Conclusion: God and the LDS Church as surrogate parent
March 3, 2018
At this point, I have spent thousands of hours accumulating evidence and arguments which convincingly demonstrate (at least to me) that the LDS Church is not what it claims to be. At best, the institution provides its adherents useful social and theological constructs around which to order their lives, but is still a somewhat poor disseminator of truth in much of its official discourse. At worst, the institution is guilty of at least a few major transparency failures, and the culture it is responsible for is harmful in some regards to some kinds of people (e.g., many LGBT individuals). Whether we assume the best or worst case (or somewhere in-between), at least some individuals are probably better off leaving the institution, it would seem.
After my faith-transition, I was somehow convinced that close friends, family members, or ward members would want to discuss truth-claim data and arguments with me, and this motivated me to take careful notes of the evidence and arguments. I am easy to talk with, quickly acknowledge good points, and feel no compulsion to persuade another person to adopt my way of thinking—I merely hope that they would consider my thoughts, as I consider theirs and hopefully we’ll both arrive closer to the truth of a given issue. At the very least, I thought that sharing the data I found compelling could help dispel the assumption that I had forfeited my soul to Satan—I chose a different path based on compelling evidence and arguments and not because of a deficiency in character.
No such discussions ever occurred. Not once.
It has been nearly 3.5 years since my faith transition and over 3 years since my resignation. I have never had a single substantial discussion about the truth-claim data with any believing individual (outside of anonymous online interaction) since my faith transition.1 This single data point has been the most troubling of all to me. To better describe the situation and capture how bemystifying it felt to me as time progressed, I recently composed this thinly veiled parable: Careful the Compassionate and the Dragon over the Mountain.
While moving through my faith transition, I was under the assumption that Latter-day Saints deeply valued understanding all truth and so at least some of them would want to discuss the data with me. Of course, during this process I had somehow conveniently forgotten that for most of my earlier adult life I too had largely ignored the critical data, and I had religiously avoided discussion of the data with those who had left the LDS Church before me.2 The deep desire I had felt for most of my life to avoid certain truth-claim data, and the deep desire manifest by friends, family, and ward members to avoid truth-claim data seems to suggest that most believing members are not compelled to seek truth—at least in this one critical domain. For a people who are generally well-educated and who spend countless hours reading scripture and discussing God and the LDS Church—who literally organize their life around these concepts—what could account for this primal fear of discussing the truth-claim data?3
God (and the LDS Church) as Surrogate Parent
As discussed in this outstanding video series :
The primary psychological function of the concept of a personal god is to give the believer a surrogate parent. Some minds are able to become independent of parental figures; others cannot or fall into self-destructive behaviors without them. Minds in this category rely on religion. The God concept is useful for motivating and pacifying them.
In the LDS Church, the Brethren act as a flesh-and blood parent (or perhaps older sibling?), and they lay out and modify programs for living which ease the existential anxiety of members and help to make the concept of God and an orderly, purposeful universe far more tangible than it would otherwise be.
This model goes far to explain the extreme avoidance the vast majority of believing members have of genuinely exploring LDS truth-claims or even asking the question “is it possible the LDS Church is not what it claims?”. As articulated here:
From all this [God as surrogate parent] we can now readily understand why theistic believers become so upset when challenged about their beliefs. Just think of how a child reacts if you impugn the character of his/her parents. In like manner, a biologically adult human who believes in a god or gods is attached to a parent still and will, like a child, bristle because you challenge their source of security, nourishment, and all things good.
Remember how anguished most of us were when we first deconverted? We experienced “leaving home” and for the first time in our lives and we stood alone as true adults without a parent. That is apparently not something most humans want.
Ultimately, then, the desire and ability to voluntarily grapple directly with the truth-claim data about one’s own parental-like religion must be preceded by achieving some kind of ideological adulthood.
