A long time ago I wrote a post called Atheists Who Know God to open discussion about a phenomenon I noticed where even outright atheists are extremely territorial about their beliefs about God.
During this discussion various ideas were offered, including a defense of the atheists on the grounds that they are just trying to show that rational inconsistency of the theist’s position. And yet, this defense just doesn’t hit the mark. How could an atheist know something with such certainty about a fictional being that no two religions even agree upon? Is it really a rationally consistent argument to argue that Santa Claus would never hire elves to make toys because it would make better sense to hire dwarves since they are better adapted to such work? The problem with trying to show logical inconsistency with fictional characters and fictional realities is that its just too easy to come up with some counter reason why that logical inconsistency isn’t a logical inconsistency.
Maybe Atheist Just Think They Know Objective Morality
Perhaps a better answer here is that atheist believe in objective (or at least universal) morality. Even moral relativists are only such in principle. In practice there are no moral relativists because, as C.S. Lewis points out, everyone will immediately act like morality is factual and objective the moment its them who has been harmed by an “immoral act.” Interestingly, this is true even though there is no known way to make sense of morality via reason if one is taking an atheistic point of view about the world. Making sense of morality rationally actually requires a supernatural viewpoint.
This theory is better because everyone knows “God is supposed to be good” and when someone believes something they see as immoral, they sincerely feel that — even though they don’t believe in God — they can at least objectively conclude that this would never be God’s will given that a) God is good, b) what so-and-so is doing is not good.
This is a more satisfying answer, I think, to the phenomenon of “Atheists Who Know God” then merely trying to show some supposed rational inconsistency via claiming to know God’s will even though one is an atheist. This theory is more like saying Santa Claus would never torture children because Santa Claus — even though he’s fictional — is supposed to like children. So perhaps “atheists who know God” really just think they know what a good being must of necessity be like under all circumstances and they simply have no doubts about their moral calculus at all.
How Often Do We Have Enough Information To Have Moral Certainty?
Now, of course, this assumption that one knows what a perfectly good being would act like — no matter how strongly held — is probably rarely true. If there really were a perfectly good Something-Like-God out there it should be obvious, at least when we’re not being overtly biased, that this perfectly good being would have to take everyone into consideration simultaneously, and would have to work with everyone wherever they are at and whatever their genetics, culture, beliefs, disposition, brain chemistry, etc.
A perfectly good being would, for example, have to work out the correct moral calculus for Jean Valjean stealing bread to survive even when there are no realistic other option currently available that allow him to survive while also taking into consideration the person he stole from having their work taken from them. He’d have to take all our biological drives into consideration, including our tendency for self deception. He’d have so many people’s true circumstances to consider simultaneously that it is pretty doubtful that His moral calculus would all that often match our own biased views.
John Dehlin Knows The Church Leaders Aren’t Following God’s Will
This whole post came about because I just noticed a link on M* entitled “John Dehlin does not believe Church leaders reflect God’s will.” Here is the quote that title is referring to:
If you forced me to speculate [about why I am not yet excommunicated]….my guess is that a disciplinary court will be held for me within the next 1-12 months…and that they have only been delaying because of some of the reasons mentioned above. In other words…the delay is due to their desire to protect themselves and their power, and to minimize the possible collateral damage to the church…and not for any other reasons….and certainly not because they are operating in accordance with God’s will. (emphasis mine)
Now granted, John is really technically an agonistic, not an atheist, though I do not see why that would change my point at all. You can easily find interviews with John where he makes it clear that he isn’t sure if God exists or not or if “God” is just a term for “goodness.” Isn’t it fascinating the level of complete certainty John expresses here about what God — if God exists — would have to be like?
John’s View is Understandable
I must say, I can understand why John feels so frustrated and upset. He is in a tough spot here for sure. John’s Mormon Stories podcast is mostly negative towards the LDS Church and John has fairly consistently gotten excited about and even encouraged people towards doubts about the Church. Members and leaders of the Church have not missed this fact.
