The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion [...] draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.
– Francis Bacon
As anyone knows who's gone through this, it's absolutely heart-wrenching or gut-wrenching to go through, because you lose your entire worldview. It's like having the rug pulled out from underneath you suddenly and you don't know which direction is up and which direction's down.
– Former Latter-day Saint
I was sent from the power
and have come to those who contemplate me
and am found among those who seek me.
– Author of Thunder, Perfect Mind
Mormonism is a research facility for the changing of minds. That is because, on the one hand, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes a number of strong factual claims, including claims that have to do with history, archaeology and DNA, and, on the other hand, it is both young enough that there is a lot of evidence about its founding and old enough that new evidence has come to light since.
I have a soft spot for the Church and its members, and I really mean that. I don't want to offend any faithful Latter-day Saints. I know that the Church brings both good and bad. I know that it offers a lot of comfort and guidance to a lot of people. That said, many of the Church's truth claims seem extremely implausible to me, and for the purposes of this essay I will consider them extremely implausible, though I will always cite official Church or Church-affiliated documents when making any such claims, and I think fair-minded Latter-day Saints will agree that there are some tensions, even if they and I interpret them differently.
I became interested in the Church about a decade ago. I went from being interested in atheism to being interested in religion to being interested in Ex-Mormonism to listening to and watching the Mormon Stories podcast to eventually reading faithful Latter-day Saint blogs like By Common Consent and Times and Seasons and even on occasion watching various General Conference talks and reading various passages from various books of Latter-day Saint scripture.
There is one other reason why I think the Latter-day Saint faith throws things into such stark contrast. The Church has since its early years been highly concerned with its image. Unlike the Amish, say, it has always desired and strived to be a part of wider society and of the Christian tradition. The Church has established strong communication and PR arms; it seems to have made changes – to polygamy, priesthood bans for people of African descent, temple ceremonies, LGBT policies – after social pressure; it strenuously tries to distance itself from its fundamentalist cousins; it asks its member to dress presentably; it now deemphasises the word "Mormon" in favour of "Jesus Christ".
As a consequence, the way that the Church presents its history is often at odds with historical records. That means that, when a faithful Latter-day Saint comes across such-and-such historical factoid and judges it to be true, they may feel deceived or lied to by the Church, because what they have learned now is not in harmony with what they once learned from the Church.
The Church rarely mentions Joseph Smith's polygamy, and has usually promoted him as a devoted husband of Emma; in fact, Joseph married over thirty women, some without Emma's knowledge, including several as young as fourteen and fifteen, and of whom many were already married to faithful Latter-day Saints when he approached them; one of those men was Orson Hyde, whose wife Marinda Hyde Joseph wed after he had sent her husband on a mission to Palestine.
In discussing the First Vision, the Church says that Joseph Smith prayed to God for help in knowing which church was right, whereupon God and Jesus appeared and instructed him to "restore His original Church"; in fact, there are multiple contradictory accounts of the First Vision, and in the earliest account Joseph Smith himself wrote that he already knew none of the churches were true before praying, and only prayed to ask forgiveness for his sins; he also only mentions having seen a single being, "the Lord", not God and Jesus together.
The Church often shows Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon directly from the golden plates or in conversation with his scribe; in fact, he translated it by putting his face into a hat in which he'd placed a "seer stone", and it is unclear what the golden plates were for.
The Church presents the Book of Abraham as a "translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics" performed by Joseph Smith on several papyrus scrolls of ancient Egyptian that he had come into possession of; in fact, the original papyri were later rediscovered and found to be an ordinary Egyptian funerary text; the name "Abraham" is never mentioned.
The Church has promoted the Lamanites, one of the Hebrew peoples described in the Book of Mormon as having settled in the Americas around 600 BCE, as direct ancestors of various Native Americans, as was also stated by Joseph Smith; in fact, Native American DNA most closely matches that of eastern Asian populations, for the simple reason that the people who settled the Americas almost certainly came from Asia via a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska; there is no evidence for a pre-Colombian migration of Israelites to the Americas.
Possibly because of easier access to this sort of information, but probably also for other reasons given the general increase of nonbelievers in America, Church growth has been stagnating since the 1980s.
The Church Is All or Nothing
There is not much room for ambiguity in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Here are some statements by Church leaders that I found:
If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.
– President J. Reuben Clark (1871–1961)
[Joseph Smith] was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground.
