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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

5. Journey Down The Rabbit Hole/How My Shelf Broke

Before I get into the body of this post, I want to add a disclaimer. I will be doing this for the next two posts as well. The disclaimer is this:


I will not include much of the info here but I will include sources of information that are easily found online. If you don’t want even the possibility of doubting your faith, don’t look up any of the websites or books I reference. If your marriage could not survive if you doubted or lost your faith, don’t look anything up. If you want to know, please, research this information with your spouse. One of the things I wish I had done differently would be to have my wife take the journey with me. If you are happy in the church, and don’t care whether it’s true or not because you feel like its good, or you have had spiritual experiences, don’t research farther.

With that being said, two posts ago, I discussed several things that began to weigh on my shelf. These included not feeling spiritually filled by attending church, not seeing blessings from paying tithing and seeing that people outside the church could be just as happy and well off as people within, discrimination against LGBTQ persons, and not receiving answers to prayer at a time when I felt like I was at my lowest. During my last post, I discussed potential definitions of the term anti-Mormon. The situation when I feel like the term anti-Mormon is appropriate for information is ONLY when the information is false. Individuals can be anti-Mormon when they promote violence, if they are unduly mocking or critical, or if they knowingly share lies to discredit the church. This leads me to the topic of this article: my process of searching for the truth.

With doubts weighing on me, I reached out to several friends within the church. At this point I realize that many of my doubts were rather trivial things, things that many other members of the church could relate to and push through. But because I had been feeling this way for some time, I felt like I needed advice on how to feel better about attending church. My goal was to figure out what I was doing wrong that I would feel these negative feelings and to find a solution to allow me feel joy in attending church. To reiterate, I was still attending every Sunday. I was reading my scriptures, saying my prayers, obeying the commandments, etc. It had not even entered the realm of possibility that the church was not true.

The advice that I was given was to keep doing all of the things I had been doing and answers would come. Keep doing what I had been trying to do for months and years and I would receive support from God and things would get better. This common advice in the church is called the Primary Answers. When you are struggling, go back to the things you learned as a child, which is to read your scriptures more, pray more and more earnestly, fast, go to church weekly, attend the temple, keep the commandments like paying tithing, etc.

So, I did just that. I kept trying. I kept reading scriptures, kept praying, kept on keeping on. At some point, I don’t know how long exactly it was, I asked myself, “How long do I keep doing this without feeling strengthened? How long do I keep doing this without seeing the blessings that were promised?” Eventually I reached out to another friend within the church. I noticed that he had made several posts on Facebook that were pro-LGBTQ marriage, which is against church teachings. I pointedly asked him how he could believe in supporting gay marriage yet still believe in the church. He replied that while he still attends church, and he sees many positives within the church, he doesn’t believe many of the things taught there. He no longer believed that the LDS church was the one and only true church. I was incredulous, as I had no experience with someone attending church but not believing unless they were not a member. My friend had gone on a two-year mission for the church, was married in the temple, and did all the things you would expect from a fully believing member. I asked him what made him feel this way? And so, the journey down the rabbit hole began…

He told me to read the Gospel Topics Essays on the official church website, I hadn’t even heard of these articles so asked what they were. He said they were the official response to difficult questions about church history and doctrine. As of now, these essays include: Book of Mormon and DNA Studies, First Vision Accounts, Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Race and the Priesthood, Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon Geography, Masonry and the Temple, Lamanite Identity, and Kinderhook Plates, to name a few. While I had heard of some of these issues, some were completely foreign to me. I had never heard of potential issues with the Book of Abraham (which is considered a modern book of scripture Joseph Smith translated from ancient Egyptian papyri) or differences in First Vision accounts, where Joseph apparently saw God and Jesus Christ and they told him to restore their true church. So, I began reading. Voraciously would be a good word to describe how I read. I devoured the essays. While some of them made sense and seemed like good answers to these difficult questions, others did not make sense. And when I looked into the sources that the articles were referencing, some didn’t support the context that they were being used in. So, I asked my friend for more information.

He directed me to an unofficial believing website called Fair Mormon. These volunteers are known as “apologists.” An apologist is someone that offers an argument in defense of religious doctrines against critical information. While these volunteers do not offer official answers, the website is quite large and attempts to answer many of the hard questions with the best explanations that Mormon scholars could muster. This website made me aware of the literally dozens, if not hundreds, of issues with history and doctrines of the church. I had no idea about the vast majority of these problems! For instance, I heard from leaders of the church that critics stopped trying to disprove the Book of Mormon because it was a practice in futility. The Book of Mormon was too perfect and beyond reproach. I also heard from a past prophet that there were no other teachings like the Word of Wisdom, the church’s law of health, at the time that Joseph revealed it, which was proof that it came from God. Through the Fair Mormon website, I learned that these were not true statements.

