Just as courage can’t exist without fear, faith also can’t exist without doubt1. So, every person of faith — in every religion — deals with doubt to some degree.
But what can a believer do when doubt threatens to destroy faith altogether? The Mormon Church has been forced to deal with that question a lot recently. Their many responses are very interesting.
When I was a young man, growing up in the Mormon Church, I frequently heard sermons like this one, describing how to balance reason and faith:
First, we start with the intelligence with which we were born. To our intelligence we add knowledge as we search for answers, study, and educate ourselves. To our knowledge we add experience, which should lead us to a level of wisdom. In addition to our wisdom, we add the help of the Holy Ghost through our prayers of faith, asking for spiritual guidance and strength. Then, and only then, do we reach an understanding in our hearts—which motivates us to ‘do what is right; let the consequence follow.’
That’s what I believed as a Mormon. I believed that I should place spiritual guidance hand-in-hand with reason and logic. Sure I should seek God’s advice, but He also gave me a brain and He intended me to use it to figure stuff out on my own. I loved that message.
But today, the message has changed a bit. It’s now more common to hear: Ask God first. If you get an answer then you can ignore everything else. In other words, You can doubt the facts, you can doubt your own reasoning, you can doubt anything except for your own spiritual experiences.
Here are a few good examples:
Henry J. Eyring, son of Mormon apostle Henry B. Eyring, was shaken when he was told that modern research had proven that the origin story of Book of Abraham isn’t true. He decided to call his dad for advice.
Henry Jr. recalled the conversation:
Henry Sr: ‘Have you read the Book of Abraham?’
Henry Jr: ‘Yes’
Sr: ‘How do you feel when you read it?’
Sr: ‘What else do you need to know?’
Elder Ballard echoed these instructions when asked about using science to help determine the veracity of the Book of Mormon:
I don’t believe that’s how people will ever come to know whether or not the Book of Mormon is the word of God.
…religious truth is always confirmed by what you feel. That’s the way Heavenly Father answers prayers.
The Official LDS Essay on the Book of Abraham says something similar:
The veracity and value of the Book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity…
The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.
I.e. How you feel about the Book of Abraham (or anything else for that matter) trumps all of the facts about it.
The problem is that this test is a very low bar. It could be (and is) passed by all religious texts so, how could it possibly lead to objective “truth”?
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
I think it’s crazy that it’s now common to hear Mormon leaders say that feelings are the ultimate method for determining Truth and in making the most important life decisions. Of course, feelings should play a part in decision-making2 but they should never trump our reasoning because we can so easily be deceived by our feelings.
Elder Corbridge, of the Seventy, recently gave a talk in which he described how he uses his emotional experiences to override everything else. He said that he feels good about stuff that confirms his faith (e.g. “light”, “peace”) and bad about stuff that doesn’t confirm his faith (e.g. “mire”, “gloom”, “dark choir”, “sickening stupor”, “swamp”).
Good feelings = true. Bad feelings = not true.
He did acknowledge that followers of other faiths might be affected by belief bias3 but said that he is not affected by belief bias. Here’s his fascinating explanation:
But the gloom I experienced as I listened to the dark choir of voices raised against the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ—the gloom that came as I waded, chest deep, through the swamp of the secondary questions—is different. That gloom is not belief bias and it is not the fear of being in error. It is the absence of the Spirit of God. That is what it is. It is the condition of man when “left unto himself.” It is the gloom of darkness and the “stupor of thought”.
The Lord said:
“And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:23-24)
Revelation from the Spirit of God supersedes belief bias because it is not premised only on evidence. I have spent a lifetime seeking to hear the word of the Lord and learning to recognize and follow the Spirit of God, and the spirit associated with the dark voices that assail the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration is not the spirit of light, intelligence, and truth. The Spirit of God is not in those voices. I don’t know much, but I do know the voice of the Lord, and His voice is not in that dark choir, not at all in that choir.
In stark contrast to the gloom and sickening stupor of thought that pervades the swamp of doubt is the spirit of light, intelligence, peace, and truth that attends the events and the glorious doctrine of the Restoration, especially the scriptures revealed to the world through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Just read them and ask yourself and ask God if they are the words of lies, deceit, delusion, or truth.
His claim that “revelation… supersedes belief bias” is audacious. In essence, he’s saying that his spiritual experiences are immune to any kind of bias, but the experiences of believers in other religions are not.
He doesn’t just believe his feelings are from God — he knows. What’s his justification for such a claim? It’s simply that he’s sought to know God’s voice his entire life. That’s it. The fascinating thing is that he doesn’t see the clear double standard — that people in other religions, have also sought to know God’s voice their entire lives. And yet they are susceptible to belief-bias. He is not.
