Friday, May 12, 2006

What should non-believers do? Stay or Go

A lot of True Believing Mormons (TBM's) believe that people who no longer believe the Church is true should leave. I left immediately upon no longer believing, but there are a lot of New Order Mormons (NOM's) who no longer believe, but stay anyway for family, community, moral upbringing for their children, the feeling of elevation (AKA the Spirit), or because it is the best thing out there. I do not think that it is our place to judge, but to be understanding and let each person live according to the dictates of their own conscience as the 11th Article of Faith says.

Here are two links. The first was my short struggle about whether I would fake belief at least through my son's naming blessing. I have an advantage that most newly non-believers don't have, my wife is receptive to the idea that the Church is not true.
http://tinyurl.com/hnmsw

The second is a link to the home of New Order Mormons: http://forum.newordermormon.org/index.php

Why I left the LDS Church

[Last edited 1/28/10]

I was a very deeply spiritual person and easily moved to tears when thinking of the Savior and the sacrifices I believed he made for me and the rich blessings he bestowed upon me. I was born in the covenant to convert parents who were very active in the Church and true believers. I had a strong testimony of Joseph Smith and the restoration even before turning eight for I had recognized the joy of the Spirit and the love for mankind I felt when reading the Book of Mormon. And after turning eight, I had an experience which I considered to be a visitation of an angel.

When I was 14, my mother passed away. I felt very much alone and learned through that experience to lean on the Lord even more. I decided that I would do what was right because it was the path to happiness, not to please my dad or because of fear of punishment. I felt particularly close to Heavenly Father over the next few years, having had countless experiences of answered prayers, premonitions that were fulfilled, marvelous insights, church leadership positions, and the privilege of baptizing my brother-in-law at the age of 16. I truly felt like I had a deep and personal relationship with my Savior.

Also, at that time, I began to read a lot of church books: “The Miracle of Forgiveness”, the biography of Joseph Smith by his Mother, “The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” etc. I found that I was good at explaining gospel principles to my friends and in helping them to take full advantage of the Atonement.

Then, I became an Elder and went to BYU. I loved being able to talk about deep doctrines like Kolob and such with smart, well-read members. I took lots of religion classes and loved listening to the General Authorities speak. I then went on my mission, and had numerous wonderful experiences feeling close to the Spirit, full of faith, and exercising my priesthood to bless others. Not that all of my experiences were good. I and some of my fellow missionaries felt strongly by the Spirit and as full of confidence and faith as I have ever been that the Lord desired to heal a recent convert of mine of her endometriosis. I knew that she also desired this blessing and had faith that the Lord could do it through us. We all fasted and prayed, and when time came for the blessing came, I felt strongly impressed to cast the illness away and declare her to be healed. We gave it some time, but it did not happen. I performed mental gymnastics trying to account for this experience. We were worthy, authorized priesthood holders, who had fasted and prayed, and had unshakable faith in our Redeemer. At the time I gave the blessing, I was absolutely positive that it was the will of the Lord to heal her, right then, but maybe I had read the Spirit wrong. But, if that were the case I no longer knew when I was reading it right or not. I eventually suspected that my convert lacked sufficient faith and suggested that as a possibility to her, which deeply hurt her feelings for she felt that she did have unwavering faith. That is one of those things I wish that I could take back. I was a young, inexperienced missionary. I have been rather embarrassed about the experience ever since and have not shared it with many others. That was a trial of my faith though.

I have since had many experiences that sometimes work out and sometimes do not even when I believe every condition upon which the blessing is predicated was met. I assured myself with the knowledge that even Christ who was worthy of the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost had to go without the Spirit while on the cross. While on my mission, I encountered a fair amount of anti-Mormon literature or just other concerns. I became quite good at being able to resolve people’s concerns. One advantage that the apologist (defender of the faith) has is that there is almost always some tiny hole in the anti’s argument that can be exploited by offering another interpretation of the facts and inserting faith in that tiny hole of uncertainty and possibility.

Once home from my mission, I went back to BYU and taught in the MTC. I loved thinking about the gospel and brought enthusiasm to the classroom and even came up with an “inoculation shot against anti” to shore up my missionaries as they prepared for the field. It included 5 compasses: 1) The Spirit felt in the heart, 2) Enlightenment of the mind, 3) By their fruits ye shall know them (look at what has come from Joseph Smith and how it leads us to Christ), 4) Live the principles and evaluate the consequences, and 5) the sacred experiences of using the priesthood. I told the trainees that Anti-Mormons may challenge one point or another, but you always have the other 4 pointing you in the right direction.

