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Why I left the Mormon church

Jan 16, 2014 • family

I joined the LDS Church in 1991 and stayed an active member until January 2014. I held many leadership callings, served a mission, graduated from BYU, and worked in the Church’s IT department for 5 years.

What led me astray after being so consistent and believing for so many years?

First, I want to define my audience. I am aware that many of those who leave the LDS or Mormon Church write bitter why-I-left stories. These stories contrast with the why-I-joined stories. Both are therapeutic, but they don’t persuade anyone who has a closed mind. People see and hear things as they want to interpret them, so rather than writing to persuade anyone in particular of the right or wrong of my decisions, instead, I am writing this entry for myself. It’s a record for me about why I left.

Controlling information

When I joined the LDS church, despite my efforts to research the pros and cons, I never really grasped all the complexities of the faith and religion itself. One rarely has a rich understanding of things, especially at 16. You learn about issues little by little, and you manage to brush aside the troubling ones through simple explanations. You’re able to find acceptable ways to explain away unsettling information. When you want to believe something, you willingly accept many workarounds to accommodate your belief.

Like many others, I did this time and again. But gradually I started to feel a sense of dislike for the Church – for the Sunday sacrament meetings, Sunday School classes, and Priesthood meetings. I did not like the way teachers would often skip over difficult issues. I did not like that Church-produced manuals could be so selective about the history it included. Where I wanted to ask questions, the Church wanted to provide quick answers or no answers at all.

Rather than fostering a curious, open discussion about doctrine, scripture, ideas, and history, it seemed the Church’s agenda was always the same: provide simplistic answers, put forward definitive interpretations, remove controversy, leave out historical information that doesn’t promote faith, try to be as pragmatic as possible without exploring the ideas with much inquiry, sweep ugly historical details under the rug, and always stay in the safe zone.

Perhaps it was the English major in me, but I always felt that I didn’t quite fit into this culture. Rather than close things up, I wanted to open them up. Instead of simplifying complexity, I wanted to see the complexity behind the simple. I wanted to engage in critical thinking, understand and explore ideas – even “dangerous” ones. I wanted to learn the complete and real histories, and more.

The Church’s curriculum tends to be a barrier to these efforts to learn. For example, I remember reading the Teachings of Joseph Smith manual as part of the Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum. In the front of the book, there’s a historical timeline of the life of Joseph Smith. In the timeline, though his marriage to Emma appears, there’s no mention that he ever married more than one wife. If you didn’t have any other information, you would might think Joseph Smith was monogamous. (See Historical Summary).

Additionally, these manuals were selected excerpts of various talks and essays, cobbled together in a piecemeal fashion, presented as if a single article. For example, there might be excerpts from 20 different speeches or articles on a specific topic, with paragraphs extracted from each of the talks (granted, with footnotes indicating the references).

I always wondered if I’d see the same context and meaning if I were to gather all the source material and read the articles in full. What was left out from their talks? No doubt any controversial statements or non-sanitized information would be filtered from the manuals, so they could be made safe for a positive, faith-promoting classroom discussion. In particular, I imagine the Brigham Young manual was carefully selected, given the many non-canonical doctrines he taught.

Without question, the Church manages its information carefully. And today’s practices seem to match the practices in the earliest days of the Church as well. Joseph Smith was jailed in Carthage, where he was soon murdered, for destroying a printing press (the Nauvoo Expositor). This printing press disseminated information he did not want known. In the accounts from Church-produced histories, you never quite get the full picture of why Joseph wanted the printing press destroyed. What were they printing? Why did Joseph incite so much anger among his enemies?

Among other things, the Nauvoo Expositor contained extensive allegations that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy (or “spiritual wifery,” as it was referred to). Apparently it was still a secret at the time, even though Joseph had been practicing it for years. The Expositor would make this information known. The press had to be destroyed.

But why? Why would God command men to follow a practice of marrying multiple women, and in Joseph’s case, marrying other men’s wives (despite the sanctity of the family, which has been the Church’s main emphasis), and command him to keep it a secret, and to deny to the world the fact that he practiced it?

This is why you never hear many details about why Joseph commanded the printing press to be destroyed – because if you knew the details, you might raise questions like these. By filtering the history, the Church is able to suppress doubt. But the way the Church manipulates information is just as frustrating as the history itself. Can God be the author of this manipulation? If so, it’s a culture that is simply not me.

The Church warns about the dangers of “anti-Mormon literature,” so any time you start reading texts not published by the Church or Deseret Books, even if they are fact-based histories written by honest scholars, you feel somewhat scandalous. You distrust the information as if the enemies of the church were writing lies to manipulate and distort the truth. It’s the argument of the poison well: anything a non-Mormon writes about the Church in a critical way is biased by the person’s hatred of the church.

I just mentioned one example of a selective history that the Church creates. This is not an isolated incident. There are dozens of historical details that have been whitewashed from contemporary Church materials because, I assume, they do not promote faith. For a people who are taught to seek learning, to study out of the best books, to become acquainted with the histories of nations, to accept the idea that the “glory of God is intelligence,” this kind of distorted history and misrepresentation of information supports just the opposite goal.

