I thought I knew the reasons why people left the church. I had been taught from early childhood the ideas of why someone would abandon the glorious message that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. There was little mystery to this. My indoctrinated self could not conceive of a world in which the church was not the true church. I believed that honest inquiry and genuine doubts were taboo and not permitted to walk on the hallowed ground of absolute truth. Because of this paradox, the church has a tendency to vilify the seeker of truth, intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally.
Imagine the knowledge of the middle ages. People believed the movements of the stars influenced numerous things on earth, from the weather and the growth of crops to the personalities of newborn babies and the inner workings of the human body. Doctors often carried around special almanacs (or calendars) containing illustrated star charts, allowing them to check the positions of stars before making a diagnosis. Many of these almanacs included illustrations, helping to explain complicated ideas to patients.
Ancient studies of astrology were translated from Arabic to Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries and soon became part of everyday medical practice in Europe. By the end of the 1500s, physicians across Europe were required by law to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures, such as surgery or bleeding.
Imagine going to a doctor and whose diagnostic technique included using an astrology almanac and calculating the position of the moon. They would then decide based on the stars your diagnosis and prescribe a related cure. This kind of practice would be absolute insanity in modern times, but was common practice and common belief for many hundreds of years.
Imagine the scientists that began questioning this form of logic. Maybe the moon does not have anything to do with people getting sick? Maybe bleeding people when they have a fever is not an optimal treatment. These questions were rejected by many and accepted by some. Eventually the Miasma theory caught on, which held that diseases were caused by bad air emanating from rotting organic matter, which then gave way to germ theory (around 1880) which is the current scientific theory of disease. When these scientists began questioning, do you think people objected, and said, “doubt your doubts we have always done things this way, don’t lose faith in blood letting it once cured my nephew, people that reject astrology are misled by the devil himself.” I do. It is human nature to reject change, especially change to something you believe is unchangeable.
The Mormon church systematically teaches its members to avoid questioning its core teachings. This aversion to questioning, or sometimes called doubt, bleeds into avoiding certain books, websites, thought patterns, people, and even having conversations about doubt, lest the devil tempt you away. This deep seeded teaching is taught from an early age by leaders and parents, and is reinforced by leadership in talks and lessons. Below, I’ve outlined several basic lessons I was taught about questioning the church and the character of those that question. Bolded words are added by me for emphasis. When appropriate, I will express my understanding in red.
Those that doubt are lead away by Satan
Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. … When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant’” (in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 324).
So-called friends can introduce doubt by asking hurtful questions. Internet sites can generate doubt by presenting information out of context. But doubts especially intensify when we ourselves, feeling abandoned or overwhelmed, question the burdens we bear. The natural man’s complaints, such as “Why me, Lord?” or “If I am Thy servant, why dost Thou allow … ,” can be whispered in our ears by the father of lies. He has a sinister purpose: to weaken our certainty that we are God’s children. (Elder Hugo Montoya 2017)
“First doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf 2013)
This teaches believing members that they will lose favor in God’s sight and have blessings withheld if they have doubts. This is a common thread in the church’s tapestry of Mormon anti-doubt rhetoric.
“This is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know.”
Holland’s teaching clearly minimizes anything that may cause doubt in the church by calling it an act of hyperventilation. This is demeaning and marginalizes anyone who has sincere doubts.
“For me, to doubt our doubts is to be courageous rather than cavalier when it comes to eternal things. We cannot be casual in doubting our doubts and thus succumb to spiritual and intellectual laziness. In other words, no one of us should ever allow a doubt to reign, when in fact it has not won that lofty perch through proving itself beyond all doubt.
Just as for me it takes too much faith to be an atheist, so we should not be so kindly, such a pushover, as to allow our faith system to go by the way without intellectual and spiritual kicking and screaming on our part.” (Robert Millet BYU Professor 2016)
Those that doubt are intellectually lazy and are more cavalier with their questions than those that approach them thoughtfully and carefully.
Persecution is Proof
Why does the Lord allow the evil speaking to chase after the good? One reason is that opposition against the things of God sends seekers of truth to their knees for answers. (Spencer W, Kimball 1978)
This teaches members to recognize criticism as a sign that the church is true. The mentality could be summarized with this phrase, “If they church was not true it would not be as persecuted as it is.” It instructs member to not look anywhere but your knees for answers. If it isn’t church correlated, and it isn’t on your knees it is inherently evil and you are not a seeker of truth.
