Friday, September 23, 2011

When a Loved One Thinks Again

This is probably the most well written essay on mormon doubt I have ever read. I hope it is helpful to someone:

When a Loved One Thinks Again

by Michael Felix

Are you a Mormon whose beloved friend or family member has seemingly thrown away the truth of the gospel? Perhaps the truth is so obvious to you that you cannot fathom the actions of this person whom you love and admire. This questioning of your principles might even feel like a personal rejection, though it is not intended as such.

After speaking to and reading the accounts of many Mormon "apostates," I've become painfully aware that the believers in any skeptic’s life often have trouble coming to terms with his or her questioning of faith. Skeptics may feel out of place, or complain that believing friends and family are unwilling to accept them for who they have become. Believing Mormons typically experience difficulty remaining on the same terms of friendship and love with an otherwise unchanged fellow who has undergone a theological or philosophical questioning. Because of certain attitudes which prevail in the church's culture, and because of the implications of certain doctrines and authoritative pronouncements with which every member is familiar, Mormons often have trouble actually allowing other Mormons to worship how they may. I have come to believe that the problem is fundamentally one of lack of understanding. Because of the mindset that many believers bear, it may be that they are simply incapable of understanding what goes on in the questioning mind.

Having noticed this, I feel a desire to give some advice from a skeptic's point of view, to the faithful believer who may have never waged a long and difficult struggle with doubt.

Honest Belief

To many a questioner, the makeup of belief is more important than its eventual alignment. In other words, that the compass is correctly assembled and aligned is a more immediate concern than whichever direction its needle is currently pointing.

To a skeptical truth-seeker such as me, belief is only valid if it is honest. I believe in honest belief, and that instills me with the following convictions:

• What I believe is not mine to directly dictate. I cannot use willpower to change it to coincide with a creed. I may only indirectly influence its nature by thinking and learning.

• I am free, even obligated, to believe the truths that intellectually and spiritually honest inquiry reveals to me.

• As such, I must consider each pathway of knowledge I encounter.

• It also means that my perception of truth may change because of new evidence or sharpened judgment, in which case I am obligated to reevaluate my honest belief.

• Furthermore, if two people appear to have arrived at diverging beliefs honestly and diligently, each belief is equally worthy of evaluation.

• If belief is honest, the most important judgment upon it is that of its owner.

• But if it is abandoned at will it has either become dishonest, or was already dishonest to begin with.

• Finally, honest belief does not imply absolute knowledge; when necessary, it also hinges on resignation to the lack of knowledge.
For me it is obvious that these are principles I must follow in order to seek for truth, just as it may be obvious to you that truth is revealed and must be maintained by engaging in practices that are intended to support it (such as reading scriptures, praying and obeying prophets). That is the fundamental difference between an intellectual questioner and most believing Mormons. It is, of course, difficult for a natural skeptic like me to believe in the disprovable, but it is impossible to accept that I should be required to tailor my truth-seeking behavior in order to influence the outcome so that I do.

The Believer's Checklist

Before you name sin and pride as the causes of your loved one's offense, remember that it's not by choice that he has questioned his faith. The idea that "those who reject Mormonism's claims apostatize from the church because they need an excuse to sin" is simply a misconception. Belief is not something to be brashly discarded like a banana peel when one happens to find a trash can nearby. The popular checklist of causes of apostasy typically includes: pride, social offense, and moral weakness. Too often the believer simply chooses an item from this list, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the disbeliever without risking discomfort by questioning the belief system itself. Note what this checklist does not include: simple differences in belief.

Yet perhaps the believer who sees a fellow breaking commandments of the church is placing effect before cause. By not admitting simple disbelief among the causes for disobedience, the believer must assume that the disobedience itself is the cause of the disbelief. In order to accurately understand an unbeliever, it is first imperative that you augment your checklist to include another possibility: that he disbelieves simply because he disbelieves.

Most skeptics are insulted by the notion that they have simply discarded their former convictions to more easily sin. It implies that the disbeliever was never honest in his/her belief in the first place. To a believing Mormon, belief can and should be molded by constant exposure to the advice of prophets and the testimonies of other believers; however, those of us who question orthodox Mormonism may come to rely on different criteria for shaping our belief.

