One of the interesting points that was brought up was that the Internet is where different groups of Latter-Day Saints are fighting to own (or contribute to) the definition of what it means to be a Latter-Day Saint. Because the Internet is now the first source that people look to for information on just about anything, it is prime real estate for staking claims of identity, and a great many individuals who feel repressed by the top-down nature of the LDS Church have interpreted such as an opportunity to make their voice heard.
I think that this was brought to light by a question that Allen Wyatt asked of John Dehlin during a panel discussion (thanks, Allen, for posting the question and answer online):
People often study the same facts or issues and come to vastly different conclusions—some have their faith strengthened, while others have their faith destroyed. To what do you attribute this difference in outcome, and why do you feel that the stories of those who have suffered a negative outcome should be privileged over those with a positive outcome?And here was John's answer (again, via Allen):
That’s a really hard question for me to answer. I’m one of the ones who have lost faith, and so my perspective is going to be really biased. What I can say is that to some degree disbelief appears to be a luxury.
We even saw this a little bit in our data—the more income you have, the more freedom you feel to question and to be honest with parents and siblings and children, etc. You can just imagine that if you are financially independent and you don’t have to worry about losing your job and you don’t have to worry about being written out of an inheritance, you might feel the freedom to inquire without reservation a little bit more than somebody who’s got a job that may be associated with the church, and who needs that inheritance, and who can’t afford to sever social ties that the church might benefit them from.
So, I also think that if we were to do sort of a multi-factorial analysis—what is the person’s spouse like, are they open-minded or are they kind of rigid and harsh and dogmatic? That might be a factor in whether someone’s really willing to look honestly at the data. What happens when they look honestly is a totally separate question, but I think there are factors in one’s environment that are going to make it more or less likely that they can actually look objectively at the data.
Other factors might include… Just imagine if you are making $30,000 a year, struggling to raise your kids, maybe you’re a single mom, and your ward is just this critical social support for you—and you enjoy it—your interests in actually looking at the data objectively are going to be very different. So, I think those are sort of the barriers to just being able to look at things objectively.
I thought that John gave a biased answer and did a good job warning his audience of such. He basically seeks to stake the claim that active Latter-Day Saints are more inclined to interpret facts or issues positively because they are somehow socially or financially invested in legitimizing their continued relationship with the organization regardless of the validity of its truth claims.
I wasn't really pleased with three aspects of his answer, though.
First, I think that his example of financial freedom is a bit snooty and probably wrong. While I can understand where he is coming from regarding Church employees who would lose their job--or be converted to a contractor position--if they left the Church, I don't really agree that those who have a lower income and are dependent on the welfare program of the Church won't look honestly at its legitimacy because of that financial tie. The fact is that in the year that I served as our ward secretary, a great many individuals dependent on church welfare came in and told the Bishop straight up that they weren't interested in church activity but still needed assistance. I don't think that financial dependence on an organization keeps one from disagreeing or even disdaining that organization (just look at the welfare program of the United States).
On the other hand, I personally have no financial reason for staying a member of the Church and have what some might think is strong financial incentive for leaving--my 10% raise and all that. Even if I believed that donating 10% of my income a good idea strictly from a financial perspective, I can donate that to any good-doing organization I want; I don't need the Church to be true for financial reasons.
Second, I think what he was really saying was that the more invested an individual is in an organization, ideology, or other construct, the harder it is for them to look at it objectively. I agree with this statement in much more general framing than the financial or social ones he placed on it. But, I think that the tone of John's answer seemed to exclude those individuals that Allen was trying to highlight in his question, i.e. those who favor negative outcomes for the very reason that John was saying that others favor positive outcomes. It brings to light what Joseph Smith said about leaving the Church:
When the Prophet had ended telling how he had been treated, Brother Behunin remarked: ‘If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.’
The great Seer immediately replied: ‘Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’
John effectively answers the second part of Allen's question by his answer's form, if not its content. The reason that John favors negative outcomes over positive outcomes is because he is invested in those outcomes legitimizing his position.
The fact is that I do the same thing. I favor positive outcomes, conversion stories, and the continued growth and good influence that the Church has on the world in part because I am socially invested in its success. I like giving gospel doctrine lessons. I like working with the missionaries. I like blogging online about my faith. If I left, I wouldn't get to do those things anymore. I don't really have many social reasons to keep the faith, but I believe that these form a minor bias in my faithful position in the Church.
However, I do have a biggie that I have trouble overcoming. It was brought to my immediate attention while I read The Reason for God by Timothy Keller a couple years ago. It is the dark conclusion just beyond the corner of my eye that God isn't really there or that He doesn't love really me or that the world doesn't really need Him. I realized that this is a line that I cannot cross and be emotionally safe. Because of this, I believe that I do cater more to evidences of God's existence than evidences to the contrary for my own protection more than I might like to admit. Again, neither financially nor socially motivated, but perhaps biologically.
Anyway, I think that the key is to not pretend that we are being strictly objective. Of course John is going to be biased towards favoring negative outcomes over positive ones because he is not being strictly objective. In fact, I think the best answer that John could possibly have given is: "I favor those because I am a member of The Church of Lost-the-Faith Saints, and my desires to evangelize that are part and parcel of the same human nature that possesses those members of other faiths." I'd have given him props for the pun, too.
I think that Henry Eyring (President Eyring's father) puts it most honestly when he states that to believe his conclusions you have to believe his premises. Indeed, Henry admits that he sees things through the lens of his premise that God exists, that he spoke to the boy Joseph, etc., etc.
Third, while I agree that thinking about one's life choices correlates with the amount of perceived free will one has in the matter, I disagree with the view that those who have interpreted the Church in a positive light have done so largely for social or financial reasons. In fact, I believe a great many rationally thinking individuals have indeed looked at certain aspects of the Church and interpreted it positively or negatively based a great deal more on the premise that they either believe Joseph Smith or not rather than the negative financial or social impacts.
One of the voices that I hear on the Internet lately is one touting the concept of a "reform" Mormonism that basically admits that they don't really believe the Church's organizational aspects at best or its truth claims at worst, but they really like the social or financial benefits or the fact that its rituals help them to be better people, kind of like reform Judaism or the Masons. To me, this concept and sites like staylds that promote it are exchanging one kind of dishonesty for another. John's allusion to social and financial reasons for intellectual dishonesty sound almost like an advertisement for this movement as opposed a rational explanation for why people come to different conclusions about certain outcomes in the Church.
In the end, I believe that you stick to your guns, and it is much better if one has thought about what one believes instead of just following the path of least resistance. If someone has decided that "the Church isn't true", then I at least applaud that individual for having carefully considered the matter. If someone has avoided thinking about it because of financial or social reasons, I hope she finds the courage to decide what she really believes and is ready to change her life accordingly. If someone has thought about it and he is only sticking around for the financial or social benefits, I believe he will find more of that fulfillment elsewhere.
I believe that our relationship with God should consume a much greater portion of our thoughts than our worries about the societal or financial backlash we might experience by allowing that relationship to change our outward behavior. The inverse boxes our relationship with Diety into convenience, which is a pretty small God after all. In my humble opinion, a great many faithful Latter-Day Saints do allow their relationship with God to be paramount and have chosen to stand where they remain in spite of financial or societal motivations that compete for common ground in their hearts. They have thoughtfully considered what they believe and conclude to look at the Church in a positive light.