And They Say I Can’t Let It Go …

June 15, 2015

I mentioned a while back that a non-LDS blogger, Philip Jenkins, had decided to take on Book of Mormon historicity as an example of how pseudoscience is employed to bolster faith. As I said, I agreed with him entirely that the historicity is far less important to a believer than how one’s faith operates in one’s life. I’ve said many times that I will never question anyone’s personal spiritual experiences.

The problem, of course, is that Mormon apologists who have responded to Jenkins want to argue over the historicity of the book. I think that’s pointless, but then you’d expect that from me, wouldn’t you? Jenkins, however, isn’t willing to let apologetic arguments stand without response. So, he’s still going. The title of his latest article indicates his attitude towards the apologists.

The Nahom Follies

I’ve known a lot of apologists who complain that serious academics have not given the Book of Mormon any attention, but usually when they do, it ends up much like what Philip Jenkins has come up with. It’s a pointless debate for both sides, in my opinion. Best to let it go.


Applied Apologetics

June 11, 2015

I like to browse Real Clear Politics as a way to get different perspectives on current events and issues. Sometimes I also go to the religion subsection, as I find it fascinating to see how differently people of various faiths view the world. Anyway, this morning I stumbled across an article about Travis Kerns, an Evangelical man who works full-time as a missionary to the Mormons in Utah.

A Missionary in the Heart of Mormonism

I thought I’d share my thoughts about the article.

First of all, I have to admire someone whose faith is so strong that he would dedicate his entire life to it. Specifically, I’m impressed that he ended up being willing to do the one thing he said he would never do:

Local pastors would interview each candidate, and one pastor asked Kerns: “What’s one thing in ministry you’ll never do?”

“I will not be a missionary,” Kerns told him. “I will absolutely not do that.”

The pastor just smiled. “Well, that’s what God is going to call you to.”

I could relate to that, as my teenage self had said the one place I would not want to serve a mission was in South America, but after fasting every Sunday for months, I came to the point at which I would have accepted a call anywhere with peace and happiness. Bolivia was just fine for me. But Mr. Kerns isn’t talking about a two-year interruption of youth but a full-time assignment with his family. That he was willing to give up his plans to teach and instead focus on missionary work is, in my view, quite admirable.

Kerns mentions that he earned a PhD. in “applied apologetics.” I had no idea such a degree was offered anywhere, but then I’m not up on what is taught in Baptist seminaries. I know a few Mormons who would have loved to earn such a degree in defending Mormonism were it offered. He mentions the kind of stuff you would expect: Mormons aren’t real Christians, and Evangelicals have to “deconstruct” Mormonism so that Mormons can understand what real Christianity is. He seems to take a pretty standard approach to Mormonism and Mormons.

But what fascinates me the most about this article is how his views about himself, his religion, and his relationship with the people in Utah are so similar to how many Mormon apologists I know view themselves. He says that Christians “stick out” in Utah in dress and behavior, especially since they are such a tiny minority.

The 50,000 Christians who live in Utah “stick out” — in dress (jeans and a polo shirt instead of the typical suit and tie), appearance (LDS members do not wear beards, so Christian men will often grow them out to be distinctive), and Sunday activities (going out to eat, while Mormons only walk to the meeting house and back). Even a trip to the coffee shop can identify someone as a Christian, since Mormons don’t consume hot drinks like coffee or tea for doctrinal reasons.

Kerns sees this as a good thing: being a Christian in Utah requires a serious faith. Even an ICHTHUS sticker on the back window of a car — something that can seem mundane and trite to Bible Belt Christians — serves as an automatic symbol of brotherhood in Utah.

“Being a nominal Christian is not going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “It would be much, much easier to be a nominal Mormon.”

People who know anything about Utah may notice that 50,000 is a very small number of Christians in the state. Kerns tells us:

Seventy percent of Utah citizens are Mormon, while 28 percent claim a non-Christian religion or no religion at all, according to Kerns. Two percent are evangelical.

