Mormon critics and criticism: A perception of extreme ideology

Information cocoon is what Cass R Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, wrote in his column on Bloomberg View[1]. This same article also appeared in the Sunday edition of the Everett Herald, bearing the title: “How disagreeing can bring us together”[2]. Geared more toward political extremist viewpoints on the Conservative and Liberal side of politics, there are some gems of truth that can apply other arenas of thought and communication. This includes religious viewpoints where individuals can carry extreme ideology and perceptions. More specifically, these concepts are applicable to those who are critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the particular criticisms that they perpetuate ad nausea.

What is extreme ideology and how does it relate to the Counter-cult movement?

The definition is the idea of one who goes to great or exaggerated lengths where there is the body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group class, or culture and a set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system. It is the coupling of Extreme [3] and Ideology [4] into a marrying thought of exaggerated lengths of ideas that reflect particular social needs and aspirations of a particular individual and/or group and culture based upon their particular set of doctrines or beliefs that have formed the systematic thought of said individual or group. Because of this definition, all groups and individuals are susceptible to such extreme ideology – including Latter-day Saint Christians. However, for the premise and purpose of this essay, the focus is on the more specific group and culture that comprise the Counter-cult Movement.

This particular movement is defined best by the website, Religious Tolerance [5]:

The counter-cult movement … is composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christian individuals, agencies, and para-church groups who attempt to raise public concern about religious groups which they feel hold dangerous, non-traditional beliefs. Those in the CCM are sometimes called heresy hunters or heresiologists. [6]

The website continues with the overview:

The CCM movement is strongly motivated by a concern for the spiritual welfare or people in the groups that they label as cults, aberrant sects, heretical religions, etc. Those in the CCM believe that any group that presents itself as a Christian faith group while rejecting one or more of the historical Protestant Christian beliefs endangers the salvation of its own members, and weakens the Christian religion itself. [7]

Because of the ideology that particular individuals adhere to a religious or theological cult provides the framework of how the members within the counter-cult movement holds to particular perceptions that have some basis within the concept of an extreme ideology. This extreme ideology is encased in what Cass R. Sunstein mentions as an information cocoon.

This information cocoon is one that a group of individuals have built up and reinforce:

The real problem is that their [many extremists] information comes from a sharply limited set of sources, all of which are supportive of their extremist beliefs. Many extremists listen only to one another. They live in self-reinforcing information cocoons. Their “crippled epistemology” can lead to utterly baseless, but firmly held, convictions (and sometimes even violence) [8]

Again, extremist here is referencing the exaggerated lengths one goes. In this case, the exaggerated lengths members of the various CCMs engage in when discussing the doctrines, practice, beliefs, and history of the Mormon faith. Thus, applying Sunstein’s concept of information cocoon, we notice the manner in which those of the CCMs build up their ideology on limited sources they have provided to substantiate their motives in “witnessing” and “evangelizing” members of the Church. In addition, it is duly noted that members of the Church can become comfortable in their own information cocoon, especially when dealing with critics and criticisms of the Church.

Polarization constitutes establishment of ideology

Remember, ideology is defined as a set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of systematic thought within a a group. In this case, the ideology of Mormonism being a cultic and non-Christian belief system. The counter-cult movement has redefined specific terminology in order to establish perception and thought. These definitions ar specific and narrow. One of these definitions is the term Christian. Because this title, to them, defines one who adheres to the traditional and historical doctrines of the Christian Faith.

Along with redefining terminology, there is also adherence to establishment of what the central core doctrines of the Christian Faith are. These core doctrines must be adopted in order to be considered a Christian religious body. To this end, polarization occurs as members of Protestant and evangelical Christians begin to come together in a unified and self-reinforced information cocoon. Among these individuals are those that have left the Mormon faith for one reason or another and have aligned themselves with the CCM’s. This polarization increases and stabilizes the information cocoon because of fortification of thought and acceptance. Aptly put by Sunstein:

But here is the problem. When we listen mostly to people who already agree with us, our pre-existing convictions get fortified, and we start to think that those who disagree with us are evil, dumb or duped [9].

This same issue plagues those within the Latter-day Saint community where we ourselves fortify similar ideas that many of those within the CCM’s (including apostates of our faith) are duped, evil and/or dumb. Meaning, when it comes to us defending our faith, we tend to become just as polarized in our own pre-existent thinking on what we understand, through the sometimes-limited resources that are available to us, and draw to hasty conclusions that those who are critics of our faith tend to be duped, dumb or evil. Despite this type of polarization on the LDS side, many apologists do their best to address the criticism, provide a response regarding the criticism, and provide information to help further engage the discussion of our faith in why the criticism against the Church falls into the arena of erroneous thinking. Or, in other words, while we engage in our own self-reinforcing information cocoon, it is ever expanding in understanding and broadening in scope as new information comes along to be shared. This, unfortunately, does not occur within the counter-cult movement encampment.