Furthermore, it is neither fair nor sufficient to contentedly insist that the loss of faith comes about simply because of the desire to lose faith. While it may be true for some that "belief is a choice," this is definitely not true for everyone. In fact, I would venture to say belief is a true choice for almost no one, especially one who cherishes honest belief. We can tell ourselves we believe things. We can publicly insist that we believe them. We can feel pleasant emotions when considering our cherished principles, and count those emotions as proof of the depth of our belief. We can leave home, lose money, love, hate, heal and kill for our beliefs, and all the while, deep down inside, our subconscious minds might still know that we don't actually believe in what we've fought for.

Most of those I know who act contrary to the commandments of the church do so because they honestly disbelieve the validity of those commandments. Yes, there are certainly people who drift from the practices of orthodox Mormonism because they find these practices too restrictive of the lifestyle they would rather lead. However, it is imperative that one allow a distinction between acting contrary to the church's rules and losing faith in those rules. Often these people who leave in order to sin still believe at their core, and if so, they probably feel immense guilt while they break what they view as God's commandments. Compared to changing belief, degrading in behavior is easy, for what human really has absolute control over what he thinks?

The Foundations of Questioning: Ideas About Ideas

Though it may contrast strongly with your point of view, the typical skeptic probably holds to the belief that no idea is unworthy of examination. To him or her, the church's way of constantly imploring members to ignore doubt and study only uplifting subjects is probably distasteful, because it appears as an attempt at information control. The Mormon skeptic wonders: "What do the Brethren have to hide that causes them to whitewash information and admonish us not to dwell upon the difficult things?"

Someone who questions probably values logic and reason very highly. While you may agree to some extent that the study of logic and all of its fruits (science and technology, for example) are worthy of pursuit, as a believer you have probably found instances when you must insist that logic is a secondary, less enlightened form of learning. For instance, regarding the theory of evolution, you may be willing to study its principles and possibly even hold some belief in many of them. But when it comes to the ultimate question in evolution, you probably exhibit at least one behavior that is based on something other than principles of reason. Perhaps you are unwilling to accept a certain few findings of science because they incriminate your belief system; maybe you discard parsimony (the simplest and most probable answer) and begin looking for more elaborate explanations to facts than the ones logic offers; or possibly you simply refuse to keep wondering and contentedly assure yourself that the answer will someday be given to you if you are diligent in other areas of your life.

I do not wish to pass judgment upon the validity of these behaviors. My hope is to point out that each of them departs from the normal principles of logic that we use to govern our lives. The difference between the believer and the skeptic is that, when foregoing logic in order to prop up his beliefs, the skeptic feels hypocritical. He wonders why he should be expected to ignore-in only certain instances-the reason that guides him so well when he drives a car, picks coins out of his hand, or decides which political candidate to support. He comes to believe that a God who created the world and his brain, and gave Man logic above that of the animals in order to guide him through the dangers of life, would not require that logic be discarded in order to understand or communicate with his Creator. This leads him to consider that, while faith in a principle for which there is no counter-evidence is fine and possibly good, faith against clear evidence is dishonest, and therefore not of God. With these ideas in hand, the skeptic examines the claims of Mormonism and often finds trouble there.

Your skeptic friend has probably questioned faith because of his discovery of historical or scientific facts that he finds damaging to a testimony. There are many teachings of the gospel for which supportive or contrary evidence does not exist; these points are open to everyone for personal interpretation and are mostly untouchable by logic. As an example, consider the teaching that our conscience is really the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, there are some aspects of church doctrine that closely intertwine with science, history or other scholarly disciplines, and for a skeptically-minded person these are the ones that usually provide difficulty. An example of this is the claim that Book of Mormon peoples actually lived on the American continent. Your questioner has probably studied arguments concerning many points of the latter variety, some of which you would consider helpful and some detrimental to the church's agenda. Though you may be inclined to postpone the consideration of difficult ideas (perhaps telling yourself that there are some mysteries you may never understand), he is not willing to do so. He believes all things are worth judging from a neutral standpoint and, in cases where it is possible to find evidence for or against the church's view, is not willing to give deference to a set of beliefs simply because they are the ones with which he grew up. He feels the evidence itself speaks the truth, just as it does in a court of law.

