The Loss of Sin

I think one of the many social changes we’re seeing unfolding before us is the loss of sin. I don’t mean loss in the good sense of moving away from sin. Rather I mean loss in the sense that the very category of sin is rejected and rendered incomprehensible. Much of Mormon proselytizing depends upon a shared sense of sin. That is that sin is something to overcome and the atonement is the answer. Without a notion of sin it is simply much harder to see what the point of Jesus or the atonement even is.

Part of this is inevitable I suppose. Years ago Fowler’s Stages of Faith popularized the idea that traditional theology was a lower stage of faith. The highest stage of faith was an universalizing conception where sin really didn’t apply and there were just more ethical acts.

What brings all this up for me are recent comments by John Dehlin about the atonement. I bring this up not to draw attention to John but just because I think it’s the perfect example of something I’ve worried about for some time.

For most of my life I felt deeply attached to the Christian teachings regarding sin, and the need for an atonement via Jesus Christ. “I Stand All Amazed” was my favorite hymn as a youth.
In one sense the atonement is an ok teaching – in that it acknowledges that we all make mistakes. For some, this can encourage humility and self-improvement.

But I realize now that the teaching of the Atonement also strikes at the core of much religious-based harm, in that it plants/spreads the idea that we are all inherently flawed/broken/bad/fallen/dirty/sinful, and are thus dependent on a set of beliefs and/or a man-led institution to become whole/fixed/good/saved/worthy/clean again. But always only temporarily…until the next mistake/screw up/sin/transgression (which is always just around the corner, since expectations are set so unreasonably high).

Sometimes goodness can emerge from this model, but often the atonement model can engender guilt/shame/sadness/self-loathing…that can become toxic for many….leading to anxiety, depression, and even suicidality.
For far too many, the atonement doctrine puts us on never-ending hamster wheel of shame and dependency.

What if we were all taught from infancy that we were/are whole, and that every mistake was/is nothing more than an opportunity to learn/improve?

In other words there’s improvement, but sin is really just a myth. Now I just don’t think that’s true. God wants us to improve for sure. And his arm is always already outstretched to receive us. However sin is more than just a mistake. It is a fundamental breaking of that relationship. By way of analogy it’s akin to how adultery isn’t merely doing something wrong. It’s a devastating betrayal of our relationship with an other person.

Yet Dehlin’s view here seems all too common. Not only doesn’t he believe in sin and atonement. The very notions of sin and atonement become seen as themselves evils. Further, I think John’s view is rather typical of many who self-identify as “Nones.” That is they self-identify with no religion. Given how fast that category is growing, this has, I think, large implications for how we do our missionary work. How do you get someone interested when the very idea of atonement is a negative?

104 comments for “The Loss of Sin

  1. Oh, my! Jesus suffered on the cross for no reason at all?

    I call it sophistry.

    Those who believe that sin exists may err in some of the particulars, and some of them might be overly dogmatic about the matter, but I believe sin is real. I believe Jesus really is my Savior and Redeemer.

  2. I am, of course, reminded of one of those named anti-Christ in the Book of Mormon. This one taught sin and repentance were only the “effect of a frenzied mind.”

    However, sin and mental illness have already been entangled with one another, so this point may have some validity.

    This brings me to the story from the New Testament of the one who was blind: which of his parents had sinned? Or Job from the Old Testament, whose friend was convinced Job had sinned to have experienced such calamity.

    Rabbinical Judaism had made sin such an externally obvious state, maybe because the Mosaic law was so external, to their minds.

    We inherited this rabbinical Judaic externality of sin, coupled with Roman infamia. It may be that sin is simpler than both of these: it is the lack of faith, hope, and charity, which makes the Atonement obvious, at least to me.

  3. I didn’t invent these concepts; these are precisely what Paul would later teach to rabbincal jews and non-jews alike, with just as mixed results as Jesus himself.

  4. OK, so I actually wanted to write about this but just had never gotten around to it.

    Because I was listening to a relatively recent Mormon Matters podcast episode (the one Dan Wotherspoon did with Ian Thompson and Chris Kimball, critiquing the idea of “mental gymnastics” in faith transitions, and the way Dan was describing his Mormonism (and this seems consistent with what I’ve heard him discuss in other contexts) seems to precisely be the perspective that renders the traditional notion of sin at the very least undesirable. And he typically views this as a feature of Mormon theology above traditional Christian theology — that Mormonism doesn’t have such a punitive, “fallen” or “low” view of humanity.

    (I mean, this probably also goes within a Fowler’s Stages of Faith context. But what Dan continually tries to stress is the idea that Mormonism absolutely can/does point to the “later” stages, even if many people settle around the “earlier” stages.)

    So, the interesting thing is that John Dehlin sees mormonism as too enshrined in punitive concepts of sin, guilt, etc., and thinks therefore that one can only really jettison these “harmful” concepts by jettisoning Mormonism.

    You see these concepts as being a fundamental reality, so you don’t seem to disagree with John that Mormonism addresses these concepts. (But, without putting words in your mouth, wouldn’t the traditional approach be to say that these are a fundamental reality, but the atonement is the solution?)

    In contrast, Dan would say that Mormonism doesn’t fundamentally have to be about *that* concept of sin, and that therefore Mormonism can still work even when one moves to a very different model.

    I’m assuredly not doing Dan’s position justice here, but I would just say that Dan would assuredly not agree that the Atonement only has value in that traditional understanding of sin.

  5. As a casual observer, it does seem that society, public rhetoric, the Nones phenomenon, is moving away from traditional hell-fire and damnation meanings of sin. What I guess Dehlin says engenders guilt/shame/sadness/self-loathing.

    But I’m not sure it is important for Mormon proselytizing. It seems to me that we long ago adopted a style that focuses on self-improvement and rewards for obedience. I consider Mormonism to maintain a fairly centrist doctrine of sin, repentance and atonement, but the proselytizing I remember and observe focuses on the plan of salvation, eternal families, and happiness.

    “[C]onsider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness.” (Mosiah 2:41)

  6. With all respect to Clark’s attempt to distinguish between the preachers against sin on the one hand, and those who fight against the sermon – the “None’s” and others, there is an inherent problem with this dichotomy. It is found in the definition of sin! In Mormonism, unlike most other religions, we have a nuance. Sin is not equal to transgression, which is not equal to weakness. It is really an elephant in the room, because each human being gets it, and yet in religious teachings we often deny it.
    Adam did not sin, but transgressed (art. of Faith 2). Christ did not sin, but he sure did continually transgress, and often he explained why. Even the apostles transgressed, under the watchful eye of the Master (Mtt. 15:2). And all little children do transgress, but they cannot sin (Mosiah 3:16; Moroni 8:8).
    And then there is the notion of having weaknesses (Ex. 4:10; 1 Cor. 1:27; Heb 5:2; 2 Ne. 17), which we, LDS, attribute to a gift of God (Ether 12:27).
    In the religion classes I teach, I experience that people erroneously define all of them as sin. A good discussion on the topic opens eyes and reliefs hearts, turning them to seek the power of the Atonement. It was the atonement that caused the discrepancy between sin (open rebellion against God), transgression (stepping over a law for good reason), and dealing with the frailties of life (weakness). Were it not for this atonement, all would be seen equally evil and sinful and distance us from God.
    As a consequence of not distinguishing between sin, transgression and weakness, we find that many religious believers sense a form of eternal damnation. They feel unworthy, often depressed, some even suicide. Many become rebellious against the whole sin-preaching. Some, like Dehlin, seek arguments to reconcile the conundrum, attempting to reconcile logic, worthiness, cultural properness, and liberty. Others find peace in models like Fowler’s or in relativism. Here, in the Netherlands there is an increasing condemning attitude towards those who condemn sinners, because people should be kind to one another.
    All of these are reactions to an oversimplified teaching of sinner vs saint, and unworthy vs worthy, righteousness vs unrighteousness, as currently taught by the Abrahamic religions (except Mormonism). We lose a lot of youth as a consequence. We, Mormons individually overreact by stressing obedience, as if obedience itself will save us. But this, too, is oversimplified. It even causes more stress to those who do all they can, and those who have to obey minor LDS commandments against their own conscience. And obedience, by itself, is not a guarantee of exaltation. God’s grace after all we can do, making covenants, enduring to the end, our faith and attitude, our level of understanding of gospel principles, growing and learning as children, are part and parcel of the process.
    We, Latter-Day Saints would do well to adopt a more mature attitude to those who are rebellious or have weaknesses, and respect people’s decisions in transgressing a lower law because their conscience tells them that something else is more important. I would love to see more conference talks on the matter. Perhaps this answers (partially) Clark’s good final question.

  7. Doctrine of CHRIST must be properly understood, before discussing the atonement.

  8. This post actually goes back to the fundamental ethics inquiry about which came first, God or the moral law. If God came first, then the moral law is necessarily arbitrary, which has unacceptable consequences (including that God is imperfect). If the moral law came first, then what sort of universe do we inhabit? A universe that requires violence (punishment for breaking the moral law) every time someone sins (even very minor infractions)—either from the sinner or his/her substitute (this is where the Atonement comes in)? Yet such a universe is the one depicted in LDS scripture, especially the Book of Mormon and D&C 19. Either answer to this inquiry, however, is problematic for Mormon theology. Could it be that this is the question Lucifer was raising in the premortal debate over salvation? This isn’t sophistry; it’s a valid avenue of inquiry that most Mormons don’t even think about.

  9. I think sin is something more than merely acting unethically. It’s the breaking of a relationship. It’s more akin to adultery than embezzlement. Now part of the issue is that culturally we tend to not see adultery as bad as embezzlement – certainly not criminally. Duty, demand and relationship simply aren’t part of our ethical vocabulary. So it’s hardly surprising that affects people broadly.

    Franklin, if there is no beginning then “what came first” becomes meaningless. But I’d say that reifying law (treating it like an independent entity) distorts what we mean by Law. I’d tend to say that laws are always flawed attempts to systematize justice. But they always fall short, and always get some things wrong in certain conditions. Rather than speaking of Law I suspect Justice is the bigger concern.

    Hans, I think kindness is important. But it can act as a shield that empowers the unjust who use it as a way of hiding their damage to others.

    Christian, I don’t have a problem moving away from a fire and brimstone model that never made sense to me. However I think it we move to a kind of universalizing ethics ends up being problematic. Further universalizing ethics all too often end up developing their own kind of notion of sin.

  10. I’m not sure whether Dehlin considers himself LDS or Christian or what the deal is. Much of what Dehlin says comes off as agnostic/atheist or perhaps a none, but he may not necessarily be. However that is, there is no doubt that he is right in many regards. Conditioning kids to believe that it is sinful to interact with non-believers, for instance, could have a lot of harm. The teaching that gay thoughts are sinful has had deleterious consequences. Plus you have to realize that what is considered to be sin is a rather relative concept. Many evangelical Christians believe Mormons to be in a state of sin (the sin of blasphemy) because they believe that God is an exalted man, that humans can become gods, that there is a Godhead and not a Trinitarian God, and that Jesus and Satan are brothers.

    That said, it is incorrect to say that Dehlin or nones are moral relativists. Dehlin has very strong opinions about what is right and wrong as do many other nones. Religionists often wrongly accuse atheists/agnostics/nones of having no morality. This is nonsense. These are different moral concepts than what LDS believers believe to be moral/immoral, but a morality nonetheless.

  11. Bruder, schwestern, und menschen, y’all have embarked on ambitious, yea even potentially dangerous, yet hopeful conversation. It gives me hope in mensch, anyway. Auf weidersehen und adieu.

  12. Matt I don’t think an universalizing ethics is remotely the same as relativism. I hope nothing I wrote implied otherwise. However I think flattening sin and righteousness to only be ethics is problematic. Being good or being sinful is more than just doing good or bad acts. Again it is about a relationship and how we engage others particularly god.

    Certainly some might say something is sinful when it is not. But that just means they are wrong. By the same measure some might say something is ethical when it is not. So I don’t think that get us very far.

  13. “Being good or being sinful is more than just doing good or bad acts. Again it is about a relationship and how we engage others particularly god.”

    I think what you’re trying to say is that everyone has to be LDS, for according to LDS believers, the only correct way to engage god is to be LDS. How do we inform ourselves of what is truly sinful? According to LDS believers, it is by listening to LDS leaders. How else would we know that drinking coffee is sinful and offends god?

    In humanity there are thousands upon thousands of concepts of god, most of which each individual almost completely rejects. In fact, even within Mormonism there are different and competing conceptions of god, some being more vivid and others being more stripped down and metaphorical.

  14. Matt L, maybe personal, individual beliefs about God, but not LDS doctrinal teachings about God.

    The LDS as a human group even over time have maintained some consistency on the concept of God himself, both God the Father, and Jesus, who is God the Son. The LDS church’s teachings of God line up with Abinadi’s teachings about God from the Book of Mormon.

    I’m not aware of any teaching from apostles or prophets claimed by the LDS church that vary widely as you have at least implied.

    That said, even the LDS as a group has grown in its definition of sin, as demonstrated in this conversation, but there is no denial of the central role of the atonement of Jesus the Christ. Denial of that central role both of Jesus and his atonement is the definition of “anti-christ.”

  15. Clark I think your relationship perspective to sin is fairly analogous to the new secular sins like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. These are very much relationship based – albeit from an individual (the sinner) to a group (represented by an offendee) rather than between individuals. The pending criminal nature of these nouveau sins seems to emerge from its effect on societal coherence. They destroy a common pool resource (social cohesion and societally based opportunity) just as much as pollution.

    I think mormonism has certainly moved to much more of a “relationship” based frame over the century. But I think society has as well.

    The current pivot point seems to be whether society will move to more of a utilitarian accounting of “relationship” effects, or whether it will stick to an objectivist frame that is at least moderately based on absolutes (no matter how grey those come out in practice).

    The challenge is that the objectivist frame is split between free speech absolutists and hate speechers. The latter often eschew what I would consider a true relationship frame by suggesting that certain sins are pernicious because of their potential structural effects and with little regard to whether or not they effect individual-individual or individual-group relationships. The Washington redskins is a good example here. For some, the name is wrong no matter whether or not a particular native band or nation consider it offensive or celebratory.

  16. Jerry, a couple of things, off topic, but somewhat relevant.

    “The LDS church’s teachings of God line up with Abinadi’s teachings about God from the Book of Mormon.”

    Abinadi’s words seem almost Trinitarian (“they are one God”). I’m not quite sure that the Godhead as it is regularly taught in LDS manuals today, can be derived from Abinadi’s words.

    “I’m not aware of any teaching from apostles or prophets claimed by the LDS church that vary widely as you have at least implied.”

