John Dehlin recently put together a comprehensive list of what he sees as all the issues with the LDS Church. He of course titled it “A Comprehensive List of Reasons Why People Leave or Stop Believing in the LDS Church” so as to position it as a helpful attempt to teach the Church how to stop people from leaving. However, as I read through the list, it’s not really clear to me how this document could ever be helpful in that regard since it makes no helpful suggestions at all and simply reads like an anti-Mormon tract.
Consistent with my policy of not advancing anti-Mormon tracts – intended or otherwise – like this, I am not going to be linking with it. Normally I make an exception for John because I at least believe he is well intended in what I see as a desire to reduce pain in the church through reduced ‘exclusion.’ (I am intentionally using that term the way John uses it – which really means fewer people feeling uncomfortable and therefore making their own adult choice to no longer participate with the LDS church.) But I’m still not really in favor of collecting every potential faith-breaking issue all in one place like this. I do, after all, still believe in the importance of belief itself when it comes to religion.
Does John Encourage Disbelieving the LDS Church?
I know John claims he is not trying to get people to disbelieve. I think this is true in limited a sense. If you really want to believe, I have no doubt John will not push you personally towards disbelief. And I think John doesn’t really see belief as in-and-of-itself some sort of evil.
John has also claimed he is at least “minimally invested” in the LDS Church’s truth claims, and I think there is strong reason to believe that this just isn’t true. The above quote itself proves this isn’t the case.
John seems to have a preference away from literal beliefs and in favor of a more cultural approach to religion. His podcasts and writings have overwhelming favored discussions about doubt over discussions about belief. And I have no significant doubt that John is fully aware of this fact and prefers this approach precisely because he honestly believes that his cultural approach will preserve all the good of Mormonism (i.e. the community, the spirituality, the rituals) while removing the bad from Mormonism (i.e. loss of beliefs leads to hurtful divorces, many aren’t ‘included’, bigotry, etc).
This is, I think, the main thing that separates me from John Dehlin. I believe we started down the same path at nearly the same time but came to nearly polar opposite conclusions based on this one difference.
My personal feeling is that John has an inaccurate model of religion in his mind and that he is working off this false model towards what he sees as a good goal – namely shaping the LDS Church into something more like, say, Judaism where belief is optional since some people (i.e. “Uncorrelated Mormons” or “Thinking Mormons” as John calls them) won’t be able to make the leap. On the surface this makes sense. Why not include those that wish to believe while also making ‘room’ for those that don’t believe literally?
But this really is an inaccurate model of religion, I’m afraid, and given that bad model, I do believe John Dehlin does a lot of unnecessary harm. I think he does a lot of good too. In fact I know he does. But I also know he does a lot of harm.
What Is the Balance on John’s Pain Ledger?
In fact, I think its very likely that John rather symmetrically  could plausibly be linked to broken families, divorces, or of vilifying people and thereby increasing bigotry and hate in the world. Or in other words, I think there is strong reason to believe that John causes the very problems he sets out to fix. After all, if someone has these things happen after hearing information from John, is it really possible to just claim the Church has 100% responsiblity and John has none?
And frankly, as far as I can see, there is no way around that if you care to advance any moral worldview that is at odds with someone else’s — which is probably all moral worldviews.  Human beings are inherently ideological and John’s ideas are really an ideology, no matter how he chooses to spin it. And it is the clash of ideologies that is the real cause of these problems, not one side or the other.
And as an ideology, it does battle with competing ideologies for mindshare. I think this is because what we call “ideologies” are really the means by which we obtain meaning out of life. So when two people have competing ideologies, both are in a dangerous zone where they are at risk of losing all meaning from their life. This is a dilemma that exists that there is no solution for. This is why hurt will often — maybe usually — ensue.
Removing that hurt is terribly difficult because to try to do so is really just to advance a new type of ideology with its own potential hurts. So you not only have to eliminate some hurts that currently exist through use of your new ideology, you also have to introduce fewer new hurts than you stopped. As far as I can see, John doesn’t even understand that this is the case and largely just blames the Church when he introduces new hurts based on assumptions such as “it wouldn’t have happened had the Church been more transparent” or the like. So there is serious potential that John does more harm than good and just doesn’t realize it because he’s rather humanly shifting the responsibility elsewhere in his mind or is avoiding situations where he might find out the true consequences of what he’s doing.
Why John Publishes Materials Covering Reasons to Doubt
Right or wrong, John has a view of how the Church should be and how it will be better than it currently is. He has a plan on how to help move towards that goal. A huge part of that goal is to publish material about issues with the Church. He does this for a very different reason than why an Evangelical anti-Mormon publishes such material.
John’s public goal isn’t so much to cause people to disbelieve (though if that does happen he doesn’t necessarily see it as a problem — his official stance is that he does not judge people if they choose to stay or leave) but rather to help members of the LDS Church realize that they need to be more compassionate and kinder towards those that do have doubts because those doubts are, in John’s view, justified rationally. If you don’t believe that, says John, see my “Comprehensive List of Reasons Why People Leave or Stop Believing in the LDS Church.”
But I personally believe I detect in John a private goal of actually encouraging reduced belief and a move towards a cultural church. To me it seems John is not so much pushing this as an alternative to being a ‘believing Mormon’ (i.e. what John uncharitably calls “correlated Mormons” or he implies are “Unthinking Mormons”) but is actually pushing his ideology as a superior way. How else do you explain John’s huge bias towards doubt to the point of wanting to collect all possible reasons to doubt in one document and not offer a single helpful suggestion on how to help people past these issues? Or his attack on President Uchtdorf’s rather excellent talk that actually was trying to address the very problems John Dehlin claims he cares about? This is not the behavior of someone with even a minimal investment in LDS truth claims.
Having said that, I am aware that John heavily denies having this goal. And I’m also aware that, if I’m right, I’d expect him to heavily deny having this goal. At a minimum, I think this goal exists in his subconsious. Neutrality is rarely possible and people that claim it are selling you something. So I think John is not neutral and that he has a preference for disbelief.
John’s Model of Religion
In any case, I believe John is mistaken that the Church can truly ever embrace a cultural approach as he wishes it would – even in the more benign publicly stated form where people can choose to believe or not, yet still feel ‘included’. I think John’s fooling himself based on the false model of religion in his head that falsely suggests that this can work when in fact it can’t. And I think the evidence against him is scientific, fact-based, and not that hard to find. Yet I think John needs to believe he’s right so badly — for if he’s wrong, he’d lose all meaning from his life — that he finds reasons to ignore the science on the subject and pushes forward anyhow with complete faith it will somehow all work out.
John often points to the Jewish religion or the Catholic religion as good examples of where he’d like to see Mormonism go. In both of these cases there are believing Jews and Catholics, but there is also an easy accommodation (or so goes the explanation) of those that are interested in these religions more for the culture and community than for the truth claims and beliefs. But this suggestion has caused me to ask the following questions:
- Is John right that Catholicism and Judaism have in fact improved their ability grow and thrive due to their more lenient views on religion as culture and practice?
- Is John right that you can take the LDS church and use the Catholic and Jewish model for it at all?
- Is John right that a person that leave the church do so primarily due to the items on his list?
- John makes the truth claim that the idea that people leave the church due to sin is false. Is he correct about this? What has our science said about this?
- Do religions that are more ‘inclusive’ in fact grow and thrive better because more people stay? Or do they reduce their effectiveness or die out? Or in other words, does John’s “inclusive” approach “include” or “exclude” more people?
I think the above questions are pretty obvious question and drive to the heart of the validity of John’s own ideology, beliefs, faith, and truth claims.
Is John a Competitor to the LDS Church?
But there is one more question I would like to ask that I think most people have not thought to ask. And this question is the single most significant question in my opinion.
A while back I wrote some posts about how religions are cultural units of transmission — sometimes called ‘memes’ for those that like the term. You can ignore the term ‘meme’ if you dislike it and yet religions will continue to replicate themselves culturally.  It is this idea of cultural replication that I find the most significant question that must be asked about John Dehlin. The question is:
Is John Dehlin replicating the same meme as the LDS church?
It turns out that this last question is of extreme significance. I explained why in a previous post, found here. The issues is that when beliefs replicate they do so following the same laws as genes. That was why Richard Dawkins invented the word “memes” to sound like “genes.” Both are in fact a form of replication of information.
And as I explained in this post if John is replicating the same meme as the LDS church (spreading LDS beliefs), then he is in symbiosis with the LDS church. But if he is replicating something different from the LDS church that is mutually exclusive to it — or at least hinders its ability to replicate its beliefs in any way — then John is actually in competition with the LDS church rather than helping it. And as I explained in that post, the closer two memes are the more they are competitors for the same reason the chief competitor to an organism is other organisms of the same species.
Also note that this can be true even if John is “helping” the church “by keeping people in it.” Go look at the equivalent genetic example in that post. The fluke is a parasite that actually “helps” a snail by making its shell stronger, yet at a cost to the snails ability to replicate its genes. So it is a parasite precisely because it hurts the ability for the snail to reproduce all while doing something that seems to be helping the snail itself.
Put simply, if John is helping people stay in the Church but they do so with a desire to reduce replication of belief (e.g. they are against missionary work, want to push the Church towards not proselytizing other religions, or maybe just make the Church less compeling because literal believe turns out to be more compeling than non-literal belief) then John truly is at odds with the current purpose of the Church and is in competition with it — regardless of whether or not he is keeping people in the church. This is because the church is the means, not the ends.
