Part three of my spiritual journey moves into the end of July 2017. I was working through my church assignment working with the youth (Young Men’s president). I was charged with the spiritual teaching of 12-18 year old boys. This capacity afforded me some really important relationships that I formed with the youth, that I value to this day. I remember the profound impact I received from my leaders when I was young. I attempted to emulate the type of relationship that my leaders had with me with those young men that were in my charge. Unfortunately, the weight of the information I was learning about Mormon church history was creating a strain on my underlying ecclesiastical charge of providing spiritual guidance to the young men.
I could not in good conscience teach them to use feelings as a source of divine truth. I did not want to teach them concepts that I personally did not believe in, it was dishonest, unethical. I distinctly remember researching for a lesson on how to gain a testimony and coming across these teaching methods:
“Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” (Boyd K Packer, The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge)
“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.” (Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony)
“It may come as you bear your own testimony of the Prophet…Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly…Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.” (Neil L. Andersen, Joseph Smith)
This is dishonest. This is self-deception. Even in the lesson the bishop instructed us that one of the most important reasons to go on a mission is to convert the missionary. How unethical is it to teach people about what God wants them to do with their life if you, the missionary, do not really know if it is true, but you are saying out loud it is true because that is how you know it’s true?
In retrospect there was a rather large hole forming in my psyche at this time. I just was not able to juggle what I was supposed to be saying and what I really believed. On August 3rd I scheduled a meeting with my bishop to tell him I would need to be released from my position and that I no longer believed in the church.
The meeting went better than expected. I knew he was genuinely concerned with my disbelief and wanted to help. However, he admittedly had no experience dealing with those with a crisis of faith. He only was able to bare his testimony. Which in retrospect is kind of like saying, “well, I know it’s true…,” and expecting me to come around. It was quite obvious he did not know any of the problems with the church’s truth claims, and did not believe me when I brought some up (even though the major ones are from lds.org). What was interesting is he was well versed in knowing what it means to leave the church (at least according to popular Mormon belief). He warned me of studying the ‘philosophies of men’, that I needed to have faith and not doubt, and that people who leave are unhappy.
He expressed concern that I was being deceived. He is retired police and spoke of stories of criminals not being prosecuted because their lawyers could craft elaborate tales that confused or cast doubt on what actually occurred. I understand why he would think this. It really is the only way that disbelief can be reconciled. To a believer there is not a possibility that the church is not what it claims to be. With this understanding, one plausible explanation is that I am simply confused.
After wrapping our ‘discussion’ I accepted an invitation to meet with the stake president to discuss my doubts. I had hope the stake president would have had more experience with members that doubted and that he could point me in a direction that might help resolve some of my angst. In retrospect, I think I knew that he wouldn’t be able to change my mind and that I wouldn’t be able to change his, but I wanted to have the discussion to experience his reaction and subsequent council. This was completely new ground for me.
The next afternoon we met in his office. I laid out an argument for evolution. I could not overlook the fact that the church preached for years that the so-called science of evolution was false and belief in it would undermine the plan of salvation, and the atonement. The Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith said, “If evolution is true, the church is false.” I touched briefly on the multiple first visions and the convincing evidence that the Book of Mormon could have been written by Joseph Smith. In my mind the church had systematically hidden important pieces of church history to keep people from questioning, and that was a big problem. I felt like I had been lied to.
Does Truth Matter?
His response to my assertion that I believed the church was not what it claimed to be initially shocked me. He said, “I will be the first person to tell you that the church may not be true.” I commended him on his honesty and wanted him to divulge further. His basic premise was he believed that following the teachings of the church made him a better person; it made him a better father. He really is a good person, and I believe him when he says this. On the flip side, he mentioned his brother has not been a very active member of the church and has had a “hard life” that he asserts is correlated with his lack of commitment to the teachings of the Mormon church. I countered that my atheist brother is the most responsible, kindest hearted member of my family, so how do you explain that?