He then says,
The divine method of learning incorporates the elements of the other methodologies but ultimately trumps everything else by tapping into the powers of heaven.
The problems is that, what he calls “the divine method” doesn’t incorporate other the methodologies — it completely trumps them. Here’s what I mean:
Elder Corbridge then encourages followers to be sure to ask questions in the right order:
Begin by answering the primary questions. There are primary questions and there are secondary questions. Answer the primary questions first.
He gives these as examples of “primary questions”: “Was Joseph Smith a prophet?” “Is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the kingdom of God on the earth?”
By his definition, the following questions would be “secondary questions”: “Did Joseph Smith sleep with another man’s wife?” “Did he run a scam pretending to find buried treasure with the same seer stone that he later claimed to use to translate the Book of Mormon?” “Did Joseph promise salvation to a fourteen-year-old girl and her entire family if she would marry him?” “Did Joseph create an Egyptian-to-English dictionary that is nothing close to actual translations or pronunciations?”
You read that right. Elder Corbridge is encouraging followers to make conclusions on fundamental Mormon truth claims before considering the facts.
The amazing thing is that this is the very definition of belief bias. Belief bias is the tendency for people to judge things from the perspective of conclusions rather than the strength of the evidence. In other words: “to accept any and all conclusions that fit in with their systems of belief”4.
I find this absolutely fascinating. I think that Elder Corbridge is sincere, which means that he isn’t aware that, while he’s adamant that he’s not affected by belief bias, his description of how to find truth is belief bias!
I agree with him that this is a very effective strategy to encourage belief. It’s not, however, an effective strategy for finding Truth because a person following this formula will convince himself of any “truth” that he wants to find.
Elder Oaks has a similar take:
Matters of Church history and doctrinal issues have led some spouses to inactivity. Some spouses wonder how to best go about researching and responding to such issues.
I suggest that research is not the answer… But the best answer to any question that threatens faith is to work to increase faith in the Lord Jesus Christ…
This is so interesting. A Mormon apostle is actually recommending that followers not look too deeply into the facts but instead focus more on faith. The implication is that if you’re having trouble believing in something, fall back on something that you’re sure you do believe in. Just like Corbridge, this advice is to judge evidence based upon how well it supports your existing faith, rather than on the merits of the evidence itself.
This also is the definition of belief bias.
Here’s Elder Ballard’s take on using emotional experiences to override difficult issues:
One of our outstanding missionaries that served with us in the Canada Toronto Mission years ago came to my office in Salt Lake City. During our visit, he told me that he was losing his faith and his testimony and that he had many questions. I asked him to write down his questions and promised to find answers to them, certainly as many as I could. As he was about to leave—he had his hand on the doorknob of my office—I said, “Elder, how long has it been since you have studied the scriptures; specifically, how long has it been since you have read from the Book of Mormon? He lowered his head and said he had not been doing that. I gave him an assignment to begin reading the Book of Mormon for an hour each day while I worked to prepare answers to his questions. He agreed to do so.
Two weeks later, he came back to my office, and as he entered in and sat down he said, “President, I don’t need answers to those questions anymore. I did what you asked—I know the Book of Mormon is true and I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.” I was very happy to hear that but said, “Elder, I spent a long time answering your questions so you will have to sit down and hear the answers!”
This story has been cited by Elder Oaks as the perfect way to deal with “doubts”5: you don’t need answers to all those difficult questions. All you need is to obtain a certain type of emotion, then the answers to the questions don’t matter.
Is that really the best way to make the most important decisions in your life — by overriding lots of physical evidence with our feelings6?
Also, I’m curious about these answers that Elder Ballard gave to this guy. Why don’t Mormon General authorities share them with us7?
Here’s what a BYU professor and popular Mormon apologist says about it:
…revelation from God is the most trustworthy and valid source of knowledge.
I don’t think I ever believed this — even when I was a devout Mormon. The Mormonism I believed in made sense (or so I thought), so there was no reason for revelation (emotion) to override reason8. Today, this equation is a must for many Mormons to remain “believing”. They must place their own personal experiences above reason and empirical evidence. Otherwise, their faith can no longer stand9.
Muhlestein has a Ph.D. in Egyptology, and is at the forefront of apologetics for the Book of Abraham at the Maxwell Institute. He’s one of my favorite apologists because it’s so clear how unqualified he is as a scholar. This is why:
Scholars are supposed to value objectivity. He doesn’t. Scholars are supposed to draw conclusions only after considering empirical evidence. He doesn’t. Scholars aren’t supposed to gather evidence just to support their pre-determined conclusions, but that’s exactly what Kerry Muhlestein admits to doing.
