Givens embraces the scenario where significant evidence weighs against the LDS Church in Letter to a doubter (and also Crucible of Doubt). This embrace is also implicit in the reasoning of Patrick Mason’s “Planted” [need to pick best example, still]. Here’s how it is described:

There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore more deliberate and laden with more personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one’s personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. Fortunately, in this world, one is always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.

The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions which can allow us to reveal fully who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts. Like the poet’s image of a church bell that reveals its latent music only when struck, or a dragonfly that flames forth its beauty only in flight, so does the content of a human heart lie buried until action calls it forth. The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is and knowing that a thing is not.

This is the realm where faith operates; and when faith is a freely chosen gesture, it expresses something essential about the self.

Modern revelation, speaking of spiritual gifts, notes that while to some it is given to know the core truth of Christ and His mission, to others is given the means to persevere in the absence of certainty. The New Testament makes the point that those mortals who operate in the grey area between conviction and incredulity are in a position to choose most meaningfully, and with most meaningful consequences.

As a former member, I find the logic behind this idea fairly consistent with the data. In other words, if the LDS faith is indeed true, then it very much appears that God has set up a scenario where there is at least as much evidence contradicting LDS claims as there are supporting the claims (I call this the “50/50” scenario, even while acknowledging he does not necessarily mean the evidence weighs perfectly evenly for and against). This kind of scenario gives people maximum choice in deciding whether or not to pursue spiritual ends in the LDS Church because the data do not compel them one way or another and they must freely choose to believe on other grounds than intellectual ones. In some ways, this is a beautiful concept (i.e., a laboratory condition where the deepest desires of our heart are allowed to become manifest). I have a few problems with this idea, however.

  1. The 50/50 position is a fallback, apologetic position which members and apologists have only reluctantly adopted over time as more and more truth-claims have fallen to science or independent investigation. Early Church leaders were extremely bullish on the ineluctable power of the truth claim data to support the LDS position and would never have anticipated a retreat of such massive proportion.

    Related to this idea is the idea that which truth-claims would fall over time was unknowable at the time, so it should make any believing member incredibly reluctant to place faith in any current LDS positions: which ones will be overturned or dismissed in the future? It seems it is anyone’s guess. LDS leaders spoke as vigorously in defense of the divinity of the Priesthood ban and its underlying doctrinal underpinnings (issuing clear and direct First Presidency Statements to inquiries on the matter) as they did in declaring their testimony of Jesus’s resurrection or of Priesthood power. Epistemologically, the 50/50 scenario seems to be a very slippery slope to live upon.

  2. Givens and others might not agree with how I am framing this, but I think the parity between believing and not believing is conditioned on viewing the LDS position in isolation from other explanatory models. In effect, I see Givens framing the probabilities in a statistical test of this form “Should we reject the LDS position based on the evidence if the evidence is 50% in favor of the position and 50% against the position”? I can understand not wanting to reject the null hypothesis in this case, especially if we believed membership brought about greater good than harm in the world. However, I think a better test is more along the lines of a bayes factor model comparison test. When we compare a 50/50 LDS position against a naturalist position which can explain, say, 90% or 99% of the data, then we are not justified anymore in adopting the LDS position because a more probable position exists. If a person cares about predictive power (that is, the success rate of predictions made using the model), then choosing models with a high past prediction success rate is the main consideration.

    It’s possible that these scholars might inspect my bayes factor framing and still assert the naturalist and LDS models are roughly the same probability (which would undermine this point), but some of those trying to maintain faith in the LDS worldview may not have spent much time or effort understanding how naturalism might explain the data. For example:

    The 50/50 scenario also places truth and goodness in tension—the “good” choice is when a person follows their heart while ignoring or downplaying failed predictions and apparent contradiction of the LDS model. But one can decide that they will be good on other grounds (like so many atheists do) and simultaneously adopt a model which aligns more closely with truth, as they might see it.

  3. If we assume that alternative models explain the data significantly better than the LDS model, then choosing an inferior model in the face of its failings becomes a moral concern. Acting effectively to bring about well-being in other conscious creatures depends in large part on the accuracy of our models. For example, while a person in the 1980s or 1990s wrestled with their LDS faith the LDS Church was still encouraging homosexuals to marry heterosexual partners (resulting in an estimated 69% divorce rate) and trying to convince them to pray the gay away (potentially resulting in scores of gay suicides over the inability to succeed) while naturalists had already accepted the scientific consensus and were happy to accept homosexuals on their terms.

    Also, if the model is inferior, exhausting one’s mental resources on trying to make the model work seems counterproductive—by adopting a naturalist model a person is in a better position to tackle real-world problems. How many scholars at BYU are engaged in relatively hopeless intellectual pursuits (e.g., defending a literal translation of the Book of Abraham) when they could be utilizing their talents in other domains for much greater good?

  4. The 50/50 position does not generalize well: mainly, the 50/50 defense will tend to keep a person in whichever faith tradition they happen to have been born into. This is eloquently described in the scenario of the “Triangle of Dubious Religions” here. It can briefly be explained like this: imagine that a person was raised a member of the Church of Scientology, but the LDS Church is actually the true church. If Scientology leaders can convince them that there is roughly as much evidence to support the Church of Scientology as there is evidence against it (which does not seem difficult to do for almost any position) and that choosing belief in Scientology under these circumstances is the key test of existence, then that person is highly unlikely to leave the Church of Scientology to go join the true church, at least based on that reasoning alone.

  5. Most of those who end up leaving the LDS Church who were not motivated by abject hedonism describe the data as overwhelmingly against the LDS Church (i.e., they felt compelled by the data). Most of those still in the LDS Church would describe the data as being overwhelmingly in favor of the LDS Church (again, they feel compelled by the data). Hence, if such a precarious balance is meant to be character building, few people seem to be experiencing it in the manner in which it is described by Givens. Furthermore, most of those who are held up as paragons of virtue and faithfulness in the LDS Church seem to have never struggled in this 50/50 zone: the ones who struggle in the 50/50 zone for any length of time always seem to find themselves serving as ward librarian and those who never had a doubt are the ones ushered along to higher and higher positions of responsibility. Hence, character growth, at least as evidenced by callings awarded, seems to be unrelated to (or even inverted with) time spent in this 50/50 zone.

Adapted from a short exchange with a colleague from work. Some personal editorial type comments in brackets

Posted here. Note that there was some really good feedback that should probably be incorporated.