Monday, May 4, 2015

To Anyone Experiencing a Faith Crisis

An article entitled My Letter to Anyone Experiencing a Faith Crisis was recently shared on Reddit.  In its well-meaning but misguided attempt to defend the church's claims without demonizing those who struggle with them, the author of this piece makes several notable blunders.  The first of these is an assumption that he can adequately understand a deeply emotional process which he admits he's never undergone:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I have never experienced a faith crisis myself.  But don't worry—it's not that I have buried my head in the sand, ignoring the critics who challenge our beliefs.  Instead, I have read voraciously and have tried to examine all the issues, old and new.
Right.  Because examining the issues in an academic mindset qualifies someone to discuss the heartrending and often traumatic effects it can have on those who have experienced these things firsthand.  While I laud him for admitting his own superiority of redoubtable doubtlessness, it's a little disappointing that he doesn't realize that his research and others' faith crises are worlds apart.

Moving on:
Don't forget that misery loves company, and be careful about your sources.  Be especially wary of professional skeptics; there are plenty of those out there today.
I'm assuming by "professional skeptics," he's referring to anyone from Richard Dawkins to John Dehlin—anyone who makes money by voicing an opinion of skepticism toward Mormonism or toward religion in general.  However, if we're being careful about our sources, we should also be wary of professional believers.  In addition to their "modest stipend," how much money do the members of the Quorum of the Twelve make by writing books that encourage people to believe in the religious organization they govern?

That's not to say, of course, that anyone who makes money from speaking his mind can't be trusted or that anyone who doesn't make money by voicing his opinions is inherently more honorable.  But if you're not willing to admit the reality of priestcraft, your warning about skeptic-craft rings a little hollow.

I have noticed that the arguments against religious faith haven't changed at least the last two thousand years.  There isn't much coming from our critics that is new, even though they often try to repackage old ideas.
This is an infuriatingly common complaint among amateur apologists.  I've read of similar statements coming out of loved ones' mouths in countless exit stories.  My own father used it on me more than once.  It's such a flimsy, dismissive comment that it has no place in a useful discussion.  Just because a criticism has been in heavy rotation for a long time, I'm supposed to assume that it's invalid?  

And besides, most of the damning evidence that I can think of against, say, Mormonism comes from the past two hundred years.  And the church keeps giving us new material to whine about, too, what with Proposition 8 and the City Creek Mall and now this religious freedom nonsense.  You can't tell me people have been criticizing that stuff for the last two thousand years.  Or maybe it's just a repackaged idea, considering the vast real estate holdings that Jesus had during his mortal ministry, right?

Remember the importance of historical context.  If we view a particular story or event from Church history through the lens of our current customs or culture, there's a good chance we'll see a distorted image.
Oh, okay.  So in the nineteenth century it was perfectly acceptable to marry dozens of women, some of whom were already married to other men, without the permission or even knowledge of your wife or the current husbands of your brides?  It was also perfectly acceptable to violate the First Amendment of the Constitution by using your authority as an elected government official to order the destruction of a newspaper that was printing unfavorable truths about you?  I think the fact that there was no angry mob running around trying to kill Joseph Smith speaks volumes to how acceptable his behavior was within its historical context.

Many of the critics you have encountered like to suggest that if believers knew half of what the critics know about our history or our beliefs, we would all end up in a faith crisis, too.  They are simply wrong.
That explains the countless exit stories of people who felt the church had lied to them about varied accounts of the First Vision, the method of translation for the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's involvement in polygamy, the cause of Joseph Smith's martyrdom, the origins of the Book of Abraham, edits to the Book of Mormon and any number of other troubling issues that the church has been considerably less than forthcoming about.  The church teaches that its members should read the scriptures and follow the prophet, but it does not teach that its members should embark on an in-depth research project concerning its origins and history.  Many members don't know about a lot of these issues.  Will everyone who learns about them suffer a faith crisis?  No, of course not.  But a lot of these problems and many others (Mark Hoffman, Adam-God theory, blood atonement, Masonic temple ceremonies, the church's many business ventures, etc.) may elicit some completely reasonable questions concerning the veracity of the religion.

The Book of Mormon is amazing and there is no credible alternative explanation for its origin.  ...  I am also a writer, and there is simply no way the Prophet Joseph Smith could have written that book.
How's this for a credible alternative explanation for the origin of the Book of Mormon:  It was written by a human being, maybe with some help from another human being or two.   If you'll talk to writers who pen historical epics or fantasy epics or any kind of epic, you'll probably hear a common thread:  Before any of them really set to work writing the physical manuscript, many will spend months or years coming up with ideas, characters, plot points and settings in their heads.  We know that Joseph Smith liked to tell lots of stories about ancient America, and if you don't believe that he was actually digging up gold plates and receiving instructions from an angel, it's pretty reasonable to assume that he was simply starting to shape the framework of his debut novel before anyone put pen to paper.