But John isn’t necessarily someone that feels the Church is “bad” on balance. From John’s viewpoint he is just putting true information out there and letting people draw their own conclusions. Remember, he undoubtedly honestly believes he is doing nothing more than this. Of course, no one is that objective with their meaning-memes, but if you want to honestly understand where John is coming from, you must realize that he sincerely and honestly believes he’s just putting true, fair, and balanced information out there. He probably does not even realize that there are multiple types of “balance.” (This concept of multiple types of balance is in fact the real problem here, though I don’t have time in this post to explain this.)
Given John’s sincere viewpoint, it is at least understandable that he feels that the reasons disciplinary action were delayed on him had more to do with “desire to protect themselves, and their power, an to minimize the possible collateral damage to the church” than because of God’s will.
John’s Assumed Reasons Are Mostly Moral
But here’s the rub. What exactly is wrong with two out of three of those? Is a desire to protect oneself a bad thing? Is a desire to “minimize the possible collateral damage to the church” a bad thing? Consider that “the church” is in fact a group of people. Is it immoral to minimize damage to people that happen to be a church? Surely these can’t possibly be the reasons John feels that what his church leaders are doing are not God’s will because those strike me as directly moral reasons.
The real point John is emphasizing, I think, is a desire to protect one’s “power.” Let’s face it. Here in America “protecting one’s power” is almost always seen as a negative, though truth be told, one of the reasons John is writing this post is quite literally to “protect his power” too, i.e. keep people on his side and not look bad compared to the church. Further, I am not even sure “protecting one’s power” is necessarily a bad thing in most circumstances any more, though I doubt I’ll convince most people of that.
What I want to suggest here is that even if there are some bad motives involved here — for the sake of argument, let’s assume wanting to “protect their power” is a bad motive, as that is the sole possible bad motive being offered — there are also some pretty understandable ones, and even ones that strike me as directly moral reasons.
What is Self Deception?
I have come to accept something about myself: I rarely have pure motives. Moral Psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of an Elephant (subconscious) with a Rider (conscious mind) and makes it very clear that the Rider evolved to serve the Elephant and not the other way around. Because of that, its quite easy for the “Elephant” to have a bad motive that the “Rider” doesn’t even know about for the sake of plausible deniability. From a purely biological standpoint, this is what we actually mean when we speak of “self deception.” Haidt backs this up with considerable scientific studies.
Why Does Truth = Good?
In fact, isn’t all this — with John Dehlin and the LDS Church — just a microcosm of the point I just barely made about us rarely having enough information to run a true moral calculus? How would a real perfectly good being see all of this? Take, for example, John’s assumption that the LDS church is false. Must it then logically follow that people will not be hurt when John helps them see the truth? Why would that be?
This is why I enjoy the concept of a Lovecraftian world. The whole point H.P. Lovecraft makes — quite well — is that our notion that “the truth will set you free” has no rational basis at all and is really just a religious act of faith. Its only true if the universe happens to be so specially ordered that all truths happen to have higher utility than all falsehoods. In a non-theistic world (as John believes is likely the case) what are the odds this would happen to be true by chance? And it must be all truths have higher utility than their associated falsehood — literally without an exception, or else the notion has to be modified to “sometimes the truth will set you free, perhaps with a high probability — but there are notable exceptions.”
Is Religion False But Good?
Interestingly, the very atheistic Haidt proposes religion as just such an exception. Haidt started out like many atheists — antagonistic towards religion. But slowly his own scientific studies and reviews of the literature literally forced him to change his mind about religion and accept that it is a net positive to society, despite being (in his view) false. Further strengthening his argument is a growing body of scientific evidence that religion and morality evolved together and are both evolutionary adaptions that all human beings have. Also, Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion collects considerable data that religion is, on balance, a very good thing for society, even though he believes it to be factually false.