He then went Judo on me and tempted me with a lesson he had recently received from a special stake president only meeting in which M. Russell Ballard (Mormon apostle) taught that, “those people that have problems with church history or its unresolved history are not at odds with church history, they are at odds with Jesus himself.” He then proceeded to ask, “is there anything that you’re at odds with Jesus on? Is it, a lack of prayer, a lack of paying tithing? What is it?” This got me a little upset, and points to a larger misconception drilled into the members of the church. Take this quote for example:
“We don’t have to question anything in the church, don’t get off into that. Just stay in the Book of Mormon. Just stay in the Doctrine and Covenants. Just listen to the apostles. We won’t lead you astray, we cannot lead you astray.” (M. Russell Ballard October 24 2015 YSA devotional)
“The faithless often promote themselves as the wise, who can rescue the rest of us from our naïveté. We should disconnect, immediately and completely, from listening to the proselytizing efforts of those who have lost their faith, and instead reconnect promptly with the holy spirit.” (L. Whitney Clayton BYU Commencement 2017)
These teachings lead members to believe that there is not a possibility that the church leaders would hide/misrepresent anything. If that is the case, anyone that says that is exactly what has happened and continues to happen must be having another problem unrelated to church history, likely sin, or not living up the the standards of the church. The second quote leads members to believe that those people that question, or have lost their faith are not to be talked to. He does not go as far as explicitly stating that members physically disconnect from those that “have lost their faith.” But it is right on that edge in his seriousness of disconnecting “immediately, and completely.” This rhetoric would lead some to distance themselves from formerly close relationships.
These teachings create a culture in which any questioning of the church’s teachings really isn’t a question of the church teachings, it is something else, it is most likely confusion that has set into the doubters heart because he/she has sinned which allowed satan to influence his/her mind/reasoning. Do people have such little self-respect to believe that they cannot question their very reason for living without being taken over by a mythical confusion monster?!
I replied that I was not at odds with Jesus. In fact, I had been reading my scriptures more and praying more than I had in the past. The more that I read the more problems and confusion I found. The more I prayed the more I realized God was not going to answer my prayers. It is unfortunate that this piece of the culture in the church is so well ingrained that even the most compassionate, kind-hearted, emotionally healthy individuals can have this glaring blindspot. The blind spot of viewing the actual problem as not the problem but redirecting back to the worthiness of the questioner. How insidious!
I transitioned our conversation to the church not being for everyone. I brought up the church’s stance on gays as an example of how the church materially damages the lives of individuals. I brought up the despicable practices encouraged by church leaders for decades like: praying the gay away, or getting a priesthood blessing to not be gay, or go on a mission and God will cure you, and get married, surely having sex with someone of the opposite sex will cure you, that is the natural way. Can we imagine the intense psychological toll this takes on a person. Listen to this podcast for more context. His response was another Mormon norm response. He said, “look at the world today, with the moral degradation that we can see. Look what is happening to the family. We need to take a stand.” He continued, “If we are okay with homosexuals getting married who’s to say we would not be okay with a 40 year old marrying a 13 year old?” He really gave me a lay up with that answer. “That’s pretty much what Joseph Smith did, but we seem to be okay with it right?” The slippery slope argument is yet another not well thought out argument. It is about consenting adults.
He spoke about my family and my kids. He mentioned the responsibility that I had to teach my kids, and hinted at what it would mean if I didn’t teach them the gospel. The basic idea is that all the sins my kids commit will be upon my head because I didn’t teach them to follow Jesus (D&C 68:25). Now, looking back, this is an awful teaching. It is scare tactics. It is control. I thought the church taught “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression?” Threatening people that the sins of their children will come upon their apostate souls is an immoral scare tactic that is common practice in the church.
Near the end of our conversation I think either he knew we were not going anywhere in our discussion, or he wanted to get home for dinner when he said abruptly, “What can I do for you?” It felt as though he was frustrated with our conversation. I just said, “nothing, you can’t do anything for me.” I felt so dejected. It was a sad moment. Nothing. You can’t do anything for me. It was very discouraging.
My experience with the stake president had me thinking, does truth matter? In the context of the claims the Mormon church makes, does it matter if it is absolutely true? Does it matter if following the teachings your whole life and later find out that it is not true, but believe you have lived an honest, service-centered life? I think it comes down to being exposed to the full breadth of historical fact by objective individuals. Bias most likely will infiltrate narratives, but the honest truth seeker will attempt to temper his/her research with objectivity.
My views about effects from the Mormon church’s control on it’s censored faith-only promoting history over two centuries, along with programming its culture with scare tactics and fears of lost blessings for investigating it’s claims are very well described by John Dehlin in the following quote from 2017:
“My view is, there is something fundamentally immoral to presenting a narrative that people build their entire lives upon. They decide what to do with their education, how much money to give, who to marry, when to marry, how many kids to have, what professions to pursue. There’s this massive amount of decisions that you make—in a finite life. And to base that life on a narrative—when not only the narrative isn’t what it claims to be, but when the leaders know that the narrative isn’t what it claims to be, and intentionally, for as long as they could, withheld the information that would allow people to make an informed decision about how they spend their finite time and resources—is profoundly immoral.” (bold added)
Part 4 of my spiritual journey will discuss how I began to pick up the pieces of after my crises of faith. I also dive into what having a blank slate world view is like.