Mormons and Doubt

I really wanted to comment on recent articles of polls on doubt and Mormons but didn’t have time due to other commitments. I hope you don’t mind a few comments on the Huffington Post article about doubt based upon the Next Mormons Survey. The author Benjamin Knolls is a contributer with Jana Reiss in the recent Dialogue issue on doubt. He gets at an issue I’ve long been interested in – more objective analysis of Mormon retention. Polls and surveys over the past two decades have really allowed us to see what’s going on in a fashion that really wasn’t possible when I was younger. To my eyes, what’s been surprising about Mormon retention has always been just how high it has been.

While we waited for the next ARIS study of religious self-identification Jana Reiss had thankfully commissioned a study of Mormons and has written numerous articles on the data. The Huffington Post article looks at the question of believing the teachings of the Church. Now inherently there’s a bit of ambiguity here since we can debate what is or isn’t a teaching of the Church. The question is a bit vague. I suspect that if there’s a break with teachings of the Church it’s probably over LGBT issues and potentially some feminist issues related to sealings and priesthood. However there’s also more ambiguous issues such as evolution. Is no death before the fall a church teaching or not? I say no, others say yes – it’s a blurred question because of the distinction between what a general authority has espoused versus what the Church formally teaches. So two people might believe that’s wrong yet one think they ought say they only believe most teachings where the other says they believe all teachings.

Even given those ambiguities what’s surprising is that 49.1% of respondents believed all teachings and 33.9% believed most of them. Pretty much to my mind that means 83% of self-identified Mormons believe nearly everything taught. Only 17% expressed what we might call doubts and only 4.9% expressed significant doubt. Further among regular church goers only 9% expressed doubts. That’s staggeringly low and suggests the recent attention on troubling issues might not represent as big of a trend as some suggest. That’s not to say we shouldn’t help people with their doubts. Just that only around 10% of active members having doubts is pretty surprising to me.

The more interesting thing was the relationships of doubt. By and large it’s social networks that determine how much one doubts. Now this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s long been known that peer groups have a huge effect on belief and behavior. Psychologists have long noted that peers has at least as big an effect on personality as genetics does and for behavior arguably more of an effect. We’d expect that to manifest in religious comportment as well. The more friends someone has who leave the Church the more likely one is to express doubts. Attending seminary significantly decreases doubting – although teasing out whether that’s due to peer effects or simply understanding ones religion isn’t clear.

Further while this is a strong correlation it doesn’t establish causation. After all people who come to doubt may simply change their social network. However I’d suspect that this is at least partially causative in nature.

A final point that I found interesting was that doubters tend to appreciate the social aspects of Church more than believers. While that makes sense it’s still interesting. I’ll admit that to me the social aspects of Church don’t matter much. I go to Church because I believe, because I feel it’s my duty to serve (however feebly at times), and to partake of the ordinances.

Now I’ve not read the Dialogue article yet by Reiss and Knoll that Knoll’s Huffington Post article is summarizing. I hope to when I get some time. However I should note that I’m not sure this tells us as much about retention as it appears at first glance. While it seems likely that most attrition from the Church would come from doubters, people may well move from believer to doubter swiftly. Many of the examples of people leaving the Church that get the most attention are long term believers who suddenly come to have doubts. Likewise we all know people who have doubts but who continue to come to Church for years or even decades. Still, the level of belief and commitment is quite surprisingly high.

One problem of course is figuring out how to compare these Mormon figures with non-Mormon figures. That’s tricky since even among groups known as “conservative” theologically history and theology don’t really matter as much as they do for Mormons. So one recent survey found that “though American evangelicalism arose in the twentieth century around strongly held theological convictions, many of today’s self-identified evangelicals no longer hold those beliefs.” Other surveys have found odd beliefs among Evangelicals including 6% thinking the Book of Mormon was the word of God and 18% more who thought it might be.

25 comments for “Mormons and Doubt

  1. I’m not sure how useful that “9% have doubts” figure is for figuring out how significant recent developments are. Most of the people I know who are willing to admit they have doubts either resolve them relatively quickly or (more commonly) leave the church within a relatively short amount of time. I don’t know many who actually struggle with doubts long term while remaining in the church.

  2. Well, I’m one who struggled with increasing doubts for 30+ years while remaining active, until I decided I couldn’t continue activity earlier this year. I didn’t officially seek to remove my name. I imagine there is a growing group of this category in the church that is difficult to track.

