CES Reply: Conversations with Bill Reel

So on Facebook, a mutual friend thought it would be fun to see me go “toe to toe” with Bill Reel, the host of the Mormon Discussions podcast, which is often critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My response that was that I was willing to talk to anyone, in or out of the Church, but I was more interested in a conversation than a debate. Bill Reel graciously extended an invitation to appear on his podcast, and that resulted in six two-hour-long early-morning discussions that have now been posted on the Mormon Discussions site.

You can listen to them here.

Initially, the plan was to record a seventh podcast where each of us would discuss what we had learned, where our minds had been changed, and other insights we might have as a result of our discussion. Bill then sent me a message saying that he wanted to see the reactions to the podcast before recording another one, and we could include our reactions to those reactions in our next discussion.

He then sent me this message.

“I think Mormonism has forced you to concede a lot of ground but that is no fault of your own.  I think you handled those 12 hours as well as anyone and promise I will continue to express that as we go.  I think such a conversation will move more people towards a diminishing of faith than an increase but you expressed a tenable faithful view as well as anyone and you should be proud.  I mean that.”

That was kind of him, but it left me with a bit of a pit in my stomach for the rest of the day, and it made me wonder if I had been wise to have agreed to this conversation.

I don’t say that in any way as an indictment of Bill Reel, who I now consider a friend. I think he was generous throughout this whole process – generous with his time, generous with his willingness to let me speak, at length, to represent my point of view, and generously kind even when we disagreed, which was often. My initial reaction was that these kinds of conversations, as difficult as they may be, are necessary. Much of the interaction between faithful members of the Church and those who have chosen to leave are unrelentingly hostile on both sides, and I – perhaps naively – firmly believe that it doesn’t have to be that way. I had hoped to provide an admittedly imperfect model for how such discussions could take place with kindness rather than with rancor. 

The idea that I had been “forced… to concede a lot of ground,” however, felt deeply troubling to me. In the second of our conversations, Bill said something along the lines that our first discussion had been a tie, but I had won the second round. I mostly shrugged that off, but it made me uneasy for reasons I couldn’t really put my finger on. As I read through some of the reactions over at the exMormon subReddit, one commenter was unhappy about what they’d heard from me in the first two podcasts, and Bill’s response was something along the lines of “Just keep listening, because you’ll be amazed at how much ground Jim gives up in the later hours.”

This helped to crystallize what had been nagging at me since I got that message after our last conversation. “Giving up ground” is a military metaphor. In a war, the side that gives up the most ground loses. That analogy defines this as a debate, not a discussion, and as I read most of the exMormon SubReddit comments, that’s how it was interpreted by a large chunk of the listeners. The consensus summation seems to be that since I had given up the most ground, Bill had won, and I, and therefore the Church, lost.

When I wrote the first version of my CES Letter reply, I wrote a blog post about the reactions to that, reactions that were quite similar to the initial reactions to my conversation with Bill.

Here’s part of what I said on that occasion:

I readily admit that my reply is unlikely to persuade Jeremy Runnells to reclaim his faith, although I’d be delighted if that were the (unlikely) result. Nor did I write it for any who have already made up their minds that faith in LDS truth claims is incompatible with intellectual honesty.

Instead, I wrote it for those believers who read the CES Letter and feel like chumps. They still want to believe, but they think they can’t do that because there’s no other way to look at these issues than the way Jeremy Runnells has presented. I wanted to provide an example of a believer who has honestly and frankly confronted all of these issues head on with logic, intelligence, and solid information and still come out with a testimony on the other side. Hopefully, someone who finds their testimony shattered by the CES letter can look at me and think, “well, if that Bennett bozo can read this and keep his faith, maybe I can, too.”

That was also my purpose in having these conversations. I doubt I captured any ground held by any contributors to the exMormon SubReddit, but that was not what I was trying to do. My goal was not to prove the Church true or call fire down from heaven. It was to give courage to any who find themselves confronted with troubling issues and assume that it is no longer possible to believe and still maintain intellectual honesty. I don’t know how many people in that situation are listeners to Bill Reel’s podcast, but if there is a single one who heard me and realized that they don’t have to abandon their faith when confronted by hard questions, then I think my time spent on this project will have been worth it.

That, incidentally, is the most troubling part of Bill’s message to me – the idea that I have participated in a project that will diminish faith rather than increase it. If that proves to be true, that would make me profoundly sad.

I believe that faith, in and out of the Church, is an extraordinarily precious thing that is a lifeline to all of us struggling to get through the experience of mortality, and I don’t want to be the guy responsible for diminishing it, especially if it’s diminished as a result of my own incompetence or arrogance, two qualities that I have in larger quantities than I would like. If I said anything that was damaging to anyone’s faith, I would hope that those individuals so damaged would reach out to me personally, as doing such damage was the polar opposite of my intent.