Kirby discusses an atheist Mormon kid, and gets some things right and others horribly wrong

Robert Kirby is a Mormon columnist for the SL Tribune. I have read 20 or so columns of his over the years, and some of them are really good and funny and others suffer from what I call the “straw man Mormon” argument.

The “straw man Mormon” argument is extremely common on the Bloggernacle, and it is this: invent an intolerant, holier-than-thou Mormon in your mind and then proceed to show how wrong this Mormon is. If this Mormon is wrong (which he is), then most Mormons (except for you) are wrong because in your mind this invented Mormons represents how most Mormons think. Therefore, we can assume that most Mormons are intolerant, holier-than-thou types because nobody wants to be like this (invented) Mormon.

This tactic is especially cruel because writers like Kirby will take one little characteristic that they have noticed in a few Mormons and then apply these negative characteristics to the entire Mormon population and inflate them into the dominant personality trait of all Mormons.

This Kirby column is a great example of the “straw man Mormon” argument at work. Here is Kirby’s point: if a good Mormon kid grows up and announces he is an atheist, then his very wrong Mormon parents will think the kid is lost and “going to hell” and “doomed,” etc, etc.

Kirby is of course correct that a loving God gives people lots of chances, on Earth and in the Spirit world, to change. He is also right that thinking the kid is doomed is short-sighted. He is also right that some parents probably overreact to their kids losing their testimonies.

Everybody reading this post probably knows some parents who have overreacted in this way. We could fill hundreds of pages on this blog with stories about these “wrong” parents.

But the truth is that everybody, including these parents, are human beings with nuances.

The parents may overreact at first, and when they calm down and pray and talk to their bishop or their friends, they can usually change their perspective. They will have faith that God will work things out in His own way. They will (for the most part) come to know the good qualities in their now-atheist son or daughter. They will, in short, come to accept their situation and perhaps find even more love for their wayward son or daughter.

But even if they don’t, their overreaction does not mean they are due a lecture on their unrighteousness by the suddenly self-righteous Mormon straw man inventors. It is far more charitable, it seems to me, to say to yourself, “wow, those parents whose son announced he is an atheist are going through a tough time, but they will get through it and hopefully they will learn from it and rely in their faith in God at the end of the day.”

Instead, what we see is people like Kirby (and many, many, many writers in the Bloggernacle) noticing some parents who overreact and using it as an excuse to lecture the entire Mormon population on how intolerant Mormons are. Such a reaction — preying on the suffering of others to point out your own self-righteousness — is truly mean-spirited in my opinion.

So, yes, Kirby is right that God will ultimately work things out. He is also right that a lot of Mormon parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc, overreact to people losing their testimonies. But he (and many, many Bloggernacle writers) are horribly wrong to try to imply that this somehow reflects how the majority of Mormons act and that Mormons are “silently torturing loving relationships to death.” The reality is that most Mormons are just trying to do their best in an often difficult world, and creating wrong-headed straw man Mormons to make yourself look good by comparison is unfortunate.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

42 thoughts on “Kirby discusses an atheist Mormon kid, and gets some things right and others horribly wrong

  1. But strawmen go up in flames so beautifully… The pyrotechnics are quite addictive.

    If you deal with the subtle beauty of real people, you might fall in love with them. And then it wouldn’t be fun to poke at them for doing unwise things. The corrective suggestions would take on the unfortunately patronistic aspect of concerned adult rather than the puerile joy of unmitigated moral superiority.

  2. I would like to ask commenters to avoid telling stories about so-and-so Mormon who totally overreacted when his son lost his testimony, and that person is so wrong-headed and intolerant, etc, etc. Such a story would indicate that the commenter has completely missed the point of this post.

  3. I just wonder why no one seems to consider the feelings of the parents, who’ve invested a lot in their children, only to have the children walk away and basically tell the parents that they’re wrong.

    Children have a lot of power to hurt their parents, yet it seems too many only care about the kids feelings. Many seem overly concerned with the feelings of those who walk away, but are far too dismissive of the feelings of those left behind.

  4. Oh, there are those who worry about the parents.

    The thing about the Mormon, however, is that we not only believe we are free agents, we believe that no being, no matter how perfect, gets to escape the possibility of sorrow when a child chooses incorrectly (c.f., the matter of Lucifer v. God the Father, Isaiah 14:12).

    Beyond that, we believe that freedom is so vital that an Omnipotent God chooses not to abrogate it, no matter how much more “easy” a compelled population would make it for all concerned.