I continued to read church history because I could not get enough. I wanted to be close to Joseph, I wanted to learn to be like him in learning to open the windows of heaven. Shortly before getting engaged to Lilly, I became convinced that it was the will of God for us to receive the Second Comforter (a visitation by the Savior through which we make our calling and election sure) in this life if we could prepare for it. There is even an ordinance called the Second Anointing performed in the temple to prepare you and your spouse for the reception of the Second Comforter. I wanted that for Lilly and me if possible.

Now, during my course of studying church history I had discovered many things that might shake the faith of even the most faithful. These things were not written by anti’s, but in the records of the truest and most faithful associates of Joseph. I learned most of the issues that can concern Mormons about their history and the standard apologetic responses. Here is just a few of those issues:

1) The Book of Abraham is not as Joseph Smith claimed - the writings of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus. In fact, the text contains anachronisms and much of the text appears to be borrowed from other authors whom Joseph confessed to be familiar with: Swedenborg, Book of Jasher, Josephus, Thomas Dick, etc.
2) Joseph Smith had 33 wives, at least one as young as 14, two were his own teenage foster daughters, and several were concurrently married to other men, and yes there is sufficient evidence (children and statements) that he had sex with many of them.
3) The text of the Book of Mormon was dictated by Joseph while burying his head in a hat with the very same peep stone he used while defrauding Josiah Stowell by claiming to be able to find buried treasure and accepting payment for those services.
4) Many of the doctrines and stories Joseph claimed were revealed to him from heaven were actually plagiarized from the writings of others that we have evidence he was familiar with: Swedenborg, the Book of Jasher, Josephus, Thomas Dick, Ethan Smith, etc.
5) Many supposedly eternal doctrines (aka unchanging truths) have been changed. For instance Brigham Young taught not only from the pulpit, but also arranged to be taught during the lecture at the veil that Adam is God the Father, the same one who sired Jesus Christ in Mary's womb, that Eve was just one of Adam's wives that he brought with him to start the human race on earth. Joseph Fielding Smith outright rejected that doctrine as false, but remember this had been taught quite clearly and unambiguously in the temple. Also the doctrine of blood atonement in which the only way to get forgiveness for certain sins is to have your life taken by church leaders who spill your blood on the ground was taught by Brigham, but is now denied.
6) The temple signs and tokens (and penalties) were lifted from the Masons. And the Masons and their signs date back to the 12th century AD not back to the building of the Jewish temples.
7) There is a history in the Church dating back to Joseph Smith in which the leaders have lied about their history and practices. Joseph "rewrites" his history several times embellishing accounts and changing the timing of things. The Church today slyly edits original quotes for its manuals to cover up the polygamy preached and practiced by its early leaders. But, worse than that, old Gordy Hinckley lied to police investigators about his involvement with Mark Hoffman and thus obstructed a murder investigation.
8) We have a lot of DNA evidence that shows that the Native Americans are not descended from Middle Eastern peoples. No archaeological support for BoM, despite what your institute teacher told you. The story of Thomas Ferguson, who was employed by the church to find archaeological support for the BoM might interest some of you as well as B.H. Roberts', a General Authority, investigation into the Book of Mormon.
9) The Church has a nasty habit of excommunicating historians for telling the true history of the Church (i.e., September Six, etc). The Church has what is known as the Strengthening Church Members Committee whose job is to collect information on and writings of dissidents.
10) There are a handful of contradictory versions of Joseph's First Vision. None of these accounts were created until years after the supposed events would have taken place. In fact, all the early accounts always say that Joseph was called to the work by an angel, no one seemed to know anything about a "First Vision" in which Joseph saw God and Jesus. In fact, the idea that God and Jesus were two separate beings never occurred to anyone, not even Joseph, until sometime after the church was established. Joseph revised the first part of the Book of Mormon to align with his new beliefs by make references to Jesus as the Son of the Living God as opposed to the "Living God". Joseph eventually abandoned his editing before he got to Abinidi's confusing speech.

Although difficult to digest at first, I found a way to become ok with every doctrine and practice, always giving Joseph the benefit of the doubt. For after all, a lot of horrible things happened in the Old Testament that supposedly were directed by God, so who was I to say that God did not command Joseph to do those things no matter how wrong it might seem to my sensibilities.

