and preserved in its full integrity by God. This additionally means that all of history is sacred history and only relevant as it touches on and contributes to the purity of the institution. When we say that the Book of Mormon is true, we are really saying that the book is pure: It likewise came from God and is unsullied by human hands, containing none of the human falsities or half-truths that are present in every other book to some degree or another. Truth and goodness, then, are both in essence that which is undiluted, not watered down or thinned out, that which isn’t weakened by sin or human reasoning. In varying contexts they are distinguishable, but in the end, truth and goodness are the same.

When otherwise conservative religious people begin to see greater and greater worth in modern values and become gradually more modernist, they tend to undergo an axiological transformation, replacing the contemporary Mormon idea of the Good (material purity) with that of secularism’s more egalitarian understanding of the Good (justice and equality for all), but then often fail to likewise replace or let go of the logic underlying the Mormon understanding of the True (institutional purity). When this happens, Mormon modernists begin to see a disturbingly aggressive disconnect between their moral values and the actions of their necessarily pure church. That alone makes their interaction with Mormonism difficult, but at the same time, their following of the logic chain of Mormon truth claims as tied to its sacred history remains a purist one. But because Truth and Goodness are tied so closely together, their newly adopted value system—social justice, equality, individuality, feminism, individual freedom—already in deadly tension with their former understanding of Goodness (and which former understanding is still the operating one in their communities), collides catastrophically with their epistemology, in which the structure of institutional purity was the keystone that made truth the Truth. And now every event of Mormon history is run through with cracks and fissures as it crashes against those various values, and the realization that history isn’t as sacred and pure as was once believed severs the link between truth and institution, and this severed link makes truth falsity. It’s not that they continue to literally believe the narratives as they have always been traditionally told (increasing secular influence has largely contributed to that), but that they continue to think with the same correspondence-logic that declares that truth is wholly reducible to the perfect correspondence between narrative and fact, or in other words, that something is true only if it corresponds to an actual state of affairs (in the present or past). But contemporary Mormon historiography has revealed that this is often not the case–the narrative no longer aligns with the facts, and yet it is continually emphasized and held up as an object of loyalty. The end result for many is the sense that the Good has been corrupted and the True has miserably failed. There’s nothing left.

Unless, of course, the True were also to undergo a transformation, and this is what I had failed to see before. The CES Letter is the perfect example to illustrate this, as it has become a key component of a familiar exit phenomenon that often is under girded by the purist idea of truth. Reputedly, thousands of people have found in it confirmatory evidence that the church is not true, and perhaps most importantly, it functions as a succinct repository of the most damning criticisms of the church (all of which have been around for a long time but usually not all together, and never in such aesthetically appealing form). What’s more, it is said to initially come from a place of authenticity, not blatant manipulation, first formulated when its author had sincere questions about church history, teachings, and social issues that were not being satisfactorily addressed by church authorities. It is written both out of a conviction of the secular Good (particularly as it applies to the sexism and racism within the institution’s history), and within the correspondence-logic of institutional purity (again, the logic, not the literal belief in the truth-claims of the institution). It has become the perfect manifesto for the disaffected post-Mormon who has come to believe not only that the church is fundamentally and fully false, but that it’s also fundamentally and fully harmful. But its full and unthinking trust in the logic of correspondence that upholds institutional purity is its own undoing. Unless, of course, we are not required to follow that chain as far as it goes.

Logics of Different Worlds

Many Mormons firmly entrenched in the Mormon Good and True would probably not even be exposed to it for the simple reason that they are not in an alienated mode of searching and questioning, and even if they were, they might be expected to dismiss it outright as a result of their conception of the Good as personal purity (touch not the unclean thing, don’t go looking for answers on the Internet, avoid the very appearance of evil, etc). But other Mormons—though still linked to the traditional Good and True, but perhaps more loosely—might be tempted otherwise. The Letter’s structure and its themes are familiar enough to at least give one pause, if not provoke a full-blown crisis, especially when it becomes difficult to find a satisfactory clear alternative answer. This particular phenomenon is the bread and butter of the apologist industry, which operates under the same correspondence logic but points to conclusions that reinforce the institution, not destroy it. But apologists are less convincing in large part because they still hold to the traditional idea of the Good, and as I am arguing, the Good and the True must be harmonized in order for trust to exist. And this similarity in thinking in terms of the logic of correspondence is why both the post-Mormon critics and the apologists both have much to say to one another but do little to advance the conversation, since it consists in both sides using that logic to one-up one another.

When I wrote my piece on the CES Letter, several colleagues with backgrounds similar to mine (even some former Mormons-turned-atheists) praised it particularly for what might be called “the middle-way approach of profundity” between the apologists and the critics, arguing that both their approaches were similarly simplistic and two-dimensional. I wasn’t going to play that particular game, I saw nothing that required me to, and I saw more productive and sophisticated ways to deal with intellectual and historical difficulties. Critics of the piece rolled their eyes that of course I hadn’t read it all the way through (I hadn’t, though now I have), and what’s more, I didn’t answer a single question that the Letter posed! How could my criticisms be taken seriously when I refused to respond to any of the specific issues the Letter raised? Typical Mormon “intellectual,” thinking his flowery language and references to famous philosophers could be a substitute for actual engagement with the problems. This avoidance is all the more evidence that the Letter cannot be refuted.

But none of us (including so-called intellectuals) saw the competing theories of truth at the bottom of this and every other exchange. They, no different from their opponents, argued about specific things in specific terms and were left in disbelief that others couldn’t see the force of their arguments. But they almost never saw how their understanding of truth informs all of their thinking, and the problem was that that understanding wasn’t shared by everyone. For example, I thought it was pointless to respond to any of the questions specifically, because my theory of truth allowed for a lot of latitude in looking at a text or considering the philosophical import of a statement, or assigning value to the narrative of a historical event. And the general framework and themes of the Letter were far too reductionist and simplistic. In fact, however, their theory of truth followed the Mormon logic behind the idea of the True, which looked for correspondence between what the Church has taught and what actually happened, or what is or isn’t there. Not being able to demonstrate such correspondence, the Church was shown to be clearly “false.”

This can be shown by considering what might plausibly happen if I do attempt to answer the questions individually. To the first question, “What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? An ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?” I could answer, “Blake Ostler’s expansion theory of translation clearly allows for anachronisms in the text because it is partly derived from Joseph Smith and his environment,” or, “Obviously because Joseph Smith likely authored or orally transmitted the Book of Mormon and used that addition of the Bible to help him, but ‘authored’ allows for a wide range of natural phenomena that include creativity, hybridization, automatic writing, the experience of being inspired and subject to the ‘daemon’ that many non-religious writers have described, and even, why not, being inspired on some level by a divine being, because for all we know inspiration might come from earthly things.” However, we already know what the “correct” answer is, and we know this because we have all bathed in the waters of the Mormon idea of the True for decades and could pick it out of any lineup. The correct answer, intended to yield larger specific conclusions is, “Because Joseph Smith wrote it with the assistance of the 1769 King James Bible [okay, that seems to follow, I guess], which shows that it’s not an ancient text [ah, yes, that would then be true] and that’s important because Church leaders continue to teach you that it is [uh-oh], therefore the Church is not true [HOLY FETCH].” The answers to all the other questions more or less have this form and content, especially the italicized phrase. And the phrase builds on itself and multiplies the deeper you get in to it, emphasizing over and over again that the thing that made your entire world meaningful is actually full of lies, from one end to the other. This is so powerful because truth as institutional purity has set itself up for precisely this problem, so that for many, when it arrives, it arrives with the force of a hurricane, and there is little to protect them. And for that reason it cannot simply be dismissed, and apologists are right for attacking it (and should probably do so more if they understand how close to home it really hits) and it’s so broadly effective because it sows so much doubt into the foundation of institutional purity by using the very same logic that sustains it in the first place. Consequently, not every question/answer has to be thoroughly damning, not every issue or concern has to be irrefutably challenged, (maybe, some might say, some of the apologists’ responses seem to be plenty reasonable) it just has to produce enough doubt and distrust to throw a wrench in the logic chain, or like a jury charged with finding merely reasonable, not exhaustive, doubt in order to exonerate the accused.

But what if I hold an alternate theory of truth? What if the institutional purity/correspondence model no longer convinces me? Because this had been one major result of my graduate school experience and often is a result of a certain kind of extensive education (which some will see as Satanic and others salvific). There, no different from online Mormon discussions, competing ideas of the True were the undercurrents of every class, book, and discussion. Exposure to so many of these was fairly effective by itself, but we often tore away the manhole cover in order to actually be able to point to them and name them. There was a sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken demand that we be aware of how various understandings of truth colored everything. And the more exposure I had, and the more I became aware of how truth impacts the entire structure of thought, the further away I moved from the Mormon idea of the True (while I was simultaneously embracing alternative ideas of the Good), and saw other candidates for Mormon ideas of the True (plural). I saw the questions of history and value and truth claims through different eyes and saw that no particular way of arriving at truth was binding on me, except for the one that happened to actually bind me. Sure, I could answer all the questions in the Letter, but they would simply be dismissed by those still under the hold of the correspondence logic of purity as psychobabble, avoidance of hard truths, etc, while those who see truth similar to me might say that I’ve destroyed it once and for all. But is either side right? So the obvious response to this is the ecclesial secularist’s response to the religious modernist: If your idea of the Good and the True isn’t shared by those who administer your religion (or the fundamentalists), then you can no longer consider yourself a true member of your religion. Welcome to the desert of the Real.

Truth and Belonging

But that’s the crux of all this, isn’t it? Do I still get to call myself a Mormon if I don’t share some of the fundamental understandings of how contemporary Mormonism presents its truths? Is it legitimate for me to critique or imagine alternate pathways from within the religion? Am I not morally obligated to step fully outside in order to do that? If I don’t subscribe to the very understanding of truth which other members and more importantly the authorities themselves subscribe to, how can I even be a legitimate player in the game when I don’t follow the same rules? But that’s the force of finding oneself convinced by other methods of truth-making. That church leaders, for example, teach one thing about history but history shows something else to have occurred is still problematic, but my truth process doesn’t require that those kinds of things destroy the entire edifice because church authorities are no longer standing there alone, holding it up. Further, it’s not that promoting misinformation (ignorantly or purposefully) is now okay, it’s that the logic that makes of authority the single linchpin of my personal experience with religion is no longer operable. My religion has exploded beyond those bounds, and there are now several things I understand that are not dependent on that authority, and I can conceive of a vast religious landscape that authority did not and cannot cultivate because in many, many ways religion is far vaster and more mysterious than authority could ever hope to encompass, no matter how it tries. It doesn’t erase the tension with authority , of course, and in some ways only heightens it, but at the same time it allows me not to be immediately crushed when the logic of purity doesn’t deliver. And that’s not even to say that my truth is The True. But showing how I believe it is and why it seems to differ from others’–that’s where my focus should be in conversation and argumentation.

None of this is to say that the pain of association with one’s religious community can never be justification for separation, regardless of one’s utility with truth. It is manifestly necessary for some people to leave in order to heal and become whole, and we should accept the reality that this sometimes happens, not because they couldn’t have faith, or were steeped in sin, or were disobeying the rules, but because there were those who couldn’t love them as they were, including authorities. We must, I believe, recognize the full authenticity of those decisions and have obligations of love and respect toward those who choose this. Further, authoritarianism remains a problem for the religious modernist or “faithful intellectual,” one that is often avoided in favor of intellectual or artistic expressions that touch on everything except for authority. It’s true that intellectuals have learned a kind of non-confrontational tango with authority, but I think they need to do a better job in being honest about this and finding better ways to talk about it. Authority is not less damaging or potentially damaging merely because one can engage with it at a certain level (and virtually every so-called intellectual I know acknowledges this). We must acknowledge the real dangers and limitations, where they exist, and remain vigilantly aware of our own advantages and what makes us free where others are not.

