Thursday, July 14, 2016

John Dehlin and the Art of Selective Outrage (#GordonGate)

John Dehlin delivering a TED talk in 2013. 
I've long been a fan of Jon Stewart. Being politically liberal (on most issues), I naturally enjoy his wit, humor, and political and cultural satire. I remember when in 2011 when he went on Fox News and debated Bill O'Reilly over the appropriateness of the White House inviting the rapper Common to a social function. During the debate, Stewart pointed out what he perceived was the "selective outrage" at Fox News over incidents such as this. He specifically claimed, "There is a selective outrage machine here at Fox that pettifogs only when it suits the narrative that suits them." (Source: 4:53–5:01).

Last night my Facebook newsfeed exploded with comments on what might be called #GordonGate. Back in June, Scott Gordon (whom I count as a friend, for full disclosure), the president of FairMormon (of which I was once a member, for full disclosure), delivered an address in Sweden titled "Maintaining Faith." In his presentation Scott gave some examples of those who have challenged or attacked the Church, its teachings, its history, and its members and leaders. One example he gave was the work of John Dehlin, the host of the popular Mormon Stories podcast.
This second example here is called Mormon Stories. It was established by another member. He was counseled by his stake president many many times but he was finally excommunicated this past year. This website mostly focuses on the Church's stance on social issues such as gay marriage and women in the church. I know this man personally and have had many conversations with him. His sister is a member of FairMormon. He has long believed there is no God. The Church is [a] nice social organization and he's been attempting to fix it for a long time. So he hasn't wanted to leave because it's such a nice group of people. But God doesn't exist. (Source)
After crowdsourcing help from ex-Mormons on Reddit, Dehlin posted a reply to Scott's comments. He opened his salvo with no ambiguity. "Since you chose to publicly smear/malign me in a disingenuous way during your recent trip to Europe on multiple occasions," Dehlin began, "I would like to ask you to do five things as a courtesy to me, and as a way to demonstrate your credibility to your followers."

What could Scott's brazen attack have possibly been? Instead of doing something like, say, spreading rumors about Dehlin's mental health on the Internet, according to Dehlin, Scott's unacceptable behavior was claiming to know Dehlin personally and saying that Dehlin does not believe in God.

The first claim is erroneous, Dehlin insists, because he himself cannot recall them ever becoming that acquainted on a personal level. The second is erroneous, he also insists, because he's really not an avowed atheist, just a soft agnostic. "Perhaps my faith in God has wavered/fluctuated at times — perhaps I lost a belief in an anthropomorphic God — perhaps I admit that I do not “know” there is a God," Dehlin granted, "but to this day I maintain hope that there is a God and/or an afterlife…even though I have made peace with the possibility that there is no God or afterlife. This has been my position on God for many, many years."

That's it. Scott Gordon doesn't really know Dehlin personally and Dehlin really isn't an avowed atheist. A levelheaded and adult way to respond to a misunderstanding or misstatement of this sort would be to calmly correct the public record. Maybe something like this:

"Dear Scott, you've claimed that we know each other personally, and that I don't believe in God. I wouldn't really say we know each other that well 'personally.' We've only met a time or two and that's about it as far as I can recall. Also, I'm not really an atheist. I'm not sure if God exists, but I don't outright disavow his existence. Kind of. So I'd probably best be called an agnostic or something like that. I would thank you to be more careful in the future."

But in the world of Internet ex-Mormonism, where assuming bad faith on the part of your opponents is the order of the day, misunderstandings or misstatements are more than just someone not being careful. They're deliberate attacks. Thus, these two infractions, Dehlin and his outraged followers insist, constitute a "smear" and a "character assault" on Dehlin. Scott is "maligning" Dehlin, and "publicly deceiving, manipulating, and smearing" people.

Ever scrupulously concerned about preserving the Church's good image, Dehlin voiced his concern "that your ill-conceieved smear tactics are backfiring." Based on the testimony of no less than two anonymous European supporters (from the UK and Sweden, respectively), Dehlin is worried that Scott's behavior reflects poorly on both "FAIRMORMON [sic]" as well as "the gospel of Jesus Christ."

