A friend of mine left the LDS Church a few years ago. He’s not an anti-Mormon, or even a motivated “ex-Mormon”. Maybe you could say that he’s Mormon the same way Jerry Seinfeld’s character on his TV show was Jewish. Mmmm, no, I don’t think that’s exactly accurate either. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. He was raised Mormon, went on a mission, got married and all that jazz, but now he doesn’t go to church anymore, and he doesn’t believe the LDS Church is what it claims to be. But the real point is that I’ve never run into someone who has done more research on whether the LDS Church is “true” or not. Not that I’ve run into a lot of people who have done that type of research, but still, you get what I’m sayin’, right?
Since I started this website I’ve read a lot of anti-Mormon stuff, and I’ve debated with a few people bearing anti-Mormon sentiments. It has been highly educational, but for the most part a let down in certain ways. When I started on this experiment, I was scared. Scared of what I might find and how I would feel about it. You see, up until starting this website I was never exposed to much in the way of anti-Mormon thought. Most people are exposed to that as missionaries, but I went to a part of Brazil where nobody has heard of Mormons and most of the other religions didn’t know what to do or think about us, so most of their leaders were pretty nice to us (my companion and I were even invited to sing at a special Assembly of God meeting with about 500-600 people in attendance–for the record, I declined and let my more talented companion sing by himself). So when I put this blog up I didn’t know what I was in for.
But as I mentioned, it as disappointing, in a way, because I didn’t find much that was challenging. The anti-Mormon literature I’ve read online has been 99% superficial, poorly thought out, emotional, illogical, and utterly refuted. Most of what’s out there can be addressed by simple explanations, and the explanations have been there for as long as the accusations. As I’ve debated with people here on this blog, most of them merely go to the same websites I’ve been to and present to me the same arguments I’ve already seen several times over. They don’t seem to really think things through so much as they regurgitate what is fed to them.
The two exceptions to this rule have been MormonThink.com and my friend. MormonThink.com actually makes you think about things. I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but as far as I can tell the arguments they present are well-thought out and logical. Not that I’ve read anything there that I can’t refute one way or another, but at least they make me think, and after all, I didn’t start this blog just so that I could regurgitate all the easy answers to anti-Mormon arguments that are regurgitated to me (although there is a fair amount of regurgitation going on around here–why reinvent the wheel when it comes to answering the same old questions?).
My friend has brought up issues with LDS Church history that I’ve never heard anywhere else. Why the anti-Mormons don’t do their homework like he did I don’t know, because it would probably make them more productive, but hey, if they want to re-hash the same old stuff I guess I shouldn’t encourage them to branch out and do more research.
In talking with my friend about why he left the LDS Church I also felt that same fear as I did when I started this blog. After all, maybe he knew things that would really shake me. But in talking to him about his reasons for leaving the Church I’ve been surprised to find that his reasons for leaving, while they obviously affected him, don’t cause any reaction in me different than anything else I’ve heard. Now, perhaps there are things he hasn’t had a chance to share with me, or perhaps it’s the culmination of many things altogether, but when I asked him pointedly about why he left the Church, the little he did share with me left me thinking “Really? Is that it?”
That last sentence could sound insulting, but that’s not how I intend it. That’s just what I honestly thought. I know my friend is an intelligent guy, and that I’m not the brightest tool in the shed. I just couldn’t figure out why I felt differently when made privy to the same information he had. Then, today, I got this chat message from him:
I need to get back to work, rather than browsing through your blog. You’re obviously well versed in the apologetic arguments. But I have a quick question to ask you that I’m curious about. Are your answers convincing to you? I struggled with that for a long time, where I always had the answers ready to defend my faith. And that gave me some sense of satisfaction. But, when I would really sit back and think about it, the answers just didn’t seem plausible enough for me. I remember on my mission working through some tough conversations with investigators, defending polygamy, racism, temple oaths, etc. And it seemed to calm their reservations. But, I always felt like such a hypocrite, because on the drive home I was thinking….”man, I don’t even buy what I just said.” I always felt like I had all of the answers to individual issues, but trying to maintain that in its totality became exhausting (there were just so many). Kind of an Occam’s Razor thing.
First, I take issue with him claiming that I’m “well versed” in anything. I’m certainly a beginner when it comes to this apologetic stuff. But his questions got me thinking, especially since he brought up Occam’s Razor which I’ve been thinking a bit about recently. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to respond with this post, and having asked his permission to use his message as fodder, here goes.
