Mormon Media Observer: Journalism reports on culture of doubt

Published: Monday, June 18 2012 11:33 a.m. MDT

I sometimes think that Korihor from the Book of Mormon is evidence that the Book of Mormon is true.

Critics of the Book of Mormon sometimes try to explore the culture of 19th century America — upstate New York in particular — for explanations of the themes and ideas prevalent in Book of Mormon. From that, they argue that the Book of Mormon was a modern book, the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination, not a genuine translation of an ancient record meant for our day, as we Latter-day Saints assert.

For example, they might point to ideas like Mosiah’s insight of doing business "by the voice of the people" as evidence that the Book of Mormon came from Jacksonian America because America loved democracy in that era. To be sure, this specific analogy fails when you look at it closely. Still, Korihor is a different case altogether.

I’m aware of no one who thinks the atheist Korihor’s arguments were a product of 19th century America.

Religious revival, debates over modes of baptism and the nature of grace were the order of the day in the “Burned-Over” district of Joseph Smith’s youth — not whether God existed. Not doubt. I wonder how far Joseph Smith would have had to travel to find a public atheist of any sort. I question whether he ever met one during his youth.

If you’re like me, when I read Korihor’s arguments, I am stunned at how well they mimic the arguments of prominent atheists and glib Internet bloggers today. It’s profound, really, how similar Korihor is to the 21st century and its growing culture of doubt. In that, the Book of Mormon seems deeply prophetic.

I speak of Korihor because malignant doubt has been in the news lately. The Washington Post wrote an article about Latter-day Saints who doubt. Pew has noted that there’s a rapidly growing culture of doubt about the existence of God among the millennial generation of Americans, a story that has received significant attention.

If Pew is marking the beginning of a trend, then many more stories about doubt will emerge over the coming years, and journalism will struggle with how to write about this phenomenon. Chances are, journalism won’t do a good job.

That’s because of all the weaknesses of journalism. It’s biggest weaknesses may include that fundamental to its culture is a type of doubt.

When a journalist writes a story, that journalist tries to get both sides without passing judgment. The journalist is indecisive about which opinions deserve higher treatment. The journalist hesitates, exercises skepticism, and often provides no authoritative voice of truth — even as the journalist provides a deep accounting of the facts.

As the debate over the existence of God grows, journalism will need to write about that debate. Journalism will allow believers a say while likely allowing atheists a stronger voice. The culture and pose of journalism will be one of ambiguity and skepticism. The voices of doubters will likely grow louder.

One older definition of doubt isn’t just the feeling of uncertainty so often seen as doubt today, but rather a doubt that includes indecision and hesitation. To me, choosing to “doubt not,” as the scriptures sometimes say, is about choosing to act, about choosing courage over inaction and about moving forward as though there is a God.

And about learning, as we do exercise that faith, that God will reveal himself to each in his own way — as he has done to virtually every Latter-day Saint I know, including me.

Journalism has always been a secular enterprise — wonderfully useful, truthful and moving at its best — but secular nonetheless. If there is one thing that separates journalism culture from the culture of religion, it's that journalism by nature often doubts.

In its desire to be objective, journalism sometimes fails to take a stand. When it doubts, its processes add to the ambiguity surrounding the great questions of religion. Expect more stories about doubt in the years ahead.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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