When one party suppresses information, warns against unofficial sources of information, and sanitizes problems, doctrinal inconsistencies, evolution of ideas, etc. in order to present a consistent and faith-promoting story that fosters belief, it frustrates me. I feel manipulated. It goes against my sense of who I am and what I love – learning. It makes me distrust Church leaders and curriculums. How can one increase faith and love in a God who runs a campaign of misinformation?

This culture of information manipulation is what finally led me to ask questions about belonging. I did not feel that I belonged in a culture that held up the banner of truth in one hand while hiding many facts beneath. In this culture, church was not uplifting or inspiring to me. It was often frustrating, and when I brought up difficult information, many people did not know how to handle it. I did not know how to handle it.

You couldn’t go to official Church sources for reliable information because the information usually did not exist, or if it did, it was so watered down or one-sided that it was unhelpful. General conference talks from leaders almost always stick with the most basic, simplistic issues. This is why everyone falls asleep during general conference. There are quasi-third-party sources, like fairmormon.org, but they often don’t supply satisfying answers.

Why doesn’t the church engage more fully with controversy? Most likely they do not have answers either, so engagement would only raise awareness of the problems with the end result of creating more doubt. There are no good answers for issues such as polygamy, racism, evolving ideas about God, and many more.

Arguments and counterarguments

It’s probably true that for every argument there’s a counter argument, so the opposing views cancel each other out and you’re left with just faith. But sometimes the explanations you need to counter-argue problems in the church have to get more and more “clever” and ultimately unbelievable. At some point, you have to concede one side. There aren’t just a few issues that the Church doesn’t have answers for. If so, one could overlook them or deal with them. The problem is that there are dozens of issues.

For example, the Book of Abraham is scripture Joseph translated from papyri that was included with several mummies that a traveling salesman of antiquities sold to the Church. Joseph translated the Egyptian text at a time when no one could read Egyptian. Years later, the same papyri was found in a museum, having (partially?) survived a fire. Scholars know it’s the same papyri because the facsimile matches. Now that scholars can translate Egyptian, they found that it’s a common funerary text, not the writings of Abraham. In fact, the time period of the papyri was hundreds of years off from Abraham’s time.

Now, I said that for every argument there’s a counterargument. Could it be that the papyri was just a touchstone that triggered a revelation for Joseph Smith, independent of the papyri? But what about the Egyptian alphabet that Joseph deciphered or developed? He clearly tried to study out the translation. How does Joseph make the leap into the text that he eventually produced?

Or maybe the recovered papyri isn’t the original papyri, even though we have matching facsimiles? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. It’s hard to really believe the Book of Abraham is authentic, despite the possible counterargument, especially because the paradigm shift from God to Gods as the creators matches ideas Joseph was learning about from other sources at the time.

In the end, I suppose you believe what you want to believe and make the details fit around whatever stories you need to support. For example, the Book of Abraham has a lot of astronomical information about Kolob and God’s timetable and one intelligence being greater than another, but like other doctrines and scripture that are ignored (e.g. “eat meat sparingly”), most church members ignore these parts in Abraham as well.

The nature of God

I would love to see more open-minded, curious people in church settings. I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more. After all, religion seeks after the divine, looking at a reality beyond this world. So religion and philosophy should go together, right?

The problem is that God himself, as portrayed through the scriptures, doesn’t have a philosophical mindset. To read the scriptures is to see the origin of this close-minded culture. God is a jealous, angry God. He sees the world in absolute terms – right or wrong, black or white, good or evil.

God is not a philosopher. He is not a critical thinker. He is not even a likeable or curious person. He’s more of a megalomaniac who does confusing and often contradictory things without giving reasons.

He is a terrible communicator and a rhetorician who operates on fear. He withholds destroying you so that you return to worship him. Worship me or I will end you. Obey me or I will destroy you from off the face of this land. There’s not one degree of allowance for sin. If you eat the forbidden fruit, you die. Except the plan was never for you to remain in the garden, so choose wisely, remembering that I forbid it. Huh?

The character of God is one of the most confusing aspects of the gospel, especially in the LDS faith. Putting aside his unlikeable nature, is he one being or three? Joseph Smith’s 1838 account of the first vision claims to see two distinct beings, but this is a revised account. The account closest to the experience (1832) did not describe two beings. His first account included only a visitation from the Lord and forgiveness of sin.

Critics say that Joseph’s idea of the godhood evolved over time, and you can see it in the Book of Mormon. The text is pretty clear in saying there’s one God, and you have to do mental acrobatics to manage a credible interpretation where the writers merely mean “one in purpose.” In the earlier Book of Mormon texts, much of the language about God was changed from the original, so that instead of saying Jesus is the Eternal Father, it says Jesus is the “son of” the Eternal Father. Instead of saying Mary is the “mother of God,” she is now the “mother of the Son of God.” These are doctrinal rather than grammatical changes.