But, I remained firm and true in the faith. Then, I was assigned to home teach a young brother in our ward who had gone inactive due to some anti he had read. (He had read it in attempts to point out the error in it, because his mother had recently left the Church and he wanted to help her regain her testimony of the Church). But, he ended up being persuaded by the anti. So, I had many long discussions with him. He brought up many of those difficult behaviors and doctrines taught and practiced by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young that I was already familiar with. I gave him my take on those things and how I had learned to be ok with them. We also discussed the evidence against the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham. I thought I knew all about those things and had an answer for everything, for after all, I had read all the apologetic essays at fairlds.org, knew all the standard responses we give to those concerns, and had become by now very good at defending the Church. However, my friend did bring some things to my attention about the Book of Abraham that I had never heard of before and therefore did not have a good explanation for. I did not quite understand the importance of what he shared with me at the time and dismissed it as some made up stuff in some anti-literature he read. My trust was in the Church and since I did not really understand his evidence, I could figuratively put it on the shelf and not worry about it. As I was oft to say, “I have plenty of questions, but no doubts”. Eventually, I just let the whole issue rest.

A few years had passed before I came across the Book of Abraham issue again, but this time I read about it from the point of view of apologists (believers who are trying to defend the church). My interest was peaked again and I decide to learn for myself what my friend was talking about so that I could help him see it from a faithful perspective. In order to do this I had to read the anti. All apologists do this so that they know what arguments and evidence they need to defend against. I eventually, got a copy of “By His Own Hand, Upon Papyrus” by Charles Larson. I was of course skeptical of the source. One can never take anything at face value. Every claim must be verified in original sources, most of which the Church has in its possession. Contrary to popular belief among the faithful, much of modern day anti is quite good at being accurate when they quote an original source. Where Mormons and non-Mormons usually differ is usually in our interpretations of the data and to whom we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Well, Larson presented a very strong case against the Book of Abraham. Most everyone (apologists and anti’s alike) who have studied this issue seriously agree that Joseph Smith did in fact have in his possession the papyri that were discovered in a museum in New York in the late 1960’s. And virtually everyone agrees that those papyri fragments have nothing to do with Abraham at least in a conventional Egyptian translation way. But, here the apologists and the anti’s split. The apologists have come up with several clever hypotheses to suggest that the Book of Abraham may be scripture even if the papyri we have don’t say anything about Abraham. They have suggested that maybe the Book of Abraham (BoA) text is encoded in the papyri, or that the BoA came from a missing portion of one of the scrolls or from different scrolls altogether, or that the BoA is simply a revelation from God and the scrolls just got Joseph thinking about Abraham in Egypt, or that Joseph’s scribes made a failed attempt to unite the BoA text with the Egyptian characters, etc. Others say that whether or not the BoA is a translation there are amazing parallels between the content of the BoA and many early traditions about the life of Abraham that were unknown before the Book of Abraham text was produced. The apologists' pose the question, "How could Joseph Smith have gotten all of these things 'right' unless they were revealed to him by God?" But, Larson goes on to show through Joseph Smith’s diaries and Joseph’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, some of which is written in his own hand, why most of the apologists’ explanations cannot work. And the rest of their theories are shown as unworkable by other authors.

I find that many of the so-called unique parallels between the BoA text and extrabiblical sources are not unique at all in that the ideas are also present in the Bible. I believe there are other parallels with books that we know Joseph Smith was familiar with like the writings of Josephus, and the Kabbalah. Remaining subtopics can be accounted for as rational inferences from what was already written about Abraham, or necessitated by Joseph's having to incorporate the facsimiles into his BoA text. The last point that I'd like to make is that the traditions about Abraham contradict each other in numerous aspects, and there is no definitive version of the story of Abraham's life, so Joseph's version does not remarkably agree with any authoritative story. When one has scores of different stories about Abraham, one's story is bound to be similar to some of them in some respects and markedly different in others.

Given all of the above there is nothing remarkable about the parallels between the BoA and these ancient texts - nothing that demands us to accept revelation as the only reasonable explanation for the parallels. Now, if we combine that with all the wealth of damning evidence against the BoA (the fact that it is not a translation, that the facsimiles were improperly restored and interpreted, that the scrolls are not old enough to have been written by Abraham, that Joseph reused characters that he translated differently elsewhere, that Joseph created Egyptian characters that don't even exist, the text contains anachronisms and incorrect reconstructions of history, and contains ideas such as intelligences that appear to be lifted from the writings of Thomas Dick and others, etc), and the apologists have nothing left to stand on. In fact there is pretty clear and damning evidence in facsimile #2, that Joseph knowingly deceived the Latter-day Saints.