  3. Yeah, only 10 percent of active members expressing doubts isn’t surprising to me. Like the other comments have indicated, I get the sense that the number of doubters who remain fully active is pretty small, for the simple reason that it is oh so hard to keep on when you don’t believe while basically everyone on the pew with you is in total lockstep. I’m a doubter who still attends church, and people occasionally try to support me by saying that surely there must be other people in the ward who have doubts they’re keeping to themselves and I’m not so alone as it seems. The sentiment is nice, but I’ve never thought it terribly realistic. Nearly all of my doubting friends have already exited. So yeah, of course the level of belief and commitment of people who go to church every week is high! Most of us unbelievers are staying home or attending church somewhere where we fit in better.

  4. I also went inactive for a time specifically triggered by the announcement from the LDS church regarding children of same-gender couples. However, I could not leave the church entirely. Admittedly I had been a so-so member anyway, but I went into self-imposed exile mostly (I reasoned) to avoid creating contention in the ward through stray comments that would surely (I reasoned) cause offense.

    I wasn’t out to reject or reform the LDS church. I needed time away from the church to pursue a personal vision quest. Coming back from that vision quest I was at peace, for the most part, about the position the church had vocalized regarding LGBTQ-identifying members. I did not personally identify with this community, but I had no personal motivation to identify them as infamia, and I didn’t intrepet the LDS church as having motivation to do so either.

    I had previously realized gender and sexual orientation had both biological and social components among humans, that marriage was as much a legal and social construct as it was “ordained of God.” This time, I understood that God understood these phenomena already, and had prepared His plan of salvation around not only human bias, but emergent deviation from what was considered normal human development. God’s children were only unfavored when they would not seek to behave in a Christ-like manner, not because of matters of temporal abnormality.

    There will continue to be those (at least for now) within the church who object to the “temporal abnormality” point of view. There will be those who insist on labeling other humans as infamia using varying criteria. There will be femenist members who look toward the priesthood being made available to sisters in the church, mostly due to a serious misunderstanding regarding the priesthood (many male members with the priesthood barely have a proper understanding of the priesthood.)

    No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing, so I can focus my concern on myself and my life partner and my children and let God worry about church.

  5. These figures don’t surprise me. My experience has been that people with just a few doubts about fundamental Mormon teachings tend to become less active. Mormonism is not an environment that works well for those in it just for the culture. The church is constantly putting the average member in positions where they are expected to defend Mormon teachings (i.e., missions, callings, testimony meetings, etc.). Being Mormon means being regularly having the relevance of a few key central truth claims repeatedly forced into relevance around you. There is not a lay-clergy split that allows the cultural religiosity like in Catholicism and many Protestant churches. Plus where the vagueness of doctrine in other churches allows for a flourishing of moralistic therapeutic deism, Mormonism has a number of very specific truth claims that it keeps hammering down, thus not permitting space for the more kumbaya religious approach. Being Mormon requires a great degree more concentration, effort, devotion, time, and energy. And those are all of the perfect elements for reinforcing attachment. The more time and energy one puts into a project, the more likely they are to stand by it. It is not easy to be an active member with significant doubts. If you are a member with significant doubts, it is very difficult to have a conversation with the full believers at church about anything related to doctrine since there is such a difference in worldview.

    This most certainly does not mean that there aren’t issues that are causing doubt. It also does not mean that the LDS church does not face losses if they do not address these issues. The usership on the ex-Mormon subreddit is growing rapidly and many ex-Mormons tell stories of going from full-on believer to full-on doubter in a relatively short period of time and of being completely floored upon reading the CES Letter or other lit that shed light on the many historical and other issues that have been known to cause doubt. I have every reason to believe that the Mormon church is now beginning to decline. It isn’t growing like it used to and the core areas of its membership are beginning to be hollowed out. The speed of its decline may not be as fast as many critics like to think, but to say that all is well and that it is seeing amazing growth is looking at the situation with rose-colored glasses.

  6. I think what Clark highlighted about the difficulty in determining what counts as doubt is one aspect of understanding these interesting figures. It’s funny, I never considered myself as having doubts, but people around me often did. For example, I reject (and have, as long as I can remember) the false doctrine of practical infallibility, i.e. that Church leadership never makes mistakes, or at least not significant ones. I have spent enough time reading the scriptures and Church history to find that a laughable idea. There are plenty of prophets who get stuff wrong a lot (Bank of Kirtland, anyone?), and that doesn’t mean (a) that they’re not prophets, nor (b) that I have to accept their mistakes as inspired.