Are we to believe that despite the fact that Joseph Smith’s first account included only one God, and despite the Book of Mormon’s emphasis on one God, and despite the changed language of the scriptures by later church leaders to alter one God into a “son of God” – that nevertheless Joseph did not change his mind about the nature of God, that really when God says he is one, the text is Jesus speaking on behalf of the Father drawing himself into a one eternal heavily unit knit together with “one purpose”? If so, God is a poor communicator who possesses anything but a divine sense of articulation. If there are two distinct beings, and if Joseph saw them that way, I think history and scripture would be clearer on this point. Instead, the texts show an evolution from one being to two.

But whether there is one God, two, or more, the idea of the trinity doesn’t make sense to me, neither in the LDS faith nor Christianity as a whole. We pray to the Father despite the fact that 95% of the interactions in the scriptures are supposed to be with Jesus (Jesus acting in the name of the Father). But worshipping Jesus is … idolatry because Jesus is really our brother, not the Father? Also, he never wanted the glory for being the savior, right? Except he certainly gets a lot of it. Answers come through the Holy Ghost, who is … a third-party tool God uses to communicate? The trinity just doesn’t make sense to me. This heavenly structure is supposed to be a reflection of our earthly family, except it only makes partial sense if you’re a man, and even then it doesn’t make sense.

Believing that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament is even more difficult for me. The same God who commands Joshua to annihilate every living breathing thing in the land of Canaan (men, women, children, animals) is the same one who shows up later to command men to turn the other cheek, to have men refrain from calling another man a fool. He further belittles Jews who try to obey the commandments Jesus gave to them in the past? I see no relation between the Old Testament God and the New Testament Jesus. In fact, most of the stories in the Old Testament are bewildering (like Lot giving up his daughters to be raped by a mob rather than dismissing his guest) and make no sense except perhaps in a specific historical context.

Women in the scriptures

My wife, Shannon, has experienced a lot of frustration about the lack of women in the scriptures, and so have I. Women play an extremely marginal role in the scriptures, especially in the Book of Mormon. In the Old Testament, when women appear, they are frequently the ones who cause trouble, such as Eve taking the forbidden fruit. Or they are only important if they bear male children (e.g., Abraham’s wife). The scriptures are primarily a patriarchal tradition. The few women who creep in here and there (e.g., Deborah, Esther, the mothers of the 2,000 stripling warriors) are anomalies to what is mostly a male-dominated history and tradition.

How can a God who loves both men and women equally be the author of such a male-dominated history?

One might say that culture was patriarchal at the time, so it’s no surprise that the scriptures reflect this culture. God works within the culture as best he can.

Except that rather than working within an existing culture, the theocratic culture is driven by laws and revelations from God. I think God should have inspired prophets with more gender-inclusive guidance. But really, my suspicion is that the scriptures are patriarchal because the scriptures themselves originate from the culture of the time. Priests were male. Women were not allowed to hold the same positions. The text reflects the culture because it is a product of the culture.

It’s no wonder that my wife stopped reading the scriptures regularly a long time ago. They don’t speak to her as a woman.

Today, the Church continues the same culture of female marginalization. In Primary activities, boys participate in cub scouts and 11-year-old scouts each week. They get more funding, attention, leadership, and time than girls of the same age, who meet only twice monthly. Apparently the current president in his zeal for scouting has never perceived this imbalance. Or he has never addressed it. He celebrates and champions scouting as a great program adopted by the Church. This is to say nothing about women not holding real leadership positions in the Church, such as being apostles or prophets or even just holding the priesthood (outside the temple ceremony).

One might think that the Mormon doctrine of a Heavenly Mother might be a saving counterpoint to Christianity’s derisive treatment of women throughout history (which starts with Eve’s disobedience in the garden through to the Timothy’s letters about women keeping silence in church.)

But the idea of a Heavenly Mother is never developed or taught in Mormon doctrine except for a brief reference in a hymn. Why isn’t it taught? We don’t know. In part, I think that coming out with a more developed doctrine of a Heavenly Mother would cause us to question the entire Bible, which never mentions her role or being.

Further, God would need some explanation for her silence, and where she fits into the Trinity godhead. Why would she be so quiet all these years? Did the Father have her locked away (protected out of respect that her name not be blasphemed!), or did she not have the same nurturing, caregiving role as earthly mothers? The Church might even need to explain why God the Father overshadowed Mary, who was presumably not his wife, with a baby, hence violating his own commandment, and so on. Or is God himself a polygamist?

During many church lessons, my wife tried to show how to include more stories of women, to balance out lessons that were so male-focused. She even once prayed to “Our Heavenly Parents” as an opening prayer in sacrament meeting. However, her efforts were pretty much futile. In one case she was promptly released from her calling in the Primary. Being a champion of women in the church only caused her an immense amount of frustration and discouragement. Eventually, she stopped getting ready for Church until the second hour and would miss more and more meetings.

Additionally, she felt that the stay-at-home role that she had been conditioned to accept did not fit her life very well. She wished she had pursued a career. She did not like dealing with children and diapers, and the four walls of home were like a prison. She resented the advice from her patriarchal blessing that encouraged her role as a stay-at-home mother. It seemed to make her life miserable.