John Dehlin’s Real Mistake: The Truth-Good/False-Bad Dichotomy
This is where I honestly think John has gone astray. I think he sincerely believes that the Church is not true (at least not in the sense a “TBM” would think of that phrase), but that it is good, but that it’s (in his view) the “true” parts that are good and that “false” parts are not good and need debunking. John likely therefore sees his debunking of many of the Church’s beliefs (i.e. basically all the defining truth claims, unfortunately) as only part of what he is doing. The other half of what he probably sees himself as doing is accepting and encouraging the “true” parts of the LDS Church (i.e. ethical teachings, strong community, etc.) John sincerely seems to feel that his critics are unfairly ignoring the good he does in favor of the (in his opinion) completely unnecessary defense of a series of (in his view) false beliefs.
This is without a doubt an incredibly common human viewpoint. It takes considerable effort to fight down the biologically driven notion that the “truth” is somehow “The Truth” with a capital T. We are wired to sincerely believe that Truth is morally special somehow. Haidt points out that science has studied this biological drive and found it lacking. For example, the notion that rational people are good people is a) a significant and ubiquitous human belief, b) not statistically true.
This is, I think, the Non-Believing Liberal Mormon mistake in a nut shell. They sincerely believe they know with near certainty what parts of the Church are “true and good” and what parts are “false and harmful.” When believers push back (by, say, meeting with John in a disciplinary council) they can see nothing but “the old guard” protecting the “false and bad” portions of an otherwise good religion for the sake of “not wanting to give up power.” This narrative plays right into their own narrative of certainty that they know what parts of the Church are “bad and false.” The thought that maybe they are sometimes harming people (though undoubtedly also sometimes helping people) and might themselves be in need of some criticism and maybe even some forced curbing is not crossing their minds.
I suspect the real truth is that John (and maybe everybody) have little idea at all about how the various parts of the Church’s doctrines, beliefs, culture, and practices interconnect and cause “the good” (or “the bad”) within the Church. The danger John has always faced is that of becoming an untrained surgeon that cuts out parts of the body he thinks are unnecessary and does real harm to the otherwise healthy patient.
But then maybe in fairness we should admit that part of what drives Non-Believing Liberal Mormons is that they sometimes do find honest problems with the Church where we are harming people and the thought is not yet crossing our mind that we are causing unnecessary harm. What are the odds that this isn’t true in at least some cases? Might not John sometimes see us as the untrained surgeon that cause harm for lack of knowledge? (In fact this is one of non-believing liberal Mormon’s common complaints about the Church — that the priesthood leaders, without “proper training” try to resolve psychological and social issues.)
My Advice to John
I were to be in John’s shoes (I am not, of course, and who knows what I’d really do if I was, but bear with me anyhow) I think the first thing I’d want to consider is whether maybe I do have an underlying assumption, perhaps only tacitly, that a “false and harmful” and “true and good” dichotomy is built into my current podcasting and writings. Such an assumption would be quite natural for me to hold, of course, because there does seem to be a basic biological imperative that “truth” is “Truth”. And yet, as I’ve discussed above, there is really no reason to believe in this unless one is starting with Theistic assumptions anyhow. 
If the truth-good/false-bad dichotomy is actually false, then (if I were in John’s shoes) I might wonder if much of what I am judging ‘false’ also happen to be the ‘good parts’ of a religion. I’d let that little bit of doubt temper my belief that I can know with certainty which parts of the church are hurtful vs. helpful. This would give me a much more cautious approach, I would hope, and — as it turns out — probably remove the very thing that keeps causing me to find myself at odds with the LDS Church leaders so often: my very human underlying impulse to “debunk” LDS beliefs publicly when I think them factually not true rather than offering believing ways to deal with such issues.
I would also ask myself these questions:
What if those that criticize me aren’t merely the “old guard” trying to “protect their power” but actually have at least some legitimate concerns about my activities? What if my “pain ledger” isn’t a net positive like I am supposing? How could I know? How could I mitigate any harm I might do?
What if my pending meetings with my priesthood leaders isn’t primarily an immoral act? What if there are honest difference of opinion here with both sides correctly concerned about the other group doing unnecessary harm and both sides sincerely want to minimize that harm?
