There are lots of stories on the Internet about people who have discovered things about Mormon history and left the Church. Indeed, these kinds of exit narratives have reached the point of cultural saliency that the New York Times and other media outlets have picked up on the story. I have repeatedly read or heard people claim that we are in the midst of an unprecedented wave of intellectual apostasy. I am skeptical.
Before I explain why, I hasten to add that I have absolutely no doubt that many people learn things about Mormon history that they did not know and have a crisis of faith. I think that the Church as an institution and Mormon culture in general could do a much better job of talking and teaching about the Mormon past. I have great sympathy toward those that have such faith crises and to a certain extent I have been through something like them myself.
That said, I am skeptical that we are actually seeing something unprecedented. To understand why, think of debates over taxes. Every time Congress considers tax increases or tax cuts critics and proponents will start insisting that “This is the largest tax increase in history!” or “This is the biggest tax cut in history!” Generally speaking, these guys will be right. The tax cut or increase is, in nominal terms, the largest of its kind in history. This fact, however, tells you almost nothing useful about the size of the cut or increase.
The reason is that the economy is always growing — albeit sometimes faster than at other times. This means that the economy today is virtually guaranteed to be the largest it has ever been in history. Accordingly, virtually any economic event today will be the biggest of its kind in history. This doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unprecedented or unique. It just means that it is contemporary.
The Church today is much larger than it was a generation ago. It’s much larger than it was 10 years ago. This is true even when we acknowledge that inactivity rates are very high. But this means that current swirls in Mormon culture are almost always going to be the largest such cultural events in history in absolute terms. In other words, I suspect that is is true that the number of people today who leave the Church because of intellectual concerns is larger than the number of people who left because of such concerns in the past. However, this may simply be because the Church is bigger today than it was in the past. The exit narratives are more salient not because they are more common within Mormondom but because Mormondom is just bigger.
But the Internet makes information far more widely available than it was in the past, one might object. True. On the other hand, the Internet also makes positive or faithful interpretations of that information far more widely available than in the past. Furthermore, I think it is abundantly clear that Mormon apologetics, broadly conceived, is far more nuanced, sophisticated, and persuasive today than was Mormon apologetics in the 1970s or 1980s for example. Hence, it’s entirely possible that we are actually doing better at dealing with these issues than in the past. It’s simply that in a larger Church there is naturally a larger group of people that have issues. It’s very difficult to know if this is true, but it seems at least as probable as the claim that the Internet is causing unprecedented levels of apostasy.
None of this is a reason for ignoring or dismissing individuals who find their faith challenged by difficult historical issues. We should find better ways of dealing with those issues. It would be good, however, if those efforts took as their model the shepherd leaving the 99 to go after the one rather than Chicken Little.