I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers, but that seems wrong on the face of it. Even assuming that 70% of the state is nominally Mormon and that 2% is Evangelical, how does he arrive at the belief that the other 28% are “non-Christian or no religion at all”? The only thing I can think of is that Kerns is one of those folks who believes that Catholicism is a “non-Christian” religion, which I’ve never understood. (The latest statistics for Utah, for 2013, are 58% Mormon, 16% unaffiliated, 10% Catholic, 7% Evangelical, 6% mainline Protestant, and a number of religions at or below 1%.)

I think Kerns’s skewed numbers are essential to his–and the article’s–narrative: with 98% of the state arrayed against him. he’s one of the very few true believers standing up against the overwhelming numbers and power of Mormonism in Utah, sort of a David against Mormonism’s Goliath.

Indeed, Kerns uses military imagery to emphasize his place as a Christian warrior doing battle with the forces of a counterfeit Christianity:

While Kerns has witnessed significant fruit in the last two years — among the 18 active church planters in the area, there have been more than 100 conversions — the intense spiritual warfare has been the most significant obstacle. Twice a year, in April and October, Salt Lake City hosts the LDS General Conference. As many as 150,000 Mormons flock to Salt Lake City, and the entire religion worldwide turns its attention to the city. Each year, Kerns has watched as the spiritual warfare against NAMB missionaries “ramps up.”

“We knew it would be a reality, but we didn’t know the extent to which we would find it here,” he said. “That’s a significant difficulty that every family in our ministry faces.”

I have to admit I was taken aback and wanted some examples of this “intense spiritual warfare” that he sees at every general conference. Most Mormons I know see conference as a nice, uplifting break from regular church services and a chance to hear counsel from the prophets and apostles. The only hostility I ever saw was against those nasty folks who gather outside Temple Square to heckle and shout at conference-goers.

But for Kerns, the “spiritual warfare” is very real.

In October 2012, the month Kerns accepted the position with NAMB, a tumor started growing on his mother’s pancreas. Exactly a year later, again in October, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died weeks later. The following April, his grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died months later. That same month, the wife of a pastor in Provo lost her daughter late in the pregnancy. She gave birth to a stillborn, despite doctors in the area having no explanation for the complications.

Throughout April and October, many pastors and planters will go through severe bouts of depression and anger for no discernible reason, and the issues will disappear as suddenly as they came once the General Conference ends. The physical manifestation of warfare is real, Kerns says.

Since his job largely involves partnering with extant church planters in the region, Kerns is on high alert during those months, calling each NAMB planter to make sure things are all right. If they aren’t, Kerns will immediately visit to sit and pray with them.

“It’s kinda Sunday School when I say it this way, but we have to make sure we’re prayed-up and read-up,” he said. “Constant prayer, constantly reading Scripture, constantly being around other believers, it’s mutual encouragement.”

I really don’t know what to say about this. I had no idea that anyone in the world believed that LDS general conference was so powerful a tool of Satan that it could cause severe depression and anger, not to mention cancer and stillbirth, among Christian missionaries. At my most devout, I believed that Satan had the power to fill me with doubt or discouragement, but I never thought he had the power to hurt me or my family physically. Maybe there are some Mormons out there who believe as Mr. Kerns does, but I don’t recall having met any.

None of this is meant as criticism, but I find Mr. Kerns’s perspective fascinating, and I’m glad the Southern News profiled him.


Truth and the Book of Mormon

May 19, 2015

I stumbled across a series of articles about “fringe” historical and religious beliefs by Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, over on Patheos. Basically, he discusses the tendency of iconoclasts to portray the academic community as totally resistant to change because of their heavy investment in the prevailing paradigm. Naturally, then, those who reject the scholarly consensus often see themselves as courageous champions of truth who will eventually be vindicated. Mind you, this phenomenon isn’t unique to anti-academic outsiders, but is pretty common among those who fight against what they see as powerful consensus. Heck, a lot of Mormon critics I know see themselves as bravely shining the light of truth on entrenched Mormon beliefs. Recently, someone accused me of hubris, complaining that I think I “get it” and no one else does, so perhaps I am not immune to this.