  5. I’ve agreed with what’s been said, but I think that its impossible to discuss current events or historical events without some straw being stuffed up the sleeves of the people we are discussing. For instance, I’ve said a think or two about Kate Kelly here, but I’ve tried to be careful to say that I was merely reacting to the things she has said publicly and the actions she’s taken that have been reported on in the press. Outside of those things, I simply don’t know her. Is she a good aunt? Does she kick puppies when no one is looking? I don’t know, and it would be impossible for me to construct a full and complete picture of her as a person using my own devices. I suspect that some of us would have a hard time constructing a full and complete picture of ourselves.

    But does that mean that we can’t discuss the ideas and actions of people out there in the public, even if we don’t know all of the details that motivate and inform those words and actions? Of course not. We have a duty to make judgments of this type all the time. Otherwise, we would find ourselves in a quandry, not being able to choose right from wrong through refusing to make a moral judgment about either.

  6. “I just wonder why no one seems to consider the feelings of the parents, who’ve invested a lot in their children, only to have the children walk away and basically tell the parents that they’re wrong.”

    I appreciate Ivan’s thoughts. Now that I’ve been a parent for quite some time, I can see that during my callow youth I did and said things that probably wounded my goodly parents’ feelings. I’ve gained a deeper appreciate for my folks as a result of this, and I’ve been able to apply this to how my Father in Heaven must sometimes feel about His foolish children.

    Charity would do much to heal these issues. Charity for the young man who loses his testimony; charity for the parents who suffer and shed tears of anguish for the still-in-their-minds baby that they’re losing. And ultimately, charity will lead to greater faith in God’s ultimate saving grace. We can and should take the longer, more eternal perspective.

    Here is a quote from J. Reuben Clark that I absolutely love. I am recalling this from memory because I cannot find it online, so it’s a rough capitulation from memory:

    “I believe that in His juridical aspect God will punish us the absolute minimum punishment that eternal law demands, and that likewise He will bless us to the absolute maximum that eternal law allows.”

    By the way, Straw Man Mormon would make a great complement to Ask a Faithless Mormon Girl.

  7. In addition, it seems that people act as though parents have no right to feel/express disappointment or sorrow in response to their children’s moral choices. It’s as if, when their children decide that the Church they grew up with is all a farce, parents have an obligation to smile as if nothing significant has happened. And then call that “love.”

    To me, that’s indifference, not love. And indifference is the opposite of love. “I don’t care what my kids believe or how they behave” is an ultimate act of indifference and the antithesis of parental love and concern.

  8. Sad to see that loving your children has be changed to mean accepting of whatever decisions they make. You can still love your child while not agreeing with the decisions he or she makes.

  9. @ ldsphilosopher:

    Indeed. For all the self-proclaimed LDS intelligentsia/bloggernacle who claim to love the Church; my impression is that most would be far more distraught to see their children decide not to pursue a college education or–Saints forbid–vote for a Republican, than they would be to see their children forgo a temple marriage or a lifetime of Church activity.

  10. To build on Ivan’s point … what about siblings and friends who see their brother/sister/friend/cousin etc leave the church or dissent from within? It is hard to watch it all happen and NOT react. Sometimes, because the person feels betrayed, and deeply wounded, their reaction is visceral and far from perfect.

  11. Good comments all.

    Michael Davidson, I have been around the Mormon blog world for more than a decade now, and the phenomenon I am discussing is the more than weekly post on sites where the self-righteous blogger points out how wrong Mormons are because they are mostly racist/sexist/homophobic/intolerant of people with long hair/intolerant of women wearing pants/intolerant of men with earrings/annoying Glenn Beck listeners, etc, etc.

    As I have pointed out in other posts and comments, people will see what they want to see. One person will walk into a sacrament meeting and concentrate on the good, kind acts of the people around them, and another person (a Mormon blogger) will go to the same meeting and see only intolerant people not living up to the blogger’s high standards. And then the blogger will create an entire narrative where all Mormons, or at least the majority, are these wrong-headed intolerant losers and then blog about how horrible it is to have to go to church with these people. If only they were as enlightened as the blogger is then church would be so, so much better.

    To see an example from our very pages, check out this comment by Tim:

    These types of comments and posts are truly tiresome because the assumption is always that the commenter is so much smarter/better/more enlightened than the stupid Mormons with whom he/she is forced to attend church.

    This is exactly the point that Kirby is making in his column. He is so much more tolerant than the ignorant Mormon parents who turn on their own kids because they become atheists. As I say, he is not all wrong, but this tactic is truly unpleasant and all-too-common.

    I would say there is a difference between this creation of the Mormon straw man and discussing, for example, whether it is a correct tactic to protest a priesthood meeting.