    For example, I once opined in Sunday School that Alma the Younger’s observation that God was letting innocents get murdered in a bonfire in order to justify the murderers’ murder was in all likelihood incorrect. I thought the comment innocuous, particularly since I had just spent some time praising Alma, but I really ruffled some feathers. The very idea that Alma’s opinion (and that’s all he calls it, by the way) might be misinformed seemed offensive in a way I just hadn’t expected. This despite the fact that some of the details of Alma’s teachings on resurrection a few chapters later are rejected by the restored Church, and no one seems to worry about that.

    In any event, I have been surprised as I have aged that, for many members (even ones that I would describe as progressive), what I’m describing sounds like heresy or apostasy. In some ways it doesn’t matter to me what the community thinks — like Clark, I’ve always been a “doctrine first” Mormon — but I’ve also matured enough since my cavalier mission days to understand the community is half the point of God putting a church together in the first place, and I am sorry to cause such irritation to my fellow members. (In that sense, at least, I understand your course, Jerry.)

    So am I a doubting Mormon? If the pollster asked me, I would say no, not at all. If the pollster asked you about me… well, I don’t know anymore what you would say about me. I also often tell people who think they’re doubting that they’re really not, and this also seems to confuse people.

    I think that the vagueness of what actually constitutes Mormon doctrine muddies the clarity of these numbers in interesting ways, useful for us to consider the nature of Mormonism and our community.

    Stray comments: If I had to guess, I think the self-sorting described in the OP and the comments also plays an important role. I think there is also a sense among respondents that you need to read the pollster, too: a good Mormon is not supposed to be expressing doubt, so the pollster must actually be asking me to affirm my faith, not simply state a fact. (Admittedly, this idea is strongly influenced by my experience with Russian polling applied to my personal experience among members, and may not be accurate.)

  7. Thought provoking post Clark. As usual, I’m late to the conversation.

    Couple of thoughts:

    1 – I don’t think we do a good job of accommodating those who doubt. Usually we push them out, or they experience enough dissonance that they remove themselves. Personally, I don’t think the church and therefore most members have an effective framework in which to cope with personal doubt and the internal conflict it creates, or to help those who do. Friends of mine who doubt have largely left not because they associated with others who doubted, but because, in one case, their bishop gave them an ultimatum. In another case, a friend went to their stake president and expressed her doubts. The stake president in turn asked for her temple recommend until she could find her faith and gave her a rather condescending faith remediation plan. She felt utterly betrayed. (I think Patrick Mason does a good job of describing this phenomenon.) The survey likely didn’t include this segment of members.

    2. I also wonder if there is a social desirability effect at play. We certainly don’t reward members, in my opinion, for expressing their doubts. Indeed, I think it is safe to say as members we are conditioned to give the right answer, whether we really think about it and believe it or not. That’s kind of a presumptuous assertion to make, but I think there is a lot of hegemony at the heart of our church culture.

  8. BigSky, I’d tend to agree we don’t do well with doubt as a community. Or at least significant doubt. Temple recommends are tricky because the questions explicitly ask if you believe certain things. I don’t think there’s an easy way of resolving that. I think they’re trying, but I think we’ve tended to see doubt as an in-group/out-group marker and use it to police group boundaries. That’s far from helpful. On the other hand people with doubts sometimes like to spread their doubts or see doubts as the truth rather than just what they are – doubts. Put an other way there’s a tricky balancing act when doubt isn’t just having trouble believing but becomes a fixed fervent belief. That’s tricky to balance.

    It reminds me of a time when a good friend went to her stake president to express some doubts about Book of Mormon historicity only to find the Stake President didn’t believe in historicity. The Stake President presumably was making a good faith attempt to help her remain active with her doubts. However it has the exact opposite effect. Further I’d question whether the person should have taken the calling of Stake President if they had those doubts.

    My point isn’t to excuse how we deal with doubts, just to note that the issue is much more complicated than it appears at first glance.

    To your last point, I think we’d do better with more honest discussion rather than just aping what are often superficial answers. (Often the so called “Sunday School Answers” have great depth within them – but we often focus on stating them rather than applying them) The traditional danger though is the type of conflicts that arise when people start sharing things other people vehemently disagree with. Again, it’s a very tricky situation. A certain maturity and experience with discussion with people one disagrees with helps. But honestly very few people are able to do that well. I can’t even say I always do a good job and prefer the more “distant” discussion in forums like this. It’s much harder to do in face to face meetings. (I recognize some have the opposite problem and become more fiery in textual discussions in a way they’d never do in face to face discussions)

  9. Dear Clark, thanks for continuing the discussion. I find it interesting that you considered the Stake President’s belief in a non-historical Book of Mormon a doubt. He obviously didn’t, and neither do I.[1] For your friend, though, it was definitely a doubt, and I sense it is also for you. What else is a doubt, and which is a fact? For example, a lot of people have been misinformed and would consider claiming that Joseph read the Book of Mormon out of a hat as a doubt, because it violates the organizing narrative they had in their head[2] — but I wouldn’t, and I gather neither would you. Who’s right?

