Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Sound of Silence is Killing the Church

In my first post I alluded to the fact that I have done a lot of reading about church history since my disaffection began.  My reading has included many scholarly works, but also many online sources.  When searching for answers for these issues online, one is almost certain to come across one or more of the many online exmormon communities.  These communities themselves are likely a significant part of the equation that puts the church in its current state of crisis.  This phenomenon is something I would like to explore further in a future post.

For now though, I'd like to talk about the general sentiment I find in those communities.  I can sum it up in a word: Anger.  So much anger.  Anger that is, in my opinion, justifiable.  The main source of anger is the feeling of being deceived by virtue of the church "hiding" bothersome details about its past.  Whether the "hiding" was deliberate or not is open for debate.

But another source of anger is the fact that nearly everyone who has gone through a crisis of faith has had a very frustrating conversation with "the church."  The conversation varies from individual to individual- for some it was an actual conversation with a bishop or other leader.  For others it was an extensive search through official church publications.  But for nearly everyone, the conversation happened after finding out about disturbing facts about the church.  For nearly everyone the conversation was an attempt to answer the question "What does the church say about {insert controversial issue here}?"  Here is an excerpt from my "conversation."

Me: "Hey, people (and history) are saying that Joseph Smith married other members' wives and teenagers and hid the other wives from Emma, and publicly denied it all. . .Is this true?  I'm pretty uncomfortable with this, what gives?  In what circumstances is polyandry ok?

Church: . . . . . . . . . . . .

Me:  "Hmm. . . ok well I'm confused about how to know when the prophet is speaking as God's mouthpiece and when he is speaking as a man.  There seems to be an awful lot of "speaking as a man," and that doesn't seem right.  What's the deal?

Church: . . . . . . .

Me:  I have to be honest, your lack of participation in this discussion is disturbing.  Your critics seem to be seeking truth, and make what seem like valid points.  They are able to cite primary historical sources to back up their position.  Can you give me some clarification?

Church:  The missionaries can use Facebook now!!  AND GIVE TOURS OF THE CHAPEL!

Me: . . . . . . . . . . . .

The church appears to be very very reluctant to provide any answers to these questions, and I think I know exactly why.  Two reasons why, in fact.  First of all, for many of the questions, I just don't think there are any satisfactory answers.  If there was an easy answer, they would have given it already.

But the second reason is a little more subtle, and interesting.  To illustrate it, I'd like to tell you about the oral Torah.  The Jewish tradition holds that Moses received the written Torah on Mt. Sinai.  This contained the commandments and was, as the name implies, written down.  However, God also gave him the oral Torah- basically the Rabbis believe that God told Moses some additional information to fill in the gaps for situations not specifically described in the written Torah.  Presumably this was for situations like donkeys falling in pits on the Sabbath and that sort of thing.

The oral Torah was passed down, as the name implies, orally from Rabbi to Rabbi.  In fact it was forbidden to write it down.  However, after the destruction of Jerusalem, some of the Rabbis were worried that the oral chain would be broken, and decided to write it down.  They did so, and it now can be found in what is known as the Mishna.  They did so amidst great controversy however, because many of the Rabbis were vehemently against it.

Why would they be against writing it?  Seems like the logical thing to do, right?  Because having an oral set of guidelines has its advantages.  To phrase it gently: it is flexible.  To phrase it bluntly:  you can make stuff up depending on the situation, in order to best try to help those who come to you with spiritual dilemmas (or to best suit your own needs, unfortunately).    But once you start writing things down, they are set in stone.  You lose the flexibility.  If you try to vary from what is written, people will point to where it is written and call you out on it.

The current LDS leadership finds itself in a very similar situation.  The church is awash in doubt, and members are leaving "in droves."  And so far they have said very little, if anything, to address the issues that are bothering people.  There have been hints of answers.  The leaders promised Hans Mattson a document that had the answers.  It has not materialized.  There have been rumors that the church is going to release a series of essays addressing many of these troubling issues.  So far nothing.

