Bryan Caplan  

Garett the Gracious

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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.


Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Jason Malloy writes:

Another ex-Mormon is historian Fawn Brodie, who wrote IMHO the best Joseph Smith biography out there.

Another notable ex-Mormon was the first atheist Governor of California. (note "Angry Atheist" picture chosen for Wikipedia :))

TGGP writes:

Even though I consider a lot of their beliefs to be wacky, I seriously wish everyone else in the world (but not me) was a Mormon. It would be a much better place. Perhaps my experience with Mormons has been unrepresentative, but it sounds like Caplan has had the same kind.

kodos writes:

Sounds like a nice guy. Too bad he's going to end up in the Telestial Kingdom

Jeff Shepley writes:

I appreciate Garett's term "post-Mormon". As a member of the Church you are often told that those that fall away inevitably become angry with the Church and become it's biggest opponents. Referring to them as "apostates" surely doesn't help these people feel welcome by the Church at large.

My experience falls very much in line with Garett's and therefore am very grateful that he articulated it so well. I'm definitely a post-Mormon who sees the Church not as some wacky brainwashing cult but as an elaborate work of men striving to find meaning in life; in failing to find it in the world, they adhere to a non-worldly meaning of life.

Garett hit the money on being fortunate to have laid back family. I know Mormons who would likely not be in the Church if not for the (correct) fear of ostracism by family and friends. One of the issues with believing in "familys are forever" is that parents fear more than anything that their children won't be part of that forever if they fall away. This makes it difficult for them to accept unbelief in their children.

Patri Friedman writes:

Wow, we must hang out with very different people. I only know one Mormon who stayed Mormon, and I've met lots of apostates. And had lots of fun with them of the un-church-sanctioned type ;).

Lord writes:

You might want to first glance at why most terrorists are muslims Everyone Mormon, at least of the original variety, may not have been very desirable.

caveat bettor writes:

Nice, pleasant post. But conflating Mormons with Christians and Jews seems equivalent to conflating GMU economists with Soviet atheists.

Jeff Shepley writes:
But conflating Mormons with Christians and Jews seems equivalent to conflating GMU economists with Soviet atheists.

So Mormons are to Christians/Jews was GMU economists are to Soviets? Explain!

caveat bettor writes:

Jeff: Mormons, Christians, & Jews exhibit theistic tendencies. GMU economists and Soviet apparatchiks exhibit atheistic biases.

I find GMU faculty claims and Christian claims to have greater legitimacy than Mormon and Soviet claims. How can this be? Until we see past the fallacy of false analogy, it may not be easy to figure that out.

TGGP writes:

caveat bettor, wouldn't GMU economists and Soviet Marxist economists be a better analogy than Soviet atheists? I don't even think all the GMU economists are non-believers.

caveat bettor writes:

TGGP: True dat. Yet, while I've only seen a minority of GMU econ bloggers cop, they are copping against theism.

Fundamentalist writes:

Do you think Bryan will give as much press to ex-atheists? There's a lot of them out there, such as the head of the human genome project, Dr. Francis Collins.

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