The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) is bringing its annual FAIR Mormon Conference to Provo on Thursday and Friday.
The organization, whose mission is to discuss and defend criticisms against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, used to hold its annual conference in Sandy, but chose the Utah Valley Convention Center this year because of a growing audience. FAIR has seen increased interest recently, both within the church and from outsiders, as the Internet increases access to -- and questions about -- the entirety of church history.
Daniel Peterson, an Arabic professor at Brigham Young University and a noted Mormon apologist, said this increased access has caused church members to stumble upon anti-Mormon material more than ever would otherwise. These increasingly frequent run-ins, he said, are changing church members' attitudes toward criticisms of its history and doctrine.
"It's going to force us to up our game, not only in apologetics, but in the church generally, to make sure that members understand things better than they have in the past," Peterson said.
This cultural shift within the church, and perhaps the necessity for such a shift, was highlighted in a New York Times front-page story from July 21. The article, titled "Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt," profiled Swedish Mormon Hans Mattsson, an emeritus Area Authority who has gone public about his doubts, and his criticism of how prominent church leaders deal with such criticisms.
"I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet," Mattsson shared in the article. "Everything I'd been taught, everything I'd been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance."
Discussing this article, FAIR president Scott Gordon said Mattsson's case represents a fundamental problem in what Mormons often expect from Sunday services and church leadership.
"They think that Sunday school is a history class, and it's not," Gordon explained.
"Sunday school is a place where the church uses stories and history to teach gospel principles. So you can sit through 20 or 30 years of Sunday school and never hear all of church history, because that's not the point of it."
This responsibility for this education, he said, rests not on church leaders, but on the members themselves. The purpose of FAIR and its conferences is to provide this education in a believing, faithful and unafraid spirit, he said.
"We're not here to stir the pot; we're here to try to heal wounds in a safe environment," he said. "People come to us to try to find out what the true scoop is."
In line with this aim, this year's FAIR conference will focus on the topic of doubt itself. Michael R. Ash is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome," a book that explores controversial Mormon topics and how members struggle to reconcile those topics with their faith. Ash will discuss this subject at this year's FAIR conference.
Ash said attending the FAIR conference should be a must for members wishing to better understand the church in all its complexities. Having participated in a handful of past FAIR conferences, Ash said the gatherings have helped him appreciate the great things the church has accomplished -- and ultimately, the truthfulness of the its teachings -- even with the weaknesses and shortcomings of its members.
"It's a matter of having answers, so that we can see that there is not a silver bullet, there's not a nail in the coffin, that proves the church is false," he said.