A lot of people in online Mormon spaces have been talking this week about a failed project (a new podcast called Mormon News Weekly) that Patrick Mason announced via Twitter he had decided to step away from. It was intended to be a weekly discussion between him, Jana Reiss and John Dehlin. The three of them were interested in providing different perspectives about news stories. Hearing that Patrick Mason, who is highly respected in both faithful and post-Mormon spaces, decided to step away signals a growing difficulty in breaching the ideological divides the Church membership faces. We are losing our ability to talk to people we disagree with.

These divides appear to be linked to the growing political partisan divide. A podcast I was very excited about underwent the same exact scenario a few months ago. Mike Pesca (whose podcast The Gist is one of my faves) created a three person discussion podcast called “Not Even Mad” with fellow hosts Virginia Heffernan and Jamie Kirchick. Although Mike expressed his disappointment that it didn’t last long and sort of fell apart, Virginia said at one point that she felt like she was pulling her punches to keep the format friendly. I imagine that partisan listeners may have objected to hear their own vociferous viewpoints “watered down” enough to have a civil conversation with “the enemy.” If so, that’s basically what happened according to Patrick Mason:

1/ A couple weeks ago I announced my participation in the new podcast “Mormon News Weekly” with @johndehlin and @janariess. Today I’m announcing that I’m stepping away from the show.

2/ When I posted my tweet about the show, I honestly expected a moderate response. I conceived of the project as being a modest affair–3 people sitting around and talking about the news. While of course we sought listeners, our intention was never to create a lot of drama.

3/ What we did seek was peace. Frustrated and overwhelmed by the polarization we see in almost every segment of our society, we wanted to experiment with something different.

4/ What it would look like for three people, with varying relationships to the LDS Church, to have a civil conversation about that week’s main LDS-related stories? We would naturally disagree, but we would do so with civility and generosity toward one another and our subjects.

5/ The sad fact is that many active Latter-day Saints and many post-/ex-Mormons have increasingly found themselves unable to talk with one another. Indeed, sometimes it seems we barely know one another. Empathy has too often been replaced with anger, communication with contempt.

6/ But whether we like it or not, whether in real or virtual spaces we’re neighbors—and often family members. What would it look like for neighbors who have been locked in a destructive cycle of mutual animosity to begin to reestablish a relationship?

7/ Maybe it would look like just talking with one another, even about inconsequential things like the news. As John & I formulated the idea for the show, we had in mind all the people who are starving for civil discourse and gratified whenever and wherever they can find it.

8/ So why stop? Why pull out after only two episodes (which we have since taken down from YouTube)? It’s because I now realize after a tough couple weeks that I had focused so much on the positive potential of the show that I hadn’t fully counted the cost—to myself and others.

9/ I was frankly surprised by the visceral reactions to my announcement. I was heartened by the many positive responses and took seriously the many constructive criticisms of the project; it was definitely a work-in-progress.

10/ But I was stunned by the mean-spirited accusations and characterizations peddled by self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy and by people so brave and confident of their convictions that they post under the guise of anonymity.

11/ So many people were quick to issue public condemnations rather than reach out to me privately, even though my e-mail address is easy to find. Sticks and stones and all that…but it turns out that words do hurt, and often more people than just the intended target.

12/ Ultimately, however, I didn’t come to this decision because of my critics. I came to this decision because of my friends. People who know me, who trust me, who want my good, who shape me, who ask questions of me, who make me better.

13/ Those honest and private conversations, in the spirit of Matt. 18:15, led me to realize that more than a few people felt that when I turned to face Jana & especially John, I was turning my back on them. That in seeking to transform conflict I only exacerbated it.

14/ That’s not what I intended. It’s hard to be in the middle. I’m still learning how to build bridges between people who have been genuinely hurt and are so suspicious of the other side that seeing me engage (rather than fight) feels like betrayal or a loss of faith.

15/ Even after many years of heartfelt (and often heart-wrenching) conversations, I frankly underestimated the size of the divide between (some) Latter-day Saints and (some) post-/ex-Mormons and the ongoing pain that lives on both sides. It’s fair to say I was a bit naive.

16/ I believe in making peace. With Pres. Nelson, I believe that peace-makers (not just peace-wishers) are badly needed today, and that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a special responsibility in this sphere.

17/ But peace-making is tricky, risky, taxing work. Sometimes it’s hard to know when is the right time or what is the right forum. It’s possible to have sincerely good intent and still say or do something that pains or confuses people.

18/ I won’t give up on making peace. I hope you won’t either. Find someone who’s different from you and engage in an ongoing conversation with civility and generosity. Seeing someone else’s humanity and then treating them with dignity is one of the best gifts you can give them.

19/ I have so much love for John and Jana, and total respect for the way they came to this project with sincerity and a genuine desire to model healthier conversations. I wish you could have all listened in on some of the private chats we had along the way.

