This piece was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on December 3, 2016. It was written by Kristy Money, a psychologist specializing in relationship counseling, faith journeys and women’s mental health.
Last weekend Brigham Young University — the school where I earned my counseling Ph.D. — hosted a conference on faith and intellect. There were repeated references to doubters and those who leave the LDS Church, with charges that such people “succumb to spiritual and intellectual laziness” and lack moral character.
As a Mormon psychologist, I find these statements troubling, not only because of their potential impact on individuals who have left, but also on their friends, spouses and families. Since Mormonism places a heavy emphasis on the importance of family, my hope in writing this is to help counter this year’s alarming increase in fear-based narratives to distance LDS Church members from unorthodox friends and family.
First, let me address confirmation bias (seeing only what we want to see) and its effects on relationships. Rich Williams said at the conference, “If you think you are having a faith crisis … assume that most of your cultural understandings are wrong or at least distorted.” This was hard to hear, as in my BYU coursework on spirituality and psychotherapy a decade ago, I read and admired Dr. Williams’ work. Dr. Williams’ advice to automatically discount a perspective you disagree with relies dangerously on confirmation bias.
Similarly, Barbara Morgan Gardner shared from records she kept while counseling Harvard college students undergoing faith crises. She concluded that staying active boiled down to having a strong moral character. This, unfortunately, is one of the most damaging assumptions tearing apart LDS relationships right now, and is yet another example of confirmation bias.
I have also counseled many LDS college students undergoing faith crises, and their primary worry is how their families and friends might react. Will they reject them? Judge them for being lazy or letting themselves be deceived by Satan? Divorce them for their apparent decline in moral character?
Let me counter Morgan Gardner’s counseling records with my own: Among those I have counseled amidst faith crisis are the bravest, kindest, most conscientious and Christlike people I’ve met. And yes, that may be my confirmation bias talking (after all, I’m married to a wonderful man who has left the church), as bias affects us all. We need to be aware of its effect on our thinking — and our relationships.
I’m asking professors, church leaders, journalists, writers, seminary and Sunday school teachers, neighbors and all others reading this to stop spreading dangerous assumptions regarding doubters and doubt. Speaking from my clinical experience as a psychologist who focuses heavily on helping clients process their faith transitions, let me be clear: Calling on doubters to dismiss their doubts doesn’t work.
Decades of social science research attest to how the human mind resists deliberate attempts by others to change our opinions and beliefs. In fact, there is a corollary phenomenon to confirmation bias, known as the Backfire Effect: Simply put, when someone with deeply held beliefs is presented with a counter-argument, their beliefs are strengthened rather than weakened. So there’s a very practical reason to stop trying to convince others: it has the opposite effect.
More importantly, assumptions about the low moral character and laziness of those who doubt or leave the LDS Church are toxic to relationships. The antidote? Unconditional love and support. We can’t control other’s faith journeys, and trying to will backfire. It’s much healthier to embrace each other exactly as we are. My BYU training emphasized that truth.
If there’s a silver lining to the type of unproductive rhetoric on doubters, it’s this: Hearing assertions that loved ones lack moral character, when paired with evidence to the contrary (that is, when people we know and love aren’t like that at all), will create a physically uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Enough of that over extended periods can lead to positive change. I honestly believe love, friendship and family bonds will triumph in the end over controlling techniques intended to maintain obedience and the status quo. Love is a truly powerful force against which fear doesn’t stand a chance. So show some love to your heretical friends and family, and tell them nothing will change how you view and treat them. It’s a healthy relationship’s only hope.