The statement I have often heard repeated by friends and family: “Even if the LDS Church weren’t true, I would still want to live it” takes on new meaning. The program and assurance the LDS Church provides insulates a member from making open-ended and difficult decisions about how to order their own life: it provides a scaffold upon which to hang and organize all of life’s activities.
Unless/until a person has discovered or constructed enough independent ideological scaffold upon which to organize their worldview, the purely elective examination of LDS truth-claims would be akin to taking a sledgehammer to their own home to determine how sturdy the home is. This would be an act of insanity unless or until they have constructed alternative ideological edifices which can be retreated to in the event that the LDS/God structure is found worthy of condemnation. The process is accelerated for some individuals when an event shows to them the flimsiness of their edifice, and it becomes clear that their ideological lives are in danger due to imminent collapse. Those individuals who took the sledgehammer of scrutiny to their ideological edifice before having constructing an alternative edifice experience a “faith crisis” while those with an existing alternative edifice experience the far less destabilizing, but still painful, “faith transition”.
A few disclaimers are in order. This model is not to suggest that those who are yet incapable of genuinely examining LDS truth-claims are, on the whole, developmentally inferior to those who have investigated—these individuals may be psychologically independent or further developed in many other facets of life than a given truth-claim investigator. It’s also safe to say that a former member may experience similar child-like vulnerability in defense of their cherished beliefs (so this analysis is not meant to elevate the former member above the current member even though it is focused on the LDS belief system). In fact, I think it is possible for a believing member to have matured ideologically well beyond a given former member (so, perhaps corresponding to a high level in Fowler’s stages of faith) or a very high tolerance for and joy in introspecting on all the truth-claim data that may go beyond a typical former member. In addition, these kinds of propensities may be based in large part on genetic-based tendencies or environmental contingencies outside the control of the individual, so reserving judgement is in order. It’s also worth noting that a believing member unable or unwilling to explore the truth-claim data may be able to achieve more within the LDS scaffold than their truth-claim investigating counterparts outside the LDS scaffold since the believer must devote fewer mental and emotional resources to the daunting exploration of the existential than the investigator.
Implications and Discussion
With the surrogate parent model in mind, we can reframe an answer to the question of truth-seeking among most (but not all) Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saints, for the most part, are genuine seekers of truth within the confines of their religion, much as a child or teen is genuinely curious about their home and the world around them. They will venture and learn, and they are eager to explore on trips with their parents, but that exploration is always bounded to some significant degree by the authority of the primary parental figure in their life—in this metaphor the LDS institution.
Discussion of difficult LDS truth-claim data is likely to be viewed as an assault on a believing member’s identity, and as demonstrated in MRI studies of those considering facts which threaten their core political ideology, such discussion is likely to activate the same brain structures responsible for assessing threats to physical safety, accounting for the primal urge to either demonize the “attacker” or “anti-mormons” (fight) or flee from such discussion (flight).4 Furthermore, for various reasons the LDS culture appears to cultivate the “avoidance” conflict resolution style, further distancing members from possible discussion of these topics.
The surrogate parent model also suggests both productive and destructive modes for interacting with believing members. In matters of religion (please note this does not necessarily extend to other facets of life), the believing member is best treated as a child or teen still under the guardianship of their parent in proportion to how strongly they seem to rely on God or the LDS institution as ideological parent.5 Their growth can be encouraged, but not in opposition to their primary parental figure (the LDS institution). To even suggest to a child that their parent is a poor guide for edification or truth would, in most cases, be highly destabilizing to them, and the same goes for criticism of the LDS institution in this model. This also explains why members often distance themselves from those who share such information, even if the sharer is doing so in an honest effort to “share their truth” or is merely trying to explain the motivation behind their choices in an effort to obtain acceptance and understanding. The most productive route for engagement, I would argue, is merely to encourage the believing member in their intellectual and religious growth with the expectation that, if or when they are developmentally ready, they will be able to achieve religious adulthood and less restrained conversation may ensue.6 Like most stages of development (e.g., the butterfly exiting its cocoon), achieving ideological adulthood cannot be forced from the outside, and excessive effort to hurry the process along is likely to do more harm than good.