  12. I think we have be very careful about what is left unsaid when discussing overreactions. It must never be forgotten that there really are consequences to refusing or discarding covenants. It’s not nothing, although the world wants us to behave as if it is.

    Yes, how we engage matters, but engage we must. Too much is at stake not to.

  13. JimD wrote:

    “@ ldsphilosopher:

    Indeed. For all the self-proclaimed LDS intelligentsia/bloggernacle who claim to love the Church; my impression is that most would be far more distraught to see their children decide not to pursue a college education or–Saints forbid–vote for a Republican, than they would be to see their children forgo a temple marriage or a lifetime of Church activity.”

    As I said, I have been around the Bloggernacle for a long, long time. One blogger on a major Mormon site once wrote that he was raising his children to be tolerant heterodox progressives who made no value judgements of any kind. He admonished “stupid orthodox Mormons” for not encouraging their children to spend more time around gay people, for not teaching homosexual sexual acts to their teenagers (so they could make their own choice about their sexuality) and for not teaching their children that abortion was a women’s choice, even up to the birth of the baby. The writer was trying to be deliberately shocking, but it did occur to me that teenage children enjoy contradicting their parents and that this blogger’s kids may decide when they are teenagers to be conservative Mormons just to get a rise out of the progressive adults around them. Kind of like Alex Keaton in “Family Ties.” This would indeed be a Mormon liberal’s biggest nightmare.

  14. In the spirit of the post, I believe I see a Mormon intellectual straw man.

  15. I don’t know if folks are creating an intellectual straw man so much as they are discussing a similar schema/worldview shared by those who see the Church through puke-tinged glasses.

    Obviously, however, each individual is unique. And I love them all, no matter what color their glasses might be.

  16. While in graduate school I had to take a class on how to write history. One of the lessons was on the proper use of “weasel words.” One key type of weasel word is one that indicates number. By not using a limiting word (some, a few, a majority, etc.), the assumption is often that all in that category fit what you are describing and thus weaken the argument.

    That is the key error Kirby made. “A few” or “Some” in an appropriate place would have made the his comments much more accurate and palatable. In our new ward I have recently sat through lessons wherein negative comments about intellectuals, liberals and immodest young girls flowed from one overgeneralization to another. I am afraid my questions about how many or some variation of that has not made me very popular but at least some of the comments are now more accurate and limiting.

  17. The article on BCC right now is another good example of this. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. Those awful curriculum writers are so unenlightened and backwards. If only the BCC writers had written the lesson plans….

  18. Meg, “puke-tinged glasses” is easily the most memorable thing I’ve read on the internet in the past six months at least.

  19. Here’s my straw man: many Mormons create straw men to make a point. They create phony liberals, Democrats, intellectuals, politicians. I know I’m making this up, but I’m a hurry to go to church. If I had the time and the right program I could go back through the blogs and the media reports and demonstrate this, but then, creating another straw man, most Mormons don’t want facts these days. They are content to exist on opinions. Aren’t straw men wonderful?

  20. After thinking about this a bit more last night, one needs only to head to the scriptures to see how parents dealt with wayward children. Lehi and Alma, just as a starting point, both had children that fell away from the gospel. No doubt they both loved their stray children but not once in the scriptures can you find an example of them accepting their behavior that was contrary to the Lord’s standards. Instead you find accounts of them trying to convince them to rethink their actions and return to the gospel. In fact Lehi and Alma probably both felt awful about the decisions their sons were making yet they loved them enough to encourage them to return.

    As Fraggle said on this thread, “Yes, how we engage matters, but engage we must. Too much is at stake not to.” When we have children that make bad decisions we need to go to the Lord and ask for guidance for out the right time, place, and words to use to encourage them to reconsider their path in life.

  21. @JimD – LOL

    I was originally thinking “the opposite of rose-colored glasses,” but “puke-tinged glasses” has fewer syllables. My poor friends who have lost their rosy view of Mormonism remind me of one of my daughters, who having once upon a time had gastrointestinal difficulties after eating a meal including ham has now for years been unwilling to eat ham.

    When something has become puke-tinged, it takes a lot to restore the affected person’s faith in the thing they have come to distrust.

    Thinking now of recent events, dissatisfaction is a communicable condition. This is the objection to those who are ostensibly faithful who destroy the satisfaction of others. We almost expect poo to be flung at us by outsiders, but when insiders aggressively set themselves as judges and communicate their puke-tinged view to hundreds and thousands of others, a response is required.

  22. I returned to my home ward after sveral months away and received some information that put several local leaders in a bad light. It was very tempting to research the issue and find out what happened, but I realized that it was a private matter and I needed to let it alone. In our day we are bathed in hearsay and innuendo. We can’t really know the truth of most situations. Judging others as straw men is both quite tempting and very wrong.