But I challenge the idea that there are rules that must be agreed upon beforehand or one is too compromised to compete. You don’t learn how to live in this cross-pressure or change the way things are merely by confronting power on its own terms. Some might feel called to do that, and their actions can sometimes cause much-needed shifts in the status quo, but others offer a compelling vision of how the rules themselves could be different, that we can change the way we make and see the truth that informs how we see the world. And I don’t find compelling or legitimate the general orientation and specific critiques of ecclesial secularists who evangelize exit narratives and preach the gospel of face-valued, uncomplicated, and antagonistic secularism, one that continues to obsess over religion in much the same ways that fundamentalists obsess over first principles. This space where we determine collective and self-authenticity is where the heat of battle is hottest, and rightly so, because that’s where the fate of the mind and soul of Mormonism is most directly determined, where the fate of the mind and soul of any religion moving through the secular age is determined. That’s where we take stock of what form of truth informs our thinking, and if another form can have a claim on us. Must truth be revealed through the prism of history (the organization of a church), or can it be conceived of as an event (something that has happened to us or to others, but not the thing that was produced as a result)? Cannot truth be speculative and not merely that which corresponds? Is religion entirely reducible to the church—and therefore the church’s rules and norms—just because it is mostly widely expressed and seen there? Can we interpret something differently from how authorities interpret? Are the ostensibly modernist values I hold dear entirely derived from secular culture? Are they incompatible with my religion? There are risks involved with all these propositions, no doubt, not just the risk of ratcheting my tension with authority to unendurable levels (for both myself and authority), but also the risk of becoming so enamored with my world that I, too, begin to become blind to other worlds, other ways of thinking and seeing. But determining all this should be the result of ongoing negotiation and mediation as I try to live according to my truths among others who are striving according to theirs. And just because I am not as loud or confrontational or uncompromising at others doesn’t mean that my own comparatively quiet revolutions are invalidated.

Secularists are no freer than the religious in this regard. They do not live in the vacuum of an exceptional situation, devoid of uncertainty and interpretation. Cross-pressure is ever-present, and negotiating among truths, falsities, perspectives, values, norms, relationships, etc. is an ongoing project. Tension cannot be wholly avoided, even if it must be managed in certain ways. What we must try to understand are the actual conditions for truth and belief, not simply make judgments of what is specifically proclaimed as true or believed. It’s not that one view of truth is the “Correct” one, but that one single view should not be allowed to permanently overshadow the rest. Obviously this is a direct problem when it comes to authority proper, but I’m speaking more specifically of negotiated truths among other groups within and without religion. Truth must be made and won, not simply declared. (Or it must be declared through the process of making and winning it). This isn’t an argument for moral or value relativity, but an acknowledgment of the way the process actually works. Sometimes our views will win out. Sometimes we will absolutely be certain of what we know. And other times not. But the process of negotiating, persuading, arguing, listening, understanding, is ongoing, no matter what vantage point we see from. Our awareness of these conditions—our interrogating of the ways truth is seen and expressed—will make all the difference in how we interact with one another, within and between our various tribes.

Competing claims for truth are no more than the stories we tell. But story-telling is deadly serious business. Its rules are stringent and unyielding. A true story must be believable, agree with and understand the structures of accepted laws and norms in order to provocatively and believably violate those laws and norms when necessary (what is the story of Mormonism but just such a violation?). It must captivate its audience, be adaptable for all kinds of people, and call forth new shapes and creatures made of those things that inspire us and break our hearts. So when I say that there are alternative truth-stories we can tell about what matters most to us–for both religion and secularism–that’s something that can only be undertaken with fear and trembling at a demanding price, and they will never be finished, and it’s unlikely everyone will agree with them and want to pass it on, though a few will if we’re fortunate. But that doesn’t mean telling it shouldn’t be taken up, or that it’s automatically invalidated because it is an alternative.

Finally, I’ve talked a lot about fundamentalism in this piece. I’m sure I’ve unfairly caricatured it in some ways. Nevertheless, fundamentalism—religious or secular—remains the primary overall threat to human societies for all the reasons previously listed and more, but ultimately it is dangerous because it is utterly devoid of genuine universality. Or put another way, its universality is singular (only for those who believe and act in particular ways), rather than plural (allowing for the differentiation of the world though still committed to a specific world). In other words, fundamentalism does not allow even the potential for those that don’t meet its requirements to live. It is the parsing of the worthy and the unworthy, the accepted and the exiled. Fundamentalists don’t negotiate. They don’t listen and weigh and analyze. Fundamentalists see the world in complete linearities, a perfect grid where everything is allotted its place and time and nothing can be moved except at the price of its existence. Fundamentalism doesn’t “try to find a way,” it is the way. Its purposes are deadly clear, certain, and without exception. It is most certain of who should live and who should die, sometimes literally and other times tribally, or legally (in terms of rights) or spiritually.

All of which is to say that the battles between the secularists and religious are often so much tilting at windmills. The true danger comes from the unconditionally certain in our midst, religious or secular. It’s not that it’s unfair to demonize religious “modernists” or “intellectuals” (boo-hoo, they’ll get over it) it’s that it directly undermines the real shared project of attempting to keep as much of religion and culture as possible out of the hands of those whose eyes are filled with an uncompromising utopia that must be realized at all costs. In this, the struggle for the Good and the True is never over.


  1. Thank you for this, Jacob! I’ve skimmed it and can see I need to read it carefully and ponder, if not actually full-on ponderize, it.

  2. FarSide says:

    I obviously haven’t had time to read your paper, though I am looking forward to it. There is one thought, however, that I had after reading the preface. At the end you write:

    “The fundamentalist picks up the book and says, ‘Ok, I’m just going to read every word of this and do my best to understand what god wants from me – I’ll leave my personal biases completely out of it.’ Conversely, every moderate seems to believe that his interpretation and selective reading of scripture is more accurate than god’s literal words.”

    I can’t say that I disagree with this, but I would suggest (and forgive me if you already make this point in the body of your paper) that one of the reasons the moderate eschews scriptural literalism is because he is trying to make the scriptures conform to the reality of his own existence, a reality that cannot envision God-ordered genocide or an ark to which penguins miraculously migrated just before a universal flood. The fundamentalist, by contrast, accepts as factually accurate the text of the scriptures but approaches the world much the same way the moderate does—readily condemning any country that would seek to restore Biblical slavery and opposing any political candidate that proposes a Pauline-like initiative to disenfranchise women.

    To me, when it comes to the scriptures, it is the fundamentalist that must live with more cognitive dissonance than the moderate. (Though I suspect most fundamentalists don’t think of their approach to the scriptures in these terms.)

  3. Clark Goble says:

    Wow. I’d never have connected Dehlin to the New Atheist movement. They seem quite different on the face of it. I’ll read this and see what I think. Color me skeptical at the beginning though. (That’s a lot to read before commenting)

  4. FarSide, that’s a quote from Sam Harris — it constitutes the Preface because Jacob analyzes and engages it throughout the paper.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, without commenting on the paper in question, I think that his point might be that the moderate of a certain stripe reads the texts the same as the literalist and then just discounts the literalist reading when it conflicts with their own views. Of course there’s an other sense in which there is no literalism at all just naive hermeneutics where one reads as if the words meant what you’d mean if you wrote those words. The moderate and the various types of “literalists” read different but equally inappropriately applying their context to determine meaning.

    Personally I hate the term “literalist” since it almost never means that. Rather it’s just that people don’t consider the possibility that the author is writing in a fashion different from what they’re used to with those terms.

  6. HOLY FETCH, good read.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    LOL John. Hilarious. I didn’t notice it either, although I haven’t even started to read the paper. My qualms with Harris in the past have been more the horribly uncharitable way he reads the religious not to mention his unwillingness to note fairly substantial differences within groups.

  8. Harris nailed it.

    So, the “moderate” is actually a secularist in fundamentalist clothing? And the moderate’s concern is to make sure the secularists know the moderates are more contemptuous of the fundamentalists than the secularists are?

    In other words, moderates are wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and moderatism is merely virtue-signalling?

    But isn’t that another way of saying moderates are unbelievers – Pharisees, scribes, hypocrites – the broad mainstream, as it were?

    The idea of God is all well and good – but heaven forbid his word should be understood literally. Then we’d have to believe in a historical Adam and Eve, Jonah and the whale, hell, maybe even a literal Son of God with a literal resurrection! Everyone knows where science contradicts scripture, science has won.

  9. I think the New Testament shows the fundamentalists are the Pharisees and hypocrites.

  10. Well, I go with the JST on this one.

    JST Luke 16
    13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

    14 And the Pharisees also who were covetous, heard all these things; and they derided him.

    15 And he said unto them, Ye are they who justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men, is an abomination in the sight of God.

    16 And they said unto him, We have the law, and the prophets; but as for this man we will not receive him to be our ruler; for he maketh himself to be a judge over us.

    17 Then said Jesus unto them, The law and the prophets testify of me; yea, and all the prophets who have written, even until John, have foretold of these days.

    18 Since that time, the kingdom of God is preached, and every man who seeketh truth presseth into it.

    19 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than for one tittle of the law to fail.

    20 And why teach ye the law, and deny that which is written; and condemn him whom the Father hath sent to fulfill the law, that ye might all be redeemed?

    21 O fools! for you have said in your hearts, There is no God. And you pervert the right way; and the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence of you; and you persecute the meek; and in your violence you seek to destroy the kingdom; and ye take the children of the kingdom by force. Woe unto you, ye adulterers!

    The Pharisees were closet atheists. Curious, isn’t it, how closet atheists rise to power in religious communities. Very, very far from literalists. They, like moderates do today, thought it was all a lie, and were in it for show – ie, virtue-signalling. They valued community, family, money, security, stability, respectability in the world – not at all what the faith of God is about.

    Also curious: the business of apologetics is not to justify God, but to reconcile the scriptures with the science of the age. Because the unbelieving moderate always thinks Science has won in any conflict, and his concern is to let the more consistent secularist know that he, too, doesn’t believe all that crazy stuff like his benighted brethren.

  11. Log, no, that is not right at all. The moderate on Harris’ reading is a secularist in secularist’s clothing who is deceiving herself into believing she can have her religion without fundamentalism. She is already nominally a secularist and should see the nonsense of her position trying to straddle the middle between pure secularism and fundamentalism.

  12. Isn’t that essentially what I said? If it ain’t literally true, it’s literally false.

  13. I would not call the Pharisees “closet atheists,” which is a modern description of one who consciously hides her atheism while putting on a believing front. If we could even show that atheism in some form even existed on a measurable scale in Jerusalem and Galilee 2,000 years ago, that doesn’t apply here because even in the JST reading (which you can take or leave), the Pharisees have resisted the true conception of a living God who is the God of the poor and the meek and have opted instead for a God who reveres the strict letter of a misinterpreted law that harms the children of the kingdom while offering the elite comfort and security. That God doesn’t exist, but the Pharisees believe he does. True atheism would have made no sense in the context of this community.

  14. No you said “So the moderate is a secularist in fundamentalist clothing.” I responded that the secularist is a secularist in secularist clothing. Further, the concern of the moderate you pointed to is not at all the concern I addressed in the piece.

  15. Sidebottom says:

    Overall perceptive and spot-on, but I have to object to your sloppy use of the term fundamentalist. ‘Fundamentalism’ refers to a specific movement among Protestant Christians, one that’s difficult to project meaningfully onto other religious or irreligious ways of thinking. You’re not the first to co-opt it to mean something like ‘inflexible sense of moral certitude’, but it wasn’t until the final few paragraphs that I was clear on your meaning.

    In Firefly Captain Mal refers to this as the mindset of the “True Believer”, a mindset which can properly apply to both secularists and the religious. I have yet to find a more appropriate term.

  16. It’s good to make a distinction, that there is an identifiable group in history that we call “Fundamentalists,” and I like the connotations of “True Believer,” but the term is also used widely among scholars to describe the characteristics of a specific behavior found among subsets in most social groups, though especially religious ones. I don’t see the term as being sloppily used here.

  17. The moderate is a secularist – an unbeliever – in fundamentalists’ – believers’ – clothing. And they’re dishonest about the grounds of their secular values where the fundamentalists are not dishonest about the grounds of their religious values. That is the essence of Harris’ point.