The church has sent out Teryl Givens and Richard Bushman, prominent church historians, to speak at various functions where they attempt to answer questions from doubters.  While this is a nice gesture, Teryl and Richard each have a giant asterisk on their forehead.  The asterisks say "The views, opinions and conclusions expressed in this meeting are solely those of the speakers and do not reflect the opinions of the Brethren. The content of this meeting has not been reviewed or approved by the Brethren.  The speakers are solely responsible for this content."

The closest thing to a response from anyone in a position to give a response came in Elder Holland's conference talk this past spring when he reassured as all with the words:

"please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will."

So far he has been heavy on the snarking,  and light on the resolving.

So why has there been such an abundance of silence?  Because, like the Rabbis of old, the Brethren know that once they take a position, they can't take it back.   And if the apologists' explanations are the only material they have to work with, it is no wonder they have chosen silence.

In the meantime, with each day that goes by, more and more saints are becoming aware of the church's troubled past and contradictory doctrines.  As such, more and more will try to have their own conversation with the church in hope of finding answers.  Sadly, with each day that goes by, more and more testimonies will be shattered by the sound of silence.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Is God a Trickster who Favors the Stupid and the Lazy?

The glory of God is intelligence

-D&C 93:36

I am thirty-something year-old man in the midst of a "crisis of faith," similar to what Hans Mattson, a former general authority,  described in a recent New York Times article.  I'll spare the details, but suffice it to say that for me, it started this spring and involved the discovery of troubling aspects of the founding of the LDS church.  (There are aspects of the modern church that bother me as well, but they are irrelevant to this discussion)  Most likely if you are reading this post then you are already very familiar with these issues. 

 For further background information, I am a lifelong member of the LDS church,  attended and graduated from BYU on scholarships, and served a full time mission.

I am a reasonably intelligent person.  If standardized testing is any indication (and it isn't always), I possess well above-average intelligence.  Additionally, I have had opportunity to exercise my intelligence through education.  I hold a doctorate degree and currently work as a successful professional. I tell you these things not to brag, but to set the stage for this discussion because I am the demographic the church is hemorrhaging:  young, educated males.    I do not consider myself to be an intellectual giant, and I will be the first to acknowledge that there are gaps in my knowledge base.  That being said, I feel like I have a reasonable capacity to analyze data and draw conclusions. 

Over the past six months I have learned more about church history than I had previously in my entire lifetime.  I have read books and sources both critical to, and supportive of the church.  I've seen the numerous criticisms against the church, and the apologist's responses.  I have analyzed the data, and I have come to a conclusion:  the church is not true, at least not as true as it claims to be.  Understand that I make that statement very much to my own chagrin.  I really really want the church to be true.  I want an eternal family.  I want to know that God is watching over me and understands my problems, and has even given me said problems in order to strengthen me.  In many ways, the world is a much happier place if the church is true (the obvious exception being if you are gay-but I digress).  The point is, coming to this conclusion was not inconsequential to me.  It was life-shattering.  My world crumbled, and continues to crumble.

I'd like to share with you an important part of how I arrived at that conclusion.  Interestingly, the apologists at FAIR, FARMS, and around the internet played a very important role in all this.  Not by simply confirming that the controversies are real and historically accurate, as they have done for many, but by providing answers and explanations to the various controversies.  I find it safe to say that the apologists have an answer to each and every point that critics make.  Not usually good answers.  Not usually satisfying answers.   But answers nonetheless.   Often the answers are far-fetched, and require "mental gymnastics" to the extreme.   But they address everything that critics throw at them, and this forces me to concede that the church could be true.

However, when the apologists' explanations are examined together as a sum total, a very disturbing picture is painted.  This picture leads to an additional uncomfortable conclusion:  If their explanations are correct, then God is a trickster who is looking to deliberately trip up those who think critically, while simultaneously rewarding those who follow blindly or are too lazy or dimwitted to conduct meaningful investigation.