But he’s following the guidance of his leaders10 to override all objectively observable evidence in favor the stuff that makes him feel good.
How far should we take this feelings over reason approach? What if Joseph Smith never really translated anything? What if polygamy was just Joseph’s invention? Or what if — hypothetically speaking — it was discovered that he practiced human sacrifice in the temple? Would feeling good override that too? Or is there a limit to what you would ignore or justify or explain away?
What if you felt the Spirit to murder your kids11? Is that the moment when reason should override your emotional experience? Pretty much everyone has a limit. Where is that limit for you?
Millions of people have read these books and felt powerful emotions moving them to “know” that God was telling them that they are true12.
If I feel good reading it? Does that make it true? Or are my emotions subjective — even the really powerful ones?
I don’t ask these questions to challenge your faith, but to challenge any judgment you might have for those who have decided they can no longer believe.
Instead, their strategy has been to obscure and throw doubt on the facts and to encourage followers to override all empirical evidence in favor of personal and unverifiable experiences. Mormon General Authorities almost never discuss details about the issues. Instead, they trivialize the facts, marginalize those who place importance on them17, and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) encourage members to avoid the facts altogether.
This reaction is telling: if there were good answers to the issues like these, they would give them. Instead, they have moved to their last, best option: misdirection. They distract followers’ attention from the evidence and/or teach them to favor personal experience over evidence.
The message from Mormon leaders used to sound like this:
If we have truth, [it] cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not truth, it ought to be harmed…
… The frightful skeleton of truth must always be exposed …
… must make every conclusion pass the fiery ordeal of pitiless reason. If their conclusions cannot stand this test, they are false …
… there must be no forbidden questions in Mormonism.
There was a time when Elder Clark’s kind of reasoning didn’t preclude faith in Mormonism. Those days are gone.
Today, Mormon leaders recommend avoiding research, avoiding certain questions, and avoiding doubt altogether18. They teach followers to cling to and strengthening their faith without getting informed. For those who are informed to some degree, they recommend focusing on how information makes them feel — not what conclusions the evidence points to.
Dangerous cults use the same tactics. They say: Don’t look at the evidence. Ignore the critics. Look inside yourself. What do your feelings tell you?
How would you advise a friend who had joined one of these cults? Would you tell him to focus more on feelings? Or would try to get him to snap out of it and take a look at the decision he was making from a rational perspective?
It might sound like I’m against faith. I’m not. I think that faith in something that is unknown (like belief in God, or in life after death) can be very healthy for individuals and is probably necessary for a healthy society. But faith in something that has been disproven isn’t faith anymore — it’s fanaticism. I don’t think that fanaticism is healthy for individuals or for society.
Even so, I’m actually, very sympathetic toward my Mormon friends and family. They have good reason to continue to follow their faith (highest among them: structure and traditional standards for their children) and so many reasons not to allow anything to take them away from that faith (crushed worldview, loss of family, friends, possible divorce, perceived loss of a moral compass, etc.).
I have friends who acknowledge that Mormonism isn’t what it claims to be, and yet who continue to participate actively because they can’t stand losing all of that. Can’t say I blame them.
I know others who continue to believe fully even though they are somewhat informed19. I sympathize with these people too because I’m not sure I would have done anything differently if I were in their shoes20.
I guess my point is, even though I think that the Mormon Church’s strategy for dealing with their crisis is dishonest and immoral, I can’t fault Mormons for buying into it with their whole hearts. In many cases, it’s probably the best decision.
When I started leaving the Mormon Church eight years ago, I simply couldn’t follow something that wasn’t true.
- By definition, faith requires doubt because faith is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof” (Merriam Webster). We can’t see God, so we can only believe in Him by applying faith. On the other hand, if there’s no doubt, then there is no faith because it isn’t required. Faith implies that there is some level of doubt.
- Read this interesting paper about how emotion plays a positive part in decision-making.
- Here’s a good description of Belief Bias: “A person is more likely to accept an argument that supports a conclusion that aligns with his values, beliefs and prior knowledge, while rejecting counter arguments to the conclusion. Belief bias is an extremely common and therefore significant form of error; we can easily be blinded by our beliefs and reach the wrong conclusion. Belief bias has been found to influence various reasoning tasks, including conditional reasoning, relation reasoning and transitive reasoning.” (wikipedia)
- See changingminds.org.