    I wonder if the problem is, in part, a problem in defining what is a doubt, and which doubts are acceptable and which aren’t, and Mormonism’s wild and woolly way of approaching that issue. No group can hold itself together without some borders on what is an acceptable level of agreement or disagreement, let alone a church, and especially a church with a mission as vital as the restoration. So there probably need to be borders to “in” and “out,” although (as you point out) perhaps we police those borders with more vigor than necessary. My question, prompted by the anecdotal experiences about “doubters” in this thread and the surprisingly low number of people who would tell a pollster they were doubters, is how do we go about defining what’s “doubt” and what’s just disagreement?

    For example, your friend had more trouble continuing believing in Mormonism when the Stake President expressed his belief about (non)historicity. Why? Was someone “at fault” there — particularly since God has gone out of his way to *not* give us easy demonstrations of BoM historicity?[2] I don’t have easy answers on that. I’d be honestly interested in your perspective on it.

    [1] Personally, I don’t think BoM historicity matters, but I used to strongly believe it was vital, so I can understand both sides, but it seems to me that a little more flexibility on that particular point would be helpful. For example, Richard Bushman has made some statements that he doesn’t care about historicity anymore, but I’m not worried about his testimony.
    [2] … and Church depictions, so it’s not their fault, really.
    [3] … or fundamentalist biblical historicity, but that is an entirely different discussion.

  10. I tried to get at the ambiguity over what is or isn’t a problematic doubt with my example about evolution. This is a problem with pushing the results too far. Clearly there are some things not seen as core beliefs. I fully admit that I think historicity is a core belief. However it seems to me that this is left to the respondent to decide.

  11. Personally, I’m thinking historicity is simultaneously relevant and non-relevant in terms of the purpose of the B of M. I’ve read a non-LDS scholar’s opinion of the B of M as being connected to ancient Israel both thematically and in symbology. However, this scholar, that I’m aware of, was not motivated to join the LDS church.

    I consider this the difference between knowledge and faith. Knowledge is not usually a motivation to change behavior, not by itself. I also don’t believe doubt is the opposite of faith, but rather wariness in light of faith, a form of humility. As stated on the poster in Fox Mulder’s office (X-files), “I want to believe.”

    So historicity will not make the difference in converting anyone, any more than the superior argument will win a human mind. Faith is voluntary and personal, so you can’t impart faith to anyone. If faith could be imparted simply by competent argument, Nephi could have saved himself and succeding generations so much aggravation at the hands of Laman’s and Lemuel’s descendants by imparting faith to his brothers at the start.

    Doubt is not an enemy, complacency is. Closed-mindedness keeps biases intact, and tacit agreement mostly reinforces bias. Humility, or being teachable, is usually the preferred state of mind for humans in the Book of Mormon, and allows continued revelation to be the guide in the face of circumstantial change.

  12. Clark, thanks for indulging. I’ve had many similar experiences with evolution. (My father is a biologist, so I never had any doubts on that one, but I have had many conversations with friends who have.) I’ve begun to have similar experiences with people about BoM historicity. I don’t know whether it needs to be a core belief, but many people do. Does it have to be a disqualifying “doubt,” though? I suppose the choice must be binary. But the list of “doubts” is going to vary so much from Mormon to Mormon. What does that mean for the community? What counts as a “doubt”? I guess that’s why you suggested (and I agree) that maybe we don’t need to police the borderlands with the vigor we have the tendency to do.

    Jerry, I think you make some valid points there about distinctions between knowledge, faith, doubt, and humility. I especially appreciate the point about doubt not being an enemy to faith as much as complacency. Your explanation reminds me of Alma 32’s description of faith, which suggests that some doubt — something less than surety, at least — is absolutely necessary to the process. Closed-mindedness would be not watering the seed. Faith is “try all things, hold fast to the good.” Thanks for that little insight, it made my day.

  13. I’m not sure there are any disqualifying doubts beyond perhaps what’s asked in the recommend interviews. I’d argue historicity is a key doctrine with rather bad implications if it’s not true. But if people disagree I still hope they come to Church and fellowship. I might not want people in a leadership position, but I don’t think it’d affect many other callings. But as you say what counts as a problematic doubt will vary from person to person.

  14. “I’d argue historicity is a key doctrine with rather bad implications if it’s not true.”

