Basis For Belief, Part Four: Avoiding the Evidence
This is Part Four of a four-part series of posts. If you haven't already, you may want to read Parts One, Two, and Three first to get the full context.
So, in the first three parts, I've pretty much covered the main point I wanted to explore, namely that it wasn't a conviction that there was evidence that disproved LDS doctrine that made me leave the church, but rather the realization that there was no good reason to believe in it--or in any other religious doctrine. But there's one more thing I wanted to touch on, related to the subject of the previous post in the series. I said in that post that the Holy Ghost, which according to LDS doctrine is what lets people know the gospel is true, is an invention of man--but as I said at the end of the post, it's an invention with at least two purposes. One of those is to give people a justification for believing in the church doctrine. But the other is to keep people away from contrary evidence.
Way back at the beginning of the first post of this series, I mentioned that the first commenter I quoted there was misstating LDS doctrine--that while church doctrine did state that the Holy Ghost testified of the truth, it also maintained that the Holy Ghost could be driven away by things uncongenial to it. What kinds of things? Well, sin, of course. But not just active sin. Anything that went against the principles of the church could drive the Holy Ghost away. For instance, R-Rated movies and other inappropriate entertainment. Impure thoughts. And--most importantly for the present point--"anti-Mormon propaganda". Which is to say, anything that reflected negatively on the church.
In the last few months, I've started looking around some sites that, while I considered myself an active member, I wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole. Sites that the church would consider "anti-Mormon", sites like ex-mormon.org and lds-mormon.com and Rethinking Mormonism and The Salamander Society. And I learned a lot about the church that I hadn't known. I had had no idea just to what extent the church had managed to whitewash its history. (And even to cover up some present-day matters that might seem unfavorable--I mentioned in a previous post (the same one I linked to in the first post in this series) the matter of the DNA testing that had established that, contrary to LDS doctrine about the origins of the Lamanites, there was no genetic link between Native American populations and Israelites, but this was something I hadn't heard about before my deconversion. Not that the apologists haven't been making the usual contrived attempts to reconcile the doctrines with this, naturally.)
Oh, there are some things, of course, that are so well known that the church can't possibly try to keep them from its members' ears. Most Mormons are fully aware, for example, that church leaders in the nineteenth century practiced polygamy. But they hear a sanitized, exculpative account of the story: that, well, the reason for it was that so many men died that there were lots of unmarried and widowed women left around who had to be taken care of, and that polygamy was practiced simply as a way to do that, and to make sure all those poor abandoned women had homes and providers.
But most Mormons don't know that some of Joseph Smith's "plural wives" were teenagers--who didn't want to marry him, and agreed to do so only because he told them it was necessary for the salvation of their families! (And that he had already been practicing polygamy in secret before he made it a revelation to the church.) Or that some of the wives Joseph Smith married were already married--and remained married to their other husbands as well, making the early LDS plural marriages both polygynous and polyandrous (and completely giving the lie to that justification about polygamy being instituted to care for poor abandoned women). Or that previous General Authorities of the church expounded on the "evils of monogamy" in much the same language that they use today to attack homosexuality!
I didn't know any of these things before, and I'd been a faithful member all my life, knew the scriptures and knew the doctrines. And all these details about polygamy are just one example of dark things about the church that most members are completely unaware of; there's plenty more where that came from. But these kinds of historical details never make their ways into church lessons; the church does a very good job of covering them up. To find out facts like these, you have to specifically seek them out--and that means delving into the kinds of materials that (gasp!) drive away the Holy Ghost.
(One might argue that the sites I'm getting this information from are biased against the church, and may not be reliable sources. There's something to that--but, on examination, not all that much. All of these facts are well documented, including in books (such as the History of the Church and the Journal of Discourses) that used to be officially condoned by LDS church authorities, apparently until it came to their attention how inflammatory some of their contents are. (Today, the church suppresses these books, not so much in that it explicitly tells people not to read them (that would, perhaps, raise too many suspicions), but in that they're mentioned as little as possible and the church doesn't make them readily available.) The documentation of most of these speeches and events seems so incontrovertible that the best Mormon apologists can muster against them are rabid ad hominems, feeble and obviously nonsensical complaints that they're being taken out of context, and the inevitable empty exhortations to appeal to the Holy Ghost to know the truth of all things. So, while it's true that many of these sites may be colored by an "anti-Mormon" slant and not wholly objective, it's also true that all the evidence seems to fall much more heavily on their side than on that of the official LDS accounts.)
I've run across in my readings many stories of ex-Mormons who left the church because they looked deeper into its history in an attempt to find answers to anti-Mormon allegations--and instead found, to their dismay, that those allegations were correct. That's not my story; I just stuck to the line and ignored all the anti-Mormon material like I was supposed to, secure (or so I thought) in the knowledge that the Spirit had testified to me of the truth. It was only when I finally admitted to myself that I had no real basis for believing that the Spirit had actually testified to anything, or existed at all, that I left. Still, that's not to say that I was completely unaware of some of the problems. I once found a book in my mother's house describing the problems with the Book of Abraham, a scripture supposedly translated by Joseph Smith from an Egyptian papyrus he had purchased--she had apparently mistakenly bought the book without realizing its "anti-Mormon" nature. I didn't read it all the way through--glancing through it was enough for me to realize this was something I shouldn't be reading--but even that brief glance was enough for me to see that there were some serious problems with Joseph Smith's "translation" of the papyrus. This bothered me a great deal, but not enough for me to seriously doubt the church, or at least not to come to terms with my doubt.