As some form of penance for this grotesque injustice, Dehlin has asked Scott to remove or edit the offensive video, and has (bizarrely) requested Scott disclose FairMormon's finances.

There's a lot that could be said about #GordonGate. Daniel Peterson has already made a few observations, as well as the illuminating blog dearjohndehlin.

What's fascinating to me, however, is the selective outrage on full display. A few weeks before Scott Gordon delivered his remarks in Sweden, another podcast with a primarily ex-Mormon audience posted an interview titled "John Dehlin: The Reluctant Atheist." I confess that I have not listened to the interview (my time and brain cells are precious to me), but from the comments left by listeners it would appear that Dehlin can best be described as an apatheist. So not strictly an atheist, but not necessarily a believer either.

It's understandable, however, why Scott Gordon and others would be confused on how to precisely categorize Dehlin. The podcaster himself has somewhat ambivalent feelings towards God's existence. As revealed in public statements, Dehlin has waffled somewhere between non-belief and a sort of apathetic agnosticism.

  • I’m at the point where I realize that God, the probability that God exists is quite low. . . . As I look at the probability that everything that we have here is just random, and there’s no purpose or meaning to it, that actually seems almost as absurd as the idea that there is some type of God. Those seem almost equally absurd to me. . . . there has been enough support for what I’ve tried to do that I just call that God. I slap the ‘God’ label on that, fully aware that there is a low probability that there actually is anything. . . . I’m aware that might be completely a product of my imagination. (John Larsen and Zilpa Larsen, “Episode 180: John Dehlin,” podcast interview with John Dehlin, [2 January 2012])
  •  I still consider myself to be a believer in “the divine” or “God” — although I prefer to retain a great deal of humility when attempting to assign a specific form, beliefs, or behavior to God.  I believe that all of us are only guessing when we speak about the divine.  While I often question or even doubt the existence of God, it does appear to me as though our creation has some sort of driving force or power, and I cannot deny that (at times) I have felt influence and support in my life which appeared to be outside my own power/ability.  Consequently, I retain some hope that there is divine purpose and influence in our existence (and I call this God).  I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about all this, that there could be no “God,” and that this life could be the only life we get.  Consequently, I remain determined to make the most of my life on earth — whether or not there is an afterlife. (John Dehlin, "What aspects of LDS Church teachings/doctrine do you still believe in, vs. not?," [27 June 2014])

But this is really beside the point. I'll grant that Scott was wrong in saying Dehlin doesn't believe in God, if only to grant Dehlin the courtesy of being able to define his own labels for himself.

What's most important to all of this is how Dehlin reacted to the Infants on Thrones podcast calling him a "reluctant atheist."

Or, rather, how he didn't respond.

As far as I can tell (I've been banned from Dehlin's social media platforms so I can't verify myself, and am thus relying on reports from others), there have been no public cries of outrage from Dehlin. No screaming that "Glenn, Randy, Heather, and Matt" had smeared or maligned him, or that they were "manipulating" or "deceiving" the public by calling Dehlin an atheist. There were no Jovian bolts cast down upon the hosts of the Infants on Thrones podcast. No demands to edit or remove the interview (or at least the title). No Dehlinite mobs crying for blood and retribution. And no awkward requests for Infants on Thrones to disclose its finances.

Why not? What gives? The only way I can really account for this selective outrage is because Dehlin likes to cry foul when it plays into his narrative about how mean and nasty Mormon apologists supposedly are. Part of the narrative that Dehlin has made for himself is that he is a martyr at the hands of spiteful and callous Mormon apologists. Scott Gordon (mistakenly) calling him an atheist plays right into this narrative. It wasn't that Scott was just mistaken. He was out to deliberately attack Dehlin. Or so Dehlin would have us believe. This would explain why he had to reach for his smelling salts when Scott Gordon called him a non-believer, but was totally chill when the gang at Infants on Thrones called him a "reluctant atheist." This would also explain not only Dehlin's litany of (transparently insincere) questions directed at Scott, but his deafening silence in response to the Infants on Thrones podcast as well.