    They are somewhat consistent today (although inconsistent on whether God’s love is unconditional or not as well as a few other questions about the nature of God). But bear in mind that Brigham Young taught that Adam was God, which has been declared undoctrinal by subsequent leaders. Joseph Smith taught that God was an exalted man. When asked about this in interviews, Gordon B. Hinckley denied that this teaching was emphasized or even taught.

    “but there is no denial of the central role of the atonement of Jesus the Christ”

    I agree. However, among Mormon followers there is variance about what the atonement even means and how exactly it applies to humans. Much of the time when I hear LDS leaders and members talk about the atonement, it is actually quite unclear and almost incoherent (consider Brad Wilcox’s article 8 Things the Atonement is Not ( In fact, one thing that I frequently hear from leaders and members is that the atonement is very difficult to understand and cannot be fully understood.

  17. Chris, I think you’re completely right and I find secular reinvention of sin to be particularly fascinating. I’d say though that while sin is analogous to relationship breaking, it’s the particular kind of relationship (here with God) that matters most. Although even secular sin ends up having an imputed godlike “ideal” that is sinned against.

    Matt, more or less you’re just raising the epistemological question of how we know what sin is and presenting the skeptical response based upon variety. I don’t think that works at least for Mormons because ideally Mormons don’t think they know based upon what a leader says but because God tells them directly. That doesn’t absolve Mormons of epistemic questions of course. It does suggest the issue is different from how you frame it and that the variety charge doesn’t matter much. (In the same way the variety of answers regarding evolution in the world doesn’t mean formal biology is wrong)

    Regarding Abinadi, usually critics see him as modalist and not trinitarian. I think the closer analogy is Jewish Merkabah literature although that is (in extant texts) a post exilic literary phenomena. (Think Enoch as the Lesser YHWH in 3 Enoch) In any case it’s really not Trinitarian which emphasizes the different hypostasis and single ousia.

    To your other points, similar language can be used with discussing different aspects of a phenomena. So with regards to God’s love we usually distinguish acts from intents. God’s love in terms of the actions desired by the loved may be conditional. God’s love in terms of the directedness and intents may be unconditional. Unfortunately that distinction isn’t always made clear although looking at content usually shows that is what is meant.

    Of course your point that various GAs including Prophets have made claims not accepted seems undeniably true although since we don’t accept inerrancy that doesn’t matter much. Continuing revelation can offer corrections and even prophets see through a glass darkly. However epistemologically we don’t require certainty in all things to be able to know some things. So I’m not sure your line of argument is as helpful as you think.

    To the atonement I think the scriptures use different metaphors and you see that reflected in GA talks. These metaphors are not exhaustive and most likely don’t fit exactly the actual phenomena. They’re usually dealing with a particular aspect of the atonement and at best are a first order approximation of even that.

  18. Clark,

    Dehlin is claiming that the LDS teachings about sin and atonement can induce a whole of unnecessary guilt. He is absolutely right in that regard. Bear in mind that Dehlin is a PhD psychologist and has studied LDS LGBTQ+s and a psychological phenomenon (I forget the technical term for it, it is on the tip of tongue but can’t quite remember it) where an individual feels extreme guilt over trifling matters. I think that you’re not giving Dehlin a fair shot here and are getting lost in some sort of philosophical puzzle that you’re trying to solve when Dehlin is speaking to how the LDS church has caused many individuals, particularly LGBTQ+s to feel all sorts of extreme unnecessary guilt. I think you would be more sympathetic to Dehlin if you studied more about LGBTQ+s growing up in the LDS church.

    Also, even if you do regard Abinadi to be modalist, then you’re still supporting my point that what the LDS church teaches today about God is different from what Abinadi taught. The LDS Godhead idea doesn’t square with modalism.

  19. Before we head this conversation further, let’s define some terms.
    the doctrine that the persons of the Trinity represent only three modes or aspects of the divine revelation, not distinct and coexisting persons in the divine nature.

    relating to belief in the doctrine of the Trinity.
    a person who believes in the doctrine of the Trinity.

    The “doctrine of the Trinity” is that which was determined by Constantinian councils, the 3-in-1 mystery called God.

    My understanding of Abinadi is neither modalism nor trinitarian. Abinadi was plainly laying out God as both a personage and a role.
    There is a heavenly father, and there is a lord Jehovah.

    As the heavenly father (heaven as the context, prior to earthly existence) had children (spirits) in need of a development path, the plan of salvation was introduced.

    The plan required two key elements: first, all participants in the plan must have free will, or agency to act; second, as a natural consequence of the first these children would require a righteous judge who would judge them with sure knowledge of each and their earthly experience.

    Such a judge would need to personally know the experience of each soul standing before him. The atonement becomes that ultimate empathic experience, and Jehovah becomes the Annointed One to go through this experience.

    As Jehovah will inherit the Father’s authority over the spirits through the Atonement, he becomes the Father. He will fulfill this mission with a human body created between the Father and the mortal woman to be called Mary. Jehovah becomes Jesus, the literal son of God.

    So, not literally but in multiple roles, Jehovah is both the Father and the Son.

    To the strict monotheists of King Noah’s state religion, this is heresy, and Abinadi is burned at the stake, which will become the popular method of punishing heresy across time and place involving humans.

    Only the Book of Mormon and subsequent revelation make this understanding of the Atonement and its centrality available; to those without the Book of Mormon and the subsequent revelation, the Godhead is a debated mystery.

    Feel free to continue to debate the mystery, or move forward with faith as ji, or whatever you will. This is my understanding, based on that recorded revelation we call scripture and personal revelation.

  20. Agree, Im for defining terms. What is sin? Is it the act of knowingly breaking God’s laws – what about unknowingly?

    … for where no law is, there is no transgression (Romans 4:15)

    …but sin is not imputed when there is no law (Romans 5:13)

    …for sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4)

    … and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him. (2 Ne 9:25)

    No Law, no imputation of sin, am I reading this right? That before one receives the ‘law’ (Gospel) one’s un-knowing ‘trangressive’ behaviours are not counted as ‘sin’ and hence no condemnation.

    Does coming to a knowledge of the Gospel require a retrospective appraisal of one’s life in which ignorance of the law is not then viewed as mediating factor?

    To the convert, faith and repentance are prerequisites to baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, yet repentance is often defined as the setting aside of sins – can the new convert justifiably ask, ‘What sins have I committed seeing I knew not the law? Why am I required to repent?

    Just wondering.

  21. John Bradshaw’s classic book Healing the Shame that Binds You discusses at length and in detail, the difference between toxic shame and healthy shame.
    Toxic shame says, “I am defective, I am a mistake.”
    Healthy shame says, “I am human, make mistakes, and therefore, need boundaries.”

    Dehlin, a therapist, seems not to be aware of this fundamental distinction, which does not bode well. Now while there are certainly theologies out there that insist that humans are fallen mistakes, LDS theology is not one of them. Any child who has sung “I am a child of God” has been pointed in the direction of healthy shame.

    The need for boundaries that Bradshaw emphasizes is in contrast with “shamelessness” which means in his book, “I have no boundaries.”

    Sin, in Alma’s experience is simply considering the negative effects his actions had on other people. Sin in the experience of Laman and Lemuel, is considering the frustrating effects that other people (especially Nephi) had on them. Alma’s conversion comes, not because of the angel, which is the whole point of the narrative contrasts with Laman and Lemuel who also see an angel, and Zeezrom who does not. The difference is in what recovery calls the Fourth Step, “A searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s self, a removal of the beams in one’s own eyes.

    Laman and Lemuel constantly build off their own frustrations and resentments, perpetually taking the victim role, and acting out with a sense of resentment and entitlement.

  22. Matt, I didn’t say I think Abinadi taught modalism. I think the opposite. Reread what I wrote. I said usually critics charge the passage with modalism where Jesus and God the Father are the same being just in different modes. However I think a better parallel is to Merkabah mysticism such as in 3 Enoch where a different being receives the characteristics of an other – sometimes in somewhat platonic ways. An other example of this besides Enoch becoming YHWH is different individuals becoming Elijah. As I said, the weakness of this position is that it’s usually dated to times closer to the Roman era so it’s not clear it existed before the exile.

    Regarding Dehlin, I’m just talking about the notion of sin. It’s that he rejects. You’re making a different argument about whether someone might be hurt because of how particular claims of sin are applied. But that’s just not the claim I quote Dehilin making.

    Now if you want to say sin must be a false concept if a claim that something is a sin is hurtful to someone I’m all ears. But one has to make it more clearly. I’m dubious.

    Kevin, great comment.

  23. Clark and others (on Abinadi), I’m not terribly concerned about whether Abinadi taught modalism or Trinitarianism (the distinction between which is rather hair-splitting), but just read what Abinadi has to say:

    1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.

    2 And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—

    3 The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son

    4 And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.

    Now read God the Father on the LDS Gospel Topics page. In modern discourse, God the Father doesn’t mean Jesus. For Abinadi, Jesus is God the Father. Abinadi teaches monotheism (only one god) while modern Mormonism teaches polytheism. Bryan in VA, if you reference an article, you should provide a synopsis of the main argument. I looked at the article and it appears a bit incoherent in parts. Unfortunately many FAIR articles employ argument by verbosity and tend to venture into all sorts of tangents and non-sequiturs.

  24. But Matt you’re now distinguishing between common contemporary rhetoric and theology. They aren’t the same. We shouldn’t assume scripture always follows our rhetoric. In fact we shouldn’t assuming different parts of scripture have the same rhetorical structure. The war narratives in Alma are rhetorically quite different from Revelation. So why should we expect Abinadi, who is doing exegesis of Isaiah, to follow contemporary rhetorical style?

  25. On Dehlin, he is simply saying that the atonement theology of Mormonism and other denominations of Christianity can be harmful in that it induces excessive shame over actions that people either shouldn’t feel shame about or should feel much less shame about. Mormonism paints this wonderful picture of the atonement as if it is the most important event in history and that by doing things such as masturbating or having gay thoughts that you are causing Jesus to suffer, but that is OK, because if you submit yourself to the excessive and rather arbitrary standards of the LDS church you can be saved. This is absolutely ridiculous. Yet, Kip Eliason killed himself as a young teen over excessive guilt about masturbation. Myriad LDS teens have killed themselves too because they feel excessive shame for being LGBTQ+. Why? Atonement theology. Still, Dehlin writes, “Sometimes goodness can emerge from this model.” So he isn’t repudiating the atonement theology or the idea of sin entirely, as you appear to want him to be saying.

    My guess is that you (Clark and Kevin) have an ax to grind with Dehlin and are grasping at straws to try to ensnare him somehow. But you can’t quite land any solid blows.

    On Abinadi, what he has to say about God is rather simple and can be construed as clearly monotheistic. But modern Mormon Godhead doctrine is polytheistic (not to mention the less emphasized god-as-exalted-man/we-can-all-become-gods doctrine). I get how if you go down lots of rabbit holes and create lots of categories that you try to place aspects of the central arguments in in order to create distinctions or similarities that are favorable to your argument (or the LDS church’s central arguments) that you can cause a lot of people who are predisposed to thinking that everything in the LDS church teachings is completely consistent to agree with you. But good luck convincing anyone beyond those types of people.

  26. if you submit yourself to the excessive and rather arbitrary standards of the LDS church you can be saved. This is absolutely ridiculous. – Matt L

    And yet is, surprisingly, that is what some of the (secular) psychology literature, especially that from the evolutionary psychologists in the science of religion, actually suggests with respect to happiness and mental well-being (see Atran in God’s We Trust – … if I remember off the top of my head). This class of act (locus of control change) can be positive for some people and, as you cite, negative for others.

    But I think your main point is somewhat different – that some things which are

    1) arbitrary,
    2) innate (genetic & hard not to express amongst most of the population), and
    3) have minimal effect on others or personal development,

    should not be considered sins because of the high probability they won’t be fully controlled and the (unnecessary) negative psychological consequences this might have. (Will have if you’re using population statistics).

    I’d just suggest, if this is the view, then it doesn’t account for what is known about moral and moral/adaptive groups and their evolutionary stabilized dynamics and constraints. This is, of course, unless the coherence of those groups isn’t what one is interested in…

    But that just leads to other arguments which would most likely force a contradiction on point 2 – why are innate tendencies for adaptive groups and the constraints they necessarily operate within for stability any less valid that other types of innate behavior? (And obviously self-selection arguments refute the use of “innate” premises)

  27. Matt, I actually have no ax to grind with Dehlin. In fact I asked people to check out the post before I posted it because I didn’t want it to come off that way. To me what’s interesting is the social phenomena of people disparaging sin in general. I think that goes beyond issues of shame as you suggest. It lines up with several things I’d thought about with regards to demographic numbers in religious identification statistics – particularly of the Nones.

    Again I think your concern is over what is or isn’t a sin and the epistemological questions there. Do some people make weird inferences from religion? Sure. Are those justified? No. Further they usually misunderstand the nature of sin and atonement. Which is a good reason to teach them rather than abandon them. Ironically to my eyes, what you describe is fundamentally seeing sins just as a list of “don’ts” we’re supposed to feel horrible about. What I tried to communicate is that just isn’t the notion of sin and certainly misunderstands the atonement.

    Now I suspect your view is rather common and may be partially why the very concept of sin is attacked. But that’s because the notion of sin is already lost or distorted. In a certain sense it’s not the cause losing a sense of sin but is the effect.

    Chris, I think a lot of this is right. I think there’s likely some strong evolutionary drives towards reifying the concept of community in our brains. Sin in a certain sense is likely tied to an idea of betrayal of the community and has adaptive benefits. If so, then the current “loss of sin” in the west will be followed by a new stability point with new community conceptions and new notions of what counts as sin. We’ve both noticed some examples of that happening already.

  28. @Matt L
    Not sure what the issue is with the Abinadi verses. John 5:43 states “I am come in my Father’s name” and Matthew 28:18 states “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” Christ has the Father’s name and the Father’s power. Referring to Christ as “The Father” is wholly appropriate, even though there is another being God the Father to whom Christ is subordinate. Isaiah 9:6 also refers to Christ as a son and a father.

  29. Chris g, your comment is a classic case of argument by verbosity/intimidation. You need to put it layman’s terms. I know that speaking in some intellectually-fangled way might make you feel prestigious and super smart, but I really see these sorts of arcane ways of communicating points as rather silly. Cut the mumbo-jumbo, vagueness, and subtlety and get to the point. I could kind of make sense out of your comment until I got to “moral/adaptive groups.” What in the world are these and what do they have anything to do with my comment? If by moral/adaptive group you mean LDS people, then how exactly have they been stabilized by evolution? If anything the LDS community appears very unstable right now, especially over issues such as the sinfulness of masturbation (i.e., should bishops be routinely asking vulnerable kids as young as 12 if they masturbate) and being LGBTQ+. Your last question is a bit of a puzzle, too, since in it you appear to be taking a moral relativist position. This is odd considering that you appear to be defending Mormonism as well as the sentiments of the OP, which hold positions that are diametrically opposed to moral relativism.

