The glory of God is intelligence
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.
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 AbrahamFor 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 falsehoodsBrigham 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 PolyandryPolyandry, 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 issuesThere 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?