The New Testament shows that true followers of Jesus Christ were inevitably persecuted. Jesus said to his apostles, “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own,…but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you” (John 15:19). Paul said that “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Hence, a sign or characteristic of the true Church is rejection and persecution by the wicked. (Leon R. Hartshorn 1992)
Someday you will see and feel and understand and perhaps even berate yourself for the long delay and waste of time. It is not a matter of if. It is a matter of when. (Spencer W, Kimball 1978)
Even those who have had powerful spiritual experiences and have given faithful service could one day go astray or fall into inactivity if they do not endure to the end. May we always and emphatically keep in our minds and hearts the phrase “This will not happen to me.”
I have heard many justifications from those who have stopped participating actively in the Church and have lost the correct vision of the purpose of our journey on this earth. I exhort them to reflect and to return, because I believe that no one will be able to make excuses before our Lord, Jesus Christ. (Claudio D. Zivic 2018)
This goes without explanation, but these quotes say it and members perpetuate it: You will be sorry, it is not a matter of if but when. This thought pattern shuts down honest inquiry, it creates an us vs them mentality, a sort of elitism.
Being critical of church leaders means you are an apostate
“I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.” (History of the Church, 3:385)
Heber C. Kimball, while serving as a counselor to President Brigham Young, reported: “I will give you a key which Brother Joseph Smith used to give in Nauvoo. He said that the very step of apostasy commenced with losing confidence in the leaders of this church and kingdom, and that whenever you discerned that spirit you might know that it would lead the possessor of it on the road to apostasy.” (Heber C. Kimball, Deseret News, Apr. 2, 1856)
Those that have gone through the temple know you make promises, or covenants, to avoid “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed.” These promises are presented as if you are making a promise to god, and angels, and to those participating in the ritual with you. This creates an agreement within your mental state that is at odds with reasonable judgement of other human beings. These men that are proclaimed as the Lord’s anointed have been known to make spiritually destructive mistakes. Mistakes that have later been denounced as false doctrine. This blind obedience, induced and sealed by secret promises, clouds the judgement of members when thinking critically about the teachings of its leaders.
If you question your character is flawed
“What I have been able to understand is why people stay,” she said. She boiled it down to character. Those who stayed active in the church exhibited patience, faith and trust in Jesus Christ, hope, knowledge and wisdom, obedience, diligence and persistence, humility, repentance and forgiveness, charity and virtue. (BYU religion professor Barbara Morgan Gardner)
Those that stay have character. Those that leave…
Some might ask, “But what about my doubts?”
It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true. (Uchtdorf October 2013)
Anything that you have doubts about, and are honest in your inquiry, will eventually yield a mature great oak of understanding. But if you are not really honest in your inquiry your doubts will be planted in the sandy soil of uncertainty, and we call can imagine where that plant is going, nowhere.
When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.
Last observation: When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.”11 I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief.
I know this work is God’s very truth, and I know that only at our peril would we allow doubt or devils to sway us from its path. Hope on. Journey on. Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe. (Jeffrey R Holland 2013)
This one is a doozy, but let me take a stab at it. Holland tries to throw shade on doubts by saying it’s not more “morally courageous to have doubts than declare faith.” What does that mean? If someone has doubts instead of faith, they are morally inferior? He then plays the hostage card by mentioning you and your family being healed by faith and not doubt. He then goes on the character assassination and speaks of those that doubt do not have real intent, full purpose of heart, are hypocrites and deceived. He takes one final swing by effusing the grips of of the devil to those that allow doubt to enter our minds.
The following blog fully encompasses what I have outlined above. It is written with a spirit of compassion and comes from a place of kindness, but unfortunately is laden with common errors that contribute to confirmation bias of the faithful and a subtle demeaning deconstruction of the honest truth seeker that is anything but compassionate or kind.
I’ve been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all my life. I received a testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel before I can remember. As I grew and learned more, I recognized more light and truth. I never doubted, until …
Stories began surfacing about the embellishments of events in Church history: things I didn’t know about the faults and foibles of Joseph Smith, historical facts that had been distorted, written accounts that differed from each other and the public narrative. The more I read, the more I questioned.
I wasn’t sure prayer would be helpful. I was afraid I’d receive the same sort of answers I always did because I’d been raised in the Church. I wanted to figure it out on my own. But the more I questioned, on an intellectual level, the worse I felt. Doubts led to internal contention and consternation, without resolution.
Warning flag #1 people. I tried to figure it out on my own, without prayer, without the assistance of the holy ghost. This type of context is setting the story up for an easy home run. In my personal situation, I prayed more intensely during my crises of faith. I knew if I would be able to make sense of my doubt, the spirit would help me do it.
