There’s a phrase thrown around a lot on Twitter, in a humorous manner, in which a person says “I feel personally attacked” in response to a meme, another Tweet, or any other observation. It’s a self-deprecating joke. The person doesn’t really feel attacked.They are just poking fun at the fact that the thing referenced hits close to their personal identity or self-perception. Similarly, people sometimes say “I feel seen” as a response to the same types of observations. It reminds me of an expression people used to use, also self-deprecatingly, “I resemble that remark,” which was a comic alteration of the phrase “I resent that remark.” In both cases, the joke is that the remark or the observation is something that the person identifies with in such a way that they feel attacked or seen by association or that they resent or acknowledge how close to home it hits.
For most people, our beliefs feel like who we are, our identity. But are they? We weren’t born with them. These are ideas we picked up along the way based on our life experiences, the ideas of the people around us, and the various cultures we live in. Change the circumstances, the experiences, the people around us, and our beliefs might be quite different.
I’ve been reading the book Think Again by Adam Grant. He details an “unethical” psychological study done in Harvard in 1959 in which participants were asked to write out what their personal beliefs were. They were then told they would be paired up with a partner to discuss those beliefs, but in reality, they were set up with a law student to have their beliefs attacked and to have to defend them under rhetorical siege. The researcher, Henry Murray, was interested in finding out how people navigate difficult interactions. What he found was that the responses to having their beliefs “attacked” varied greatly from participant to participant. The interactions were filmed, and participants were invited back over the following months to review their performance. For many of them, it was excruciatingly painful to see themselves sweating, grimacing, and struggling to respond to the onslaught of criticism against their beliefs. Even 25 years later, many of them still experienced pain and discomfort reliving the experience. They described their response as feeling full of rage, chagrin, discomfort, embarrassment, betrayal, bewilderment or humiliation.
But that wasn’t how all participants felt. There were some participants who had the exact opposite response to having their beliefs “attacked” by the law student “partner.” They felt exhiliarated, amused, thrilled or energized, and described the experience as “fun.” They avoided being so deeply attached to their beliefs and ideas that separating from them was painful. They were open-minded about the possibility that they could be wrong. They didn’t feel threatened because their identity was separate from these beliefs and ideas they held.
When a core belief is questioned, though, we tend to shut down rather than open up. It’s as if there’s a miniature dictator living inside our heads, controlling the flow of facts to our minds, much like Kim Jong-un controls the press in North Korea. The technical term for this in psychology is the totalitarian ego, and its job is to keep out threatening information.
There are a handful of stories on the Church website that exemplify this inability to detach one’s identity from one’s opinions, and unfortunately, they are lauded as great examples. These are stories of Church members attempting to defend beliefs that they think they must hold, but don’t understand well enough to defend. They just have a vague sense of being attacked; they come across as extremely defensive, yet uninformed. These will sound familiar to many readers. A teacher presents information that a student finds threatening, particularly evolution, and the student emotionally and defensively bears testimony to the teacher about the Church. In these stories, as they are told, the teacher respects the student for standing up for his or her convictions. These stories feel implausible. We are meant to believe that the science teacher is going to be wowed by the conviction of the student who, admittedly, knows nothing about the subject but feels “called upon” to confront the science teacher? OK, boomer.  And yet, I’ve definitely been on the receiving end of one of these conversations when I was a student at BYU (and doubtless many more times since then). This is not a far-fetched scenario for Mormon behavior, even if it is us at our worst: self-righteous, defensive, yet totally ignorant, striking out at those whom we don’t really understand because we feel under threat.
There’s a scene in the Pixar film Inside Out in which the characters are travelling on the Train of Thought. There are small tablets labelled with runes that represent “facts” and “opinions.” Joy trips, and all the tablets scatter everwhere. “Facts” contain information that is always true, and “Opinions” contain information that is what Riley Andersen (the girl whose brain they inhabit) believes. Joy scrambles to put the tablets back in the correct crates, but Bing Bong just stuffs them all in the crate labelled “Facts” and explains to Joy that people can’t tell the difference anyway.
“Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything. . . . My attachment to my ideas is provisional. There’s no unconditional love for them.” Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-prize winning psychologist and author
Adam Grant points out two useful types of detachment that we can use to prevent us from defending our wrong ideas:
- Detaching your present from your past
- Detaching your opinions from your identity
As an individual, we can detach from the less experienced, less educated person we used to be. Ideally, we should recognize that we will at some future point see our present self in that same way also. We can recognize that we are constantly learning new information, experiencing new things, encountering facts and ideas from those around us, and those things will challenge our wrong beliefs and help us see that we were wrong. To do this, we also need to recognize that we are people with ideas and beliefs, but those ideas and beliefs are not who we are. They are like the tiles in the crates. We can discard them if we realize they aren’t true, and doing so will not diminish us. It will elevate us.
Unfortunately, doing these things becomes harder at an institutional level. An institution has a harder time changing than an individual does because it’s bigger and comprises of many individuals, and if it changes too much or too often, it ceases to be identifiable, and loses people in the process. If Church leaders rely on the historical succession process to bolster their authority, it can feel harder to detach from prior leaders’ opinions that were codified into doctrine or cast as revelation. Pres. Nelson doesn’t seem to have any problem throwing predecessors under the bus, but this has been a difficulty in the past for various leaders. In the David O. McKay biography, we learn that Mormon Doctrine was published by Bruce R. McConkie with over a thousand inaccuracies in it and without having received prior authorization to publish; yet, top leaders were unwilling to say this openly and publicly lest they reduce McConkie’s infuence among Church members which was still seen as a positive. This is a very alarming example of unwillingness to detach present beliefs from past beliefs. Another one is our institutional unwillingness to apologize for past racist teachings and policies, instead downplaying them or calling them God’s will. Part of learning and growing is letting go, fully, of past wrong ideas. As evidenced by a recent report of racism in Davis County schools, many Church members still embrace racism in 2021. They haven’t let go of those wrong opinions and beliefs that the Church hasn’t fully rooted out.
How can a Church can detach opinions from identity since religions are institutions based on a worldview that is a set of beliefs? I actually think this is one that Joseph Smith set up very wisely when he started the Church, even though over time we’ve largely lost this ability. He said that we would constantly improve our ideas and beliefs as our knowledge and experience grew through the process of revelation, making it easier to discard past beliefs. Pres. Nelson is again pretty willing to use this approach, even if he’s pinned it to some things that feel easily identifiable as opinions and ideas rather than Capital T Truth. We went from being told that the 2015 Policy against children of gay couples getting baptized was Revelation(TM) to being told that doing away with that policy a few years later was ALSO Revelation(TM). Okey dokey. I’m not convinced either of these was the right use of that term, but I am all for embracing the fact that we were wrong. We used to downgrade doctrines to policies to indicate that they were wrong, but the latest change to the handbook has taken that point of retreat away by considering it apostasy to disagree with policies. So now, we have to uncritically accept policies, too, not just revelations or doctrines. I guess if you say so.
“Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe.” Adam Grant
A Church can be a group of people who want to learn to be more like Christ while acknowledging that our beliefs may change with further light and knowledge, which is the point of ongoing revelation. That revelation can be personal or institutional, but if it can’t change with new information, then it’s not revelation; it’s just human stubborn defensiveness.
- Do you think the Church teaches its members to be defensive and perceive attacks where they don’t exist or to be open-minded to be able to update our beliefs when they are wrong?
- Do you see the Church as willing to discard wrong beliefs or clinging to them to preserve identity or authority?
 Nevermind the fact that evolution is taught at BYU! But apparently the CES people who lauded this story as fantastic and faithful are still fighting that fact.