You may feel that your beloved friend has been deceived by Satan into accepting erroneous information as fact. I think it's important, in discussing this possibility, to differentiate between fact and interpretation of fact. Facts are historical or scientific, i.e. "Joseph Smith practiced polygamy." A corresponding interpretation would be, "Joseph was noble and obedient and did it because he was commanded to," or "Joseph used religion as an excuse to have sex with many women." Interpretations only come in single-serving packages, and it's impossible for me to vouch for the opinions another skeptic has formed as a result of his research. However, I feel there's a good chance-if he has researched well-that the set of facts he considers faith-adverse are, for the most part, true. Before you begin arguing with his interpretations, be aware that those interpretations are based upon underlying facts with which you may not be familiar, and upon which a skeptical interpretation is just as valid as (or more valid than) a faithful one.

On the other hand, you may be aware of some of the disturbing "hidden facts" of Mormonism, and perhaps it appears to you that your belief-questioning friend lends too much credence to the allegations of “anti-Mormons”. Perhaps it frustrates you that he is unwilling to accept the efforts of apologists that have answered all allegations. But chances are he has actually considered these efforts and found them wanting. Apologetics usually start with a conclusion (the church is true) and seek ways to prove it by discounting or invalidating evidence against it. This approach is obvious to believers, but actually quite distasteful to one who is not already convinced of the validity of the conclusion. One thing most intellectual questioners have in common is that they have resolved to throw away assumptions and start their search for truth from square one; as a result, the apologetic approach doesn't tend to meet their needs. This is because the apologetic approach is tailored to the believer who is already seeking ways to validate his beliefs, and who doesn't demand the kind of rigorous arguments that the skeptic would require. That is why your skeptic friend probably won't be as satisfied as you are with the ideas of FARMS and the like, which to him may seem contrived and unsupportable.

When I began to critically examine the church, I read a lot of apologetics in hope of retaining belief. I found some convincing arguments, and was always grateful for the point of view they offered, because it balanced the bitter or spiteful interpretations that were often attached to the facts I had discovered. But in the end I came to believe that, while a certain apologetic argument may explain away a problem quite satisfactorily, when the big picture is examined the apologetics don't mesh as well into a cohesive whole as the skeptical viewpoint does. Your acquaintance may share this view.

Assumptions to Reconsider

If you want to understand a skeptic, you have to remember that he no longer holds to many of the assumptions the church instills in us regarding the method of belief. As you discuss religion with him, it may help to remember that there are certain commonly held, basic assumptions always circulating in the membership of the church which are never debated, but are viewed as a foundation, to be taken for granted and upon which all actual arguments are to be based. However, none of these is taken as given by a skeptic, who has probably given them serious thought and discarded most or all of them. These assumptions include:

• The idea that disobeying the church = disobeying God. This is problematic because no provision is made for instances where the church's teachings are not exactly equal to God's will. While such an instance may be inconceivable to you, it is easily imagined by many of question faith. After all, which is easier to consider: that a difficult principle such as polygamy is difficult and unfair to women because God is unfair, or because the church was created and is led today by mortal, unfair men?

• The conception that, as Neal Maxwell once expressed, there is no alternative explanation for Joseph Smith other than the two extremes: that he was either a prophet or a scoundrel bound for hell. Mormons often desire only black and white solutions instead of seeing the world for the shades of gray in which it is actually painted. It is entirely possible that Joseph was something other than a saint or a demon, and there have been a number of possibilities put forth that merit consideration.

• The surety that sickness, misfortune, or bad luck on the part of a disobedient member are punishment from God, while these same afflictions when suffered by an obedient member are given by God as trials to test faith.

• The statement that no one can be truly happy outside of the church. Experience-if you're willing to look-has shown that it's just false.

• The assumption that a book of scripture must be historically accurate in order to be "true." It's frankly bewildering to me that something in the scriptures has to have actually happened in order to have meaning to most Mormons. No value is given to the possibility that any scripture may be simply uplifting metaphor that neglects to identify itself as such. Jesus' parables are an obvious exception, but only because they were recorded along with the story of their telling as parables.

• The idea that certain ideas, web sites, or books are inherently evil. As is often asked: if the truth is truth, why can't it withstand scrutiny? Just how fragile is truth's hold on our minds, anyway?

• The assertion that driving doubts out of one's mind without resolving them is noble and wise. Such a course of action is certainly the best way to preserve a testimony, but is it honest, or mentally healthy? The answer is different for everyone, but as a skeptic I can testify that for me such a course of action is unhealthy. However, I recognize that the maintenance of belief at all costs is paramount for the happiness of many people, and because of that I do not crusade to drag others from their places of faith or deride them for following a path different from mine. I ask that the same courtesy be extended towards me.

