Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched with fascination — though, unfortunately, not altogether in surprise — at the reaction in a few places to the article by and Barriers to Belief: Mental Distress and Disaffection from the Church”:
Here is the summary paragraph that precedes the published article:
Abstract: People leave the Church for a variety of reasons. Of all the reasons why people leave, one that has attracted little or no attention is the influence of mental distress. People who experience anxiety or depression see things differently than those who do not. Recognizing that people with mental distress have a different experience with church than others may help us to make adjustments that can prevent some amount of disaffection from the Church. This article takes a first step in identifying ways that mental distress can affect church activity and in presenting some of the things that individuals, friends, family members and Church leaders can do to help make being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints a little easier for those who experience mental distress.
Certain readers of the article — well, to be fully candid, I’m not absolutely sure that they have read the article and, in certain cases at least, I rather doubt that they have even glanced in its direction — have been mightily incensed at it because, they say, it claims that people leave the Church due to mental problems.
Well, it does suggest that — or, to be precise, it suggests that mental and/or emotional problems might be factors in certain cases of departure from the Church. And precision is very important here.
Consider the proposition
(A) People die due to drunk driving.
Strictly understood, this simply means that drunk driving is a factor in an unspecified number or proportion of deaths — a claim that is scarcely controversial. (I myself lost a very, very close friend to a drunken driver, years ago.)
It would be wildly unjustified, however, to insist that (A) means
(B) All people die due to drunk driving
For one thing, (A) simply doesn’t say that. Moreover, (B) is plainly false. People die from a host of causes, including disease, war, murder, falls from cliffs, botched surgeries, snakebite, drunk driving, food poisoning, drowning, airline crashes, and old age.
Manifestly, the most plausible reading of (A), and a thoroughly defensible one, is
(C) Some people die due to drunk driving.
In response to the Densley/Giles article, one or two critics have simply defined religious belief as itself a mental illness or mass delusion. But that’s mere bargain-basement pop Freudianism, and not very interesting. Others have declared, without offering statistical or other evidence in support of their assertion, that belief in the claims of the Restoration itself causes mental illness.
A few critics, however, profess to find the Densley/Giles article insulting and perhaps even legally defamatory because, they say, it argues that failure to believe Joseph Smith’s claims or a decision to leave the Church is, flatly, a sign of mental illness. Densley and Giles, these critics say, are inviting members of the Church to regard all who depart from it as mentally ill, even delusional, to stigmatize them as “the other,” and encouraging family members of those who leave to treat them as psychologically defective. One reliably malevolent misreader even suggests that the publication of the article illustrates the hilarious pleasure that I derive from ridiculing the mentally ill.
But Densley and Giles certainly do not argue (in analogy to [B], above) that all who leave the Church do so because they’re emotionally disturbed and/or psychogically disordered. Rather, they contend (in analogy to [C], above) that some who leave the Church may do so in part because of mental/emotional challenges. That’s quite a different proposition.
Even the abstract alone, quoted above, is enough to make this clear: “People leave the Church for a variety of reasons. . . . [O]ne [of those reasons] . . . is the influence of mental distress. . . . [We may be able to make] adjustments that can prevent some amount of disaffection from the Church . . . [M]ental distress can affect church activity.” (emphasis mine).
Moreover, the motivation of the authors is plainly neither to insult nor defame anybody, nor to stigmatize anyone, nor to “other” people who may be experiencing crises of faith. Even if one disagrees with the argument made in the article, its authors (who plainly and frankly write as believing Latter-day Saints) have an unmistakably pastoral intent, representing their essay as “a first step in identifying ways that mental distress can affect church activity and in presenting some of the things that individuals, friends, family members and Church leaders can do to help make being a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints a little easier for those who experience mental distress.”
To portray this as an attempt to stigmatize, marginalize, insult, or defame struggling members of the Church seems quite manifestly unjust.
I encourage people who haven’t read the article yet to do so, and I invite those who may have read it as malicious to read it again.