    You did say this.

    I also critique Harris’ general criticism of the religious “moderate,” and show how the moderate not only occupies a legitimate place in modern religions, but is even more invested in limiting fundamentalism than the secularist.

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Carry on.

  18. FarSide says:

    Clark and john f., thanks for your observations. I should have waited to comment until after I had read the article.

  19. Martin James says:

    Here is a thought experiment. Imagine this line of thinking is passed down for say, 10 generations. Is it replicable? By that I mean will the future generations be able to be religious moderns? Even though it is an interesting place to inhabit, it seems to me that it is a temporary and transitional place. That is not to say that it secularism is the likely result or that fundamentalism is the likely result. It is just to say that religious modernism seems to be unable to reproduce itself and will lead to something different.

  20. Only had time to skim, because I *am* at Claremont, and I see your description apply to me, more or less. Different emphasis than Jacob had at Claremont, but significant overlap.

    I had a problem with this- “When we say that the Book of Mormon is true, we are really saying that the book is pure: It likewise came from God and is unsullied by human hands, containing none of the human falsities or half-truths that are present in every other book to some degree or another.”

    But then I got down further, and realized you were critiquing this kind of approach to truth. What you write above, I also disagree with. I’m always reluctant to post links to myself, but I think there is a strong strand of Mormon thought that has been forgotten, and cuts against this kind of conception of truth. I explore it a bit in my initial paper here ( video, rough text in pdf ).

    Perhaps this shift is reflected in the statements below made at two different times, but perhaps it’s just different rhetoric or not quite apples-to-apples. But compare this


    believe in revelation. It may come dim; it may come indistinct, it may come sometimes with a degree of vagueness which we do not like. Why? Because of our imperfection; because we are not prepared to receive it as it comes in its purity; in its fulness from God. He is not to blame for this. It is our duty though to contend for more faith, for greater power, for clearer revelations, for better understanding concerning the great truths as he communicates them to us. That is our duty; that is the object of our lives as Latter-day Saints (George Q. Cannon, October 5 1879, JD 21:76-77).

    with a more recent General Conference statement,

    Like all that comes from God, this doctrine is pure, it is clear, it is easy to understand—even for a child.

    We do need to shift some basic assumptions made by many LDS.

  21. This is a big project and it will take me some time to engage and have anything useful or constructive to say or add (if ever . . . probably never). But in the meantime, some personal reactions. (a) This is brilliant and insightful, partly because I agree pretty much down the line (that always contributes to thinking something is good) but more because it does better at every turn at expressing things that I have had a faint inkling of. (b) It is helpful to me in understanding those who are strongly affected by the CES Letter. Having read (much of) the letter, I have had a never-publicly-admitted “so what” reaction. (c) At a most personal level, I greatly appreciate feeling validated in living a “different Truth” paradigm within the Mormon tradition. I have had too many people, including at least one very senior authority, tell me that place doesn’t exist.
    One note–I am told by people of my father’s generation (not coincidentally the generation of many of our current General Authorities), that in their generation and into the 1960s (date very approximate but not completely made up) there was in Mormon tradition an accepted standard meaning of every part of the scriptures. In that setting, I suspect the Sam Harris quote would seem more forceful or effective at first glance, and I suspect that your hermeneutics argument, while no less effective in the end, would be framed somewhat differently. This is relevant because there is a theoretical Mormon audience still alive who grew up with one accepted meaning standard works.

  22. Yes but Ben this wasn’t an argument from scholars crying “look deeper! There’s so much more! It doesn’t have to be read this way!” This was an attempt to describe the mainstream discourse about truth as it applies to specific normative truth claims. I completely agree that we need to work to demonstrate how to see things differently, but then, that’s one of the main arguments of the post. Also, as somewhat of an aside, Cannon appears to largely be addressing personal revelation and our inability to receive it in its purity due to our imperfections. I doubt he would apply this to the Book of Mormon as revelation (though we easily could if we point out how the book asks us to read it).

  23. Christian, I obviously agree with all this, at least generally. Well-put. Could you be more specific about “an accepted standard meaning for every part of the scriptures”? It seems that we have exactly that right now with the scripture curriculum, and sourced directly to the Correlation effort during the 60s.

  24. Martin, you’ll have to say more about why you think this is the case. Of course “religious modernism” will be considered by many to be too broad a description, i.e., not descriptive enough, or simply wrong because of certain negative developments in modernism, understood as a cultural movement. But if it broadly applies to those who are religious yet firmly ensconced in the wider secular world, then I don’t think that it’s true at all that religious modernism won’t go on. It will change form multiple times, but there have been such modernists since the Enlightenment over 2 centuries ago, largely because such a way of being in the world has to constantly adapt.

  25. I’m afraid I can’t — it’s before my time (at least conscious aware time). It was told to me not as a correlation effort, something imposed from above, but as a cultural observation, the kind of thing you hardly notice until it changes. As if sitting in the equivalent of a gospel doctrine class there is no discussion about scripture because everybody “knows,” and (I suppose) discussion takes other directions.

  26. 6:42am refers to 5:47am which refers to 10:11pm (commenting through WordPress which threads doesn’t look the same without threading).
    Further to 6:42, it occurs to me that Correlation didn’t come about in a vacuum, and (if the tales of scriptural uniformity are correct then) Correlation might be viewed as a reaction to modernism creeping in to Sunday School class, an attempt to recreate those days of (more) cultural homogeneity.

  27. Wonderful article. Thank you. I fit your model of a moderate’s experience almost too perfectly. My point of peace was coming to understanding in concrete terms my own found/lived definition of Truth.

  28. Martin James says:

    “Martin, you’ll have to say more about why you think this is the case.”
    I’m not convinced it is the case but here is why that is my intuition. It seems to me that the “religious” part of religious modernism is what is left from being raised in an “authority” tradition. It also seems to me that the modern part comes from being exposed to an environment of contested authority.
    One of the analogies I would make would be to schooling trends. It seems to me that the trend is toward secular education and education that is if not fundamentalist, at least part of a strong authority tradition.
    I would be less likely to believe my thesis if I saw more evidence of “religiously moderate” education. Schools and socialization into this type of religion. I agree that religious moderates will exist because there will be a transition between the camps: new fundamentalists and new people leaving religion. But where are the thriving populations of people brought up as “religious moderns”. I think you see the tension in Israel, for example, and in terms of polarization in general. The middle has to defend from both sides losing children to secularism and to fundamentalism. In theory, they can also gain adherents from both sides an an equilibrium can be established. It may be a bias of mine from our current politics but the middle seems to be shrinking and the secular and extremists growing.
    One benefit of the thought experiment would be to think through what it means to be socialized into the perspective you now have from birth. What are the precedents and possibilities?

  29. Clark Goble says:

    Ben (9:13) I agree with your point about vagueness. However I’m not sure I see the incoherence you do. I just don’t think the “we see through a glass darkly” view is in conflict with “plain and precious” view. I take 2 Nephi 31:3 to be saying both are simultaneously operative in prophesy and teaching. Nephi uses the phrase, “for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” While that can be taken in many ways, I think a natural way to read it is as a kind of clear simple vagueness. I think the idea that vagueness as problematic is a weird aspect of our contemporary culture.

    I’m still reading the paper so I don’t want to comment on that until later.

  30. I still need to finish reading, but here is the deep flaw that I don’t think OP is able to overcome….

    Harris’ target is Cafeteria Mormonism (of course, he actually aims at religion in general) according to which we pick and choose what we will believe and reject based on modern/rational standards that are external to scripture. Harris thus lays down a challenge to all believers: How can you resist being a fundamentalist without appealing to such external sources – thus abandoning, to some extent, your faith? By appealing to hermeneutics, secular history,etc. and other forms of rational/modern standards *this post fails to meet this challenge*.

    A major problem that does lie in Harris’ approach is that he first divides intellectual values into secular and religious values and then proceeds to judge the latter according to the former (by praising the fundmantalist for being more “complete and consistent”, etc.). A clearer case of tendentious reasoning cannot be imagined.

    Of course, this fault is also what we is accusing moderate Mormons of doing, so we aren’t out of the clear just yet. There is still a problem which he forces upon the believer: How do you avoid the – what every modern mind thinks to be – absurdities and monstrosities that can be found in the Bible without appealing to rational/outside sources? In this, he actually agrees with most people in the Bloggernacle who assume that critical reason is the ONLY protection (or at least the only “viable” protection) against such things. But without this assumption, however, his whole case falls apart.

    The natural response for Mormons is to argue that since we believe in continuing revelation rather than dead scripture, we actually do have a unique, internal source by which we can reject the apparent evils of the Bible. This, however, is not enough on its own. Unless we add more premises, we are still left with revelation being in flat out contradiction with itself and thus in need of outside reason to negotiate or otherwise “iron out” such inconsistencies. If our only response to Harris is a bland appeal to modern revelation, then we are simply saying that modern revelation trumps older revelation for no better reason other than that its easier for us moderns to accept. Bluntly put, we are still left with the Cafeteria Mormonism to which Harris objects.

    What is needed is a method of adjudicating differences which is internal to the gospel, and hermeneutics is quite obviously not such a method. What the gospel does provide us with, however, is a hierarchical authority structure by which revelation is intrinsically structured. Since prophetic authority is limited to a stewardship, and since no two people ever have one and the same authority over any given stewardship, there is, then, never any need for external, rational/modern source to negotiate differences in teachings. Living prophets always trump dead prophets, whether the former jive better with our modern sensibilities or not. Higher living authorities always trump lower living authorities for the same reason. Finally, God Himself always trumps any authority by way of personal revelation, again, for the same reason.

    This very pre-modern logic is totally contrary to the modern, Cafeteria style which Harris criticizes. At no point, on the one hand, is any scriptural or prophetic teaching ever held up to the rational standards of consistency, completeness, empirical verification or hermeneutics, nor, on the other, are we forever bound to accept and defend the borderline genocides of the OT. Whereas in the Cafeteria, each person picks and chooses what they will and will not eat according to personal preference or modern tastes of the day, within the mess hall of the Gospel, by contrast, it is God and His prophets that choose what they will and will not serve us.

    It is not mere modern revelation with an appeal to the catch-all black box of hermeneutics, but continuing revelation structured along the lines of priesthood authority which allows us to escape Harris’ criticism. All other academic appeals merely leave us in the Cafeteria Mormonism to which Harris rightly relegates most believers.

  31. On second thought, a “blank check” for disagreeing with the prophets is a better metaphor for the appeal to Biblical hermeneutics than a “black box”.

  32. Jeff, don’t you think that the key distinction is that moderates believe that all Mormons are in fact Cafeteria Mormons, even the fundamentalists who mistakenly and self-servingly think they are not?

  33. Clark Goble says:

    A few thoughts after an initial read.

    It seems wrong to require atheism to have a thorough understanding of the type of theism one thinks is wrong. If theists are usually woefully informed about theology and have only a vague idea of what they believe regarding God (often at odds with the formal beliefs of their sect) it seems fair to offer atheists the same basis for defining themselves. It’s certainly true that in some ways the line between the deist, the agnostic and the atheist is pretty blurry (and sometimes even theist) are at best blurry. Often it’s understood best in terms of what they are opposed to.

    Continuing on with this, it’s true that New Atheist writings are typically at best sloppy on the theology they attack and often woefully ignorant. However it does seem pretty clear what type of theism they are opposed to – the idea of an interventionist God who does miracles and particularly the type that has prophets and makes clear pronouncements on performances. Now “moderates” who are roughly aligned to these groups yet are more fallible about knowing details also come in for attack, but they aren’t the real opposition.

    I think therefore we have to keep separate who the New Atheists are opposed to and then the nature of their critiques (which often are quite weak) You want to claim they are making a category mistake, but I think that isn’t quite fair. Whether their critiques work, I think the type of religion they reject simply isn’t merely fundamentalism. It’s just that their arguments too conveniently make use of fundamentalism to attack all theism.

