Laurie Goodstein's July 20 New York Times article "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt" is stirring up a lot of discussion. I will give a couple of paragraphs suggesting this isn't really a Mormon problem but a problem presently facing all denominations, then I will give links to some of the articles and posts that have responded to the NYT article.
Here's a quote from Paul Tillich: "Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith." I think this is a better way to frame the whole discussion than the Mormon habit of casting faith and doubt as opposite ends of a moral spectrum. After all, doubt can be a positive state of mind when it helps us reject false claims. Everyone carries this dormant doubt element along with their religious faith; should it become active, you can explore those doubts and find them unpersuasive, retaining the faith you started with; or you can develop a form of faith that accommodates doubt; or you can embrace those doubts and follow them as far as they will take you (destination unknown).
I don't really accept the idea that we have suddenly stumbled into an age of Mormon doubt. The issues raised in such discussions have been around since the Church began; individual Mormons have been exiting the Church for as long as it has been around. The Internet may change the game a bit by making the issues more accessible, but it is still the same game and we all still face the same choices. In particular, the idea that Mormonism is uniquely disadvantaged by Internet information seems questionable. In "Almost Mormon," I reviewed one researcher's book detailing how current Mormon youth (as well as other conservative Christian youth) are better informed about their beliefs and more devoted to their faith than mainline Christian youth.
In "Living in the Second Religious Aftershock," I summarized Putnam and Campbell's claim that the secularizing shock of the sixties was followed by a conservative aftershock in the seventies and eighties, which was in turn followed by a second secularizing aftershock (featuring a distinct decline in participation in organized religion) starting in the nineties. It is a broad, society-wide development, not some exceptional Mormon development that is explained by the Internet, polygamy, and seer stones. If you are looking at the data rather than cherry-picking anecdotes, the problem to be explained is why Mormonism is doing so well relative to other denominations at retaining its youth and membership in an era of declining participation and affiliation, not why it is faring so poorly.
I'm not saying all is well in Zion — there are organizational and curriculum problems to be addressed, and questioning Latter-day Saints deserve better answers and explanations than the Church is providing (when it provides any). But we have to understand the problem, and the data suggest the problem is not uniquely Mormon doubt but a general trend toward religious doubt and disbelief that is manifest in every denomination. Don't blame the Church; blame the Sixties.
Links to media stories:
- McKay Coppins at BuzzFeed: "Why the Internet Hasn't Shattered My Mormon Faith"
- Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune: "High-ranking Mormon leader goes from disciple to doubter"
- At the Deseret News: "Mormons navigate faith and doubt in the digital age"
- Mollie at Get Religion: "Skeptical about the NYT's Mormon skeptic piece"
- Some cheering from The Friendly Atheist at Patheos: "Criticism of Mormon Theology on the Internet Provokes Doubt in the Church's Leadership"
- More cheering from Unreasonable Faith at Patheos: "The Internet Strikes Again, Mormon Edition"
- Finally, an interview at Radio West/KUER you really should listen to, featuring NYT journalist Laurie Goodstein, John Dehlin from Mormon Stories, FMH blogger Kimberly Lewis, and USU professor Philip Barlow, as well as an audio excerpt of Goodstein's interview of Hans Mattsson, the Swedish Latter-day Saint and former LDS Area Authority Seventy who is the subject of the New York Times article: "Mormon Belief in the Digital Age"
- From John F at BCC: "Reading as Response"
- From Ben H at T&S: "An Information-Rich Gospel: Correlation and the Growth and Maturation of the Church"
- From Kimberly at FMH: "Supporting the Faith Quest"
- From Trevor L at WWE: "A New Age of Mormon Doubt"
- From Jeff at Mormanity: "The New York Times and Shaken Faith in Sweden"
- From Joanna Brooks at FMH: "Is Mormon Faith Crisis for Men Only?"
- At Mormon Mentality: "Web Spurring Doubts"
- At Rational Faiths: "Doubts and the Church"
- At Interpreter, with excerpts from Terryl Givens' recent essay "Letter to a Doubter" and with about 15 links to relevant FAIR articles: "Finding Faith in the Midst of Doubt"
- Finally, at Mormon Stories, John Dehlin posted a five-hour podcast interview with Hans Mattson
- From Clark at Inevitable Metaphysics: "On the NYT's Story About Leaving the Church"
- From David Knowlton at Clouds, Storms, and Power: "The Contemporary Crisis in Mormon Faith and Its Social Bases"
- At Rational Faiths: "Preventing a Dysfunctional Discussion about Doubt"
- At FPR: "Hans Mattsson and and Joseph Smith's Polygamy"
- At Wheat & Tares: "Growing Up Mormon in Britain"
- From Trevor at WWE: "Mormon Doubt Part 2: Two Recent Approaches to Reaching Out"