20/ Jana and John have been incredibly gracious in response to my decision to step away. If they choose to continue the conversation (stay tuned for further developments), I’ll be cheering them on.

21/21 In the end, I apologize to anyone I’ve hurt, confused, or disappointed through either starting or stopping my involvement in this project. I’ll keep trying to do and be better. In the meantime, let’s all try our hardest to be good, kind, and generous to one another.

Patrick Mason’s explanation on Twitter

I have some ideas how we’ve gotten to this point, but I’m not at all sure how we get back to a better place. In part, I think it’s fair to blame the polarization that was exploited by Trump leading the way to saying the most inflammatory things possible, making it OK to openly defend some things that have always been lurking below the surface: racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, Naziism and white supremacy, and increasingly homo- and transphobia. Likewise, those on the left have become increasingly intolerant of conservatives who may be lashing out in their bewilderment or who may not understand unfamiliar concepts or may feel fearful of what a future without their beloved traditions (not said in sarcasm) and institutions in charge might bring. Feeling disoriented isn’t a crime.

We don’t need to write people off on either side of the divide just because they need more time and to hear some different perspectives than their own. The problem is, again, that we’ve emboldened hate speech. People who only superficially understand the opposing perspective are rewarded for attacking those whose ideas they dislike. We’ve replaced curiosity with personal attacks and listening with strawman arguments. People are persuadable. I shared the story of Megan Phelps-Roper in my post two weeks ago, and if her mind could be changed, anyone’s can.[1]

There are many reasons people avoid engaging with people whose opinions differ:

Fear of conflict. Mormons in particular seem to be prone to this. While Mason describes wanting to be a “peace-maker” and not a “peace-wisher” per the recent Pres. Nelson talk, avoiding engaging with different viewpoints doesn’t feel like the path to success. But yes, it can take a toll.

Confirmation bias. People find it painful to be confronted with information that undermines whatever their worldview is.

Stereotyping. It’s as easy to paint all conservatives as bigots as it is for them to pain all liberals as hedonists.

Prejudice. A few years ago, a study showed that people were actually more open to their child marrying someone of a different religion than a different political party. (Protip: it’s getting nearly impossible to tell the difference between religion and political party at this point).

Lack of empathy. People stop listening when they can imagine the other side doesn’t have good intentions or if they believe that the argument isn’t felt as a threat by the other party.

Closed-mindedness. Unfortunately, the Church encourages a closed-minded attitude in members when we hear dismissive attitudes about “outside sources,” people of other faiths, or those who have left the Church.

Polarization. We are more openly divided than ever before, largely due to the widening gap between political parties. Even independents disagree with each other, making a third party unlikely to succeed.

Tribalism. When people over-identify with their “in-group,” they may view any critique as a call to arms, requiring hostility towards outsiders to protect the group. As a result, dialogue is futile with those who take this stance.

Lack of trust. People trust different sources. Nobody knows everything about everything. Particularly in religious groups, too much trust is placed in non-experts, but even in science, some opinions are considered off-limits to question or uncontested. Our overconfidence in sources we’ve decided to trust that others may distrust makes it hard to find common ground.

Emotionality. People can find these dialogues emotionally triggering, too painful for them to continue to listen to. They resort to shouting down each other rather than listening and engaging out of a sense of self-preservation.

Given that Church discussions have, at least since correlation and probably before that, been tightly controlled to prevent too much “freelancing” (or many would say, actual thinking), it’s hard to see how we create any kind of discussion around controversial topics.[2] Even here at W&T, where moderation is light, we’ve had many recent posts where the comments have illustrate the problems of intolerance of other opinions.

Personally, I stop wanting to engage when I feel that we can’t agree on common ground about things like basic human dignity and the fact that we live in a pluralistic society. I usually try to keep on keeping on, but it can be wearing. Thinking back to debates about things like trans or gay rights, to the people who are being impacted, it is often a real matter of life and death. Allowing those not involved to have a voice in decisions that harm others but not themselves feels utterly immoral. And yet, if we don’t talk, nobody will be persuaded, which takes time, patience, and something like charity. It also takes seeing past the argument to the human being, and it takes an open enough mind to at least find common ground, even if the core disagreement is unresolved.

  • Do you think Mormons are more fragile about talking to those who disagree or roughly the same as everyone else?
  • Which of these reasons to avoid dialogue ring most true for you?
  • Have you found yourself unable to engage with the opposing viewpoint on some topics?
  • What do you think would improve the ability for true peace-making and discussion of difficult topics?


[1] If you forgot who she is, she was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church and had been protesting soldier’s funerals and other inflammatory things since age 5, holding up signs that said “God hates F*gs.”

[2] The gold standard for this probably belongs to Judaism which really takes grappling with their religious texts seriously. Maybe Mormonism hasn’t matured enough yet. Maybe we haven’t been through enough adversity yet to respect differences of opinion.