Fostering a Healthy Environment for Independent Thought (and Why the Church Fails to Do It)

Hi, everyone. This is my debut blog post on the Mormon Expression blog. John said it was cool if I cross-post some of the blog posts I do at my original blog: Oxymormongirl, so that’s what I’m going to do. Feel free to check the site archives for more of my material if you like what you see here. This entry is one I wrote a couple of months ago that I thought the ME crowd might possibly enjoy. It seemed appropriate given that General Conference weekend is upon us.

By now many of you have seen the chart from this blog entry posted by A Mormon in the Cheap Seats on the Doves and Serpents blog not too long ago. It flowcharted the epistemology (e.g. method for discovering whether something is true or not) that is taught in a traditional Sunday School. (I watched it ripple a couple of times through the ex-Mormon subreddit and on the ME Facebook page so you’ve probably seen it.)

I’m going to riff on this flowchart a little bit to discuss why I don’t think the church fosters a very healthy level of independent thought—meaning that the church doesn’t provide a safe environment in which its members are free to reach their own conclusions on important matters. The key feature of independent thought is being able to question authority figures or express ambivalence, skepticism, or dissent.

I like the way the Jesse Tahrili expressed the value of independent thought in his Growing Up With Scientist Mom comic strip:

Being told how to do something can be great. To bypass that initial struggle for information, to instantly understand that fire is hot without having to burn yourself. Today, you could learn more about gravity in one day than Isaac Newton learned in an entire lifetime! This method of passing down information to younger generations is something that has allowed humanity to thrive and progress for centuries. But this reliance on second-hand information is also one of our greatest downfalls. We live in an imperfect world, and to blindly trust everything we’re told can be dangerous. Falsities, especially ones that we’d really like to believe, can infect our collective knowledge and proliferate like a virus. We must constantly question ourselves and seek to ensure that what we believe as truth always has a firm grounding in reality.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how the church tells us to do in response to what authority figures within the church say. This is the classical epistemological model of Mormonism, as based on Doctrine and Covenants section 8 and 9:

That all seems pretty straightforward, right?

In its ideal form, I don’t have too many qualms with this model of verifying whether our leaders are speaking truthfully or not. Although I don’t really think that one should rely solely on emotional instinct to determine the veracity of a particular statement, it’s not a bad place to start the process of critical inquiry. I also like that this model places the locus of control within the individual rather than in the authority figure; it’s ultimately the responsibility of the individual to seek for and verify truth. This ideal model also suggests a fairly healthy system of “checks and balances” within church government, if you will. Every church member is taught that they have a right and a responsibility to ask the Lord whether their leaders are inspired and that they are entitled to an answer through personal revelation.

The problem is: this flowchart doesn’t actually describe the process of revelation in the lived reality of most Mormons’ experience. Here’s the way the process of personal revelation actually works for most members of the church:

If it isn’t immediately obvious, there are a number of problems with this model. The central problem is that there is only one possible conclusion: what the leader has stated is true. Although this process may superficially appear to open up the possibility for dissent and doubt, it ultimately denies it in the end. The only possible outcome is that what the leader has said is true. And if that is the only option, then it negates the possibility that this is a system in which independent thought can be cultivated in healthy ways.

This has a host of negative consequences. A few that I can think of are:

  • Sexism. This is a big one for me. If only males are in positions of power (e.g. they make the bulk of the decisions for the organization and interpret church doctrine) and if these male leaders can never be in the wrong or can never be questioned or criticized, then that’s deeply unfair to women in the church. It makes it impossible for women to have any kind of real influence or power within the church, which has serious consequences for women’s mental health and for the overall health of the organization in general.
  • Lack of accountability. When leaders cannot be questioned or criticized without fear of negative consequences, that creates a system in which there is no process for people to address grievances, to express valid concerns, or to enact necessary change. When people in an organization feel that they have no control or no voice in how the organization is run, it has the potential to create psychological problems.
  • Low self-esteem or depression. In the flowchart above, you’ll notice that the only possible explanation for why you can’t seem to agree with your leaders is that there is something flawed with you as an individual. I bristle at the (frankly) arrogant idea that the church organization and its leaders are somehow above reproach and that all of its problems lie in its inherently weak members. It’s reminiscent of abusive relationships in which one person always gives and the other only takes. A relationship in which one party is always right and the other party is always wrong is not a healthy relationship.
  • Intolerance. Most importantly, it creates a lack of support for people who do not fit the standard model in their beliefs, behavior or lifestyle. It promotes conformity to the group at the expense of the individual. It creates rigid, inflexible systems that do not adapt well to changing conditions and environments.

That’s just a brief laundry list off the top of my head. I’m sure there’s more potential negative outcomes that I may not have thought of. But, of course, one of the most serious consequences is that this model shuts down independent thought, moving the locus of control away from the individual members and onto a single leader or small group of leaders—who are prone to fallibility, short-sightedness, and possible corruption (even when their intentions are good).

The majority of members don’t even bother to go through the classical process of asking the Lord whether the things their leader has said are true. Since it’s obvious you’ll end up in the same place anyway (the leader was right), why attempt to ask God directly in the first place? You might as well just save yourself the pain and skip over the whole critical thinking and evaluation process in the first place. But this is not a good option because critical inquiry and research has been the primary means through which human civilization has been advanced. Organizations which create environments that are anathema to critical inquiry are an impediment to this kind of progress on a macro and micro level. This has extremely far-reaching moral implications. As painful and messy as skepticism and open, democratic dialogue can be, nearly every individual or society is much better and more healthy after having gone through the crucible of argumentation.

Now, to be fair, I want to point out that nearly all human institutions (governments, businesses, universities, families) have the potential to create environments that are not conducive to independent thought. It’s probably an inevitable part of any human organization. But the fact that the church is prone to the same kinds of problems that are exhibited in other “worldly” institutions is probably yet another piece of evidence that it’s just another flawed human construction—no more special or divine than any of the rest.