Whence the doubt?
I’ve had more conversations than I’d like recently about why I decided to leave the Mormon church. Of course, this conversation always comes from a Mormon, and it’s always in the spirit of “You Must Be Crazy What Could You Possibly Be Thinking Don’t You Know The Church Is True True True?” I have found that this conversation tends to follow a certain pattern.
First, they initiate the conversation by mentioning something about me not being in church, or not believing any more, and I try to deflect it with a short, generic answer. Sometimes people really do just want to make small-talk, and that’s okay. If they persist in wanting to know the reason I left, I still take things very slowly.
First, I simply explain that I no longer believe in the same things I used to believe. My wife tells me that the best way to say this is simply: “I lost my testimony,” or perhaps better “I no longer have a testimony,” because that conveys the essentials using language that is readily understood by the Mormon culture. I’ve tried it that way a few times, and I’m not comfortable with it, because the subtext there is that I have done something wrong by “losing” my testimony, or in the latter case, even that a testimony is something you can only have if you believe what the church teaches. I actually do have a testimony, it’s just an opposite testimony from what traditional Mormons have. So I haven’t quite settled on how to say this, except that I believe differently now than I once did.
In a few cases, this is enough. However, most of the time, people want to know more, and so I’ll give them one last out with a simple warning: “I don’t want to discuss the specifics. I don’t want to be responsible for you losing your faith. The truth is out there; if you want it, you’ll find it.” But this seldom works. Most people I’ve talked to have followed up with, “I have a strong testimony,” or “I’ve heard just about every argument before anyway,” or “I just want to know what you’re struggling with; I could probably help.”
And with that, suddenly the topic is completely open. I can discuss anything with them. And that’s where I get lost.
The problem is that there are too many issues. Do you want to focus on polygamy, on temples, on racism, on unfulfilled prophecy, on prophets that no longer prophesy, on scripture, on changing doctrine, on conflict with science? Depending on the given day, one of these will be more prominent in my mind as I try to find a starting place, and I’ll latch onto that one issue and off I’ll go.
Invariably, the person I’m talking to will be even less prepared than I am to discuss these issues. However, due to the incredibly strong indoctrination of the church, the very conversation will be seen as a challenge to their testimony. It takes a big person to be able to talk about the issues without also feeling defensive about them. And I don’t blame them. I was this way not all that long ago. It’s just how it works. So when they find that they have no knowledge to be able to answer my statements, but still feel a need to defend the church, they fall into one of several approaches.
First, they will assert that the things I’m telling them couldn’t possibly be true. “What is the source of that information?” or “I’ve heard that argument from anti-Mormons before,” or sometimes it’s even more personal, “What happened in your life that allowed you to believe something like that?”
When I tell them where the information came from, that the facts aren’t disputed by church apologists, the next line of defense is the appeal to the spirit. “You can believe what you like, but the Spirit has told me it’s true,” or “Haven’t you ever had any spiritual experiences?” The problem I have with the Spirit, I tell them, is that nobody will believe me if I say that the Spirit told me anything differently than what they expect it to tell me. I ask them what they think my bishop would say if I go in to talk to him and explain that the Spirit told me, as it did Nephi, to kill a man, or as it did Abraham, to sacrifice my son or daughter. We Mormons claim to trust the Spirit, but we only accept one answer from it. If I pray to know if the Book of Mormon is true in compliance with its promise, and I don’t get the answer that everyone at church thinks I should get, then the conclusion is not that the Book of Mormon is not true, but that I’m doing something wrong and that I should keep trying until I get the answer I’m supposed to get. I tell them that I’m not satisfied with an unfalsifiable approach.
The third defensive approach that I hear is an appeal to patience. “So just because you encountered some information that you can’t fully explain, you’re going to give up everything you’ve believed in your whole life? Why not just put it on the shelf and trust that someday, perhaps not in this life, but someday God will show you how it all fits together? We have to exercise faith.” I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me. I’ve already wasted enough of my life following lies. I’m not going to give what’s left of it as well.
A few people I’ve talked to have also used the “good” defense of the church. “Well,” they’ll say, “even if everything you are saying is true, I don’t know a better place to raise my children, to learn and grow and to better myself, than the Church. You may not believe the Church is true, but you can’t deny that it’s good.” This is also the approach that my wife uses with me. “You can’t just take everything away. What can you offer that’s better? I’ve seen people who don’t have the Church in their lives. I don’t want that life.” That’s actually a good argument, and is the reason that I don’t want to ruin people’s faith. I don’t have a better option for people. If the church works for you, keep with it. It certainly provides a certain kind of power, stability, and hope that I don’t know how to replicate.
So then what happens is that after they dismiss my concerns with one of these methods, then I’ll say, okay, well that’s one issue. What about this one? Then I’ll launch into another concern that eventually ends up in the same place, only to start another. After a bit, I realize that we’ve gone in circles over and over and instead of us talking about issues, we’re arguing over them, and they won’t accept what I feel is a rational way to look at the issue, and I won’t accept their faith-and-spirit way of looking at it, and we’re increasingly frustrated with each other.