I made a few minor clarifications, link updates, and added additional footnotes since the original composition date.
Belief traps: Tackling the inertia of harmful beliefs (2022 PNAS article)
After about 5 or 6 years I did end up having some discussions about the data with a sibling who is quite nuanced in their belief in the LDS Church. Those discussions ended when one of their children left the LDS Church with their spouse. In addition, beginning around that same time, I am now able to talk about some of the data with one of my parents. When the other parent claimed to be ready to be able to talk about issues and I began to do so, it became clear that it was uncomfortable for them, so I stopped. These experiences provide some room for nuance with my conclusions, but I do not think they overturn my observations completely. ↩
A close family member had left the LDS Church while I was in high school, and he offered to discuss the data with me. We never had such a discussion—I avoided speaking to him about his reasons for leaving the LDS Church. Instead, I spent 20 years studying the LDS apologetic literature and bolstering my testimony in order to prepare myself to counter “anti-mormon” claims. Ultimately, I confronted the truth-claim data on my own when I was ready to do so. As mentioned, I found the data and arguments extremely compelling despite my intimate familiarity with apologetic responses. ↩
The deep desire of most LDS members to avoid truth-claim data cannot be overstated. As I documented here under “The perilousness of unapproved ideas or information”, many members are highly reluctant to read critiques of LDS truth-claims, and this even extends to the official LDS essays themselves (examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Even reading about truth-claim problems from the safe perspective of the LDS institution itself is still emotionally threatening for many members. ↩
I was no less guilty of such characterizations before my faith transition. In an online exchange I had written “…No fewer than 8 articles were written in response to the Murphy DNA-BoM work in J of BoM Studies and FARMS review, and I’ve never seen any refutations of these pieces. Maybe its because these articles were largely written by scientists (on NIH panels, etc) who actually study DNA and evolution while the primary attacks were from an anthropologist with an axe to grind.” (emphasis added). The anthropologist who had documented the DNA issues had an “axe to grind” from my former fight or flight perspective. ↩
I’m aware that this metaphor is inverted within the LDS worldview. In the LDS worldview a major goal of life is to humbly choose to become “children of God” (see Mosiah 5), and this worldview would view those who would go on to achieve “ideological adulthood” as those who have succumbed to the pride of the natural man—fooling themselves into thinking that they know better than God and his chosen leaders. If we are willing to assume the inherent goodness of critically examining one’s own religion’s truth-claims, it then becomes obvious which of the two inversions is more accurate, at least in the majority of cases. ↩
When I use the term “ideological adulthood”, I do not necessarily mean to imply that achieving “ideological adulthood” means becoming a dis-believer in the LDS faith. I think a believing member may achieve ideological adulthood (perhaps something like reaching a Fowler’s stage 5 or 6 after some time in stage 4) and it may escape a former member. One way in which ideological adulthood might be manifest is in how a believing member treats those have left the LDS institution. For example, someone who is acting as an adult in the religious domain, has multiple “adult-like” options available to them when someone shares alternative belief models with them. To take the extreme case of someone who is still uncomfortable examining the truth-claim data itself, an ideological adult might respond to someone sharing their faith-transition from the LDS Church like this: “Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings with me. These issues make me feel uncomfortable, so I would ask you not to go into any more detail right now. I can tell that these issue are very important to you, and I think you are courageous for having explored them. Perhaps in the future I will be ready to discuss them with you. Please know that I fully respect your decision even if I am not at a place where I feel comfortable understanding your reasons (in detail) just yet.” This example still implies some level of emotional subordination to a parental authority figure (else why would they be uncomfortable talking about the truth-claim data?) but it at least acknowledges the sincerity of the other individual and approaches the discussion with generosity and good-faith. Consider how Spencer Fluhman, Head of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, approached his discussion with Brooke and Josh Miller regarding difficult truth-claim data. ↩