    Your point about moderation as opposition to extremism is well made in a certain sense. I think NA critiques do set it up in this way in some ways. (One reason why I think “moderation vs. fundamentalism” is a poor way to see this rather than in terms of hermeneutic approaches)

    The idea that it’s better to work with moderates to stop fundamentalism rather that attack them seems questionable to me. I know there are those who make that move against New Atheists. (Robert Wright being an obvious example) However I think this ultimately misses the critique of “moderates” that the New Atheists make. They claim that moderates pick and choose without using a robust hermeneutic. That is fundamentalism will always remain as a threat unless the texts themselves are undermined. Moderates don’t really do this. I might ultimately disagree with the New Atheists, but I think this is a fair critique for them to make.

    To your point about hermeneutics vs. a fixed meaning of the text I agree completely. It’s by not being willing to engage hermeneutics except via a kind of naive positivism that the New Atheists make their biggest mistakes. However I’m not sure this undermines the New Atheist position as much as you do. That’s because even if we acknowledge this naivety it does seem true that misreadings of texts in terms of a common yet naive reading will always persist. The fact that most of the religions New Atheists attack don’t have any way to revise the text means that the threat of fundamentalism persists as long as the text remains intact. Saying one needs a somewhat difficult hermeneutic unmoored to common ways of reading is just to acknowledge the New Atheist critique of religion.

    Your criticisms about humanism and religion from a New Atheist perspective I’ll comment on later. I do think though that we have to separate the historical evolution of humanism somewhat from the values and interpretive stance it provides today. How it got to be the way it is (as tied to religion) seems somewhat beside the point for how the New Atheists say moderates merely use it to critique religion. In that interpretive sense it is outside of religion for the interpreter even if parts can be defended in terms of the religion. In other words what counts is the process of secularization that “demythologizes” (from the NA perspective) humanism as part of its development. A point you bring up later. I think this then undermines your claim that religion and the secular are entangled. (Yes they are, but not in the way you need)

    More later but I think these points undermine a lot that comes afterwards. (It seems weird to defend a group I really dislike – but I just don’t think the avenue of argument works)

  34. Clark Goble says:

    First – sorry for the typoes. I’ll check more carefully next time before I post. Second a few comments on comments)

    Christian (7:02) I think it undeniable that correlation was the attempt to keep a certain homogeneity. I’m not sure it was intended as an extended cultural homogeneity. I think that was an unfortunate side effect. As with so many regulation in any environment, it often developed in response to various problems that would pop up in practice.

    Martin (8:09) I think there are two religious moves going on (ignoring the other religions that didn’t play as big a role in western European history in the modern era) The first is the Catholic one where tradition plays a big role. Then there is the competing one of much of protestantism that sees authority in the individual believer (even if in practice it got much more complex). Fundamentalism typically comes out of that protestant aspect even if there is a certain similar development in Catholicism. (Especially post Vatican 2) As a practical matter though what counts are the communities that develop with most in the community not engaging the traditions out of which they interpret terribly much.

    Jeff (12:44) we should not Harris’ target isn’t really Mormonism although I do think he’s attacked it upon occasion. Part of the problem is that I think Mormons have moves that Catholics and Protestants don’t as a practical matter of the GAs acting as a formal way to revise texts. (I’d disagree calling this a trump – but I won’t bore people repeating our disagreement on that here)

    I’d add that I think the opposition you create between pre-modern and modern over hermeneutics is pretty problematic. For one it ignores the many ways scripture was read by Jews, Christians and Muslims in late antiquity and medieval eras. The moves of “modern” hermeneutics aren’t quite as modern as some might portray.

  35. Jeff, I follow your point that the OP fails the test because it appeals to outside sources. But the more fundamental question is why should that really matter? That is, rather than accept the test, and then try to pass it, isn’t the better response to Harris’s critique to reject the test from the beginning because it misapprehends what religion is by basically limiting religion to text, without leaving any role for conscience, reason, or personal revelation? I mean, I guess if all religious people subscribed to sola scritura, the test might be better, because then there really is no role for personal interpretation or reconciling conflicts within the tradition (though, that’s almost surely overstating it, and I think even sola scritura protestants in practice see some room for personal interpretation of text), but the reality is that religion almost always inherently involves picking and choosing among various strands or strains within a tradition.

    Where Harris loses me is that he seems to think it is self-evident that this picking and choosing is a problem, or that it is somehow not a religious way of thinking; it seems to me that’s what religion has been doing all along. At any rate, he hasn’t, in my mind, carried his burden to show that the supposedly “external” values to which we must resort to reconcile issues within a tradition are necesarily exclusively secular values, not religious values. Like John says, we’re all “cafeteria mormons” to some extent, whether we admit it (as religious moderates do) or whether we deny it (as fundamentalists do).

    Even assuming that you could make a case for some of these “external values” being purely secular values, I would think that you could never make that argument about the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, or as we call it, personal revelation, as a check on text or tradition. I get that from an outsider’s perspective, that might not mean much, because it sounds like nothing but a cover for personal, subjective, whim. I would of course disagree with that, because my personal experience is that the Holy Ghost teaches objective, knowable truth, not just subjective, relativistic truth, but truth that is knowable only through faith. I can see how folks might disagree with me about that, but I don’t see how they could convincingly say that that mode of knowledge is not “religious” or that it is somehow foreign to religious experience.

  36. Clark Goble says:

    John F (12:50) I always took “cafeteria Mormon” to be one who rejected things because it didn’t correspond to what they liked or at least their vague ethical views. It seems the moderate could be that sort of person or they may arrive at what they think from a more complex reading of texts (whether correctly or not). That is, there are already lots of explicit texts to call into question most of the Old Testament, undermining it as an authoritative document that say the D&C is. (And the OT is where most, although not all, of the problems arise) The difference thus would be the reasons for why they believe what they believe.

  37. How is that different from a fundamentalist who because s/he views him or herself as a fundamentalist self-servingly congratulates him or herself on accepting everything literally but in truth is also only accepting or rejecting things because they do or don’t “correspond to what they like or at least their vague ethical views?” The moderate sees that everyone does this and tries to steer him or herself in an ethical direction in the process. (Harris calls this dishonest to the literal reading of the text, as if such a thing can exist.) The fundamentalist deludes him or herself into thinking s/he does not do this, but in reality s/he does. Thus the fundamentalist does not steer him or herself in a particularly ethical direction in his or her selective interpretations but rather veers to and fro without an internal moral compass, replacing that with a divine command ethics from which they think they are receiving blow by blow direction on every issue in their lives.

  38. Martin James says:

    I think this is a key section.
    “The nature of living in a complex world with well-developed cognitive functions is to find ourselves aware of being embedded in the world in such a way that distinguishing between what causes us to hold one view versus another and what choices we make within our embeddedness are usually not possible to ascertain, and of course this is true of everyone. Therefore, we are not in a good position to make clean, ethical judgments about why and how a person sticks with religion or leaves it behind.”
    What makes your comparison the most compelling is that essential secularists rarely have a scientific approach to the issue of choice. They use stories rather than magnets or drugs or genes in an attempt to change morals. Almost no one knows how to cognitively operate with the knowledge that we do not have free will. The real haunting experience to me is experience that through no choice of our own we are experiencing the understanding of how to control cognitive experience in a new technological way apart from narrative and morality. We are facing it in two ways: how technology operates on us (whether by text or image or pharmaceutical) and also how we create moral and narrative responses in things that we not created as human. We have a fear that we will create fundamentalist AI’s and we have a fear we or others will experience a change in choice and morality from technology applied to ourselves.
    The future seems to me to be how the 3 camps you lay out will use traditional strategies versus new technologies in changing our experience. A precedent might be the use of psychoactive drugs in religious ritual. How will religious modernism respond to the development of more targeted ways of having a particular experience? Will it repudiate them or will it adopt them. Is a rave essential humanism, religious modernism or a drug fundamentalism?
    Again, I think your framework accurately captures what the moment is like but it seems to me fighting the last war and doesn’t take seriously enough what modernism really means for future experience. Technological consumerism seem vastly more powerful in changing religious experience than the camps you describe. The intellectual is becoming ever more subordinate to the technological.

  39. JohnF

    “Jeff, don’t you think that the key distinction is that moderates believe that all Mormons are in fact Cafeteria Mormons, even the fundamentalists who mistakenly and self-servingly think they are not?”

    You’re exactly right; they do think that. But this is precisely because they, like Harris, see no viable way of reconciling all such things. They fail to see the authoritative structure to revelation and thus use reason to try their best and reconciling as many gospel truths as possible – these truths all being equally universal in scope. Once we give up this modern assumption according to which consistency has come to be defined, however, the whole cafeteria house of cards comes crashing down.


    You’re right that I’m not too wedded to a “pre-modern” conception in general. To be sure, there have always been lot’s of illegitimate ways of reading scriptures regardless of whether one defines legitimacy in terms of universal consistency or priesthood stewardship.


    “Jeff, I follow your point that the OP fails the test because it appeals to outside sources. But the more fundamental question is why should that really matter? ”

    You’re right that I could’ve made this point more explicit. Harris’ point is that moderates – or cafeterias – reject parts of revelation in the name of an external source. This is why it’s bad: they are allowing the reasoning of man to trump scripture/revelation – a move which is clearly forbidden by scripture/revelation.

    “basically limiting religion to text, without leaving any role for conscience, reason, or personal revelation”

    Okay, but the same argument can merely be reapplied at the level of “revelation” as I did for Mormonism. Within traditions that reject modern revelation, the two are one and the same, but nothing really changes if we go after revelation rather than written texts.

  40. A sort of reaction to Clark at 1:05pm (‘sort of’ because this is what comes to mind, not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing) — I wonder whether “good” or “robust” or “the best” hermeneutics is needed to respond to the New Athiest position? I’m tempted that way, but then consider that by making the first move about intertwined thought–the secular coming from the religious, and back again–we take away the stark either/or nature of the New Athiest position, and then when it’s a matter of degree rather than a binary, it might well be that any decent or reasonable hermeneutic works.

    Also, re Clark at 1:17, we’re saying essentially the same thing, and it occurs to me that there’s a very-fine-to-none distinction between (intent to) extend cultural homogeneity and (intent to) fend off a perceived threat to cultural homogeneity.

  41. Jeff G., is your answer to Harris (and Jacob) simply divine command ethics, which you believe Mormons are in a unique position to give full effect due to the modernity-defying direct revelation in which both moderates and fundamentalists equally believe (the difference being that the latter do not believe they are also cafeteria Mormons, although they are indisputably so — they just pick and choose different issues, usually those that align with their a priori American conservative political beliefs)?

  42. John f

    “The fundamentalist deludes him or herself into thinking s/he does not do this, but in reality s/he does.”

    It is statement like this for why I reject all appeals to hermeneutics. Such appeals seem to amount to little more than “you’re not the boss of me” when it comes to understanding scripture.

    Surely there is a difference between reading a verse and not tolerating any contradiction to what it straightforwardly says, and a book-length exegesis of what the verse “really” means. In other words, I don’t think the fundamentalist is committed to their not bringing any interpretation whatsoever to the text. Rather, they object to unauthorized scholars thinking that their interpretation carries more authoritative weight than naive layperson’s interpretation. The latter may indeed bring something to the text, but at least they aren’t bringing a whole library of non-scriptural content to it.

    The difference may not be one of “if”, but it clearly is one of “who” and “how much”.

  43. John again,

    There certainly seems to be some amount of divine command ethics built into my position although I see it in much more hierarchically social terms than the Platonic version would suggest. I think fundamentalists see cafeteriality the same way they see sinning: we should all strive to remain totally free from sin, even though we all fail to some extent or another. The moderates, by contrast, think that since we all sin, there’s no sense in which one person is less righteous than another.

  44. So a layperson is just as qualified to provide an authoritative interpretation as a scholar who has studied the languages, history, and culture? The latter is a disfiguration attributable to modernity?

    Shouldn’t you at least caveat that by saying that the layperson needs to be a General Authority — specifically an Apostle (not just a Seventy) — in order for his (no hers therefore allowed) interpretation to automatically displace a respected scholar’s painstaking work?

