An increasing number of faithful Latter-day Saints are discovering facts about the Church and its history on the Internet or other sources, and these facts sometimes contradict the assumptions that they had grown up believing. Why aren’t more LDS members concerned about this new and supposedly contradictory information? Are the majority of Mormons simply afraid of discovering that they have sacrificed so much for nothing or perhaps participated in an evil religion? Are they simply hiding their heads in the sand to avoid the inevitable cognitive dissonance?
Many Exmormons would claim that any honest Mormon, when learning what they have learned, would leave the church as they have. They believe that any member of the church exposed to this information and not shaken by it must be covering their ears and eyes, so to speak, to avoid serious consideration of the facts. But is that really the case? And what about the thousands of intelligent adults, with access to the Internet, who are joining the church each year even after learning critical arguments from enemies of the Church?
I have often asked myself why exposure to this new information in Church history has not shaken my faith. I have not avoided investigating critics’ claims. In fact, I have gone against caution from leaders and family at times to dive in headfirst, researching issues, discussing with members and those of other faiths, and generally learning all I could. Yet I still remain confident in my testimony.
It’s not that I never doubt my beliefs; I have doubted a lot of things I have learned in the Church. It is not because I have always been pure and righteous. I have been exposed to new, scandalous historical evidence at times when I have drifted far from the spirit. I have always taken very seriously the Church’s claims, yet I have never been seriously shaken by the things that are challenging so many others today.
This isn’t because I somehow never grew up with or made false assumptions, because I have. It certainly is not because I have a superior intellect or, for that matter, not (I hope) because I might have an inferior one. I have found investigating these realities, made to seem scandalous by critics, not only enjoyable and mentally stimulating but also quite faith promoting at times. So what is the difference between the Saints who are shaken and those who aren’t shaken by new information or new claims?
These four foundational perspectives, if understood, should aid those who struggle with these issues and inoculate those who have yet to be exposed:
• Logical fallacies: red herrings and straw men
• Why wasn’t I taught this?
• Prophets changing their minds
• The false dichotomy between faith and reason
What makes virtually all of the critic’s challenges red herrings is that they focus on issues that are nonessential to the gospel plan, diverting us from the relevant issues. Years before the Internet, I had a very intelligent friend on the “fringe” ask me what I thought of the Adam-God Doctrine. I told him that for me it was an interesting mental and intellectual exercise to figure out. He looked at me incredulously and asked how I could consider so lightly a topic that the scriptures took so seriously. “Didn’t Jesus say it is Eternal Life to Know God?” he asked. I said, “Knowing God is not about knowing which name he may be called or how he came to be God. It is only about knowing and acquiring his attributes to become like him.” So it really didn’t matter whether Brigham Young was right or wrong on this issue or what we conclude about it.
When the critics attack the Book of Abraham, they usually criticize how we got the book, challenging things that neither side can prove. In the process, they assume that what Egyptologists knew ten years ago is all we know today or will ever be known. Their concerns are rarely about the book’s contents and real message. They avoid the spiritual realities and the comparisons of the new doctrines and information revealed there to ancient extra-biblical accounts not known by Joseph Smith.
It is the same with the Book of Mormon. The proof test of this Book is to read it sincerely with pure intent and see how it affects your life spiritually. After careful study and pondering its spiritual message, pray to know if it is of God. That is the real truth claim of all books of scripture. The critics make it about the archaeology, geography, artifacts and how Joseph translated it. They present arguments as though the claim of the Book of Mormon is something different than it really is, which makes them straw man arguments more easily torn down because they are arguing against a false premise.
The Book of Mormon does not claim to be a geography book, an anthropological study of the early inhabitants in the Americas, or a dissertation on their implements of war. It only claims to be a book that includes teachings of ancient prophets who lived somewhere in the Americas anciently and promises to bring us closer to Christ. Many claims of critics are based on the fallacy that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. But only on spiritual terms can we prove or disprove its authenticity, thus making their claims irrelevant to the veracity of latter day scripture. This is the kind of thing Jesus was referring to when he warned against straining at gnats while swallowing camels, because many of the questions are unanswerable and irrelevant to the subject matter of what is being criticized.
The false paradigm involved in all of the challenges is the idea that the church has hidden this stuff from us and the Internet is exposing the cover up. The chief cause of this misunderstanding is the fact that our history is just so rich and relatively recent. Imagine the dirt that critics could dig up on the original apostles or even Jesus if we had as much of their history available as we do of Christ’s latter-day church.
The fact is, we simply have way too much information to learn in order to know everything necessary to counter what a critic could dig up from our numerous records to challenge us on. Even if members of the church could memorize half of the Journal of Discourses and half of the Joseph Smith Papers, critics could still have a hayday picking unknown facts from what we still don’t know, present them in a scandalous way and then claim the Church is hiding it from us. Moreover, the critics almost always present these arguments out of context with the text, culture, and history. They often present these things in an anachronistic way.