I guess what I'm saying here is that John Dehlin is the Fox News of ex-Mormonism: he switches on the selective outrage machine and pettifogs only when it suits his narrative. This may help reinforce his own worldview, as well as give his eager supporters the ammunition they need to continue their ideological warfare against the LDS Church and those who defend it. But that's about all that it accomplishes. It is a wholly unedifying and unsatisfying way to go about handling these kinds of affairs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Postscript on Book of Mormon Battle Numbers

Not long ago I posted a few thoughts on the improbable battle numbers reported in the Book of Mormon.

In response to my post, some offered very interesting thoughts on the interplay between archaeology, history, and the critical reading of ancient sources.

Others, however, were not so nuanced.

Over at the ex-Mormon Subreddit, for instance, the diligent savants of that prestigious salon were less than impressed with my arguments. The main complaint, as far as I could tell, was that my post was just another sad example of an apologist making up stuff on the fly to save his desperate faith in the Book of Mormon.

Because . . . something, something . . . confirmation bias!

This morning I encountered a rather interesting passage in a book on ancient Egyptian history.
One of the hardest tasks for the scholar of ancient Egypt is to subject the textual record to historical criticism. Often a single source, or a set that presents the same point of view, provides the only information on an event or a practice. It is thus difficult to ascertain whether the outcome of a military campaign was as glorious as the author proclaims or even whether the campaign took place. In other fields of historical research the rule that a single testimony is no testimony is often invoked, but this attitude would leave ancient Egyptian history in tatters, as often we have to rely on one source only. Historians need to use great caution.
(Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt [Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell, 2011], 13.)

Van De Mieroop reminds us, "The modern concept of history is very different from the ancient Egyptians" (19). The ancient Egyptians, after all, "did not produce accounts that professed to be accurate historical investigations of the past." Rather, they wrote accounts and stories "of historical figures" that functioned to "inspire royal and elite conduct that could deal with adversity" (13–14).

The point here, of course, is that mainstream scholars (historians and archaeologists and the like) frequently urge us all the time to be very cautious in accepting the historical claims of ancient texts on face value. We must read these texts critically, and in addition to the non-textual data take into consideration such factors as authorship, bias, sources, literary, narrative, or compositional technique, etc., when we evaluate the text's historicity. This is especially true when we have only one surviving source on a given topic.

(Notice that Van De Mieroop specifically mentioned the claimed outcome of military campaigns as a prominent example of when we need to be cautious in evaluating ancient historical sources.)

We must ask questions such as: what religious, political, or social agenda does this text attempt to promote? Why did the author of this text present the history of such-and-such in this manner? What liberties might the author have taken in his presentation of this history? Why did he do such? What was his purpose? What was he attempting to communicate to his readers? How might these liberties have affected the text's historicity? How does this technique compare to the literary culture of neighboring societies?

If this is the standard procedure for evaluating ancient Egyptian sources (and it is the same procedure, by the way, used by biblical scholars grappling with the historical claims of the Hebrew Bible), then what exactly is the problem with me wanting to do the same for the Book of Mormon?

–––Addendum (July 7, 2016)–––

I encountered the following a day after posting this, and thought it'd be appropriate to just stick it here:
In contrast to the texts of other ancient Near Eastern cultures which typically provide relatively little information about the size of their armies, the Bible includes a great deal of information about the number of Israelite troops. Unfortunately, much of this information is problematic. . . . The numbers appear quite high, especially considering the apparent size of the armies of other, better established contemporary nations. . . . This difficulty has led many to discount the biblical numbers altogether, or consider them to be intentional exaggerations. Clearly, the Bible does include exaggerations. . . . Thus, some argue that the biblical numbers often also exaggerate to make certain points, such as glorifying the God of Israel.
(Boyd Seevers, Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013], 53.)

If the Bible can get away with doing this, why can't the Book of Mormon?