This website is a much larger source of information than the Gospel Topics Essays, and took much longer to get through, but after months of study it seemed like the same result. Some of their explanations made sense, but much of it didn’t. Many of their arguments weren’t strong and, looking at the sources, almost all of the research was based out of Utah or were given by the same several Mormon apologists. Often the sources were taken out of context when used to prove their points. It didn’t seem right to me that the same Utah Mormon researchers kept coming up in these sources or that non-Mormon scholars never reached the same conclusions as those within the church. For me, if the church were true, the answers would be the same regardless of who the researcher was. If the church was true, everything the church taught would be backed up at a future date through science and research, which didn’t seem to be the case.

After feeling like the answers from Fair Mormon were not adequate, I asked for other sources of information. I bought and read a book called Rough Stone Rolling, which was written by an active believing member of the church but who was also more honest about the history. In this biography about Joseph Smith, he addresses many of these problems from a believing perspective. He reported some issues with the official narrative of church history, such as that the priesthood being restored by angelic beings to Joseph Smith could easily be a fabrication; how people closest to Joseph Smith accused him of having an affair with a teenager named Fanny Alger; and how Joseph Smith used the same rock he found while treasure digging, the same rock he used to “see” buried treasure in the ground (although he never found any treasure), to translate the Book of Mormon. The author, Richard Bushman stated, and I quote, “For the Church to remain strong, it has to reconstruct it’s narrative. The dominant narrative is not true; it can’t be sustained.” This information was given by an active, believing member of the church who looked into the history of the church and found this information. He came to the conclusion that the church was still true, but that it had also been inaccurate in sharing its history.

Reading from these sources, which were given by active believing members, had my shelf in shambles. It had not completely broken, but the way that these apologists talked about their version of faith in the church was completely different than what was taught over the pulpit or from the leaders of the church. I realized that some members who knew of these major issues could still continue to believe in the church but they had to completely alter what they believed to fit history, which was not what the church officially taught. In the end, I am happy that these people can find a way to make belief work for them. But it would not work for me. It seemed very wrong to me that people that knew about these problems, many of these issues being historical fact rather than opinion, believed in a completely different version of the church than everyone else I knew. I didn’t feel good believing in this way; I couldn’t do it. It seemed to me that they were taking their pre-formed conclusion that the church was true and made attempts to fit the evidence, rather than looking at all the evidence then coming to an unbiased conclusion. This is the basis of scientific inquiry. So, I decided that I would leave any biases at the door. I would follow the evidence, using the principle of Occam’s Razor (the simplest conclusion is almost always the correct one), to form my conclusion.

I want to take a moment to describe how I was feeling up to this point in the process. I was absolutely gutted. I had no idea about these issues. I had never heard of the vast majority of these concerns about the church, likely due to these issues being labelled as anti-Mormon lies. Yet these things were verified as actual issues by these several believing sources. The explanations to many of the issues were not satisfactory. So, I was hanging on by a thread. I want to reiterate that I began this process to prove that the church was true. I wanted it to be. But learning these difficult things about the church had my entire world crumbling. Many of those closest to me and almost all of my closest friends were members of the church. My life was centred around these teachings and cultural practices. Allowing the thought that the church may not be true was devastating to me. I plan on making a post in the future about my personal grieving process but know that this was not some decision I made with little consideration. I pored over this information for months, and there are other sources of information that I researched that I still have to discuss.

From this point forward, I began studying the church from outside perspectives. As I previously explained, I had researched enough that I was already holding on to my testimony of the church by a thread. The only thing keeping me holding on to hope at this point was likely fear. Fear of what life would look like not believing in this church. Fear of what would happen to my relationship with my wife. Fear of the impact on relationships with those important to me within the church. I could not imagine what the future would hold for me if I let go of that last thread of hope that the church was somehow still true.

