Mormons navigate faith and doubt in the digital age

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 8:50 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Two upcoming conferences will explore the uneasy intersection of faith and doubt being carefully traversed by some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) will open Aug. 1 with a presentation by Michael R. Ash on the recently released second edition of his book, "Shaken Faith Syndrome," and will conclude with a panel discussion on "The Loss and Rekindling of Faith." The 2013 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium begins July 31 and will feature sessions exploring such topics as "Faithful Disagreement: A Model for the Saints."

Many Latter-day Saints, however are finding answers that confirm and renew their faith, according to research conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life for its landmark "Mormons in America" study last year. A significant majority — 77 percent — of those who identify themselves as members of the LDS Church "believe wholeheartedly in all the teachings of the church." That number is higher among respondents who have attended college (81 percent), and even higher (85 percent) among those who are college graduates.

Some Latter-day Saints, however — 22 percent in the survey — find that "some teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe." That number declines as individual educational level increases. Only 14 percent of LDS college graduates in the survey expressed such doubts. But anecdotal evidence suggests that other Latter-day Saints have been frustrated because the information and materials they are finding during Internet searches may not square with the things they have learned.

For example, a recent New York Times story focused on Hans H. Mattson, a third-generation Mormon and former bishop, stake president and Area Authority Seventy from Sweden who has been speaking openly, to the Times and elsewhere, about his doubts.

“I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet,” Mattsson told the Times. “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to teach and witness just crumbled under my feet.”

Ash, the scholar and author affiliated with FAIR, told the Deseret News he believes "we are seeing a growing problem" in the LDS Church — a problem that has to do with the ready availability of vast resources of information of both the faithful and doubtful varieties.

Speaking in last April’s general conference of the LDS Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cautioned members not to “hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood and resolved.”

“They do and they will,” Elder Holland said. “In this church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.”

Doubt is not sin

“Doubt is not sin,” said Dr. Terryl Givens, the James A. Bostwick Professor of English at the University of Richmond, the noted author of a number of books on philosophy and theology and a practicing Latter-day Saint. “Doubt can be the beginning of deeper understanding, as it was for Mormonism’s founder. Mormonism claims the possibility of religious certainty, but its scripture also calls simple belief a spiritual gift.”

Dr. Richard L. Bushman, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University and Howard W. Hunter Visiting Professor in Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, said he doesn’t think “you could prove there is more disaffection from Mormonism now than before.”

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