The Coddling of the Mormon Mind

The Three Great Untruths

I recently read Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the Amerian Mind; you can read my review from a couple of weeks back here. The book attempts to account for some growing trends on university campuses that have only arisen over the past few years: disinvitations of controversial speakers, a mental health crisis, and even intimidation and violence on campuses. Haidt and Lukianoff attribute some of these trends to three ideas which they refer to as “the three great untruths”:

  • What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker: Safetyism is the cult of safety– an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to seeing themselves as victims.
  • Always trust your feelings: By encouraging students to interpret the actions of others in the least generous way possible, schools that teach students about microaggressions may be encouraging students to engage in emotional reasoning and others distortions while setting themselves up for higher levels of distrust and conflict.
  • Life is a battle between good people and evil people: Common enemy politics, when combined with microaggression theory, produces a call-out culture in which almost anything anyone says or does could result in public shaming. This can engender a sense of “walking on eggshells,” and it teaches students habits of self-censorship. Call-out cultures are detrimental to students’ education and bad for their mental health. Call-out cultures and us-versus-them thinking are incompatible with the educational and research missions of universities, which require free inquiry, dissent, evidence-based argument, and intellectual honesty.

I found their argument very compelling, and agree that this is a serious issue that should be addressed. But I wanted to argue here that some of these ideas aren’t limited to just universities, or at least aren’t limited to universities today: thinking over the three great untruths, I realized that I experienced many of these as a Latter-Day Saint: not as doctrine, mind you, but as sometimes well-intentioned efforts to either reinforce faith or build community. In this post, I want to walk through the three great untruths and where I have found them negatively impacting the lives of Latter-Day Saints. This isn’t a critique of doctrine, but rather of culture. I believe there are some things that we need to work to change.

What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker: Testimonies and Anti-Mormon Literature

This is honestly my weakest point, but it does affect the Latter-Day Saint experience in a certain context. I grew up with the sentiment “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” So overall, I don’t feel like I ever leaned toward a victimhood culture characterized by taking every slight as personally as possible, and appealing to a higher authority to adjudicate on my behalf. But there is one thing that is often considered very fragile among Latter-Day Saints: a testimony, which is lingo for a religious conviction of the truth of the gospel found within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It usually centers on four main points: Joseph Smith restored the gospel of Jesus Christ in our day, the Book of Mormon is the word of God, Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and Russell M. Nelson is the living prophet today. Bearing your testimony means to express one of these truths, and often begins with “I know that…”.

But why would I say they are considered fragile? Or treated as fragile? I wanted to point to a sentiment common in Latter-Day Saint discourse, and is a common feature in general conference addresses. To show how old this idea really is, I point to a talk given by Spencer W. Kimball entitled Fortify Your Homes:

We need continually to fortify our homes and families and defend them against the onslaught of evils such as divorce, broken families, brutality, and abuse, especially of wives and children. We need to constantly guard against immorality, pornography, and sexual permissiveness that would destroy the purity of the family members, young and old.

Such evils are very real and very threatening. One has but to read the headlines of our newspapers and magazines to become frighteningly aware of the crumbling, destructive influences which surround us.

Perhaps I sound like an alarmist. If so, it is because I am alarmed. I am greatly concerned, and so are my Brethren in the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles and others of the General Authorities.

If we could but suggest you go home and lock these evils out by closing and bolting the windows and locking the doors of your homes securely, it would be a simple matter.

However, such security would be ineffective against the evils of which we speak. They come into our homes on ether waves by radio and the television screen. We find these evil forces almost everywhere we go. Exposure is almost constant. We track them into the home from the school, from the playground, from the theater, the office, and the marketplace. There are but few places we go in our everyday world where we can escape them.

The language of battle is often invoked to illustrate how serious the situation is. The “fiery darts of the wicked” are being aimed at our homes, and we must make our homes into “spiritual islands”, a phrase used by a visiting general authority at my stake conference a few weeks ago. The fear is that if our children are exposed to certain materials or ideas, they will be forever damaged and likely lose their faith. I remember watching this video is seminary as a kid, based off of another quote from Spencer w. Kimball. That ratio at which the youth are falling to the devil is pretty high, if you watch the video: 1 in every 5 are taken down!

