Garett the Gracious
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve known Mormons all my life. I was in a Mormon Cub Scout troop because my best friend was Mormon. One of my best friends in grad school was a Mormon, too. But in 35 years, I’d never (knowingly) met a Mormon apostate. Until now. It turns out that new GMU hire Garett Jones is an ex-Mormon, or to use his preferred term, a “post-Mormon.” It’s a fascinating story:
A post-Mormon is like someone who gets a divorce, but is still on (somewhat) friendly terms with the ex. You’re fairly glad you’ve had the experience, but you really don’t feel like getting back on the same ride again.
What precipitated his transformation?…I was a eventually a missionary too, but I decided after about four months out that I didn’t believe in it. My reasons had a lot to do with the epistemology behind the concept of testimony, and it took me a long time to take care of all the intellectual loose ends. Basically, my problem was that I kept having “spiritual experiences” toward obviously non-Mormon ideas. The irony is that most of the non-Mormon stuff I read had been assigned in BYU classes. Eventually, I figured out that spiritual experiences were a completely inaccurate way of determining truth, and so I left my mission.
The striking thing about Garett’s story is how is exemplifies all the best cultural traits I’ve long observed in Mormons: Pleasant, generous, and above all, gracious:
Any intellectual or historical problem that existed for Mormonism seemed to apply at least as strongly against Christianity or Judaism. This made Mormonism look less like the mere fraud that its opponents often claimed it was, and more like an authentic religious tradition. The LDS faith might turn out to be false, but it ranked no lower in intellectual respectability than the other monotheistic faiths.
But here’s the part the really makes me wonder: What would Larry Iannaccone say about this?
[D]espite the desire of many post-Mormons to believe that they were brainwashed in an especially thorough manner, I don’t think that the bad reasoning used by many Mormons is any more egregious than the bad reasoning used by atheists or Republicans or feminists or whoever. Bad reasoning on critical issues — and the reinforcement of bad reasoning by peer groups — is a common human trait. I was never convinced, and am still unconvinced, that a religion is false solely because it has stupid people defending it. Some people are addicted to Mormonism, and others are addicted to reruns of “Welcome Back Kotter.” But people give up both of them all the time. And remember, fewer than 50 percent of Mormons are active in the Church at any given time, so it can’t be all that oppressive.
I would agree, though, that the Missionary Training Center fits a lot of the standard criteria for brainwashing and “cult”-type practices. In the MTC, free thought and free debate are strongly condemned, and contact with outsiders is strictly regulated. These are all traits common to so-called “cults.” Of course, since you know what the rules are before you go there, you should decide before you become a missionary whether or not you believe in the Church. Sure, it’s a big decision for a 19-year-old, but life is all about big decisions. This is just another one of them.