I launched a six month long investigation. I read everything critical, apologetic, and whatever original sources I could get my hands on. I took no one's word for anything. If I read an article in which the author claimed anachronisms, I read books on Egyptology until I knew for myself that yes, the land of Egypt got its name from the Greeks, not from the character Egyptus as the Book of Abraham claims. I read the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, including Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, I read Ritner's actual translation of the recovered papyri, I have seen high quality copies of the papyri, read the writings of the apologists Hugh Nibley, Jeff Lindsey, Kerry Shirts, John Gee, Daniel Petersen, etc, and critics John Larsen, Kevin Mathie, John Day, etc. I have learned a lot about the ancient Egyptian religion, including Breathing Permits, Anubis, Osiris, Book of the Dead, etc.

I eventually had to conclude that the Book of Abraham is not what Joseph claimed it was, and that Joseph Smith was not a Seer or Revelator in this thing, and worse than that, a strong case can be made that he knowingly created evidence to dupe us into thinking he had the power to translate ancient records. That in turn cast doubt on everything he ever did.

Unlike other challenges to the truthfulness of the Church I had faced before, there is no hole for the apologist to exploit. The case against the Book of Abraham is air tight and bullet proof. There is no uncertainty for faith to work in; no doubt to give the benefit of. If one wants absolute proof of fraud within Mormonism, one needs to look no further than the Book of Abraham.


Yet, I believed that the Spirit had told me the Book of Abraham was exactly what Joseph claimed it to be: a translation of papyri written by the hand of Abraham; and I now had evidence to prove that it was nothing of the sort. Well, they both could not be right, so I out of necessity had to discount the one or the other.

So, I started by questioning my rational and logical analysis. I could find no possible way for Joseph to remain a true prophet, seer, and revelator and present false scripture as if it were true. And there also appeared to be no way that he did not create false scripture and pass it off as it were true. There were only two ways that it could work: 1) either Joseph Smith had been a true prophet, but was a fallen prophet by the mid 1830’s, or 2) it is ok for a prophet to write inspired fiction and pass it off as if it were historically true. Neither option appealed to me, and there is enough evidence against the historical reality of the Book of Mormon (although not as conclusive as the evidence on the BoA) that the most likely case was that he was never a prophet at all. This approach also had the advantage of resolving all those other things that Joseph did for which I had previously performed mental gymnastics to accept.

Since, the case was so solid, I next had to question all of my Spiritual experiences. I fasted and prayed to know the truth of these things. There was no doubt that I had those experiences. What was in doubt was the meaning and interpretation I had given them. It was not just a personal failure to interpret the Spirit correctly, for all the latter-day prophets and apostles presumably also believe the Spirit has told them it is what Joseph claimed it to be. I mean, it was ratified as scripture as part of the Pearl of Great Price in general conference. Yet, they all were mistaken. It appears that no one can tell when the Spirit is telling them the truth or a lie. At minimum this means that the Spirit is an unreliable way to discern what is true from what is false. And now that the witness of the Spirit is suspect, what does that mean for the weight of the evidence against the church.

I found that there were other ways to account for my “spiritual” experiences other than that they were witnesses for Joseph’s prophethood. I experienced the Spirit most often as a feeling, perhaps a burning in the bosom, or the emotions of peace, love, joy, etc. We are taught that those feelings come from the Spirit, but it is entirely possible that they are created by our brains like all other emotions. And answered prayers, sometimes we get the help we desire and sometimes we don’t. It may be that the outcome would have happened regardless of whether we prayed or not. And the experience of visitations from the dead could very well be our imagination. [I know that there are faithful interpretations of these things. But, either my reasoning and evidence was flawed or my interpretation of my spiritual experiences were flawed. And reason and evidence stood up very well to my questioning. Spiritual experiences on the other hand have alternative explanations.]

And what about the reason and evidence in support of the Church, such as: the 3 and 8 witnesses, the visions that had two mortal participants seeing the same thing, the chiasms in the Book of Mormon, the “Tree of Life” stone, the fulfilled prophecy about the war that would start in South Carolina, etc. Well, in my opinion, they can’t stand up to scrutiny either. There are reasonable explanations for all of these that don’t require anything supernatural.

So, at length, I concluded that the Church was just not true despite that I really wanted it to be. I have no problem feeling what I formerly called the “Spirit,” I just no longer accept it as a reliable source of truth. In fact, psychologists have begun studying that burning in the bosom feeling we experience when we observe great acts of compassion, etc. They call it elevation. So, what to do next?

My wife knew that I knew a lot more about Mormonism than she did, and although we were both TBM (True Believing Mormon), I might have been a little more uber-TBM than she was. Occasionally, she would overhear me reacting vocally to myself over something I read of D. Michael Quinn's (a former BYU history professor), and ask me what it was. I was often reluctant to share because I was afraid that it might weaken her testimony. That holier-than-thou attitude would irritate her until I would tell her what I had just read (since she wanted to know what had caused the reaction). I would then go onto the FAIR LDS website and see if I could find some apologetic interpretation for what I had just read and then share that with my wife. Those issues did not really weaken her testimony, but gave her something to put on her shelf. At the time she felt like her testimony was kind of stagnant, because although she was reading her scriptures and "Jesus the Christ", and attending the church and the temple, none of it was really doing anything for her.