  45. “So a layperson is just as qualified to provide an authoritative interpretation as a scholar who has studied the languages, history, and culture?”

    Of course. Scholarship doesn’t grant anybody divine authority.

    “Shouldn’t you at least caveat that by saying that the layperson needs to be a General Authority — specifically an Apostle”

    You’re right and I’m sorry that I didn’t make this clear. I mean that a scholar has no right to tell a person how to read the Bible for him or herself. The only person qualified to read it for another person is a priesthood authority. In neither case does hermeneutics enter into the discussion.

  46. Clark Goble says:

    Christian (1:56) I’m inclined to say that the best response to the New Atheist is to just note they take the trappings of Evangelicalism but they have weak arguments for the sophisticated believer. That is I think their arguments of why all theists are wrong are simply different from their concerns regarding fundamentalism. I think that like Evangelics, New Atheists tend to engage the places others differ significantly from their own positions and assumptions. They don’t tend to engage the strongest arguments on their own terms.

    John F & Martin (1:37, 1:45) I think one way of putting all this is to ask how self-reflexive people are. I don’t think as per Jeff (2:02) that the issue is just what we bring to the text but how critical and questioning we are of our own interpretations. A little intellectual humility goes a long way. I’m not saying we’d agree, but I think it might improve things on all sides a great deal.

    Jeff (1:50) while I disagree with you on the issue of prophets as a tump, I do think that there’s a certain sense in which scripture is like law and prophets like the judge. That is there is a performative and judgment sense in which how scriptures are used is more significant than other types of meaning (including quasi-historical ones). The question then ultimately becomes from what basis do we make authoritative judgments. It’s just that the way these discussions are often framed that issue tends to get hidden – especially since ultimately appeals to epistemology obscure that issue.

  47. The only person qualified to read it for another person is a priesthood authority.

    This is really how God works? Reason, evidence, logic, and persuasion — the tools that bind the scholar — have no place and do not also bind Mormon Apostles? A woman can therefore never have an authoritative scriptural interpretation based on her lifelong scholarly study because she can’t be an Apostle?

    I’ve thought for a long time that your crusade against modernity, pluralism, equality, and reason is misguided. But this is beyond the pale.

  48. Scholarship doesn’t grant anybody divine authority.

    What about the scholar who did her Ph.D. because God revealed to her that this is the work she needed to do? That a man named Jeff G. would be crusading against modernity and reason and she needed to provide a scriptural interpretation based on reason, logic, evidence, history, language, and persuasion that would convince him that divine command ethics is not what the plan of salvation is about or how we are expected to exercise our agency? Her choice to follow that inspiration does not give her even a little divine authority in the scholarly interpretation she puts forth?

  49. Clark Goble says:

    John F (2:16) while I disagree with Jeff on many of these matters, I think there is a sense in which he’s correct. There’s a quasi-political and legal aspect to the scriptures that arguably is the prime concern for the brethren. That is as it relates to how we as a society comport ourselves. While we can use reason, evidence and persuasion my sense is that Jeff would take those as at best akin to briefs or legal arguments for a judge in a particular case. Following that analogy they are extremely helpful but what ultimately counts is the decision of the judge.

    To defend Jeff somewhat, we should note that he sees personal revelation as an ultimate trump. To the degree personal revelation requires study first, such matters as reason and persuasion also are important again in a manner akin to them priming the decision making for a judge.

    My critique of Jeff is that I think the way we engage with scriptures (and GA talks) is simply broader than this type of analysis.

  50. “Reason, evidence, logic, and persuasion — the tools that bind the scholar — have no place and do not also bind Mormon Apostles?”

    I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it seems clear to me that we are strictly forbidden from using modern reason to trump revelation and using reason to marshal one revelation against another is definitely a case of that. I don’t think this rules out any and all scholarship and discussion, but it does rule out cafeteria Mormonism.

  51. using reason to marshal one revelation against another is definitely a case of that

    This is all the “fundamentalist” side of Mormon blogging does day in and day out, isn’t it?

  52. “What about the scholar who did her Ph.D. because God revealed to her that this is the work she needed to do?”

    That’s prefectly fine within her stewardship. But that PhD means nothing as far as the boundaries of that stewardship are concerned.

  53. “using reason to marshal one revelation against another is definitely a case of that

    This is all the “fundamentalist” side of Mormon blogging does day in and day out, isn’t it?”

    Fair point, but slightly off. Most of the conservatives are marshalling higher or living authorities against lower or dead ones. This is perfectly legit. Again, it is the boundaries of stewardship, not human reason that allows one revelation to trump another.

  54. So you agree that a woman can never have an authoritative scriptural interpretation. And this is supposed to be a view that is attractive to would-be female converts? Is your view the limited-attractiveness view — we should only ever expect the Gospel to be attractive to a select few who happen share a belief that a woman cannot have authority or authoritatively interpret scripture?

  55. Clark Goble says:

    John, given that women can have stewardship (especially over their self) how do you see Jeff arguing that?

  56. Clark, Jeff said above that “[t]he only person qualified to read [scripture] for another person is a priesthood authority.” Such an assertion has rhetorical consequences. He can’t argue that and then also be entitled to a reading that allows women to authoritatively interpret scripture.

  57. “So you agree that a woman can never have an authoritative scriptural interpretation.”

    I don’t think that women all and only have stewardship over themselves. At some points in time they have had more authority than others, but even today they have callings to which they are given keys, etc.

    If, however, your rejection to my view is that it doesn’t square with the modern values of universalism and equality between the sexes, you’re sort of proving Harris right.


    Very good summary. I liked that.

  58. It really blows my mind that your project is against universalism, pluralism, and equality. How do you distinguish yourself in your own mind from the Taliban or ISIS, etc.? Is the only difference your (I assume) rejection of violence to force your views about women’s inequality on others? (That alone would irrevocably distinguish you from the pre-moderns who revered religious authority for its own sake but also did their best at virtually every opportunity to force their own view of religious authority on those who did not share it.) Or would you even give room for that so long as a Mormon General Authority commanded it?

  59. I think anybody who turns off their TV when women are giving talks in GC is quite obviously sinning.

  60. I think anybody who turns off their TV when women are giving talks in GC is quite obviously sinning.

    I don’t understand that at all. If you’re saying that satirically, it has failed. If you’re serious, I’m completely perplexed.

  61. “How do you distinguish yourself in your own mind from the Taliban or ISIS, etc.?”

    We have true and living prophets while they do not. If any of us doubts that, the only solution is to pray about it. If God tells you to follow them, who am I to tell you otherwise?

    Perhaps the most defining feature of modernity is Hobbes’ idea that death and suffering are the worst things in this world and that we can (or should) all agree on that. Hobbes saw moral conscience as the cause of war and death and thus played a major role in the creation of reasons of state – actions justified purely in terms of survival to the full exclusion of moral and religious considerations.

    But the gospel does not accept this! We believe there to be lots of things worth dying or suffering for that cannot be reduced to less dying or suffering for somebody else in this life. It is for this reason that pre-moderns are willing to suicide bomb, while moderns prefer conflict from a safe distance.

    For the record, I follow the living prophet in being 100% against terrorism and think we must do all we can to fight against it…. But the scriptures make it pretty clear where they’re coming from.

  62. “I don’t understand that at all. If you’re saying that satirically, it has failed. If you’re serious, I’m completely perplexed.”

    I was being serious. If anybody thinks that any female who speaks in GC can safely be ignored precisely because they are female, that person is not a good and faithful Mormon.

  63. The main point at issue is that we listen to women at GC because they have been invited by the living prophet to address us and therefore have authority (within certain boundaries) to interpret the scriptures for us, not because she may or may not be an expert in any academic field..

  64. Martin James says:

    “And this is supposed to be a view that is attractive to would-be female converts?”
    That would depend on whether patriarchy has benefits for women.

  65. Clark Goble says:

    We’re getting a bit afield from the original topic which was Jacob’s paper on New Atheists/Post-Mormon parallels. Maybe we should put aside Jeff’s idea of authority for now. It seems to me that Jeff’s view of authority would be viewed as quasi-fundamentalist by both New Atheists and most post-Mormons precisely because it takes texts as fundamental in a certain way. (For Jeff people simply have authority in terms of the stewardship given them by priesthood authorities – the nuance of that seems somewhat beside the point – their words are thus authoritative texts albeit typically limited ones)

  66. Clark Goble says:

    To add, if I understand Jeff right, he is following Elder Oaks interpretation of priesthood authority where all stewardship is ultimately priesthood. Thus women giving conference talks are operating with priesthood authority. (Elder Oaks gave a conference talk on this a few years ago – I’m not sure it ultimately resolves all the confusing issues of priesthood and authority in the Mormon theology but it does a reasonable job of addressing many of them) A problem for Jeff he never addresses is where the boundaries of authority are – my sense is you’re picking up on that ambiguity. For instance to what degree can a Relief Society interpret scripture. There a tradition that only the President or in some sense the full quorum of the twelve can fully do that. Although this seems pretty ambiguous in Mormon history. i.e. what is the authority of Bruce R. McConkie’s readings?

    Again though to the New Atheist this is all fundamentalism since it is already accepting a kind of authority (whether textual or personal) that is deeply dangerous. The move to a more complex hermeneutic solves some of this I think but not quite as clearly as some (such as Jacob) suggest.

  67. You’re right. I thought the comments had died down a bit when I commented – knowing that it would inspire its usual, partial threadjack. While I stand by my fundamental objection to Jacob’s approach, there are quite obviously other things in it that are worthy of discussion.

  68. Jeff, in response to my observation that Harris’s test was wrong to the extent that it essentially limits religion to text, without leaving any room for conscience or personal revelation, you said:

    “Okay, but the same argument can merely be reapplied at the level of “revelation” as I did for Mormonism. Within traditions that reject modern revelation, the two are one and the same, but nothing really changes if we go after revelation rather than written texts.”

    I don’t think I understand what you are trying to say here. Are you saying that the Harris test works because revelation works essentially the same way that text does? If so, I would agree with you that institutional revelation can play essentially the same role, but that doesn’t address my critique: limiting religion to text (and institutional revelation) is arbitrary and wrong, because conscience, reason, and personal revelation are themselves religious values, not exclusively secular values–especially personal revelation. So again, the test is wrong, so who cares if we pass the test or fail it?

  69. JKC,

    I guess I’m missing the punch to your objection.

    Harris seems to basically be drawing a line between religious people who justify their actions through appeals to declaration by religious authorities, living or dead, and modern people who, to the degree that they are modern, reject such appeals as either irrelevant (in the case of classical liberals) or as immoral forms of domination (in the case of more socialist circles). He is basically accusing moderates of being all too modern in their varying willingness to disregard (or even actively reject) such authorities.

    I don’t see how your point has much traction with this issue.

  70. Martin James says:

    “It’s true that intellectuals have learned a kind of non-confrontational tango with authority, but I think they need to do a better job in being honest about this and finding better ways to talk about it.”

    So when you say “true” and “honest” here, which of your many newly found theories of truth do you mean? It not not religious purity but semantic uncertainty that is my concern. If one has a theory of truth that doesn’t “correspond” to what makes someone a liar, then one ceases to be able to either communicate or think because one doesn’t have a way of knowing if one is lying to oneself.

    It is not just the mormon or the secular understanding that is lost, it is any notion of sanity at all. If the price of retaining one’s historical contingencies is to recognize that we are all crazy AND lonely in that we can neither fix a theory of truth nor know what theory of truth others are following, then moderation seems like existential hell. That is a haunted world. Wouldn’t it be easier to quit believing in ghosts? Your piece is the most convincing justification of atheism I’ve ever read.

  71. Martin James says:

    On a lighter note, a good subtitle would be Jacob de la Mancha and the CES letter windmill.

  72. Martin James says:

    “Competing understandings of truth form the basis for all substantive arguments about values, and are the ultimate reasons for war and attrition of all kinds.”
    I would have thought war happened when people agreed that something valuable couldn’t belong to both of them, say booty. if we have different values on the other hand then we can trade and benefit from our differing valuations.

