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Comments on Mormon Matters Episode 12: Inoculation, Part II

Comments on Mormon Matters Episode 12: Inoculating the Saints

For the 12th installment of the Mormon Matters podcast, John Dehlin has posted the audio from a panel discussion at the recently held Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah. The panelists comprised a “who’s who” of Mormon apologetics: Charles Randall Paul, Blake Ostler, Mike Ash, and Kevin Barney. They discussed the idea of “information inoculation” with respect to thorny issues in Mormon history, doctrine, and culture. The idea of “information inoculation” is that the church could teach troubling issues in a faithful context (in classroom instruction, periodical materials, conference addresses, seminaries and institutes, etc.) so that when members eventually encounter the troubling issues from sources critical of the church, they will not feel a sense of having been lied to, deceived, and betrayed by the church.

The presentation began with a question posed by one of the panelists: what constitutes a “problem issue” from which members might need to be inoculated?  The panelist suggested that prayer to and belief in God was a difficult Mormon issue. Well, while that may be true in the abstract, it’s too cute by half. I don’t know anyone who has been merrily going along as an active, faithful Latter-day Saint when suddenly confronted with the previously unknown idea that there might not be a God. No one I know has suffered a crisis of faith and sense of betrayal at the hands of the LDS Church based on an encounter with an argument that there is no God. So, the presentation gets off to an inauspicious start with the first of many fallacies.  If the panelists need help in identifying just what the difficult issues are, they could start here or look here. They can also consult this blog post of mine from awhile back in which I commented on Boyd Packer’s assertion in General Conference that there was nothing in Mormon history for which members ought to feel ashamed or for which the church ought to apologize.


The panelist then, in an apparent attempt to downplay the seriousness of the doctrinal or historical problems the church faces, ran down a litany of problems the Roman Catholic Church has had to grapple with, including the Crusades, the sale of indulgences, popes excommunicating each other, etc. He then said a real problem in Mormonism would be if Gordon Hinckley moved to Kansas City and excommunicated Thomas Monson, who in turn set up an alternate headquarters and excommunicated Gordon Hinckley. I guess the point was that, by comparison, the Book of Abraham fraud and questions about Brigham Young’s involvement in and a 150+-year cover-up by the church of the Mountain Meadows Massacre are but trifling matters. The panelist then fallaciously argued that since the Roman Catholic Church had comparatively more difficult issues to deal with than the LDS church and the Catholic Church has nonetheless been extraordinarily successful, there really isn’t anything for the LDS Church to be worried about.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that just because the Catholic Church has historical issues and has been successful, it does not necessarily follow that the LDS Church, having historical issues, will also be successful. It would be like taking a small start-up computer software company headed by a college drop-out and predicting its success based on the fact that Microsoft was also once a small start-up computer software company headed by a college drop-out. Are there not many differences between the environment in which the Catholic Church formed and developed and the environment in which the LDS Church finds itself operating? Does the Catholic Church really provide a good model for becoming successful for the LDS Church to follow? (the Catholic Church’s success can be attributed in large part to its political clout with which it was able to engage in wars of conquest and forced conversions, etc.). Are there not numerous counter-examples of religious movements that enjoyed modest success for a season but which imploded or disintegrated at least partly due to a failure to deal effectively with difficult issues? What makes the speaker think the LDS Church is more like the Catholic Church than, say, the Strangites, the Shakers, or the Swedenborgians? 

The comparison to the Catholic Church’s problems is irrelevant to the question of whether the difficult issues facing the LDS Church pose a serious threat to the organization’s future growth and vitality. By making such a comparison, the speaker insults those who consider the issues facing the LDS Church to be substantial and sufficiently serious to warrant discussion, analysis, and a call to action. To say that Mormonism does not have any real problems because the Catholic Church’s problems are so much worse is a bit like a moderately inebriated bar patron claiming he is fit to drive home because the guy on the barstool next to him is passed out drunk. No one has said the problems with Mormon history, doctrine, and culture are the most severe of any religious organization. But simply because one can point to another organization that has successfully grappled with more difficult problems does not mean all is well in Zion.