    Clark G.

    “Galileo’s initial discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be formally heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas.”


  15. “Last week, 359 years later, the Church finally agreed. At a ceremony in Rome, before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II officially declared that Galileo was right. The formal rehabilitation was based on the findings of a committee of the Academy the Pope set up in 1979, soon after taking office. The committee decided the Inquisition had acted in good faith, but was wrong.” NEWSCIENTIST 1992

  16. Jstricklan, glad I could share something useful. This blog is one of few places I feel I can “publish” and get reliable peer review.

    A lesson I learned, at least semantically, on my LDS mission had to do with an elder in my district who evidently felt he needed a testimony of the mission rules before he would adher to them. Our mission president reminded me that one obeys the rule(s)first, then obtains increased understanding and even testimony of the rule. This echoed what I’d read by Spencer W. Kimball in “The Miracle of Forgiveness.”

    So for me, one can have doubts about LDS policy or theology, but one still obeys the commandments and heeds priesthood leadership counsel. As I’ve confessed, I’ve not always followed that concept too well, but, in my opinion, at least more recently, well enough :).

  17. P, honestly not quite sure what you’re attempting to say with those quotes.

    Jerry, I think a lot of this comes down to humility and recognizing we typically have to act with limited knowledge.

  18. Clark, like heliocentrism, historicity is determined by evidence and science, not dogma. It is no coincidence that after centuries of irrationality on this and other issues, the Catholic Church finds itself in deep water (NPR today TODAY on Australian dioceses specifically singled out in a government study on the abuse of children). Likewise the LDS, who are still struggling with the relatively simple physiology of homosexuality and transgenderism. Your implied suggestion that belief in an ahistorical text as actually historical be required for elevation to church office begs the question: Just what kind of leaders will these be who are willing to ignore evidence or dismiss it altogether?

  19. For me the dilemma of historicity comes down to this: absence of specific archeological evidence to date is not evidence of absence. I see elements in the narratives of the Book of Mormon sufficient to tie it to ancient Israel, before and around the time of the second Babylonian exile. I am further persuaded by various elements other than the B of M, but including the B of M, that worship of the Christ, including ritual baptism, existed in at least the kingdom of Israel prior to the Babylonian exiles, and thus prior to the advent of Jesus the Christ. The B of M of course is, for me, a group of narratives originating from a branch of Israel in North America worshiping the Christ before His advent.

    I see parallels between symbology and characters, like the virgin mother Mary, embedded in the B of M narrative, and similar phenomena showing up in native North American cultural stories. I realize this could be chalked up to confirmation bias in myself, and I’ll just have to live with that.

  20. p, that presupposes of course that the Book of Mormon isn’t historical. I’d add that I think Galileo is more complex than you suggest. For instance Galileo opposed the Kepler model (which is still taught today) The main reason for his trials was making the Pope look like an idiot in his writing – although historians still dispute how intentional that was. In any case, since we dispute the basic historical question what you outline seems an odd approach to say the least.

    If of course the Book of Mormon proves ahistorical then you might have a point but at that point I think the Church would cease to be. However I, and most Mormons, strongly believe otherwise.

  21. I also tend to think of the Book of Mormon as historical, which strongly inflects the way I read it, by trying to understand the perspectives of the writers of the text, their personal perspectives and biases, etc. I’m sure you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, but I’ve been persuaded over time that historicity is a nonessential issue, which would deeply surprise a younger me. What is essential, is believing the Book of Mormon is the word of God to the world in the latter days. (Actually, that’s what Moroni asks us to test, not historicity.) I’ve found it useful in my spiritual development to be more open to persuasion on historicity — for example, I’ve decided that the Book of Mormon is scripture either way and has released me from fearing that we will never find any clearly Lehite archaeological sites — but your mileage may vary. Obviously a lot of members would feel like the Church would cease to be without historicity, but I have come to believe, if you’ll forgive me for the irony, that historicity looking beyond the mark. This is perhaps a discussion better saved for another time.

    Thanks again for great food for thought.

  22. Y’all, I want to echo jstricklan and express my appreciation for the kinds of insightful dialogue this online venue has enabled. The only behavior I have witnessed as personally stressful is out-right dismissal. This venue has given me hope that those within the LDS sphere of influence can and do respect alternate points of view, and can communicate in auch a manner that “all might be edified and rejoice together.”

  23. “I have come to believe, if you’ll forgive me for the irony, that historicity [is] looking beyond the mark.”

    I don’t fully agree, jsyricklan, but find your construction so poetic and original that I must concede the point. Your heart is in the right place. Goodnight & amen.

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