Tal Bachman wrote:
Dan Peterson: A Eulogy
For many ex-Mormons, the name of Dan Peterson elicits contempt. Maybe this is unfair. Maybe Dan, in person, is a great guy. But Dan has created, and then nursed, a very off-putting public persona for many years. Mormon head-counters will never know how many people struggling with their faith might have returned to church if, instead of being sarcastically berated by this so-called "defender of the church" for merely raising a concern in an online forum, they were heard out, patiently, or sensitively engaged. But, that was not Dan's style, at least in public. His own need to fuel his vanity by belittling others was always far more important to him than, say, a Christian duty to lovingly regather the lost sheep. For Dan, no matter what he enjoyed telling himself, it was only ever about him, and his own desperate need to feel smart, important, and powerful, at the expense of others.
Maybe this is why, also, so many members viewed him, and his colleagues, with shock and embarrassment: there just didn't seem to be anything there reminiscent of the spirit of Christianity which Mormonism pretends to represent. Peterson may have been entirely genial in person. Online and in print, he came across as self-absorbed, vainglorious, rancorous, mean, obsessed with even trivial score-settling, and in some palpable, but kind of inexplicable way, sociopathic. If, by some chance, his recent career troubles have resulted from his superiors finally realizing how bad he has made their beloved church look for the last thirty years, all I can say is, what took them so long?
This public persona was off-putting enough for those wondering about their Mormon faith; but making it even worse was Peterson's tendency, like that of many other congenital bullies, to veer quickly, in bi-polar-like fashion, from verbal stomping (with a kind of cold, remorseless glee), on those he decided were his "enemies" (often, honest people sincerely wondering about the truth of their beliefs), to blubbering like a third grade drama queen about how someone or other was victimizing him, every time someone finally got sick of his bullying or his nonsense, and called him out. It was always a freakshow with Peterson.
Another issue, for thoughtful Mormons and former Mormons alike, was simply the sheer spectacle of a man who - for reasons it is difficult to fathom - spoke of himself as a legitimate intellectual, but who regularly constructed or published defenses of Mormonism so utterly ludicrous, that bright eighth-graders could have seen them for what they were: circular, or fundamentally dishonest (since clearly there was no desire to get to the truth, but only to "defend the paradigm"), or reliant on thought-terminating cliches or obfuscatory language, or full of deliberate distraction tricks, like any two-bit magician might employ. And often, the pieces were all of those things combined.
Of course, Peterson was not the only one to do this sort of thing. The "let's just say *anything* we need to, to keep this thing going, to all keep ourselves believing" culture is pervasive in Mormonism. You see it once a month at testimony meeting, and you certainly saw it with other high-profile apologists. But at least testimonies are pretty straightforward: "God answered my prayer, this strengthened by faith in the Gospel, the end".
Peterson and his crew, by contrast, took this sort of thing into the stratosphere. If testimony meeting was a cup of tea, your average high profile Mormon apologetic piece, starting with Nibley, was like a Timothy Leary acid trip washed down with a bottle of mescaline-laced tequila and a hit of nitrous oxide. For all the (almost sad) academic pretenses, there was clearly no depth of absurdity to which Peterson and his goon squad would not stoop in order to try to keep themselves, and others, believing in what is just...not true.
These depths included, but were by no means limited to, postmodern (radical skeptic) defenses of "one true historical truth" claims; "cannibalistic" Book of Mormon defenses which blatantly relied on *contradicting* the text in order to try to protect the integrity of the text, as with the two Cumorahs theory; false claims (also known as "lies") that Mormon doctrine never taught that the American natives descended from Lehi; claims that Nephite "horses" were actually tapirs, or that Joseph didn't *really* mean he "translated" the Breathing Permit of Hor, or that everyone should disregard every datum noted in "An Insider's View of Mormon Origins" on grounds that Grant Palmer didn't really qualify as an "insider", despite being a lifetime Mormon, 34 year CES veteran, three time LDS Institute president, and member of the Mormon History Association, or a hundred other things.
No - there was no argument too ludicrous to make, no mindgame too crazy to play, no low too low to stoop to, as long as it seemed to hold out even a tiny chance that it would enable Peterson, or his colleagues, any member reading it, to just...keep on believing. That was all that mattered in the end: keep on believing. Not whether it was true or not - just, keeping the thing going. Just because. Just because it would hurt too much to recognize it for what it is.
And...that, too, is off-putting for people who care about the truth, Mormon or not. That IS what Mormonism is *supposed* to be about, after all - The Truth. It's *not* suppposed to be about merely "defending a paradigm", like Midgley and so many of the others would say. It is *not* supposed to be about BYU profs who literally could not get hired at a community college, running around getting money from rich, but naïve Mormon donors, to support them financially while they sit around in brainstorming sessions trying to come up with yet another way of spinning away the latest damning evidence that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction, or planning more useless conferences (no matter how many conferences they had, the church still wasn't true), or sitting around combing through RFM threads looking for mentions of themselves. If the church had any sense, they would have shut these guys down long ago.
But...that is where the story of Dan Peterson, Arch-Defender of God's Only True Religion! shows a different aspect. Sure, it's the story of an off-putting, deluded fanatic and crank who alternately stomps on people, and then starts blubbering whenever someone calls him out on his nonsense. It is also the story of a deeply pitiable character who is simply incapable of the cognitive feat of seeing what we all saw a long time ago.
I don't mean seeing that Joseph Smith invented his stories, though there is that; I mean, seeing how off-putting his schtick was; and seeing that it was in the best interests of the church to shut him and FARMS down many years ago; and especially, seeing the nature of the church as an entirely man-made institution. He could not see, though we could all see, that in the moment the church perceived him as no longer useful, it would drop him in a heartbeat, unceremoniously. His thirty years of, um, "apologetic service" wouldn't matter anymore. There is no way a man as singularly incapable of detached, critical thought about Mormon truth claims as Peterson is, could ever have seen that. And now, from what I gather, it has happened.
And, he probably still can't see the nature of the church as an institution. My guess is that his hurt and resentment is directed toward a few individuals, who he now regards as "enemies" - not *the church*. That the church is an insitution which, in the end, does not care about any individual, or him, *except insofar as those individuals help it to survive and grow*, has probably entirely escaped him. He no doubt just keeps reminding himself that "the church is perfect; the people aren't".
Dan might be able to see that institutions, and especially, ideological institutions, develop a kind of will and mind of their own; and that all they care about in the end is their own survival and growth. But I doubt he would ever have been able to see that this includes the institution of the Mormon church, which, like the others, can make no legitimate claim to being anything other than completely man-made. And like those others, it unhesitatingly sacrifices any individual which impedes its ability to survive and grow. That the church might very well dump Dan Peterson with ease one day was something we even discussed on here, six or seven years ago. If Peterson had read it, he probably thought our vision was clouded by "ex-Mormon rage" or whatever. And yet, it was nothing but the truth.
Here is one excerpt from a post of mine on here, from six or seven years ago, that RFM poster 3X just sent me:
"And this is why the specter of DCP kind of being used appears in the backs of our minds...How long would he last, if the church for one nanosecond thought he wasn't useful anymore?... Would anyone at HQ think twice about leaving Dan Peterson there holding the bag, once they decide that the position he's been defending just isn't working anymore...?"
This was not exactly a remarkable insight. Virtually everyone on here knew that was true. It was completely obvious. The point is that, Dan Peterson couldn't see it, and that is pitiable indeed.