Anyway, in his first piece, “I Want to Believe,” Jenkins begins by discussing a common claim by people advocating fringe theories: the powers that be are suppressing or ignoring vital evidence that challenges the current consensus. As he says, though, there are good reasons for the consensus. Writing about a book that posits a married Jesus, Jenkins writes:

For a scholar approaching any thing like Lost Gospel, the primary questions concern sources. Is the source credible, and does it have any chance of presenting information that can plausibly be linked to the period in question? That does not necessarily mean that a source about Jesus must have been written in the first century, but can we see any suggestion it preserves older material, so that we can establish a credible chain? In other words, a hypothetical thirteenth century document might contain a fifth century text, which preserved the words of some very early historian writing not long after Jesus’s time. Such a find would be wonderful, and might even revolutionize scholarship. Nothing like that appears in Lost Gospel. If there were the vaguest trace of a smidgeon of a hint of a suspicion that Joseph and Aseneth might have anything like the importance that Lost Gospel claims, someone would have suggested it long ago.

In short, the consensus is based on the accumulation of credible sources, not on the suppression of data. In his next article, “Outliers and Iconoclasts,” he introduces a legal standard for establishing the credibility of a source:

Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable

2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.

3.The known or potential error rate.

4.The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.

5.The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Some of those items apply more than others to the topics I am discussing, but here again we see the stress on scholarly consensus and general acceptance. The “mainstream” matters!

He notes that none of this involves appeal to authority. Scholars can and are mistaken, but, as he shows, in “The Monte Verde Principle,” the consensus changes when the evidence compels it to change. He notes that the discovery of the Monte Verde archaeological site challenged the prevailing paradigm and eventually overthrew it in what Thomas Kuhn would call a scientific revolution.

Put another way, scientists certainly did accept a paradigm, but when competing evidence arose, it was tested and verified, and the old model was effectively falsified. Such a change happens by focusing intensely on one clear exception to the rule, and then expanding to other contentious areas. And as everyone agrees, any such alleged exception has to be treated with the most rigorous and hyper-critical care.

That is what separates real science and archaeology from pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology. Challenging consensus wisdom is done by recognized scientific methods, and not by producing an endless swarm of obviously spurious junk examples.

You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.

To my surprise, in “Mormons and New World History” and “Wandering over the Plains of the Nephites,” Jenkins goes on to use Book of Mormon apologetics as an example of fringe pseudoscience employed to bolster claims that are “simply not factually correct in any particular.” Some of my readers might expect me to pile on in scorning Mormon apologetics, but that’s not what I found interesting about Jenkins’s article. Yes, he correctly explains that an extraordinary theory must have its “Monte Verde,” or some clear evidence supporting it before it can be accepted. In his view and that of most scholars, the Book of Mormon has none. That said, however, he doesn’t dismiss Mormons as simple-minded rubes with misguided faith. In fact, he expresses no opinion about the spiritual truth of Mormonism:

I have a lot of sympathy for Mormonism and the LDS tradition, for multiple reasons. So many of their ideas and principles appeal to me, and my personal dealings with Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. The church’s phenomenal social ministries fill me with awe. As to whether the church was founded by an authentic prophet: with all humility, I say, God knows. On the academic side of things, if you don’t know Mormon history, you are missing a huge amount of American religious history. If a member of my family announced an intention to join the LDS church, I would disagree with their decision, but I would wish them all success.

This is pretty much my view. I don’t see any evidence that supports an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon, but I cannot make any categorical statements about someone else’s faith being “true” or “false.” Obviously, I agree with the scholarly consensus about Book of Mormon claims, but I know and respect a lot of people who believe wholeheartedly in Mormonism, regardless of credible evidence or lack thereof. They feel their beliefs are based on solid grounds, both “scientific” and spiritual, as I feel mine are. That we disagree on the credibility and importance of different kinds of evidence does not mean either side is necessarily arrogant in believing we are right. That’s just human nature.

