By early 2007 it was clear that neither my wife nor I believed the church was true. We also loathed going to church and made something of a Sunday evening ritual out of mocking what we had heard that morning. As our daughter became old enough to actually understand and parrot what she was learning in her church classes, we also found ourselves growing uncomfortable with the idea of our children growing up with the same myths on which we were raised.
Nevertheless, we had no plan to leave the church. It wasn’t clear how we would do so, and what the full implications would be. But an opportunity to initiate a clean break presented itself in the late Spring of 2007, when my wife was invited to attend her brother’s endowment at the Atlanta temple. Both our temple recommends had expired a few months before, so she would need a temple recommend interview very soon. After thinking it over, she decided that she would not lie to get a temple recommend and would instead attend her brother’s event without entering the temple. As this was the first concrete step either of us had taken toward apostasy (by not scheduling an interview, she was admitting to me that she was no longer uncertain about the church’s falsity), we discussed how we wanted to proceed. We decided it was time to ask the ward bishop to release us from our callings.
When asked for an explanation, we told the bishop we had concerns about the church’s truthfulness. He asked us to write our concerns down so that he could research them and get back to us. I thought this was a waste of time (the Bishop was a kind and capable leader, but did not strike me as much of a thinker), but at the same time was curious about how this would all play out, so I obliged him by creating the list below. (When I looked at the list about two years later I was tempted to edit it, because it had been quickly composed in one evening with the idea that it probably wouldn’t accomplish anything. But for fidelity’s sake, what appears below is the original text.)
A Few of My Questions:
1. We are taught that wanting to have a testimony is a prerequisite for having a testimony (Alma 32; Moroni 10; etc.). What troubles me about this teaching is that we all know that desires can distort our beliefs and judgment. A republican’s opinion of a democratic presidential candidate for example, is of course going to be biased by the republican’s desire to have a republican president. Similarly, is it possible that I only believe Church doctrine because I wish it were true, not because it really is true?
2. How do I know the feelings I attribute to the influence of the Holy Spirit aren’t just feelings? People who are not members of the church are moved to the point of tears while singing their national anthem, while holding their babies for the first time, and while defending their most cherished beliefs. These are natural human feelings that don’t require the presence of the Holy Ghost. Why can’t I distinguish the promptings of the Holy Spirit from these feelings? And why would a loving Heavenly Father not communicate with us in a more direct and clear way?
3. If God is a loving Father, why does he allow babies to be born with horrendously painful and incurable diseases, little girls to be gang-raped by soldiers, and people to be cut into pieces by serial killers? If he has to allow people to exercise free-will, why doesn’t he stop the murderer’s bullet after the murderer has freely chosen to kill? If he has to allow suffering, why? What is so sacred or purposeful about a baby’s suffering?
4. Why, on my mission, was I taught to invite people to be baptized before they had been taught about the word of wisdom, law of chastity, or tithing? (In sales and in psychology experiments this is called “low-balling”.)
5. Why, on my mission, did a general authority bear solemn testimony that our mission could baptize 100 people a month if we were only more faithful? (In the Italy Rome mission, we averaged three or four baptisms a month. And as an assistant to the president, I knew that our mission was filled with outstanding missionaries who were exceedingly obedient and diligent—after all, the church doesn’t send second-rate elders and sisters to Rome.) So if general authorities are knowingly bearing false testimonies now and then (remember Paul Dunn?), who else is?
6. Why did Joseph Smith marry 10 women who were already married at the time to other (living) men? And why did Joseph Smith marry teenage girls? (These facts do not come from anti-Mormon literature, but from Rough Stone Rolling, a history of Joseph Smith written by a faithful Latter-day Saint history professor. I reference this book several more times below.)
7. Why did Joseph Smith’s story of the First Vision evolve in his lifetime, such that each version is conspicuously different in detail? (For example, in the first two versions he did not say that both the God the Father and Jesus were present.) (Again, see Rough Stone Rolling.)