Are my answers convincing to me?
The short answer is “yes”, but let’s get to the long answer.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always known that God lived, Jesus Christ was his son, Joseph Smith was their prophet, the Book of Mormon was what it purported to be, and the LDS Church was their church. Of course those ideas were given to me by my parents, but plenty of ideas given to children by their parents don’t take hold. These did.
Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, my religious views were never challenged, at least not that I remember. People mostly got on about their business, which for most people in my neighborhood meant work–not religion, and so my religion rarely came up unless I was on a soccer team that had a game scheduled for a Sunday. Religious discussion with my non-LDS friends was rare enough that I can remember specific conversations I had, and how rare and unique those opportunities were.
As I mentioned above, when I went on my mission I wasn’t exposed to anti-Mormon thought there, either. Not that this means I didn’t have any doubts. I had all sorts of doubts during my mission, as well as growing up. I knew there were people who didn’t believe what I believed, and whether or not they were actively challenging my beliefs my mind was active enough to come up with its own challenges. I didn’t know what metaphysics was at the time, but I had plenty of internal discussions with myself as to the very meaning of existence, knowledge, and thought. This was only exacerbated when I took a college course covering “great philosophers”. These guys were questioning how one could really know anything, whether we existed, and if there were such things as right and wrong, and they did it with particular logic and intelligence. That class probably challenged my previously held beliefs more than anything I had been exposed to.
And yet for all the thoughts I’ve had on my own, the philosophies of Socrates, Kant, et al, the thoughts expressed by others on this blog as well as those on all the other websites, and people like my friend, not to mention a healthy does of punk-rock music during my teenager years, I’ve never really doubted the fundamentals of my religion. That is, there is doubt, and there’s doubt. Did I have doubts enough that I seriously thought through things and prayed for guidance from God to let me know if these things were true? Yes. Did I doubt enough that I ever stopped going to church, saying my prayers, or writing checks out to my bishop, to his name, for $90 every month? What, you don’t do that in your ward? Yeah, just kidding on that last one. But no, I never doubted anything to the point where it changed my behavior, other than to motivate me to do research to learn more.
But why? Why is it that I believe what my parents taught me and still do? Why do I stick with it? After all, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to be an active Mormon. I think there are four principal, potential reasons:
Tradition / Culture / Society
I was born into the Church and Mormon society. It’s what I know. It’s what I’m comfortable with. At least that’s what someone else might say. In truth, I’m a bit uncomfortable living in Utah and would rather be where there are less Mormons. Not that I don’t like other Mormons, it’s just that I grew up being a minority and I kind of liked it. But the whole idea of not being able to move from one culture to another is bunk, at least for me. I don’t think I would find it difficult to leave the church and become a hippie or hang around cowboy bars. It’d be kind of fun, actually. Yes, my friends and family would be concerned, but they’d still accept me. Then again, maybe I don’t fully understand how hard it would be, since I’ve never tried it and can only imagine, so I’ll put it out there as a potential reason.
There are things I’ve experienced that I cannot explain away. I’m not going to talk about them because I don’t think it would foster any sort of productive debate, and because many of them are special and personal and I don’t want to put them out there where people can make fun of them. But suffice it to say I’ve had thousands of experiences that provide supporting evidence for what I believe. I would have to exercise quite an inordinate amount of faith to believe these experiences did not come from God.
This is where Occam’s Razor enters in, which is a principle which effectively says “the simplest solution is usually the correct one”. The only trouble is that defining “the simplest” is entirely subjective. Based on my experiences, the simplest solution is that everything I believe is true. But since other people have different experiences, they arrive at different conclusions.
It Just Makes Sense
The doctrines of my religion have always made sense to me–at least most of them. Those that haven’t made sense to me, such as plural marriage, haven’t bothered me much. I figure if plural marriage is how it is in heaven, then I’ll deal with it when I get there, and I’m sure it will all make sense. There’s no need for me to make sense of it here, although it is interesting to research, as a curiosity. But putting aside the more “flamboyant” aspects of Mormonism, the teachings of the Church seem like common sense to me, and the more I learn, the more it all fits together nicely and neatly. When people who are Mormons or who research Mormonism don’t think it makes sense, I can’t help feeling that they simply don’t know enough about it, or have misunderstandings.