One day while driving to church, she said she felt the Primary curriculum was grooming our daughters to be passive stay-at-home nurturers. She considered this teaching malicious and even satanic.

We almost turned around the car and drove home, but we went to church that day anyway because she had to get volunteers to sign up for meals delivery as part of her compassionate service.

How could the divine plan and eternal roles of providing versus nurturing result in so much frustration? I had to ask myself seriously, why keep going down a path that was only making my wife miserable, especially when I had so many doubts myself?

This was actually the turning point for me. When I joined the church at 16, the model of the solid, stable Mormon family was a huge motivator. I saw so many happy looking Mormon families that did all kinds of activities together, that had functional households, etc. – it really appealed to me, since my own family had split apart through divorce when I was ten.

But now I saw that the church was dividing my family. My wife was going in active, and her frustration with the Church’s sexism only continued to increase. It made her angry and frustrated. Was the church, which I had grown to increasingly dislike and resent, worth holding on to? I realized it was time to make a decision. Just as the solidarity of the family influenced my decision at 16, the same concept influenced by decision at 38.

It’s funny to me how one can continue a course so blindly, as if on auto-pilot. It really takes someone close to you who struggles with something to cause you to rethink and reassess your beliefs. I might have continued for a few more years, increasing doubts, reducing the number of things I actually believed, whittling away my testimony until I had absolutely nothing left. I am glad that my wife helped me see religion more clearly.

The Book of Mormon

There are many things in the Church that I disagree with, and that’s somewhat expected of any institution. For example, I think the temple ceremony is weird and obviously Masonic in origin. It is not the flagship symbol of my membership. Nor do I think people who spend hours and hours in the temple are contributing any meaningful service to society.

I also think the idea of the atonement is basically unnecessary and perplexing. The story of my life is not one of needing to be purified from sin so that I can return to God. That’s not a story that appeals to me or rings true, nor is salvation a common theme in other religions, which focus on submission (Islam), harmony (Confucianism), suffering (Buddhism), and other themes. I think that tithing is far too much money to give to a church (the equivalent of a donating a new car every year), that home teaching is a nuisance, and so on.

I have many disagreements, but the one thing that kept me going was the Book of Mormon. It was something I couldn’t explain. It seemed indisputable. The Book of Mormon seemed to be compelling evidence that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Even if Joseph Smith fell or the Church strayed away, I would still remain active because the Book of Mormon was true, and that meant the Church’s origins were true.

It wasn’t until I began reading more critical texts of the Book of Mormon that I began to see the text as a product of the 19th century. For example, the Book of Mormon, supposedly written for our day, doesn’t address most of the major issues we’ve faced in the 20th century. There’s nothing about civil rights, feminism, homosexuality, evolution, nuclear war, or technology. All the issues addressed are pretty clearly 19th-century issues. We often don’t see them because we aren’t familiar enough with the historical context to recognize the themes, but they stand out clearly to scholars.

Instead of addressing issues of our day, there are plenty of themes about secret societies and how these societies contributed to the downfall of society. There are themes related to Catholics, Republicans, Deists, and other groups. One overarching theme of Book of Mormon itself is that Indians are descendants of the Israelites. This idea was popular at the time, as you can see through Ethan Smith’s book Views of the Hebrews and other teachings of the day.

Additionally, many of the stories of the Book of Mormon fit into a revivalist culture. For example, consider Alma the Younger who is racked for torment and then delivered into the blessed arms of Jesus. Or the queen of King Lamoni who falls to the ground, sees a vision, and then stands up to preach the love and mercy of Jesus. The best analysis showing the revivalist origins of the Book of Mormon can be found in An Insider’s View to Mormonism, by Grant Palmer.

Probably the most difficult feat to pull off for any writer is the visit of Christ to America. Portraying Christ in a believable way at all is an extremely difficult task. Yet when we compare Jesus in Jerusalem to Jesus in America, they’re quite different. In Jerusalem, Jesus speaks in parables, refers to himself as the Son of Man, is playful at times with his disciples, and more.

In America, Jesus is just as you might imagine him to be in the 19th century – he blesses the children, heals the sick, prays for the people, teaches them the basic doctrine of faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost. Jesus is serious and holy and gentle and weepy. I realize the context is different (post-resurrection versus pre, America versus Jerusalem), but the portrayal is just a little too predictable for me.

It’s also bewildering to see Jesus repeat the same phrasing as in the King James Bible. Obviously Jesus didn’t deliver the same Sermon on the Mount in both locations nearly verbatim, so what’s going on here? No one has a good answer except to say, “We don’t know much about the process of translation.”

What I would have liked to see is the Sermon on the Mount recast in different language and perspective. That concise poetic language would have been nearly impossible to spin in an alternatively beautiful way. But by copying the same text verbatim, Jesus comes across as someone giving the same speech as elsewhere, as if Matthew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount were a word-for-word transcription of what Jesus said (written many years after the event happened and gathered from second or third-hand accounts).

