Book review: “Saving Faith” by John Gee

I chose to read Saving Faith by John Gee because I knew I would strongly disagree with it. I don’t usually do that with the books I read in my free time, but this one touched a chord as a gay Latter-Day Saint and a survivor of sexual abuse.

Gee’s book caused a lot of controversy in the Latter-Day Saint community. It was first put on my radar when I saw Calvin’s post on Twitter:

Oof. As a gay Latter-Day Saint and someone who has endured sexual abuse, I didn’t know if I really wanted to deal with it. It was picked up further by BCC in a response Saving Faith and Expertise. A guest author and sociologist, Kevin Shafer, call Gee out for shoddy work with the literature and going beyond his realm of expertise. Gee is an Egyptologist, not a sociologist by training. Shafer focuses on two claims made in the book: (1) childhood abuse contribute to someone becoming LGBTQ, and (2) victims of sexual abuse are more likely to become sexual abusers. The critique is worth reading. On a similar note, I just finished reading a book with the same thesis The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. In it, he critiques professionals for speaking on matters outside their realm of expertise:

One of the most common errors experts make is to assume that because they are smarter than most people about certain things, they are smarter than everyone about everything. They see their expert knowledge as a license to hold court about anything (Again, I cannot cast the first stone here).

The criticisms of the book were big enough that both the publisher, the Religious Studies Center at BYU, and the distributor Deseret Book both had the book pulled from their website. I found the cached versions here and here.

Both of these criticisms focused on a very narrow portion of the book. I wanted to read it for myself, but I already could tell it took a tone I didn’t find inviting and obviously harmful. To be clear, I’m not an expert in sociology, I’m writing a review as a lay reader and from the perspective of a practicing Latter-Day Saint. There were several things throughout the book that rubbed me the wrong way.

The first is the unsettling mix of data-driven approaches and apologetic/devotional literature. Gee begins his book with the assertion Those concerned with apostasy in the modern Church and with supporting and defending the Church is various disciplines do so almost entirely on the basis of anecdotal evidence… Almost all of it has been produced without the benefit of data detailing which threats are real and which are largely illusions and which approaches are helpful or hurtful. To me, this exerts the same knee-jerk reaction I made to key indicators on my mission. Please no. In it, he’ll inter-weave statistics on first sexual encounters and church attendance with scriptures. I don’t think he was doing the scriptures a service, if anything it felt like wresting the scriptures. I’m a data-driven person. But using data in this way with felt like overt manipulation.

One of the main data sources Gee uses is the National Study of Youth and Religion. He includes this colorful description: The NSYR was started because of scare claims rampant in evangelical circles that young people were leaving their churches in droves for alternate religions. The NSYR found that such scaremongering was not justified: U.S. youth are not flocking in droves to ‘alternative’ religions and spiritualities such as paganism and Wicca. The survey itself sounds like it came with an agenda.

Gee usually doesn’t rely directly on the data itself, but on interpretations from the original authors in a book by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith Souls in Transition. He quotes large passages, and then applies it to LDS youth. Smith himself isn’t a sympathetic writer either. They both come off as condescending, trying to fix youth instead of addressing their concerns. More of that blame-everything-on-Millennials approach. Smith refers to the spirituality of youth as “moral therapeutic deism” which may have some truth to it, but I think is mostly a strawman argument. For instance, he dismisses the faith of youth as too weak, we’re all moral relativists who won’t stand for what is right and wrong. He gives a whole etymological lecture on the word nice with the punchline in the thirteenth centuries, it usually meant stupid. I think if Gee actually interacted with youth today or took them seriously, he would realize they do indeed stand for their beliefs, and quite strongly. Ironically, his book was cancelled because youth found portions of his book homophobic.

The second critique built into the quote above is his use of the word apostasy and apostate. I would say that his references use it more than he does himself, but my sentiments are really along these lines:

Perhaps he is using it entirely as a technical term, but it certainly isn’t going to be building bridges if you call people who leave the Church apostates. I think that is between an individual and their Church leaders.

Gee isn’t doing himself any favors when interacting with his colleagues either. He comes off as rather abrasive, for instance, he dismisses the entire field of religious studies:

Religious studies tends to produce “rather superficial treatments of the covered religions” that often get basic facts wrong and think that it “has endured well past its usefulness.” This leads him to ask “Does this mean religious studies is dead? Or is it simply on life support with death a future possibility?”

Gee rails against diversity, finding in it a threat to faith:

Despite the value of such inclusiveness and acceptance generally, this general orientation when brought to questions of religious life tend to undermine the effectiveness of faith traditions and practices.

He specifically labels members as tares when discussing differences of belief in the Church. Ecumenism is taboo (interacting with religiously diverse groups either “results in the dilution of traditional religious commitments”)

For all his arguments for making data-driven approaches to saving faith, the punchline could have been made without it. It’s the primary answers: read your scriptures, pray, and go to church. That, and a HUGE emphasis on the law of chastity with some layers already mentioned as harmful. An added bonus: he tells parents they should be teaching abstinence and avoid teaching any sexual safety.

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