– President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972)
Each of us has to face the matter – either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.
– President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008)
Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is or this Church and its founder are false, fraudulent, a deception from the first instance onward.
– Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland (1940–)
For most Latter-day Saints, the Church and life are inseparable. Things are arranged according to the Church's norms and directives. If you are a Latter-day Saint, you may have been raised in the Church, your whole family may be Latter-day Saints, your whole community may be centred around it, you have probably served on a mission, you might have studied at Brigham Young University (BYU), you have definitely given up premarital sex, masturbation, alcohol, tea and coffee, you may have a whole ward looking up to you and coming to you with questions, you will have given hours or tens of hours weekly to various callings, you will have paid tithing, read, prayed, fasted, and for many of your transgressions you will have felt intense guilt and shame.
Apostasy is a condition in which "spiritual darkness [replaces] the light of truth"; Satan is the one who "seeks to lead us to the breeding ground of doubt"; or, as Brigham Young put it, "a person, to become an angel of the Devil, has first to be a good Saint, and then deny the Lord who bought him".
Losing your faith in the Church doesn't mean just changing your mind about factual matters – it can mean losing your identity, community, friends and family. It means disappointing a whole lot of people. It means looking loved ones in the eyes and confirming their worst fears. It means realising that what you have evangelised as a missionary, what you have taught your children and what you have argued against colleagues was wrong. In sum, it is a terrifying thing. That is the impression that I have from listening to accounts of people who have gone through this.
In other words, there are various incentives for Latter-day Saints to keep believing. Latter-day Saints who have gone through faith crises always say that they desperately wanted the Church to be true but that they just could not bring themselves to believe it. If I try to imagine finding factual issues that would cause me to renounce my whole worldview, I find it easy to believe them.
Two predictions at this point. On January 1st 2050,
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will endorse a less literal interpretation of its founding texts and history, including the Book of Mormon, e.g. allowing that the Book of Mormon doesn't describe real peoples, migrations, wars etc. ⇒ 60%
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be something closer to Calvinism or Lutheranism: a denomination in some sense founded and defined by one mortal man, but essentially about the Old and New Testaments and Jesus of Nazareth. ⇒ 60%
Latter-Day Saint Faith Crises
Former Latter-day Saints talk about the shelf. The shelf is what holds all your little doubts and questions. Hear something weird about Joseph Smith's polygamy? Put it on the shelf and carry on. Read that Church leaders instigated the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Put it on the shelf and forget about it. This goes on until eventually the shelf can no longer bear the weight of everything it holds, and collapses. This is the point where the believer allows themself to ask the question, "Is it really true?" It is usually followed by an extended period of fervent research into Church history and truth claims.
Here is one former Latter-day Saint describing how cracks began to form in his testimony:
Reading Rough Stone Rolling really shook me [...] All the things that I didn't know, that were different from what I taught people as a missionary – I mean, just the way the Book of Mormon was translated – I had never heard about the rock in the hat. I didn't know that Joseph Smith had married thirty women. I thought Joseph had received the revelation of polygamy but Brigham Young was the one who implemented it. And again, a lot of people will probably sit back and criticise me now and say, "Well, you must not have been paying attention", but I don't really feel that way, especially [since this was] back in '05.
[Richard] Bushman, the author of the book, would make comments about how Fawn Brodie got this and that right, and he would acknowledge the things that she had written in her book. And I'd kind of heard who that was but didn't really know what that book was all about. So it was very disconcerting to me to see our current-day version of Hugh Nibley, which I think a lot of people would look up to Richard Bushman as, openly talking about these things, providing some comfort, but not a ton, right? And just admitting all this stuff happened and that other people who'd written about it, who we have lambasted, were right. [...] And I remember getting about three fourths of the way through Rough Stone Rolling and putting it down and saying, "If I read one more page, I am going to lose my testimony."
[The things I learned] made me feel very nervous. [...] I put it on the shelf and just said "hot potato". But it nagged me. It just ate at me for a good twelve, eighteen months, and was affecting my ability to sit in church and believe it all. It really just worried me. It felt like the adage "where there's smoke, there's fire".