One common criticism of the King James language in the Book of Mormon is that errors in the King James version of the Bible are perpetuated in the Book of Mormon. This makes the idea that the text appeared word after word on a seer stone a little less believable. Why would Jesus not catch the errors as he gave the text to Joseph one word after the other? This is to say nothing of thousands of grammar errors that have been later corrected. The answer to these questions again is always, “We don’t know much about the process of translation.”

One interesting detail I recently observed is Jesus’ quotation of Malachi. Have you ever noticed that Jesus in America quotes Malachi differently from the way Moroni quotes Malachi to Joseph Smith? Maybe they each leveraged Malachi for different purposes, but it seems that this little detail was overlooked and only addressed in hindsight in Joseph’s 1838 First Vision account. In Moroni’s visit to Joseph, Moroni quotes Malachi saying that without the priesthood revealed, the whole world would be wasted. Jesus quotes the same passage of Malachi but fails to mention this point about the priesthood. Perhaps the priesthood wasn’t relevant to the Nephites, even though Jesus gave the priesthood to his apostles on his visit? Or maybe this was an oversight by the Book of Mormon author.

On the topic of translation, the Church mainly teaches and portrays Joseph translating the text from a set of gold plates. Actually, the real history is that most of the translation was done through a seer stone rock (a kind of magical rock) that Joseph would use by looking into a dark hat. Joseph used this same rock to look for buried treasure several years before (1826) he received the Book of Mormon. The seer stone or peepstone is what is meant when people refer to the “Urim and Thummim” most of the time. The “gift” that Cowdery has in the D&C is a gift with a divining rod of some kind.

Other parts of the Book of Mormon seem to have source material as well. The chapters about retrieving the plates seems a spinoff of Joseph’s retrieving of plates. Lehi’s dream matches a dream Joseph’s father had. There are odd parallels with other texts, such as the Spaulding manuscript.

Oliver Cowdery, one of the scribes, attended a church where the pastor taught many of the ideas about the Indians being one of the lost tribes of Israel, and such.

Regarding the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, this seems more difficult to dismiss until you read about the other spiritual visions the witnesses had (see An Insiders View of Mormonism). Clearly this was a different time, one in which a magic world view permeated the common beliefs of the people. We never quite know what is meant by “spiritual eyes,” which is how the witnesses saw the plates.

Even despite all of these details, it’s hard for me to outright dismiss the Book of Mormon. Even if Joseph dictated it word by word as he looked in a dark hat, it still seems a remarkable achievement. Delivered to the printer without punctuation by someone unlearned, it’s pretty amazing.

However, Joseph’s involvement with other scripture gives me more reason to doubt. As I mentioned earlier, the Book of Abraham is supposedly a text he translated at a time when Egyptian was undecipherable. But the same papyri that has been found and translated in the present day shows it to be a regular funerary text, not the writings of Abraham. This example more than any other points to Joseph’s extreme gift of religious imagination. If he could write the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses, then why not write the Book of Mormon too? Perhaps his degree of unlearnedness is underestimated.

What’s astounding to me about the Book of Mormon is how mild it is. Hardly any of the controversial aspects of Mormonism have root in the Book of Mormon. Temples, eternal progression, polygamy, garments, prop8 funding, eternal nature of gender, conservatism, etc., do not originate in the Book of Mormon. Except for the exclusion of women and a passage that supports a racist mindset about skin color, the Book of Mormon is fairly benign.

What the Book of Mormon does seem to have is an abundance of original stories, which at times is inspiring. And the book makes many references to Christ, which might appeal to many Christians. But I think the references to Christ are a bit unbelievable. They are so explicit, especially as they name him “Jesus Christ” (as if Christ were his last name rather than Greek word for Messiah, which is a twist Paul made rather than something common during Jesus’ time). Are we to assume the Old Testament scribes and prophets removed this specificity about Jesus as the Messiah? Why? I don’t see the historical evidence for a widespread conspiracy among Old Testament priests and scribes to remove the references to a future Messiah. Yet the Book of Mormon prophets discuss Christ plain as day.

Perhaps the main problem with the Book of Mormon is lack of archeological evidence. A society as massive and extensive as the Nephites and Lamanites and Mulekites should leave more of a footprint. In 2,000 years, are we to believe that all trace of the weaponry, armor, cities, highways, temples, and so on disintegrated into dust despite the hundreds of thousands or even millions of warring peoples? For a people who worked with metal to smith swords and other weapons, with concrete to build highways and buildings and temples, they should leave some trace. After all, we’re not talking about millions of years ago. It’s a mere 2,000 or so. Further, the indigenous tribes don’t reflect the Nephite/Lamanite events in their history or ideas. The lack of archeological evidence of the Book of Mormon people is perhaps the strongest argument against it.

Further, DNA evidence disproves the idea that the Indians are descendants of the Israelites. The Church has toned down its position on the connection between Indians and Nephites/Lamanites, claiming that the Nephites mixed in with a people who already existed on the land. This is fine, I guess, even though Moroni explicitly tells Joseph that Indians are the “literal descendents of Abraham” in Joseph’s First Vision account (see 1835 first vision acccount).