  73. Martin James says:

    Are you punning with all of this. To call something “substantive” is to presume a theory of truth which would seem to preclude substantive competition. Shouldn’t we say that competition of theories of truth can never be experienced as substantive because only one can be the basis of what determines substantivemess?

  74. Clark Goble says:

    While we can talk about competing theories of truth, in practice the competing theories rarely matter.

  75. Really loved this post. I’ll have to keep it saved for further reading, and also to see how the commenting goes further.

    While I really appreciate the “moderate” (recognizing the issues with that framing) approaches to religion, and particularly, religious approaches that often seem to be inculcated or associated with graduate level study of religion…I have to say that to a certain extent, I understand *why* other folks (especially New Atheists, or even a certain category of ex-Mormons) don’t really buy into it.

    I think that the opening post brushes up against the points I’m going to emphasize, and I think that while Jacob has a lot of things answered for himself, this post and its rhetoric will still fail to resonate with a lot of folks because of some of those mentioned issues. In other words, there is still some sort of persuasive work to be done.

    Namely, to quote one part:

    So the obvious response to this is the ecclesial secularist’s response to the religious modernist: If your idea of the Good and the True isn’t shared by those who administer your religion (or the fundamentalists), then you can no longer consider yourself a true member of your religion. Welcome to the desert of the Real.

    But that’s the crux of all this, isn’t it? Do I still get to call myself a Mormon if I don’t share some of the fundamental understandings of how contemporary Mormonism presents its truths? Is it legitimate for me to critique or imagine alternate pathways from within the religion? Am I not morally obligated to step fully outside in order to do that? If I don’t subscribe to the very understanding of truth which other members and more importantly the authorities themselves subscribe to, how can I even be a legitimate player in the game when I don’t follow the same rules? But that’s the force of finding oneself convinced by other methods of truth-making.

    Obviously, there are people who answer the questions of the second paragraph in a positive (e.g., staying Mormon) way. But a lot of people are uncomfortable for a variety of reasons:

    1) Many people’s engagements and experiences with Mormonism are precisely from the “fundamentalist” viewpoint. This is because, as the opening post concedes, the institutional narratives tend to be conservative in a way that fundamentalists can use for their support, and moderate narratives are checked in a way that moderates have some issues. While there are members who grow up in “moderate” sorts of ways, I think that many people would understand these life experiences as not normative for Mormonism. (Whether that’s true is an open question, but do you not agree that, colloquially speaking, the church is structured to cultivate “TBMs” [however problematic that term is]?) Even if one is not morally obliged to step fully outside to critique, a lot of people will fear that they may be disfellowshipped or excommunicated for criticism (and I know that there are definitely more and less effective ways to critique from a position of faith…but I think that that is also somewhat telling. We are socialized in an all-or-nothing fundamentalist sort of way that makes moderate approaches seem less substantial.)

    2) Our engagement from this fundamentalist viewpoint and our perception of the institutional support of it (per item 1) do give legitimacy to it. I was struck by a line from the opening post:

    However, we already know what the “correct” answer is, and we know this because we have all bathed in the waters of the Mormon idea of the True for decades and could pick it out of any lineup.

    Even though you ultimately want to problematize this notion of what the “correct” answer is, even you know what that answer would be. If anything could be considered ‘the waters of the Mormon idea of the True,” that is it. In other words, this is an implicit concession that your approach is not as institutionally legitimate as other approaches. As a result…

    3) Our commitment or deference (whether conscious or subconscious) to fundamentalism does influence our way of evaluating other alternatives. I’d say that New Atheists and ex-Mormons of new atheist-like stripe have their view of religion the way it is precisely because that is the form of religion that is most familiar to them, most recognizable, and most influential. Moderate narratives do feel less authentic because of that. But it’s not just an internal feeling, because…

    4) Obviously, moderate religious folks face critique from other people…namely, their conservative (“fundamentalist”?) brethren and sisters. In other words, in a post like this (or any other discussion by religious moderate), you not only have to deal with ex-believers but you have to deal with folks like log or Jeff G from the conservative side. This is something that you recognize at least somewhat (e.g., moderates also have to challenge fundamentalism…and maybe new atheists should team up with moderates to challenge fundamentalism), BUT it creates a barrier to becoming moderate. Someone learning these issues is at risk of faith crisis not only because they themselves have internalized those fundamentalist narratives, not only because they perceive the institution to legitimize those fundamentalist narratives, but because they can also look to rank and file members and see plenty who will argue that those narratives are appropriate and that the moderate narratives are not.

    (in a broader, non Mormon context, the way this looks is that the people who are most vocal about their religion in a public perspective in many areas tend to be the most conservative folks…so it’s easy to pin religion as being heterosexist, anti-feminist, etc., because the most vocal elements, most publicized cases, etc., are those things. Regardless of the existence of accepting denominations, it just seems [whether correctly or incorrectly] that conservative denominations pose more of a “threat”)

    Anyway, even though I try not to be a “new atheist” type of nonbeliever, at the end of the day, I probably would lean more to thinking that conservatives probably are closer to being “right” about what authentic religiosity requires or involves, and to that extent, my rejection of those requirements, values, or even goals would lead me to believe that that is not “my” religion and I should not engage, even though I grew up in it, it is a part of my identity and heritage, and I still like to discuss stuff online. And I say this even though I appreciate more moderate approaches, find them faaar more interesting than fundamentalist approaches on either side, and definitely hope that they might gain more traction. In other words, if I want more of a moderate approach to religion, I won’t go to church (because I am not likely to get that there), but I will read more BCC, Dialogue, certain Sunstone sessions, etc., etc.,

  76. Clark Goble says:

    Andrew S, I think that’s insightful. A lot of member’s experiences with Mormonism are at least partially a more “fundamentalist” form. (I really dislike that term but I’ll keep it for now) The problem is that by and large fundamentalists are just at odds with what the Church presents as fundamental. (While it is an oft disparaged talk, Pres Benson’s the 14 Fundamentals of Following the Prophet can easily be read and an extended polemic against fundamentalism by members – most of what he attacks is the fundamentalist mindset) The key to Mormonism is learning to identify and follow the spirit with the prophets as a guide. Even acknowledging some epistemological tension between the spirit and the leadership (or at least potential tension – even if it’s not an issue for most people) this seem quite at odds with fundamentalists.

    Because of this I think there’s a perception (perhaps somewhat exaggerated) that those who adopt anything smacking of a fundamentalist mindset are “fragile” not just for losing their testimony but also for being led astray. (The Bundy protest being exhibit #1)

    I’m not sure the New Atheist critique works simply because this is the Mormon foundation. Although elements are like fundamentalism I think the difference is significant. That said I’m sure Harris would see Mormon commitment to authority as dangerous for the same reasons textual fundamentalism is. But fundamentally that’s because Harris thinks the very notion of prophesy is nonsense.

  77. Martin James says:

    Good comments but here is what I can’t figure out. Why does the desire for morality survive the process of recognizing its historical contingency. If a Mormon upbringing is good for anything I would have thought it would be a thoroughgoing scepticism about morality. The fun part is that the “correct answer” is not so easy to identify anymore. Is polygamy a good thing and we are just supposed to fake it for outsiders or not? Is feminism evil or just incorrectly defined? Do prophets see Jesus in the flesh or not? Should we give to the poor and love our enemies? I don’t think it is obvious at all what the correct answer is supposed to be even for conservatives. Is addiction a moral failing or a disease. All of these are in play. I think the same is true of politics. Trump has put the “correct” answer in play. We are all cafeteria Mormons and you only get kicked out of you start a food fight.

  78. Clark Goble,

    Your comment here strikes me as the way that a “moderate” (again, recognizing this typecasting is problematic) would justify their moderation/modernity in a Mormon context…but I think that, again, many members would not agree with that interpretation of Benson. In other words, when narratives of obedience are placed against or even along side that idea of following the spirit with the prophets as a guide, then for many members, that’s going to mean, “Theoretically, I should follow the spirit…but practically, if the spirit is involved in the decision, then I should agree with the prophets. If not, then I’m most likely in the wrong and am not following the spirit,” whereas for moderates, that’s just part of the “fencing match with authority.”

    I agree that Harris would probably also see commitment to authority as dangerous for the same reasons textual fundamentalism is, but wouldn’t we accept that — for however problematic the term is — Mormon authorities are also textually fundamentalist, so committing to that puts pressures to be textually fundamentalist (and puts suspicion on those who aren’t?).

    Martin James,

    I’m not quite sure how to respond to this comment because I don’t really think a Mormon upbringing is good for a thoroughgoing scepticism about morality (and if it were, I think more people would become moderates rather than disaffecting whenever they find out about surprising issues.) Mormonism for many people is **precisely** about having the right answers on moral questions (and being able to answer that you agree with those right answers, and practice those right answers). That is comfortable and satisfying for a lot of people. When that is called into question, that is going to be devastating to a lot of people. I understand that moderates want to make the case that simple answers aren’t the end-all, be-all, but many people aren’t *convinced* about that. Living the questions isn’t really satisfying to many.

    I think that also explains why moderates get flak from both the “fundamentalist” and the disaffected (especially “New Atheist”) side. Both of these groups agree that the answer is or should be straightforward and clear cut (but simply disagree on whether the church has it right), whereas moderates seem to be more about grappling with uncertainty in a way that is exasperating to both sides.

  79. Jeff,

    “Harris seems to basically be drawing a line between religious people who justify their actions through appeals to declaration by religious authorities, living or dead, and modern people who, to the degree that they are modern, reject such appeals as either irrelevant (in the case of classical liberals) or as immoral forms of domination (in the case of more socialist circles). He is basically accusing moderates of being all too modern in their varying willingness to disregard (or even actively reject) such authorities.”

    That’s close to how I read it, but it seems to me that he is not just criticizing those who outright “reject” appeals to authority, as “modern,” (and therefore secular) but also those who see any role at all for values such as reason, conscience, or personal revelation to limit authority as “modern” and therefore secular. I guess it depends on how you define “modern,” but my point is that (1) the assumption that such values are exclusively “modern” seems unjustified, and (2) more importantly, even if you can characterize them as “modern,” the assumption that that makes them secular, not religious, seems unjustified.

  80. Martin James says:

    I can see your position but I think there is a longer historical trend and a silent majority trend that supports the view that most leavers are in fact moderates. Given the self selection of people and families the leavers today and in the future may be the people you are referring to but the Kate Kellys, Rocky Anddetsons, and Sandra Tanners are a small minority compared to the people who have left and have no appetite for being a social justice warrior, political advocate or a strongly religiously affiliated person.
    What makes the moderates rare is not that most Mormons are strongly into moral certainty but that il is so rare to stay strongly religious after leaving Mormonism.
    You seem quite sensible so what is your opinion on how people leaving Mormonism will enculturate their children with regard to religion, politics and moral certainty. Jeff G highlights the issues related to the enlightenment being not innocent in its purported claim for religion to be private and moderate, but there does still seem to be a group of people who aren’t militant atheists or social justice warriors and still want a non-political neutered form of religion. My opinion is that works pretty well for individuals but over time can’t be sustained in families. I would grant your position that people desire moral clarity and that conflicts with our desire to get along and do business without too much conflict.
    The world will need to figure this out because technology has increased our interactions with other cultures in significant ways.
    Lastly I see a tremendous move to moderation in conservatives in emphasizing commonalities with other religions as opposed to being the one true church in a sea of priestcraft.

  81. Clark Goble says:

    Andrew (9:37) there’s lots to unpack there. First I think your comments get us towards why the fundamentalist vs moderate taxonomy is so problematic. To be a moderate is simply to not be a fundamentalist. But that covers a lot of area with pretty disparate beliefs and reasoning. Harris and company more or less are assuming moderates are moderates because they are critiquing or choosing beliefs against the fundamentalist from a more humanist position. That is moderates are basically humanists in terms of belief and most importantly epistemology. However that’s just not so, as I tried to point out. Why and what people believe matters.

