Skeptical about the NYT's Mormon skeptic piece

We joke about having guilt files here at GetReligion -- folders full of stories that we'd like to look at and analyze but don't get around to for one reason or another. I have one from May of last year headlined "Mormons struggling with doubt turn to online support groups." I thought it such an intriguing topic and one handled well by focusing on a particular expression of doubt in a single religious community. Doubt is a topic explored much more within religious communities than most people realize, and is seriously undercovered -- or poorly covered -- by the media.

I thought of that 2012 story today because we have another story along the same lines, this time in the New York Times, and headlined "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt."

There is much to commend about the story and I encourage everyone to give it a read. I also will pass along some reader questions:

In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.

When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation.

But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble.

I grew up in Mormon areas and have Mormon family members and ex-Mormon family and friends -- the way this was worded struck me as slightly weird. Namely, while it's true that polygamy might be more formally associated with Brigham Young, everyone is taught that Joseph Smith introduced the principle of polygamy. I'm not sure how much people get into how much he practiced his own teaching, but for those of us with some knowledge of LDS teaching on the matter, the idea that it would be foundation-crumbling to learn he practiced what he taught is -- weird.

The story includes the explosive claim that "the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith." The basis for the claim? We get a story built around one doubter, a vague reference to "interviews" and, uh, an internet poll. More on that in a little bit.

The story suffers from a general problem of not seeming to understand at all how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized. Namely, there is no "priestcraft," which is sort of a derogatory term for traditional clergy. It's proudly lay run. If you are a Mormon for any length of time, you will almost assuredly hold some type of leadership position. This is considered a feature, not a bug, of how the church is organized. We learn that Mattsson became an area authority but I'd like to know a little bit more about what that means. Is it paid? Is it organizational? We hear it involved organization and preaching, but for the context of the story -- which hinges on this person being uniquely responsible for rocking the foundations of the LDS from within -- I think the reader could be helped along with a bit more specificity.

The story does get specific about what questions resonate with the doubters including whether it's "true that Smith took dozens of wives, some as young as 14 and some already wed to other Mormon leaders, to the great pain of his first wife, Emma?"

We're told that Mattsson found the last question shocking. Presumably the shock of the question is related to wives being wed to other Mormon leaders and to the pain it caused his first wife rather than the polygamy itself. Or is that right? I don't know. Later we hear from Richard Lyman Bushman, a Columbia University historian and Mormon. We're told that his book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" set off Mattsson.

The story doesn't mention something that is noteworthy -- the book is sold by Deseret Book Company -- a Mormon company. Not just a Mormon company but a huge Mormon-owned bookstore chain.

For what it's worth, Bushman is quoted saying that many Mormons don't think Smith practiced polygamy.

We got much reader feedback on this story but I'll go ahead and quote from a media professional who had some questions about the story. This person's family almost became Mormon and he has negative views about Mormon teachings. But he had even more negative views about the story.

Here are his slightly edited questions "upon reflection":

Why is this guy all that important? The reporter writes that his experience "is a sign that the church faces serious challenges not just from outside but also from skeptics inside," and then presents no data for that assertion at all -- except a quote from a guy who says this is the equivalent of a Catholic Cardinal's apostasy (which, if you know how many "bishops" there are in Mormonism, isn't so), plus a "survey of more than 3,300 Mormon disbelievers, released last year."

But wait a second -- that survey was an online survey posted to various websites and ENTIRELY self-reported. Heck, it even says under methodology, "we make no claim of representativeness or statistical significance in the sample" -- oh, and better yet, "302 respondents were removed due to incomplete data or because they answered 'yes' to still believing that the Church was 'the only true and living church.'" Oh. So people who don't believe in Mormonism and want to talk about it are against Mormonism? Hey that's some awesome journalism.

Again, I'd like to know a bit more about this area authority position before seeing how weird the cardinal comparison is but I'd agree that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles or the Quorums of the Seventy might be the more apt comparisons within the LDS. It's hard to say without more information.

The correspondent wonders why the media are more interested in some skeptics over others (e.g. Islamic skeptics, atheists, etc.). As a frequent skeptic and fan of learning about other skeptics, I think that's a great point. It can be overdone but if stories on skeptics are good, go ahead and report on all kinds.


And this passage buried deep within the story -- seriously, a) doesn't it contradict the thesis of the piece, and b) couldn't it as easily have been the lede?

"In the last 10 or 15 years, he said, 'the church has come to realize that transparency and candor and historical accuracy are really the only way to go.' The church has released seven volumes of the papers of Joseph Smith and published an essay on one of the most shameful events in church history, the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which church leaders plotted the slaughter of people in a wagon train in 1857."

The reporter's followup assertion is just baffling: "But the church has not actively disseminated most of these documents …" What … what does that mean? What's the standard for active dissemination? They're being open and honest in secret?

What I find interesting about this particular reader's comments is that he opposes Mormon teaching, was hoping for a good piece on Mormon doubt and yet still thinks it "looks like a random-ish hit piece."

What do you think about the journalism of this piece? What was good about it? What could be improved?

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