Later on, in the Church-sponsored Deseret Book Store in Salt Lake City, he comes across a book about the relationship between the Church and Freemasonry:
I bought the book, and, just like Rough Stone Rolling, red flags were just flying up left and right as I read that book. The logic that was being used was troubling. [...] One of the most troubling things that hit me was, his main argument as to why the fact that the temple endowment closely resembles a Masonic ceremony shouldn't bother anyone and why the endowment is an inspired revelation from God is because Joseph couldn't possibly have written the endowment in the seven weeks between his joining the Masons and starting participating in their ceremonies and the time that he revealed the endowment. [...] And I sat there and thought about that and I said, "Seven weeks is plenty of time to copy somebody's homework."
And at that point in time my role at the bank was as a credit officer and my job was seeing these credit requests come in and seeing people arguing for why or why not a commercial building should be built and presenting market data and those types of things. And my job was to decipher and sift through that market data and make sure that what that banker was representing or presenting was accurate and that he wasn't really trying to play "hide the ball" and get a deal approved for a client that he really liked. And so I was a trained BS meter at that time. And reading that book my BS meter was going off.
And just the fact that there were so many things that he wasn't discussing, which I knew he couldn't because it would violate his temple covenants to get into a lot of detail, but just the simple knowledge that there was an organisation that predated the Church, that had ceremonies that used these similar things – and the similarities run deep, as everybody knows who digs into this topic – it's not just signs and tokens, right, and it's not just language, or punishment language, or promises, or anything – there is a ton in there – and I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg, but it was enough to scare me of what was below the water level. It just really bothered me.
He goes on suffering silently for years, telling hardly anything to his family out of fear that it might worry them, but keeping his shelf intact, until he and his wife are preparing to got on a vacation to Cancún, Mexico:
[I served my mission] in Venezuela and I had gone around showing people this video called Ancient America Speaks and showing them all this archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon and I had seen people moved by telling them the story of the Book of Mormon, showing them this little video, testifying to them that they were the descendants of ancient America and this book was a record of their forefathers. [...] So the prospect of going down to Tulum and going on a Book of Mormon tour of the ruins down there excited me because I thought, "Okay, you know, maybe this will help me, right? Maybe this will calm my fears down."
So I got online and I started researching the tour companies. And they've got very easy-to-find names, whether it's Helaman Tours or Alma's Book of Mormon Tours. But then I would see people talking about how these were tourist traps for Mormons, that the ruins don't date to the timeframes of the Book of Mormon, that the local governments don't really like these tour companies because they're teaching false hope to Latter-day Saints. And that really scared me.
And so Laurie's bugging me as we're making our [plans] – "Okay, we got to buy our tickets to Tulum!" – and I'm reading all this stuff and I'm like, "Um, can we just go dive with the dolphins? Maybe we could go on a different excursion that day. That's really far away – I don't want to spend a whole day doing that!"
So we didn't end up going to Tulum, and then I came back [...] and I started reading on FairMormon. About that time I had seen advertisements, whether it was in Deseret News or on the radio or something – [for] FairMormon, which is a, I guess you would call it a Church-supported or a Church-somewhat-endorsed website, where you could go to get answers to difficult questions, and it's staffed by a lot of faithful [Latter-day Saint] historians and BYU professors and the like. So it was put up there as this place that you could trust to get answers to questions. So I found this all around that time [and] I got on there and I started reading the stuff about archaeology and that was just ... eye-opening.
I saw stuff about the New World Archaeological Foundation that BYU had run and Thomas Stuart Ferguson's efforts to to find archaeological proof of the Book of Mormon. And then also around that time there were people on FairMormon talking about this interview of Dr. Michael Coe from Yale, who had been interviewed on this podcast called Mormon Stories. And so I immediately flipped over and wanted to listen to that.
So that 2011 year was the year where I found MormonThink, I found Mormon Stories and I just gorged myself on everything that I could read on FairMormon or MormonThink, listening to podcasts one after the other and just taking very detailed notes of everything that I was learning, summarizing things that I had listened to, summarizing things that I had read, links where I'd found the things that I had read and it just ... one thing after another during the course of 2011, going from archaeology to DNA issues with the Book of Mormon to doubling back and digging into the endowment and the ties with Masonry and learning everything about the multiple versions of the First Vision, it was really an entire year of getting all of those major issues studied.