I had another conversation like that yesterday that lasted for hours. I finally realized that the best approach is not to try to list all of my concerns with the church in a huge sweep, but focus instead on what I think is, at least for me, the key issue. For example, I’m pretty disturbed about polygamy, especially as it was practiced by Joseph Smith, but you know what? If he really were a prophet and was commanded to do it by God, well, I can’t really argue with that. So if I believed that Joseph was a prophet, I could learn to live with the issue of polygamy. The key, then, isn’t polygamy or myriad other “minor” things, but the core question: was this done by command of God?
The problem, then, is how to detemine if we can trust that it was God’s command. All we have, really, is Joseph’s word that he was commanded. We can either believe him or disbelieve him. However, I think that if we take as accepted that Joseph was indeed a prophet and was acting under God’s commands, then other things would necessarily follow. This actually follows my original approach to the question as well. I realized I could spend years researching everything about every little issue, but really it all comes down to just one thing. Is it of God or is it of man?
We can examine his claims of having seen God and Jesus when he was a boy. While there is significant evidence against that experience, it still comes down to one of belief. Do we believe his word, or not? I decided the best approach would be to look at his claims of being able to translate ancient records. If we can show that he correctly translated what he said he did, then we can assume that what he did was done with God’s assistance and at his command. If we can show that he couldn’t translate ancient records, then we can begin to doubt his other assertions as well.
Joseph claims to have received golden plates from an angel from which he translated, through God’s divine assistance, the text of the Book of Mormon. These plates were then returned to the angel after the task was completed, and we no longer have access to them. However, even if we did have access to them, the language used on the plates is known to no modern scholar. Without the source documents, we can only look for clues inside the text. Are the words in the Book of Mormon more likely to have been written by someone who lived long before Joseph, who was intimately familiar with an ancient civilization, ancient customs and practices, and with no knowledge of modern concepts and technologies?
Or is there evidence of a nineteenth century author? Are items, concepts, or technologies listed that would be unknown to the people who lived centuries ago? Significant studies have been done in this area, and we find arguments against many things that are listed in the Book of Mormon, among which are steel, elephants, horses, chariots, armor, coins, goats, and wheat. I’m sure I left off quite a few items. But none of these have been shown to have been present on the American continent prior to Colombus. All of them, of course, were familiar enough to Joseph Smith that he would probably have considered them as background, just the way life was. Conversely, none of the actual plants and animals that were native to the Americas during the timeframe of the Nephite civilization are mentioned. Claims have been made for cureloms and cumoms, but without any indication of their use, we can’t make any reasonable assumptions that they are anything other than made up animal names.
The problem with this argument is that believers tend to dismiss it without looking at the actual research, saying something like, “Well, they just haven’t found elephants yet, but someday they will.” They haven’t found evidence of millions killed in battle, either, but just because it hasn’t been found doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or didn’t happen. So unless you look at scientific studies of, for example, pollen from core samples, there’s a little wiggle room there, a convenient possible doubt.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the only ancient record Joseph claims to have translated with the assistance of God. He also translated some Egyptian papyrus. This translation has been published as the Book of Abraham. Along with the text, three facsimiles copied from the papyrus were also published and available to us, along with an explanation of their meanings provided by Joseph Smith. As a teenager, I often wondered why someone hadn’t yet given those facsimiles to Egyptologists for their confirmation of Joseph’s divine mandate. It turns out they had, and Joseph’s explanations were wrong. Now some have tried to explain away Joseph’s explanations, pointing out where he got things right, or almost right, or more right than the Egyptologists in certain areas. These explanations, however, are dismissed by Egyptian scholars, and after reading a few of them, I tend not to be swayed, either.
In addition to the facsimiles, the original papyrus–or at least portions of it–long thought destroyed, have been found and returned to the Church. Egyptologists have examined and translated from the originals, and the story published as the Book of Abraham appears nowhere in the recovered papyrus. The name Abraham appears nowhere on the papyrus. Where, then, did Joseph find the source materials for his translation? Some apologists claim that another portion of the papyrus, not in the Church’s possession, is actually what Joseph used in his translation. Others entertain the idea that the papyrus merely inspired a question in Joseph’s mind, and that God allowed him to translate Abraham’s story not from the papyrus, but from God’s knowledge of what Abraham had written. I personally find both of these inconsistent with the facts. One of the facsimiles present in copies of the Book of Abraham is present on the papyrus that we do have, and a direct mention in the text is made to that facsimile. Would it really be on a completely unrelated (and heretical) document if it were referred to in the text? Or if Joseph received the Book of Abraham as revelation rather than translation, why not just say so, and why include the facsimiles, then, at all?
For me, the questions surrounding the Book of Abraham are significant enough that I find it damning if not conclusive evidence against Joseph’s claims to be able to translate ancient records. Combine that with the serious questions about the authorship of the Book of Mormon, and it’s incontestable.
That’s my issue with the Church. The Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are not records written by ancient peoples and translated by the power of God, but are nineteenth century works. Joseph wasn’t a prophet. Everything else falls down on that. The rest of the issues are just details in the documentation against the Church’s claims to truth.