    Clark, “To me what’s interesting is the social phenomena of people disparaging sin in general.” You come off as saying that you think it is interesting how more and more people (particularly the nones) are becoming moral relativists. This isn’t true. As an example, one of the most popular and best-selling atheist thinkers, Sam Harris, wrote a book, The Moral Landscape, arguing that morality could be determined by science. I don’t think that moral relativism is spreading in the least.

    Bryan in VA, you’re still missing the point. Abinadi is promoting the idea that God and Jesus are a single being (monotheism) and that it is God the Father who is actually coming down to earth to be crucified, whereas modern Mormon discourse strongly promotes the idea that God the Father and Jesus are two distinct beings (polytheism), the former sending the latter down to be crucified and not actually coming down himself.

  30. One need look no further than the massive amount of sorrow, resentment, despair, hatred, predjudices, selfishness, resentment and so on plaguing western society in the midst of our tremendous increases in wealth and prosperity to understand that sin is real and has devastating societal and generational cost.

    Where the rubber is starting to hit the road is that many in the church have taken up a politicized banner with regard to some of these sins or social and moral privations. So discussing or acknowledging the sin or cause of the sin makes one persona no grata into society’s graces.

    But I definitely agree with the general thrust of this post that there’s a real problem brewing. The simple fact is, that the prophets have spoken on the issues for years. Time has shown them to be right, but we keep putting our heads in the sand saying, “there’s nothing to see here, look there’s the real problem for our discontent over there”.

  31. I wasn’t trying to land blows on Dehlin, but responding to the topic of the loss of sin, and Clark seemed appreciative. Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You has long been considered a classic text, well regarded among professionals, and the distinction he makes between health shame and toxic shame is relevant, and demonstrably helpful in practice.

    One thing that is important in making generalities about Mormonism (or any other group) is that the examples cited to support those generalities should be representative of the general case, rather than exceptional. (For example, someone won the lottery, so if I enter the lottery I will no doubt likewise win? Or consider Trump’s faux generalizations regarding Mexican immigrants.) If it happened that active LDS teenagers typically commit suicide, rather than being seven times less likely to commit suicide than their non-LDS peers, that general case ought to apply. But it doesn’t because suicide is not the general response to Mormonism, but an exceptional response. Suicide is a devastating issue to be sure, but it is not the general case. It should be approached as such, so as to figure out what went wrong in specific exceptional cases, and learning then how to response to such cases. And when looking at Utah statistics, the presence of Mormonism is not the only variable. There are many non-LDS, different leaders, different attitudes and personalities, different households, different individual cases. Altitude, is a significant factor, as are genetic, and social factors that apply in specific cases. I happen to know several people who found that sexual acting out in various ways was not helping them find joy and happiness and utter fulfillment, and planned to commit suicide, but that recovery literally saved their lives. I know people who had suicidal thoughts that had nothing to do with sexuality or faith, but who found their lives changed thanks to prozac or other anti-depressants.

    Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning has a potent chapter on the issue that “The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes concern for the victims in order to paganize it. …they reproach Christianity for not defending victims with enough ardor. In Christian history, they see nothing but persecution, acts of oppression, inquisitions.” (180.)

    And, given the off topic concerns about Abinadi, there is the matter of reading a text against modern preconceptions, or after the manner of the ancient Jews, which makes a difference. “All texts in the Hebrew Bible clearly distinguish between the divine sons of Elohim/Elyon and those human beings who are called sons of Yahweh.” (Margaret Barker, The Great Angel, 10). For starters, for the curious.

  32. Matt –

    An adaptive/moral group is basically just a very robust group. It provides real fitness advantage to its members.

    To be more precise they require varying levels
    -coordination of purpose
    -conflict minimization
    -extreme dependency.

    In humans this usually happens via morals. Stability is sensitive to
    -the ability of like-minded people to get together
    -norm enforcement.

    Thus in-group out-group gradients (for better or worse) are fairly fundamental to their nature.

    Darwin’s Cathedral by D.S. Wilson is the best book here. It’s fairly accessible.

  33. It’s odd, Matt L, that you keep mentioning masturbation so much. Especially young teens masturbating. That makes three times in one thread, which is more than I’ve heard in a lifetime at church. And you think the LDS are the ones with hangups?

  34. Matt, again I’ve said nothing about moral relativism. So I’m not sure where you’re getting that. I’m saying that people who are disparaging sin sometimes disparage the very concept by assuming it just means a series of don’ts. But at that point you’ve already substituted the notion of sin for the notion of bad acts when they aren’t the same. So thinking that this is either a difference between what get judged as wrong acts or moral relativism just shows that sin as a concept is becoming alien in our culture. But for the record I don’t remotely think John Dehlin is a relativist.

    John’s not simply saying some Mormon ethical beliefs (say LGBT acts as wrong) are incorrect. Rather he’s arguing that the very concepts of sin and atonement in Mormonism are wrong. Then goes one step further and says they’re harmful. It’s that broader claim that I am addressing. My sense is that you are misunderstanding both John and myself here – again by assuming we’re just talking about whether certain particular acts are bad.

    Regarding Abinadi, I don’t think he’s saying the Father and the Son are a single being. Again looking at ancient Jewish literature as a context is pretty helpful here. I’d add that D&C 93, while primarily an expansion on the Johannine corpus, also has a pretty similar idea to Mosiah 15 although less terse. John of course is the most platonic of the NT texts (although most scholars see Hebrews as fairly platonic as well). However I think D&C 93 suggests that this is an older idea and not as tied to Plato as many scholars take it.

    The classic problem of reading Abinadi as modalist (which is what you’re now arguing for rather than Trinitarian) is that 3 Nephi is famously not modalist. While I certainly don’t doubt one can read Mos 15 modally, there’s nothing unambiguously modal in the text. So at minimum one is bringing in ontological assumptions. I could have sworn there was an old post on that but I can’t find it to link to at all. So maybe I’ll write an other one later in the week.

    The main parallel is 3 Enoch – admittedly a late text from around the second century. Here Enoch ascends to heaven and gets the new name of Metatron and is given heavenly robes and a crown. He’s then called the lesser YHWH and is said to bear the name of God. He’s identified with the figure in Ex 23:21. The ultimate parallel though is how two figures can both be YHWH through adoption in heaven. Some non-Mormon scholars see Philippians 2:6-11 as tied to the 3 Enoch tradition only with Jesus receiving the name.

    To your other points I’ll let Kevin address them as I think he’s doing a better job than I could. Shame isn’t always bad and the particular type of shame one has seems separate from shame in general.

  35. I meant to say in the previous comment ” I won’t provide a synopsis of the main argument”.

  36. Bryan, I confess I have some problems with that article from BoMC – and I usually like their articles. For one for casual readers I’m not sure clarifies things well. Particularly how it addresses Brant Gardner’s looking at Mosiah 15 from a mesoAmerican perspective. It also doesn’t address the Merkabah literature well which Blake Ostler, myself and others have discussed. While I don’t agree with all of their critiques, BCC did a four part post criticizing it.

  37. Kevin (and others), the ex-Mormon subreddit and the Invisible Cubits blog (by Sam Young) serve as good evidence of patterns occurring within the LDS church where atonement doctrine/sin doctrine are used to make people feel excessive shame and guilt over trivialities. You should spend some time reading them and even ask some questions in the subreddit about people’s experiences. Dehlin has done a couple of podcasts on scrupulosity, which is a condition connected with OCD, where he shows that LDS church’s teachings and structure tends to exacerbate OCD problems (causing people to feel harmful excessive shame over trivialities) rather than help them. Dehlin’s research on LGBTQ+s in the LDS church reveals patterns of LGBTQ+s feeling excessive shame because of what the LDS church teaches. Daniel Parkinson also studies the issues and sees similar patterns. Even the LDS church has notably changed its tone over the decades on issues such as masturbation and LGBTQ+s, which can be interpreted as a tacit acknowledgement by present leaders that the past leaders have been over the top (i.e., no more mention of masturbation in the For Strength of Youth Pamphlet, no more reparative electro-shock therapy for LGBTQ+s at BYU, etc.). You are Clark are omitting this crucial context behind Dehlin’s musings. Read Dehlin’s and Parkinson’s research on the issues. Read Sam Young on probing youth interviews. And then come back and tell me that the LDS church doesn’t obsess about particular sins and how this is having no out-of-the-ordinary psychological effects on LGBTQ+s. Bear in mind that it is a double standard to insist that people take believing LDS folks seriously when they talk about their experiences that have led them to belief and then not take ex-Mormons and people who have seemingly critical things about the LDS church and culture seriously when they talk of their experiences. Stories of excessive shaming over minutiae grow by the day. You need to take your head out of the sand (same goes for Clark and others).

    Xipf, myself and about every LDS male I’ve asked were relentlessly asked about masturbation growing up. Spencer W. Kimball taught that masturbation can make you gay and Boyd K. Packer wrote a whole pamphlet discouraging it. The LDS church has obsessed about the wrongs of masturbation for decades and continues to do so. You’re either being deliberately obtuse or you are painfully unaware.

  38. “Rather he’s arguing that the very concepts of sin and atonement in Mormonism are wrong”

    He says that they work for some, but can be harmful in some cases. You’re distorting what he is saying and not considering the context (which I have told you repeatedly).

  39. On Abinadi, this originally came of one commenter saying that the LDS concept of god stemmed from Abinadi’s words. I challenge you to print out the few sentences of Abinadi’s words on the nature of god and show it to both scholars of religion and lay people alike and ask them if they can extract the polytheistic Godhead out of that where Jesus and God the Father and the Spirit are separate and distinct personages and gods. No, they can’t, it is as simple as that. Clark, you’re going down some rabbit hole of modalism vs. Trinitarianism and whatnot, when that is beyond the point. I noted how Abinadi’s words resemble Trinitarianism because promote monotheism, not because a small few passages that give us very few details, represent every last minute detail of the prevailing Trinitarian arguments.

    Chris g, you’ve drifted off on some tangent which I cannot see has anything to do with what is being discussed.

  40. Matt, you asked for an explanation of the terms I used because they were incomprehensible to you. I provided you such.

  41. Matt, I don’t think the Mormon conception of God derives from Mosiah 15. Someone said they line up with them but that seems somewhat different. I’ll drop that tangent though it’s a topic I enjoy. I’ll do a separate post on it and hopefully you’ll contribute in the comments there in a few days.

    To Dehlin, I think he’s making a stronger claim than you suggest, but it’s not that important as I was using him as a stepping off point to the larger issue of sin. Again I think we’re talking past one an other as you want to focus on particular sins the Church may or may not be focusing on whereas I am talking about sin in general. By changing the view of the atonement to “we were/are whole, and that every mistake was/is nothing more than an opportunity to learn/improve” I think Dehlin’s missing something fundamental about both sin and atonement. You want to talk about shaming, which is fine, but that’s not what I’ve been talking about. Now I assume you’re not a Mormon and thus just don’t buy into our conceptions of sin or atonement as theological concepts. Again, that’s fine. But then I’m not quite sure the point. I think the problem with LGBT issues is that there are no good solutions for people in that category. There’s also excessive social shame, although that’s changing somewhat. But those seem a different issues. My sense is that Kevin would agree with you that much there is toxic shame. His point is don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and reject all shame. Again we’re talking past one an other because you want to talk these specific examples and never the general case. (For the record I’ve never ever been asked about those in any Church setting)

  42. Chris g, you did not explain how moral/adaptive groups have anything to do with the topic at hand. Having obtained a PhD myself, I spent some time writing and speaking like you, until I realized that no one could figure out what I was talking about. Then I realized that the purpose of communication should be to connect and convince, not to be esoteric for the sake of being esoteric. We live in an age where intellectualism is being increasingly less admired and more and more rejected. The strongest communicators of the future (and present) are faced with the difficult task of conveying intellectually grounded ideas without actually sounding intellectual or elitist. I did my best to read through your comments, but find them rather convoluted and confusing.

    Clark, I think Dehlin could have expressed himself a bit more clearly in the quote you provided (it would be nice to have a link as well). I write on his words in part from the comment, but also from other things he has said in a similar vein. I see sin as more or less synonymous with morality. And while the question of morality may not be subjective or relative, it is understood in a variety of ways throughout humanity, with many ideas being mutually exclusive. That said, the nones aren’t reproducing as fast as the religious folks. On a global scale, the concept of sin is alive and well. By all means post on Abinadi. Thanks for the engaging discussion.

  43. I originally had the link but it’s to the ex-Mormon Reddit which some find objectionable. If you search on the text you can find it rather quickly.

    To Chris’ comments, he’s talking about evolutionary psychology and how these notions like sin naturally arise among groups. The evolutionary psychology of religion is a rather big focus of research, although to be fair there is at times a bit too much hand waving in the field. The idea is that an adaptive group develops a shared morality system that often goes beyond morality. That is to talk about morality just as ethics misses the group component especially the policing of in-group and out-group boundaries. Things that once were a shared morality become more than that and become tokens of group identity. Violating the group identity thus is seen as a kind of betrayal often viewed more seriously than the ethical failure itself. The connection to sin is that groups will thus see acts as a kind of taint. Through most of history religion and tribe were so intertwined it was hard to see this. But now we are starting to have secular tribes that are effectively reinventing the notion of sin to police boundaries. You are seeing it in various ways in say intersectionality groups.

    The point ultimately is to strongly suggest that psychologically we’ve evolved such that limiting these things to just ethics and “improvement” just can’t happen socially.

    Now this is the psychology – the Mormon theology is somewhat different. I’d argue that some of the ways these become tokens for group identity are quite unhealthy. Which is partially what Kevin was addressing. Although in certain ways this group aspect is somewhat orthogonal to the main discussion. However I’d say that a constant danger in the Church is conflating what is sin tied to the gospel from what is more tribalism and in-group maintenance.

  44. I found Dehlin’s post. I’ll post the rest of it below. Upon reading it, it is very clear that Dehlin is rejecting teachings that are common across all denominations of Christianity (the need for Christ to save), but retaining other teachings of Christ that square humanist teachings here and there.

    The main problem with the OP is that it begs the question of what exactly does it mean to have a relationship with God and how exactly is that relationship violated. There are multiple conceptions of sin in the world of religion. But alas, religion is still very strong throughout the world particularly in India, Africa, and the Muslim World. So I don’t think that there is much reason to believe that the concepts of right and wrong as informed by religious thinking about sin is going away soon on a worldwide scale. Now maybe in the US and Europe to some extent, but this is being replaced by other moral philosophies informed by different cultural norms.

    “What if we never felt shame for our mistakes? Sadness and guilt…maybe…but shame….never.

    And what if we were taught that we can self-heal and grow without the need for church affiliation, intermediaries (divine OR human), confession (to a man), paying money, or ultimately any sort of a shame-based dependency cycle?

    I love the teachings of Christ around kindness, charity/service, forgiveness, and love. The stuff around sin, atonement, and repentance, however…I no longer love….not because I don’t care about human goodness and flourishing…but because I DO care about human goodness and flourishing. I now believe that we will get further by teaching people from the outset that they are WHOLE, and that every choice is a wonderful opportunity to learn/grow….vs. telling them that they are broken/fallen, and thus require a lifelong shame-based dependency upon an institution of male leadership to help them feel temporarily better, but only until the next “transgression.”

    It’s a shame/control trap.

    I’ll take the framings of “wholeness” and “learning” over the framings of “broken,” “fallen,” “sinful,” and “transgression” every day of the week.”

  45. Matt L, I’d agree with that characterization of Dehlin. He’s keeping what’s compatible with humanism in religion and rejecting the rest. That’s more or less why I brought up Fowler’s stages of faith as I think his “higher” levels of faith more or less assume humanism as the highest conception. The OP doesn’t argue for why a Mormon conception of God, sin or atonement are correct. I’m not sure that’s begging the question though since the argument was merely that society was moving away from those.

    So from what I can tell you’ve just more or less come around to what the OP was actually arguing. You just think this is a good thing rather than a bad thing.

  46. And I would just say that such rational choice about what to keep and what to reject just doesn’t work in certain types of groups. Certain groups, like many religions are specifically “designed” to resist purposeful planned change of this sort.

    This is frustrating for some, but there are long-term reasons why it is so. Those reasons can either come from secular thinking or from divine purposes.

  47. Yes many aspects of religion just seem inherent to our biology. Any utopia that attempts to eliminate them seems doomed to failure. You might be able to change the theology of course. A Buddhist for instance believes quite different things from a Christian. But anyone looking at both cultures will quickly notice a lot of fundamental ways people comport themselves in both religions in practice.

  48. Clark, I think it is much more than this. You can’t purposefully change the theology.

    While we see small groups coming into power and effecting change, it is important to see whether or not this is causative. In other words is it the group who is causing the change, or is it something else which is selecting for that type of group – and the group then looks like it is causing the change.

    In highly moral systems the “change group” is almost always incidental. They are more a symptom than a cause. The cause is usually the bigger environment in which the group is situated.

  49. Purposeful change can of course occur, but it is usually happens by sect formation.

    The other option is to loosen up the group to such an extent that the group itself starts to disappear. The Pew survey of religions really show this. Humanistic secularized religions have shrinking memberships, and those that do remain increasingly view their connection to the group in terms of an cultural or heritage connection.

    I think cautions about “steadying the ark” have more insight that they first appear. That’s also the reason why rationally picking and choosing how sin should be formulated is a fairly futile endeavour that is probably more likely to solidify systems than affect change. Your relationship metaphor carries over quite well here.

  50. Except that of course the group growing the fastest are the Nones who have loose religious connections. (Again this is an aggregate category so people are moving in and out of it) Now of course among the Nones are quasi-religious behaviors and outright religious behaviors. So say among alternative medicine you have things seen as bad and often ties to informal yet quite strong groups. The question is how much the Nones (and even many who identify with other groups) are associated with these new groups with quasi-religious features.

    What you’re suggesting is that environmental factors and selection by those factors dominates. I’m tending to see most of this as manifestations at the group level of more fundamental biological instincts combined with pretty accidental environmental factors.

    The issue of which groups are successful ends up, I think, frequently tied to accidental features. So older more liberal Christian sects are shrinking because those are the groups of older people and younger people want things that appeal to their entertainment drives. That’s not to say biology isn’t still functioning, just that culturally right now we have a drive for novelty against prior generations rather than small c conservatism which maintains stasis.

  51. Matt, I think you might be surprised at how much I have seen, heard, read, and experienced in considering LDS and other experiences with shame and such, though granted, my take is rather different. I wrote a piece for Square Two a few years back, steeling myself for controversy, and getting silence, probably because I’m so far out of the deep grooves that guide most discussions. I’ve been the Stake and now regional ARP rep for a long time. My take, for what it’s worth is here, as “A Mormon Rashomon”.

  52. Going back to my original comment, I reacted to the title “The Loss of Sin” and the idea that Dehlin is saying that “sin is a myth.” These words strongly suggest that many nones, like Dehlin, are moral relativists.

    To your final question, though: it is very difficult.

    Kevin, I read through your article. I smirked at the gratuitous jabs you take at Emily for leaving the LDS church and you writing “their divorce in consequence of his decision to embrace a gay lifestyle” as if some people just up and decide to be gay. How about, “their divorce because he had been a closeted gay man.” In your mind it seems that Gerald was a sex addict first and maybe an actual gay man second. I think it was very much the other way around.

  53. Matt, you read my article, and those are your takeaways? Oh well…

  54. Matt as I tried to make clear sin and ethics are related but aren’t the same thing. An utilitarian who does some calculus of what is best make be acting ethically but it’s hard to see that as explaining sin in a Mormon conception – especially for things that aren’t inherently wrong but we covenant to obey like the Word of Wisdom. A person who drinks coffee almost certainly isn’t being immoral but a Mormon with a temple recommend who does is sinning.

    I think the problem is that many just don’t have a concept of sin so they immediately think it’s ethics. My sense is you might be a good example of this. (grin) This is a big part of the issue. Acts that don’t have obvious ways they hurt people aren’t seen as wrong in any way. Most religions have “sins” that don’t fit that damage criteria and this bothers people who don’t really get the religion. I think religions have to do a better job teaching this stuff because people just aren’t picking it up culturally anymore.

    That said I also think, as Chris as I were discussing, that there are real psychological drives towards these concepts of sin. So you see similar structures developing in more secular groups. It’s just that the term “sin” isn’t used. Then people pick it up unconsciously. The give an example, racism and misogyny really aren’t treated as “just mistakes” culturally anymore. (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – just a cultural change I’ve noticed particularly the past 10 years) Certain acts now are treated like sin with associated shames.

  55. Clark, I’d also add that arbitrary prohibitions are actually REQUIRED for groups to flourish (i.e. provide real benefits and stay coherent).

    One common justification about breaking arbitrary prohibitions is that this has secondary effects which are bad. Common secondary effects I hear expressed:

    1) It hinders the develop obedience.
    2) It may lead to unanticipated consequences like addictions and gate-opening, slippery slope, behaviour.

    Like both you and Matt are saying, it is useful for people to be able to communicate and understand more than just an obedience or slippery slope narrative. While you can have to much arbitrariness, having none can also be problematic. Arbitrariness can keep you looking for deeper understanding. It also structurally facilitates humility, in many people at least. The psychology of “slightly counter-intuitive” ideas is very rich here.

    But I think you captured a much more productive conversation with your distinction between (utilitarian) ethics and sin. That seems to really clarify issues.

  56. Clark, sin is nothing more than beliefs about bad behavior (or maybe neglectful behavior as in sin of omission) + some concept of god(s) who mandate such. You seem to be straining hard to make sin to be something more than than, but your points don’t seem too clear. You’re lamenting the loss of sin as if it is a general loss of morality (much as I hear from other LDS believers). Ex-Mormon nones like Dehlin don’t feel the need to condemn homosexuality as sinful anymore or call fornication and adultery second to murder anymore. So what? This doesn’t mean that they are these libertine, licentious, moral relativists.

  57. Matt I’ll probably drop it since I think I’ve said all there is to say. I just think you’re creating a false dichotomy where we either have relativism or mere bad behavior. You’re simply neglecting the issue of betrayal – either of a person or a group and reducing it to just an other act. But psychologically people just don’t think that way.

  58. Matt, that is a good summary of the question at hand. I’d suggest sin is certainly much more than

    belief about bad behaviour + supernatural mandates

    From what I understand, you can drop divinity and supernaturalness from the equation completely and you still get “sin”. This may be why an increasing number of people and academics classify racism, sexism, homophobia as de facto sins. Some people do this using your equation and interpreting any coherent group dogma as a moral “big brother”. This is Jordan Peterson’s gig. Other people do this by comparing behavioural dynamics and avoiding your equation all together. I think Jonathan Haidt and Scott Atran do this.

    As this conversation really shows, changes in what is and isn’t considered sin represents a very stark way to determine in-groups from out-groups. That is, after all, sin’s evolutionary function. Is it sin’s religious function? Certainly. But not exclusively.

    It’s just that overtime some people see some actions as only having an in-group out-group role. Because individuals and sub-sets can’t change a coherent moralized group, the only real option is migration, acceptance, or perpetual conflict. Like you say, this doesn’t make migrators bad nor moral relativists. It just reflects differences. This is why I think pluralism is so important and why I worry about societally, and/or legally, enforced “sin”. You need something to keep national level society together, but what that is, is a very hard question. Hyper-rational approaches, like humanistic based determinisms, are in practice, poorly suited for the challenge.

  59. Clark,

    The silver lining of this exchange is that it supports your claim that sin has been rendered incomprehensible.

    I think this leads to a different, but related question to the one you asked at the end of your original post:

    Given how fast that category is growing, this has, I think, large implications for how we do our missionary work. How do you get someone interested when the very idea of atonement is a negative?

    and also, the last part of your latest comment:

    You’re simply neglecting the issue of betrayal – either of a person or a group and reducing it to just an other act. But psychologically people just don’t think that way.

    I think that ultimately, these two things relate to one another. How do you get someone interested when someone doesn’t appear to even acknowledge the very *psychology* that the Christian model of sin and atonement requires?

    If people don’t think of betrayal as anything more than just bad behavior, is it because they are failing to acknowledge their own psychological reactions, or is it because people have different psychological responses to things like betrayal?

    If it’s the former, then couldn’t one just bring back the idea of sin by trying to get back to the psychology (even if people don’t connect that response with sin)? In other words, to address another comment you wrote, couldn’t there be a Christian and Mormon response to, say, racism and misogyny that rehighlights the importance of the Atonement? If it’s the latter, then that would certainly seem to be a bigger issue, right?

  60. I think that people react to betrayal in pretty predictable ways. It’s just that intellectually people often try to eliminate betrayal as a category. You see this pretty regularly in “rationalized ethics” where people intellectually reformulate ethics along some system of reasoning. I think if you look at someone like Ayn Rand and her life you can see this. People get their intellectually arrived at ideal ethics and then can’t understand why people, including themselves, don’t behave accordingly. Ultimately this is people intentionally putting blinders on and denying certain categories – particularly tied to fidelity. Fidelity to the group, fidelity to God, fidelity to abstractions, etc. – that’s why adultery and the marriage relationship is such a good example of this. People might earnestly convince themselves adultery is at best misbehavior or (if both parties agree) not an issue at all. However in practice people still feel betrayal, jealousy and so forth.

    To the problems of racism and misogyny (both in the world and in the church) I think the solution is the group. To the degree we see these people as one with us we abstain from such acts. It’s the creating of divides between us (making them really an other group) that’s usually the cause of these types of beliefs and actions. That not to say prohibitions and giving consequences isn’t helpful. But ultimately what we need is the golden rule which is an other way of saying we’re one. Ideally the spirit does this – but we’re all pretty good at blocking the spirit at times. I’m constantly shocked when I hear of people being told blatantly racist things in the temple – where the spirit should be strongest. That’s people whose habits are so strong that the unifying influence of the spirit is denied even there to enforce a kind of out-group act. Shunning.

    As to getting back to the missionary question. I don’t know. I think psychologically something like atonement is helpful and something like sin is just a description of how people actually behave. But if culturally we’ve convinced ourselves this doesn’t exist or that all that matters is obvious harm by one person to an other then it’s hard. One way is to reemphasize atonement to its healing aspect of taking away guilt. Most people feel bad about things they do. It’s not shame but related. That feeling of “letting go” when we repent is significant. It really does allow us to change our lives. But how pedagogically to communicate that in our culture – I’m glad I’m not the one who is in charge of the missionary program and has to do that.

  61. I have enjoyed reading this discussion. I am not a theologian, but am trying to think of sin in terms of a Protestant view to see how that measures up to the premise of the post. It’s difficult for me, with LDS background, to follow this line of thinking, however. There are also, of course, different views within Protestantism to take into account.

    Here is one Protestant view that is cited by a blogger: “We are justified when we simply believe in Christ, and nothing we do can un-save us after we’ve chosen to ‘believe’.”

    If we are viewing the general nature of belief in Christ’s saving power as a society, wouldn’t this view and it emphasis on ‘justification’ be much more common than the views cited in the Dehlin quote about “atonement’? In that vein, the terms ‘broken, bad, and fallen’ would not be as frequently associated in society where the once-saved-always-saved theology is pre-eminent. I think this view is most commonly held by American Christians who are less involved with organized religion.

    The same Protestant blogger cites in conjunction with that first quote: “When we say sin can separate us from God, we’re saying (by choosing to engage in sin) we’re more powerful than God – that His sacrifice was incomplete and insufficient.” That is the piece that I see as ‘going away’ when you say that there is a social change unfolding with the ‘loss of sin’. People are content to believe that they are more powerful than God, or that choosing to humble one’s self before a God is unnecessary to be “whole/fixed/good/saved/worthy/clean again”. Or, they can claim that looking to a standard to follow is harmful to those who are comfortable being separated from God.

  62. “You’re simply neglecting the issue of betrayal”

    That is where you beg the question. What does it mean to betray god especially when it is taught in the LDS church that there is repentance and forgiveness? Couldn’t you technically be a vile sinner (let’s say a promiscuous gay who smoked and drank) all your life and then repent in old age and stop being a promiscuous smoker and drinker and tell god sorry and because of the atonement everything would be cool? In LDS teachings, god appears to be far more forgiving that your average spouse, whom I couldn’t imagine tolerating years of secret adultery and then staying with you/taking you back because you said sorry.

    I gather from what you write that you are telling ex-Mormons and nones that how dare they reject Mormonism and Christianity, respectively. What I’m saying is that this so-called rejecting of the idea of sin 1) isn’t an excuse to just misbehave as you please/not a rejection of a morality and 2) isn’t a huge deal. So much of what the LDS church claims to be sin (masturbation, drinking coffee, buying things on Sunday, taking the Lord’s name in vain, etc.) seem so trivial. I know lots of people who do these things and they seem like very good people to me. I wouldn’t call them immoral or sinful people. Yet I know many hardcore believing LDS folks who base their lives around these trivialities so much that they freak out uncontrollably if they find out that a loved one (often an LDS parent in relation to a child whom they raised LDS) is doing something like drinking coffee. And if having a sip of coffee is betraying god, then I’m not so sure I want to believe in that god. I would hope that god considered general characters of people and their adherence to a strict set of minutiae.

    Now, I know you’ll write back and say that you are talking about something much deeper. But you have to realize that when LDS leaders talk about sin, they do give lists of things that they consider sins and transgressions, among them the seeming trivialities that I mention.

  63. Matt, again I think you’re making assumptions about sin and atonement that don’t fit. It’s not just saying sorry to take hold of the atonement, although that’s part of it. Rather it’s reconstituting a relationship. And that takes time.

    While I didn’t mention it above, I think “cheap grace” is as pernicious as defining down sin to mere ethics. In either case this flattening makes it hard to really understand what is going on.

    To the issue of what is or isn’t a sin, I suspect that’s the issue you really want to talk about. But that’s just not the topic I’m discussing. But I can completely understand why for someone who rejects the very notion of sin that what seem like trivial matters not explicable in an utilitarian calculus seem ridiculous to treat as sins or even ethical lapses.

  64. Clark, OK I’m not sure I follow what you mean by sin and atonement. Clearly, you interpret these concepts not only differently than I, but differently than how most LDS members and leaders interpret them. For many LDS, a sip of coffee is a sin that needs some repenting from and that keeps you from getting a temple recommend and into the celestial kingdom. And I think Dehlin is speaking to those types of LDS folks and maybe not your type. But in this regard, I commend Dehlin for addressing problems posed by the understanding of a much wider swath of LDS believers that does occasionally get undeservedly imposed on folks causing them a great amount of distress and even harm (especially when it comes to LGBTQ+ identity). For most LDS believers aren’t intellectuals (not to say that they aren’t smart or capable) and do not understand Mormonism against the backdrop of a deeper philosophical context like you do.

    The problem is that I don’t think your deeper message about sin and atonement is really getting across to the average believer, and for reasons that I pointed out earlier about intellectuals and intellectualism. You, chris g, and Kevin Christensen seem to speak a different language that you can understand and resonate with among yourselves, but one that isn’t too clear for the layperson. Even having an intellectual background myself, I can only kind of make out what you are trying to say. But the thing is is that I have a good idea of the motive behind much of what you write, which is not just to defend the LDS church and its teachings, but to defend your long-standing adherence to them. The repeatedly subtlety, vagueness, and arcaneness of your words make it so that you cannot be easily pinned-down by a critic or a dissenter, but they also make you difficult to understand and inaccessible to the average LDS believer, which is sort of problematic. In fact, I would argue that they make you inaccessible to non-LDS intellectuals and lay alike. Your audience is very narrow. You write just for other believing LDS intellectuals who have explored in-depth the reasons to doubt the LDS church but who have decided to remain active nonetheless.

  65. Kevin, I did enjoy parts of your book review and appreciate you opening up to share your own story. But throughout the review is this idea that people need to keep striving to stay within the LDS church and cannot find true happiness outside it, which I find very off-putting. I think that the LDS church was not a good fit for Gerald, Steven, and Emily and actually had a toxic effect on them. I think that Emily’s idea that an obscure passage “when the prophet speaks the thinking is done” pervaded the LDS church, while technically could have been better articulated, is correct in spirit. This idea had been around earlier, but has been very much felt throughout the LDS church for decades up until the present time. For a woman married to a gay man, this strongly pervasive sentiment in the LDS church (at membership and leadership levels) is extremely unhealthy. She had every reason to leave the LDS church and I am glad that she did. I think that she is happier outside it. On that note, no LGBTQ+ has any reason to stay in the LDS church. It is a harmful place for them.

  66. The Guide To The Scriptures on defines sin as “Willful disobedience to God’s commandments.” Words from which sin was translated scripturally referred to ‘missing the mark’. Billy Graham defined sin as “any thought or action that falls short of God’s will.” The OP stated that sin is the fundamental breaking of the relationship with God–which could be interpreted in the way that Billy Graham’s definition is, or you could say it is speaking to the ‘wages of sin’ which is spiritual death or separation from God.

    The conclusion of the OP is that some have come to consider the notion of sin–as prefaced as the fundamental breaking of the relationship with God–as evil. Billy Graham said, “God is perfect, and anything we do that falls short of His perfection is sin.” The ability to lead a sin-free life is not a mortal possibility. The perspective given in the example is that the expectation is set so high, that the inevitable repeated failure will lead to self loathing.

    The discussion has spent a lot of time on the ‘types of sin’ and arguing that because some sins are set by institutions rather than being biblical, they are Mosaic in nature, and can be justified as contributing to a toxic level of shame. Priestly celibacy for Catholics, vegetarian diet codes for Adventists, Silence during childbirth for Scientologists come to mind, as well of those pointed out that are uniquely LDS.

    I’m more interested in whether the premise could be applied to the major sins–pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. We hear lots of talks that the world is becoming more worldly every year, but has society evolved to declaring as evil the need to relate to Jesus Christ as the purchaser of righteousness and mediator of covenanted obedience for adherents resisting these major sins?

  67. Matt’s sentiment here really resonated with me:

    “And what if we were taught that we can self-heal and grow without the need for church affiliation, intermediaries (divine OR human), confession (to a man), paying money, or ultimately any sort of a shame-based dependency cycle?”

  68. Clark your words are too big and too hard. Please use small words thanks. But I see through your big words. You will not fool me with big words. I know all bout Mormon church cause I read X Mormon redt. Sin means coffee and gay and master thing. But coffee is good so sin is good. You are wrong.

  69. Matt,

    Again, I don’t think you’ve managed to wrap your head around what I was saying in Mormon Rashomon, but I do understand that the difficulty has to do with the paradigmatic models and expectations that you bring to your reading. We all carry controlling narratives in our heads that tell us how the world works. My essay asks a simple question, but it happens to go against the grain of the dominant social narrative, one re-enforced constantly in several quarters, so that makes it particularly difficult to process for those who rely on that dominant narrative to order and interpret the world. Alan Goff has written about how ideology works best when you don’t know that it is there. But I appreciate that you tried, even though you have overlooked passages that contradict your replies.

    Regarding Emily on “When a prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” and yourself on this being LDS teaching, consider the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth, a 9 Position scale in which the first two begin the assumption that in group authorities are the correct ones, and every one else is wrong. Because those are positions of human development, and Mormons are human, such attitudes will always be found and expressed by some Mormons. But it’s not the ideal for Mormon, not what has been explicitely taught as our highest and best aspiration. That is easy to show. (Hence the quotes in my essay, and several others over the decades). And pointing that out it is essential inn dealing with the pervasiveness. It should not be dismissed and covered as “snide” while ignoring the larger issues, any more than, pointing out to President Trump that the Philadephia Eagles never did ‘take a knee’, or that the Fox News picture of Eagles kneeling came not during the anthem, but a pregame prayer, or that Canada did not burn the White House in the War of 1812. The false information is such cases is not trivial, but has consequences if not called out. Emily uses it as part of a grievance story, for self justification, as leverage. “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can change my world view.”

    But that is only part of what I report on Emily’s story. Ever since I read Emily’s book, I have amazed at how little discussion it has received.
    “For example, Carol Lynn had Gerald promise that when Emily visited him in San Francisco that she would not be exposed to anything that she wouldn’t see in Walnut Creek. Readers of Dancing with Crazy learn that young Emily regularly saw much that was unhealthy for her personal development, including (from age 12) hardcore gay pornography stacked in Gerald’s apartment and displayed on the walls, as well as browsed during visits to shops, and publically acted out in the Castro street neighborhood.”

    “I wouldn’t allow myself to feel the discomfort and fear those conversations caused me. In order to steadfastly remain the perfect little daughter and the perfect little sponge, I had to suck it all up, and only blame myself if I wasn’t enough of whatever I was supposed to be in order to handle it all… I was around sex, told about sex, and philosophized to about sex so much that, at thirteen, when I should have been just waking up and coming alive sexually, I was already sick to death and deeply ashamed of it.”

    “Gerald, her father, introduced her to wine and later, at 15, marijuana. [8] Emily’s codependent relationship with her father was such that she did not tell her mother about these things.”

    Does that kind of behavior fall under the unassailable protection of “born that way,” and “To thine own self be true, and it follows as the night to day, then thou cans’t not be false to any man.” And never mind that Polonius demonstrates that his own self interest involves sending a man to spy on his son, on not asking troublesome questions about the succession to King Claudius, to forcing his daughter to spy on Hamlet, to hiding behind a curtain and pretending not to be there… and Hamlet, for instance, immediate begins lying to everyone about beings sane.

    Or is the question, “could sex addiction be a factor in behavior in individual cases?” so dangerous as to not even be allowed to surface?

    Regarding the way to happiness whether in or out of the LDS church, there is a reason I closed my Mormon Rashomon Essay with this:

    On leaving the LDS faith, Gerald, Steven and Emily talk about the stunning revelation that God is much bigger than the LDS church. This is important knowledge, something I believe and find worth embracing, but I came to the same insight within the Church many years ago. All I had to do was read the LDS scriptures and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith for myself. Alma explains that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). Nephi remarks that God “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3), Alma reports that God speaks not only to “men but women also (Alma 32:23), and Mormon explains how the light of Christ is given to all, and there are “divers ways that he did manifest things unto the children of men which were good” (Moroni 7:24).

    Joseph Smith explained that “We need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the Great Jehovah; He will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family; and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right.” [64]

  70. Matt I’ve tried to be pretty simple in my definitions so I’m not sure why you are having such trouble. The distinction between sins and sin in general is a pretty normal distinction. The latter in an LDS context is often described as the natural man or fighting against the spirit. There are other phrases GAs have used over the years. Likewise noting the difference between a transgression that is judged purely in terms of the ethics versus an act that also hurts a relationship is pretty straightforward. There’s simply a difference between kissing someone when you’re married versus not. The act is the same but the effects are not. The reason the effects are not is because of those relationships. If you can’t understand that I’m not sure what’s left to say.

    This talk by Pres. Nelson gets at the distinction. There he distinguishes between repentance in terms of repenting of a sin and the sense that is broader than the dictionary definition. This broader sense is changing in general and not just with regards to a particular action.

    to change our mind, knowledge, and spirit—even our breath. A prophet explained that such a change in one’s breath is to breathe with grateful acknowledgment of Him who grants each breath. King Benjamin said, “If ye should serve him who has created you … and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath … from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.”

    Yes, the Lord has commanded us to repent, to change our ways, to come unto Him, and be more like Him. This requires a total change. Alma so taught his son: “Learn wisdom in thy youth,” he said. “Learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God. … Let all thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord; yea, let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever.”

    In this sense atonement is bringing us back to one with God and sanctifying us through the spirit so that it’s not just ourselves that act, but God through us as we open ourselves up to the spirit and allow ourselves to change.

    This all is pretty basic LDS doctrine that gets taught in Primary and Sunday School. The metaphor of atonement that I like in the Book of Mormon is the idea of God always already having his arms outstretched to receive us if we’d just turn to him. Sin in this broader sense is turning away from God. Repentance is turning back to God and changing ourselves to be saints.

    Rigel, the nice thing about continuing revelation and prophets is that you don’t have to figure out what God wants based upon what texts survived past the first century. Obviously many Evangelicals who hold to the extra-Biblical idea of Biblical completeness disagree. But it’s nice to have a way to learn what was meant as a contextual directive versus more broad commandments (and how they interact with our modern contexts).

    Truckers, the way we heal is through Christ who empowers us. However to heal we must want to be healed which presupposes giving up the practice that is wounding us.

  71. What an important topic and what a powerful discussion. I’ve learned a lot by going through (most of) the reactions. So I hope I can add my two cents by (kind of) summarizing what I learned and knitting together ‘pieces of the puzzle’ that I picked up; even though much of the pieces came from a discussion that was in the atmosphere of ‘debate’ more than of ‘Socratic dialogue’. So I would like to try to point us all in the direction of finding solutions together and not further problematizing the matter or each of us riding their own hobby-horse (I don’t know if that translates well from Dutch, if it doesn’t I hope it’s funny at least).

    First I think we all acknowledge the social changes in our western societies that render the meaning of the concept of ‘sin’ less meaningful to some, and that within a certain set of assumptions the ‘fire-and-brimstone’/shaming use or meaning of sin can do more harm than good and hollows out the power and purpose of the great atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. One cent: Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in ‘A Secular Age’ points out a shift ‘from sin to sickness’, where vocabulary from the human- and health-sciences (mostly psychologic vocabulary) overtook the former religious vocabulary of sin. Quote:
    “These are two very different hermeneutics, two different ways of construing our current condition: the spiritual versus the therapeutic. The moral is transferred to a therapeutic register; in doing so we move from responsibility to victimhood.” “The therapeutic was meant to throw off the guilt and burden of spiritual responsibility, and hence the scowl of the clergy (…), “now we are forced to go to new experts, therapists, doctors, who exercise the kind of control that is appropriate over blind and compulsive mechanisms.” “In the name of freedom, we swap submission to the priest for submission to the therapist.” (As summarized by James Smith (2014) How (not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. p. 107.)

    Now I think part of the issue here is that in our societies – coming from religious background or not – it seems that no one wants to be shamed by anyone anymore or ‘submit’ themselves to the counsel of someone else. Nevertheless we seem more comfortable bearing our soul to a self-chosen (and paid) therapist, than opening up to our ecclesiastical leader who has keys/gift of discernment to really represent the Lord. If we believe the latter, really believe that Jesus trusts his disciples enough to give them revelation to counsel another one of his children through his (interpreted) words, that means we have the opportunity to confess/discuss our sins/transgressions/weaknesses with (a representative of) the Lord (which is part of the true meaning of priesthood). This takes great humility and maybe that is also overrun by a greater tendency to pride in our day and age. For Socrates, the only way to break someone’s pride, was to shame him – in a sensitive pedagogic manner – to acknowledge he didn’t really know as much as he thought. Then someone was ready to build up one’s knowledge again to a greater understanding. In this way, with this pedagogic sensitivity in a relationship of trust, shame is a very fruitful moral emotion that we also seemed to have lost, along with trustful relationships to a pedagogue or teacher/master.

    Two cent: Another solution can be found in truly understanding our relationship to God regarding sin/transgression/weakness. Hans gave us the scriptures to understand these differing concepts and I think that if we teach those more clearly – in a missionary context or any other context – we help everyone to better understand their relationship to their God and how to move closer to him and growing in faith and spiritual power, rather that moving away from him and growing in pride and ‘trust in the flesh’. If there are eternal principles, that also God obeys, along which we can spiritually progress or degress, and God has pointed those principles out to us through his prophets and others, we should be humble enough to want to learn them, line upon line. If we accept that falling and getting up are part of that learning process, that God – the Master pedagogue – even intended mortal life for this purpose, we should accept that we are shamed from time to time, only to emerge stronger after the learning experience.

    So yes, the ONLY issue here is if we keep close to God during that learning process or if we distance ourselves from him. It’s the relationship to God that determines ‘sin’ as Clark teaches us, and if we are in opposition to God (pride) while choosing our actions as Hans explained, or – as the scriptures teach us – if we ‘love Satan more than God’ (Moses 5:13 and following) or when we ‘undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride’ (D&C 121:37). Transgressing is also a moral choice, flowing from the dilemma of following a higher or lesser law. But this too is a learning process laid before us to move up in our stages of faith, as we mimic in the temple (lower and higher laws/priesthoods that we can choose to obey out of our own free will). Then weakness – which comes closest to Taylor’s idea of sickness – is something we ‘have’ (or have been given or inherited maybe) and that may ‘overcome’ us. Through weakness we may do things that go against eternal principles and learn the consequences of those choices. Then… we have a choice. We know now – by experience – ‘the law on which it was predicated’, and can now those to repent and try to grow out of the weakness and seek and follow a higher law (and Christ is more than willing to aid us in turning that weakness into a strength by showing us the higher law); or we can choose to settle with the lower law and maintain our weakness (maybe because most people around us take pride in that weakness or behavior). The latter can – over time – turn into sin, where we willfully go against God’s will / eternal laws, and start to follow the path that moves away from our loving and pedagogical relationship with our Father and his Son whom He has sent and with his trusted disciples who may represent him (and that can include everyone from parents, friends, a brother or sister in church, a therapist).

    Yes we can avoid shame and just feel guilty on our own, but that has never made anyone feel much better on the long run. Shame can only arise if we open up to others, if they ‘see us’, if we are ‘naked’ before them. But God has given us each other, a community, to bear these burdens together, for we are all naked before him. So if we stop ‘covering up’ and hiding, but instead accept loving guidance and move up through higher laws, we will be like Him when we’ll meet again.

    My excuses that I didn’t have time to put this more briefly and thanks to everybody for opening my eyes more fully to understanding the purpose and power of the atonement and the ‘tools’ that have been given us to progress spiritually.

  72. Clark, the problem with the analogy of kissing someone while you’re married is that a marital relationship is a very tangible thing that people who are married can relate to, while a relationship with god is not. What a relationship with god is supposed to be is completely subjective and varies from culture to culture. I could very well smoke, drink, regularly masturbate to porn, and commit a lot of what Mormons regard to be grave sins that impede a relationship with god and still feel like I have a great relationship with god. While there are many married who kiss other women with their wives being OK with it, this is not the norm across cultures.

    “The distinction between sins and sin in general is a pretty normal distinction”

    What is sin if not the sum of all of one’s sins? I see no distinction.

    What Nelson is putting forward is the all-to-common ‘you’re never enough’ gospel that one of the driving forces behind Mormonism, which Dehlin is inveighing against. His words work like a charm on people who already believe Mormonism and yearn so much to what they think is a good relationship with god. He claims that people are impure by nature and have to be in a constant state of trying to change themselves and attach themselves even more firmly to the LDS church. The product: people who freak out uncontrollably if they find out that a loved one occasionally looks at porn or has a sip of alcohol. A pernicious shame culture that intensifies scrupulosity tendencies among people with OCD and makes life a living hell for LGBTQ+ orientations or people with higher sex drives who are more prone to regular masturbation. Too many LDS folks think that they are sex addicts over behavior that is considered normal and healthy outside the LDS church.

    “Sin in this broader sense is turning away from God”

    Completely subjective. There are thousands of concepts of god each with all sorts of different demands for humans. Again, your argument about sin begs the question.

  73. Just thinking…

    I figure you might write back arguing that sin is relational to god because of a covenant that is made. That it doesn’t matter so much what the actual sins are but that you promised not to do them. This doesn’t make sin different from sins either. It is still the institution defining not just what the sins are but also the what the actual nature of god and the covenants are.

    You also have to realize that LDS atonement theology can cut both ways. It can make it so that people always feel impure, never enough, and needing to fastidiously adhere to the LDS teachings. But it also places strong emphasis on forgiveness and repentance thus making it possible for Joseph Bishop to rape a missionary in the MTC basement as president of the MTC and still not be properly disciplined/excommunicated by the LDS church because he asked forgiveness. In other words, people can commit heinous acts and be forgiven and accepted in the LDS community. It is quite bizarre. You get beaten up for occasionally masturbating to porn, but you rape someone and confess and repent and hey, it’s OK, we’re all human.

  74. Richard I think you’re right and that is definitely something Taylor notices and describes well.

    Matt to say it is the institution and not God is somewhat question begging. My sense is that ultimately your real question is the epistemology of how one knows if a particular act is a sin. From a Mormon perspective that’s not really upon the institution is for the individual to discover by direct conversation with God.

    To your claims about atonement leading people to feeling never good enough, I’d say that’s always a misunderstanding of atonement. Again, I suspect you’re real questions here would also be epistemological. (How we know) Underneath your rejoinders is the assumption we can’t really know.

  75. Quoting Matt. L: “I could very well smoke, drink, regularly masturbate to porn, and commit a lot of what Mormons regard to be grave sins that impede a relationship with god and still feel like I have a great relationship with god.”

    I can testify to that, for I am a ‘convert’ as they say, and God (with a capital G) reached out to me in a period of my life when all of these ‘sins’ were still a major part of my daily behavior. Only, they were not sins (we keep getting the definitions wrong dear people, if we straighten this out, the conversation will progress more constructively). Why was I not sinful? I didn’t even have a relationship to God, I didn’t know God, neither had I learned about his laws or commandments. (Moroni 8:20-26 or D&C 29:46-50) I was living according to different (lower) laws, but I didn’t know any higher laws then, so I even transgressed unknowingly. And I had a great many weaknesses built up from my youth, mimicking what I saw others do and regarded it as ‘normal’, so I didn’t even see them as weaknesses (heck, it was a ‘game’ who could hold his liquor best or who could get the hottest girl).

    Still, as soon as I turned to God, facing his direction so to say, or started out on the road home (like the prodigal son), God came running to me. God visited me just where I was, like Jesus who visited the rejected and downtrodden, entered the homes of prostitutes and publicans, and touched lepers while being a Rabbi. I also had the most intense revelations of my life during that time, through which God showed himself to me, helping me to get to know him, feel his love, so our relationship could start to grow. And how did I love him back! Do you think I would have changed so much, if it wasn’t for the love I felt for God, my Father and later for my Savior (as I started to understand his role in the Gospel-plan)? I studied and ‘investigated’ Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and finally Christianity. You find these principles of self-disciplining and progressing in wisdom and understanding of higher laws in all of them. It is basic spirituality. It applies also to humanistic concepts of ars vivendi, even to martial arts and other sports (or other vitality-values in our secular age). Coming closer to a knowledge of God (or truth or enlightenment, the concepts are interchangeable), requires humble learning and sacrifice => first of behavior, then of convictions, then of character, then the sacrifice of all one is, only afterward to be built up again to one’s full potential and pure self. This is something hard, but at the same time very beautiful…and something very very real!

    Another quote from Matt’s entry: “He (Pr. Nelson) claims that people are impure by nature and have to be in a constant state of trying to change themselves and attach themselves even more firmly to the LDS church. The product: people who freak out uncontrollably if they find out that a loved one occasionally looks at porn or has a sip of alcohol. A pernicious shame culture that intensifies scrupulosity tendencies (…).” Do you FEEL the contrast in what I just described from my lived-through experience and this (somewhat cynical) portrayal of the Gospel-plan? If you Matt – or anyone – does not feel that, you’re probably ‘past feeling’. I cannot help but feel the hurt feelings between the lines of your words, and you most likely represent the hurt feelings of many more who have suffered from a misguided shame-culture. You’re right, I’m not denying the perniciousness of the ‘hell-and-brimstone’-sin culture, I’ve learned about it very deeply from my mother who in her teen years was forced to confess her ‘sins’ weekly. In contrast to that, the Mormon shame-‘culture’ is peanuts. So again I would like to ask all, and especially you Matt with your experiences, to constructively look for a solution to eradicate the bad aspects of shame-culture and steer towards a healthy sensitive-caring-shame-pedagogy that benefits everybody.

    But in order to do that I would like to make a huge correction here: in Mormon theology, man is NOT “impure by nature”. That is early church father teaching by Augustine and Origen (read Bruce Hafen’s articles about that, very liberating!); that is what my mother grew up believing; that is what plunged western society into its darkest ages. Renaissance humanism took the other extreme: man is purely good in nature. The middle ground and true standpoint is that man is neutral, and through his choices in mortality becomes either ‘carnal and sinful’ or ‘sanctified and pure’. (Moses 6:49-57 and Mosiah 27;25-26) This is even beyond religion, it is universal principle (again, concepts are interchangeable). Matt talks about church and culture and not very christlike responses by family- and church members. Yes, these exist, and it is hurting people, and we can feel deep grief about that. But we throw away the baby with the bathwater if we say that the Gospel-plan and the atonement are not real or not working. And yes, that plan IS that we came here for a life-long leaning experience “and attach ourselves more firmly to” God and one another, in love. If you – or anyone – doesn’t feel that love anymore, please double check your rhetoric in all humility and realize you might have been ‘looking beyond the mark’, and re-open your heart to that love. I say this from the greatest concern and brotherly love, and from real-life experience. But don’t take my word for it, test it out, and turn to God…He’s there.

  76. “From a Mormon perspective that’s not really upon the institution is for the individual to discover by direct conversation with God”

    So something like: “Dearest Bishop, I love and support you, the LDS church leaders, and the gospel. But God told me in a revelation that I could have sex with women who are not my wife and that it was healthy for me. I believe everything the LDS church says and will do everything except for abstain from extramarital affairs. Now give me that temple recommend.” Sorry, Clark, that’s not going to fly (and yes, I’ve heard stories of LDS men claiming that god told them to take other wives and reinstitute plural marriage). What is considered to be sinful or not is determined by prevailing cultural norms on which LDS leaders’ words have a huge impact.

    “your real question is the epistemology”

    Sort of. I have a sense of how people claim to know what is right and wrong. My real issue is that you seem to be calling Dehlin and others who reject the notion of the LDS concept of sin as moral relativists. I know that you say you don’t, but you keep coming off like you do.


    “So again I would like to ask all, and especially you Matt with your experiences, to constructively look for a solution to eradicate the bad aspects of shame-culture”

    That’s noble Richard. But the burden rests upon the shoulders of the LDS leaders to do this first and foremost. They are huge contributors to this culture and continue to foster it strongly. In their minds, it is what keeps the members active and paying. Consider writing them a letter.

    “But don’t take my word for it, test it out, and turn to God…He’s there,” says a believer of just about every religion.

  77. Matt

    I assumed you were a believer also.

    And actually, in my 7 years as a Famliy Services Addiction recovery (general and pornography) group leader and stake coordinator, I have written letters to ward and stake leaders with exactly that purpose! I have also written letters concerning help with faith crises. I could translate my letter into English and adapt it to the American/Utah culture to address this issue. Would you be wiling to give feedback on my letter to maximize its effect?

    You know that now I’m asking you (and maybe others) to start building up the church again, instead of trying to criticise and break it down (think of Alma and the sons of Mosiah). Marvellous things will happen, hearts softened and relations restored as you do.

  78. Matt, obviously not all purported communications are real communications. Thus the importance of finding out if something truly is from God. Which again is why I think this is an issue of epistemology. As to relativism, I honestly can’t quite figure out why you keep raising that. Nothing I’ve said remotely comes close to relativism.

  79. I took a look at google’s word frequency tool for both sin and atonement. The big usage drop came between 1820 and 1940 with only modest changes in frequency since then. The early days of the church were as high point with an increase from 1800 to the 1820’s.
    The difference may be in the long lag time between a drop in word use and the sociological consequences of that word use.

  80. Clark and Matt L, I enjoyed your back and forth. Clark, I see where Matt is coming from and wanted to see if I could frame what I believe his point to be in a different way.

    In addition to pushing back against those who would rather get away from the idea of “sin” all together, would you agree that you would also need to push back against the current understanding of sin? When we teach about sin in the church, we generally talk about sins. And there are a long list of things that are sinful. From the old missionary discussions, “we sin when we know the will of God and don’t do it” (sorry, that’s a translation from the french, I don’t know what the actual quote is in english :)). Then we have a list of things that are evidently God’s laws, even if no justification is given and some have changed over time. For example: word of wisdom content vs. implementation and how that changed over time, tithing and its implementation, sabbath day observance, proper attire/grooming, etc. And a lot about sexual sin, even in the context of two consenting adults who are breaking no covenants or contracts. If your definition of sin is something that fractures our relationship with God, it is unclear why many (most? all?) of these things would fit in that category. You state that it should be more personal than that. That’s fine if you believe that, but that’s not what the church teaches. We focus heavily on lists of do’s and do not’s and when we inevitably fall short, there is a lot of shame associated with it. Which, in my experience, can frequently lead to *more* sinful behavior, not less.

    So in a way, you and Dehlin are really just trying to redefine sin in a more healthy way, Dehlin just doesn’t use the word sin any more. And with all of the cultural baggage around it, I personally think that might be the way to go. Because when we use the word sin in the church (or in Christianity as a whole), I think most people think of the list of things they shouldn’t do, they aren’t focusing on how their actions affect their relationship with God.

    If we use the more specific definition of sin that Dehlin uses, and that I would argue is what most people in the church mean when they talk about sin, would you agree that it can be very harmful and leads to shame and dependency, rather than personal growth towards a more whole, Christ-like person? If so, I think you would agree that the concept of sin, at the very least, needs to be redefined in the church today.

  81. Thanks, Doug. It is nice to get a different perspective that is sympathetic to mine, but one that approaches the issue from a different angle.

    Clark, again, the statements “Loss of Sin” and “sin is really just a myth” come across as accusing nones as relativists. Yes, I know you’ve claimed multiple times that you aren’t saying that, but the OP could be worded a bit better. Plus, I might add, that it is very common for people of traditional religious faiths to criticize the nones for being moral relativists and to claim that their particular faith is justified because it provides a moral structure about life that none-ism simply does not (“what would keep you from murdering someone” is a common trope heard from people of faith attacking the nones). Much of what drove me to Mormonism for so many years was the idea that there was this big bad world out there where people committed all of these sins and that I had to cling firmly to Mormonism for fear of being washed away in some sinful worldly culture that would only bring me pain. As my interactions increased with this so-called world, I realized that people really aren’t as bad as the LDS culture is making them out to be. Also, so much of my Mormon experience was debates about what constitutes crossing a particular line. Is such-and-such a movie too bad to watch, is drinking Coke OK, is some physical activity with a girl (while single) going too far? Sin really is conceptualized in much of the Mormon world as a bunch of do nots. LDS folks pride themselves regularly in not ever doing something once (“not even once”) as if God is going to beat them over the head for taking a sip of coffee or watching an R-rated movie and evaluate their relationship with God on the basis of themselves abstaining from a particular kind of activity. Dehlin, to me, is speaking very plainly and clearly as if to a common person who holds the conventional Mormon attitude toward sin. His audience in this particular instance isn’t nuanced believing Mormon intellectuals, but former Mormons who used to be common believers. I really think that you need to take that into consideration. You’re speaking of a much higher level understanding of atonement and sin that I really don’t think most LDS folks, nor their critics, have in mind. To them, sin is ethics, it doesn’t speak to one’s general character.

    From the perspective of the nones, most seem to view the religious view of morality as a bunch of do nots, and arbitrary do nots at that, particularly Mormonism. Ex-Mormons regularly mock the absurdity of things like the Word of Wisdom and the dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s that is so common in Mormon culture.

    Lastly, I think that it requires a lot of squinting and mental straining to pull from the body of Mormon discourse, from leaders and members alike, the more sophisticated and deeper meaning of atonement and sin that you are proposing. In the end, I find your thoughts so nuanced and sophisticated that they seem to fall outside common Mormon thought.

  82. Doug & Matt, I don’t think the Church only talks about sin in terms of sins. It’s true they talk about sins and obedience but that’s not all they talk about. Particularly relative to the atonement, sanctification and justification.

    To your other points, again it’s just a debate about what sins are actually sins. But then you have to ask well how do we know what is or isn’t a sin. Matt clearly has strong skepticism about the traditional emphasis in the Church, but the question is upon what basis. I’ll confess I’m pretty skeptical that Dehlin has greater insight here. But that again gets into the question of ethics. The problem with ethics though is that it can’t be easily reduced to questions of short term shame or harm. Further ethics, as I said, isn’t the same as sin. As I said it’s quite hard for me to see drinking coffee as remotely an ethical issue except to the extent I’ve been asked to do it by God. But the fact is not all directives are ethical in any straightforward way. So before we can even start to have the discussion we have to get straight what it is we’re even talking about.

    Now is Dehlin trying to “redefine sin in a more healthy way”? Yes, I think he thinks he’s doing that although he’s abandoning the term. Am I? I don’t think so. Rather I’m just emphasizing that this attempt culturally to change the topic away from sin fundamentally loses something important that’s been part of Christianity (not just Mormonism).

    To the point about Nones, I think you’re right. Although I think that’s a problem of how religion, particularly conservative religions like Mormonism, Islam, orthodox Judaism, and Evangelicalism, tend to talk about these things. I do agree that the way we at Church often discuss these things, particularly for young women and men, is counterproductive. That’s more a pedagogy question though really far removed from what I was talking about. (I also think that superficial focus on lines tends to be more common in the broader Utah region where there are lots of Mormons than out of it – it’s signaling virtual vs. being virtuous.)

    As for what I’m saying about atonement and sin, sorry, this is just pretty mainstream stuff. Particularly emphasized in the Book of Mormon. Nothing controversial at all and stuff regularly covered in General Conference. I gave you one link but there are tons. More or less the phenomena I’m getting at is how one loses the spirit when one sins until one repents. Now I will admit that sometimes the Church emphasizes sin as debt. (The Gospel Principles manual unfortunately does this with Elder Packer’s bicycle example — but that’s not the only way or even the principle way it’s taught) Again just looking at recent talks by Elder Uchdorf, Christofferson, Nelson or others shows the emphasis of a relationship with God through grace which empowers us through the spirit.

  83. Let’s take the recent fireside with Pres. Nelson as an example. In it, he encouraged youth to hand out For the Strength of Youth pamphlets to their friends. That pamphlet is a pretty good demonstration of what we’re claiming the church teaches. The primary message on sin isn’t just your relationship with God and you figure out the details. They give us long lists of what we should and shouldn’t do.

    So yes, you might be able to make a case that the church teaches that sin “is a fundamental breaking of that relationship” [our relationship with God, quoted from your OP]. However, the implementation of that is a long list of things you should/shouldn’t do. And it’s hard to interpret many of them as fundamental. Drinking coffee causes a fundamental rupture in my relationship with God? That’s a pretty weak relationship then. And the case that God even asks us to make that promise is very very weak (as I’m sure you’re aware). When we get caught up in trivial external behaviors that we use to bludgeon each other (and ourselves) with, I think we’ve gone off the rails.

    All that being said, I do think the concept of sin CAN be useful if we reclaim it, but you have to make that counter argument in my opinion if you want to respond to Dehlin’s claims. For example, I really like Adam Miller’s thoughts that we sin when we cut ourselves off from the grace of God which is always freely available. That, to me, is a fundamental fracturing of my relationship with God. And viewing sin and repentance from that angle is much less shame inducing. Repentance becomes about repairing the relationship, accepting the grace that God has always and will always extend. How or if the atonement enables that grace, I really don’t know, but that’s a message I could get behind.

  84. And it’s hard to interpret many of them as fundamental. Drinking coffee causes a fundamental rupture in my relationship with God? That’s a pretty weak relationship then. – Matt

    Here are a couple of ways to view this question.

    1. Some level of obedience to rather arbitrary requirements is useful in and of itself. In other words, not being able to follow something arbitrary is a signal.
    Why? Who knows. Maybe because some arbitrariness is always inherit in any group endeavour? Or, perhaps, some level of arbitrariness is part of nature herself?

    2. Maybe somethings are just considered exceedingly gauche in some types of company? Thus the type of action you describe is just a behavioural norm break. Don’t purposefully do things that annoy your wife. Don’t purposefully do things that may annoy God. A very Pagan perspective.

    3. Some slopes are slippery. While some things are only wrong in an arbitrary sense like you mention, they may also (for some % of the population) enable other behaviour which may not be as benign in terms of individual or group development. As other people have mentioned, in the church, obedience is often viewed from a slippery slope frame.

    4. We just don’t have a 100% knowledge about what specific things may or may not hinder different aspects of our personal or group development.

    Personally, I tend to view #1 as the most sensical.
    #3 also makes sense, although there are very reasonable arguments to counter this. Rebuttals always seem to involve #4. This makes for some very slippery targets (which I suspect most people have experienced).

  85. And I should add, if it isn’t already apparent, that I view many of the arbitrary or “obedience” sins being discussed as fundamentally inseparable from group dynamics. You can’t separate out what is optimal for one person – say enjoying coffee, or having low stress “sin” boundaries – from group issues. Well, you can, but the type of group you end up with, ends up being very different…

    And this is where the conversations between traditional new atheists like Sam Harris and the Intellectual Dark Web’ers like the Weinstein brothers, Jonathan Haidt and even Jordan Peterson end up being so interesting. What factors are at play when rational-choice* individualism aggregates up into group level stuff? Especially when groups constantly struggle and compete with each other?

    And while I should leave things there, let me end by saying that rational-choice individualism looks great on paper. Everyone pick what works best for yourself and don’t get bogged down by external arbitrariness.

    But, to what extent is it a utopian ideal that only works when group annihilation isn’t a concern? Can you cohere a nation state with it? For how long? Can you ever prevent arbitrariness from re-emerging**? How do you keep fascist oppressors with greater coherence power from annihilating you? Those are the questions I find really really interesting. Thus the calculus isn’t just about what works well in the short term, or for individuals, but what works well in the long-term, and for groups.

    *By rational-choice individualism I mean pro-social ethics of a libertarian bent. The ~ Matt, Doug, Dehlin position. Basically the idea that arbitrary “sins”, which only have negative effects by group ascription (say coffee), are not in fact any type of real wrong. And that real wrongs are functionally determined by personal development hinderances or by things which negatively effect a non-consenting other (and hence limit your own environment by destroying social and civilizational structures). In other words, Sam Harris ethics. I think Harris has used the term rational progressivism or rational humanism a few times… I just couldn’t fit a description into the original paragraph without things getting hopelessly confusing.

    ** I’ll also add that I fully accede that “arbitrary” sins create potentially unnecessary conflict between groups. Especially in weakly pluralistic societies. For example, the 100 years war was facilitated by overly strong arbitrary lines. The question is where is a good balance? Matt & Doug make a good case for religious levels of arbitrariness to catch up to societal times – arbitrariness should be minimized. The rule of law is strong enough that atheistic countries flourish. You don’t need religion for this (at least in rule of law nations). I’d just add that the rise of nationalistic popularism and nation state balkanization also show that this case isn’t open and shut here. People are groupish animals – of a very particular sort.

  86. Chris g, interesting thoughts. Thanks for the discussion and explanatory comments at the end :). You bring up good points regarding the tension between individual choice and group dynamics. I agree with you that to belonging to a group usually (always?) requires adherence to arbitrary standards or action to some degree. Getting back to the idea of sin though and how what our church teaches problematizes the idea: it’s fine with me if certain groups have dietary codes that must be followed to belong. Heck, in some circles being vegan or gluten free is almost a requirement. However, when breaking the norms not only results in friction with the group but you are told that your actions literally caused GOD to suffer and bleed, and that the universe demanded his blood sacrifice to make up for breaking these arbitrary rules, then you’ve gone a little over the top towards the shame and dependency cycle. :) Your thoughts?

  87. Doug, I think you hit the nail on the head in a lot of places.
    -arbitrary vegan / gluten norms
    -causing God to suffer.

    I think the latter is a really bad way to look at the atonement. That type of view can easily tend to the level of ascetic extremism. That’s why I like Clark’s relationship perspective. The atonement is mainly about whether a relationship an be healed. The pain of Jesus’ part was his working through this. Can I, Jesus, accept a spouse that cheated on me? Can I accept x, y z?

    I think some of the personalization language (I caused God to suffer) probably emerges from attempts to get more buy in and action on people’s part. I’d also suspect there are some very natural tendencies pushing memes this way too.

    In general, as people seem to be mentioning, the issue seems to be one of balance. How much can I do on my own? How much can be done via more religious avenues?

    And I really enjoy the psychological literature here. How do you explain the seemingly real effects of Alcoholic Anonymous processes (ones that are minimally religious)? The seemingly real effects of placebos, etc? Coming to grips with the rationality of the “irrational” aspects of our nature is just really interesting.

  88. Doug: Drinking coffee causes a fundamental rupture in my relationship with God? That’s a pretty weak relationship then. And the case that God even asks us to make that promise is very very weak (as I’m sure you’re aware).

    I’m curious as to why you think the idea that God asks us this is weak. Again that gets back into the epistemological questions again.

    However I’m more curious as to why you think this rupture is a problem. I get the epistemological skepticism that religion has any knowledge of God’s will. Obviously I don’t share that, but I at least understand it. Yet examples from our common everyday experiences suggest that, beyond the epistemological issues, this really isn’t that novel. Say my wife asks me not to do something and asks sincerely saying it’s important to her. Then say I ignore her and do it anyway. Do you really think in most relationships that wouldn’t cause a rupture?

    Now perhaps you’re really asking why God, if he’s so powerful, would let minor things cause ruptures. However if we buy into the basic Mormon theodicy that this life is a kind of training ground to educate us in ways we couldn’t when we were in heaven due to our proximity to God, then I think these things make sense. Many of the prohibitions in the Law of Moses become more comprehensible if God is trying to teach us to have a relationship with him and trust in him within the midst of our ignorance and the temptations of society. Again I get those who want to reduce this all down to ethics and mere “being nice.” However if life is indeed about learning, I just can’t see that as sufficient. One might argue why it’s not relevant for everyone but to reject it out of hand seems difficult to accept.

    This is all separate from the fundamental psychological issues of group membership due to our evolutionary history that Chris brings up. (And I fully agree with Chris, I just want to point out that there’s quite potentially much more going on) Now Matt might at this point object to the jargon that group dynamics discussions bring in. But if we want to understand this more evolutionary aspect of what’s going on I’m not sure we can avoid dealing with that more academic analysis.

    Chris & Matt. The issue of suffering and the atonement is always a tricky one. I think Chris is right that to a certain extent this (like fire and brimstone preaching) is primarily designed, if only unconsciously, to provide buy in and group cohesion. Yet at the same time I just don’t think Mormons deny in the least a gradation of seriousness. Maybe swearing is wrong, perhaps somewhat for ethical reasons but also group and relationship reasons. Yet I also don’t think anyone would say swearing is as wrong as murder for instance. Usually when the suffering of Christ is brought up, it’s precisely because of the significant consequences on people particularly from forms of abuse. Yet even with regards to acts that primarily are about self-harm (say the consequences of drug abuse) there usually are significant harms to families and family cohesion. The stress and pain on a parent of a child who is living a lifestyle that harms that child can’t be neglected. My sense is that those harms are simply downplayed by some in an inappropriate manner.

    As I said, I’m not sure the debt/penal model of atonement is correct for various reasons. I understand why it is taught pedagogically as a way of introducing the idea of sin. I’d just again repeat that this isn’t the only way the atonement is taught – particularly in the scriptures. Further I’ve never heard taught the idea that sin is bad because I’m causing Christ to suffer. I know some believe that but I just have never heard it taught in church. Further even if the penal metaphor of atonement was perhaps overemphasized in the era from the 60’s through 90’s it’s just not now. Particularly in the last 20 years the other aspects of atonement, especially grace and spirit, have been emphasized far more. I’d certainly agree that our manuals could use a lot of improvement. However if we use general conference as our primary guide for how these are taught socially, I’m not sure I buy the idea that the penal model of atonement with an emphasis on Christ’s suffering for particular sins is the Church’s emphasis. I recognize that Matt and to a degree Doug say that. But I’m not sure I buy it. (Which isn’t to say particular members might not emphasize this – but I’m now speaking of the Church in general)

  89. Clark, yes LDS leaders talk about sin and atonement as a deeper relationship with God, but emphasis on seemingly arbitrary details still takes primacy. They frame atonement and sin in a way that leaves members wanting to know details about the dos and do nots and structure membership tests around these. Consider Elder Bednar’s 2006 BYU devotional entitle “Quick to Observe” ( in which he tells the story of a man who refuses to marry a woman he was dating because she wore more than one pair of earrings. Bednar claims commends the man because he noticed that the woman was not quick to observe President Hinckley’s discouragement of more than one pair of earrings. He then tried to claim that it wasn’t about the earrings, but rather unconvincingly. What was it after all that gave the man the impression that the woman was not quick to observe? The earrings. What was the example that Elder Bednar used of not being quick to observe? The earrings. It was about the earrings.

    As for coffee, it is a similar sort of situation. It isn’t about the principal of good health, it is about adhering to arbitrary rules. A person can obtain a temple recommend and drink energy drinks to an unhealthy extent (for these are simply discouraged, but not forbidden). But someone cannot obtain one if they drink coffee or certain types of tea. I don’t know how many stories I have heard about someone not being able to get baptized or get a temple recommend because of tea or coffee. Why can’t these be demoted from forbidden to just discouraged? Because at the end of the day, the LDS leaders do obsess about litmus tests and arbitrary rules. The leaders know darn well that the members do obsess about these things, and they prefer it that way, for it increases group attachment. Mormonism flourishes with tribalistic impulses and virtue signaling. But the leaders, being very savvy, deft maneuverers, throw a bone to the intellectual Mormons who question the validity of arbitrary rules and tell them that there is some deeper principal behind these rules and may even occasionally caution the masses (though they don’t want to too much for fear of offending what is the very backbone of the LDS congregations).