Of course, it seems Kimball seems to be addressing exposure to more physical vices such as alcohol and sex. While I felt these were also emphasized in my youth, I never felt them as a direct threat. The one I do remember, and still think is prevalent today, is the threat of “anti-Mormon literature”, which I wrote about a little more in-depth here. Whenever anyone expresses an idea that either doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of the institutional Church or directs a critique at the Church, it can often be labelled as anti-Mormon. And perhaps the Church is rightly concerned about these issues, but I think the problem is one the Church has itself contributed to by this idea of the fragile testimony. All in the name of preserving testimonies, the Church has often whitewashed its past. This is exemplified in the statement by Boyd K. Packer that “Some things that are true are not very useful.” I feel like this is like not exposing your immune system to germs: if you don’t build up your immune system, you could get seriously sick when you are exposed to a pathogen. The Church has tried to take a different approach today, even using the immune system analogy in doing so:

Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, “Don’t worry about it!” Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue. Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the Church…We give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field so they will be protected against diseases that can harm or even kill them. In a similar fashion, please, before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful, and accurate interpretation of gospel doctrine, the scriptures, our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.

I do hope that by such efforts, we can eliminate some of this idea that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” in terms of the gospel. Teaching Church history in an honest way can only be a positive in my opinion, and only illustrate the nuances of faith. I like this sentiment expressed in Letters to a Young Mormon that makes faith seem anti-fragile:

It’s a false dilemma to claim that either God works through practically flawless people or God doesn’t work at all. The gospel isn’t a celebration of God’s power to work with flawless people. The gospel is a celebration of God’s willingness to work today, in our world, in our lives, with people who clearly aren’t…

Our church manuals and church histories are sometimes shy about this good news. With good intentions, they worry over your faith. Sometimes they seem too much like that friend of a friend who really just wants you to like them, and so they pretend to only like the same vanilla things they think you do. But God is stronger stuff than this. And the scriptures certainly are as well. If, as the bible makes clear, God can work through liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and beggars, he can certainly work around (or even through) Joseph Smith’s clandestine practice of polygamy, Brigham Young’s strong-armed experiments in theocracy, or George Albert Smith’s mental illness.

Always Trust Your Feelings: Feeling The Spirit

A large chunk of Latter-Day Saint epistemology is based on two scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants. In these verses, Olivery Cowdery was attempting to translate the Book of Mormon, just like Joseph Smith had done. But for the life of him, he couldn’t get the same revelatory experience like Joseph Smith. In these verses, the Lord explains how the spirit of revelation works:

Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground. (D&C 8:2-3)

and

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me. (D&C 9:7-9)

It’s funny, because both of these scriptures emphasize the interaction of the mind and the heart: both are important in the search for truth. Study is even emphasized as a key feature. But I feel, at least in general discourse in Sunday School or across the pulpit, most moments of revelation emphasize strong feelings. For example, take this story from Vicki Matsumori explaining her first experience with the Holy Ghost:

We can help others become more familiar with the promptings of the Spirit when we share our testimony of the influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. Remember that some experiences are too sacred to relate. However, by sharing testimony of the Spirit in our lives, those who are unfamiliar with these promptings are more likely to recognize when they have similar feelings.

I was the first member of my family to join the Church. As an eight-year-old, I waited to feel somehow different because of my baptism. To be honest, the only thing I felt when I was brought out of the water was … well, dripping wet. I thought something more profound would happen when I was confirmed. However, after receiving the Holy Ghost, again I felt happy but certainly no different than I had just a few minutes before.

It wasn’t until the following day at fast and testimony meeting that I experienced what I now recognize as the influence of the Holy Ghost. A brother stood to bear his testimony and tell about the blessings of his membership in the Church. I felt a flood of warmth sweep over me. Even as an eight-year-old, I recognized that this was something different. I felt a peace descend on me, and I had the distinct feeling that Heavenly Father was pleased with me.

Now given, she’s eight years old at the time: how else are you going to explain the Holy Ghost to an eight-year-old? And how can you teach revelation without bringing up “a still small voice”, or “a burning in the bosom”? I don’t mean to strip religion of the aspects that are central to religion. But I feel that when this idea isn’t taught in its proper context, it can also lead to members feeling disaffected: when someone who has been taught to trust their feelings to this extent, what happens the first time they feel negative feelings towards the Church? Many stories of those leaving the Church begin with a feeling of betrayal, for instance, when they discover something for the first time.