    Once you reject the idea that to be a moderate is simply to be a humanist without accepting that one is a humanist a lot follows. Jacob in the original post gets at this in his third and final section, although in many ways I’m dissatisfied with that section.

    With your response to me though you’re really critiquing moderates in terms of fundamentalists. That is a moderate is simply someone who still has a fundamentalist viewpoint but simply doesn’t believe the crazier fundamentalist beliefs because the leadership doesn’t. That is, it’s a fundamentalism in terms of approach but because it’s a fundamentalism of the brethren who by and large are moderate in terms of beliefs, one is a moderate. I just don’t buy that. As I said, I think it highlights the problem with “moderate” as a category.

  82. Martin (@ 7:19)

    I think a silent majority (whether of leavers or adherents) can support my “defense” of the new atheist critique. Even if a new atheist type of person conceded there are more moderates numerically, it’s the fundamentalists (and this applies on both sides, right? That’s why this post is discussing new atheists rather than secularists in general) who are most visible, most audible, etc.,

    I am not sure if I would describe most leavers as moderates (especially not in the sense that religious PhD students often are “moderates” — Clark’s comment later on gets at how this term is really “wide”), but I would agree that most leavers aren’t high profile like Kate Kelly, and I would say that most leavers probably didn’t leave because of the stuff in the CES letter, and don’t end up taking new atheist positions (or exmormon equivalents.) I mean, statistically, the global activity rate of the church suggests that most folks are inactive — and yet, we don’t have a sprawling exmormon community that is as large as the active population of the church.

    The way I look at these leavers is not entirely religiously favorable (and that’s why I wouldn’t really call them moderates…or if I did call them moderates, that wouldn’t speak favorably of moderates.) I see most people who leave the church as simply not being particularly religiously engaged. To me, that’s OK, but I guess the “fundamentalist” atheist in me would say that it would not make sense to classify these people as representative or authoritative of the religion — even if they had a numerical majority or numerical plurality. Like, to speak colloquially, these are people who were “bad Mormons”. Obviously, that is precisely what this post is trying to debate, and I understand that. But i think a lot of people are going to see things that way. Like, if we were talking about “Easter and Christmas Catholics,” I think most people would recognize that those adherents aren’t representative or authoritative for that religion — even if they happened to be a numerical majority or plurality.

    You say:

    What makes the moderates rare is not that most Mormons are strongly into moral certainty but that il is so rare to stay strongly religious after leaving Mormonism.

    This doesn’t seem to address why there aren’t more moderates *within Mormonism*. (Or rather, why, of the “strongly religious Mormons”, there aren’t more moderates) My argument is that there aren’t more moderates within Mormonism because Mormonism is strongly into moral certainty (that happens to work well with the sort of fundamentalism Harris is describing), so within Mormonism, “strong religiosity” is defined (even though Jacob wants to challenge that) by one’s ability to accept or perform that narrative of certainty.

    You seem quite sensible so what is your opinion on how people leaving Mormonism will enculturate their children with regard to religion, politics and moral certainty. Jeff G highlights the issues related to the enlightenment being not innocent in its purported claim for religion to be private and moderate, but there does still seem to be a group of people who aren’t militant atheists or social justice warriors and still want a non-political neutered form of religion.

    I can’t really speak to the “moderate leaver” since that perspective, again, doesn’t really fit my experience. But I will say that from the people I read most online (which again, I know is unrepresentative because most people don’t blog or facebook or reddit about their former religions!), there seems to be the idea that Mormonism kinda turns people off religion in general. So, they do not see non-political, neutered forms of religion as being worthwhile (it’s seen as too “watered down”), and yet they do not see a “correct” strong from of religion (that is, the certainty of religion is seen as not right for them). They are particularly skeptical of strong religions enculturating their children with beliefs that they don’t agree with, so they don’t want to risk that — even if they certainly will be doing that enculturation process elsewhere (e.g., schools, home). The moral clarity that people find will come from elsewhere (e.g., political beliefs and social beliefs).

    I just can’t speak to the group of people who want a non-political neutered form of religion. I think the common understanding in many groups is that liberal/moderate religion is dying. So it’s either strong/fundamentalist/conservative religion…or ultimately leaving religion altogether. I know that this post is trying to challenge that narrative, but I just don’t know if it’s going to be persuasive to people who don’t already see things that way.

  83. John Mansfield says:

    It was interesting to find this analysis concluding that the importance of all this is for moderates and atheists to unite in the struggle to marginalize fundamentalists.

  84. Clark (@8:11)

    I agree that this discussion is increasingly showing how the terms are really just too problematic (it seems there is a basic disagreement on how far “fundamentalism” can go, especially if you consider that the leaders are *not* fundamentalist — in contrast, I would argue that in a Mormon context, fundamentalism includes reliance on leadership because leaders are canonical in the same way texts are for other denominations. Just because leadership can change their views whereas texts are relatively static [notwithstanding differences in interpretation that can arise over time] doesn’t meant that they are then moderate). I’ll try to clarify some things since I think we aren’t seeing eye to eye.

    I do think my response is meant to critique moderates in terms of fundamentalists, because I’m trying to point out that fundamentalists have their own critique of moderates that new atheists find persuasive to determine that moderates are not doing religion “properly”. In other words, they are saying: “Look, if your fundamentalist brethren don’t agree you’re doing the religion right, then how can you disagree with us when we say that you aren’t.” I understand this is part of what people are arguing against here…but I’m just trying to say that ultimately, new atheists and fundamentalists are somewhat in agreement regarding moderates.

    When you say:

    That is a moderate is simply someone who still has a fundamentalist viewpoint but simply doesn’t believe the crazier fundamentalist beliefs because the leadership doesn’t.

    I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. No, I’m actually trying to convey that from a fundamentalist perspective, a moderate *doesn’t* agree with the leadership. Rather, they use tools illegitimately to pick and choose what they will believe from leadership. So, you pick this comment from Benson rather than another comment from a living leader. Or you pick comments from living leaders that support you rather than the ones that don’t. The new atheist looks at this process and says, “Look, it’s simple: religion is clearly against disloyalty/disobedience, and they have clearly stated their opposition to gay marriage/feminism/alternative readings of scriptures/whatever issue, and your own religious leaders and co-religionists disagree with your readings of past and present leaders on this, so your conclusions aren’t valid religiously.”

    Moderates concede that they often disagree with their coreligionists and their religious leaders, but argue that this doesn’t make their process and conclusions religiously invalid. Rather, they define their religiosity by that “fencing match”. I mean, these are all things that Jacob also gets at in his 3rd section. I’m just saying that unless someone already values the fencing match, they probably aren’t going to be convinced that this is in fact a legitimate way to be religious.

  85. Clark Goble says:

    “I mean, statistically, the global activity rate of the church suggests that most folks are inactive — and yet, we don’t have a sprawling exmormon community that is as large as the active population of the church.”

    My sense is that the Church has gotten a lot more focused on removing names from the record who really aren’t members in any significant way. i.e. people baptized who go inactive the first six months. I’ve not followed that issue for a while, but I seem to recall there were budget reasons for that which incentivized local wards to prune membership lists.

    However it does seem true that the rising Nones as a demographic seem to primarily be those who prior to dropping self-identification as Christian were only lightly tied to the movements. That is they’d be people who didn’t accept a lot of the doctrines, weren’t socially integrated into the community, etc. According to most studies about half of those who leave the LDS church become Nones.

    As you note ex-Mormons in the sense that a significant part of their identity is wrapped up in opposition to Mormons aren’t a large community. I don’t think New Atheists are either. Although clearly there are lots of atheists out there most I talk with dislike the New Atheist movement.

  86. Clark Goble says:

    Andrew (8:14) among all Christians a lot who leave become Nones. And retention rates of all religions are dropping. Of those raised None something like 2/3rds remain None. So I’m not sure this is unique to Mormons. If anything we’re doing better than most groups. (Here again speaking only of the US as it’s hard to get accurate statistics for the world obviously) These trends also are fairly regional dependent with the northeast losing the most adherents to Christianity.

    Andrew (9:17) while to the fundamentalist they might judge the moderate as “picking and choosing” I’m not sure that’s always the case. Again, a lot of this has to do with moderate being so broad. But I do think that in many ways fundamentalists and New Atheists (who I take as atheistic fundamentalists) agree. So I completely agree with your there.

    My complaint is though that there are different types of fundamentalists and different types of moderates. By putting them all in the same category without noting differences seems problematic. So, for instance, is Nibley a moderate or a fundamentalist? Well, it depends upon your criteria.

  87. Clark (10:05 and 10:17)

    I know that there are other religious communities that have budget reasons to prune lists, so it wouldn’t surprise me is the church was doing that, but my understanding is while actual activity numbers are unknown, they are probably nowhere near the 15.6 million membership number that goes around.

    Even though I would agree that there are more folks who have left the church than those who have a significant identity wrapped up in that, I would actually suggest that new atheism is not as rare with ex-Mormons who do have a significant part of their identity wrapped up in that as your comments seem to suggest. For example, you seemed to be surprised that John Dehlin would be connected to new atheism in an early comment, but based on my interactions, it seems to me that Dehlin has developed over time positions that would probably mesh well with new atheism — and I think he would think that precisely because of a “fundamentalist” upbringing in Mormonism. There’s a LOT of online drama where Dehlin gets in trouble for implying that moderate Mormons are being inauthentic or disingenuous — and I think a lot of it is because he prioritizes the “fundamentalist” experience, but thinks that it is harmful (and thus, moving away from religion is ultimately desirable.)

    I agree further (in the followup comment) that people becoming “Nones” isn’t really specific to Mormonism. But I think the patterns in declines in religions also support why New Atheists view “fundamentalist” religions differently. They see that moderate religions are not as much of a threat because they are already “on the way out” (and this is also why they see moderate religionists as basically being humanists who won’t accept the label…because they see that moderate religions do lose more people to “none” and infer that that’s because there’s not a huge jump between the two), but they do see that stricter, more conservative religions seem to have a better retention rate — as you note, Mormons and evangelicals tend to do better than, say, mainline churches in the northeast. Since conservative churches seem to be more compelling as religions, they are a bigger threat, so to speak.

    And finally, I agree that there are different types of fundamentalists and different types of moderates. For ANY criteria that anyone uses, there are going to be issues. And yet, even though there are problems as well with terms like “TBM” and “apologist” and “intellectual” and “liberal” and “moderate” or whatever it may be (as was even addressed in the opening post in the relevant parts on tribes), we can at least get a general feel for where people would place. Like, Jacob’s paragraph discussing the issues in “apologist” vs “intellectual” seems like it is fair to describing the different approaches to Nibley. *If* someone calls him a “fundamentalist,” it’s because they view him as an apologist in online Mormon diction. If someone calls him a “moderate,” it’s because they view him as an intellectual in online Mormon diction.

  88. Clark Goble says:

    “my understanding is while actual activity numbers are unknown, they are probably nowhere near the 15.6 million membership number that goes around.”

    Again I can’t speak for outside the US but for within the US I tried to figure out this number from Pew/ARIS data. It’s not quite activity, which has a different meaning within Mormonism tied to participation. However in terms of identity we get around 82% of the official numbers self-identify as Mormon. To emphasize again this doesn’t deal participation and beliefs. Pew has some data there but it’s so odd that I tend to be pretty skeptical of it. However Pew has Mormon involvement as extremely high among those who self-identify. So 82% say religion is very important in their lives while an additional 13% say somewhat. That’s already up to 95%. 83% pray at least daily (higher than any other group). 77% attend weekly services and an other 15% attend semi-regularly. That’s 92%. So what Mormons call inactive is actually quite close to the number self-identifying as Mormon. Only 5-10% would be people who identify as Mormon but are inactive in the typically Mormon use of the term. So of the Church’s number (again just in the US) that means about 75-78% are active in a strong sense.

    Honestly that’s a pretty high number. I know I was pretty surprised when I calculated it.