    Back to Dehlin’s point of unnecessary guilt. It is one thing if you like to drink coffee, but a whole ‘nother thing if you are LGBTQ+ or OCD (which you haven’t addressed, why not? Because it is too touchy of a subject and you know that you are on the losing side in trying to defend the LDS church vis-a-vis LGBTQ+ issues?). And knowing Dehlin, this is a huge issue that drives much of what he writes and where the idea of unnecessary excessive guilt really has relevance. I interpret your tendency to go off on tangents as a dodge, and I have let you go on too far without calling it out. Enough smoke and mirrors.

  90. chris g, again you are all over the place (fascist oppressors? Seriously? Is this Godwin’s Law at play?) and so tangential that I’m not sure that I can connect your ideas to the main issues here (it is like you are trying to engage us in a nuanced discussion about nuance).
    I will address the issue of arbitrary rules, though. It appears you are saying that having arbitrary rules is good because it creates group attachment which propels groups to beat the odds in adverse environments. Maybe that could be true to some extent (I can think of all sorts of examples where this isn’t true and where arbitrary rules hold groups back, such as female genital mutilation). Yet, it is important to draw a line. At some point, these arbitrary rules could actually be harming people, such LGBTQ+s.

  91. Yet, it is important to draw a line. At some point, these arbitrary rules could actually be harming people,

    Yes, I certainly agree. You also have issues of how fast to change those lines. That ends up being a major issue in practice. That is where I think ‘rational choice individualism” (or whatever you want to call it) misses the boat.

  92. Matt certainly relative to sin, knowing what is or isn’t sinful is important. I’d say that ultimately members know via the spirit what’s appropriate or not. The directives in Church are usually vague and trying to get people to pay attention to issues they most typically are not. (Sexual morality, helping the poor, being kind and caring to family members, etc.)

    To your example I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. The idea is that we should want someone who is trying to stay in tune with the spirit and prophets. You are focusing only on how silly it sounds and missing what it signifies. Again I can completely understand that if one is just skeptical that a prophet knows anything. However in context I think you’re completely missing what is significant about these things. (This is I suspect less of an epistemological issue here than just wanting to only see things through the lens of ethics – as they say when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail) Since you want everything to be ethics (and presumably a particular unspoken probably consequentialist conception of ethics) then the arbitrary becomes something inherently wrong that ought be eliminated.

    I think we’ve done a good explaining why what appears arbitrary isn’t really that arbitrary. But again, perhaps because of the unspoken skepticism that we can know anything, you want only obvious harms to matter. Again that’s fine if you think that. But I just think it completely wrong. I think that because you only want to focus on that you see everything else as a dodge. But of course it’s only a dodge if these other issues don’t matter. Since I think they not only matter but are key for understanding the issue to me it’s anything but a dodge.

    At that point what’s left to say? Anything less that reforming sin into an ethics of obvious harm will be wrong to you. I certainly understand that. What’s fascinating to me is that you don’t appear to even understand the opposing view. Anything other than your view you see as dodges or the like. I’m not asking you to agree with me. But it seems like you just can’t fathom why someone would think differently from you. What’s most interesting to me is that you’re completely confirming the phenomena the original post was about. That is your position ends up being an example of what I was getting at: a rejection of the very notion of sin and an incomprehension that it even makes sense as a position. All that matters is an ethics of immediate harm. (I recognize that you desperately want to talk LGBT issue rather than the principles through which we could understand such issues. But of course if we don’t have sin but merely an ethics of obvious harm, then that issue is decided which is why I suspect you wish to shift to it.)

  93. fascist oppressors? Seriously? Is this Godwin’s Law at play – Matt

    Well, cultural evolution does deal fairly directly with these types of issues. It is how you have to understand group dynamics on long time scales. The idea of groups peacefully co-existing is not a very scientific perspective. This may involve physical violence, competition for members, or simple suppression of competing or break-away groups.

    Coming to grips with internal usurpation is absolutely essential to understanding group norm enforcement (which I believe is the topic being discussed in its relation to sin).

    While I certainly understand how you might consider these issues tangential and avoiding the question at hand, part of me wonders if that has anything to do with tendencies to follow well-tread well-prepared lines of argumentation? And I do appreciate that evolutionary thinking may come across as something out of the blue for people. It is just really hard to avoid in any meaningful question about group norms and group dynamics.

  94. Clark, I think one of the main disagreements is when you say that, “relative to sin, knowing what is or isn’t sinful is important. I’d say that ultimately members know via the spirit what’s appropriate or not. The directives in Church are usually vague and trying to get people to pay attention to issues they most typically are not.”

    In many cases, that is true. The church teaches honesty, integrity, etc., and we decide what that means. However, there are very notable exceptions to that which are both boundary markers for being in good standing in the church and can be very harmful to members. Homosexuality is a good example. The church taught as long as a couple decades ago (and promulgated by Boyd Packer this decade before being publicly corrected) that simply being homosexual is a sin. Let’s continue adding to the list: masturbation is sinful in any context, oral sex is wrong, more than one pair of earrings is sinful, dating before 16 is a sin. Shopping on Sunday is a sin, swearing is a sin, drinking coffee is a sin, using birth control is a sin, not paying tithing is a sin, watching rated R movies is a sin, wearing short shorts, sleeveless dresses, bikinis, etc, is a sin. Some of these things are no longer discussed as times change but these types of things are discussed ALL THE TIME in the church. Our sacrament meeting this last week focused on dating rules for teenagers.

    These things cause real harm. The suicide rate among all ages in Utah is 60% higher than the national average (from an April 2018 SL Trib article). My personal experience, and that of my wife, is one of feeling guilt and shame, particularly as teenagers, that have had long-lasting negative consequences. I know many, many other people who this was their primary relationship with the church.

    Regarding your question to me about the question of why I think the idea that God asks us not to drink coffee is weak: this one is pretty straightforward. The WoW text specifically says it is *not* a commandment. Coffee is not specifically identified in the text, just hot drinks. Medical understanding at the time was that any hot drink was harmful to health. Yes, I’m aware that Hyrum said it means coffee and tea, but there is other evidence that popular thought was that hot (or cold) drinks were harmful. The WoW specifically lists barley drinks as good (beer), we’re supposed to eat meat sparingly, etc, etc. So we don’t follow the WoW as canonized and have simply fetishized parts of it. And then somehow it morphs culturally into a requirement to participate in the highest church ordinances that neither Jesus nor Joseph Smith would have been “worthy” to participate in by that standard. So yeah, I’d say the idea that this is something required of God is pretty darn weak.

    Finally, you said, “Many of the prohibitions in the Law of Moses become more comprehensible if God is trying to teach us to have a relationship with him and trust in him within the midst of our ignorance and the temptations of society. Again I get those who want to reduce this all down to ethics and mere “being nice.” However if life is indeed about learning, I just can’t see that as sufficient.”

    Isn’t this *exactly* what Jesus did in Matthew 22:

    36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

    37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

    38 This is the first and great commandment.

    39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

    40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

    Seems pretty clear to me that Christ himself is boiling things down to whether or not they show our love to God or to our neighbor. And as I said before, I do think you could have an understanding of sin/atonement that doesn’t result in a shame cycle. And you can find those teachings in the church. It’s just not the dominant narrative in my opinion. If it were, I think we would see much fewer “sins” that have little rational behind why they are sinful aside from cultural norms and much more discussion of how we as members can figure things out for ourselves.

  95. Doug, I’m not talking merely about deciding what vague terms like “honest” means. Rather I’m talking about simply knowing by the spirit or feeling the spirit leaving when you do something bad. I think most Mormons already have a reasonable if somewhat general conception of what being good means. It’s the particular cases or hard cases where things get tricky. But even there I think many members just follow the spirit in what to do. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes (either through misinterpretation or weakness of will) just that I’m not convinced there’s huge indecisiveness.

    To the things you list, outside of a change to emphasize the distinction between inclination/nature and acts with respect to LGBT issues along with much more sermons against racism I just don’t see a huge change. We still get sermons on things like keeping the sabbath day holy, swearing and so forth. Birth control is a trickier issue since for decades the position has been that the couple should prayerfully decide this directly with God. That’s a bit of a difference from earlier rhetoric.

    Whether that means earlier rhetoric was wrong or just tied to a particular era I couldn’t say. And of course I fully accept that the Apostles as leaders may be using their best wisdom to give direction without that necessarily being told them by God. Whether to follow such directives then entails the thorny issue of deciding what is or isn’t of God and whether even flawed human decisions should be followed for the greater good of sustaining. I’m certainly not saying ever pronouncement by an LDS leader is inspired. We simply don’t have a theology of infallibility. However judging what is or isn’t of God in terms of an obvious harm principle also seems deeply flawed.

    Getting back to your critique I just don’t see shifts in directives to necessarily imply they were wrong. As Joseph said, the fact God told Noah to build an ark doesn’t mean we’re supposed to build an ark. I rather think many directives (such as the Word of Wisdom) are tied to particular times and places. So if you’re argument is that if the rules change that means they’re not of God seems a pretty weak argument. To say they’re just cultural norms (although I can’t quite tell if you’re going that far) seems an even weaker argument.

    To your final point I think you’re begging the question. No one denies ultimately it’s about loving God. The question is what that means. To assume that means what appears arbitrary doesn’t matter seems a huge leap. That’s why I gave the examples earlier of regular relationships like a spouse who asks you not to do something. Further as I said the Mormon theodicy entails learning to love God and be like him. So this life is ultimately oriented around teaching us things to do that which we couldn’t do in our prior state. That means that just like there are lots of arbitrary decisions and requests in a teaching environment, likely many things we experience here are oriented around that. If true (and I recognize Matt might deny this premise) then that just again means that reducing sin to an ethics of obvious harm fails since the judgment isn’t merely about harm but about that learning and developing of a relationship with God.

    I get what you’re ultimately arguing – that particular sins considered as sins by the Church shouldn’t be considered as sin. My only response is that if the “obvious harm principle” is false, then that makes deciding what is or isn’t a correct teaching tricky. That’s why I kept saying to Matt that the issue is ultimately epistemology. I’m just very, very skeptical that because some people feel shame for oral sex as teens that someone oral sex with someone who isn’t your spouse is somehow OK. That’s just an extremely weak argument as I see it. Being a fallibilist I’m certainly open to being wrong about some commandments. I just find the critics usually have pretty weak arguments.

  96. “I’d say that ultimately members know via the spirit what’s appropriate or not”

    They know that drinking tea, coffee, and alcohol is inappropriate through the spirit? Then why did earlier LDS folks drink it?

    “The directives in Church are usually vague”

    Vague as women should not wear more than one pair of earrings, endowed members should wear garments at all times, no buying things on Sunday, and the list goes on and on. Again, leaders do provide general input and advice, but it is not up to the members to fill in how to interpret that in a good number of cases. There are a fair number of specific dos and do nots.

    “I think we’ve done a good explaining why what appears arbitrary isn’t really that arbitrary”

    No we haven’t. Tell me what coffee drinking is going to do to a person? Tell me what occasional masturbation is going to do to a person? Tell me how having more than one set of earrings is going to harm a person? These actions in and of themselves do not cause any harm. They are only in place as a litmus test of commitment and by definition arbitrary. This isn’t to say that arbitrary injunctions aren’t bad. Some are and some aren’t. Sometimes organizations take things too far, like denying people to go on missions because they confess to occasional masturbation or even making them feel like that are committing a sin next to murder. And if they confess to having gay thoughts, then they are made to feel super sinful.

    “I recognize that you desperately want to talk LGBT issue”

    Oh please, Clark. You are the one desperately not wanting to address the issue, when you know that that is what is driving Dehlin to write what he wrote and when you know that the LDS church’s teachings about sin and atonement can make life for LGBTQ+ LDS teens a living hell. You don’t want to address the issue because the innumerable stories of trauma and hell among LGBTQ+s LDS teens make the LDS church’s teachings for them indefensible.

  97. They know that drinking tea, coffee, and alcohol is inappropriate through the spirit? Then why did earlier LDS folks drink it?

    Matt, earlier Mormons were fine drinking coffee because it wasn’t wrong then. I did address this rather explicitly.

    Tell me what coffee drinking is going to do to a person?

    Again, I reject the entire premise behind which you judge acts. Again I’ve been pretty consistently explaining this point. Trying to make me defend commands in terms of what you find acceptable basis for ethics is rather pointless, isn’t it? I think your grounds for ethics are simply wrong. You keep not wanting to talk about the grounds but to talk about particular sin-claims. But again, what’s the point if you demand everything be crouched in terms of your grounds?

    You are the one desperately not wanting to address the issue, when you know that that is what is driving Dehlin to write

    Again, you want me to discuss this only in your terms. But I think your assumptions are simply wrong. How can I be any clearer? I’m not trying to avoid the topic. I’ve explicitly addressed the topic, just not in the terms you want me to address it in which is in terms of “obvious harm.” I get you don’t think extra-marital or pre-martial sex is wrong. Fine. I just reject the entire basis of reasoning you are using.

    It’s not me that’s desperate to avoid discussing issues. You are going out of your way to demand these topics only be discussed in your terms. That’s fine. But it then becomes a pointless discussion. So if you’ve got something new to say I’ll address that. If you’re just going to repeat “this harms” or “this doesn’t harm” and think that’s all that matters I think I’ve already addressed that.

  98. “Again, you want me to discuss this only in your terms”

    The LGBTQ+ issue is what makes Dehlin’s point most relevant.

    “I get you don’t think extra-marital or pre-martial sex is wrong”

    Oh wow. I have said nothing of the sort. I tell you to address LGBTQ+s and then you accuse me of saying that adultery is legit? How are you not saying here that I am a moral relativist simply because I agree with Dehlin that some LDS teachings about sin and atonement cause harm. Give me a break. You just can’t bring yourself to talk about LGBQ+s. You don’t want to address it and all of harm that they have suffered because of the LDS church’s statements and policies that define sin because you agree with everything the LDS church has to say about the matter and are a homophobe yourself.

    You can close the comments if you want. I read that move as conceding defeat.

  99. Matt, I’m beginning to think you aren’t even reading my comments. I’m not accusing you of being a moral relativist. I’m accusing you of the exact opposite. Of being an Utilitarian who only is willing to look at short term obvious pains and benefits.

    But since you’re now accusing me of being a homophobe in addition to the rest it probably is time to close the comments. Take that as defeat of trying to communicate to you a position you don’t hold so you can disagree with it yet at least understand it.

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