In fact, unlike Evangelicals who are after the hearts and minds of roughly the same group of people as Mormons, John only cares about Mormons. Strange as this may seem, this makes John’s chosen ideology the LDS Church’s chief competitor in many ways.
So what do you think? How would you answer the above questions about John’s movement? And is John in symbiosis or in competition to replication of LDS memes — our beliefs? (As outlined in this post)
 symmetrically: As quoted from this post, “…the idea that we all have a lot more in common then we claim we do because we use similar techniques but disguise from ourselves that we’re doing the very same thing we complained about in ‘that other community.’ So it’s easy to complain “The Mormon Church shuts people out” while also shutting people out in your own community and just not being aware that you’re doing it too.”
For that matter, it’s pretty darn easy to call for transparency of those you disagree with but a lot harder to offer it for yourself, as in the case of Ordain Women. We humans are inherently hypocritical according to Jonathan Haidt. Even a moment on the Bloggernacle makes it clear that everyone demands of everyone else that which they will not give.
 …as far as I can see, there is no way around that if you care to advance any moral worldview that is at odds with someone else’s. Someday I suspect someone is going to start a “John Dehlin Stories” podcast that simply goes around and interviews people that feel John has hurt them by unnecessarily driving a wedge between them and someone else or because John’s podcasts created bigotry towards believing Mormons by vilifying them – not unlike what John currently complains about the LDS church doing to people today.
The podcast creators can even mimic the appears of fairness by having people come on to the show to defend John Dehlin against all sort of real or trumped up charges against him. No matter how much or well they defend John, the charges are still being discussed, so its ultimately a losing proposition for John no matter what. Then the creators of the podcast can just claim that they are not saying they agree with the charges, they are just producing ‘dialogue’ about it.
John’s approach to the LDS church make absolutely anything look bad — including John’s own ideologies. An approach that is guarenteed to make the object of inspection look bad is not a very scientific approach.
In fact, when it comes down to it, it is not clear to me why – if someone discovered the Church isn’t true (as John believes) from John’s podcasts and problems ensue — John is somehow less responsible than the LDS Church for the fallout.
The current excuse, used by people that hold John’s opinions that I’ve talked to, seems to be that Truth is the moral arbiter and the fact that John is factually correct and the LDS church is not correct is therefore how we know it’s not John’s fault and it is the LDS Church’s fault. But of course the LDS Church uses the same argument in reverse, does it not?
And frankly, if there is no God, it seems like the idea that Truth is a moral arbiter is itself a rationally questionable position that any true skeptic would want some rational justification for before they’d be willing to believe it. Heck, you can’t rationally justify morality at itself without reference to the supernatural. Indeed, belief in morality pretty much is a belief in Something-Like-God. (“Something-Like-God” is further explained here.)
And if the world is a bad enough place, I have little reason at all to believe that delusion might not be a good thing in some cases and truth might hold lower utility in such cases. Scientist Jonathan Haidt has made the compelling case that it is not at all likely that the world would be a better place without religion even if all of it is factually false. In other words, if John is right that the LDS church is not true and his material brings this out to people, I still have no reason to believe that what John is doing is somehow morally correct. Is it really morally okay to make sure people are aware of all the issues with their religion and therefore risk or even encourage them to lose their religion? Even when I apply this question to religions I do not believe in, the answer never seems to me to come up “Yup!”
 Memes: For those that hate the word “meme” or find it “vapid” please, by all means, make up your own word or phrase that labels information that is culturally replicated outside the information replicated in our genes. Whenever I use the word “meme” please insert your own word or phrase in its place. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, “meme” is the only word in existence to label this sort of non-genetic information that is culturally replicated. So I have a hard time understanding why people dismiss the term outright.
I suppose, to be fair, the term “meme” has been ruined a bit because it has been taken to refer to pithy little phrases that people add to the bottom of emails. And, since this is such a new field, there is an awful lot of bad science surrounding it, such as strange claims that a person is really a set of memes. (Well… I suppose if I really stretch terms I can find some way to make that claim true.) But it might be useful to learn to separate a valid concept from the bad science surrounding it and the bad uses of the concept itself.
Of course religions replicate themselves culturally! If you are an active LDS parent you send your children to Primary right off the bat to teach them your beliefs. You do a lot more than that. You hold Family Home Evening, send them to seminary, possibly send them on a mission, maybe even send them to a Church owned university. As a parent you have no delusions that you are doing this in hopes that your child will grow up believing in the LDS religion. You are literally ‘replicating’ the religion from one generation to another. And so what? You are offering the best of yourself and there is nothing wrong with that, despite the Dehlin-sphere insistence on calling this ‘indoctrination’ or worse ‘brain washing.’ Any guesses as to if they are talking their own moral worldview and trying to replicate it to their children?
And what is missionary work? Why it’s an attempt to take our LDS beliefs and practices and ‘replicate’ them over to people that are not LDS.
Call it ‘memes’ or don’t, the underlying concept is still of some importance.