This situation seems evident when there is direct evidence to contradict the teachings of the church.  On the other hand, it does not apply to criticisms which rely on a lack of evidence for the church's teachings.  An example of this is the criticism against the Book of Mormon on the grounds that there is no archaeological evidence to support the existence of the civilization described in the BoM.  While such lack of evidence raises a valid concern of the truthfulness of the BoM, lack of evidence is not evidence, and cannot be used as an argument for a trickster God (unless one argues that the evidence is missing because God took it away or hid it as a test of faith).

Lets examine a few instances where there is evidence to contradict church teachings, in such a way that a trickster God seems apparent:

The Book of Abraham

For well over a hundred years, the church has taught that the BoA was the product of Joseph Smith's translation of some Egyptian papyri.  This was taught and understood to be a literal translation- he looked at the scrolls, understood the writing thereon, and wrote it down in English.  Egyptologists now tell us that his interpretation has nothing to do with what was on the scrolls.  The church has now backpedaled and labeled it as an "inspired translation," whatever that means.  Incidentally, it is not clear how this new information came to light.  The prophet did not make a statement saying he had received revelation regarding this matter.  The PR department simply made an announcement and, presto, new doctrine that seemingly explains away one of the church's most glaring problems.

Apologists feel the need to supplement the "inspired translation" explanation with further explanations, and frequently state that there is some scroll material missing, so maybe what we find in the BoA came from the missing scroll portions.  How convenient.  But fine, I'll concede the point.  Lets focus on solely the facsimiles.

In the case of the facsimiles we have copies of the source material,  Joseph's interpretation thereof, and Egyptologists' interpretation.  Joseph's version does not match up with the Egyptologists.  How can this be?

"LOOK, HE GOT THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE EARTH RIGHT!" the apologists scream in a frenzy.  Ok, fine, Joseph Smith earns a 1% on his Egyptian test.  To any thinking person, the 99 things he got wrong is what stands out over the one or two things he happened to get right.  There is no way around it, Joseph was very very wrong in his interpretation of these figures.

What does this mean?   If the church is true, it means that God knowingly allowed his mouthpiece to present erroneous material as if it were scripture.  He would have to have known that scholars would later examine the material and declare it to be wrong, and therefore he would have to have known that this would be a huge stumbling block to intellectuals, both members and investigators alike.  Why would God do such a thing?  To test our faith?  I can understand God not wanting to "prove" every aspect of the gospel to his children, and that he wants us to exercise our faith.  As such, I'm fine with a lack of evidence for certain aspects of the gospel.  But to allow there to be such strong evidence against gospel truths is a whole different matter.  It makes no sense, and it disproportionately punishes those who think critically.

Brigham Young and others teaching falsehoods

Brigham was extremely racist and taught doctrine that was incorrect.  Not a little off base, not just slightly misguided. . .but dead, no doubt about it, WRONG.  Later-confirmed-by-subsequent-church-leaders wrong, and that's saying something.

The "bigger" false doctrines that  Brigham taught were Blood Atonement and Adam-God theory.  If you are unfamiliar with these, then Google can help you; I will not discuss them in any detail.  Suffice it to say that the church has strongly stated that we do not believe what Brigham taught on these subjects.  There are other troubling teachings as well, such as interracial marriage being punishable by death, and monogamy being an inferior form of marriage compared to polygamy.

Brigham Young is not alone among prophets who teach falsehoods.  Spencer W. Kimball taught that same-sex attraction was a choice.  We now concede that for most people, that tendency is inborn.    Spencer W. Kimball taught that masturbation leads to homosexuality.  No one since has made such an assertion, because it is ridiculously untrue.  Many prophets and apostles taught that black people were denied the priesthood because they were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence.    We now deny this.  Many prophets and apostles taught that the Lamanites were the principle ancestors of the American indians.  We have now backpedaled on this, due to scientific evidence that contradicts that assertion.

Once again, why would God allow His messengers to preach falsehoods while fully realizing the resulting confusion and doubt that would come later on because of it?  We claim our church is different from others because we have a direct mode of communication with God.  Is our connection so poor that the prophets misunderstand and are allowed to just spew random thoughts and doctrines while God stands by and does nothing to correct it?   Once again, having prophets who teach falsehoods is going to disproportionately shake the faith of critical thinkers over those who follow blindly or those who aren't bright enough to realize that what prophet A said completely contradicts what prophet B said.