There are two specific reasons why this does not occur within the counter-cult movement, and why they are maintaining the same information cocoon that they have fortified. First, as Sunstein mentions, concerns the individual’s reputation. From the political standpoint of engagement (which is the basis of his essay), some individuals are reluctant to admit their position of thought.  This is true when the defined doctrines and beliefs have an established construct of countering one’s thought and perception. What one may agree with in the group setting may affect what one says in a more private setting [10]. The second, and more pragmatic reason, is centered on the exchange of information – which is the basis of communication [11]. According to Sunstein, he relates that “Group members learn from what they hear. Having heard the set of arguments in their group, people become more confident, more unified and more extreme.”[12]

It is through these two key concepts that the CCM’s, and those who are involved with them, polarize around a unified and central ideology. This becomes extreme in how they present the information to the general public. In this case, the information they are sharing with the general public is intentionally misleading and lacking in some form of true critical analysis. They have narrowed themselves into a limited source of references, regurgitate similar arguments and criticisms, and continue to promote those ideas and beliefs, despite new and updated information. In a sense, they engage in a form of Cognitive Dissonance [13] where they may come to know and understand their particular criticism does not hold up against scrutiny and analysis. However, they continue to postulate the idea, doctrine, and belief to those who may not take the time to investigate for themselves. The key element here is the lacking of an integral critical thinking skill set.

In place of critical thinking, these ideals and belief systems are continually being reinforced to maintain the solidarity of their own information cocoon. This state of confusion may increase more exaggerated thoughts and ideas where the individual may engage in behaviors of similar exaggeration. Simply put, they engage in extreme ideology and through such engagement their behavior becomes extreme. This includes attacking the particular individual without addressing the actual content and context of the response [14].

Through this polarization and establishment of the system of belief: Critics of the Mormon faith venture out and engage members of the Church for one purpose only – to bring them out of the Church and into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This basis and ideology has a focus on the simple understanding that Mormon’s do not have the correct understanding of who Jesus Christ is, nor do they worship Jesus Christ of the Bible.

The most effective tool that they utilize, to accomplish their goal, is a wedge of deception. They provide a supposed ring of truth in what information is shared, but it is misinterpreted, misrepresented, or taken out of context and worded in a manner to say and mean something entirely different than what the actual context allows. It is also a basis that presumes a member of the Church does not possess a relationship with the Savior of the world – or, in their exaggerated belief system, the correct Savior of the world.

Escaping, consulting and coming to a consensus

Sunstein (in discussing the polarization of political party lines and how individuals within these given political party lines are wrapped up in their own information cocoon) posits an interesting question: Can anything be done to address this problem? [15] The problem is the reference to our own information cocoon we have built up, reinforced, and fortified through our understanding and perception.

As Latter-day Saint Christians (and more specifically Mormon Apologists), we are only able to break free from our own cocoons. Breaking free from our own pre-existent ideas stem from how we have come to see and understand those within the CCM’s. Admittedly, we have failed to understand and accept particular members of these groups as individuals who have at one time shared in fellowship of our faith. We also fail to recognize and understand that those who had not shared in the fellowship of our own faith do in fact share in the central idea of Christian truth and teaching.

For us, we merely change our own perceptions in how we view those who have left the church and those who have never been part of the church from that which we have previously held. Once we break from this type of information cocoon, then we may move forward in true discussion – even when there is disagreement between two individuals. We should not have to wait for the other side to change and break free from their information cocoons.

However, as Sunstein noted, sometimes one may find it difficult breaking free and escaping from the reinforced information cocoon: “When escape proves difficult, it helps to insist on the importance of respecting technical expertise.” [16] Sunstein goes on to provide observation that those doctors who treat patients with diabetes do not polarize but consult. These doctors consult the latest medical evidence [17]. Through this process of consultation, a group of individuals can hold to particular beliefs that are in disagreement with one another, however, they come to a unified understanding based upon newer and more advanced information.

For us, as Latter-day Saint Christians (and apologists), we consult newer information. We seek to understand past statements made by our Church leaders. We endeavor to understand and apply the current teachings given from the pulpit of our local Wards, Stakes, and from the pulpit at General Conference. This consulting is accomplished through the advancement of technology and social media where ideas and concepts are ever expanding and shared.

The issue for our critics is that they endeavor to reinforce their pre-existent ideas and understandings of our faith. Their criticisms are nothing new and stem from, as previously notated, limited and narrow resources. Critics do share information, they do utilize the same technological advancement and social media tools to engage in the dissemination of information. However, it is done from the same reinforced and fortifications of their own information cocoon.

Instead of breaking free, seek out and consult the latest technical aspects, or to come to a consensus of thought with those they disagree with – they polarize with predictable and consistent behavior. They draw unto themselves those that they have successfully convinced and convicted of being in a Theological Cult. It is because of this polarization from the CCM’s and the escaping, consulting, and coming to a unified consensus on the part of the Mormon faithful, there is the ever-growing divide.