But I keep coming back to a feeling. At least I call it a “feeling” because I’m not sure what other word to use, although “feeling” somehow doesn’t seem to capture it quite right. And there’s no analogy that does it justice. But for example, when someone tells you that 1+1=2, you can think it through, and it makes sense and you know it’s true, right? How do you know it’s true? It just makes sense. It’s obvious. It’s logical. It is what it is. That’s kind of how I feel about my religion. But it’s also different, because not all the parts of the equation are there. But still, somehow I know it’s true. How do I know? I don’t know, how does one know anything? For me, it’s like feeling warmth from the sun. How do I know I’m feeling warmth? Because I feel it. “But how do you know you feel it?” someone might ask. How does one answer such a question other than to say “Because I feel it.”
Now, the warmth of the sun could be simulated. It could be faked. But I don’t believe that what I feel can be faked. Inherent in the existence of this “feeling” is the knowledge that it’s real. How do I know that? I don’t know. I just do.
How Do I Explain it All?
But just because I know it’s all true doesn’t mean I feel like I can just kick back and relax. I feel like I have the recipe for true happiness, and I feel driven to share and defend it because I want other people to have what I’ve got. I’m not trying to force it on anyone because I don’t think you can force anyone to be happy, but I feel a responsibility to share what I know and at least offer it. And if people are trying to confuse those who are honestly and sincerely looking for it, then I feel a need to be out there clarifying wherever there is confusion (hence this blog).
In doing so, I get people challenging me to prove that what I know is true. I’ve quickly learned that there is no objective proof–not yet, anyway. And it wouldn’t make sense for there to be objective proof, because it doesn’t fit God’s plan for us to become like him. Objective proof is force, and again, you can’t force people to be happy. By only providing subjective proof, God enables those who are open-minded and who want what He’s got to find the way to him, and those who aren’t interested aren’t condemned any more than they have to be. It separates those who would do what God wants because it’s the logical thing to do from those who do what God wants because that’s truly what they want to do.
Generally, when God proves things to people in an objective manner it doesn’t turn out well for those people. And I don’t see any reason for me to try. But it’s a piece of cake to receive a subjective answer. All you have to do is ask with real intent. What’s real intent? It means you’re going to do whatever God wants you to. If you don’t have real intent, why should God give you an answer? For those who say they’ve prayed with real intent about the Book of Mormon and they didn’t get an answer, my response is that I don’t believe you. Either you did get an answer, but you ignored it, or you didn’t have real intent. You can tell me all day long that you had real intent, but I simply won’t believe you, and the more emphatically you tell me you had real intent, the more I feel I’m right because I don’t think someone who would have had real intent would be emphatically arguing with me about the matter.
Once you have an answer, the other stuff doesn’t really matter. Tradition, society, culture. Sure, that helps me stay in the Church, but it’s not the sole reason. The personal experiences I’ve had help me, but they’re not enough by themselves. Even though my religion makes sense to me, that’s not enough either. I’ll admit that all of those things could be as ideal as could be, and my church could still be false, and everything could be coincidental. But the answer I have from God–I don’t believe that can be faked. That’s my foundation. That’s why whenever someone brings some new information to me about Joseph Smith, or the Book of Mormon, or racism in the church, or whatever, I say “Hmm, that’s interesting, I’ll have to look into that.” I consider it with as open a mind as I can have, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. Do I know Joseph Smith was a prophet? Yes. Do I know he was a perfect man? He most certainly was not. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume he was a philandering drunk. Could he still be a prophet? Sure. I’d rather have a drunk philanderer for a prophet than no prophet at all, not that I believe he was either. But it wouldn’t matter much to me if he was. All that matters to me is whether or not the words God gave him that we have today are truly the words of God. If they are, then that’s all that really matters to me, because either those words tell me how to do God’s will, or they don’t. If they do, then I’ll be ok, regardless of Joseph’s personal life.
There are a lot of things I don’t understand about my religion. Some don’t bother me, some do. I’m very interested in learning more, although I don’t expect to understand it all in this life. What I know for sure is that God lives, that we are saved through Jesus Christ, that Joseph Smith was God’s prophet, that the Book of Mormon is what is says it is, and that the LDS Church is God’s church, with living prophets and apostles who are the only ones authorized to teach God’s word and administer the saving ordinances. Everything else is secondary to me, and I’m sure it will become clear in due time.