When Joseph sent missionaries among the Lamanites, he considered the Indians to be the Lamanites. How was the prophet so misinformed? What are we to make of the DNA evidence that undermines this connection? Was Moroni mistaken? Was the DNA of modern-day Indians diluted beyond recognition due to intermixing? Again, there’s no real evidence for the Book of Mormon.

This brings me to my larger point. Taken alone, with just a few issues, one could accept a simple explanation as a workaround. But when you start stacking the problems up, there’s a point where there are too many, it’s hard to believe.

Some apologists say the Nephites were a small tribe in a larger continent where a lot of other people lived, so it’s difficult to find a record of them, but the Book of Mormon makes a big point about the promised land being a choice land where no one is allowed to dwell unless they are brought by the hand of the Lord. Why would all of these other tribes, who have left no record of a Christian religion, have been brought over by the Lord, yet leave no evidence of Christianity?

Interestingly, the Book of Mormon authors leave a lot of geographical clues about narrow necks of land and such, almost giving a trail of their routes. Unfortunately, no one has been able to conclusively map their location. Except for a possibly lucky hit with one city, Nahom/NHM, coinciding with one route and story, the rest is a big mystery.

In summary, although the Book of Mormon seems to have some compelling internal evidence, mainly because the narrative is complex, I have to ask, which is more likely, that a book with

  • no archeological evidence
  • no DNA connections
  • overt 19th century themes, parallels with other ideas and texts of the time
  • large verbatim chunks of text from the Bible
  • predictable portrayals of Jesus
  • no findable location despite detailed geographic notes
  • clear revivalist themes during a context of revivalism

And produced or translated by someone who:

  • had an occupation as a treasure digger using a seer stone (and who used the same seer stone to translate most of the book)
  • evolved/changed his ideas about God and the first vision
  • pretended to translate Egyptian into other scripture that later proved false
  • married other men’s wives and denied it
  • lived in a time when many other religions were created

is in fact true?

Should I suppose that an angel delivered the plates and later took the plates back, serving no real purpose except to try men’s faith? I think it’s hard accept the latter. There’s too much evidence for the former, even if we don’t know exactly how the book was written, and even if the book has internal complexity.

Suppose I guess incorrectly. Suppose it turns out everything in the Church is true. Will an omniscient God punish me for using my brain to arrive at a logical conclusion?

In the end, what is the real value of acting out of faith rather than reason? Does a blind obedience and embrace of something hoped for (with little evidence) help us become more god-like?

Is it right to deliver truth through such suspicious means and then fault people for not believing it, especially when the message bearer practices a secret form of polygamy and resembles all the characteristics of a cult leader?

Let me ask a broader question: Why do we even have this concept called “faith”? We give a positive name to a behavior that is little valued in other contexts. Why would God want men and women to act with poor-founded belief and uncertainty, trusting in something they don’t know to be real or true, even professing in large gatherings that they “know the Church to be true”? What’s the purpose for keeping people in semi-confused state, wondering exactly what they’re supposed to believe? It seems having faith is a positive way of describing hope combined with wish fulfillment and fantasy.

Confirming spiritual experiences

There are a couple of other topics to wrestle with. First is the spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon. Brandon Pearce has a great essay on this topic (see Why I left the Mormon church). There are a great many people who feel spiritual peace, burning in the bosom, and other spiritual experiences within the church and gospel. Because of these confirming spiritual experiences, they will dismiss any logic they don’t understand, continue pressing forward despite absurd practices and contradictory evidence, and continue believing because they received this spiritual witness.

The problem is that people in other religions have similar confirming spiritual experiences. Otherwise, why would religion be a worldwide phenomenon? To deny that a Roman Catholic nun, a Sufi Muslim, or an Evangelical also have confirming spiritual experiences is naive. But if the Spirit testifies of truth, it seems inconsistent of the Spirit to bear witness in so many different religions and ideologies.

A recent series of lectures I listened to helped me get a better understanding of the biological underpinnings of spiritual experiences. See The Spiritual Brain: Science and Religious Experience,* by Andrew Newburg). If you put a radioactive tracer in someone’s brain while they have a spiritual experience (such as a nun’s centering prayer), you can see what parts of the brain light up (e.g., the frontal lobe). In tests that scientists have done, they can consistently tie spirituality to various parts of the brain. Although one might say God imbued man with the very equipment he would need to communicate with him, I find this hard to believe. It’s more likely that “God” is in that part of the brain.

My experience of the Spirit reflects a lot of inconsistency. Sometimes I’ve felt the Spirit in a movie, or at a technical writing conference, or while talking at random to someone. On my mission, I think I felt the spirit maybe because of the tension of the situation, the anxiety of meeting someone new combined with the anticipation and euphoric imagination in relating the Gospel message, which perhaps released the right endorphins (at times, and other times not). I have felt “the Spirit” many times while writing this exit narrative. My chest is somewhat warm, not unlike the other “spiritual” experiences.