Ability to agree to disagree is the most pragmatic approach

Closing out his article, Sunstein sums up a very interesting point that he had made earlier in the essay. This is through the question of – how do you know what you know?[18] Again, the article focuses on the aspect of political convictions and discussions in this election year. However, the principles and key concepts that Sunstein mentions, provides us with the understanding of how we approach our critics and their criticisms:

Many of our [religious] convictions are intensely held … Some of us are undoubtedly right. But an appreciation of how we know what we know should help to engender a healthy dose of humility  [19] …

It is through understanding our own information cocoon we have built around preconceived notions where we are able to come to a place of agreement. We still maintain a sense of disagreements. The idea of attempting to get everyone to see eye-to-eye is impossible because no two people are going to hold to the same perception and reality as another. This is quite evident in how groups and communities are formed. People with different ideologies and backgrounds go through stages of development. They eventually become congruent when different ideologies and perceptions create an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. This is where true discussions stem from. How information becomes indelible from a given conversation. When two or more people share their own perceptions, escape their respective cocoons, consult new information and draw to an appropriate consensus. The ability to agree to disagree is the more pragmatic approach in how we should engage our critics.

Adapting the ability to agree to disagree, we diffuse the polarization of the exaggerated systems of belief that our critics have built up. While they remain in their cozy information cocoon, we strive to further educate and expand upon our own understanding and knowledge. This includes understanding the scriptures, studying to understand the teachings of the Gospel from our leaders, and how we are able to apply those principles and teachings into our everyday living.

The result is that we ought to be cognizant of our own specific information cocoon, and aware of our own perception, in order to provide a more appropriate and congruent response to the criticism. We are not to focus on our critic. Speculate on how and why they left (even if they divulge the information within a given conversation), or cast judgment upon them that has no basis in facts. We are to focus on the specific criticism that is provided. Address it to our own understanding and ability, and provide the necessary resources and information to further help another individual to break free from their own cocoon. To consult the information – along with others – and to draw their own consensus based on the information provided. In other words, we must teach, based on facts, as we best understand those facts and not allow ourselves to respond with knee-jerk emotive statements.

Our critics will always continue to present their criticism ad nauseum. Recognizing these criticism starts with understanding the origin of such criticism: Such origin being from a narrowly defined source of information where it is used to build up and self-reinforce their own information cocoon. This is because our critics have pre-existent convictions that they have to fortify from what they hear from other participants in the CCM, and becoming more confident and unified in their extreme ideology.

The evidence of this self-reinforced concept is observed in how they come to agree that Latter-day Saint members and apologists who disagree with them are duped, dumb and evil. While we break free from our own information cocoon, our critics are still captives in their own fortified extreme ideology.

Reference 

[1] Sunstein, C. R. (2012, September 03). How voters can escape from information cocoons. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-03/how-voters-can-escape-from-information-cocoons.html

[2] Sunstein, C.R. (2012, September 09). How disagreeing can bring us together. Retrieved from http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20120909/OPINION03/709099985/0/SEARCH

[3] Extreme. (n.d.) Merriam – Webster Dictionary, Online Edition. Retrieved September 10, 2012 from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/extreme

[4] ideology. (n.d.) The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (2003). Retrieved September 10 2012 from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ideology

[5] Religious Tolerance is a website that has no particular affiliation with any belief system. According to their own “about us” page, they focus on four areas in disseminating information: (1) Disseminating accurate religious information; (2) Exposing religious fraud, hatred, and misinformation; (3) Disseminating information on “hot” religious topics; And, (4) Promoting Religious tolerance. The purpose of referencing the definition RT provides is because it gives a concise and specific summation of the Counter-cult ministry without having to cite Wikipedia.

[6] Robinson, B. A. (2011, October 16). The counter-cult movement (ccm). Retrieved from
http://www.religioustolerance.org/ccm.htm

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sunstein, C.R. (2012, September 09). How disagreeing can bring us together. Retrieved from http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20120909/OPINION03/709099985/0/SEARCH

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological term that means a sense of anxiety that results from simultaneously holding contradictory or otherwise incompatible attitudes, beliefs, or the like, as when one likes a person but disapproves strongly of one of his or her habits. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cognitive+dissonance

Concerning “Cognitive Dissonance” many critics actually misuse this term when speaking about members of the Church who are quite informed about the Mormon Faith, history, doctrines, teachings, and the like. The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research provides a wiki article titled: “Criticism of Mormonism/Cognitive Dissonance” and can be found here: http://en.fairmormon.org/Criticism_of_Mormonism/Cognitive_dissonance

[14] This is a logical fallacy known as an ad hominem. There is another that most utilize and is called a Circumstantial ad hominem where they dismiss the response because of the view and belief that those resources used to rebut their criticism are invalid due to being Mormon’s and therefore engage in furthering spin-doctoring of information. In fact, many online counter-cult movement groups refuse to allow pro-lds links to be published on their particular social media networks and websites – this is documented in their rules of how individuals engage in particular conversations with other individuals that are members of such community.

[15] Sunstein, C.R. (2012, September 09). How disagreeing can bring us together. Retrieved from http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20120909/OPINION03/709099985/0/SEARCH

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

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