• The belief that dishonesty is permissible in certain circumstances (like finding a testimony "in the bearing of it," or giving an investigator "milk" and baptizing him without also giving him the "meat" he deserves before committing himself to the church).

• The allegation that highest form of worship is complete and even unthinking obedience to someone claiming to be God's servant. Galileo declared that he could not believe God would give humans such a marvelous intellectual capacity, and then expect them not to use it. Most skeptics I know agree.

• The oft-repeated adage: that which is not for Christ must be against Christ. This is often extended to label everyone as either an enemy or a friend of the church. Can nothing simply be neutral? Certain Mormons, and even the religion itself, have sometimes had a problem allowing the existence of neutrality in others' motives and actions.
Dealing with the Lack of Belief: a Tempered Approach
If you are a believer, please be sure you understand what your questioning friend has gone through before you call him to repentance. Speaking from personal experience, I have spent a lot of effort in examination of my beliefs and the beliefs of others, in an attempt to determine what is true. I've read many books and many, many web pages about all points of view on Mormonism. I still spend a part of each day considering religion and formulating my views. Unless you are doing the same, you have no right calling me or any other unbeliever lazy or disloyal (or even deceived or mistaken), or otherwise judging our position or direction. Too often we become complacent in a comfortable position, and it's too easy to deride those who refuse to assume the same position of comfort.

Ask yourself honestly, with whom God will be more pleased: the person who spends much time and effort trying to find out the truth about Him, or the person who is so certain that he has it that he judges others by his preconceived ideals? The answer: I don't know, and I don't pretend to. But I believe he'll be more pleased with the first. And that belief, since it is mine, is the only clear light that should rightfully guide my actions.

To examine a belief can leave one feeling profoundly empty. The lack of knowledge, like the lack of any vital component of life, can be a difficult affliction to bear. If it helps, regard the questioning seeker in your life with the same consideration you would afford a man who lacks shelter or food, or love. Believing something beautiful helps a human be happy, and those of who have lost that comfort are not deserving of derision or scorn because they have been unable to find it. In fact, they are deserving of respect for their courage. Ask yourself what you would do with your life if you suddenly became unmistakably convinced that the church possibly isn't "true." Answer honestly, and I hope you'll gain insight to the plight your friend is probably facing.

So, what can you do to help your questioning loved one? You probably wish very badly that your skeptical friend would renounce his wayward ideas, since you believe your eternal wellbeing depends upon his doing so. It is your right to attempt once or twice to change his mind, but please do so respectfully. It is important that you do not attempt to scare or shame your disbeliever back into his former mode of thought. It probably won't work. Such behavior doesn't stem from compassion and definitely won't create feelings of love. Even if you were to succeed, consider the outcome; does God, who loves his children, want them to love him back, or fear him, because he is awful? Mormonism has extracted the fearfulness from God, separated out the unpleasant aspects of the Old Testament deity who killed heathens and the New Testament Lord who damned unbelievers, and made Heavenly Father into a loving father who is actually worthy of worship, who really wants to save us all from the unbending mercilessness of the universe. Why would such a God condone the use of fear to gather his wandering sheep?

The choice of action I hope you'll take is to be understanding, to make certain the relationship you enjoy is not damaged by the discomfort you feel in the face of your friend’s new beliefs. If the wayward soul you're concerned about is a family member, especially a spouse, it is even more imperative that you retain control of the relationship. How disturbing is it that the church, which touts itself as a champion of family values and togetherness, can be the root cause of the demise of a family? I have heard far too many accounts of divorce occurring because of the inability of one partner to accept the evolving religious views of the other.

Remember that the disbeliever was once like you. Don't patronize him because you believe he has lost "spiritual knowledge;" he still remembers the Mormon doctrine he was taught, but has changed his interpretation of it. He is the same person with the same need for understanding, just as he would be the same person if he had suddenly undergone a change in political ideology or artistic preference.

Reflect on the eleventh article of faith and the wonderful gift of freedom that we all enjoy. Reflect, if you are so inclined, upon the doctrine of the Atonement, and upon the nature of its author. Remember what kind of man Jesus was: accepting of all, saints and sinners alike.

Your ultimate goal may be to win your loved one back to the church. But don't risk driving him or her away by concentrating only upon that goal. If you keep your mind open you'll do a great service to everyone involved, have the greatest chance of restoring his or her faith, and possibly even find some new enlightenment for yourself.

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