- I really don’t like the word doubts in this context because I think it’s a euphemism. Issues, problems, or concerns might imply that there’s something wrong with the message. The word “doubts” implies that there’s nothing wrong with message – the problem is with you.
- I met a man on my mission who used the same equation for decision-making. His pastor told him that he needed to deed his house to their church and he faithfully did so. He was later distraught to find out that the pastor did not have honest intentions. He must have felt moved emotionally to do what he did. He must have believed those emotions were from God, but he was fooled.
My brother met a man in Ohio somewhere who was wearing a shirt or hat proclaiming the end of the world. This man was sure that Jesus would return with great destruction on May 21st, 2011. (Like these people.) My brother spoke with him for some time and asked him what he would do if the world were still around on May 22nd. The man said that he was “all in on this one”.
- I’m sure that they actually have shared them with us and that it’s the same irrational, flip-flopping, contradictory, and sometimes dishonest responses coming from FAIR Mormon or the Maxwell Institute
- Sure, there were things that I didn’t understand, like the flood, and the atonement, and the little that I understood about polygamy, but those gaps in my understanding were tiny and weren’t important to my religion.
- For example, I have friends who have told me that they continue to believe in spite of the evidence because they’ve had experiences that they cannot deny.
- Elder Holland recently made it clear to employees at the Maxwell Institute, that they are first disciples and that they are never to point out evidence or draw conclusions that contradict the Mormon church. I wrote an article about that here.
- I’m sure you’ve heard of stories like this one. What did you think? Did you think they were lying? Crazy? At what point is someone crazy or must be lying for ignoring the rational side of their brain in order to follow an emotional or stochastic experience?
- This video and this one are worthy checking out. Powerful spiritual experiences are universal. None of them seem to be unique to any one religion.
- Growth in the Mormon Church is falling fast. If trends continue, official membership in the Mormon Church will begin to decline at around 2030.
- The reports that I link to in this article are very revealing in this regard. They admit that “The gap between the history currently taught and factual history is—in certain instances—highly differentiated”. Many of the most capable and devout Mormons are leaving the faith largely because of information that they’ve discovered about Mormon history that differs disturbingly from what they were taught by their own church. (The Mormon Church calls this “doubt”.)
- Marriages are being destroyed (when one spouse leaves and the other believes that he/she has been deceived by lies), family relationships ripped apart, years of school work are lost (BYU expels Mormon students who leave the faith. They also make it near impossible for them to transfer by placing an indefinite hold on the transcripts. As a final slight, if the apostate has an on-campus job, he/she will be fired, and if the apostate lives on campus, he/she will be “asked to leave”), all because the Mormon Church won’t come clean on its past.
- This would include apologizing for untruths, setting the record straight, begin to empathize with people who feel deceived, etc. I think that they should follow the format for crisis management found in this article, but I don’t think that they will ever do this.
- In this talk, Elder Dale Renlund and his wife told a parable where they compared Mormons who want answers to serious questions to a spoiled and bratty teenager who, after being saved from certain death in the middle of the ocean, complains that his rescuer gives him stale water and soda crackers instead of Perrier, delicatessen meat, and chocolate croissants. That’s right. Believers who want answers to why Joseph Smith slept with married women, or cheated people by saying that he could find burried treasure with his magic rock at the same time that he claimed to find the golden plates, etc, etc, are akin to the kid in this story. Mormons who leave the faith for these reasons, are compared to this brat who decides to jump back in the water simply because his rescuer is old and hard of hearing, the boat is worn down, and the food isn’t to his liking. This is a very common attitude.
- Elder Corbridge said,
“I heard someone say recently, ‘It is okay to have doubts.’ I wonder about that. The Lord said, ‘Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.’ I have a lot of questions; I don’t have any doubts.” (BYU Talks)
But of course, this isn’t true. Sane people can’t really remove all doubt about anything, nor should we want to. Removing all doubt means that there is no longer any inkling of consideration about a topic’s veracity. It means that faith is no longer applied. But we do apply faith in everything we do — even in taking a breath, or a step — which implies at least some amount of doubt. I don’t have absolute certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow, nor that I’m not living in a simulation, much less that any one religion is Truth. Absolute certainty about anything — especially when the evidence is emotionally based — is not wise. And, as I mentioned before, I’m not sure that a sane person is even capable of doing it.
- I say somewhat because the ones that I know of still make arguments that demonstrate a high level of ignorance. It’s clear they have mostly just researched apologetic information.
- By the time I discovered the more-complete history of Mormonism, I already had serious fundamental issues with Mormonism.