Haidt also mentions cognitive distortions, which cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to address. There are certain times when Mormons totally engage in these:

  1. Polarized (black and white) thinking: Either I am righteous and worthy or sinful and unworthy.
  2. Catastrophizing: I made a slip, and I may as well have committed the unpardonable sin.
  3. Personalization: God must be punishing me.
  4. Always being right: Attempting to defend every action of the Church as God’s will.

Latter-Day Saints could do better in our sacrament meetings and Sunday School lessons at emphasizing how to “study it out in your mind.” I feel that even when we do encourage scripture study, it isn’t done in the spirit of increasing the breadth and depth of gospel knowledge, but attempting to increase the number of “warm and fuzzy” moments. Rather than really delving into what kind of argument Paul is making here or how this passage in Ecclesiastes is challenging, we skip all the stuff that requires real effort in favor of the “gospel lite.” 

Life is a Battle Between Good People and Evil People

Nearly every conference, you can expect to have some reference to how far apart the standards of the Church are form the standards of the world. Take this quote from Robert D. Hales:

In January of 1982, I spoke in a devotional on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah. I invited the students to imagine that the Church was on one side of the podium, right here, and the world was just a foot or two away on the other side. This represented the “very short distance between where the world was and where the Church standards were” when I was in college. Then, standing before the students 30 years later, I held up my hands in the same manner and explained, “The world has gone far afield; [it has traveled; it is nowhere to be seen;] it has proceeded way, way out, all the way out of this [building and around the world]. … What we and our children and our grandchildren have to remember is that the Church will remain constant, [it’s still right here; yet] the world will keep moving—that gap is [becoming] wider and wider. … Therefore, be very careful. If you judge your actions and the standards of the Church on the basis of where the world is and where it’s going, you will find that you are not where you should be.”

At the rate the world seems to be going, they should have reached Sodom and Gomorrah level bad a decade ago, right? I grew up with this idea that we are the one true Church. That is a doctrinal claim, built into the Restoration. But it can lead to some rather skewed interactions with people outside the Church. I viewed every other religion or church in a state of apostasy. They were inherently wrong, and I just needed to expose the error of their thinking to them. I engaged in my share of Bible bashing on my mission. There are even scriptural precedents for this. While not an official position of the Church, I heard more than once that “the great and abominable Church” and “the great whore of all the earth” spoken of in the Book of Mormon was the Catholic Church. The passage in the Book of Mormon condemning those who cry “A Bible! A Bible! We already have a Bible, and need no more Bible!” was clearly referring to all those Protestant Christians. And I assumed a beneficent condescension towards Jews, who were still God’s chosen people, but they just “hadn’t gotten it yet” that Jesus was the Messiah.

It is a very common scenario that members may not even have any friends outside the Church. And when we do, we feel like we have to convert them. Take this excerpt from a story in The Power of Everyday Missionaries by Clayton Christensen. After inviting a friend over for dinner and extending an invitation to come to Church that was declined, the friend expressed some exasperation:

“This is Ken’s account. All of a sudden you expressed an interest in being friends. But as soon as he told you that he wasn’t interested in becoming a Mormon, you dropped the friendship idea like a hot potato. You haven’t even talked to him since. You were just wanting to convert them, under the false guise of friendship.”

Randy’s report hurt, but basically he had gotten the story right. “But what do you want me to do, Randy?” I responded defensively. “God wants us to be missionaries. The mission president says that the best way to do it is first to prepare people to accept your invitation by making them your friends. Then you can invite them. The problem is that if they’re not interested, how can I keep cultivating all these friendships, when there is so much else that I need to do?”

On the general level, we view others outside our faith as contenders on the opposite side of a battle against Satan. While on the individual level, we condescendingly view others as someone who isn’t converted yet.

What can we do as Latter-Day Saints to tackle some of these three great untruths? I believe that overall they do more harm than good, and lead to more people leaving the Church than they keep in. Not to mention harmful mental habits that can lead to depression and alienation from others. I think we should encourage the opposites of these untruths that Lukianoff and Haidt express in their book:

  1. Prepare the Child for the Road, Not the Road for the Child.
  2. Your Worst Enemy Cannot Harm You as Much as Your Own Thoughts, Unguarded
  3. The Line Dividing Good and Cuts Through the Heart of Every Human Being. 

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