Then, an LDS friend asked me to lunch one day. I trusted her and was able to speak openly. She responded in love and empathy. After we’d discussed my concerns, she asked, “What do you know?”
“What do I know about what?”
“Tell me what you know. Not what you question, but what you know to be true.”
That’s when the Spirit struck with great force and tenderness. A powerful yet quiet assurance. What I truly knew did not come from intellectual knowledge. Absolute truth and light cannot be found simply by reading accounts by man. Rather, they come through studying and meditating upon the word of God.
I answered my friend. “I know Jesus Christ is my Savior and He atoned for my sins. I know I have Heavenly Parents who love me. I know Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates and that we have a living prophet today.” My response came from deep within, dating back before I came to earth and existing far beyond this life.
Alma, the Book of Mormon prophet, reminds us that true knowledge can only be gained by planting the seed of faith, then nourishing it as it sprouts and grows into a tree that eventually yields perfect knowledge—a tree with fruit that is “most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure” (Alma 32:42).
I’d been planting the seed of doubt, nourishing it as it grew into what was becoming a misshapen, gnarled tree of earthly facts and confusion. Its fruit was not good—rather, quite bitter to the taste, causing me great distress of heart, might, mind, and soul.
What I read in the first three of the last four paragraphs is gnarled confusion. When faced with doubt, we are to expect an answer that will be in the form of a powerful, no wait, quiet, no wait, great forceful assurance of gospel truth. This word play is followed up with reference to spiritual knowledge that conjures up memories of a metaphysical pre-existence. Confirmation bias. It continues with a problem that I have, which is a major cornerstone issue I have, that is the idea of conflating emotional feelings, with the spirit (which I can get on board with somewhat), but then taking it the extra 10,000 miles and equating feelings to absolute truth, and true knowledge. If this thought pattern is followed and believed to be accurate, you can get anyone to believe anything. In fact, this reminds me of a quote by Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
This portion is wrapped up with a defamatory reference to earthly facts being equated with confusion and of being gnarled and bitter. This is another common teaching. The doctrine of the church is pure. This pure knowledge comes from the spirit. Earthly knowledge cannot be trusted if it runs contrary to the pure spiritual doctrinal Mormon teachings. Do you see the epistemology there?
The desire to ask questions and seek further knowledge is a divine attribute. It’s what led a young boy into a grove of trees to ask about which church was right. And as we search for answers, it’s important to remember the eternal truths we have already gained testimony of.
I’m sure more questions will arise for me. I am becoming equally certain that if I wrestle long enough, I’ll find the answers. If not in this life, then the next. (Blog: Laurie Campbell Feb 2018)
Some answers to questions have very real mortal consequences. How one lives their life. How one raises children. If one should have children and how many. Entire world views are based on some of these answers. It is morally evil to tell someone, “keep following, your questions will be answered after you die,” when there is a possibility it is not the one truth it is described and taught as. This is how members of the church become trapped. Your family is held hostage. If you do not follow the doctrine you will not be with your family in heaven. In fact you will be servant angels to more worthy gods if you even get that far. So why even question it at all?
To conclude. I was taught what it meant to doubt in the church and the character of doubters. They are:
- Those that doubt are lead away by satan
- Persecution is proof the church is true
- You will be sorry you had doubts in the end
- Your family and eternal salvation are at stake, are you sure you want to risk it?
- Do not question the leaders
- If you have doubts, likely you are
- Intellectually lazy
- Intellectually dishonest
- Without honest inquiry
- Have a misaligned intent (you want it to be false attitude)
There is not a safe place within the church to have honest dialogue about important and divisive church doctrinal questions. The church did release the essays that addressed some of the main concerns of church history, but did nothing to create a support group for those with real doubts and questions. I had questions, I knew what the reaction would be if I expressed those doubts. I went looking for answers on faithful mormon websites and found outlined what this blog piece is about. Would you honestly seek out the help of people that have been indoctrinated with these teachings? Would you feel comfortable opening up your deeply held beliefs and placing them on the altar of your worldview to people taught these things?
These teachings are morally harmful, and tend to break up families, marriages, and friendships. In my experience, those who follow their doubts find themselves changing their beliefs after honest inquiry. To what extent those beliefs change is unique to all who travel this road less traveled. I can say for myself that integrity, honesty, and being completely reasonable forced my hand to get me to leave. I no longer found a good reason to doubt my doubts. I no longer submitted my mind to the authority of a common ape like me. I would no longer use my church issued astrology almanac to calculate the distance to the moon to diagnose my spiritual welfare.