I think the spiritual experiences we feel in religion are concoctions of our brain. It’s difficult to prove this, of course, but it seems like our bodies might have adapted this way as a means of reducing existential angst. Just like sex makes you feel good, so that you are more inclined to procreate, perhaps our bodies release similar endorphins when we find comforting stories that explain and answer the unknown. We’re not just alone in a vast universe, living out an absurd existence; we have a loving father. He has a plan for us. We’re his children. He watches out for us. Not even a sparrow falls without his notice.

These ideas make you feel good, calm, so you adhere to a set of principles and laws that make society more efficient. The rules of religion bind society together with common stories and principles. Religion provides a cohesion for a well-functioning and efficient group to interact and be successful. God’s all-seeing eye makes the group’s members responsible to the rules even when others aren’t watching. But that religion helps groups be successful doesn’t mean it’s true. It means evolution favored people with this inclination.

Jesus

The final part of my notes here deal with Jesus. One of the best biographies of Jesus is Zealot, by Reza Aslan. Listening to this book, which focuses on the historical Jesus, it’s pretty clear that Jesus was a product of his times. Jerusalem was under oppressive Roman occupation. Jerusalem was land given to the Jews by God, so it frustrated the people immensely to be under foreign rule.

Many messiahs stepped forward in Jesus’ time. You don’t often hear about them because they were executed by the Romans and largely forgotten, but there were many messiahs.

There were also many miracle workers. The difference with Jesus’ miracles is that he provided them for free. We often marvel at Jesus’ miracles because our contemporary context doesn’t have the same trade of people. But the worldview at that time inclined people to see many more miracles in their environment.

Mostly, Jesus was a zealot who wanted to restore Jerusalem to the Jews, liberating it from Roman rule. He constantly preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, even noting that there were some who would not taste death before they saw the kingdom of God ushered in.

Unfortunately, the kingdom of God Jesus talked about (which would have eradicated the Romans and restored the Jews to independence) never came to pass. His disciples never wrote anything down because they were waiting for this kingdom, but it never happened. The Romans crucified Jesus just like all the other would-be messiahs.

Was Jesus just a poor communicator, really indicating that the coming Kingdom of God was a spiritual one, or that the Kingdom of God was the millenium that would take place several thousand years from now? I can’t really believe that.

Interestingly, Jesus never proclaims himself to be the Messiah. If he does, it’s only in response to someone asking or assigning the name to him, and Jesus consistently refers to himself as the “Son of Man.” This appellation has confused a lot of scholars. What exactly does it mean to be the “Son of Man”?

There are some Old Testament references to the Son of Man, but the figure is not necessarily a messiah. It’s a person of power who will be a king, for the most part.

Further, throughout his ministry, Jesus actually tells people not to tell others that he is the Messiah. Scholars refer to this as the “Messianic Secret.” Could it be that Jesus didn’t want people to believe him to be more than he actually was?

Most of the people who wrote the New Testament, who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, never lived with him. I think Luke may be the one questionable exception, but by and large scholars say that the Greek influence (the Jewish hellenists) who came after Jesus converted Jesus not only into a Messiah, but into God himself. You can see this progression from Mark (the first Gospel and source for the other two – Matthew and Luke) to John (written last, 100+ AD). John takes Jesus to a whole new level.

Scholars say that after Jesus failed to usher in his kingdom, his disciples had to reimagine how he could be the messiah. They reinterpreted Jesus to be much less of a zealot and more of a spiritual teacher indifferent to goals of political liberation. His disciples did this in part to make sense of Jesus’ failed messiahship as well as to appeal to a Roman audience hostile to Jewish zealotry movements.

One of the most radical reinterpreters was Paul. Paul’s reinterpretation of Jesus was heretical in his time. Paul had constant conflicts with James, the recognized leader of the early church who remained more fixed on the Law of Moses and temple worship.

Most people reading the Bible don’t realize that Paul’s interpretation of Jesus veers quite a ways off from the original Jesus and the initial doctrine of the disciples. Rather than focusing on a law-based, temple worshiping way of life, Paul preached belief in Christ as a means of forgiveness and elevated Jesus to not only be the Messiah, but God himself.

Paul’s theology appealed more to Romans and Greeks. Paul has 14 letters in the New Testament, compared to just several from others. Paul won over the people because his theology more closely appealed to Roman ideology.

The Zealot book I mentioned earlier is really eye-opening. It’s hard for me to believe that Jesus was divine. This makes me doubt even more the Book of Mormon, since the Book of Mormon focuses so much of its attention on Jesus. It seems pretty clear that the Jesus of history is quite different from the Jesus in the gospels, and it’s the latter figure that is portrayed in the Book of Mormon.

Further, from my first day in the church to my last, I never felt a particular love or gratitude or deep interest in Jesus. A lot of people get teary eyed when they think about Jesus paying for their sins on the cross. For some reason this story has never moved me. I don’t feel any particular affinity for Jesus. Perhaps this lack of emotion towards the Savior is a failure on my part, but it also defies the purpose of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon’s main purpose is to bring men to Christ. Despite my having read and studied it for years, my soul was never brought to Christ.