Both she and I do not like secrets. If there is information out there, we want to know it, whether it be good, bad, or indifferent. When I finally finished my 6 month long investigation into the Book of Abraham and found that for me, Joseph was guilty of fraud beyond a reasonable doubt, I knew that my integrity would not allow me to continue acting as a TBM and serving as a counselor in the Bishopric. I let go of all my mental gymnastics about the temple, the First Vision, restoration of the priesthood, the BoM, the polyandry, and Joseph marrying his own foster daughters, and let the weight of the evidence hold sway. I absolutely had to resign from my calling and quit acting like I had the priesthood, etc. My responsibilities in the Bishopric forced urgency in my situation because I could not lie and lay my hands on people's heads and set them apart, etc. I had to resign my calling and I had to do it then or not be able to live with myself. So, before I spoke with the Bishop, I told my wife what I had found out about the Book of Abraham, and how I no longer believed, and how my integrity demanded that I resign my calling, etc. She was shocked at the possibility that the BoA could be a fraud, and that my testimony that I had held to so firmly for so long was gone so quickly, but knew me well enough to know that I could not live a lie if I no longer believed. She trusted my ability to reason and knew that if I said that there was something to this, then there might be something to it. I invited her to look into it for herself, and due to her trust in me and her curiosity and my persistence she began reading some things within the week.

We discussed the possibility of being "foyer members" (you know the ones that don't participate and just come and sit out in the foyer). But, I could not bear the thought of it because I knew people would judge me, since in an instant I would go from counselor in the Bishopric to withdrawn, non-priesthood exercising member. I knew people would bug me to become more active, and I would have to listen to "Praise to the Man" and keep my mouth shut about a man who I felt deceived us all and abused his power and the trust of the people. Now, that I knew the Church was not true, I became really bothered by the homophobia, misogyny, cultural insensitivities, intolerance of open skepticism, historical cover-ups, leadership adoration, and emphasis on obedience and conformity. Furthermore, I wanted to turn my focus to figuring out my own spirituality and theology, and I saw wasting time at the LDS Church as contrary to my goals. Nevertheless, I would have continued to attend if she had wanted me to. I was the one who changed, and she meant even more to me now than she had when I believed. So, I would have done anything for us to be together, but I needed her to know that my integrity would not allow me to deceive others. Thankfully, she did not demand that I keep going.

The Saturday following conference, we talked with my wife’s mom about it. She wanted me to fast and pray, so I did, but by that point I had no faith in the Spirit. She did not understand that I had already been through all that. The next day, my wife and I met with the Bishop, I turned in my temple recommend, my bishopric books and keys to the building, caught the Bishop up on any assignments I had been working on, told him why I was leaving and that I would not be back. He was shocked, sad to hear it, but could tell my mind was made up. We hugged and that was it.

My wife continued to read and now knows just about everything I know. We resigned our memberships in October 2006, six months after I quit attending. I am so glad I have my wife as she means even more to me now than ever before. I left the Church not because it was not true (for I no longer believed that any religion was), but because I could not stand being there anymore and I no longer supported many of the things it stood for. We now attend a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. And though I do not believe in God anymore (which would require a separate explanation), I am learning how to create the feelings of elevation, transcendence, reverence and awe without a belief in the supernatural.

Dear Reader, I respect your right to believe as you wish. Leaving the church ruins a lot, and I understand that people often would rather stay content with what they have, and I can't say that I can blame them. I told the Bishop at the time that he could send over home teachers if he liked, but I would advise against trying to discuss the Book of Abraham with me, as I stand a better chance of convincing them than they do of convincing me. I had read all the apologetic essays on the Book of Abraham before I ever read any non-Church approved books and thought I had gathered from them the complete set of problems, but it was not until I read the non-Church approved books and researched all of their assertions, that I realized that I was not familiar with the half of it. I began this quest so that I could be a great apologist and help struggling members resolve their concerns. I had been good at that on my mission and when I taught in the MTC. I thought the church could stand up to any criticism, or at least that the anti's could never disprove the church was true so I would inspire faith in the space created by that ambiguity. The church does not have a banned book list so I felt free to read anti so that I could point out the flaws in their arguments. I never dreamed in a million years that it would be the anti's who were right all along.