The first thing I read that was from a source outside of believing members of the church was the MormonThink website. Actually, I should reframe my statement. Many of the authors of this website are either active or previous members of the church, ranging from Young Women’s Presidents to Stake Presidents. Some contributors still attend and some don’t. Some still believe the church is true but know the church has not been truthful in their portrayal of its history, while some no longer believe. The introduction to their site is as follows: “MormonThink is concerned with truth. It is neither an anti-Mormon website nor an LDS apologist website. Instead, for each topic we present the strongest and most compelling arguments and explanations from both the critics and the defenders of the Church. It is then up to the reader to decide where the preponderance of the evidence lies and which side has dealt more fairly with the issue. Because we aim to be as complete and impartial as possible, we welcome contributions from readers who can strengthen the positions on either side. As a result, we present a range of viewpoints, privileging those we believe are the most accurate, consistent, and empirically valid.”

This sounded like it was exactly what I was looking for. The strongest arguments from both sides. Allowing the reader to decide what makes the most sense to them. A range of viewpoints. This sounded like it was more in line with determining truth by compiling all the information available and forming a conclusion based on what the evidence shows.

Before I continue, I want to return to the definition of anti-Mormon. This is the point that my last blog post becomes important. I discussed how information can only be anti-Mormon if it is false. Since there is only information presented on this site, that is the criteria I was focusing on. Is the information true or false? So, with this in mind, I dove in.

As I read this information, I experienced every emotion imaginable. I experienced relief as these answers finally began to make sense. I would research the source material and realized that what was presented on the website matched what the source was actually saying. I experienced sadness as many of the answers that made the most sense were against the truth claims of the church. I experienced disgust with a prophet of the church in the 1800s saying that if a mixed-race couple had a baby, both they and the baby should be killed. I experienced anger towards the church and leaders for being deceptive by presenting a whitewashed history. I experienced fear about how to tell my wife that I no longer believed the church was true. I suppose the fear was the worst. Because it was at this point that my shelf was destroyed. Shattered to a million pieces with no chance of it ever being repaired again. Some will think that I was led astray by anti-Mormon material. But as I have said before, information that tells the truth cannot be anti-Mormon.

I want to go on to describe how I told my wife and how crushed she was when I told her I no longer believed. As I, literally, sit here typing these words with tears in my eyes at the memory, I want to share how horrible that discussion and evening was. The subsequent months were not by any means easy. I want to tell you about the shame I initially felt thinking that I was a terrible person for not having faith in the church. I want to relay the terrifying feelings of, at the very least, my perception that I would be judged by members of the church who might eventually find out I no longer believed. I want to write about the feelings of isolation after being open about my disbelief. Most members of the church did not really know what to do with me so they ignored that anything was happening with me at all. I want to share how difficult taking this path was. But all of this will have to wait for another post.

I have read many things since my shelf broke. An Insiders View of Mormon Origins. The CES Letter. View of the Hebrews. The 1830 version of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Commandments. I have probably read nearly every talk given by a leader of the church having to do with doubt. These upset me. I have read almost every talk about those who leave the church. These are wildly inaccurate. I have likely read every one of the major articles defending or criticizing the church as well as every response or rebuttal to these documents. I have had to decide what was accurate history and what was not. I have had times where I would read information that was critical of the church, look deeper, and find that the information was not accurate. So, I want to dispel the idea that I went looking for any and all information that disproved the church. Because that would be false. I picked apart each and every statement and found the ones that were true history. And the only thing that made sense, the only thing that connected all of the pieces, was that the church was not true.

That’s not to say the church is horrible by any means. But when a church tells its members that it is the one true church on the earth, it has to be able to support that statement. I discussed Occam’s Razor earlier. To continue believing in the church I shouldn’t have to make dozens of excuses for why it was ok that leaders of the church got things wrong. I shouldn’t have to engage in mental gymnastics in order to make the history of the church make sense. The simplest answer is almost always correct. The simplest answer is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the one and only true church on the earth.

I realize that I have not given too many details about the actual information that I found. That was on purpose. No, it’s not like the latest Marvel movie end credit scene where I tease a little and leave you thirsty for more. I know what this info can do to a testimony of the church, not because it’s anti-Mormon, not because it’s lies, but because it’s incompatible with the church’s truth claims. In my next post I plan on discussing the Gospel Topics Essays. This information, while acknowledged by the church, was difficult for me to learn about. But it is a good intro into some of the major problems with the church’s truth claims. I will include a large disclaimer in my next two posts, but please don’t read them if you are a member and worry about the fallout of possibly having doubts or losing faith. If you want to read them, read them with your spouse. But in the end, we all have our free agency.

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