Another problem with this line of argument is that if the problems in Mormonism are not all that serious—if the issues are really not so difficult—what is the objection to injecting discussion of them into the Sunday meetings, the missionary discussions, General Conference addresses, and so forth? Why the hand-wringing about the need to address difficult issues outside the “faith-promoting” context of Sunday School and Sacrament meeting? Why the call for appropriate time, place, and manner restrictions on inoculation activities? 

Before moving on to more comments about what the panelists said, a word on what they didn’t say. I was struck by the fact that no one bothered to ask (or try to answer) the question “is inoculation even necessary?” Certainly, Boyd Packer doesn’t think the church needs to inoculate people from anything: he says the church has nothing to apologize for and that members of the church ought to willingly defend church history. One church apologist who has participated in Mormon Matters before but was not on this panel has said that he thinks that “church history is a very beautiful thing indeed.” So there are at least some faithful Mormons who might take issue with the idea that any inoculation is necessary. The question of how to inoculate presupposes that there is some need for it. If the church has never suppressed information about its past, has never hidden anything from its members, presents an accurate depiction of its history, encourages openness and honesty in researching, writing, publishing, and discussing church history and doctrinal issues, then there is no need for inoculation. The only reason why inoculation would be necessary is if there really is some “disease” out there from which the members need protection. What is the disease the panelists think needs to be treated with an inoculation? Just admitting that inoculation might be needed implies that the LDS Church has been doing something wrong—i.e., that it has actually been either deliberately or negligently failing to give its members the whole story on a host of issues. I think that this may the single largest impediment to the kinds of institutional change that would be required to implement an effective inoculation program—the church would have to admit that it has been, shall we say, less than forthcoming with information about its past (and its present for that matter). The culture of secrecy and the culture of de facto infallibility applied to the apostles would have to be jettisoned and replaced with a culture of openness and a shift in perceptions about the nature and calling of prophets and apostles. (One audience member made a similar suggestion on this point at the conclusion of the presentation). Without an institutional acknowledgment of a need to change the business-as-usual approach that has been the hallmark of the Hinckley administration (remember, he said his motto would be “carry on” when he assumed the Presidency), all the talk in the world about inoculation will be unavailing. It would be like a bunch of scientists putting together a plan to distribute a vaccine, only to have the Center for Disease Control tell Congress such a vaccine was completely unnecessary and recommend against funding it. A few apologists on the Internet and the occasional apologetic Gospel Doctrine teacher who happily teaches a class on polyandry are not going to effect the kind of change that is required to address the problem. Like it or not, the LDS Church is a decidedly hierarchical organization. For any inoculation program to succeed, it will need not only the blessing but the energetic support of the Big 15. 

Of course, I still haven’t answered the question I said the panel should have addressed: why the need for inoculation? We don’t talk about the need to inoculate schoolkids from mathematical, geographical, astronomical, geological, or biological truths, do we? If the LDS Church is what it claims to be, then why would there be any fear about members of the church coming into contact with true information about the church and its history? If I teach my kids about George Washington, for example, and I teach them the truth and not a bunch of falsehoods about him, would I need to worry at all about them continuing to gather more information and learning about George Washington? This really gets to the heart of the matter, and is perhaps the biggest conundrum facing the church and its apologists. The church discourages people from seeking information outside of church-approved channels. When they do, they discover that the truth about certain things the church has taught them is quite a bit different from what they have been taught. And they feel a sense of betrayed trust. Contrary to the apologists’ assertions that the individual members are at fault for not discovering the deceptions in their youth, the blame lies squarely on the church’s doorstep. 