Furthermore, the writing is atrocious.  He had a little talent and managed to turn an awesome phrase here and there, but the majority of the Book of Mormon is a mess of scriptural borrowing and clumsily-related stories pasted together with sloppy pseudo-Biblical diction.  I'd be much more impressed had Joseph cranked out The Old Man and the Sea on his first try.

Beyond his divine calling, the Prophet Joseph Smith was an honest and decent man. 
Okay, well, I already covered the Nauvoo Expositor and the deceptions that went along with polygamy and polyandry, so I'll just leave this useful Wikipedia link here.  Joseph Smith had a lot of run-ins with the law.  Some of it could be exaggerated or trumped up (after all, he was a pretty unpopular guy after all the shady stuff he'd done), but I'm seeing an escape from prison to flee the jurisdiction, threatening a judge, a couple of counts of treason...yeah, a really stand-up guy.  A guy so honest that he lied about practicing polygamy and did nothing to contradict so many of his friends when they publicly denounced it as well. 

The presiding officers of the Church are good.  They are selfless.  We can trust them.
How can someone who quickly runs through eight "brief encounters" with only some of the many presiding officers expect such a bold claim to have any credibility?  He doesn't offer any reason for why we should trust these men other than, basically, he met a few of them on the street and they seemed like nice guys.  He knows nothing about their private personas and what their true motives are.

I'd suggest that maybe falling back on that old adage "by their fruits shall ye know them" (who was it that coined that one?) is a good idea.  We know that the leaders of the church have some nice houses and we know they built the multi-billion dollar City Creek Center with church funds.  What about their charity?  The number doesn't seem to be found anywhere on official church sites anymore (maybe they realized it was something to be ashamed of), but thanks to the Wayback Machine, we can see that the church's self-reported humanitarian cash donations between 1985 and 2011 totaled a mere 327.6 million dollars.  That works out to roughly one dollar per member per year.  That's not a lot of humanitarian aid for a church estimated to have 30 billion dollars in assets halfway through that timeframe.  That's some bitter fruit.

Are we really sure that they are selfless and trustworthy?

The restored gospel is ennobling and liberating.
Ennobling, perhaps.  There are people who have done some wonderful things because of their faith in Mormonism, though I definitely wouldn't argue that the gospel is inherently more ennobling than any other system of belief.   But liberating?
It's liberating to allow a religious organization to funnel your behaviors and beliefs into what is approved by their leadership?  I was taught in church that following the commandments is more freeing and more liberating than choosing from a wider selection of worldly options, and I never really understood why that was supposed to be the case...but I believed it.  I think the usual rationale is that sinful behaviors limit the amount of choices you'll have further down the road.  What a lot of people who have never ventured outside of the church don't seem to realize is that not all forbidden choices restrict the breadth of future ones.  And many of these "sinful" acts don't restrict our moral agency, just our practical agency.  If you mess around with drugs and get thrown in jail, you might not have the freedom you used to have, but there's nothing to stop you from choosing to be a good person.

The restored gospel is restrictive.  It's not about liberation.  The whole point is control.

The Church doesn't have anything to hide.  I admire how openly the Church has addressed questions about its history.  The Church recently published a series of candid "Gospel Topics" essays that provide detailed discussions about several events in our history.
Are we talking about the same church here?  The church has not openly addressed questions about its history.  It very quietly published a series of semi-candid "Gospel Topics" essays attributed to and signed by exactly none of its prophets, seers or revelators.  These essays provide semi-detailed, semi-skewed discussions about several events in its history.  And when did it publish these essays?  Depending on what events we're talking about, sometimes one hundred fifty years after the fact.  Making some candid, unpleasant information available with plenty of spin after enduring decades and decades of criticisms and questions concerning these issues does not qualify as being "open" about anything.  When this stuff winds up in church lesson manuals and Mormon Newsroom press releases, I'll be impressed...but it will still be way too late to counteract a century and a half of whitewashing.

And if the Church doesn't have anything to hide, why does it keep its finances private?  If you expect someone to believe you have nothing to hide, wouldn't it make sense not to hide anything?

If the Church is ever true, it is always true.  
This is allegiance to the organization, not the doctrine.  It's interesting to me that the author always capitalizes "Church" but never "gospel."