This issue is probably the most difficult to understand. It involves a paradigm that causes concern when Church leadership issues policy changes or when some of them speculate with their strong opinions about unrevealed reasons for things. The “Mormon Challenges” involved here, for instance, are the changes in policy on plural marriage, on blacks holding the priesthood, or even the positions people expect the Church to change like gay marriage and women holding the priesthood.
People who struggle here assume that since the first two policies were changed, then the second two will be as well. They think that either the brethren were right in saying the prophet will never lead us astray and therefore such policies should never change, or if they change one such policy, then nothing they say can be trusted. If God commands us to follow the prophet, they expect the prophet will never make mistakes in anything.
The reality we must understand is that God allows his prophets to be as human–to mess up–as much as possible, as long as it doesn’t truly disrupt His plan and lead the Church down the wrong path. This can still be the church run by Jesus with fallible men as prophets, seers and revelators. Actually, this is exactly how the church has been run since 1830 and even since the beginning of the Old Testament. Remember how God allowed the great prophet Moses to run things for awhile without revealing to him how to delegate? He then inspired a humble priest of Midian to instruct his prophet on the subject. This is obviously how Christ has chosen to run his church. Look at its fruits and judge if Christ was wise in choosing this path for his church.
Also, what needs to be understood to avoid these difficult ordeals with cognitive dissonance is that none of these issues of changing policy has anything to do with what we need to know to come unto Christ or become more like him. And isn’t that the mission of the church? No doctrines have changed. It has only been policy or implementation of doctrine based on circumstances at the time that have changed. Even the policy on withholding the priesthood from blacks has never been admitted to be wrong. Only the assumptions of why and when. A big cause of this problem is pride. We get so invested in our theory or assumption that if the brethren act in a way that challenges it, they must be wrong.
Many critics believe that when the brethren encourage us to choose faith over doubt, they are using a straw man argument. Their position is faith vs. reason, not doubt. They teach that reasoning from empirical evidence experienced through the five senses is the only way of discerning truth. They reject the spiritual realities that believers see as just as relevant to discerning truth. It is true that some people find it comforting that since they have faith, they don’t have to bother with all the mental labor involved in logic and reason. Those people truly are relying on “blind faith”. That is not the kind of faith encouraged and even commanded by Joseph Smith, his successors, or scripture.
It is interesting that church critics seek to discredit the value of feelings and emotions in seeking truth, while at the same time attempting to attack the church using arguments which rely on feelings and emotions. The accusations of Joseph Smith lying or womanizing, or modern leaders hiding information and deceiving people, are only legitimate concerns because they strike a deep seeded moral chord which would be irrelevant if personal feelings and an internal sense of right and wrong were discarded.
This is what commonly happens. A person gains a testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon through study and prayer. They become aware of spiritual stirrings and feelings they believe can’t be denied. They discover that as they obey those promptings and feelings of conscience that their lives are enriched. They nourish the seed and it grows. Then, at some point, they are confronted with what appears to be empirical evidence that on the surface shows Joseph Smith or something that came from him to be a fraud. Since it takes far more research and effort to defend such claims than to assert them and since this person is not well versed in history and is not a scholar, he is at a disadvantage on the rational empirical side of the issue. The presenter of these new facts emphasizes the idea that you can only be sure of what you can physically discern and previous spiritual witnesses must have just been imagined. But then this champion of doubt reminds the person of the same source of right and wrong that helped this person recognize the truths of the gospel, as reasons to condemn those who revealed it. Without realizing it, the new doubter angrily rejects the sources of his earlier spiritual enlightenment based on morals he learned from that same source of enlightenment.
What we learn from this is that those on both sides of the argument value the spirit as a source of discerning truth. Those who criticise Joseph Smith and the Church, however, deny its relevance and are often unaware of their inconsistent position. We all need to remember that the path of faith is a rational one. In fact it is the most rational one. To ignore the role of the spirit in teaching us truth is unreasonable and unnecessary.
We also need to remember that in addition to laboring in our ability to reason with our minds we need to nurture our spiritual nature. The most effective way to do that is to become aware of ways we can do better at obeying our conscience. We need to ask ourselves, how can I behave differently to be a better person. If we ask this kind of question while in prayer or at the temple or during scripture study it is even more effective. The answer to such a question is always right in front of us. It is so obvious we sometimes miss it. We know very well things we can change to be better. That awareness is revelation directly to us from our maker.
Whenever we stretch out of our comfort zone to better obey our conscience, that light of Christ becomes brighter in all areas of our life and we are better able to discern and know how to act when confronted with facts that seem to contradict teachings of the church. If we follow this pattern with patience and humility, the answers will come, often a lot sooner than we might expect.