CES Reply: AMA Follow-up, Part 2

During my Reddit AMA which I discussed in yesterday’s post, I received a number of private messages from people frustrated that their angrier, more hostile questions were not allowed, and several insisted that I conduct a similar AMA in a different subreddit, one where I wouldn’t be treated with such kid gloves.

This, of course, led me to peruse such subreddits to see what they were saying about the AMA. Much of it wasn’t pretty. Occasionally, I was tempted to dive in and try to push back, but I decided I didn’t hate myself enough to volunteer to be a piñata. However, since most of the complaints about me focused on similar themes, I thought it might be helpful to review some of the charges against me so that the critics don’t think I’m too cowardly to respond.

Charge #1: “Jim Bennett won’t come here to talk to us because he’s afraid to answer hard questions.”

The only reason people in these subreddits know who I am is because I wrote a 150,000-word treatise directly responding to hard questions, followed up by over 15 hours of conversations with a former Church member who spent all our time together asking me hard questions. To turn around and say that I’m now afraid of these questions doesn’t make a lick of sense. The reason I don’t want to step into those subreddits is that the people in them seem to delight in being cruel, and while I have all the patience in the world for people who disagree with kindness, I don’t have any patience for people who are rude by default.

Charge #2: “Jim Bennett, who frequently engages in ad hominem attacks, is clearly suffering from cognitive dissonance.”

“Cognitive dissonance,” like “ad hominem,” is a phrase that gets generously tossed around by angry critics, but I’m not convinced that such critics understand what either phrase actually means. For example, people accuse me of “ad hominem” attacks because I use snark and sarcasm in my CES Letter reply. But “ad hominem” is Latin for “to the man,” and describes a fallacy where the messenger, not the message, is being attacked.

So if I use sarcasm and snark to say Jeremy Runnells is a bad person, that’s an ad hominem attack. If I use snark and sarcasm to highlight that Jeremy Runnells has made a bad argument, that is not an ad hominem attack. So far, nobody has been able to show me an example of me making an attack on Jeremy Runnells, as I point out in a previous blog post. But the phrase itself has an air of authority, so critics continue to use it to describe any snark and/or sarcasm in any setting whether it’s ad hominem or not, perhaps not realizing that this phrase does not mean what they seem to think it means.

The same is true of “cognitive dissonance,” which is often simply used as a synonym for “TBM.” Any faith in the Restored Gospel is presumed to be “cognitive dissonance” by default. But that’s not at all what the phrase means.

Wikipedia describes cognitive dissonance as “the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person’s belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person. When confronted with facts that contradict beliefs, ideals, and values, people will find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.”

I think this accusation comes by way of projection, as many former Church members likely experienced such dissonance which they resolved by abandoning their previous beliefs and leaving the Church. The assumption seems to be that since they, personally, were unable to reconcile troubling aspects of Church history or doctrine with their faith, such reconciliation is impossible, and any member who stays faithful is unavoidably living in a state of cognitive dissonance.

The problem with that assumption is that it fails to recognize that cognitive dissonance is almost always a temporary condition. Sooner or later, it has to resolve one way or the other, and there is always more than one way to resolve it. It’s not that I’m holding on to my dissonance; it’s that I’ve resolved it differently than the critics have.

For example, if I believed that prophets were incapable of making serious mistakes and then discovered that the priesthood ban was the result of the serious mistake of Brigham Young’s racism, I’d be in a state of cognitive dissonance. But if I come down on one side or the other, the dissonance disappears. People who leave the Church often resolve this issue by holding on to the first assumption – i.e. true prophets can’t make serious mistakes – and end the dissonance by deciding that since Brigham Young made a serious mistake, he must not have been a prophet, and so the Church is a fraud.

But I resolve the dissonance by coming down on the other side. I say that prophets can, indeed, make serious mistakes, because agency is a feature, not a flaw, of the mortal experience, and it is entirely incompatible with infallibility. Prophets do not have their agency extracted from them when they become prophets, and many prophets have made serious mistakes since the beginning of recorded history. So the fact that I can still sustain Brigham Young as a prophet even though he did not rise above the racism of antebellum America causes me precisely zero cognitive dissonance because I am not trying to maintain two contradictory ideas at the same time. My goal in writing the CES Reply and to talk to Bill Reel was to demonstrate that there is more than one way to resolve cognitive dissonance, and it does not require anyone to abandon their faith.

Regardless, for me to maintain the kind of cognitive dissonance these critics are accusing me of, I would have to be holding on to contradictory assumptions for the past three decades, since I learned about many of these troubling issues back in the late 1980s. Maintaining such dissonance is an extraordinarily difficult mental exercise, and I think there are very few people who have the mental discipline to keep it up for over thirty years. I certainly couldn’t do it.

TL/DR: “Cognitive dissonance” means holding two contradictory ideas, which is demonstrably not what I’m doing. Contrary to some critical assumptions, “cognitive dissonance” is not simply having faith in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Charge #3: “Jim Bennett is going to get in trouble with the Church, because he has taken unorthodox positions/disagreed with the Church/admitted the Church has gotten some things wrong.”

I have done all three of those things, yes. And I am not at all worried that the Church is going to come after me.