It will be interesting to see where Mormon apologetics goes from here. From what I can see, the arguments are all about possible and plausible scenarios, not about solid evidence–a Monte Verde–in favor of the Book of Mormon. I don’t expect such evidence will be forthcoming, but you never know.


The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


The Divide in Nauvoo

April 1, 2015

I can’t recommend enough this blog post from my friend Roger Launius:

Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence

One quote stood out to me:

This mythic shift, the transmutation of the dissenters from innocent to evil, justified any and all acts of aggression on the part of the church against them. Of course, the tragic irony in all this is that the myth of innocence prevented the Mormons from learning from this history. So they reenacted it, with themselves in the role of the aggressors.

Growing up, I heard the tales of murderous mobs attacking the Saints in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and it never occurred to me that there was anything to the story beyond religious bigotry and hatred. But there is always another side to every story, and as Roger explains, the “mobs” and their supporters adopted their own myth of patriotically standing up for liberty against despotism. It’s a common human thought process: you protect yourself by seeing the divide between you and your enemies in the starkest terms possible. That way, you don’t have to listen to their concerns, let alone consider those concerns legitimate in any way.

But in doing so, you don’t learn from history, and you tend to repeat it. I’m reminded of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both sides have so successfully dehumanized and delegitimized the other that the conflict seems destined to continue in an endless cycle of repeated history.


Recommend to Be Required for Conference Attendance

April 1, 2015

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced today that, beginning with next week’s April general conference, no one will be admitted into a conference session without a special, single-use, conference recommend.

“We wanted to make conference an even more special experience,” explained church spokesperson Dale Overtsen. “When members realize they need to be spiritually prepared and worthy to attend these sacred gatherings, they tend to understand that these are not ‘just another meeting.’ ”

The construction of the Conference Center, completed in 2000, has made it possible for many more church members to attend conference sessions. As with all things, Overtsen explained, “perhaps familiarity and availability have made conference seem like something routine and mundane. The Brethren feel the new recommend policy will go a long way towards reversing this perception.”

As in years past, members wishing to attend must have a valid ticket for a specific session. This April, members wishing to secure tickets must meet with their bishop and stake president to assess worthiness and ensure willingness to adhere to church standards while in attendance. Members traveling from other locations can obtain a recommend from a special kiosk just south of the Salt Lake Temple, where there will be bishops and stake presidents specially set apart for temporary recommend duty.

When asked what questions are asked for the recommend, Overtsen declined to provide specifics but said, “Generally speaking, we want to make sure that members are dressed appropriately and covenant to maintain a reverent, spiritual atmosphere inside the Conference Center.”

Overtsen suggested that the recommend questions might be compared to Brigham Young University’s Honor Code, in which students agree to maintain dress and grooming standards and follow the church’s teachings and commandments. “We haven’t seen a lot of flip-flops or facial hair at conference,” Overtsen said, “but it happens. And we certainly want to avoid any unseemly displays or outbursts in what should otherwise be a very reverent and spirit-filled meeting.”

Asked if the recommend requirement reflects the church’s concern with rumors that an organized group of dissenters plans to oppose the sustaining of church leaders, Overtsen was emphatic: “We don’t change our policies because some loud-mouths, probably in flip-flops and beards, think they can get attention by publicly opposing the Lord’s anointed. This has nothing do with that at all. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of such a plan until you mentioned it just now.”

Overtsen said he was “confident” that there would be no trouble at the conference this year, “other than those so-called Christian yay-hoos outside the gates. Inside, everyone will be facing the same way, as always.”

 


Why I Don’t “Move On”

March 31, 2015

I sometimes think I suffer from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder related to my 40 years of activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For many years I had vivid nightmares in which I was a missionary again; in the dreams I knew I had a life and a family, but I was back in the mission and I couldn’t go home. I would wake up sweating and shaking, so relieved it was just a dream. These dreams finally faded away after I spent 5 weeks writing down everything I could remember about my missionary experience (this was the raw material that formed the basis of my book, Heaven Up Here).