At this point, the apologists' answers not having been satisfactory, the floodgates open. One thing he notices is the different epistemic norms between apologists and other scholars:
Obviously, when I would read FairMormon, they were very pro-Church. And again, my BS meter was always going off when I was on FairMormon. I just felt like the logic was not being honest with itself, and I would try to [believe what I was reading] but there was just a lot of flawed logic there. And I guess to hear a Yale professor who'd been in this, to hear the backstory, to hear his interactions with Mormon apologists, to hear him [be] what I felt [to] be very fair and balanced, but at the same time say, "Look, these are the facts, and I understand why [it] is hard for people to hear these facts, because [they don't] support or correlate with what you want to believe, but you can't really change the facts." And I just felt like there was an air of honesty, I felt like I wasn't being snowballed, whereas I felt like somebody was trying to pull the wool over my eyes when I was at FairMormon. [...] I just wanted to know the truth. I wanted to put myself in the jury box. I wanted to allow the prosecutor and the defense to make their cases and I was gonna weigh the evidence and just let the facts determine the truth. [...] I just needed to know.
He eventually concludes that the Church is not true, and after much suffering comes clean to his wife and children, who eventually, after still more suffering, leave the Church with him.
In The Scout Mindset, Julia Galef describes two opposing approaches to seeing the world and interpreting information. She names them soldier mindset and scout mindset:
In soldier mindset, our thinking is guided by the question "Can I believe it?" about things we want to accept, and "Must I believe it?" about things we want to reject. We use soldier mindset to help us maintain beliefs that boost our self-esteem, give us comfort, preserve our morale, persuade other people, cultivate an attractive image, and help us fit in to our social groups.
In scout mindset, our thinking is guided by the question "Is it true?" We use it to help us see things clearly for the sake of our judgment, so that we can fix problems, notice opportunities, figure out which risks are worth taking, decide how we want to spend our lives, and, sometimes, better understand the world we live in for the sake of sheer curiosity.
The scout isn't indifferent. A scout might hope to learn that the path is safe, that the other side is weak, or that there's a bridge conveniently located where his forces need to cross the river. But above all, he wants to learn what's really there, not fool himself into drawing a bridge on his map where there isn't one in real life. Being in scout mindset means wanting your "map" – your perception of yourself and the world – to be as accurate as possible.
The doubting Latter-day Saint described in the previous section clearly has some characteristics of a scout. He did not accept just any argument by apologists and judged a non-member scholar to be more fair and less biased than they were. Although he hoped fervently that the Church would be true, he sought the truth. Maybe he was less driven by the practical uses that Galef outlines and more by the need to know whether he has been basing his life on a false gospel, whether he has been deceived. But he clearly wanted his map to accurately describe the landscape.
One of the things that Galef discusses is "confusion". We should get comfortable with uncertainty and being confused. Or as Walter Bagehot said, "Life is a school of probability." This is important because it allows us to change our minds when presented with new evidence. Galef advises:
- Instead of dismissing observations that contradict your theories, get curious about them.
- Instead of writing people off as irrational, ask yourself why their behaviour might be rational.
- Instead of trying to fit anomalies into your preexisting theories, treat them as clues to a new theory.
She compares that last point to Kuhnian paradigm shifts – one by one you notice anomalies that don't fit your current theory, and eventually will need to construct a new theory to accommodate those anomalies, a new paradigm. This is exactly what former Latter-day Saints refer to when they talk about "the shelf". The only difference is that, to Galef, it is something one does more or less consciously, but for Latter-day Saints it happens more or less against one's will.
Here are some other things that seem to help Latter-day Saints change their minds:
- Reading about issues in official Church sources like the Gospel Topics essays or FAIR; this avoids any tendency to dismiss the evidence as "anti-Mormon", which Latter-day Saints are honest about calling most things that seem vaguely critical of the Church or discuss Church history in a way that isn't "faith-promoting".
- Finding people – family, friends, acquaintances, support groups, online communities – who have gone through the same thing; this both shows that things will get better and validates the doubter, reassuring them that they are not crazy after all.
- Disclosing doubts to close ones; this usually eases the pressure of one strong force preventing honest inquiry, namely the fear of what will happen to a marriage or various other close relationships; much care is needed when broaching this subject but staying quiet about it seems worse.
I guess the one thing that I think was missing from Galef's excellent book was the importance of finding some sort of stability or path on the other side of doubt. Maybe that is because the examples that Galef brings up of people changing their minds are rarely as total and life-changing as a Latter-day Saint's deciding that their religion isn't true. When you are opening up your mind to being changed, you are treading on new and perilous ground. It helps to know that others have trodden it before, and that what lies ahead is not as dangerous as all that.