This is not just swagger or bravado on my part. Rather, it’s confidence rooted in the reality that the Church is far more open to multiple points of view than many of its critics will allow. Yet the conventional wisdom among critics seems to be that the Church is eager to purge doubters, unorthodox members, or anyone who disagrees on any point.

This is demonstrably not true.

In the CES Letter, Jeremy reaches back to the “September Six” of 1993 to make the case that the Church refuses to tolerate any level of unorthodoxy. I’m no math whiz, but I’m pretty sure that September of 1993 was more than 25 years ago. If the best evidence you have of an ongoing purge of doubters and disbelievers is six people excommunicated more than a quarter century in the past, two of whom have since been rebaptized and are in full fellowship, I don’t think you have a very strong case.

It is true that there have been several high-profile excommunicants in recent years. The common denominator in all of them is not that they are doubters, but that they have actively gone on the offensive against the Church with the stated goal of tearing down the faith of its members. The Church has a great deal of room for those who differ or doubt. The Church does not and should not allow people to exploit their membership to actively work to destroy the Church from the inside.

I take then-President Uchtdorf at his word when he said the following:

To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here…

Some might ask, “But what about my doubts?”

It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions…

Some might say, “I just don’t fit in with you people in the Church.”

If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose. You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours. Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church…

regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us!

Charge #4: “Jim Bennett is “Mormon Royalty” who only stays in the Church because his ancestral roots are too deep. After all, his family would disown him if he left.”

I just don’t understand the charge of “Mormon Royalty.” Should I have my own red carpet from the foyer to the chapel? May I insist that my bread and water come from gold-plated sacrament trays? More importantly, can I get a tithing discount?

The fact is that I, like Jeremy Runnells, grew up in Southern California, far away from the center of gravity in the Latter-day Saint universe. Most of the prominent Church leaders in my ancestral line died decades before I was born, and the vast majority of the people I grew up with neither knew nor cared who any of those people were. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable or noteworthy about my upbringing in the Church that has made me any different from anybody else.

As an adult, I don’t know that I’ve done anything remarkable in terms of official Church service. I have been in two bishoprics as a counselor, but I’ve never been a bishop or served in a stake presidency or on a high council. My last calling was second counselor in the Sunday School presidency. When I first wrote the CES Letter reply, I was the ward Webelos leader, which I can assure you is not a calling fit for royalty.

The idea that my family would disown me if I left is belied by the fact that I have a large number of relatives who are just as “royal” as I am who have left the Church. They are still greatly loved and fully included in all family activity, and I am not at all worried that anyone in my family would withdraw from me in the unlikely event that I were to withdraw from the Church.

Charge #5: “Jim Bennett wrote his CES Letter reply because the Brethren told him to. Elder Holland called him after his podcast with Bill Reel and demanded that he backtrack at FairMormon – or else!”

It wasn’t Elder Holland who called; it was Elder Ballard. Get your story straight, Strawman Redditor!

That is what is commonly known among us cognitively dissonant Mormon royalty as a “joke.” I received no call from either Elder Holland or Elder Ballard. I have had no communication whatsoever with any of the Brethren about my CES Letter reply. I received no instructions from anyone to write it or official Church feedback about anything to change in it once it was written. I wrote it without telling anyone I was writing it. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I was writing it myself – it began with me idly cutting and pasting old blog posts to fit which questions were relevant, and it later morphed into the behemoth it eventually became.

I wrote the FairMormon blog post at their gracious invitation because I thought Bill was misrepresenting our conversations. I wrote it entirely on my own with no instructions or preconditions about what it ought or ought not to include. In it, I don’t backtrack from anything I said to Bill; I simply try to put it into context.

Charge #6: “Jim Bennett is a liar. Jim Bennett is a fraud. Jim Bennett is an arrogant, conceited @&$hole. Jim Bennett is a moron, a bully, a weenie, a d-bag, and an ignorant piece of *&#%.”

I am, indeed, all of those things.

Charge #7: “Jim Bennett can’t leave the Church even if he wanted to, because of all the money he’d lose. He’s just trying to sell books.”

The problem with this one is that I’m not selling books. Jeremy Runnells graciously published his CES Letter under a Creative Commons license, which allows his original work to be republished in full or in part by anyone on the conditions that proper attribution is given to the original author and that the work is not used for commercial purposes. In other words, since my reply contains 100% of the material in the original CES Letter, I’m prohibited from selling it. Which is why, to date, I have made precisely $0.00 from sales of my CES Letter reply.

This keeps coming up, though, in various permutations as people talk about my “financial incentives” to stay in the Church. The assumption seems to be that my personal income is somehow tied to my Church membership, when, in fact, it isn’t and never has been. I’ve never been employed by the Church, and my membership in the Church has never been a condition of my employment. Were I to leave the Church, I would have a great deal more free time, a host of less expensive wardrobe choices, and – oh, yeah! – an immediate and permanent 10% raise. Those, I think, are very compelling financial incentives for me to leave the Church, not the other way around.

I have a few more things to say to follow up on the AMA in a future post. In the meantime, you can participate in the conversation by joining one of the Canonizer threads below – or creating one of your own!