As I noted in the last post, I watched part of “Going Clear” on HBO on Sunday night and the rest on my lunch hour yesterday. I can’t quite describe the feelings it has dredged up, sort of a horrified, outraged sorrow that I can’t shake. It took me a long time to get to sleep last night, even though I took my night-time medication at the usual time.

Why did it affect me like this? Because I know what it is to be used and manipulated and controlled. The worst thing about it is that I allowed it to happen to me. I let other people tell me I was no good and that the only way I could hope to be better was to dedicate myself entirely to the program they prescribed for me. I gave up my life to follow someone else’s script for me. I tried so hard to be what I was supposed to be that I almost scrubbed away every trace of who I really am inside.

It’s been 9 years since I acknowledged to myself that I knew Mormonism wasn’t right or true or good or whatever you want to call it. Mormons keep telling me I should be “over” it. I should leave it alone, stop being so negative, stop obsessing, whatever. It’s not healthy for me to continue thinking about it. I need to forgive and forget and “move on.”

Fuck that.

What “Going Clear” reminded me of is that there are organizations and people out there who do real damage to people. Scientology is a good example, and I applaud people like Paul Haggis and Mike Rinder for having the courage to speak out and continue to fight the good fight. Mormonism is–to me, anyway–not nearly as extreme as Scientology, but it too is a controlling, manipulative organization that hurts people. It hurt me, but more importantly, it’s still hurting other people. A lot of them. I think of the pain that one of my cousins went through when he told his family he didn’t believe in Mormonism. He felt, rightly, that he was being condemned and ostracized simply for expressing his beliefs. Family and friends and church leaders told him to shut up and keep his thoughts to himself, just as family and friends insisted that Paul Haggis destroy his letter of resignation from Scientology and “leave quietly.” That happened to me, too. I was told over and over that it was OK to believe whatever I wanted, as long as I never told anyone else about it.

I think of the families who have been broken up, the lives destroyed, because the LDS church cannot tolerate or respect those who lose faith. The church teaches that people like me and my cousin are apostates who are bitter and evil. Our loved ones grieve over us because we are supposed to be lost and angry, kicking against the pricks. I’ve been told I have stolen my family’s exaltation, broken my wife and children’s hearts, rejected God and Jesus and everything that is good in this life. Even when someone in the LDS church has tried to understand and maintain a relationship, there’s always been a wide gulf between us, and it’s extremely awkward.

Obviously, it’s not all on them. But I have made a concerted effort not to make religion a point of division with my family and friends. I don’t talk about my beliefs or why I hold them with those around me. Even when I’m asked, I only share things if I think there is a possibility for a good conversation and a positive outcome. In short, in my personal relationships, I follow a strict “live and let live” philosophy where religion is concerned, and I never bring it up.

That brings me to my blog. Despite my best efforts to stop thinking about Mormonism, it is part of just about every day of my life. Just three days ago, the missionaries dropped by unannounced to try to get me to “commit” to attending church on Sunday. The LDS church inserts itself into my life all the time. My well-meaning LDS friends and relatives send me stuff all the time. My mom tells me every week about the wonderful experiences she has at church. One of my children attends an LDS-owned university.

So, I write about Mormonism as it comes up. And because it comes up all the time, I tend to write about it more often than not. Because of that, I have had a steady stream of commenters who tell me how wrong it is for me to write about Mormonism, how I will never “heal” as long as I can’t just forgive the LDS church, walk away from it, and “leave it alone.” They are, they tell me, simply concerned with my mental and emotional well-being.

No, they are not. They are protecting their church from perceived harm. They know what the church is and what it does to people, but they have decided that the organization is far more important than the well-being of anyone who is harmed by it. As long as they get what they want from the church, to hell with everyone else.

And that’s why I still care about Mormonism and what it does to people. As long as it continues to hurt people, I will continue to speak out.


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