Critical thinking

(also see “Making Decisions”, “Obedience”, “Science”, and “Testimony and spiritual experiences”)

 

Pros of Mormonism from the perspective of the
Believer
Nonbeliever
Believing Mormons, or Mormons who want to believe, are encouraged to gain their own testimony of the church. They are not encouraged to blindly obey. Thus, the church, in its own way, encourages critical thinking.
 
The scriptures encourage us to think critically and to study things out in our minds. If we study it out and then pray, we are promised the spirit to give us inspiration to think critically. The scriptures encourage learning and knowledge, telling us to seek wisdom from the best books.
Even the nonbeliever must admit that some of the teachings of the church encourage critical-thinking. The scriptures encourage us to think critically and to study things out in our minds and to seek wisdom from the best books.
 
Cons of Mormonism from the perspective of the
Believer
Nonbeliever
Members are told:  “Satan can keep us busy, distracted, and infected by sifting through information [on the internet], much of which can be pure garbage. One should not roam through garbage.” Whether from the pulpit or from family or friends or peers, many members are definitely encouraged to avoid “anti-Mormon” material or even anything about the church not published by it, thatit would be a waste to spend a lot of time and energy reading it”. How can you think critically about a subject if you are told to avoid reading anything critical of it?
 
If the church is believed to be true and bring salvation, there is no incentive to think critically and do anything that might harm it or destroy precious testimony. Indeed, many believers are afraid to encounter historical facts or controversial issues because of fear it might hurt their testimony. Some believers are quoted as saying that they wouldn’t want to know if the church was not true.
 
President Hinckley said had similar advice about church history: “look for strength and goodness rather than weakness and foibles”
 
We are counseled in many instances to not speak against the Lord’s anointed. Elder Oak’s said: “Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true.” How can you think critically when we are counseled to not criticize, even if the criticism is true?
 
The following portion of Official Declaration 1 also applies here too, which can inhibit members from thinking critically about the church: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
 
The believing member might have cognitive dissonance when they hear statements likeWhen the Prophet speaks, … the debate is over”. This being the case, and the fact that obedience is the first law of heaven, how can we even dare to think critically for ourselves? (See section on “Obedience”).
 
Some believers feel that critical thinking used to be more appreciated than it is now. It used to be that prophets didn’t want us to believe their words unless it was in harmony with what the Lord has said before: “You know I like to prove what I say; I like to bring witnesses to bear on that which I express, and I do not ask the people to accept that which I say unless it is in harmony, absolutely, with what the Lord has said either directly or through his prophets.” Now, however, we are given a long list of fundamentals about how to follow the current prophet and directly told that “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet”. It is hard to think critically if other scripture or previous prophets’ words don’t matter.
 
Dallin H. Oaks explains that any conclusion or revelation contrary to what the Brethren says cannot be trusted:
 
“Similarly, we cannot communicate reliably through the direct, personal line if we are disobedient to or out of harmony with the priesthood line. The Lord has declared that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36). Unfortunately, it is common for persons who are violating God’s commandments or disobedient to the counsel of their priesthood leaders to declare that God has revealed to them that they are excused from obeying some commandment or from following some counsel. Such persons may be receiving revelation or inspiration, but it is not from the source they suppose. The devil is the father of lies, and he is ever anxious to frustrate the work of God by his clever imitations.”
 
Believers might find it frustrating that questioning leaders is equated with being on the road to apostasy: “I will give you a key which Brother Joseph Smith used to give in Nauvoo. He said that the very step of apostasy commenced with losing confidence in the leaders of this church and kingdom, and that whenever you discerned that spirit you might know that it would lead the possessor of it on the road to apostasy”
 
Believers might find it frustrating that they are discouraged from thorough investigation and study: “Sometimes, the truth may just seem too straightforward, too plain, and too simple for us to fully appreciate its great value. So we set aside what we have experienced and know to be true in pursuit of more mysterious or complicated information. Hopefully we will learn that when we chase after shadows, we are pursuing matters that have little substance and value.”
The nonbeliever is likely to agree with the cons listed in the believing section, and they are not reproduced here for the sake of brevity. They might add the following thoughts:
 
One aspect of a cult is that they discourage members of the cult from reading or investigating any material that is counter to or critical of the cult. Mormonism satisfies this criterion. If one applies the Mormon standard of critical thinking to a fundamentalist polygamy group, it goes from being faith-promoting to being creepy. Mormons would likely not laud a fundamentalist leader telling people to not read and study things critical of their fundamentalist beliefs. And yet, this is exactly what Mormonism does.
 
Many nonbelievers were at one time faced with this question: what does a Mormon do when they study and pray about the church and conclude that it’s not true? When they receive a witness that it or part of it is false? Frequently, people who come to this conclusion are criticized in one way or another. Some say that the nonbeliever has been deceived by the devil, and others defame the character of the nonbeliever by ad hominem attacks, such as assuming that the nonbeliever lost faith by sinning.
 
Many nonbelievers are shown by their leaders that there is little place for critical thinking in the church because when they think critically and speak publicly they are excommunicated.
 
The nonbeliever is not only likely to think that critical thinking is discouraged in Mormonism, but they are likely to think that Mormonism encourages bias. Testimonies are found when one first wants to believe, has the “desire to believe” or are found in the bearing of them. This is not conducive to critical thinking. This inserts confirmation bias and assumptions, and is opposite the scientific method, which aims to remove bias by controls.
 
The nonbeliever would also likely feel that critical thinking is unacceptable in Mormonism because it frequently comes at great social cost in church. Nonbelievers are often extremely uncomfortable participating in church because many or even most members are very uncomfortable with anything critical of their religion. Many believing members are unable to have rational, critical discussions about church topics without getting upset. Many nonbelievers find that every conversation they have with friends, family, and acquaintances who are members of the church needs to be filtered to avoid social harm. Participation in such a stifling environment can be unbearable. It is frustrating for the nonbeliever with many conversations about faith ending up in the believer bearing testimony. As President Benson said: “Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand”.

 

Comments relating to your lived experience with Mormonism are welcome. Although it can be difficult to distinguish at times, please focus on how the church helps and harms rather than it being true vs untrue.

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