What if there is some way to compromise and work out our differences? Is not meeting with my leaders to talk then the right thing? If I do not believe they have any actual special priesthood authority, might it not make sense to think of the meeting not as oppressive — surely that’s natural human view point here — but instead as a meeting to discuss legitimate concerns?
Or what if there is not a way to compromise and work out my differences with the LDS Church? Can I really say that both sides parting ways (as John, in his quote seems to assume will be the case) is, of necessity, immoral? Why would that be? Is there really some objective moral rule out there that a group of religious people (i.e. a church) should never part ways with someone who they feel is harming people’s faith (which in turn cause real harm to a real person) in their church — and yet that someone may leave that church any time they choose and the rest of the church should be non-judgmental about this? Or is it more likely that both acts are really identical and are done for identical reasons and have identical moral ramifications?
I suppose if I were giving advice to John’s priesthood leaders, I’d probably give similar advice. My unwanted advice to them would probably be to accept that (one of) the question(s) being asked in this sort of disciplinary council is if it is possible to accommodate John without harming the faith of the body of believers. What are the real points of contention? What are the points that seem mutually exclusive and/or incompatible? Can those be resolved? Or, given John’s current beliefs, is it perhaps maybe impossible for him to comply with their requests — therefore forcing a separation?
I don’t really know the answers to these questions. My inner optimist believes both sides can be accommodated and that by doing so harm will be reduced on both sides.
To me the key question seems to be John’s current approach. He presents primarily faith-demoting material and he does so with little attempt to offer more believing ways to look at what he calls “the issues.” John’s whole approach sometimes seems to boil down to something akin to attempting to create greater compassion within the church by “debunking” that the church’s defining truth claims are true on the assumption that a person that doesn’t take the Church’s truth claims seriously will be more compassionate towards (what John calls) “the margins.”
But does this approach really make the most sense? Or is it maybe more akin to attacking LDS beliefs? Does not this approach have its own potential to cause harm and reduce compassion? 
So let’s admit that not wanting one’s beliefs “debunked” is a legitimate concern for any faith-based community and does represent a legitimate concern that is rooted in harm, not merely protecting one’s power.
The question both John and his priesthood leaders will in some sense ask themselves will be, “Does John’s moral worldview require this confrontational approach?” Or has it more just accidently grown that way over time and isn’t a requirement? If this is not required, then I suspect both sides can be accommodated. If this approach is required, then I suspect separation, at some point, can’t be avoided.
 I believe that the truth-good/false-bad dichotomy is actually one of the biological drives that makes belief in Something-Like-God so automatic in the vast majority of human beings.
In a past post I suggested that perhaps one could even think of religion as a serious attempt to bridge the gap between our feelings that morality exists (as some law that we have a duty to follow — even if we don’t want to) and a world that we see around us and study with our science that does not seem to support the existence of such a moral law.
I would suggest that this is another such case. We have a biological drive that tells us “Truth has special moral meaning and thus should be given a favored position over falsehood.” Religion is therefore an attempt to explain the gap between this belief and a materialistic reality we see around us every day where this clearly isn’t always the case.
I would suggest that the moment John gave up belief in God as defining his beliefs that there was no longer a rational reason for him to continue assuming that the dichotomy was still true. The truth-good/false-bad dichotomy itself can be tested by our science and so far has not been shown to be consistently true. At least in this materialistic world we find ourselves in, it is some times better to be deluded about some things rather than to see the truth.
 Or is it maybe more akin to attacking LDS beliefs? Consider, for example, John’s promoting of A Letter to a CES Director. How is “In my opinion, you can’t really have an authentic LDS testimony until after coming to grips with the issues covered in this book.” not confrontational? Or how is “Doubt those who encourage you to doubt your doubts” anything but an attack on that which the LDS Church members hold most dear? I could easily multiple such examples. The desire to “debunk” is palpable in John.