  23. Hi Pat,

    So using the surgery analogy, did someone fail to cut when they should have, cut too deeply, or cut off the wrong limb? Allegedly of course.

  24. “This tactic is especially cruel because writers like Kirby will take one little characteristic that they have noticed in a few Mormons and then apply these negative characteristics to the entire Mormon population and inflate them into the dominant personality trait of all Mormons.”

    You are making straw men. No where in the article does he point at the entire mormon population.

  25. @Geoff, I do agree with your comments. Mine were just a bit of a tangent.

    The more I’ve thought about Kirby’s article, and some of my more liberal FB friends have shared it today, the more I wonder which of Kirby’s relatives have been treating him like Buddy the Atheist. A guy doesn’t just wake up in the morning and write something like that without being prodded.

  26. kinglamoni says: “You are making straw men. No where in the article does he point at the entire mormon population.”

    But Kirby writes:

    “I’ll direct it at Mormons because there are so many of us around here, but it works just as well for people of other “only one way” faiths.”

    It sounds pretty pointed at the general practicing membership to me. Broad enough to support the original point. Kirby also closes with a similar comment with a broad religious sweep.

    I would say that Geoff’s original point still stands, regardless of the flame sent its way.

  27. Kinglamoni, you may want to re-read the article first before making incorrect accusations. Kirby, according to what he writes, does go to an LDS church and apparently has seen one or more people overreacting to their children losing their testimony, and his column is obviously a reaction to that. He applies it to all religions and even to atheists, but he says very clearly in the first paragraph: “Ill direct it at Mormons.”

  28. I’ve read nearly everything Robert Kirby has written from the beginning. I find his insights into the practical application of our religion to be very reasonable.
    Let’s try another possible scenario: You marry a woman in the temple who is a returned LDS missionary. Decades pass as you raise your family in the church. One day she announces she doesn’t believe in the LDS church any longer. She then joins a local evangelical Christian church, and you go to your LDS ward alone. What would you do? I think he’s doing the right thing.

  29. Steve R, you are missing the point of the OP. Kirby staying with his now-evangelical wife is probably the right thing to for HIM to do, and i have no problem with it. The point is that he is creating straw men Mormon people who are intolerant and then preaching his own relative tolerance. This is the issue under discussion here.

  30. I’ve read Kirby on and off for years and I find him too cynical, too renegade for my taste. And this coming from a (kind of) cafeteria Mormon. The SLC media market is choked with the Kirby/Fletcher-Stack types of outwardly active members whose livelihood depends on straddling the line between culture and counterculture. I have no use for them.

    Re: parents’ feelings, I personally believe parenthood is a prerequisite for valid feelings. Talk to me about your feelings in a few years when that first kid comes, Buddy.

  31. I am so glad to see that you agree with Mr. Kirby that mormons (or anyone) should not “silently torture loving relationships to death”.

    I agree as well.

    Even if he is totally wrong about the percentage of mormons who are doing this, I think he makes a wonderful point.

    Glad you agree.

  32. James, yes, torturing loving relationships to death is not a good idea. And I generally like apple pie, mom and baseball as well. That’s not really the point of this post, however.

  33. Geoff B,

    I hope that you are not saying that maintaining healthy relationships despite significant faith differences is nothing more than an aspiration without substance (i.e., apple pie and baseball).

    And yes. I get that the post was really saying something else. It felt like it was trying to say destroying relationships over faith is really not an issue with mormons. Just a straw man.

    I don’t agree that it is not an issue with mormons doing this to their children, spouses and neighbors. I have anecdotally seen it happen quite often. But instead of nitpicking the percentage. Wich is how the post felt.

    I thought I would stay positive and keep to the aspirational point of where we should be able to agree.

    I personally think that is the more important issue rather than arguing whether the issue Kirby brought up in his post always happens, sometimes happens, or never happens. I would hope we can agree it should never happen and how can we support people when it does happen. Because it does.

    Best wishes.

  34. I don’t know, but there seems to be plenty of details to be desired in the story. Were the parents simply rejecting him when he announced he was an atheist, or were they having problems with how he acted toward his believing family members too? The reason why I don’t take a lot of things some detractors say at face value, is, in addition to the mentioned strawman, the omitted details, and one sidedness in the account .

  35. ldsphilosopher, I agree that we don’t have to agree with our children and their decision to leave church. What to do if they spout off the anti-mormon conspiracy theories, however, I don’t think asking them to sit out a little is a bad idea.

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