I don't think people should be so loyal to their religions, I think they should be loyal to their beliefs.  It shouldn't be the church that's true, it should be the gospel that's true.  If Jesus dying for our sins was ever true, it will never stop being true.  But a church run by a hierarchy of imperfect men can stop being "true," in the LDS sense of the term, at a moment's notice.  Once a church starts aggressively indoctrinating children, shaming and demeaning women, preaching un-Christlike intolerance under the guise of religious freedom and demanding mandatory monetary donations to fund unrelated business ventures, it's effectively ceased to be a positive force in the world.  Even if the church were "true" before, it certainly isn't now.

I wish people would cling to their faith instead of to their faith in their leadership structure, because what a person passionately believes should be more important to him than the organization that happens to preach it.

No amount of logic or reason or history can ever provide the same and lasting conviction that comes through the witness of the Holy Ghost.  Never hesitate to ask in prayer for the spiritual reassurance you seek.  You have the Lord's promise that "by the power of the Holy Ghost, [you] may know the truth of all things."
Here the author demonstrates, again, that he doesn't understand faith crises.  A lot of people who go through them aren't looking for the lasting conviction from the Holy Ghost.  They're looking for the truth.  They aren't looking for reassurance.  They're looking for the truth.  If the promise in Moroni 10 fails them, what do you expect them to do?  Of course they'll have to fall back on logic and reason and history, because there's so little else the church can offer.  If they don't receive a spiritual witness of the truth, they are either supposed to take it on faith or keep trying again, indefinitely.  For a lot of us, that's not a very satisfying answer.

Not that logic and reason and history should be a fall-back.  But when you're crawling out of the cognitive cocoon of Mormonism, that's probably how you'll see it.  Those three things are often referred to with disdain in the church.  There's nothing wrong with logic and reason and history.  But all three are a threat to Mormondom, and the leadership has culturally conditioned its members to be skeptical of them.

So here's what I have to say to anyone experiencing a faith crisis:

Do you.  Don't let people like me tell you to leave and don't let people like him tell you to stay.

Take in as much verifiable information as you can, decide what feels right to you, and make the best decision you can for yourself.  If you have a family, make the best decision you can for you, for your spouse, and for your children.  There's no shame in staying in the church and there's no shame in leaving the church.

It's as simple as that.


  1. Amen!

    As I read the guy's post, this stood out to me:

    "The Book of Mormon is amazing and there is no credible alternative explanation for its origin. The Book of Mormon has been examined for nearly two centuries, and no one has ever offered a credible alternative to what the Prophet Joseph Smith said about its origins."

    Really? There is no credible alternative to Joseph's story of visitations from angels, digging for plates, translating them with stones, etc.

    Alex, your explanation makes much more sense. In fact, that's probably what happened.

    1. It's appalling how frequently that argument comes up. I'd be willing to bet that most people who claim that there is no credible alternative explanation for the origin of the Book of Mormon haven't actually looked for one.

      I'll admit I don't know exactly how the Book of Mormon came to be, but the "it was written by a person or several persons" bit is still a lot more credible than visitations from angels, digging for plates, translating them with stones and all that jazz.

  2. "The church doesn't have anything to hide." Really? Your thoughts on the topics are right on. I believe most members are unaware of the essays including bishops and stake presidents. People for the most part don't want to discuss them, especially at church. It makes them uncomfortable to discuss such things and "drives away the spirit."

    People even get in trouble at church for bringing them up. Here's a perfect example published just last week in the Salt Lake Tribune, and it happened to a believer not a man going out trying to destroy faith.

    1. Yeah, I saw that. You really can't make this stuff up...

  3. "Remember the importance of historical context. If we view a particular story or event from Church history through the lens of our current customs or culture, there's a good chance we'll see a distorted image."

    In the case of the Book of Abraham, history has made the image much more clear. IT ISN'T A TRANSLATION! The Rosetta Stone helped to make an accurate translation possible. The historical context shows that many members of the early church would believe anything Joseph told them. It shows how far he would go to con them. Since the church now owns the papyri, it's easy to verify. For those who argue that the B of A comes from a different part of the scrolls, why doesn't the church have one of the 15 seers break out Joseph Smith's seer stone he used to translate the Book of Mormon, which they have in their possession, and translate them. They might be the Book of Joseph. The truth is that they all know it's total BS, but they won't come out and admit it. It's one more proof that they aren't true prophets, seers, and revelators.

    1. That's a good point. Historical context can't explain away the Kinderhook plates, either. It's just a fallback argument often made in the hope that the listener will simply assume there is a justifying context without doing any research.