Joseph's Polyandry

Polyandry, in my opinion, presents one of the biggest obstacles for critical thinkers.  Whenever polygamy is brought up, apologists and others love to point out that there is plenty of polygamy practiced by prophets in the Bible.  Fine.  There is spiritual precedent for the practice.  I don't like it, but I won't argue that it's wrong.  But what about polyandry?  To the best of my knowledge, Joseph Smith is the only one who has been allowed to engage in this practice.  I won't count Brigham Young, who "inherited" some of Joseph's polyandrous wives when he died, despite the fact that the first husbands were alive, well, and practicing mormonism.

There is absolutely no precedent for what Joseph did.  It feels slimy, particularly the way he sent some husbands away on missions and then married their wives, and the manipulative ways he proposed, telling young women that their salvation, or their families' salvation depended on them marrying him.   It feels like when David sent Uriah away to battle so he could have Bathsheba.  Except that the church teaches that it was ok for Joseph to do so.  Or, at least, the church won't come out and say it was wrong for him to do it.  Really, the church says almost nothing at all about it, which is part of the problem.

Obviously, if the church is true, God knows this issue will be a huge stumbling block for his children.  Why would he not give us some guidance or explanation?   Is Joseph Smith really so special that he alone gets special rights to "access" other mens' wives?  Even more confusing is the fact that we understand polygamy to be acceptable only to "raise up seed," yet we know of no offspring produced by Joseph's polygamous/polyandrous relations.  So what was the point?  Did God allow these contradictions and then give no explanation as a test of our faith?

Other issues

There are many other aspects of LDS doctrine and history that simply do not make sense from an intellectual standpoint.  Discussing them all in depth would make this post unnecessarily long.  However, I'll list a few additional intellectual stumbling blocks:

1. The presence of anachronisms in the BoM makes no sense if it is divine in origin.
2. The presence of KJV translation errors, word for word, in the BoM makes no sense if it is divine in origin
3. The existence of a book (View of the Hebrews) published 5 years prior to the BoM, which describes the same basic "plot" as the BoM makes a little too much sense
4. Joseph not needing to look at the plates to "translate" them makes no sense.  Why were they necessary then?   And why couldn't Nephi find a rock to put in a hat and use a similar method as Joseph, rather than killing Laban so he could get plates?


These are only a few of the issues I could mention, but I think they suffice for the sake of this discussion.  I personally can't fathom a God who would set up his church in such a way that one has to abandon all pretext of logic and common sense to be able to believe in it.   We believe in God as a supreme intelligence who has commanded us to use our own intelligence to learn and explore the world.  Obviously He does not want us to abandon spirituality, and he wants us to come to Him with questions and concerns.  But I don't believe in a Trickster who purposefully sets "intellectual traps" in order to test faith.  Any such system, as the title of this post states, rewards those who never question or who are incapable of questioning.  And I just don't believe that God is sowing the seeds of his gospel in hopes of reaping a crop made principally of mindless followers.


In anticipation of criticism, I want to make it clear what I am NOT saying.  I am not saying that one must be stupid in order to believe in Mormonism.  I know many believing members who are far brighter than I.  What I AM saying is that in order to fully believe in the the church's teachings, one must almost completely disconnect one's intellect from one's spiritual beliefs.  This is true of most religions, though perhaps more so with Mormonism because of the many firm "truth" claims we make, and the many subsequent findings that seem to contradict those"truths".  In response to some of these difficult questions about the church, I hear some members say things like "I don't know the answers, but I don't believe it is essential to my salvation so I won't let it bother me."   Fine, if that works for you, great.  However, as time goes on and information regarding the church's past becomes more accessible, fewer and fewer people are going to be able to set aside these issues which prick at our intellects, and the church will continue to hemorrhage young, educated members.