All of this may seem to contradict what I said in the first post of the series--that it isn't really having evidence against the church that matters; it's realizing that you don't have any good reason to believe, because there's always a way to rationalize away the evidence. I stand by that...but it's a matter of degree. The more evidence you have, and the harder you have to contort things to rationalize it all away, well, the firmer you have to be in your convictions of your reasons to believe before they stretch too far and you see them for the false construct they are. Had I known then what I know now about the church's history and practices, I'm sure I would have come to terms with my disbelief and left the church a lot sooner--the proximate reason for my leaving the church would still have been the lack of reasons for believing in it, not the evidence against it, but that evidence would have made me more readily see that lack.
There was an interesting thread on exmormon.org entitled "People Like Us Were Never Expected To Leave Mormonism", expounding on the observation that it seems to be the really good and faithful Mormons who end up leaving the church, while the "social Mormons" and "slackers" stay for life. I don't know to just what extent that's the case; I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions, and of course all the evidence put forth is anecdotal. Still, I think it makes sense that there may be something to it. Those who really care about the truth are going to be devoted to the church and do everything they can to follow its precepts as long as they believe it's true. But if they ever realize it isn't--and, since they do care about the truth, and are therefore seeking after more of it, sooner or later they are likely to realize it isn't--then they'll accept that, though probably not without some difficulty, and they won't remain in a church they know not to be true. On the other hand, those who don't care that much about the truth, who are content to accept the word of others rather than examine things for themselves, or who simply don't really care whether the church is true or not and just stay in it because it makes them feel good or because they like the social aspect...they're not likely to leave, because they're unlikely to examine things enough to realize the church isn't true, and because even if they do it doesn't matter to them.
In an earlier post, I'd expressed my surprise that someone could realize that Mormonism wasn't true--and then turn around and join another Christian church. Didn't they realize that if the testimony of the Holy Ghost that was supposed to form the basis for their belief wasn't real, if they hadn't really received any personal revelations from God, then they had no reason to believe in any other churches either? I've come to realize since then that, despite the church's nominal emphasis on the witness of the Holy Ghost, not everyone takes it as seriously as I did. I clung to it because I needed to know there was some basis for my belief--I knew the church couldn't be proven on rational grounds, so I accepted that I knew it was true because of the Holy Ghost's witness. I did eventually come to terms with the fact that I'd received no such witness, that I'd been lying to myself, but the point is that I couldn't go on in the church without convincing myself I have some reason to believe. I've since realized that--as alien as the mindset involved is to my own--it seems that many people are willing to go ahead and commit their belief to something without even the pretext of a real reason. To people like that, if they become disenchanted with Mormonism, it makes perfect sense to just go and join up with some other Christian church. To me, no; I have no reason to believe in it.
Of course, it's not an all-or-nothing affair, with some people committed to the truth and some people completely uncaring about it; I've oversimplified a bit, and there's probably more of a continuum. Which is why it would be so dangerous to the church if all its dark secrets were known to every member--even most of the more casual members would find it hard to stomach staying in an organization with so much clear malfeasance and mendacity in its past. The way it stands, though, most members are never likely to find out about those matters, and the church remains, for the moment at least, safe.
So I think that's definitely at least part of the reason the church teaches its members to avoid materials like this that drive away the Spirit--because it realizes that if its members knew about these things, they'd probably start to doubt the church (or doubt it more, if they already had some doubt), and be likely to eventually leave it. Of course, the church would like its members to believe that that doubt comes from the devil, but it's not doubt that's evil. It's unfounded and unexamined certainty that really leads to evil actions, because if one is unwilling to examine one's convictions, one can justify anything at all.
There's a parable often repeated in the church--there's even a primary song based on it. ("Primary" is the church meeting for young children--though actually some Googling shows that this song isn't unique to the LDS church, but is taught to children in other Christian denominations as well. I don't know if the parable is given quite as much emphasis in other Christian denominations as it is in the LDS church, though the omnipresence of the song suggests it is.) It's from Matthew 7:24-27:
24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
The point of the parable, as the church uses it, is that it's important to keep your belief in the church firmly rooted, by obeying the commandments and praying and maintaining your faith. Otherwise, when adversity comes along, you're going to fall away. But ironically, in reality, its the church that's really analogous to the house upon the sand. Belief in the church has no solid foundation, and when it's subjected to any real scrutiny--it falls. And great is the fall of it. Which is why the church wants to discourage people from carrying out that scrutiny. If they can't build their house on the rock, they'll do their best to keep away the rain. Ultimately, though, however much the church leaders may try to shield it from the metaphorical elements, trying to live in a house with such an unstable foundation just isn't safe.
It's important to really examine the basis for your beliefs--and if you find that they have no firm basis, to be willing to abandon them. Ultimately, there's no firm basis for belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--or in any other church that I'm aware of. It doesn't really matter if there's evidence against the church's teachings--as it happens, there is, and plenty of it, but that's not the most important point. The really crucial point is that there's no evidence of any kind for those teachings. And that includes faith, and the Holy Ghost, and all the other empty verbiage that's often trotted forth. They don't stand up under close examination; they're all puffery and pablum and circular arguments. It's not that I've found definitive, unanswerable reasons for believing that the church isn't true. It's that I've realized there's no reason at all for believing it--or any other church--is true.
And that's why I'm an atheist.