    Regarding ex-Mormons I didn’t mean to imply ex-Mormons weren’t New Atheists. Rather I think there are some parallels between the groups. However I certainly wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out a significant number of ex-Mormons who see that as their identity are also New Atheists. As to Dehlin, I’ve just not kept up with him so I don’t know his views on atheism. However more broadly speaking what you describe seems to mesh with my view that there are similarities between the ex-Mormon movement and New Atheists.

    Your point about mainline Protestants and Catholics not being as big a threat to New Atheists is an interesting one. I’d have to think about that a bit. I’m not sure the concern is over how big a threat something is, although there Catholicism has enough beliefs that New Atheists hate that it might be treated differently from mainline Protestantism.

  89. Clark,

    That is indeed a surprisingly high number. I had heard of something more like 50% for US and 30% worldwide, but I haven’t done the statistics, and your post seems to be a reasonable enough analysis. I had thought that some articles had quoted Armand Mauss on those percentages just a few years ago, so I wonder if that’s a case of things being taken out of context, or of better data being available now, or what?

    FWIW, I do think new atheists treat Catholics differently from mainline protestants, especially on contraception.

  90. Clark Goble says:

    I think the ARIS data simply gave a much better understanding of what was going on. As I said I also think the Church has really incentivized cleaning up the roles as well. The data for earlier periods just isn’t as good. So some people were using the GSS data which is really too unreliable. (Very small sample sizes) Like I said I’m actually pretty skeptical of the Pew data for a variety of reasons I go through at my blog. But they give us a retention rate of 65-70% which is pretty good for a very demanding religion. Other religions do better, but typically they’re very undemanding and often are tied to ethnic identities as well. (Think orthodox jews for instance) Also the sample sizes for the small religions are somewhat problematic.

    I’m very much looking forward to the next ARIS release to see if the shift in the US towards Nones continues.

  91. Martin James says:

    ” My argument is that there aren’t more moderates within Mormonism because Mormonism is strongly into moral certainty (that happens to work well with the sort of fundamentalism Harris is describing), so within Mormonism, “strong religiosity” is defined (even though Jacob wants to challenge that) by one’s ability to accept or perform that narrative of certainty.”
    You may have addressed this, but I’d like another shot at this one. What do you think of this narrative. Mainstream mormonism is not fundamentalist because there all lots of doctrines both scriptural and leadership driven that are ignored in practice by most of the membership.
    Pretty much anything New Testament or loving one’s neighbors will do as an example. Why should we call the people who speak uncharitably of their neighbors fundamentalist and TBMs when they ignore religious teachings but not call people who don’t follow leaders counsel on other matters TBMs? It seems to me that we are confusing political and social conservatism with religious fundamentalism. It seems pretty clear to me that much of the faithfully attending church is in apostasy and potentially some of the leadership also. People like Denver Snuffer have been excommunicated for suggesting as much. The efforts of people like Jeff G to understand the church in a way that following leadership can’t be apostasy seem to me the clear and smoking gun that this form of apostasy is rampant. Our cultural conflation of the corporate church and the church as a religion blinds us to the obvious problem that we have many more competing moderate camps than we have competing fundamentalist camps. Those that take the words literally are the tiny minority. Whether it is Jeff G’s version or a version that says “the leaders are just saying that to have good PR it is not what they really believe or an attempt to parse doctrine and policy so finely that no one knows what will change and what won’t over time.
    To take this further one could even venture into the realm of anthropology and try to figure out where TBMs are acting religiously and when they are acting on business, political and economic motives. Is it really that clear other than through the tax code and some texts that the church is in fact a religion? I know that sounds extreme and I think it still qualifies but to many outside the church, even those that respect it, it doesn’t operate as a religion. For some this critique is theological, for some charitable, for some liturgical, and for others sociological.
    At root, I think it is getting impossible to be a TBM because there are conflicting and inconsistent demands. This was my point in saying that a mormon upbringing breeds moral skepticism. Can anyone read about wealth and pride and not see the average TBM as representing those characteristics? The line between not praising costly apparel and actually wearing uncostly apparel is impossibly fine. The rationalizations of material wealth (if used to good purpose, etc.) are so transparent as to not be interpreted as a specifically mixed message. I’m not saying the message is to get rich or to give everything to the poor, I’m saying that no TBMs make that determination religiously, they make it socio-culturally like everyone else. The religion forces moderation due to the forced balancing of precepts in action.
    That is what I especially like about Jacob’s piece. It captures that it is complex. Just because I find it silly to care about authenticity or one’s status as mormon or not, doesn’t mean I don’t think the complexity is real. To me everyone is mormon because everyone will be judged by mormon standards. Why should it matter to Jacob what anyone else thinks about it?

  92. Martin James says:

    “To me everyone is mormon because everyone will be judged by mormon standards. ”
    Does that make me hyperfundamentalist or hyper-cafeteria? Who can say?

  93. Clark Goble says:

    Martin this is ultimately the view of people like Robert Wright who thinks everyone has to decide what passages to privilege and which to repress in terms of relevance. So no one is a fundamentalist of the sort the New Atheists assert. The typical countermove is that because the texts could easily be read a different way the threat is always persistent for a very illiberal religion.

    That said, I think the way judgments are made is a bit more complex than you suggest. Depending upon how broad you take the “socio-cultural” basis. Clearly our culture affects our judgments but it doesn’t fully determine our judgments. However I do think that the whole moderate/fundamentalist taxonomy is ultimately more misleading than helpful.

  94. Martin at 1:01,

    I agree that these raise more challenges to the fundamentalist/moderate taxonomy (and also highlight how in a lot of cases, the religious language often seems to mirror political language), and I would add a few more things into the mix: what does it mean to be a fundamentalist or moderate in a religion that acknowledges that humans are imperfect, and thus will inevitably fail to live up to their own standards?

    But I think there are a couple of lines of what you say that might let us go a little bit further:

    It seems pretty clear to me that much of the faithfully attending church is in apostasy and potentially some of the leadership also. People like Denver Snuffer have been excommunicated for suggesting as much.

    So, I think any time that someone is considering the leadership to be in apostasy in a religion when leadership is part of canon (e.g., continuing revelation), then that’s going to be a potentially dangerous spot religiously. I’m not saying that it can’t ever happen, but as you note, people have been excommunicated for this.

  95. Martin James says:

    Anyone who doesn’t think the church is in an extremely dangerous spot isn’t paying attention. Morality is ramifying worldwide. We don’t agree within and across countries. Everyone is spying on everyone else and leaking strategically. Technology is changing relationships.
    This is why I am here. I don’t think anyone is facing the difficulty of transmitting values across generations in the current environment. The prophets know it and comment on it but it strains the structure of the organization which is bureaucratic. The church has been a part of the American brand for at least 50 years. What happens when the American brand shifts too far? Things are changing fast for everyone right now. What happened to anti-communism in the church? What will be the compromises with feminism?
    I think the liberal/conservative dichotomy is past its peak. Why is the church more encouraging of missions for females? This is the most important factor in the church and I don’t think it fits into the liberal/conservative box. Which is it? Is it liberal and feminist or is it using the mission experience to keep women conservative? Will there be a served/didn’t serve dynamic with women as there is with men?
    It will change the church dramatically over the next generation. It astounds me how provincial bloggernacle discussions are. It is like reading late scholastic arguments and knowing the days are numbered on that discourse.

  96. Martin,

    But to the extent that the church shifts and flexes over time, that depends on the leaders’ priorities. You can either work *with* them or *against* them, and if you work *against* them, you’re going to have problems.

  97. Martin James says:

    Sycophants don’t help leaders. Why do you think John Dehlin was keep on for so long? The leaders know they don’t know how much things are shifting and where. Why did Ballard talk about changing strategy on discussing controversial matters? Even a person scrupulously following leaders will get a bit dizzy. Talk to people in No.Cal. who strongly backed the opposition to Prop. 8 and then saw the church shift to adapt in different ways to protect its reputation. They have culture shock.

  98. Martin,

    I don’t think that it’s reasonable to argue that someone who works with leaders is a sycophant. And working with leaders doesn’t have to mean that you agree with everything they say. But it probably doesn’t mean that you say they are in apostasy, either.

  99. What Andrew said.

  100. Martin James says:

    Who gives a flying crap who gets excommunicated? What does that have to do with what the church is facing technologically or culturally?

  101. Membership standing is seen (for better or for worse) as a way of evaluating how normative one’s Mormonism is. If you don’t really care about being Mormon, then excommunication doesn’t matter…but plenty of people do care.

    perhaps there can be a case made that one’s membership status in the church institution should not be prioritized as much, but a lot of members are not going to find that persuasive.

  102. Martin James says:

    I’m not a follower of Denver Snuffer and I think excommunication is a sign that you are not a measure of LDS norms. My point wasn’t that he was right, my point was that the range of what must be decided within the leadership and within the church is broad enough to contain apostasy without excommunication. I cited Snuffer because I think the tensions are as great on the right for the church as on the left. How many people think the church has knuckled under to the prevailing culture? Doesn’t that put them at risk of apostasy? My point is a statistical one not an accusation of individuals. If opinions are diversifying against principles that are uniform, isn’t the conclusion that people are in apostasy religiously?
    I can’t see how that is a controversial point. In my ward’s HP group we have 3 male members not attending over age 50 for every one attending and those attending often have pretty significant disagreements on the meaning of gospel principles. What other conclusion can I draw about the presence of apostasy? Stating this fact doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether one is working for or against leaders.

  103. Martin,

    I’m not understanding your point here, because Denver Snuffer *was* excommunicated for apostasy. If anything, it goes to show that “fundamentalism” doesn’t align with political or even theological conservatism, because Snuffer is not some gay-marriage-advocating pro-feminist Book-of-Mormon-skeptic.

    I mean, I don’t think anyone is saying that there isn’t a range of acceptable beliefs and practices allowed for membership in the church. But, nevertheless, there are certain behaviors and certain beliefs that, when expressed, will cause problems.

  104. Martin James says:

    My point is not that there aren’t boundaries and that Denver Snuffer violated them. My point is that he maintained that he was just publicizing the “obviously correct” doctrines. My point is that the church is not obviously politically or theologically conservative, so not getting excommunicated means adapting with continuing revelation. I thing it also means that avoiding apostasy is going to be increasingly hard work.
    I thought Elder Nelson’s talk to Millenials was outstanding in this regard. He didn’t make it sound like it was easy to identify the correct answers. Yes, we should follow the prophets but with much study and prayer and hard work. He mentioned that the words of the prophets may not match our political views. He mentioned cunning deceivers and secret combinations? Does it make sense that cunning deceivers in secret combinations come marked with “liberal – do not believe” on their forehead. It seems obvious to me that the conflation of religiosity with cultural conservatism is a lie spread by evil people. It distracts us from our bonds as children of God and from clarity of thought leading to prayerful confirmation.

  105. “the church is not obviously politically or theologically conservative, so not getting excommunicated means adapting with continuing revelation”

    I beg to differ, at least with the notion that the church is not obviously politically conservative. At a minimum, you’ll need to define your terms little better. I did like a lot of that second paragraph, though.

  106. Martin James says:

    Furthermore, two well tested marks of evil are flattery and attempts to take away the agency of man. Evil often comes looking like a friend not an enemy.

  107. Martin James says:

    So, was Romney seen as a more or less conservative candidate within the republicans? Was he more like the church’s values or less?

  108. You’ve lost me, except that I know not to compliment you because you’re likely to assume I’m evil if I do.

  109. Martin,

    My understanding is that Denver Snuffer maintained that he was just publicizing “obviously correct” doctrines that weren’t already getting published because the institutional leaders were not willing to publish them. Again, it gets to the claims that he is opposing the church leaders in a very public way.

    Similarly, when people advocate for supposedly political liberal causes, they often will say that they have theological reasons for supporting these causes and that those positions are “obviously correct” theologically…but of course, they run into the same issue of opposing institutional leaders in a very public way.

    In both cases, although the particular content of their disagreements vary, they run into issues with the ways that they publicly disagree with leadership. Avoiding apostasy is hard work *if* one is not willing to heed the counsel of leaders when they are warned not to publish certain things, not to voice things publicly, etc.,

%d bloggers like this: