This post is not a rebuttal. It’s also not a direct response to David, although he gets the credit for prompting this. Really, it’s a response to the many people I’ve known and know who have experienced doubt about the Church.
Why I Don’t Condemn Those Who Leave The Church
Many years ago I wrote a blog post about how people leave the Church for only two reasons; 1) they’re lazy, 2) they’ve been offended.
The downside of writing that blog was that I was shown in a very public manner to be wrong. The upside was that I quickly learned there are many reasons people leave the Church that go beyond simplistic explanations.
A friend (I’ll call her Sally) told me of how she grew up near Salt Lake City, but when her older brother became involved with gangs and drugs, her family moved to a small Utah town to try and protect their children. Unfortunately, this didn’t help my friend’s brother, and it led to other challenges.
Ideally, when one moves to a new town and begins to attend a new congregation, the members of that congregation welcome the new member with open arms. However, the adult leader of my friend’s young women’s organization ostracized her and made her feel inferior and unworthy. One day this leader was teaching a lesson about temples, sacred structures where members of the Church who are living the gospel standards can go and participate in special ordinances, including “temple marriage,” called a sealing, which differs from normal marriages outside the temple in that in a sealing husband and wife are married for all eternity, not merely “‘til death do you part.”
As the leader taught this lesson, she said something along the lines of “I look forward to all of you being worth to enter the temple someday to be sealed to your husbands…except for Sally.”
Sally left the Church, and has never been back.
Can you blame her? As I listened to her story, which included quite a few more details than I’ve given here, I couldn’t help thinking “If I went through what you went through, I probably wouldn’t be in the Church today, either.”
I’ve heard other stories that make me wonder how faithful I would be, if I were the victim in them. The wife whose “worthy” husband cheated on her. The wife who was physically abused and almost killed by her “worthy” husband. The child who was sexually abused by a Church leader.
Yes, these people were offended. Those offenses in many cases were a direct cause to them leaving the Church. But there’s a difference between an adult being offended and leaving the Church because a random foolish person made an insensitive remark, and leaving because a leader in a position of trust and authority molested you when you were a child.
When we casually say “She left the Church because she got offended or something,” we may be ignoring the seriousness of the offense and the full context, and forgetting the apt maxim, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” We cannot say what we would do, were we in the shoes of those who have been offended.
As for the charge of laziness, I’m sure some people leave the Church because they feel it requires too much, but as with offense, there is a difference between laziness and extreme burnout. Let us not judge too harshly those whose circumstances we don’t perfectly understand…and that includes everyone, since only God has perfect understanding.
I do not condemn anyone for leaving the Church because I believe everyone is rational, 100% of the time, and that even includes Democrats.
Each of us reacts to our circumstances based on knowledge, experience, and training. Each time we are presented with a choice, we make the choice that seems to us to provide the greatest benefit. Even “obviously” terrible choices like doing meth or committing suicide are rational, in that the person making the choice feels that his or her choice is preferable to available alternatives.
For these and other reasons I prefer to have discussions, rather than debates, regarding matters of faith. In a debate, one seeks to win. In a discussion, one seeks to learn. I do not want to win anything in a competitive sense, nor do I believe I could if that were my intent. But I know I have much to learn.
Objective Proof vs. Subjective Evidence
Although I try to avoid debate these days, that wasn’t always the case. I used to run a blog where I invited debate and I spent countless hours listening to, researching, and rebutting claims against the Church. I believe I’ve been confronted by every anti-Mormon argument out there, at least all the better ones (I assume the best ones would be the most widespread and easiest to find).
Through dozens of debates I learned there is no way for me to prove that what I know or believe is true, nor is there any way anyone else can prove my faith to be false. There is no objective proof either way, or if there is, it is being jealously guarded. Instead, we have an ample amount of subjective evidence on both sides, leading us to…what?
It is only in the absence of proof, one way or the other, and a plentiful presence of evidence, on both sides, that we are free to choose what we want to believe. I believe the genius of God is that He organized the gospel so that it is accessible to all but those who are incapable of the most elementary intellectual thought, such as infants and those with extreme mental impairment. No matter how well-educated and intellectual a man may become, when it comes to knowing whether God exists or not, he has no advantage over a 3-year old. If anything, he is at a disadvantage because he thinks he has an advantage. I know of no finer example of egalitarianism.
However, there is one area in which some members of the Church claim possession of more than mere “evidence.” In the Church, we claim to have access to communication with God through the Holy Ghost, which can give us “proof” of the existence of God, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, etc.
I’ve had those who have argued with me “You can’t know those things are true! If you knew, then you could prove it.”
Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t follow this logic.
We are trained to think of the human brain as a computer, and that just as a webcam attached to a computer can capture a digital image, that digital image could be created, pixel by pixel, without ever seeing the reality. If an image can be created from reality using a webcam, or from an AI program manually selecting pixel colors, how hard is it to believe that the human brain is incapable of producing its own images, scents, tactile sensations, and emotions, to match what could be produced in the real world? And if so, then why not religious experiences? Indeed, there are many studies claiming to have found the part of the brain responsible for religious or spiritual experiences.
Regardless, let us accept, for the sake of argument, the following premises:
- God is real.
- God communicates with humans through something called the Holy Ghost.
- This form of communication can produce absolute knowledge, or knowledge that contains within itself proof that it is real.
- God does not want one person to be able to give absolute knowledge to another–He wants everyone to have to come directly to him to get it.
- There is a formula one can follow to receive absolute knowledge via the Holy Ghost.
Thus you would end up with the following ten groups:
- Think they know, but only believe
- Know, but think they only believe
- Don’t know, but believe
- Know, but aren’t sure what they believe
- Don’t know, and aren’t sure what they believe
- Know, but “know” the opposite
- Know, but believe the opposite
- Don’t know, and “know” the opposite
- Don’t know, and believe the opposite
If we accept the premises above, is it logical for he who doesn’t know the truth, but thinks he knows as truth that God does not exist (#9), to tell he who knows that God exists (#1), that there is no God? #1 already has proof. True, it is not objective proof, in the sense that it cannot be shared, but that is only because God hasn’t given #1 that ability.
#7 and #9 are illogical positions, neither of which David seems to occupy. Every other position appears to me to be a logical one.
I cannot prove to you that what I know is true. I do not believe God wants anyone to do what He asks because His existence was proved to them. If God exists, and if His only intent were to get everyone to believe in Him, there are much more convincing ways He could do it than to send a handful of ill-prepared young men and women around the world.
God’s formula isn’t to provide objective proof, it’s to expose people to new ideas, which people are then free to latch onto or not. My only intent is to provide my witness in the hope it might encourage someone who is struggling to continue exercising faith, to make that choice, even in the absence of evidence in favor of the gospel and perhaps in the presence of what seems to be evidence against it.
It’s with the above context in mind I now respond to David’s post.
My Religious History
My upbringing and experiences were not all that unlike David’s, although they may have differed in a few key points I’ll address later, which may be helpful for parents in the Church.
I grew up in a Latter-day Saint home in Southern California. My father comes from pioneer stock. My mother is a convert.
At 19 I served a mission in Brazil. Nobody ever hit me or my companion in the head with a can of Coke, but someone on a moving bus once spit in my eye while I was walking alongside it (amazing shot!) and I did have mission buddies who were stabbed, hit with rocks, robbed, yelled at, and such.
Like David, a man once told me and my companion that Joseph Smith had a bunch of wives and slept with little girls. This man was a US-trained medical doctor and no intellectual slouch.
I was exposed to a small amount of anti-Mormon material during my mission, but if there was any real test of my faith it was living with other missionaries. I found the joke “If the Church weren’t true, the missionaries would have destroyed it long ago,” to contain a lot of truth.
After my mission I attended BYU-Idaho and then BYU-Provo, where my faith was not challenged in any intellectual form. It wasn’t until around 2003 that I butted up against someone who wanted to wrestle with me.
That individual was Simon Woodstock, a former professional skateboarder who had left his wild days behind him to become a Christian pastor, or something of the sort (sorry Simon, not sure what you call yourself). I had written a post on a skateboarding blog about a strange and random interaction I had with Simon on a SoCal freeway in the mid-90’s, and Simon had contacted me asking for me to remove the post. He explained he had put skateboarding behind him and didn’t want his past life out there (so much for that–the interwebs doesn’t make it easy to disappear).
I obliged, but was curious so I began asking him questions about his life, and he was eager to talk religion. When he found out I was a Latter-day Saint, he started pushing anti-Mormon information my way, which I didn’t take offense at, figuring he meant well. Plus I enjoyed responding to him and explaining the errors in the information he was sending, and giving him the other side of the story.
I will admit I was somewhat hesitant as I began this correspondence. For many years I had been told “Be careful about reading anti-Mormon material, because some people say they’re reading it so they can respond to it, but then they end up being convinced by it.”
Was I strong enough? Would I survive reading this stuff? I didn’t know, and it kind of scared me. At the same time, I saw where the internet was going, and I thought that someday I might be in a position where I would have to counsel those who had read all this material, and if I hadn’t, how could I help them?
I began to dive in and read everything I could get my hands on. It wasn’t hard. I had a friend who had left the Church after 10 years of rigorous intellectual study and had a treasure trove of anti-Mormon knowledge. When Simon would send me something I would search out the full context online, and if I couldn’t find what I was looking for then my friend could usually fill in the gaps.
I think most people would have given up on me, but Simon was persistent, and we eventually had exchanged so many emails on so many claims about The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. that I realized I had quite a lot of content, and I decided to publish our emails online in individual Q&A blog posts.
Once I launched my blog, it began to get traffic, and I received more and more questions I felt driven to answer.
At any point did I doubt? Sure! I had new doubts every time I got a new question. Someone would send me something I hadn’t heard before, like the Kinderhook plates, and I would read it and get this sinking feeling in my stomach. “What if it’s all fake?” I would think. Like David, I would think about how ridiculous everything about the Church sounded to a normal, sane person. Sometimes I would ask myself “What am I doing?! I’m spending a LOT of time and money as a member of this Church, and what if it’s all based on lies?”
I read and watched content from John Dehlin and Mormon Stories. I read Sunstone. I read the infamous CES letter. I read the entire text of A View of the Hebrews. I read about “second sight.” I can’t say I consumed everything out there, but I consumed everything I had time for, and then some.
As I was reading a lot of anti-Mormon and ex-Mormon materials, I was also reading a lot of work from apologists of the Church. I found some of their work compelling, convincing, and comforting, but I also found much of it emotional, reactive, and lacking the scholarly objectivity I wanted to see. I felt very much like J. Reuben Clark wrote:
If we have truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not truth, it ought to be harmed.
In 2013 I moved to Hong Kong. Our small congregation included a few professors and other intellectuals who exposed me to things I hadn’t heard anywhere else. We had many discussions and I understood better than ever what people meant when they said “I had to do so many mental gymnastics to stay in the Church I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Since I was a kid I’ve seen friends and family drift into less activity in the Church. I’ve seen some become inactive. I’ve seen some become hostile.
My parents aren’t perfect, and neither am I, so what gives? Why am I still in the Church, when so many I know are out?
I think at least part of the answer is in how I was exposed to information that has been challenging for others.
Before I go any further, I feel like I need to share an experience I had during an 8th grade summer school biology class.
I thought my teacher was a smart guy, a real scientific, logical kind of dude, no nonsense. I also assumed he didn’t believe in religion, and I’m still not sure if he did or not.
I’m not sure exactly what he asked me one day in class, perhaps he asked what I had done that weekend or the day before or something, all I remember is that my response was something about how we had visited my grandmother (not a member of the Church), and then I said, dismissively and with an eye-roll, assuming he would be on my side, “But she’s kind of crazy, she thinks spirits come and talk to her.”
He looked at me seriously, and responded “How do you know they don’t?”
I was a bit stunned. It was unexpected, and such a simple response, and what really got me about it was that it was so scientific and logical. Put aside the fact that it’s the height of irony for someone of my faith to criticize someone else for claiming they communicate with the spirits of dead people, but I had it in my head that my teacher, Mr. Scientist, couldn’t possibly have an open mind about something spiritual. Instead, what I learned that day is that it’s the height of unscientific thought to rule out anything as impossible if you lack proof.
So what else was different about my upbringing that perhaps influenced me to stay in the Church when my peers were leaving?
- No secrets. My parents never acted like they were hiding anything from me. I don’t remember them ever saying “We don’t talk about that,” or being uncomfortable with anything I brought up about the gospel. I wsa never shamed for anything I brought up. I was never told “That’s just the way things are, deal with it, don’t ask questions.” I was never told to obey blindly. Everything was approached calmly, matter of factly, with openness, whether it was racism, polygamy, imperfections in leaders, etc. And my parents weren’t afraid to respond to a question with “Hmm, I don’t know the answer to that.”
- Exposure. I don’t remember, but I probably wasn’t the one bringing up race in the Church or polygamy. I’m guessing my parents brought it up. In a sense, this was a sort of inoculation, I suppose. If you never hear that Joseph Smith had multiple wives, and you learn it on your mission, then it’s a big shock, and you feel like someone hid this from you. If you hear it from the time you’re young (as we’ve done with our kids), then it’s all normal and no big deal. As a kid I remember my dad playing BYU religion class tapes of Ivan J. Barrett talking in the 60s or 70s about the different ways Joseph translated the Book of Mormon including times when he wasn’t even in the same room as the plates. So when I saw the clip from South Park showing Joseph Smith looking into a hat, it was no big deal to me and I could just roll my eyes and laugh.
- Depth. My parents went beyond reading the standard works with us kids. Not that they were sitting down and walking us through tons of other books, but I remember seeing many gospel books on my parents’ bookshelf as I was growing up. I knew there was a LOT more to the Church and the gospel than the basic stuff I was getting in Sunday school, so again, it wasn’t all that surprising when I began learning things I had never heard of. I didn’t feel like anyone was hiding anything from me, but that there was soooo much out there it would be challenging for the Church to promote it all.
- Example. My parents aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darn good. I’ve never seen my parents do anything I could call hypocritical. When I think of people I know who have seen their Church member parents do terrible things, I have to wonder where I’d be today if that were the only firsthand example I had “a worthy Church member” when I was a child.
- Faith. My parents didn’t seem phased by anything we ever discussed. If it was polygamy it was “Well, I don’t fully understand it, but I’m glad we don’t have to deal with it today,” or with blacks and the Priesthood it was “I don’t know how it started, but everyone was so glad when the change was announced in 1978.”
Perhaps faith is the part that matters most. Remember that J. Reuben Clark quote? The interesting thing is that he didn’t stick to that quote later in life. Investigation can harm something, even if it’s true, if we reach the conclusion that what we can’t prove objectively, right here and now, must not be true. Instead, he adopted this quote from Abraham Lincoln, who was sometimes criticized for reading the Bible despite being a reputed agnostic:
I have learned to read the Bible. I believe all I can and take the rest on faith.
For me, taking it on faith means being willing to wait for knowledge, yet act as though I already had it. Take the Book of Abraham, for example. When I hear that the hieroglyphics we still have (most are believe to have been lost in the great Chicago fire of 1871) don’t translate to what’s in the Book of Abraham I think “Hmm, is there a reasonable explanation for this?”
I listen to both sides, but there’s nothing conclusive on either side, so I look at the Church’s explanation and ask “Is this reasonable?” It seems quite reasonable, so I accept it as fact for the time being and move on to other considerations.
Having done this for many situations related to the Church and its doctrine, I can see how once one makes the choice to go down one path (faith) or the other (doubt) the evidence piles up accordingly. As there are those who say they had to do too many mental gymnastics to stay in the Church, there are those who say they would have to do too many mental gymnastics to leave the Church.
For all the evidence piled up against the Church, there is ample information that counters that evidence, plus I have way too many “coincidental” experiences I’ve been through, hence the mental gymnastics I would have to go through in order to leave. I’d have to forget too many things I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts, I do. I feel them all the time. It’s a never-ending battle, despite what I say in the next section. But it always seems that when it comes to physical evidence, somehow I always end up perfectly balanced on top of a fence. I can jump down to either side, as I choose, but the choice is mine. So far, I’ve chosen to be on the side that believes.
Is it the same for others as it is for me? I don’t know. Maybe some people feel the evidence puts them squarely on one side of that fence or the other, and they don’t feel a choice in the matter. All I really know is my own experience, and what tips the balance to the side of belief for me.
Why I Stay
In the John Dehlin video David referenced, which I watched in 2011 and then sent to my family and friends and posted on social media, John spoke at the end about staying the Church because it’s a good place with mostly good people doing good things, at least that’s how I recall his comments. At the time I thought “Well, good on him.” And I suppose if I were in his shoes where I wasn’t sure what was true, or I was pretty sure the Church wasn’t true, but still a force for good, perhaps I’d take the same position.
But that’s not why I stay. I stay for two reasons:
- I want it to be true.
- I know it’s true.
Some people might see #1 as a reason to doubt the credibility of #2. I won’t dispute that, but I’m not sure it’s possible to get to #2 if you don’t have #1. I don’t mean that in a general sense about matters of faith, I mean it specifically when it comes to the Church, etc. I wonder if it’s part of the formula for getting that absolute knowledge from God that you have to want it to be true before God will give you the proof that it is true. After all, what good is it to know it’s true if you don’t want it to be?
“But if I knew it were true, then I’d obey it, regardless of what I want reality to be, isn’t that what God wants me to do?”
No, I don’t think that’s at all what God wants. Not that I know exactly what God wants, but I’m inclined to believe He wants us to know who we really are, not to prove it to Him–He already knows everything, but to prove it to ourselves. His purpose isn’t to get us all to obey Him, it’s for us become like Him, and I don’t think you get from A to B unless it’s what you really want.
Do I know everything is true? Hardly. During the past several years I’ve been forced to reexamine what I know to be true.
Q: Do I know the Church is true?
A: Depends what you mean by “true.” I used to believe the Church was perfect, even if its members aren’t, but I don’t believe that anymore. I believe the Church is pretty much as imperfect as its members. If its members were perfect, the Church would also be perfect, and in fact, unnecessary. No risk of that anytime soon.
But do I believe this is the only church with God’s authority? Yes. Do I believe this is the only church organized by God, with God directing it? Yes. Do I believe this is the church God wants me to be in? Yes.
Q: Do I believe all other churches/religions/faiths are false?
A: No, and that’s not what our own Church teaches. What I was taught in the Church was that; 1) Islam, Buddhism, and everything else pretty much (maybe not witchcraft) is based on truth, and 2) we should respect all other faiths and those who belong to them.
Q: Do I believe God wants everyone to be a member of the Church?
A: No, not in this life. I believe there are people who would be such spectacular members of this Church, but whose missions in this life are outside this Church. C.S. Lewis is one of those people.
Q: Do I believe the prophet is perfect?
A: What’s that joke? Catholics say the Pope is perfect, but they all believe the opposite, and Mormons say the Prophet is imperfect, but they all believe the opposite.
Q: Can the prophet lead the Church astray?
A: I think this is a very misunderstood quote:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty… — Wilford Woodruff
Clearly President Woodruff was not saying the Prophet is perfect and will never make a mistake, that’s impossible. And yet as soon as the Prophet does a single thing that isn’t perfect, he could be accused of “leading the Church astray.” It would therefore appear that leading the Church astray implies doing something more than being imperfect.
Does that mean the Prophet could lie about polygamy and start it just because he wanted to sleep around with a bunch of women, and this would not constitute leading the Church astray? Does that mean the Prophet could, through no inspiration but pure racism, label all those of African descent as inferior, and prevent them from holding the Priesthood or enjoying temple blessings for over 100 years, and yet still be God’s chosen leader?
Not that I’m saying any of the above has happened, but if any or all of them did, would this cross the line Woodruff said exists?
I don’t know, because I don’t know exactly what happened in these historical events, and even if I did, I don’t know exactly where God’s line is. What I do know is that many members of the Church have drawn their own line based on their own opinions and have judged one or more leaders in the Church as having crossed it.
Q: So what do I know?
A: I know God lives. I know He knows everything. I know He can do anything. I know He loves me. I know Jesus Christ lives. I know the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. Beyond that, there’s a lot I don’t know, but believe.
David feels Church leadership lied to him. I don’t feel they lied to me.
How is it possible for two people to have pretty similar experiences, and end up with such different perspectives? Part of it is certainly due to have different experiences, even if they seem very similar. It doesn’t take much for one person to feel like the Church hid something from them, and for another to feel nothing of the sort. A single sentence from a parent, Sunday school teacher, or other leader could make all the difference in the world in terms of changing one’s perspective.
I’m encouraged by the efforts of the Church to put so much information online with projects like The Joseph Smith Papers. I’m also encouraged by a general spirit of transparency, and the newly added emphasis on home as the center of gospel learning. I believe 20–30 years from now there will be no talk except amongst old folks about how “The Church hid things from me…” Instead, all the Church members will blame their parents for anything gospel-centered they missed out on, and perhaps rightly so. I could be wrong, I could be very wrong, but it’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion based on my experiences that much of the difference between myself and my friends who have struggled with the Church goes back to what we were taught, or not taught, at home.
For Those Who Doubt
The Church teaches a simple formula to know what’s true:
- Absorb information
- Think about it
- Ask God
And then adds this condition–you can’t ask just to satisfy curiosity, it has to be with real intent, meaning you’re going to do something.
Trouble is, what do you do when, like David, you try this, and nothing happens?
I asked an ex-Mormon friend once “Is there anything you can point to from when you were in the Church that seemed like a legitimate spiritual experience, or at least something you don’t know how to explain? Any answers to prayers in any way?”
“No,” he said, “Not one.”
I was a bit stunned by this, because I’ve had thousands of experiences. I don’t think he was lying though, to me or to himself. That was a teaching experience for me to show me we are definitely not all the same.
Why do answers come easily to one person while another gets nothing but silence? Why should we expect the person who gets silence to believe?
Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we shouldn’t expect anything from either person. Maybe expecting is kind of like judging.
Even Brigham Young didn’t know anything immediately. He studied and prayed for years before he got his answer, whereas Joseph Smith walked into the forest when he was 14 and had a marvelous vision.
Perhaps there are those who will earnestly pray and ask all their lives, and will never receive an answer, despite their sincerity. Only God knows what is best for each of us.
If there is a God, then it all works out 100% fairly in the end for me, David, and everyone else. It might not seem that way, but our vision and comprehension is so limited. It would be easy for me to compare myself to an illiterate guy working in a mine in the Amazon and spending all his income on prostitutes and say “Well, I might not be perfect, but I’m ahead of that guy,” but who’s to say I am? For all I know, he’s doing a better job with what he’s been given than I’m doing with what I’ve been given. I might compare myself to someone who leaves the Church and say “Well, I’m definitely better than that guy, because we were given the same information and he’s out and I’m still in, so there,” but again, it’s the same problem–I don’t really know his circumstances, or my own, for that matter.
I can’t judge anyone else or even myself, but in the next phase of life we’ll be able to see every one of the thousands of small choices we make every day and the trillions of data points of our lives, and there will be no need for God to judge us, because it will be obvious who we are. Whether we doubt or not doesn’t determine our destination so much as what we do.
That’s where I can judge myself, at least to a point. Am I trying to do what I feel is right? Am I seeking after truth? Am I keeping an open mind about what that truth might look like? Do I have a heart at peace? Am I filled with love, or contention masquerading as love? How honest am I with myself, really?
If you doubt, I hope you’re asking yourself these questions. I can’t say when, but I have a feeling if you keep asking questions, you’ll find the answers.