Finally, I think there are some interesting parallels between Christ’s preaching about the imminent Kingdom of God and Joseph Smith’s preaching about the latter days and restoration. Without drawing too many parallels, it seems people are ready to believe a messenger who tells about a time soon to come. For Joseph, his revelations signalled a time of great restoration and ushering in of the last days and upcoming millenium. But 170 years after his death, we haven’t really experienced any great last-days-apocalyptic phenomena, and the “last days” may stretch for a thousand years or more before the millenium.

Finally, I just wanted to note that while I’ve made a lot of references to criticisms and other issues with the Church, I’m not a historian or philosopher. The issues are much more elaborate than I’ve made them out to be, and many apologists and LDS church members have made detailed counter arguments in support of the church’s position, just as critics have more detailed arguments against the apologists.

I don’t think any amount of study or research will definitively end the discussion. At the end of the day, I just don’t feel that religion is me. Some might say that’s the point – religion is supposed to make you a better version of yourself. It’s just I don’t like the character of religion in the first place. It’s close-minded, definitive, and doesn’t seem to harmonize with the scientific discoveries of our time. (I haven’t even discussed the creation versus the process of evolution, and how evolution shows a world without a designer.)

Moving past religion

Interestingly, when I let other members know that I left the church, few actually asked me why. I assume they already know why one would leave, or they don’t dare expose themselves to the same information. Or perhaps they respect my agency too much. I’m not sure.

A lot of ex-Mormons feel angry at the Church. Sure, there’s a bit of me that resents having been involved for so long even despite my questions and doubts over the years (which many have but suppress). But I also think Christianity itself is a fabrication, as are other religions. If that’s the case, most of humanity has been duped by religion in one form or another – not just in contemporary times, but throughout history (including Greeks, Romans, Persians, etc.). And why? Because our biology betrays us. Our brain compels us to believe. We have to fill in the unknown with comforting stories. We are wired to believe.

For me, I feel it’s time to undo that wiring, to adopt a more skeptical and critical attitude toward my beliefs. I am excited at the prospects of this ideological liberation. It’s like waking up after being asleep for millennia.

Undoubtedly, looking into the sky without the comforting idea that there’s a caring God who listens to my prayers, responds appropriately, receives me in loving arms, and awaits a reunion when I die and pass through the veil, is somewhat unnerving.

Musing on the implications of a godless universe can produce the kind of existential nihilism that compels some philosophers to adopt extreme positions (like choosing suicide as the only real choice in a face of absurdity).

Others see the world with newfound wonder, looking to the images from the Hubble telescope and other scientific phenomena with awe and respect. Richard Dawkins’s book on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, expresses some of the awe and wonder at the miracle of life. Seeing life evolve spontaneously, changing shape and composition and co-evolving in an intricate ecosystem built on randomness and selection, is a fascinating show to behold. We miss that show when we read the creation as a series of God-created-this-and-that events.

When you take the religious glasses off, life looks different. Knowing that this might very well be my only time, this short space, fills me with a different perspective. If this is the only life (and no one can know for sure), one has a responsibility to take it more seriously. Life, so fragile, is something to be treasured and cherished. This brief moment in time where everything comes together for me to briefly experience and consciously process it all – I want to experience it, even as a blip on the cosmological radar, to live my life more authentically and purposefully and mindfully because I recognize it for what it is.

I’m guessing that, from an evolutionary perspective, such a mindset probably makes me less productive. If I’m preoccupied in conjecturing on the wonder of evolution, the vastness of space, my ultimate insignificance and significance, I may not be such a productive member of society. There are probably many activities I might decide are worthless and trivial. Abandoning these activities might make me less productive and successful. Therefore, from an evolutionary point of view, natural selection probably favors the busybody religious devotee, the one who adopts a specific spiritual destiny and then tries to fulfill it, rather than one who rejects and questions destiny altogether.

I have to wonder, though, what purpose consciousness serves us from an evolutionary point of view. Is it a fluke in our biological makeup, a mutation that allows us to be aware of ourselves? Self-awareness of existence? Awareness of our death? Awareness of meaning and meaninglessness? Why did humans develop this capacity?

Somehow in the little electrical impulses from neurons in our brain, we get conscious thought and complexity – and from complexity, machines and computers and theories of how we all came about. That is a truly amazing phenomena, one that suggests higher purpose and power behind it all. But maybe not.

I do know that it takes a certain courage to adopt a different point of view. It’s much easier to go on through life on auto-pilot, looking toward the next life, abdicating to absolutes and paths defined by the institution of religion. At least I am certain about my uncertainty. I know that I do not know, and I want to live my life, however insignificant, with this understanding.

Other exit stories

I find other exit stories somewhat comforting and therapeutic, so I’m listing the ones I especially like here:

The following are some books related to science and religion that I found worth reading. Almost none of them explicitly touch on Mormon doctrine or themes, but they explore the big issues. I particularly like Bart Erhman, Carl Sagan, and Bill Bryson as authors.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.