Changing One's Mind Is Painful
Even if most of the stories that I have heard of questioning Latter-day Saints are success stories in some sense – and of course there is a selection effect here – they still show how utterly crowded faith crises can be with pain and heartbreak. You hear about marriages falling apart and families splitting up. You hear about people being disavowed by their parents, siblings or even children. You hear about people being shunned by their friends. And you see how painful it is to realise that one has spent one's whole life living in a kind of diorama.
Here is one former Latter-day Saint describing a pivotal moment in his faith crisis:
I travel for work. I own this moving company. I don't do a lot of moving but I do some of the long-distance jobs and so I had a job from Logan to Phoenix and I wasn't very far into Rough Stone Rolling but I started driving and was trying to find something that I could listen to as I drove, and so I googled to see if there were any audiobooks from Richard Bushman, who wrote Rough Stone Rolling, and I found, "Oh, he did this several hour [long] interview with this podcast called Mormon Stories." And so I downloaded that and I listened to that while I was driving.
And in between Vegas and Phoenix, I had to pull over on the side of the road and I just started bawling because I knew that I had crossed some line, that my simple naive testimony was gone and I could never go back to the way it was before. And I knew that ... I didn't know then that the church wasn't true, but I knew that I wasn't gonna be the same and that this is gonna be a turning point in my life and I cried because I didn't know what it was gonna do to my marriage. We had one little boy at the time and, you know, everything came through, like if I find out this isn't true, how's this gonna affect my family, how is this gonna affect my kids?
I continue to read and I continue to read and I'm finding out more and more and more and it's getting worse and worse and worse and at some point I'm lying in bed crying myself to sleep again. [...] I wanted so desperately for the CES Letter to be wrong, that I'm somehow confused, mixed-up, crazy, whatever. But I just remember thinking, "I don't know what's real anymore. I feel like I [am] losing it, having a mental breakdown, actually going crazy, like I might need help." [..] I thought I just need to get outside. It's like one in the morning and it's pouring down rain and I just need to get outside, I just need to see the stars. All of a sudden it became imperative, like this is a matter of life and death. I must see the stars because I know they're real.
And I went outside and it's raining and I can't see the stars [...] but then I saw the mountains and [I think], "Okay, the mountains are real, I've been in them, I've touched them, the mountains are real, therefore I am real."
Twice a year the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hold its General Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. This month was the first time it was held in person since the pandemic started. Prophet Russell M. Nelson spoke to the faithful:
Contrary to the doubts of some, there really is such a thing as right and wrong. There really is absolute truth – eternal truth. One of the plagues of our day is that too few people know where to turn for truth. I can assure you that what you will hear today and tomorrow constitutes pure truth.
And that afternoon Elder Rasband added:
President Russell M. Nelson has emphasized: "Take your questions to the Lord and to other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet's life or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with ... doubters. Allow the Lord to lead you on your journey of spiritual discovery."
The processes involved in changing one's mind are unusually stark when it comes to Latter-day Saints changing their minds about their religion. This is because various social, cultural and psychological factors incentivise members to keep believing that the Church is true even as information readily available online makes a compelling argument that it isn't. Some Latter-day Saints overcome these forces and reach the latter conclusion anyway. This is a difficult, disorienting and painful undertaking. But it is also somehow beautiful, and I suppose what I find so beautiful about it is that it is the scout, the doubter, the truth-seeker, an underdog here if there ever was one, who wins out despite it all.
Bacon, F. (1878). Novum organum. Clarendon press. ↩︎
Meyer, M. W., & Robinson, J. M. (2010). The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume. Harper Collins. ↩︎
See the FAIR podcast with Latter-day Saint scholar and Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman, who says: "We still have pictures on our Ward bulletin boards of Joseph Smith with the Gold Plates in front of him. That has become an irksome point and I think it is something the Church should pay attention to. Because anyone who studies the history knows that is not what happened. There is no Church historian who says that is what happened and yet it is being propagated by the Church and it feeds into the notion that the Church is trying to cover up embarrassing episodes and is sort of prettifying its own history." ↩︎
Murphy, T. (2003). Simply implausible: DNA and a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 36(4), 109-131. ↩︎
That makes me wonder if maybe we should have more "faith transition" narratives in rationalism, to open bridges between different viewpoints; this does however risk promoting a mindset where we move between certainties instead of getting comfortable with uncertainty. ↩︎