8. Why hasn’t the church ever apologized for the Mountain Meadows Massacre like the Catholic Church has apologized for the Inquisition?
9. Why didn’t God strike down Brigham Young for repeatedly making racist pronouncements? Although racism was “normal” among 19th century white Americans, drinking and smoking were too, and God clearly took pains to ensure that those vices were condemned.
10. And why didn’t the revelation for blacks getting the priesthood come until 1978, as the Church contemplated missionary work in Africa? Doesn’t that timing seem very convenient (like the timing of the repudiation of plural marriage)?
11. Why would a loving Father leave us to depend so heavily on scriptures that are so confusing and open to myriad interpretations? Even if you are faithful, if you read the scriptures honestly, you notice striking contradictions, prejudices, oversimplifications, etc. If they are really God’s word (written down by prophets) you’d think they’d be written so directly and clearly that many more people would become converted to God’s true religion though them. God is omniscient, after all, and he wants as many of his children as possible to return to him, right?
12. Let’s suppose a horrible person sins continuously for 78 years, never repents of his sins and then dies. Would a just and a loving Father make this horrible sinner suffer for his sins not for 78 years, not for 780 years, but for ETERNITY? What kind of a Father punishes his children like this?
13. Why are LDS temple rituals so similar to the rituals of the masons (Joseph Smith was a mason for some time, as acknowledged in Rough Stone Rolling)?
14. Why did the angel Moroni take the golden plates back? If he had left them here on earth and Joseph really did translate them correctly, there would probably be a billion members of the church right now, which I would think would please God very much (and people would still have to exercise faith to believe Joseph’s account of how he got the plates).
15. Pieces of the papyri from which Joseph Smith supposedly translated the Book of Abraham have now come to light. However, these items are actually ordinary Egyptian funeral instructions and they say absolutely nothing about Abraham. Why not? And why on earth would the book of Abraham be packaged with a couple of Egyptian mummies anyway? (Rough Stone Rolling)
16. Why did Joseph Smith, according to historical records (Rough Stone Rolling), translate parts of the Book of Mormon by staring at a “seer stone” in the bottom of a hat (without looking at the plates themselves)? And why should we believe that Joseph Smith’s seer stone was special when many mystics were roaming around upstate New York in Smith’s day using similar divination methods?
17. Why is it that DNA samples taken from all over the Americas conclusively demonstrate that Native Americans carry no Israelite blood (only central Asian, as anthropologists would expect)? This contradicts the Book of Mormon.
18. Why does the Book of Mormon mention things that could not have possibly existed in pre-Columbian America (e.g., steel, certain animals, etc.)?
19. Why does God require our faith? Why would a perfect Father live far away and command his children to believe in him instead of staying here to maintain a loving face-to-face relationship with his children? Communicating with us through ambiguous ancient texts (which everyone is left arguing about) and ambiguous spiritual promptings seems exceedingly indirect and distant. God seems to violate the most basic principles of good fathering.
20. Why is it that virtually everyone who bears their testimony in the LDS Church KNOWS the church is true with so much confidence? The reason such confidence troubles me is that this kind of confidence can come just as easily from dogmatism or closed-mindedness (e.g., not asking tough questions, not studying history, ignoring what critics are saying) as it can from a genuine conversion. (Consider the confidence of Born-again Christians, jihadists, or any other fundamentalist group, for example.) When a person is 100% certain that only their religion is right, we have good reason to suspect that that person is not an authentic truth-seeker.
I enjoyed putting some of these thoughts down on paper, but felt some sympathy when we delivered our lists to the bishop. I think he expected to have to discuss blacks and the priesthood or plural marriage or the like. After several weeks with no meeting, the bishop did not address our questions at all and just bore his testimony. We subsequently went out of town for a few weekends in a row (for summer traveling), and used this opportunity to make a smooth exit.
I must highlight that it was my wife who actually had the courage to act on her convictions. Until she refused to renew her temple recommend, I was an atheist in sheep’s clothing (and still teaching a youth Sunday school class—that paid no attention anyway) with no exit plan.