An analogy will illustrate: suppose my child’s school were to teach her that the sun goes around the earth, which is the center of the universe. Now suppose that school told my daughter not to read any materials that taught anything contrary to what she was learning in school on these matters. They taught her not to trust “alternate voices” and that those who disagreed with the school’s position were, in fact, blinded by evil forces teaching lies. She grows up trusting her teachers, just as her parents instructed her to do from birth. Now let’s say she goes off to college where she finds information that, upon careful examination, leads her to believe that what she had been taught in school growing up was not true. And then she finds out that not only was what she taught not true but her teachers (at least some of them) knew it was not true but taught it anyway. Would you blame my daughter for not learning the truth earlier? Would you understand if she felt betrayed? Maybe even a little angry? Would you excuse the school teachers and the people who were in charge of the school? Would you think the solution to the problem was to have her be “inoculated?” If so, how? I propose that the way to inoculate her would be for the school to not teach falsehoods and to overhaul the curriculum to reflect the truth as it is known to the school and its administrators. 

So, why shouldn’t the church’s “inoculation” program be the same? Simply teach the truth from the start and there is no need to inoculate anyone from the fruits of future investigations. The problem for the church is this: teaching the truth undermines its fundamental faith claims. Going back to the analogy, if the school teachers, alumni, and administrators all had a personal, emotional stake in believing and teaching that the sun goes round the earth, it would be difficult to change the curriculum. “Inoculation” only becomes a problem where people (and institutions) with a vested interest in preserving and promoting false ideas are trying to prevent the people over whom they exert some control from finding and believing information that contradicts those false ideas. 

Think about that and I’ll be back tomorrow with more comments on this podcast.


C. L. Hanson

I wouldn't be too dismissive of the idea of "innoculating" people against the idea that God might not exist: it really does happen that people raised in sheltered religious communities are shocked and amazed by meeting an atheist and end up having their faith shaken by the experience. Of course you're right that it's not specifically a Mormon concern. It might have been a reasonable starting point if they'd gone from there to draw parallels with specific facts about Mormonism that tend to surprise people and shake their faith when they first learn them.

I can kind of see what they're shooting for in this discussion: there are cases where people give false information as part of a well-meaning strategy, and it backfires. An obvious example is telling kids that one puff of marijuana will get them hooked on drugs to the point where they're dead in the gutter from a heroin overdose within a few weeks. When the kids figure out that's not true, they don't have the appropriate information to make responsible decisions about moderate use. believing Mormons might see "innoculation" as a means of preventing this sort of problem.

I agree with you on the root of the problem though: certain aspects of Mormonism just aren't faith-promoting no matter how you slice them. When you learn the facts about the Book of Abraham (among other things) -- and it looks like the church has been hiding the truth from you -- it looks just that much worse than if the church appeared to be completely open about it. But that doesn't mean that reading an Egyptologist's translation in church would somehow make Joseph Smith's translation abilities look less questionable.

Jonathan Blake

I agree that atheism by itself is a threat to Mormon faith. I was defenseless when I heard real atheist arguments for the first time a couple of years ago. Nothing in Mormon thought or scripture helped me out much. All I could find was the fairly lame "all things denote that there is a God" and a just have faith attitude.

If atheist arguments gain a higher profile, I think you'll see more people losing faith in Mormonism.



Heh, exactly. Not to mention that the best examples of so-called atheism in the book of mormon are complete fuckin' idiots with a summing argument of: "There is no god ... oops, yeah you're right. The devil made me do it. Where's the closest tapir cart? I need to get run over."


Atheism is no threat to Mormonism, just like it isn’t a threat to any other religion. No logical argument can lead one to believe in God or not believe in God. It’s free agency at its best (or its worst, depending on what you believe). Most people believe in God based on experiences which they attribute to the divine. You can argue that such experiences are not divine, but it’s a tough argument to make because the arguer hasn’t actually experienced the other’s spiritual experience. It’s the same as telling someone that they don’t feel bored because there is no good reason (in your estimation) for that person to be bored.

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